Veronica Millan was learning to code as an eight-year-old. Her father, a CFO back in the ‘80s, would let her use his computer after work hours and she would toy around with a program called Logo, “a kind of Etch A Sketch on a computer screen”, she tells me.
Today Veronica is the chief information officer at MullenLowe Group, which encompasses around 6000 people across roughly 95 offices around the world. Despite her tinkering with code at a time before most people had even interacted with a computer, Veronica’s role these days is more focused on leadership, coaching and management than technical activities. As she needs to remind her parents and jokingly tells us, she cannot fix your computer anymore.
“One thing I've learned over time is that you can be a manager of people and be task-driven,” she says. “You need to get a project done, you need all these people to help you get that project done and then the project gets done and you end it. I realised that I'm not at that level anymore, I’m now managing managers that manage other managers that are then maybe managing tasks. So over the years, I've become less technical. But what I am good at, and what this role affords me, is the ability to be more strategic and to look at the way that we're running technology in our agencies. I have to ask, is this the best way that we're implementing our technology? Is this the best solution that we're funding? It allows us to create a vision of where we're going.”
Before moving into information technology roles, Veronica’s career was more rooted in business. She was a business systems analyst at Visa and held a business controls coordinator role at IPG before eventually being named Latin America regional IT director at the holding company. “There was always something about technology that chased me,” she says. “Maybe I just intuitively understood it - my mother was always incredibly logical, so I think I grew up with that logical mindset. I think people that are very logical understand technology and the way it works really easily. Even as I graduated university and went off to get my first jobs - jobs that were not technical at all - I was attracted to solving the problems that I was facing there through technology. Eventually, I just accepted my fate.”
An eventual boss of Veronica’s showed her that she could use her technical knowledge but not necessarily be a programmer, something that she didn’t want to do. “She said project management would probably give me what I was looking for and she was 100% right. I learned how to manage a project, which required understanding risk and managing people and budgets and all of these things that later served me well when I became a manager. Once I accepted that this was my fate, I leaned into the role and I think the rest is history. Once you lean into something that you know you're good at and comes easily to you, it just works, things click and I was able to get a lot of things done and do them well - hence I became a CIO.
“You do have to understand technology a little bit,” Veronica adds. “I don't know if you could get a random person that doesn't work in technology to necessarily make the same decisions I'm making - but you need to understand the business much more and the way that people work much more than necessarily the technology. I have people on my team that are experts in different areas and hopefully they're the ones that are coming to me with the actual technical solution.”
As a female, Latinx CIO, Veronica is a true minority - she personally knows of only one other in the United States. To her, it’s an issue of access and she is a vocal advocate for turning the tide on diversity in technology. “The way that my career went is indicative of women in general and Latinx in particular, and any person that's considered a minority,” she says. “Many just don't have access to understanding that technology isn't just being an application developer or a systems engineer. Even with very technical people, there are cliques. Women are not as welcomed in general and men don't make it easy - in other words, they're not as inclusive.
She sees a lot of women coming into the business at lower levels but eventually leaving, which is a true question of access - or a lack thereof. “They leave, I think, because we don't work on the inclusion side of it and that's something that needs to be worked on. I hope the women that work on my team feel like I've created a space for them. Recently I was talking to someone that we were looking to hire and she was nervous because she is afraid she may not be able to balance her family life and her new job because she would be switching jobs. I told the hiring manager that I would be happy to speak to her to say that being a woman on my team is different from going to a team that's led by a man, just to show that I'm trying to be more inclusive to women and not running a typical organisation.”
Veronica believes that many women think - just as she did earlier on - that a career in technology needs to be very technical. Which is why she likes to emphasise how her own career has straddled both business and technology. “I don't think that you need to be very technical to be a good IT manager,” she says. “I would rather hire a manager or someone that has good potential and great communication skills, and teach them the technology than do the opposite. It's much harder to teach someone how to be relatable, how to be communicative, how to write well, how to present well, how to manage people than it is the opposite way. Technology is not that hard in the grand scheme of things, not at the management level. If you want a good developer or you want an engineer, that's really precise, those are very specific jobs but those aren't the only jobs that you need in tech.”
Groups such as ‘Girls Who Code’ are making great progress in terms of getting more women to become developers but Veronica is also concerned with getting more women into management. After all, if you become a great developer - or creative for that matter - you won’t necessarily be a good manager. “You get people who are incredible technicians or incredible creatives and then you put them in a management role, and they're no longer doing what they are very good at,” Veronica says. “They may even push themselves to go into those management roles because they know that's where the money is or that's how they get the better title or whatever the case may be. So, I'm happy to work with my team and to identify who is technical and who's not technical and the ‘non-technicals’ make the managers, while the super technical get titles that show progression in their learnings and their expertise, but not necessarily putting them to manage people if they're not very good at that or if they don't even want it.
“I ask my team, especially the younger ones that are not in senior positions, to tell me what training they want to take. If they come back and it's only technical, I ask them to give me leadership and management courses, something that will really round them out.” What’s more, Veronica is a founding member of Chief, an incredible network of female business leaders.
When it comes to advertising and technology, Veronica thinks that the media side of our business has embraced the power of technology more so than creative, noting WPP’s acquisition of AI leader Satalia as particularly pertinent. “On the creative side, we have been taking technology for granted,” she adds. “The things that we can do with Adobe Creative Cloud, for example, is phenomenal and I don't think anyone sits around saying ‘thank you Adobe for figuring this out’, but Adobe has the monopoly they do because they have simply taken in and built or bought incredible technology and added it to their suite of products. I will always be mad at Adobe because they're super expensive and they have a monopoly, but it's amazing what they've done. It's just mind-boggling what you can do with Creative Cloud and I think because we don't even appreciate something like Adobe that basically runs most organisations, I don't know if the creative side is really as grateful or acknowledges how much technology plays a role in their life.”
We should all begin to value technology more, believes Veronica - and sometimes she feels a bit like a lone sailboat in the middle of a giant ocean, extolling the life-saving virtues of tech. “It's changing our world and you don't even know, it's so subtle the way it's changing the way that we work. But I always challenge people and say, ‘try doing this work without technology’.
“We should begin to value and be grateful for the technology that we have. CFOs love to cut down on things that they don't necessarily understand in terms of technology, so it's very easy to say, ‘well, why is Adobe so expensive? Let's just cut the number of licences we have.’ I try to preempt those arguments by demonstrating the value of technology in the organisation. It's not just about the computer, the laptop that you have in front of you, it's about the operations and how technology makes our operations run better.
“This is how new business does their work; this is how creative does their work - using technology. And if we invest in this, we can actually be better or faster, be ahead of the curve, or know exactly what our clients really need later.”
Additional reporting by Ben Conway