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Norm Fjeldheim, who moved from CIO of Qualcomm (semiconductors) to CIO at Illumina (biotech) offers advice in this Q&A with Katie Ross, Recruiting Partner at Heller Search.

As more companies become technology focused, shouldn’t it be easy for IT leaders to move across industries to share how to apply innovation? Transform the IT organization? Develop excellent teams? Turns out, it’s harder than you think…

Norm Fjeldheim was the CIO of semiconductor company Qualcomm for 17 years before deciding he wanted to help innovate in a new industry. Now as CIO of Illumina, a biotech company, he shares his advice on how to switch industries. 

Katie Ross: What was your motivation to switch industries?

Norm Fjeldheim: After 20 years in high-tech, I was a little burned out and things felt stale. At that time, Qualcomm was taking a new direction and investing less in innovation, so learning a new industry seemed re-energizing. I wanted to help disrupt the status quo in new areas.

What was the biggest challenge for you? 

Norm_Fjeldheim_CIO_Illumina-1.jpgDuring my the job search, I had good traction with companies wanting to bring in somebody from high-tech to break the mold, whether it was more digital transformation, speeding up the pace, or just finding new ways to do business. However, as I progressed through that process, it became apparent that many of those companies were reluctant to hire outside of their comfort zone. And, in many cases, they ended up hiring somebody within their industry.  

Why do you think companies have biases towards staying within industry?

The feedback I received from hiring managers was that they just couldn’t see how I could make the transition quickly and learn a new business. A few people within the organization saw me as a big a risk, so the whole organization ultimately never really supported hiring a fresh perspective.

How did you convince Illumina to break that bias? 

I did my homework on the industry and company. I partnered with my executive recruiter to get deeper insight into the challenges within IT and the systems that they used. I also have contacts with vendors and consulting firms, who gave me an outside-in view of the company. 

I also reached out to my CIO peers in relevant industries to talk about common problems they run into. It was critical to get as much insider knowledge as possible so I could speak to Illumina’s goals, and connect the solutions I implemented at Qualcomm to what Illumina needed. It wasn’t a surprise to me that there were similar problems.

How would you advise tailoring one’s resume in order to make the leap?

My resume was very business-oriented. It was less about the technology and more about the business results that I delivered, and the strong team I built. Illumina ultimately was looking for experience running and scaling large organizations. When they looked at my resume, it was clear I had run a large IT organization effectively and efficiently. That is what got me through the door.

Do you think that, as more companies become technology companies, it should be easier for CIOs to transition to different industries?

Absolutely. A good CIO knows how to apply good technology – industry experience is less important. 

Do you know what’s been the best performing stock since 2010? Domino's Pizza. They've gone through this incredible digital transformation to streamline their ordering processes and supply chain. Their digital transformation helped drive that stock price up. Who would've thought that a pizza company could be a technology innovator? It just goes to show you that tech can be applied in any industry. 

Overall, if you’re strong CIO, then you’re not about technology for technology's sake. You’re about solving business problems. That's what everybody—every business, every industry—wants. If you talk to them about how you've done that in your current role and how it can be applied to the new industry and the new company, then I think you've got a great chance of getting a position in an industry that is new for you.

About Norm Fjeldheim

Norm Fjeldheim is Senior Vice President and Chief Information Officer for Illumina, a global leader in DNA sequencing and array-based technologies used in the life sciences, oncology, and agriculture. Fjeldheim is also Head of Global Facilities Management Services. Prior to joining Illumina in 2016, Fjeldheim served as Senior Vice President and CIO at Qualcomm for 17 years.

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