CFO (South Africa)
Workday's Zuko Mdwaba: The making of a tech leader
He should have been a doctor. He could have been a professional cyclist. But Workday Country Leader Zuko Mdwaba is one of South Africa’s preeminent tech gurus and the regional captain of Workday’s spectacular global expansion. “One of my biggest beliefs is that we are architects of our own destiny.” By Joël Roerig and Sungula Nkabinde
If Zuko Mdwaba wasn’t as affable and warm as he is, his boundless energy would probably make you feel slightly bad about yourself. Colleagues in the small-but-exponentially-growing Workday SA team still raise their eyebrows and ask their boss: “How do you do all the things you do?”
Captaining a team of 12 cycling friends through the torture and triumph of the Coronation Double Century would be a top life achievement for many. Taking Instagram-selfies at the Netflix HQ when in California for work would be a career highlight for most. But Zuko does both in the same month that he rides the 94.7 Cycle Challenge under three hours, grows the Workday SA team for the future and builds the business during important sales meetings in Cape Town and Johannesburg.
As we sit down to chat, also in that very same month, he has just returned from yet another exploit: the annual Workday Rising conference in Austria. With 20 South African delegates from both customers and prospects (“I prefer to call them future customers”) in tow, it felt like a cherry on the top of Workday’s first year in Africa, he reveals. “Those 20 South Africans all went through the effort of taking leave, applying for visas and staying in Vienna for a week, just to go a hear from other Workday clients. It’s a significant milestone,” says Zuko, reflecting on the 365 days in which he changed from SA employee #1 to becoming the expansion captain he was hired to be.
Zuko describes himself as a business executive juggling five balls: work, family, health, friends and his spiritual life. But before he talks about how he balances these five elements, he takes us back to his childhood – where a tech guru was born in a time and place where tech played absolutely no role.
The rise of ‘Doc’ Mdwaba
If you have ever driven the road between East London and Bloemfontein and gazed towards the Lesotho mountains around Aliwal North, you know how vast and undeveloped the rural area where Zuko hails from is.
“I am from Coville, a small village in the Herschel district in the Eastern Cape,” he explains, before deflecting a lot of the credit for his success to his parents and his siblings, who inspired with their school results. Education was “at the core of what my parents inculcated” and from as early as six years old Zuko honed his sales skills in the general store that his family ran. The question, still, is how a bright boy from the middle-of-nowhere became a business leader and a globetrotter. “One of my biggest beliefs...,” says Zuko. “...is that we are architects of our own destiny.”
Racist Apartheid policies and inferior Bantu education would not deliver the maths and science talent that
young Zuko showcased. His family saw a great future for him as a doctor, one of the few known professions for clever kids. This notion went so far that the 13-yearold Zuko was routinely called ‘Doc’ by his paternal grandfather. However, after watching TV shows like Star Trek ignited an interest in technology, Zuko announced that he wanted to pursue tech during his studies – only to be told to get a grip. “They thought I was smoking something,” says Zuko with a broad smile.
Zuko embarked on a Bachelor of Science (BSc) under the pretence that this would be a solid base for medical studies, but his mind was made up and – as he admits now – he probably “tricked” his parents. They were soon to find out that, despite their misgivings, Zuko was headed to study Computer Science at the University of the Western Cape, far away from the protective gaze of his older brothers who had studied at Wits in Johannesburg.
“I might be a business leader now, but before all of that I am a technologist and I have been one for more than half of my life,” says Zuko, who used to program computer code in the early days of digital. “It has been the most fascinating thing. I started in tech before the internet and have seen it evolve to this era of dragand-drop, where non-tech people can re-organise an entire solution, while the tech is all behind the scenes.”
From that fateful flouting of his family’s wishes to the career decisions that took him to companies like Telkom, Atos, Oracle, SAS and now Workday, Zuko remained that architect of his own destiny. In a way, he says, all of those companies were great companies in their space during those periods and are an integral part of who he is today. “But Workday is the best company I have ever worked for,” he says. “We spend more money on innovation than on sales and marketing. It gives a kick knowing that eight out of 10 most innovative companies are using Workday, according to the Forbes list on which Workday itself is second.”
“I might be a business leader now, but before all of that I am a technologist and I have been one for more than half of my life.”
Workday was founded by David Duffield, founder and former CEO of ERP company PeopleSoft, and former PeopleSoft chief strategist Aneel Bhusri following Oracle's hostile takeover of the company in 2005. Its cloud-based, mobile-first HR software has become dominant among large companies in the US and the
rapid expansion is ever continuing, with forays into the rest of the world – and into finance-focused ERP systems.
Very intimate and personal
“We are developing at a lightning pace. It’s scary,” says Zuko, looking relaxed and confident, rather than scared. “Good scary,” he says. Although Workday presents itself as an alternative to companies with a long legacy like SAP and Oracle, the narrative always revolves around Workday’s own strengths, he says. He adds that advocacy by customers is the most powerful advertising, for example, during the annual Workday Rising event, where current customers compare notes with each other and with potential customers.
“More and more companies are realising the positive correlation between happy employees and a boost to the bottom line.”
“It is really amazing,” says Zuko, just back from the event in Austria. “I attended a lot of company events during my career. Normally these things are a product dump, but this is very intimate and much more personal. We talk a lot about community at the company; and at Workday Rising you can really feel it. Negative feedback is also good and something we can learn from. We have an incredible 98 percent customer satisfaction, so it is important to appreciate transparency and not shy away from comments.”
Since Workday’s successful launch in South Africa last year February, it has been a rollercoaster ride for the team. “At the beginning of the year, we were entering an environment where people have built their careers knowing our competitors. I can relate. You get comfortable with what you know, with the devil you know,” says Zuko, describing the challenge of introducing a new player to a new market, although over 250 companies are already using Workday software in South Africa. “There are a lot of things we can tell you about why and how we are different to those companies, we can talk about our Power of One concept and all those other amazing things... But don’t just listen to us, listen to what our customers have to say.”
Zuko is also not short of personal endorsements. On LinkedIn, scores of former colleagues are queuing up to describe him as “a great manager, mentor and coach all in one”, an “energetic and inspirational leader” who is “not afraid to roll up his sleeves and dive into the trenches”, someone who is “100 percent customer focused and engages with integrity”, “one of the most genuine, down to earth, likeable individuals”, “a visionary” and “a very cool gentleman”.
“I believe in inspirational leadership,” says Zuko. “I am inspired by Workday. A lot resonates with what I believe in. Everybody in business talks about culture these days, but the question should be: does your culture take you to the next frontier? As a leader I engage with purpose with everyone, sometimes I even feel I overdo it… But it is important to realise that what we take for granted can be a seed of inspiration for someone else.”
With a combination of endless energy and happy tenacity, Zuko is following the ‘happy employees, happy customers’ approach to building his team. It is a method advocated from the outset by Workday’s founders, who personally interviewed the company’s first 500 hires. The most important thing, Zuko explains, is being relatable. “That is why leadership is always bi-directional. It is a process to find each other's levers of inspiration. Cycling might be one of them. Family [Zuko and his wife have a 10-year-old boy and eightyear-old girl] might be another. If you look around the globe, you will see that most innovative companies have an employee-centric culture. Great culture is no longer optional, but it is better for business. More and more companies are realising the positive correlation between happy employees and a boost to the bottom line.”
So, as his colleagues often ask him, how does he combine all those interests and activities, inside and outside of work?
“All the things I focus on in my life feed off each other,” Zuko explains. “Riding a bicycle is a big part of my life. A lot of strategies come to me while I am riding. It is not all about physical fitness. When you cycle through tough hills and you think ‘what the hell, this is hard’, your mental fitness kicks in. You hit a brick wall, but you focus and go through it. There is a direct parallel with work life. Workday is an incredible success story, but every day we are faced with competition that doesn’t sit still either. The key is to focus on our own core values: employees, customer service, integrity, innovation, fun and profitability.”