As Heather Gardiner prepared for the 2018 holidays, she had one thing on her mind that most people don’t. She was preparing to be named CEO of Tulkita, the IT optimization consulting and tech company she founded and served as COO for since its inception eight years ago.
Announced on Tulkita’s 8th anniversary, Peerscale sat down with the newly-named CEO to learn about her entrepreneurial journey and catch a glimpse into her mind in the moments leading up to her CEO appointment.
The college dropout who never wanted to work for herself
“My motto is to be brave, bravely,” Gardiner said as we chatted in her downtown Toronto high rise office. “It’s been my mantra my whole career. I was the person that liked to jump into new opportunities.”
Gardiner was in the middle of holiday gift drop-offs for clients when we had our interview. She explained her career to date had been unorthodox and it was her motto of ‘being brave, bravely’ – a piece of advice from her grade 10 English teacher – that got her through.
Initially from a small town outside of London, Ontario, Gardiner dropped out of Western University before she finished her degree. Her mother was less than pleased. To appease her mom, Gardiner did a post-secondary certificate in travel and tourism, which got her into American Express as a travel counsellor.
A far cry from the IT executive she is today, Gardiner started her career at American Express a month before the company got email capabilities for employees. After realizing she had limited upward mobility in her current career trajectory, she started teaching herself to code.
“I moved into tech roles within AMEX, then project management,” she explained. “I’m old enough that one of the tech projects I worked on with AMEX was training travel counselling offices how to use Google.”
After self-learning tech and growing at AMEX, Gardiner joined consulting firm Accenture. She would stay there for five years and in that time meet James (Jamie) Campbell, her Tulkita co-founder, and the outgoing CEO.
It sounds like a storybook tale – the college dropout learns the ropes of tech, gets a big consulting job, meets her co-founder, and starts a successful tech firm – except Gardiner didn’t think entrepreneurship would be part of her story.
“I never had a plan to work for myself,” she said. “I’d worked for 15 years at [the point when I founded Tulkita]. When Jamie first said it (the idea for Tulkita), I’ll admit I laughed at him and said ‘yeah, that’s never going to happen’. But it sounded exciting at the beginning and it still is.”
The company started with a consulting arm because the co-founders wanted more control over their product development. Consulting revenue bootstrapped product development and the company didn’t take VC money, a move which Gardiner does not regret for a second.
The priorities of a new CEO
Fast forward eight years, and the coin toss that her and Campbell did to figure out who would be CEO versus COO seems trivial in retrospect. Gardiner was a natural fit for the COO role as someone who cared more about operations and resource management.
Now, heading into the CEO role (Campbell will remain on the board and as an advisor to clients), Gardiner is taking her analytical, operations-focused mindset and shifting it to lead a growing team and increasingly nuanced client base.
Her first order of business? People.
“I want to change our employees’ experience,” she said, explaining that she hopes she can create a culture of learning where employees can “take a deep breath” and focus on gaining knowledge.
Her primary motivation for this shift is that she’s seen employees go heads-down and work, year after year, becoming “jacks of all trades” but being stuck in startup execution mode. They don’t always get the chance to learn and follow passions, so that’s something Gardiner wants to enable.
Her second priority is customers.
“With customer experience on the consulting side, it’s enabling and doing more for our customers,” she said. “A lot of things will change in tech in the next five years. Now, it’s the jump of machine learning and AI, and what’s going to happen in those spaces. It’s taking computers and allowing machines to do what they do best [to enable] what humans do best. All of them know the buzzwords, not many understand them.”
Gardiner also plans to use team learning and focus on understanding customer challenges to inform product development, a unique place for Tulkita as a product development company with a strong consulting arm. Because they are at the forefront of clients’ strategic challenges, they get perspective on what products or additional services clients may need to solve their problems more effectively.
Overcoming fear and finding guidance
Not adding too much to her plate, Gardiner wants to ensure she manages growth properly – something she says is the biggest challenge she anticipates in her CEO role. The Tulkita team is at 40 people now and is lucky to have many great potential clients knocking on their door. However, Gardiner doesn’t want to hire for its own sake.
“The theory is I don’t need to hire just for hiring,” she said. “It’s about doing it as efficiently and effectively as possible without jeopardizing growth. We’re trying to take that theory especially on product – do we need six developers or can we do five and have one rotational or split roles accordingly?”
It’s decisions like these that make Gardiner happy that she and Campbell did not take on VC money to fund their product development. It’s also why she’s happy to have found a community in Peerscale where she can learn to navigate issues from peers who have been there.
“The peer group I belong to is probably one of the most supportive groups out there,” she said. “It’s that sounding board… of people who understand what you’re saying and understand the problem you’re dealing with.”