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From ‘the wrong side of the tracks’ to corporate CIO

When Guillermo Diaz started working at Cisco in 2000, he thought he would probably be with the company about seven years. That had been his standard tenure at jobs before Cisco so it seemed likely he would be ready for a change in about the same timeline.
Seven years passed. The seven more. Diaz still hasn’t left, and as chief information officer, he has filled pretty much every role in the IT leadership structure. He was hired to work on infrastructure and ultimately helped create an architecture for Cisco’s e-commerce system that today brings in $48 billion in business annually. His latest challenge is helping the multinational technology conglomerate transform into a digital company.
Just like Cisco helps its clients do — digitize their businesses and take advantage of the resulting efficiency — Diaz is orchestrating the same transformation from the head of the technology team inside a massive technology company.
And like most business owners today know, a key challenge of going digital is doing it securely.
“When you go fast sometimes you lose the mindset of compliance and security and all of the things that you need to make sure your business is safe,” Diaz said. “You’ve got to do those — it’s not just one or the other, it’s both.”
Diaz’s path to CIO is an inspiring one. He grew up “on the wrong side of the tracks” in Pueblo, Colorado, a small city about 115 miles south of Denver. He went into the Navy as a stepping stone to a degree. No one else in his family had graduated from college but it was a major goal of his, and enlisting gave him the financial support to make it happen.
Incidentally, the Navy also set him on his path in IT.
“That’s when I really learned about this thing called telecommunications and networking,” Diaz said. “Growing up on the east side of Pueblo, Colorado, I didn’t know what that meant.”
Diaz further credits the Navy with forcing him to learn to communicate with all types of people. His neighborhood was almost entirely Latino, growing up, and he says the Navy at the time was probably 90 percent something else. Those learning experiences have provided a foundation for his work at Cisco, where he makes a point of connecting with everybody, prioritizing relationship-building to improve workflow and output.
According to data from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Latinos make up just 5.3 percent of professionals in the nation’s tech industry. Diaz feels comfortable working in a very different world from the one in which he grew up, but he invests a good amount of time trying to diversify the ranks, too. He is a leader on Cisco’s Diversity Council and he is the executive sponsor of Conexión, the company’s Hispanic/Latino employee resource network.
Diaz said he has helped forge connections with Hispanic-serving institutions and historically black colleges to diversify the university pipeline for Cisco employees — which accounts for the vast majority of new hires company-wide. He has also helped create a new pipeline for veterans, who get operational and security training in the military than can be well-suited for a career at Cisco.
Diaz talks to young people like himself regularly and hears often that they aren’t sure they can ever make it to where he is. He tells them if he was in their shoes, there’s no reason they can’t end up in his one day.
His work responsibilities earn him the title of chief information officer, but Diaz calls that his job — something different from his purpose.
“I’m very blessed to be in this job, but my purpose is to inspire forward,” Diaz said. “Inspirar hacia adelante.”
His story alone can do just that.
By Tara García Mathewson