Jeremy Burton left his native North-East to study a BEng in Information Systems Engineering at Surrey in 1986. Now a CEO in Silicon Valley, he’s worked with key industry figures such as Michael Dell and Marc Benioff…
Why did you choose Surrey?
The North-East at that time was riddled with unemployment. Shipbuilding, steel and coal were all being shut down. It was a depressed area. Coming to Surrey in 1986 was a breath of fresh air. It was a dynamic environment and it possessed a totally different mindset.
Studying computing also meant I was going into a growing industry where it was unlikely I’d be made redundant. In addition, ICL was sponsoring students on my course. The lure of extra beer money made it a no-brainer.
Did you enjoy your course?
It was perfect for me. As a kid, I used to type in games programs from magazines on my Sinclair ZX81 when I wasn’t playing Pac-Man or Football Manager.
I was a keen programmer before college, and I realised quite early on that software rather than hardware was the future.
My course at Surrey aligned with this view. It was much more focused on software and networking rather than traditional electrical and electronic engineering. It was great.
Did you take part in any clubs or societies?
I played for the University Football Team for three years. The 1990 spring trip to France to face a team in Deauville and the tour to Russia remain epic memories.
In 2019, I came back to Surrey for the Grad Sport Day because a lot of us from the team are still in touch. Needless to say, most of us struggled to last a full half, particularly after we decided to play golf in the morning. It was great to see the guys again, though. It was fantastic to see Surrey Sports Park, too. It’s an amazing complex.
What was your first role when you graduated?
I landed a job as a programmer at ICL. It was mundane work, but it got more interesting when Windows came on the scene.
A slice of luck helped me secure my next role. I was getting married and I needed to make more money to buy a house. I met a woman at a party who worked at Oracle, and I asked her if they had any jobs going.
Two weeks later, a manilla envelope with a list of jobs appeared in my pigeonhole. I applied for a UK-based role and I got it. Sadly, I never met the kind lady who sent me those jobs again.
I understand that was a key career moment for you…
I started there in 1993 and I did some work for Marc Benioff, who’s now the CEO of Salesforce.com. He liked me and he asked me if I wanted to move to America and work for him.
I went home to ask my wife if she wanted to live in the USA. Her reaction was, “We can’t. We haven’t paid off the sofa!”
Fortunately, I managed to allay her furniture fears and, six weeks later in 1995, we moved to America.
How did you find the transatlantic move?
When we arrived on the West Coast, the entire country was gripped by the OJ Simpson trial. There was lots of scary stuff happening, including race riots.
The thing I immediately loved about the US, however, was that nobody cared if you didn’t have the “right” accent or if you hadn’t attended a certain school. All they cared about was what I could do and how good I was.
That, coupled with 300 days of sunshine every year, was so refreshing, energising and positive. In fact, positivity thrives in Silicon Valley. People believe anything can be done. It’s infectious and it helps create success.
It inspired me. By 1999, I was a Senior Vice President at Oracle. I then accepted a role to become Chief Marketing Officer at Veritas, a fast-growing software company that was bought by Symantec.
What was your first chief executive officer role like?
It was at a private-equity backed company called Serena. I started it in 2008. Six months later, the world went into financial meltdown and we had half a billion dollars of debt. My job at that time purely involved keeping it afloat.
I never did an MBA, but I feel that job was my MBA. I had to know where every nickel and dime was. I don’t look back on it with fond memories, but I learnt a huge amount. Difficult times are often when you learn your most important lessons.
In 2010, I moved to the EMC Corporation, which was acquired by Dell in a deal worth $40 billion. I also worked with Michael Dell post-merger on creating the new company.
What’s your current role?
I’m the CEO for a small software-as-a-service company called Observe. We analyse massive volumes of machine-generated data, so organisations can offer a better digital customer experience. We employ about 90 people. It’s a fun job. In my last role, I was responsible for almost 13,000!
What advice would you give to graduates wanting to work in Silicon Valley?
It’s an incredibly competitive but incredibly rewarding environment. Although there are plenty of ‘get rich quick’ stories, the common theme for successful people is hard work and determination.
Keep a curious mind, too. The big things right now are Web 3.0, crypto currency and blockchain. I didn’t grow up with these, but it’s important to keep abreast of them.
Whole sectors can also change quickly, so you need to learn to adapt. Try not to specialise so deeply that you get left behind when the market moves on.
Finally, keep in touch with people on the way up. When you’re old, your network is your super power. You can achieve way more through others and their acts then you can by yourself.