Elizabeth O’Callahan’s full title at NetApp is a mouthful: vice president of intellectual property, corporate and securities, corporate compliance, and employment. “I think my title is probably not tweetable at this stage,” she says, laughing. “I tend to shorten it to vice president of legal.”
Her many duties help her maintain a broad perspective over NetApp’s work as a major resource and authority for businesses and organizations managing their data through hybrid cloud systems (i.e., systems involving both on-site data storage and cloud storage). The company’s clients include banks, government entities, and large and small corporations alike, who turn to NetApp for a variety of hardware and software solutions. “We’re trying to help customers manage and optimize their use of their data—which is now the most precious resource any enterprise has—across all the different environments,” O’Callahan says.
Here, she discusses how she has cultivated her wide-ranging business outlook over the course of her career and explains exactly how she maintains it at NetApp.
You started as an associate with a private firm right out of college. How did you find your way to Silicon Valley?
I started in business litigation at a small firm. I enjoyed it, but I have an execution-oriented personality, so I found litigation frustrating in terms of the length of time it took to get to a resolution. What I did enjoy was the fact that I was able to learn about businesses. We got to work with in-house counsel, and in-house roles weren’t something they really taught you about in law school.
I decided to look at how I could be in a position to have such a job, and I thought, “Well, I don’t know anything about corporate law, so I should probably learn that.” I got a position as a corporate associate at a firm in Palo Alto that specialized in representing technology companies. I was working with start-ups as their outside counsel, taking companies public, helping them buy companies, and helping them sell themselves.
Your bachelor’s degree was in political science, so was it a steep learning curve jumping
It was not something that came naturally, but I think we’ve all experienced an education in technology in the past twenty years. My experience was a little more intense, but in working with a lot of different clients and companies, you get immersed in it. You have to understand the products and the technology and how they fit into the greater picture—as well as who the customers are and what value the products bring to the customer. And I’m just interested in businesses and how they thrive.
That interest probably helped you jump into in-house work, first for Xilinx and then NetApp. How quickly were you able to understand NetApp as a business once you got there?
Xilinx had been a customer of NetApp, so I was somewhat familiar with its products. I understood how it fit into the overall IT infrastructure and ecosystem. The sales and marketing function was a lot more complex, with the number of partners we have around the world, so that’s taken some homework on my part to understand. One of the things I love about in-house work is that you’re constantly learning and there’s constantly a new challenge coming. As NetApp has moved into the cloud and into providing new products and services, I’ve been constantly learning.
Were there aspects of your work as outside counsel that helped prepare you for your role at NetApp?
I worked initially with start-up companies, helping them with their venture funding and later larger transactions. If you’ve been through an IPO or an M&A transaction with a company, you understand how it operates, what the important parts of it are, where the risks are, and what to worry about. You also see management changes and how management and the board interact with one another and with their shareholders. Those are all things I still do today. I think the experience of being in-house is richer, and you have all the facts accessible to you and are able to apply the law and be a better corporate lawyer.
How did you end up with the different responsibilities that make up your lengthy executive title?
I’m a big believer that to deliver and maximize shareholder value, you must think about the broader picture. There are other responsibilities that the corporation has. It employs people. It serves its customers, and it lives in and serves its community. It has responsibility in terms of its innovation, its product quality, and its environmental impact. Having a broad scope is consistent with the idea that the corporation serves many masters, and it helps you develop a comprehensive strategy for approaching the law and the business.
Are there aspects of your work that you’ve had to do more learning on the job for?
Definitely intellectual property. The team I manage is composed of patent professionals and patent attorneys, and prior to this role, I had not been responsible for a patent portfolio or patent litigation. I’ve done litigation, and I’ve dealt with intellectual property issues as a corporate attorney in certain transactions, but I certainly never had to be this close to patents and understanding patents and how best to defend them. That’s been exciting and new and incredibly humbling.
How much do others within your organization help you maintain that broad outlook?
I’m incredibly fortunate to work with an amazing team of outstanding professionals. I certainly could not do it without them. And my management chain, from my boss to our CEO, is good at keeping the team informed about what the discussions are, what the strategy is, and where we’re going. NetApp is somewhat a relationship-based company. You have to have a good network and talk to your clients, friends, and associates in different parts of the business. I think that’s incredibly important.
Getting Time to Give Back
NetApp is deeply supportive of volunteerism, so much so that it offers forty hours of paid time off to each of its employees, every year, for volunteer efforts. Here’s where O’Callahan has directed some of her hours:
The Law Foundation of Silicon Valley: O’Callahan supports this nonprofit legal-counseling center by offering her expertise pro bono.
Second Harvest Food Bank: The organization operates in Santa Clara and San Mateo Counties, and O’Callahan and her team work with it to fight hunger in Silicon Valley.
Rise Against Hunger: O’Callahan, along with all NetApp employees, is committed to packing one million meals this year, in partnership with this organization.
Habitat for Humanity Greater San Francisco: O’Callahan and her team have also done work with this local chapter of the national housing organization. The chapter not only builds new homes but also helps revitalize neighborhoods throughout the area.
“What impresses me about Beth is that she is smart, efficient, and focused. She looks at problems holistically and analytically while never losing the human touch. That’s why working with her is such a pleasure.”
—Ed Batts, Global Chair of M&A and Private Equity group