Ruba Borno, VP of Amazon Web Services and ECE Alum, stresses empathy and accountability in leadership
Ruba Borno (MSE PhD EE 03′ 08′), the Vice President of Worldwide Channels & Alliances for Amazon Web Services (AWS), joined the University of Michigan Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) community for a fireside chat on January 31st, 2023. Borno, recipient of the ECE Rising Star Award, spoke about her career path and shared her insights on leadership, education, and mental health.
“I love Ann Arbor, and it feels like just yesterday that I was walking the halls, working in the Lurie Nanofabrication Facility, and taking classes,” Borno said. “I really am motivated by learning and education. If I look back on my career, both academic and professional, it’s built on a foundation of learning and developing new skills.”
Borno is a Palestinian refugee who fled Kuwait during the first Gulf War with her family in 1990. Forced to abandon all their possessions and savings, her family was given just three days to evacuate to the United States, leaving behind everything they knew.
“We came to the United States with nothing,” Borno said. “The only thing that my parents had was their education. Any money they had, any businesses they built, that went away instantly, so the idea that the only thing that stays with you is your own learning and your own skill set is really ingrained in me. Education is the one thing that no one can take from you, and that’s why I feel so strongly that it is the single best investment you can make.”
Education is the one thing that no one can take from you, and that’s why I feel so strongly that it is the single best investment you can make.
Dr. Ruba Borno
Borno earned her Bachelor of Science in Computer Engineering from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. She then came to U-M, where she was an Intel PhD Fellow at the National Science Foundation’s Engineering Research Center for Wireless Integrated MicroSystems. After graduation, she joined the Boston Consulting Group (BCG), where she was a leader for the Technology, Media, & Telecommunications, and People & Organization practices.
One of Borno’s earliest projects at BCG was advising President Obama’s task force for the automotive industry, which considered whether the U.S. government should subsidize the industry and the bailout. Borno found the business world to be very different from what she was used to in academia, particularly regarding timelines. She’d spent a little more than six years earning her PhD, but she now had as little as six weeks to make decisions that could affect billions of taxpayer dollars.
“It showed me the difference in terms of how you can make really big decisions off of the best information you have at the time,” Borno said.
Following BCG, Borno joined Cisco, a leader in IP-based networking technologies, where she held several leadership positions over the course of her six-year tenure. One of these positions was SVP and General Manager of Cisco’s Global Customer Experience (CX) Centers, where she led a team of 18,000 engineers to deliver Cisco’s full services portfolio. She began this position in February 2020, one month before the COVID-19 pandemic would force a dramatic shift in both work and life. Nearly overnight, her team’s workload tripled, as customers sent employees to work from home and needed to use Cisco’s virtual collaboration and security tools for their now distributed workforce.
“My job was to empower my people to deliver an amazing body of work and to enable them to reach a potential that they didn’t think they could,” Borno said. “The whole technical support team at Cisco did not think we were going to be able to deliver on the new workload overnight, but we did, and we delivered to the highest customer satisfaction measurements ever recorded in the company’s history. That’s amazing to me, and I’m really proud of how I handled that, and how my team handled that.”
My job was to empower my people to deliver an amazing body of work and to enable them to reach a potential that they didn’t think they could.
Dr. Ruba Borno
Borno believes the key to this success is about embracing full accountability as a leader.
“I told them that if it worked, it’s their innovation, and they’ll get credit. But if it doesn’t work, I’m the one who approved it and allowed it to go out there in the wild, and I’m accountable for it,” Borno said. “That ultimate accountability really empowered the team to think creatively and deliver to our customers.”
Borno also sees opportunities for the tech industry as a whole to take greater accountability, specifically regarding its impact on society and the environment. This includes embracing practices to improve energy efficiency, achieve carbon neutrality, and unite companies across the tech industry to empower sustainability.
“In the technology industry, we have a responsibility to build a better world and to give back to the communities in which we live,” Borno said. “We are accountable to be better for our communities, for our planet, and for future generations.”
In the technology industry, we have a responsibility to build a better world and to give back to the communities in which we live.
Dr. Ruba Borno
In November 2021, Borno joined AWS, which is the world’s most comprehensive and broadly adopted cloud platform. She specifically leads the AWS Partner Organization (APO), which is a global team that serves over 100,000 companies in more than 150 countries. When it comes to stepping into new roles and responsibilities, Borno said the key is to rely on the skills you have and be confident that you can develop the skills you need.
“You’ve got to bet on yourself,” Borno said. “Every time I took on a new role, I knew about half of what I was doing, and the other fifty percent was truly a learning opportunity and development opportunity.”
One of the learning opportunities Borno illustrated was her experience moving from her role as an expert to her role as a leader. When she first became a manager, she tried to micromanage a talented team member. This was not only unsustainable for both of them, but it also stifled the team member’s creativity and made everything more inefficient.
“I had to shift from having all the answers to asking the right questions and guiding,” Borno said. “I don’t have to have all the answers. I have a team that complements my knowledge or my skills. It’s good to align on an outcome and a goal, but as to how we get there – there’s room for creativity.”
Borno also stressed the importance of leaders taking the time to understand their employees and the communities in which they live and work. By understanding the larger context, leaders can be more effective in driving mutually beneficial outcomes.
“Being able to empathize and understand what motivates and drives employees, and then aligning on those shared goals, is really important,” Borno said. “I think U-M definitely trains you to build on those foundational elements well.”
I think U-M definitely trains you to build on those foundational elements well.
Dr. Ruba Borno
For example, one of Borno’s teammates at AWS was a woman who was most passionate about empowering other women, especially those disenfranchised, to obtain an education and a career. Borno helped her employee develop a new function that now works with AWS partners to train economically disadvantaged or underrepresented groups in cloud technologies, and then connects them to jobs through business partners with AWS.
“She thought that she was going to have to work at AWS, retire, and then get on the board of a nonprofit before she could do this kind of work, but now it’s her job,” Borno said. “As a leader, it’s really important to know what your people want, what they’re excited about, and then help them achieve that potential.”
Ultimately, Borno has four pillars to effective leadership:
- Empathy: “You’ve got to know where people are coming from to help them go in a certain direction.”
- Emotional intelligence: “Be self-aware. Know what you’re good at and where you have room for development. Surround yourself with individuals who will complement you in order to deliver the best outcome.”
- Resiliency: “Leaders are constantly tested. Can you bounce back from times of adversity? Can you lead through volatility, and be the stabilizing force in those times? Can you take risks and manage those risks in a deliberate manner?”
- Accountability: “It’s important to give credit to the team when things succeed, but it’s also really important to be accountable for when things go wrong. You are the leader. You can’t blame someone else.”
But there’s another essential practice for being a good leader – a practice which Borno disregarded at first. Leaders have to be willing to take time to care for their physical and mental health.
“When my responsibility was more narrow, it was easy to burn the candle at both ends and pull all-nighters and work non-stop,” Borno said. “But then, when it got to a broader scope where the decisions I made could impact 18,000 employees or 100,000 partners, the consequences became much bigger. I actually had to prioritize my physical health and my mental well-being.”
The requirements for getting enough sleep and physical exercise are non-negotiable for Borno now. She also encourages everyone to find their own way to disconnect, reset, and reevaluate. Borno prefers climbing a mountain, which she tries to do at least once a year. She finds the experience to not only be a good physical challenge, but an important mental health boost as well, for it helps her gain perspective.
“That’s a really good moment to be with myself,” Borno said “I can just be with my thoughts a few nights on a mountain, recognizing how small I am compared to the vast universe out there.”
Borno has served on the Board of Directors at Experian since 2018. She is also a member of The Forum of Young Global Leaders, an organization that seeks to drive public-private cooperation in the global public interest in alignment with the World Economic Forum. She won the ECE Rising Star Award in 2018, but due to scheduling conflicts and pandemic delays, this fireside chat, which recognizes her win, had been continuously delayed. The event was moderated by Dr. Ravi Pendse, the Vice President for Information Technology and Chief Information Officer at the University of Michigan.