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Tech Innovation in AZ: Behind the numbers with Calline Sanchez of IBM

Every quarter, the Arizona Technology Council publishes a data report showcasing the performance of the tech industry in the state. We’re now adding an additional layer, with the stories of the people behind the numbers—the people who are the employers and employees, the innovators and investors.




Calline Sanchez is vice president of IBM Systems Lab Services and IBM Systems Technical Universities, as well as State Leader for Arizona and New Mexico. In her role, she leads a team of worldwide technology consultants to deliver IBM Systems solutions.

Calline joined Molly Castelazo, storyteller-in-chief at Castelazo Content, in a lively conversation that ranged from overcoming shyness to being authentic to managing a team of a thousand engineers and scientists all working remotely. The full transcript, edited just for clarity, is here, with timestamps to ease navigation through the video.



[00:59] Tell us about your Arizona history.

Sure. So my father is a professor at the University of Arizona. He’s an adjunct professor. He was a director of farms in Yuma, Arizona. Our family actually owns businesses in San Luis, Arizona. They own a vegetable cooler that is both on the Mexico side as well as Arizona. So we have a very rich family history here in the state of Arizona.

The good news. Based on your lovely introduction of me is I would say at the beginning of this year, IBM has appointed me the Arizona state leader, as well as New Mexico.

I was born in New Mexico. I didn’t grow up in Arizona. I lived in New Mexico, then went to Iowa. My father was working on his PhD. Then he was an associate professor in Florida. After Florida, in high school, I moved to Arizona. I chose to remain in Arizona because I really felt like it had a strong quality of life. I also really felt connected with the farming as well as the technology community that existed here. Prior to IBM, I worked for Sandia National Laboratories and I decided that I really just have a significant passion and love for the Southwest, both in Arizona and New Mexico. The art, the culture, all those things is what really keeps me here.

You know, full disclosure, I did I move to New York for a year in 2008. So my husband remained here in Arizona and I moved to New York. And then I think he just visited me to watch baseball games. But just to give some history is that I went to the IBM corporate headquarters for a year and then I was asked to come back here to southern Arizona to transform a certain product area in enterprise data storage for the benefit of the company. So I believe that if it was only luck, but also my personal passion for the Southwest. It’s really what has kept me here. And I’m lucky that I’ve been able to build my career within IBM and within the state of Arizona.

I was born in Las Cruces, but with Sandia it was kind of interesting. My grandfather was a mechanical engineer at Sandia and we lived just south of Albuquerque and I just commuted to Albuquerque to the labs. During the times in which I acted as an intern.

I do adore the experiences you see with New Mexico, for instance the majority of my family and extended family that are PhD scientists, nuclear engineers, etc., they either worked at Los Alamos or they are metallurgists working in Los Alamos as well as Sandia or even the White Sands. So our family heritage is very connected to the innovations and research that came out of the national laboratories in the state of New Mexico.


You went to the University of Arizona, is that right?

Yes, my family was in Yuma and I decided on the University of Arizona, because I have a lot of interest in specifically minds, brains and computers. And there were some course work within communications and argumentation and logic that I personally had a passion for. And that’s a reason why I decided that U of A was the best place for me. And it wasn’t too far away from my parents to make the leap to decide to on U of A. And also, I like Tucson quite a bit because Tucson is a very, very close knit community. It’s like instead of it being like seven degrees of separation, I would say that in Tucson it’s usually about two and a half.


[07:40] When you were doing your undergrad in management information systems and communication—studying minds, brains and computers—what were you thinking at that time that you wanted to do for a living? That you wanted to build a career in? What did you want to do for a living?

So my father thought that I should go to school to complete my PhD. I took a different path where I felt it was important to break in to technology. Most of my family had been a part of hard sciences and I thought, computers were pretty amazing to me.

I started to write BASIC code when I was about eight years old. Jokingly, my family says that they believe that writing BASIC code is the reason why I can read. That was my connection to computers and in my earlier days, I think I really enjoyed the idea of like writing in Pascal or BASIC because I was rather shy and talking to people made me very anxious.

So the reason why I felt connected with the U of A is I didn’t feel that I’d be moving away from my family too far. They had tremendous programs with regard to computer sciences, information technology. And that was part of the reason why I decided U of A made the most sense for me personally.


[09:52] How have you managed through that initial shyness?

I will give a lot of credit to the IBM leadership, specifically the leadership, because they helped enable training on recommendations for Toastmasters, etc. so I could learn to become a better speaker and to have discussions and how to enable partnerships which reduced some of that internal anxiety.

That was what has been great is I felt supported where IBM’s leadership really allowed me to grow my communication skills for the better. And that actually helped me be more confident and less anxious when I get on stage. But don’t get me wrong, I still am always very nervous. And I sometimes actually before speaking, I actually have to go in a far corner and I get sick from my nervousness. But what’s nice is I received the right level of skills to manage that more appropriately. So I could have effective discussions with the executives, with clients, with partners worldwide.


It’s so great to hear people who are very accomplished and very effective say yes, but it still makes me really nervous. It’s just it’s so nice for you to be able to say, ‘Yes, I’m a good speaker now.’ But to hear that it’s not like there was some magic pill that now you’re totally comfortable. You’re still always having to kind of manage through that, which is just refreshing to hear about that.

You highlighted it. We’re all human and we all have good things and bad points, indifferent points about all of us. And I think you said the word well, I learned to figure out how to manage it so I could become better. It’s not perfect. I’m not going to say my anxiety completely went away or just like you said, I took a magic pill. It wasn’t that easy. It’s always been something I’ve had to continuously work at.


[13:29] What made you decide that you wanted to be a leader instead of maybe just writing code forever? Talk a little bit about that path into leadership. And I know that you went back to school, to get your MBA, and I assume that was a conscious decision on that path to get to leadership at IBM.

I actually at first really thought to hold to writing code, participating in testing of devices, hardware and also software devices. I could have been doing that for quite some time. But there were people around me—basically, senior leaders in my organizations that I worked for—who felt that I should have a seat at the table. And when I go into meetings, when we’re talking about architecting new solutions, etc., they always ask me to sit at the table. And they would go out of their way to ask me, ‘Calline, what do you think about this?’ So I don’t think that I personally felt that I wanted to be a leader. There were people who witnessed things or saw things in me and they wanted to pull that out of me. What was nice about it is that I had a very supportive structure where I had senior management, leadership—and by the way, all men—who were my allies and who said, ‘Calline I just talked to you the other day about this great idea. You should share it with the entire architecture team.’ So what was really nice is I felt more accomplished and more confident.

I would have preferred to be a wallflower, sitting by the wall in the back of the room. But people saw something inside of me and they helped me figure out how to blossom and have a seat at the table, have a voice, ensure that I had a voice. And if let’s say for some reason my point was going to be lost when I was sitting at the table and sharing my ideas, we would always circle back empathetically to say, ‘Calline, let’s not lose the point that you were making, which is highly innovative.’ So that helped me build confidence in order to say, you know what, maybe I am more capable than I’m giving myself credit for. Maybe I am my own worst enemy. So what I started to do is get out of my own self talk and listen to people to really enable my capabilities they saw which I don’t think I fully had seen for myself at that point in time. I trusted leadership so I took a leap of faith and took roles when they asked me to consider something more. So I’d like to say that my career was just like, ‘Oh, I was so fundamentally determined.’ But I don’t know that I was—until someone basically shined a light saying that I could. That I had some really good ideas, that my voice was important and I should have a seat at the table.


[17:56] Yeah, that that reminds me of one of your blog posts that I read where you talked about what women can do themselves to take a seat at the table, but then also what other women and what men can do to help more women take a seat at the table. Which I think is a really important point that if we want to see more women in technology, more women in leadership and technology, it’s really a concerted effort at the organizational level and at the leadership level and a concerted effort by everyone, men and women alike. What can men do to help women take a seat at the table?

What’s great about it is—and I trust this is coming through—is our allies are men. My number one ally was my dad and now is my husband. And through my career process within IBM, there’ve been so many more men that were my allies, my champions, my sponsors, whether it’s private sponsorship or public sponsorship. And I don’t think I would be where I’m at without others seeing that I was more capable and that I could do more.


[18:45] Thinking back on your career so far, is there anything that you would have done differently if you could go back and do it all over again?

Well, so it was 2008. I worked for Nick Donofrio, who was an executive vice president at IBM in Armonk, New York. And he gave me a piece of advice and I wish I had thought to do something sooner before 2008 because I think it would have changed or enabled a really solid trajectory of feeling more accomplished and doing more for the benefit of the collective. He gave me the advice that, ‘Calline, you spend 80 percent of your life at work.’ So I was always afraid of taking work personally – making it personal. So I always just logically separated the two. This is about work. It’s about the business. This is my personal life. And I would categorize those in two separate buckets. But then when I was able to really just say, hey, I can take this personally, I can be passionate about this, it allowed me to feel much more open about how I felt. And it actually helped me further feel confident about having my own voice because I was my own authentic, sincere voice that I feel passionately about, whatever the subject matter is. And so I just wish that I had learned that lesson well before 2008 because it would maybe have meant that I would have gone out to become a leader sooner on my own with confidence, with authenticity. And in the first part of my career, I don’t think that I accomplished that because I was just so logical to keep business where business was.


[22:17] Does working from home during COVID-19 make it easier to be authentic?

That is actually a beautiful point. I have not spent a whole lot of time reflecting on that. But you are so correct. I purposely don’t use Zoom’s or WebEx backgrounds that are not my own background. And the reason why is this is who I am. I have a Frida Kahlo piggy bank behind me. I have a Diego Rivera painting—one of my favorites—right behind me as well. I have some books and those books are my own books, and also my 10-year-old daughter’s. So I was just like, that’s me. And the fact that I feel confident enough now, I just wish I had done that prior. And you are so right with regards to under this pandemic, it’s allowing people to be more of themselves.

Something that I thought was really great from an IBM HR perspective: as leaders, we actually signed a pledge to respect everyone as they work from home. Meaning that sometimes I need to go off screen because there’s something occurring around me. It still enables that I’m a good worker. Not suggesting that interruption is that, but that I may need some private time to go off screen. And so what I really liked about it is it was truly an empathetic approach to really getting at what you were suggesting with being at home. We have to understand and respect everyone because everyone’s personal situation is different and they may be off that day. They may be having to take care of a child and they need the time to do their work, but they may not be able to do it on screen. Or maybe there’s something, a connection issue with Wi-Fi, etc. And I really like that pledge because I felt like, first of all—forgive me—I felt like a woman wrote it. And I really just celebrated that because we didn’t have to do what you were suggesting, like, be afraid to say, hey, we’re parents, we’re mothers, we’re sisters, we’re aunts, we’re those type of things, because now we can make our life much more transparent to our work life as well.


Hopefully, those kinds of pledges and attitudes and levels of understanding will remain when we go back to the office. That we’ll still feel able to be our authentic self and will be respected as the whole people that we are. Not just the workers that we are, even when we’re back in the office and not in our home.

I think of situations like this based on VUCA: volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity. And it helps me build a foundation logically. This is an interesting set of times and there are wonderful things that come of it and things that are bad as well. l think about it from a bigger perspective—my favorite word is ambiguous because ambiguous suggests this subtle change, and with that subtle change, you can change. And by the way, it may not be bad. It might be a good thing. So just like you’re saying hopefully this will then become a foundation for future ways of us all working together. When we go back into the office or whatever that looks like in the future. At the same time, I just like change. I think it’s cool that we’re embracing something different, even though it is very uncertain and tough times right now. Definitely not confused about that. With regards to mental health, people are human. They want human touch. They want human interaction. That’s like, how do you help supplement that?


[29:29] Well, Calline, I have enjoyed our conversation so much. I feel like we could probably chat for hours. But I want to let you go. I really appreciate your time. I appreciate your insights. Is there anything that you had, wanted to chat about or mention that we didn’t have a chance to talk through? Any advice for other leaders?

Right now I’m reading this book, The Speed of Trust. It’s a great book. I would just say that trust can be such a huge dividend for teams, organizations, families, governments, etc. Because if you have this fundamental element of trust, things just come naturally. And we move so much faster in our daily lives. So something that I’ve learned through the pandemic is really how to trust people more. Enable that I’m more of a trusted skill through—just like you mentioned prior—authenticity. So I would just say, in addition to what we’re talking about, being authentic and being yourself and things like that … figure out how to build dividend-based trust, because trust can also work against you if it’s a cost. And having a trusted life also trusted people around you I think you’ll be a healthier human being. And I really just think that as leaders, we need to know how to enable and build trust within our organizations.


That’s a great example of how trust goes both ways. And clearly, they trusted you to rise to the occasion, so to speak, and to really build those bigger roles that they had in mind for you. And then you win and they win, the organization wins. So it I think it’s a good example of what you’re talking about with that dividend-based trust.

It’s a great point. And just a real quick story. Through COVID, my lab services team worldwide—which is almost a thousand engineers and scientists—our services are deployed at data centers with clients, customers and partners. Well, if we’re not able to go to the data center, we were worried about our business. So we quickly had to change, transform and move much of what we did physically to much more virtual. And so at the beginning of the pandemic, my Asia-Pacific team, tremendous individuals, and I would suggest that they were all little bit of wild ducks because they started to witness basically clients and also customers saying, no, you can’t come here, you can’t do the work that we have planned. And they worried about our business before the pandemic had made its way around the world.

So those wonderful loud canaries warned us that we had to quickly transform the business. So I would say within weeks, by late March, early April, the team had transformed all of our technical offerings to 90 plus percent virtual. Now, being an engineer myself, I could have inspected or wanted to understand where or how things were going on. I said, no, I should enable trust. Let it go to grow.

And by trusting the team—because they are all tremendously smart and deep technologists and I was a software engineer, how much more could I know above them? I just trusted them. And within a few weeks, they were able to transform, automate our entire set of services offerings from physical to virtual. Using A.I. and things like that to ensure those who would actually be on-site to install hardware and software and middleware. So it was amazing. That’s the reason why I decided to read The Speed of Trust. My biggest lesson was I needed to trust the team. And once I did that, the world was our oyster, like they were able to innovate the entire portfolio in a matter of weeks. And now we’re busier than we’ve ever been based on that that virtual work and that work that can be done from home. So I want to share that with you because I myself had to learn to let it go to grow.



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