Leading Revolutionary Companies with Norm Fjeldheim, SVP, CIO and Head of Global Facilities at Illumina

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When you spend more than 20 years at a company, you get to see all the ways things change over the years. You may even play a part in revolutionizing a company and sometimes an entire industry. That was the experience Norm Fjeldheim had while he was working at Qualcomm, and today he’s helping to bring about a new kind of revolution. Currently, Norm is the Senior Vice President, Chief Information Officer and Head of Global Facilities at Illumina, a leading developer, manufacturer, and marketer of life science tools and integrated systems for large-scale analysis of genetic variation and function. Companies like 23andMe and Ancestry.com rely on Illumina to do DNA sequencing, and scientists and doctors all over are using Illumina technology in game-changing research. Norm explains how all of this is happening and what it means to be working on such important technology on this episode of IT Visionaries. 

 Best Advice: “Make sure that you are partnering with the business effectively at all levels. You can’t just focus exclusively on the exec team. You can’t just focus exclusively down at the rank and file. You have to work all levels of the organization to really get a sense of what’s important to the organization because you will get different messages and different requirements from different parts of the organization and at different levels. You have to then be able to synthesize all of those inputs, all those requirements into your IT strategy. Because if you miss one, you’re going to be failing.”

Key Takeaways:

  • You don’t realize how revolutionary the work you are doing is until you look back on it years later
  • When you diversify the work you do and the people you work with, you build your own knowledge and create a beneficial relationship between your company, your customers, partners and peers
  • In order to enable important, potentially life-changing work in the medical field, building trust in the software and ensuring privacy is a key job

Norm’s start in tech and work at Illumina

Originally, Norm studied architecture in school, but he eventually switched to business management and then developed an interest and affinity for programming. When Norm left school he joined Qualcomm – at the time, a small start-up. Norm was the first IT guy the company ever had and from there he grew into various leadership roles, including 17 years as the CIO. As the CIO, Norm saw many transformations in the business as well as in the world, which he helped usher the company through. This included the emergence of smartphones and mobile apps, the move to the cloud, and more. Adjusting to these changes was hard, but it was only in hindsight that Norm realized how revolutionary the changes they went through actually were for all involved.

In 2016, Norm started the next phase of his career at Illumina, where he has two roles. The first involves global IT and all of the infrastructure and networks involved there, and the second is managing global facilities. In this second role, Norm is excited about helping to build the workplaces of the future with new and advanced technology. 

“When I got [to Qualcomm], they were in the process of implementing a system and it was a failure. It really didn’t work. It didn’t work as advertised, certainly. So we needed to do something else. And I said, ‘Well, why don’t we just build our own ERP system?’ I was really young and foolish and very naive – I had no idea what I was signing up for. But we actually went and did that. We wrote our own ERP system and we ran the company on that for the next 12 years”

“I had that skillset and reputation to be able to fix organizations and turn them into a world-class organization.” 

“Qualcomm helped usher in the mobile device, mobile phone era. We were early adopters of our own technology. We were deploying mobile phones and deploying applications to mobile phones, business applications, and smartphones in the early 2000s, well before any smartphones actually existed. IT then had to partner with the product development organization and the engineering organization to actually try out some of these technologies that they were creating to enable mobile applications of video on phones for the first time, and video conferencing on phones for the first time. All of that was us thinking, ‘We’ll just go do this.’ Looking back, I didn’t quite realize how revolutionary it was at the time because it was just, okay, here’s another project. We’re going to go do it. That goes back to, well, if it’s in front of us, we’ll just go do it without even realizing how tough it really is to make that happen and how unique it is.”

The work being done at Illumina 

One of the reasons Norm wanted to join Illumina was because of the type of work the company was doing in the field of genomics. Illumina works closely with Ancestry and 23andMe to provide software to sequence DNA. From the IT side, Norm says he focuses on fixing problems and making sure people have the technology and processes they need to work effectively and efficiently. He also supports the implementation of the systems for customers. 

“The mission of the company is to improve human health through the power of genomics. It’s a pretty powerful mission and something that I’m proud to be part of, and it’s actually happening.”

Diversifying the work you do 

Norm says that early in his career he was too internally focused on the things they were doing at Qualcomm. By putting on those blinders, Norm says he was out of the loop on what was going on in the world of IT and technology. Today, Norm says he sees the importance of bringing diversity to the work you do, and he advocates for finding advisory boards to sit on. As he says, in doing so you build up your own knowledge and skillset, which in turn will help your business grow because you bring that knowledge with you to work.

“I was very internally focused and didn’t really participate in networks of my peers or with the vendors beyond what we were doing at Qualcomm. And that actually turned out to be a mistake. I wasn’t able to keep up with what was happening in the industry. I wasn’t getting good ideas from my peers, and I needed to make a conscious effort to actually look outside and participate outside and build up my network. That was a very beneficial thing, not just for me personally, but for Qualcomm.”

Focusing on privacy

Companies like the ones Illumina works with are dealing with very personal, private health information; privacy and security have to be a top priority for Illumina. Norm explains that his main focus is to protect people’s information, and in no way monetize the data they possess. The only thing that matters is bringing the technology and the analytics platform to the people who want to use it in order to do incredible things. Using Illumina technology, researchers are finding ways to do less invasive medical procedures, detect cancer DNA, and so much more. In order to continue enabling this important work, customers need to trust the company to protect the data it is being given, so Norm takes this job very seriously.

“We need to make sure that we are protecting that information when we have it. We don’t try and monetize this data — that’s not our business model. We enable people to do DNA research and they can analyze the data themselves or they can use our tools to help them do that. But it’s a tool that we provide and, ultimately, we want people to be able to take advantage of this technology. We are seeing that there are so many different ways – the power of it is incredible.”

What’s next?

Things are constantly changing in the world of technology, so Norm is focused on making sure that Illumina is always on the cutting edge. Whether it’s upgrading older systems or introducing A.I. and RPA, becoming a digitally-focused and forward-looking organization is top of mind.

“We want to use A.I. to map out all of what’s happening at the company from a process and data flow perspective, and then be able to fine-tune that, or in some cases, really clean it up if it’s a broken process. We don’t have too many of those, but we certainly have processes that we believe we can scale more effectively. We’re at an inflection point where we’re shifting away from putting it in all our platforms, to leveraging all of those investments and delivering more value and really creating an even greater employee experience and an even greater customer experience than we have today.”

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Norm Fjeldheim, Senior Vice President, Chief Information Officer and Head of Global Facilities at Illumina, discusses his past at Qualcomm and the DNA sequencing technology Illumina is currently working on.

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