You might hear about high-level IT leaders who say they can’t code how they use to after shifting to more strategic roles; they either don’t need to, don’t have the time, or don’t make the time.
Nelson Saenz isn’t one of them.
The vice president of technology at Guayakí Yerba Mate is twenty years into his career and still likes to be on the front lines with his teams. Even as he builds the strategic vision for the company’s tech, he’s not afraid to roll up his sleeves to configure a router or set up VLAN tagging on a switch.
“I don’t like to operate my team as a hierarchy; we’re all on the front lines. I’m not afraid to get in there and that’s just my curious, inquisitive nature that got me into technology in the first place,” Saenz says. “I’m willing to unbox or configure a laptop or jump in to do remote support if something has to be escalated. I’ve been in IT for years and haven’t swayed from being that frontline support resource and at the same time, being a strategic thinker.”
That’s the mentality Saenz brought to Guayakí Yerba Mate in 2022 as the company transitioned from being founder-led to founder-inspired. He came on board to help drive that evolution by building the company’s tech stack from the ground up in ways that would automate key business processes and foster more collaboration and communication between the continents it operates in.
“We have operations in North America and South America, so being able to build tech that would bridge all those important areas gets me out of bed,” he says. “We’re building the basics like a community platform, leveraging collaboration tools and other things that’ll help break down siloes. We’ve also been working to create a cybersecurity footprint that’ll keep us secure and allow us to straddle the line between security and convenience.”
Over the past year, building teams with the right kind of people has been just as important to Saenz. He knows from experience how empowering it can be to feel like you’re the person for a job.
“In each position I have had in my career, every manager made me feel like I didn’t need to be micromanaged,” he says. “They gave me the initial guidance, but they taught me that I was the right person and they had faith in my ability to deliver. Today, I’m just trying to pay it forward. When I need to fill a position, I look at what’s being brought to the table and how it complements the unique attributes we already have. Then, once I find the right people, I put my trust in them. As a leader, you’ll burn yourself out if you don’t.”
Saenz, a son of immigrant parents from Mexico and El Salvador, still talks with the same passion for technology that he had as a teenager in high school when he built his first computer from scratch. Up until that point, he wasn’t sure what the future had in store for him. That changed when the computer booted up for the first time. “Once I built that computer, I knew I’d devote my time to IT and pursue a degree in management information systems in college,” he says.
Saenz graduated from California State University, Northridge and went on to start his career as a computer engineer at the American Legion in Indianapolis and then as an IT infrastructure manager at the Chicago-based Merisant company. At the latter, his bicultural identity opened doors to leadership opportunities.
“In my first six months, my boss learned that I spoke Spanish and said, ‘I think it would be great for you to have the opportunity to do what you’re doing for our Latin America operations,’” he recalls. “She promoted me, and I went on to oversee IT support operations in Mexico, Argentina, and Costa Rica.” Today, Nelson is also fluent in French and is learning Portuguese to work more closely with Guayakí’s Brazilian staff and leadership.
Those experiences served as a steppingstone for what would become a sixteen-year stint at Active Interest Media. In his roles as an IT director, vice president of IT, and chief technology officer, Saenz developed his hands-on leadership philosophy to help the company navigate a period of significant growth.
“I came into this position with a blank sheet of paper,” Saenz reflects. “What’s been exciting for me has been not having to worry about legacy technologies or thinking about how we’ll integrate new and old systems. It’ll just getting at the root level and building tech for the company that’ll take it to the next phases over the next few years.”
Today, he leans on those lessons to make Guayakí a better company and to make his community a better place through volunteering.
Young professionals aspiring to follow in his footsteps should balance seeking opportunities and creating them. “There were times where opportunities only came because I made them for myself,” he says. “Then once you get to the top, pay it forward. Never try to gatekeep. I want to see everyone succeed like me.”