Mike Capone, the CEO of Qlik, spoke with VISTA Today about being born in the Bronx and raised just north of New York City and how his father, who came from an immigrant family and grew up on welfare, began working in the mailroom at a company while attending night school and climbed the corporate ladder to become the CIO at JC Penney.
Capone also discussed who helped him along the way, how he landed at Qlik, the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead for the company, and how Qlik attracts and retains talent.
Where were you born and where did you grow up, Mike?
I was born the oldest of three children in 1966 in the Bronx in New York City. We moved out of the Bronx when I was about six, and from there, I grew up in and around New York.
We moved to Rockland County north of the city when I was six, and I spent most of my childhood in a town called New City in New York just north of the Tappan Zee Bridge.
What did your parents do?
My mom stayed home with my siblings and me while my father worked.
My father grew up on welfare. He came from an immigrant family and began working shining shoes when he was very young. He lied about his age to join the military when he was sixteen.
He ended up starting in the mailroom of a company while going to school for accounting at night. He was working at Standard Oil when computers started to roll out. His company gave their employees an aptitude test to see who would be good with computers, and he aced the test. He became a programmer on an IBM mainframe. Over the course of his career, he worked all the way up to Chief Information Officer at JC Penney.
What memories do you have growing up in New City?
When I was growing up a big vacation was a week at the Jersey Shore or my grandmother’s small country house in upstate New York. That was it! Going someplace by airplane was out of the question – that was something rich people do. Now, I travel a lot for my job – I’ve been to over sixty countries last time I counted. My twelve-year-old daughter, whose passport is almost full, asked me when the first time I got on an airplane was. It wasn’t until I was fourteen years old when our family visited Disney World.
Did you play any sports growing up?
I was a reasonably formidable tennis player in high school and played at the Varsity level. I competed in national tournaments in high school.
I was a great basketball player growing up because I was 5’10”, and then I stopped growing at twelve.
What was your first job growing up?
My first job was a cashier at JC Penney at the local mall in Paramus, NJ where I made minimum wage. I worked in a Dunkin Donuts for a while. I did some construction for a while – and even worked on the World Financial Center in New York City. My last year at college I interned at IBM in Westchester, New York.
What lessons did you take away from those early jobs?
Hard work pays off! Having a dad who grew up on welfare, nothing was handed to him. I learned that if you worked hard, people notice you. I developed a strong work ethic at JC Penney at Christmas time. The construction job was frightening – I was up high, laying down steel, and only a thin wired held us up. I was outside all day, working hard. I learned the value of hard work in that job, and I also learned that I did not want to do that for the rest of my life.
What kind of music were you listening to in high school and college?
My daughter and I always put classic rock music on from the ’80s on Amazon. I know every song from the first beat. The first concert I ever went to was Def Leppard.
Were you a good student? Where did you go to college?
I was a good student, but a bit of an underachiever. I didn’t always get straight A’s because I was distracted by sports and girls.
Why Dickinson College?
I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. My dad wanted me to major in Computer Science, but I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I applied to a few different schools but ended up going to Dickinson College in part because of Dickinson had a strong Liberal Arts program. I was one of six computer science majors at Dickenson, and I also studied history. My dad ended up being right, though. I got a job right out of college writing computer code.
Looking back, was Dickinson a good choice for you?
It was a great choice! I received a very well-rounded education. I learned how to write and verbally express myself well. I credit the liberal arts education for preparing me to move through the ranks from a computer programmer to senior management and eventually CEO.
Who gave you your big breaks and helped you get where you are today?
My dad is always number one on this list. He gave me the necessary tools to succeed in everything.
The other person who helped me was Richard Burke, the head of HR at ADP. I spent twenty-six years at ADP. I started as a programmer and was promoted to run the company’s internal systems. As part of that, I spent a good amount of time with the company’s executives fixing their computers.
One time I was in a rental car with Richard going to a meeting. He told me there was a general manager’s job open, and he told me although I didn’t have any of the requisite experience for the job, I had never managed a profit and loss statement, he thought I would be great for the job and should apply. He sponsored me for the job, despite some initial pushback from the hiring manager of the position. A few months later when the job hadn’t been filled, Richard forced the hiring manager to take me.
What do you think Richard saw in you?
He saw the willingness to do whatever it takes. It did not matter what my responsibilities were, I was going to do whatever work was needed. Whether I was taking on a failing project that no one wanted or fixing a computer, he saw an aggressiveness in me.
Where does that aggressiveness come from?
Primarily from my upbringing with my father. It probably also comes from sports – I’m a very competitive guy. I knew early on that I wanted to move up quickly in my career. Seeing how successful my dad was, I had my sights set on that type of accomplishment. When I was 39 years old, ADP made me their CIO. My dad passed away by then, but I know he would have been very proud of me.
Who helped you along the way?
I worked for the CEO of ADP at one point – Gary Butler. He was the one who gave me my big break. I managed the internal systems for three years and grew it dramatically. Even though I wasn’t the obvious choice, Gary asked me to lead three different groups within ADP’s technology department. Six thousand people worked for me in that role and we had a billion-and-a-half dollar budget.
A few years later, I was on track to move up to CEO at ADP, and I had an opportunity to take a position somewhere else. Gary gave me great advice, and I took the outside job.
How did you end up at Qlik?
It was serendipity. I was the COO of a successful technology company in New York City, and I received a call from a colleague at ADT who was now the CEO of Frontline Education, a tech company based in Pennsylvania. He said Qlik, which was owned by the same venture capital firm that owned Frontline (Thoma Bravo), was looking for a CEO and that I would be perfect for the job.
Data and analytics are rapidly transforming the world. No problem in the world can’t be solved with better data, information, and analytics. I knew this was the right job for me.
What are the most significant opportunities and challenges for Qlik moving forward?
The demand is there; no executive will turn down a conversation about analytics. We are building a platform that will allow our customers and nonprofits to use data better. It will take information all the way from raw data through digestible analytics, as well as layering in machine learning and artificial intelligence, to help companies and organizations make the best possible decisions and have the best possible outcomes.
There is an underpinning in the analytics economy that surrounds the concept of data literacy. As I watch my twelve-year-old daughter learn geometry and calculus in school, I teach her statistics on the side. At Qlik, we use the term “data literate.” We have to equip the next generation of workers to be more comfortable working with data and information. It’s a global challenge in our workforce, so we are trying to raise awareness and capabilities of our employees and beyond.
Another term – data democratization – is used often. It means taking information that is tightly controlled in parts of the company – sometimes in IT or finance – and pushing it out to all employees within the company. Data and analytics should inform every decision, operationally and strategically, inside your company, and that’s why that information should be democratized and distributed to everyone who needs that information to make decisions.
Not only does Qlik have beautiful visualization and analytics technology, but we also can layer in machine learning and algorithms to help decision makers interpret the data is our differentiator.
Qlik recently moved from Radnor to King of Prussia. What does the Philadelphia area offer a company like Qlik?
Our headquarters was in Radnor, our lease was up, and we found a creative, innovative space in King of Prussia. We’re very happy in the Philadelphia area! The workforce is phenomenal, the community is excellent, our employees enjoy the proximity to the mall and Philadelphia region’s quality of life is excellent. I’ve lived in New York, Paris, and a few other cities, but this area is incredibly rich in so many aspects of life.
How do you attract and retain talent?
We are a global company – Sweden, Canada, and beyond. I like Pennsylvania because people are so married to the area. They grew up here, were well-educated here, and do not want to leave the area. We do not have difficulty attracting employees in the area, knowing they will stay for an extended period.
Qlik has a great story. Our Swedish heritage gives us a socially-responsibly background. We’ve always been deeply embedded in our community. We do a lot of in-kind work with nonprofits. We work with the United Nations to solving human trafficking and an organization called C40 Cities that combats global warming. Our people are drawn to purpose-driven work. There are a lot of opportunities to make the world a better place, and our technology plays a big role in that.
What do you do in your free time?
Like most parents of a twelve-year-old, I am consumed with my daughter. She’s taken up tennis, so I’m running around taking her to matches and lessons. My wife is French and grew up in Morocco, so we like to travel together. We have seen a lot of the world as a family. To see the world through your child’s eyes is a wonderful experience. We try and keep her grounded because she has had the opportunity to see parts of the world that many of her peers have not, so she has become very socially conscious in that regard.
Finally, Mike, what is the best piece of advice you ever received?
I go back to my father who said, ‘don’t expect the world to hand you anything.’ He taught me to make my own way and control what I can control. He always told me to do everything I can, the best I can, and everything else would take care of itself.
On my worst day when an acquisition broke bad or back when I had some personal health issues a couple of years ago, I think back to his life and his mother who was hospitalized for malnutrition because she was feeding him and not eating herself, and I remember that my life is easy compared to what he and his mother endured.
Publisher’s note: Laura Wagoner contributed to this Chester County Leadership profile.