Dennis Johnson, the Chief Financial Officer at Qlik, the King of Prussia-based company that is the leading business intelligence and data visualization software company in the world, spoke with VISTA Today about growing up in Northeast Philly, the Lehigh Valley, and Bucks County; his jobs delivering the Bucks County Courier Times newspaper and working in Giant as a teenager and what he learned from those experiences.
Dennis also explained why he chose the University of Delaware out of high school but then transferred to La Salle University after his freshman year; his passion for the city of Philadelphia; and what he thinks Qlik’s then-CEO saw in him when he was hired in 2009.
Johnson also discussed Qlik going public, then private with one of the world’s largest private equity firms; how the pandemic has changed his job on a day-to-day basis; and what challenges and opportunities lie ahead for the company now that an unusual year like 2020 is in the books.
Where were you born, and where did you grow up, Dennis?
I was the oldest of four children and born in Northeast Philadelphia where we lived until we moved to the Lehigh Valley when I was about seven years old.
When I was 12, we moved back to Bucks County when my father took a management position at his company’s headquarters there. Bucks County was my home until I married my wife and settled in Montgomery County, where we live now.
What did your parents do?
My father worked in sales in the steel business. My mother was a schoolteacher and then stayed home with the four kids while we grew up. When I was twelve or so, she went back to teach and only retired five years ago.
What memories stay with you during that time?
It was a lot of family time. My dad is one of eight children, and my mom is one of three, so we always had our grandparents and a lot of aunts, uncles, and cousins around. I grew up with a lot of family support.
Did you ever vacation down the Jersey shore together?
Absolutely! I grew up going to North Wildwood and Wildwood Crest.
My wife and I have a place in Ocean City now, as do my in-laws, so we spend a lot of time down there with them.
Did you play any sports when you were growing up?
I played Little League baseball, football, and basketball with friends and in youth leagues. I never saw a three-point shot I didn’t like. By the time I got to high school, I ran into a lot of other guys who could shoot as well as me and were all 6-inches taller. I still loved basketball, though, so I became my high school basketball team’s statistician.
What was your first job?
My first job was delivering newspapers for the Bucks County Courier Times when I was thirteen years old. My brother and I were lucky to have a paper route in a large neighborhood of single homes, townhouses, and condos.
What lessons did you learn from that job?
I learned a lot about work ethic and responsibility. I had to get up early before school, and it was important to be on time. People counted us on to deliver their paper each morning. We would also have to go knock on doors to collect payment. When someone wasn’t home, we had to be persistent and track them down. As a young kid, it was important for me to have my own money and to work for it. Once I grew out of the job when I was 16, I passed the route to my youngest brother for him to take over.
Did you have any other jobs in those early days?
I had a job at Giant supermarket that I worked at through high school and college, which gave me extra money for school and books.
Those early jobs taught me a lot about time management and being dependable. There were a lot of people who relied on me – my manager, the store’s customers, and my colleagues. I think it’s essential to learn responsibility at an early age.
Did you insist that your children have similar work experiences?
My oldest two are teenagers and work on the Boardwalk in the summers down the shore. Those jobs taught them responsibility, that if they were reliable, good workers, they’d get more hours, which meant more money. They manage their schedules and have learned to balance everything on their plate.
What kind of music were you listening to back then?
I have always been a big Rolling Stones fan. I went to college in the early to mid-1990s, so the grunge scene was big back then, so a lot of Nirvana and Pearl Jam.
I listen to a lot of the same stuff now, too – that and classic and alternative rock.
Where did you go to college?
I wanted to stay close to home. I looked at both Delaware and Villanova and settled on the University of Delaware. UD ended up being a little bigger than what I was comfortable with, so I transferred to La Salle University after my Freshman year. La Salle had a great accounting program with some terrific professors, so I knew I would it would be a good fit for me.
Years later, I ended up going to Villanova for my MBA.
Looking back, was La Salle a good choice for you?
Definitely! La Salle’s accounting program was terrific. I had so many opportunities right out of the gate. As a sophomore, I participated in the Co-Op program, interviewing with global and local firms for an internship opportunity.
I took a semester off to participate in a Co-Op position with an accounting firm and received course credit as well as valuable working experience. In my senior year, I did another internship with a local non-profit called Northwestern Human Services.
Did you start your MBA as soon as you graduated?
No, I worked about seven years before going back. At the time, my wife and I were beginning to start a family, so going back to school required a balancing act!
You mentioned that staying in Philadelphia was important to you. Why? What makes you so passionate about the city?
I think Philadelphia is a great place to live. You have the shore and several major cities nearby, including New York and D.C., and the mountains are only a few hours away. You have great sports teams, restaurants, the arts, colleges, and universities – everything. Additionally, my family is all still here which is a big reason I love the area.
How has it been recruiting outside talent for Qlik to the Philadelphia area?
We are a global company and rarely do we require people to be based in King of Prussia.
That said when we do require positions to be based in King of Prussia, we never have any problems filling them, especially with all of the larger employers and the schools in the area graduating so much great talent and being close to one of the largest cities in the U.S.
Looking back over your career, Dennis, who were the people who saw promise in you and gave you a break?
The first person who gave me a break was Gene Godick, the CFO of a VerticalNet, a high-tech company based in Horsham. Gene told me I was going to be a CFO someday and pushed me hard. He was demanding but fair and pushed me along the way to realize my potential.
What do you think did Gene see in you?
It was a combination of my work ethic and accounting skills that I had developed. I also had a very calm demeanor under pressure, which I think he knew would serve me well someday.
Who else saw something in you?
A guy named Bill Sorenson. Bill was CFO of Qlik when he hired me as the Director of Accounting in 2009. We were preparing for an IPO, and it was such a great experience taking the company public.
I eventually became the CFO of Qlik and owe much of that to Bill for taking the chance and hiring me. He’s been a great mentor and helped build my confidence over the years, which really helped me develop so much as a leader and a CFO.
Mike Capone, Qlik’s CEO, is another person who gave me a break. He joined the company in 2018 and encouraged me to throw my hat in the ring for the CFO position when the role opened up. After working together for a few months, Mike saw that he already had the person working at the company who should take over as CFO.
Over the last few years, I have learned a lot from Mike, especially how to drive a culture of accountability and performance and do it fairly and respectfully.
It’s unusual for a management team to survive going public and private.
We did have a little bit of that. It was a 50-50 mix. Half of us were around for the public years, and the other half came in when we went private. We have a nice balance and mix of new perspectives but also some legacy.
Here we are at the end of and beginning of two very usual years. What are the challenges and opportunities ahead for Qlik in 2021 and beyond?
I am excited about the opportunity to continue to grow Qlik into one of the world’s premier software companies. We are in rare territory financially in terms of the company’s size and scale.
Despite everything we have already accomplished, we still have a bright future ahead of us and a lot of runway to continue to grow Qlik. We have terrific investors behind us, great talent at the company, great products in the marketplace, and a market that’s very hot in terms of the need for analytics and data management solutions.
What Qlik does is help organizations take their data and harness it to make the right decisions to transform their business. The pandemic has helped many organizations realize that they did not have that real-time access to data that they needed.
As the COVID pandemic unfolded, and management teams needed to make difficult decisions, they needed to understand how certain aspects of their organizations were performing during these difficult times.
We are focusing on helping our clients shift from passive intelligence to active intelligence. Think of Passive intelligence as relying on static dashboards, or getting a report sent to you with historical data that is already stale by the time you get the report. In contrast, active intelligence delivers information to the user in real-time so decision-makers can react much more quickly. We are looking to expand on that as the world continues to generate more and more data every day.
Is there an Artificial Intelligence component to it?
Yes. We made an acquisition in early 2020 with a company called RoxAI, which has brought self-service intelligent alerting and automated workflow capabilities to our products. For example, a product manager may get an alert that a particular product isn’t moving quickly enough so she can decide to change the price or how it’s marketed to get it to sell more quickly.
Also, as part of our ongoing R&D we are consistently building capabilities into our core product that leverage artificial intelligence in order to help customers more easily find insights from their vast amounts of data, what is commonly referred to as augmented analytics.
How has the pandemic changed your job on a day-to-day basis?
There were so many unknowns early on. By the time we got through the first half of the second quarter, we had realized the sky wasn’t falling for us. Our customers were still making big purchases. We are fortunate to sell across the world and various industries, so having that type of balanced business helps when you’re going through something like this.
The biggest difference is everyone working remotely. We are back in the office a little bit but like just about everyone else most of our folks are working from home. We’ve transitioned to that style of working well though. As a global company, we were used to working virtually with collaboration tools like Zoom.
From a sales perspective, it has been challenging not having our people travelling and selling in front of customers. We have had to transition to more of an inside sales approach, so we are looking forward to getting our people back out in front of customers. That said, our team has really fought through it to make sure the business keeps flowing
We had to react quickly and make some tough decisions on spending to make sure we would be successful, but we have adapted easily. There’s a real need for the products that we offer so, fortunately, data analytics and data management software were consistently kept and sought after by companies throughout the pandemic.
What do you do in your spare time?
In the summers, I spend a lot of time down the shore with my family. Our children – three boys and a girl – are 17, 16, 12, and 8, so keeping up with their activities demands a lot of my time!
I spend a lot of time volunteering and coaching for their various organizations and teams. My sons played a lot of baseball growing up, and my daughter is into swimming and gymnastics. And all of them love to play basketball.
I am also the Treasurer of a nonprofit called The Philadelphia Children’s Alliance (PCA), which provides support services to children who have been sexually abused. I’ve been on the Board for 12 years now.
How did you get involved with Philadelphia Children’s Alliance?
I was in a leadership training program called Leadership Philadelphia. One of the goals was to place program participants on the Board of a non-profit organization. Leadership Philadelphia hosted a “Nonprofit Fair,” where we were able to meet various organizations.
I met the Executive Director of PCA at the event who then invited me to sit in on a Board meeting. I found the Board to be so passionate that I decided I wanted to get involved and join the Board. I am still involved twelve years later.
Finally, Dennis, what’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
My parents always taught me to work hard and that nothing was going to be easy. They always emphasized work ethic and taught me to handle myself with dignity at all times. I’ve tried to do that throughout my career. I think work ethic is one thing you can truly control. I always tried to outwork my peers because I knew it was the one thing within my control.
While they stressed that work ethic, I always found I learned it from their actions as well. They both worked very hard – my mom as a teacher and my dad with his career in sales – all while raising us. They always emphasized education and being responsible. That upbringing really set me up for my life and my career.
Laura Wagoner Contributed to this profile.