CXO

Vala Afshar: CMO. Writer. Twitter Storyteller. Future Restaurant Owner.

Extreme Network's Vala Afshar tells TechRepublic about his year and a half career in marketing, his background in engineering, and why the resume is dead.

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Vala Afshar did not sign up for Twitter.

That means that the fact that the now-CMO of Extreme Networks got a confirmation email from the social network including his picture and bio was a little weird.

"I thought, 'What a clever spam,'" he said. Turns out it wasn't. Afshar's CIO called him into his office and told him he'd created the Twitter account for him - he had an idea. Extreme Networks was using Chatter from Salesforce and Afshar had managed to amass something of a following internally.

"I distinctly remember he said, 'I don't even find you interesting, but for whatever reason, half the company is following you,'" Afshar said. For one month, he would give Twitter a shot and share some of the items he was posting internally, with customers, and partners, and whoever else decided to follow.

Three years later, that decision is largely responsible for where Afshar is today. After all, he did not start off as a marketer, but as an electrical engineer. He joined the company in 1996 as a software developer/quality assurance engineer, and then transitioned into running the services business for the company, focusing on customer support.

It was as the chief customer support officer that Afshar found himself hopping on Twitter talking about customer services or the importance of people and culture, or sharing good press, and initiating conversations with organizations and other Twitter users. Within the first year, a publisher approached him about writing a book. In late 2012, he published The Pursuit of Social Business Excellence, which in turn lead to writing gigs with Huffington Post and Inc. Magazine.

In 2013, the CEO of Extreme Networks offered him the chance to run the marketing department. He said it's been an incredible shift, learning how to share and not necessarily sell, even though that's the usual impulse. "The strongest, most effective way of organically building a strong network is by giving without expecting to get," he said.

Thought he may not have a deep background in marketing, he does feel he has a certain instinct for it. "I feel like I have a good sense of stories that inspire people and help people connect and learn," Afshar said. "It's been an unbelievable year and a half journey in marketing for me because you think you know a lot until you learn a little."

Recognizing that he doesn't know everything, or adopting a "beginner's mindset" is something Afshar values. It's a mentality that's benefited him.

Last October, he gave a Powerpoint presentation at a weekly marketing meeting and an intern named Gus approached him aftward and asked if he would consider posting the presentation to Slideshare.

He had no idea what Slideshare was. Instead of ignoring the intern, Afshar got him to walk him through the site.

"A 10-minute conversation with Gus led to a couple thousand people that follow me on Slideshare and approaching a million views on 8 or 9 Slideshares," Afshar said.

Afshar is not adverse to embracing the new. One of his first moves as CMO was to relaunch the company website as adaptive to mobile. They're also working on an app for Extreme Networks, working off the information that 86% of the time people spend on iOS or Android devices is spent inside apps versus a browser.

When it comes to a project like this, he's glad he's got an engineering background, and what's more, believes that marketers in the future will be more technical. Along those lines, he also thinks the traditional resume is dead.

In March of last year, Afshar had to hire a director of digital marketing, and instead of soliciting resumes, he told interested candidates to tweet using the hashtag #SocialCV. Using social listening tools, they narrowed down the applicants down to 15 out of 100s.

"You can have a candidate with a traditional resume who would have a fantastic polished piece of paper that represents their credentials and achievements, and then you can quickly look them up on the web and you find, wow, that was a mean-spirited comment that they left on a blog, or wow, that was not necessarily a cool picture they shared across their network," he said.

Afshar looked for a mix of personal brand that included digital footprint and digital exhaust- the unintended consequences of what you leave behind, be they Facebook comments or Vines.

"What's really important in this fast moving business world that we live in is: How are you contributing to communities right now? Are you blogging? Are you sharing meaningful content? Are you part of consortiums? Are you speaking at events?" These days, it's easy to answer those questions quickly. Afshar said he can tell more about a person from the way people text or tweet him than he can from a resume.

"I find that when you can recruit through social, you have a much stronger success in terms of whether the person is going to be engaged and immediately able to produce and help the team grow."

It has, indeed, been an intensely social three years. One of the reasons he waited until 2011 to join Twitter was because he hadn't realized this: "As long as you're interested, you become interesting."

In his own words...

How do you unplug?

"I have three beautiful children. I have an 11-year-old daughter, and 8-year-old daughter, and 4-year-old son, so I'm most relaxed when I have an opportunity to spend time with them. If unplug means carefree and happy and relaxed, it's when I have an opportunity to spend time with my family. Believe it or not, I also think when I engage on social, that's also a way for me to unplug because I'm connected with extraordinary people. By the way, I love to eat. I don't know if that counts. Someday I may own my own restaurant. I love to eat. Steak, specifically. I hope I don't offend any vegetarians out there. When I'm eating, I'm definitely unplugged."

If you could pick a different profession, what would it be?

"I think I would like to teach, which is strange because I believe I'm an introvert. I'm the type of person at a party who will just sit there and people watch and enjoy every moment of it... Nowadays I speak a lot. I'd say half of my travel is speaking engagements, keynoting and talking about digital business transformation and social and marketing. I get totally nervous before I get on stage. Some nights before I'm speaking I have a tough time sleeping. But I always feel really good at the end of my session because I feel for whatever reason I'm able to create authentic and in some cases long lasting relationships with my audience and I think in a classroom environment I could potentially shape the lives of the student for the better... and I already told you a restaurant owner. I'd teach and then go to my waterfront restaurant that has the best steak in Boston."

Is there a social media account that you follow for fun?

"I follow Tom Fishburne who creates these cartoons. He writes about marketing, and he's a fantastic illustrator, so he has these funny moments that he captures in his cartoons, accompanied by a blog."

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About

Erin Carson is a Staff Writer for TechRepublic. She covers the impact of social media in business and the ways technology is transforming the future of work.

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