Nearshore Americas

Q&A: An Engineer Bridging Silicon Valley and LATAM

Julio Calderón is a man, a husband, a father. He’s also Peruvian, and latino, and American. But, for the purpose of this article, Mr. Calderon can be regarded as a bridge between Latin America and Silicon Valley.

Julio Calderón is a tech engineer who currently manages two teams (one in the US, and another one scattered throughout Latin America) for a large, Fortune 500 company. His background as the son of Peruvian immigrants, his life in Silicon Valley and his experiences working with Latin American teams made him the perfect candidate to bridge the operations between both territories.

As a man who fell in love with his roots, Julio has given a lot of thought to what makes Latin America –its places, its culture, its people– special, and how that uniqueness translates to interactions in business, in tech. 

In the following interview, Julio shares some of those thoughts on the intersection between Latin America and Silicon Valley, as well as his experiences walking back and forth between both cultures, his approach to leadership and even his opinions on where in Latin America one might find the Bay Area spirit.

NSAM: Julio, let’s begin with three basic questions. Where do you come from? What are you doing now? And how did you get to where you are at the moment?

Julio Calderón: I was born in Lima, Peru. I come from South America. I live in San Jose, California. I’ve been here for most of my life.

NSAM: For how many years?

Julio Calderón: I’m almost 50, so it’s been over 40 years. I came in when I was 13. A whole lifetime; a long time, and most of it in the Bay Area, in Silicon Valley. I also spent a few years in Orange County and another couple years in Mexico City. 

What do I do here? I’m in tech. I manage two groups of engineers: one in Silicon Valley and the other spread all over Latin America. I happen to be very lucky to be managing both sets of teams.

NSAM: How common is it for American tech companies to choose not only bilingual, but bicultural or even multicultural profiles, like yours, for top or middle management positions? I ask because I’ve seen companies stick with “their people”, whoever those are, because that’s who they know and trust.

Systems engineer manager for LATAM & Silicon Valley teams

Julio Calderón: The opposite happened to me. I was recruited in Mexico City, many years back, because of my multicultural profile. They needed somebody that spoke Spanish, that handled storage and knew about data protection. They were interested in someone who could live in both worlds; work with US partner companies that they worked with all the time, and who could also tie-in with the local teams in Mexico. 

They were looking for a bridge. I’m not sure if they planned for me to manage anyone at all, at least at first, but I ended up managing a local team, and also handling relationships with people in a different country. Before, I had never identified myself as a bridge, but I guess that’s what I became. 

I think I was at the right place, at the right time. Someone tagged me. “Julio can do this. Julio can be that bridge for now.” I don’t think the intention was to look for someone like that. It was more a matter of circumstance. The need for a manager in Latin America. 

NSAM: If you were in a position to choose someone for a job very much like yours, would you look for a person with your profile? Multicultural, I mean.

Julio Calderón: I would. In fact, I can probably think of one person that could do it. That’s exactly what I would look for. 

I’ve noticed that my mom, when she’s having a conversation in English, she’s translating in her mind. So she takes a while to respond. I’ve seen other people from other cultures do the same thing. It’s totally understandable. They’re super smart, know multiple languages and can have conversations in those languages. But when you’re multicultural, it’s different. I never translate. In fact, I think in both languages at the same time, intermixed. It isn’t something that clicks on or off. It is just there. I’m very fluent in both languages, immediately.

There’s also knowledge that goes beyond language. Understanding what’s acceptable behavior, what’s the norm, what’s rude. Someone that goes beyond language, who is bicultural, can understand all of those differences and nuances.

NSAM: From what you tell me, there aren’t that many people like you [multicultural latinos] in your company. 

Julio Calderón: There’s this organization called the Hispanic Foundation of Silicon Valley. They have a study known as “The Latino Report Card” which shows, among other things, the participation of the hispanic community in high tech. A few years back, it used to be below 3%. Now it’s a bit above that number.

You won’t be seeing that many folks that look like me working in high tech. They are few and far between.

The study shows that most jobs taken by latinos are in the services industry. About 80% of latinos work in restaurants, in hotels. Then there’s a small percentage in trade, followed by a tiny percentage in high tech. The study, however, does not provide a breakdown of what these latinos do inside tech companies. If you walk into a big tech campus, you’ll likely see people who look like me performing non-tech jobs, for the most part. I’ve walked into Bay Area tech campuses many times, and that’s what I’ve seen.

NSAM: Does that bother you?

Julio Calderón: No. It’s always been like that for me.

In the early part of my career it might have made me uncomfortable. When I was in my 20s. Later on, especially when I traveled to Latin America and I learned about all the different languages; all the mixes of flavors and colors. That made me very proud, knowing that there’s such diversity within our culture and not many folks get to experience it. 

That made me fall in love with my culture. I’m latino. I want people to know that I speak Spanish; that it’s not only about where can I find the best tortillas or what are we doing for Cinco de Mayo. There’s so much more diversity to learn from.

NSAM: Julio, describe your day-to-day for me. 

Julio Calderón: I have my calendar here. If you look at my traditional schedule, I might start at 6:00AM [Pacific time]. I tend to meet at those hours with my LATAM teams, because they start the day earlier. In Argentina and Brazil, it’s a lot earlier. We also have engineers in Panama, in parts of Central America; and then there’s people in Mexico, who are just an hour away from us. I tend to reserve the earlier timeframes for LATAM-related things.

I also keep in touch with East Coast-related activities. The company is big and we have a big presence in the East Coast and the central areas of the US. 

I thought that our meetings [in Mexico] should be 90 minutes instead of 60, to account for the 30 minutes of hugs and handshakes. 

I have ongoing bi-weekly, sometimes weekly sync-up calls with each of my teams, whether they are in LATAM or in the US. I tend to bundle up, in a particular week, our folks from LATAM to do my syncs with them, and then my touch points in the US at different times. It does not always happen that way, though.

Then there are issues that come up, so I might have a sync call with a particular account team in LATAM, which I need to connect with a particular account also in LATAM, or maybe in Germany. It’s kind of indifferent where they happen to be. In my opinion, we’re all a bridge. It has to do with the setting. Out of the need to fulfill a requirement, we seek out a solution which can use anyone from anywhere. We’re not bound to geography. The end result for the end user is what’s bound to geography.

NSAM: I was wondering, when you make all these calls, do you have to switch something in your head? I know bilingualism comes naturally to you, but what about culture in general?

Julio Calderón: Oh no. I don’t think about it. The change just happens.

NSAM: There’s a switch, though?

Julio Calderón: Yes.There are differences, of course. On a call with a US team, the culture mandates that if you don’t know something, you ask about it. The culture is very open, proactive. Everyone’s the same. “Let’s get this done.” It is very efficient, fast-paced.

I’m not saying my LATAM teams aren’t those things. They’re just different. In LATAM meetings, for example, I want everyone to interact, so I ask people directly for their opinions. In the US, if I do that, people might think you’re calling them out. And it has nothing to do with that. 

Another thing: I was used to the Silicon Valley way of handling meetings. If the meeting starts at 1:00PM and ends at 1:30PM, we have to be efficient. Very little pleasantries. In Mexico, you have to say hello to everyone; give them a hug, a handshake. Hopefully, you don’t have 10 or 20 people in the meeting, because that’s 30 minutes of everyone saying hello to everybody. That was a big shocker to me when I moved to Mexico. I had seen my family do that, but I had never experienced it in a professional setting. I thought that our meetings should be 90 minutes instead of 60, to account for the 30 minutes of hugs and handshakes. 

At first I apologized a lot. Later, I learned to relax, to go with the flow. There won’t be enough time, but you just keep going. We’ll pick on that topic later, during lunch, or dinner, which culturally is very common; extending the conversation beyond your working hours. 

A “Silicon Valley” needs to be a place that’s inviting, that allows for many different ideas to be entertained.

That’s something I experienced, hands on, during my time there. And it has helped me. Now, when I meet people, I try to focus on them first, as people. Once that’s done with, we can move onto business. 

It’s just different cultures, right? And I tend to be able to mix both styles. 

NSAM: For a while, there’s been a lot of talk about “the Silicon Valley of X country”, or region. In your view, what would a place need to have or achieve to actually earn that moniker?

Julio Calderón: What I love the most about the Valley is the buzz. What I mean by that is the sense of something happening now. If you look up the platform Meetup, you will see in the Bay Area tons of different subjects for meetups. People want to learn more. I had this remote office that I rented, and I met lots of different startups in that office. It was a common place to work at. They were all unrelated to each other, not part of the same company, but sometimes I heard conversations of “Maybe we should come up with something together”. It’s that invitation to think openly. Being open has to do with sharing, right? Being humble. 

In my opinion, a “Silicon Valley” needs to be a place that’s inviting, that allows for many different ideas to be entertained. It does need to have structure, so people have places to go to, to work in. It needs a framework, yes, but it also needs to be inviting enough for everyone to jump in and do something new. 

Even in highly institutionalized companies there’s a “Let’s Jam Department”. That’s R&D.

The framework, the strategy behind it, that’s the difficult thing to find. Because, who gets to lead these new thinkers? There needs to be an overlaying, long-term strategy for the big idea.

I think that it has to do with an ecosystem and the energy behind it. With collaboration, and building, and growing. Sometimes it’s about having fun. Sometimes you’re not 100% focused on becoming a billionaire. Some startups might tell you that’s their goal, but most of them seek the building, the learning, the expanding and the experiences. As an outcome, all the other benefits come in. 

NSAM: The way you put it, at least the aspect of the buzz, the energy, it sounds almost like a musical scene. 

Julio Calderón: Like a jam session, right?

NSAM: Exactly. I assume something similar happened with grunge in Seattle, during the early 90s. 

Julio Calderón: That’s a great way of looking at it. That’s exactly the way I see it, man. You come in with your drums, I come in with my keyboard, someone comes in with a guitar. Everyone’s strumming. Everything really sucks here. If someone hits the right notes, then someone else tries to join in. 

NSAM: That’s interesting. Most of the conversations I’ve heard about the “new Silicon Valley” come from… let’s call them “very institutional” folks. I can’t imagine those people saying “Ok everyone. Let’s jam!”. 

Julio Calderón: But even in highly institutionalized companies there’s a “Let’s Jam Department”. That’s R&D. A large company that makes hardware will have APIs, a DevOps team. All it takes is for those teams to get together and get a bigger forum, and have someone say “Ok guys. These are our pre-cooked scripts, our API calls. Do whatever you want. Go nuts.” If you open it up that way with all the equipment, with a multi-million dollar budget, then what can you build? 

That’s the essence of new talent, right? You do not teach grit; you live it.

It’s about letting people play and build something awesome, beyond what you could have imagined. 

Curiosity is another element. There’s so much to learn out there, that even if you’re very curious, that won’t be enough. You need your teammates. You need a team of very curious folks who can feed each other’s curiosity as needed. 

NSAM: Julio, in all your travels and calls, all your briefings, is there a place in Latin America that made you think that there might be a Silicon Valley, or something approaching Silicon Valley, over there?

Julio Calderón: I remember being in a particular office in Guatemala. It was seven, eight years ago. What made me feel that way was that everyone I was interfacing with was really young, in their 20s. They were all full of energy. No ego. Curious. And they were all truly bilingual; spoke English very well.

I don’t think they realized that they knew as much as they did, because they hadn’t been outside their bubble. And if your teammates are the same as you are, in your eyes, you’re all on equal ground. As a team, they didn’t realize they were that good.

I was blown away by some of the people I ran into there. Because it is a small country, right? That’s not to say that there aren’t smart people in Mexico, in Chile, in Peru. The thing was that these kids were outstanding. That’s what I saw. “Woah! Wait a minute. These guys are special.” It was fun being around that energy. The feeling of wanting to build something new

I’ve encountered many smart folks everywhere. Mexico City has so many large enterprises, and it has one of the highest concentrations of SMEs in the world. For many young folks, because there’s so little choices for them, the solution is to make their own choice, and that’s starting a business.

That’s not a technical skill, but can you imagine passing that on to your kids? The grit of, if you don’t have a choice, building one for yourself. So that kid hopefully will be exposed to the knowledge needed so they can grab onto that same can-do mentality, that I-will-execute mentality, but with technology.

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That’s the essence of new talent, right? You do not teach grit; you live it. You can tell your kids that they have to get in there, do things. But if those kids don’t see that same attitude in mom, in dad, what are they supposed to follow? 

I’m hopeful a lot of kids like that [with grit] will come out of Latin America.

Cesar Cantu

Cesar is the Managing Editor of Nearshore Americas. He's a journalist based in Mexico City, with experience covering foreign trade policy, agribusiness and the food industry in Mexico and Latin America.

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