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Deidre Paknad: CEO of PSS Systems, or the art of becoming a great CEO

May 3rd, 2009 · 2 Comments · Entrepreneurs, Talents, Innovators

Note: PSS Systems was acquired by IBM in October:

Expressions such as “seasoned entrepreneur” or “industry veteran” are so worn down to the thread that most people forget what they really mean. Deidre [sic] Paknad is definitely both. She is the CEO of PSS Systems (, the company that created the legal information governance software category to reduce legal risk and lower the costs of e-discovery and data management in 2004. She led the company from idea to a customer base that counts most of the Fortune 100 today.  As she’s done in prior entrepreneurial stints, she started the industry’s first practitioners learning forum in 2004, the CGOC (; that forum counts 750 corporate members and its own professional network and is central to the company’s market strategy and leadership. Before she joined PSS Systems, she was at Nth Orbit/Certus where she launched the company’s Sarbanes Oxley compliance strategy and solution. Prior to Certus, she was the founder/CEO of CoVia Technologies, which launched the first enterprise portal back in 1998 and was inducted twice for its innovations into the Smithsonian Institution. And before that, there were quite a few other companies too, and these are the ones I want to speak about today. What makes great CEOs is not a collection of achievements, but the coalescence of multiple professional and personal experiences powered by a deep desire to innovate and the ability to breathe life into whatever they do.

Navigate inside and through this zoomorama (you can zoom-in/out the pictures as well as see them in full screen).

Turning inauspicious beginnings into a springboard: Deidre wasn’t exactly born with a silver spoon in her mouth. Her father, who was in the military, was killed in a plane crash over Alaska when she was nine days old. Her young mother remarried and she lived with 4 siblings in Stockton, where several generations of the family had been born. Modest means.  Simple blue-collar lifestyle in a still closely-knit, primarily agricultural environment of the Central Valley (forty-five years ago, the population of Stockton was not even one-third of what it is today).  Virtually the only place she’d been outside of Stockton was Santa Cruz where she had relatives; her family had no college history or means to assist in her pursuit of more education and opportunity, so UC Santa Cruz was the only school she applied to. She wanted to be a lawyer, and got her B.A. in Politics. She expedited her undergraduate years for a simple practical reason, her only way to finance college was through the survivors’ benefit plan provided to her because her father had died in the military, a limited amount of funding with an age limit.  So, she graduated a year early from both high school and college. “I tried to go through undergraduate and graduate school before I turned 22, because I didn’t have another way to afford school.  I was intent on more opportunity in my life and in a rush,” she says, and revealingly adds that she had to do this “before the capital ran out.”

So, off she went to Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. She was stunned by the post-modern acropolis that Frank Gehry had started to build, “an amazing architecture smack in the middle of a slum,” that she could not quite “yet process,” she says. She felt out of place not so much because she ever had any real comfort zone, but because it was difficult to engage in social activities with an older student community as the under-age odd ball. When the woman she was living with had a massive stroke at the end of her second semester, she decided to stop the race to 22.  She took was what was supposed to be a “year off.”  In retrospect, it was a major learning event in her life — she had worked single-mindedly to get through high school, college and law school on limited college funds.  The experience gave her the agility to adapt in uncertainty and some practice re-setting big goals. Short takeaway: Never stick to a goal whose meaning had hollowed out, no matter how hard you pursued it, and be willing to reset the jumping-off point!  

Creative fearlessness, the tenet of success: You don’t become a CEO overnight, even when you start your own company (people grow their CEO skills as they grow the company they founded). Most of the time, people earn their spurs through a variety of rides.

After she left law school, Deidre took a job as a technical writer in the operations group of a semiconductor company (Elmo Semiconductor, based in Burbank) for her year off. Less than three months into a job, she felt the typical “there is a better way” entrepreneurial syndrome: “I was watching how they were making the assembly instructions for custom chips for the Aerospace and Defense industry. It was so primitive! We were destroying parts because the instructions were wrong; chip assembly is very small scale and needs to be quite precise.  I had seen MacDraw and MacDraft. I thought there was a better way to do this. We could create a library of chip images, draw all the ceramic packages to scale using software and if somebody needed an 8 pin DIP or whatever, we could quickly produce the correct assembly instructions. I suggested that we use these great tools to improve the process and reduce the defect rate. I had my own 128k Mac and bought a digitizer that worked like a reverse print cartridge in my printer, so I was pretty sure it would be a big improvement. My boss told me to write a proposal.  And the next thing I know, I had a department of eight people with eight Macintoshes working for me and we had a fully automated process.  We became a showcase on the customer tour.”  Common sense (not whacky ideas) is actually the most powerful trigger for leadership. Common sense allied with a deep understanding of where modernity (not fads) takes us. Yes, Deidre bought her own Macintosh in 1984, when this meant spending a fortune (almost $2,000 – today’s equivalent to $5,000 to $6,000). Way more than her car. Probably more than her first paycheck after taxes; this was her first real “adult” existentialist bet – which proved to be a good one in less than six months:  “I had my first taste of how applying technology to business problems can change the economics considerably,” she summarizes.

OK now.  After two years, it was obvious that career growth at Elmo required an electrical engineering background, so she looked for new opportunities. “I went to work for a company with the proverbial two guys in a garage in 1986 in Long Beach; at the time the surf industry was very vibrant. They had the first sample product of a colored zinc oxide sun block, Zinka. They were about to launch and were looking for somebody who could take care of marketing, PR, finance, operations and retailers. In short, they needed somebody ready to work around the clock. The business boomed immediately. We were everywhere, the Today how, Business Week, the LA Times, the NY Times, and hundreds of ski and surf shops. A year later, I had 35 people working for me and was running the shop.  Schering Plough’s Coppertone division eventually acquired the majority licensing rights and I had no stock in the company.  But I had an amazing time.” Speak of a hands-on crash course in basically everything that makes a company work, and more specifically, on managing a supply chain and a retail channel!

She moved to Silicon Valley and went to work for another semiconductor company, Altera, three years old and growing fast, to work on new and custom product launches in Operations.  Not the best time of her life, for sure, yet memorable: “I learned a ton about manufacturing operations and got a chance to implement new systems including MRP — both were important opportunities.”  It was a tough work environment for an ambitious young woman in the 80s, where the culture involved management screaming at each other, but she honed her (already proven) survival skills and reinforced her intensity to succeed. After three years, she made a move to Consilium (acquired by Applied Materials), the company whose software she’d implemented and began her career in the software industry. As a Product Marketing Director, she had the opportunity to apply the operations, systems implementations and company growth experiences from her prior posts to defining, launching and selling enterprise software to companies to reduce operating costs and improve regulatory compliance. It was the first of many experiences taking new software products from conception to customer and her real professional “sweet spot.”

The rest is an ideal resume and personal happiness… Deidre transformed her “temporary” technical writer job into a career passion thanks to her Mac at Elmo. She transformed two surfers’ ideas to a brand that captured the attention of the F100 industry leader in one short year at Zinka. She learned all she could in the “angry boys club” at Altera and transformed that to innovation and market leadership at Consilium … where she hit her true career stride as a software entrepreneur. Where was her personal life in all of this?  Deidre divorced her first husband after Zinka, as her professional goals hit an uncomfortable ceiling in the marriage. She remarried, Daryoush Paknad, a serial CTO and entrepreneur (he founded Mizoon, a location driven social networking service in 2007).  She left Consilium to give birth to Zoe in 1993 (a freshman at Castilleja in Palo Alto), and went on to her well-documented career at CoVia, Nth Orbit/Certus — and of course, PSS Systems for the last five years. Her company is one of few enterprise software companies making a market and doubling each year.  It helps reduce legal risks and operating costs from tough new discovery laws and is championed by the GC, the last C-level exec unserved by strategic business applications for control and transparency.

Incidentally the little girl from Stockton speaks Farsi fluently and has traveled the country and the world big time.

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2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Franklin // May 3, 2009 at 7:59 pm

    Wonderful, inspiring life story. I love the idea of resetting big goals at any point in your life. It takes guts to do that. Congratulations for the well deserved success.

  • 2 Liz // Jun 18, 2009 at 5:49 am

    An amazing and inspirational reality which should speak to all people of any age and any circumstance. Deidre, it continues to be a honor and blessing to know you.

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