If there’s one thing that George Samenuk, chairman and CEO of antivirus and security developer McAfee Inc., recalls about Larry Sheffield, it’s that his IBM co-worker had an uncanny knack for building and motivating teams and driving results.
Now senior vice president and general manager of NEC’s Solutions Platform Group, Sheffield continues to employ those team-centric management skills when overseeing the Santa Clara, California, firm’s 200-employee mobile solutions, software, server, advanced optical, customer care, and high-performance computing divisions.
Perhaps Sheffield’s family dynamic played a role in shaping his career as a leader in the technology field. Sheffield, 55, came from a family of 21 brothers and sisters in which he, child number 11, was the consummate “middle child.”
Sheffield says being part of such a large brood helped him realize early the value of good teamwork: “When you come from a family as large as mine, you realize that success wasn’t based on your own individual achievements, and that there are a lot of people helping you attain success.”
After graduating from Waynesburg College in Waynesburg, Pennsylvania, with a history degree, Sheffield joined IBM as a sales trainee. Initially he wasn’t allowed to go out on sales calls. In 1972, the tech community “wasn’t quite ready for a black salesperson,” he says.
“There weren’t very many persons of color in technology, so I was constantly proving my technical ability and skills,” recalls Sheffield, who credits good mentors with helping him through the tough spots. “I had to be better than everyone else — plain and simple.”
Sheffield stayed at IBM — mainly in executive leadership positions — for the next 29 years. He was named IBM’s general manager of the year in 1995.
Ready for a new challenge, Sheffield took a position as senior vice president for the Americas with Silicon Graphics Inc. in 2000, and then moved into his current position with NEC about 18 months ago.
The son of a Methodist minister, Sheffield starts his day with a prayer session, then boots up his desktop for a workday that includes communicating with employees, clients, and playing a key role in the manufacture of NEC’s DVD and CD drives, which are installed in Dell, Compaq, Gateway, and other brand-name computers.
“It’s very gratifying to see technology developed by my group integrated into the technology of a company such as a Dell and know that you’re part of their success, as well as your own,” says Sheffield, whose divisions are charged with applying NEC’s Japanese-developed technology into U.S. products. Sheffield says he enjoys the tangible results that come from such projects.
Looking back on his 30-plus year career in the high-tech field, Sheffield says the fact that people are more tech-savvy — thanks to simple tools like Nintendo and Xbox — has made high-tech careers that much more attainable for African Americans.
“People are growing up with much better computer skills than I ever had as a history major,” he says. “For those who have gained some technical competence, there won’t be anything that they can’t accomplish in the high-tech world.”