Is The Future Bright?

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My dad was a science fiction buff, Democrat and a WWII veteran. As a single parent, he did a marvelous job inspiring me to explore my interests in technology and encouraging me to be my own person with the strength and means to create the life I wanted to live. We were not that Jewish, but our heritage and suffering was always a thread throughout our lengthy family debates about politics and the world at large. Being a Jew was part of who we were as individuals and as a family and his role in the war and the stories he told from his experience was a constant reminder of how important it is to stand up for what’s right, defend minorities and protect our freedom.

I often have days where I wish my dad was still with us so I could see his mind explode when I showed him the latest in tech. An avid Azimov reader and Star Trek viewer who bought every single new calculator (the first one was a Sharp CS10A weighing over 50 pounds!) and Radio Shack TRS80 as they were released, he would have totally lost it if he were to see the iPhone and all the applications one can use on it today. If I were to share a VR headset with him or bring him to an AR installation, he would marvel at how the technology he imagined from all his Sci-Fi reading was coming to life. He would have also said none of it surprised him, because he believed all of it was inevitable. The future was always bright in his mind.

Despite all the progress we’ve made in tech in the US since my dad’s passing in 2009, we’ve had a lot of regression in the country at the same time. I imagine how my dad would feel today about our current President and the rise of hate and bigotry in this country. I imagine how he’d feel to see women continue to deal with discrimination and adversity; where inequality still exists across industries, across the nation. As a Jew, I imagine his disgust at some of the unimaginable things that have happened in our country in the most recent weeks. I imagine that he would not think the future’s so bright right now.

I am not a political activist. In fact, I refer to myself as “A-political, ‘A as in anti'”. I do vote on the regular and keep an eye on important bills being passed, but until recently, I’ve tried to avoid the topic as much as possible. Today however, I am embarrassed for our country and ashamed at myself for not doing more. As I read my twitter feed, I take pleasure in seeing the lack of fear in calling out our President for being ignorant and crass. We are very lucky to live in a country where we can be so vocal without recourse. But I fear we may not have those rights much longer if we allow things to persist. I am now challenging myself on what I personally, as an apolitical non-activist, can do to support our country getting past all of this.

I plan to start by surrounding myself with good humans who care deeply about these issues and have a zero tolerance for hate and bigotry. I will only work with and for organizations where they stand by these same beliefs (I am proud that my employer* has recently committed to standing against hate and violence). I will ensure that whomever I work with, mentor, or coach knows that I will always focus on creating a safe space for them to thrive, speak their minds and be supported – no matter how they identify (race, gender, religion or otherwise) as long as they reciprocate. Finally, I will do what I can to support those on the front lines trying to make our country a better place. I may not run for office or join a picket line, but I will speak up more about the issues, fund programs that are allowing us to make progress on equal rights and social justice (I donated yesterday to https://www.splcenter.org/), sign petitions, and encourage others to do the same. Anyone and everyone can make a difference in some way. We cannot just sit back and watch this happen.

So, Dad, if you’re watching what’s going on right now from wherever you are, please send good vibes and support us any way you can as well. Change won’t happen overnight, but I believe the good people of this country will push hard to turn things around and once again, the future will be bright.

Got other ideas about ways those of us who are apolitical can make an impact? Please share in the comments!

*UPDATE: @DigitalOcean has recently created a site to also foster donations to SPLC as well! Go DO!

Opening Doors & Taking Action

open doorsAs the news unfolded in the past week over Susan Fowler’s recent blog post about her experiences at Uber, I have been thinking deeply about finding my voice on the matter. I recalled the countless times I had been harassed and never said a thing to anyone, let alone the HR rep at whatever company I was working at the time. I have dozens and dozens of stories of inappropriate, sexually charged, comments from colleagues, winks, suggestive touches, crass jokes, and pictures shared with me that I wish I could unsee. I never called them out.

Fear of gaslighting – being accused of being oversensitive, crazy, blowing things out of proportion – is probably one of the top reasons for not reporting the umpteen incidents employees experience in the workplace. It seems no matter how high we climb the corporate ladder, we still hold back. Whether it’s gaslighting, possible retaliation, or as in Susan Fowler’s case, being totally ignored, we doubt we will be heard.

On those rare occasions when we are heard, those who fall victim to bad behavior or blatant harassment are often “handled” quietly, if at all. Issues are swept under the rug before anyone knows. So, regardless of whether the bad actor gets a warning or more severe action is taken, no one else learns from this lesson. Organizations and leaders desperate to protect their reputations and avoid litigation make it go away a fast as possible. Perhaps those who helped “clean it up” get a reality check, but as long as there is no exposure, no public shaming, no admission of guilt, we will continue to see situations like Ms. Fowler’s persist.

It was a bold move for Ms. Fowler to publicly share her story about Uber and its leadership team’s lack of attention towards her situation. The ubiquity of Uber, and attention the company is already getting in other forums, certainly gave fuel to this issue, but this is not just about tech companies gone bad. It was a rallying cry for leaders at any company, big or small, to not only open the doors for employees to be heard, but to make it clear that crossing the line is no longer tolerated and when it is crossed, action is taken.

Opening Doors
Building a culture of open doors is not just about telling employees “my door is always open,” but actually opening that door. We had a thoughtful series of conversations on this topic at DigitalOcean (DO) over the past week. At our company all hands, we emphasized a zero-tolerance for any harassing behaviors that make our employees feel unsafe and our CEO and I both committed that, while we want people to talk with their managers and our People team first, we are 100% available to talk with any employee who is uncomfortable and prefers to talk with either of us about any issue.

Our commitment to our employees this past week has been well received, but executives making statements about their open doors is only part of the equation. Opening doors is also about ensuring a safe and inclusive work environment by proactively mitigating issues. Ensuring a safe work environment involves everything from setting policies and guidelines to conducting cross-company training beyond the online course we are required to click through when we start a new job.

studentdiscussion_250One of my former employers offered a training using situational role playing to develop understanding and empathy for those who may not appreciate the severity of certain actions. It was an invaluable exercise and we do something similar with the unconscious bias training we provide to all new employees as part of their on-boarding at DO. We’ve found by raising awareness of these behaviors in realistic settings we can do a lot to set clear expectations on what acceptable and unacceptable is, and make people more aware of their impact on others.

If you see something, say something.
Despite proactive efforts, open doors, trainings and policies, harassment still happens. Sometimes, it’s an innocent mistake where a young/inexperienced employee just doesn’t realize they’ve said something wrong. Sometimes, it’s an experienced executive who’s never been called out thus doesn’t appreciate the impact of their behavior. Regardless, we cannot stay silent.

I believe every manager is accountable for reporting any incident that they observe or is reported to them as soon as possible. I also believe it’s every employee’s right to know that their company is taking action to ensure a safe workplace. However, because of corporate policy and privacy protection, we often lack the transparency of how organizations are handling situations and whether they are operating a safe place of work. We cannot, for many reasons, publicly call out every person who crosses a line, but there could be methods(*) to get ahead of this such as:

  • Providing a safe forum for any employee to report an incident they’ve experienced or observed.
  • Tracking anonymized incident data to look for trends including frequency of issues and resolution timeframes.
  • Implementing and broadly communicating Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) that provide hot lines, advocacy and legal counsel.
  • Internal or even public communication on a company’s performance regarding harassment situations. Imagine a world where companies own unfortunate situations and say how they are resolving them and share improvement data. Scary as that may sound, I bet that if more companies shared this information, the trend of incidents would go down.

The beat goes on…
Whether it was in Twitter or in an intimate setting among friends, Susan Fowler’s story is not the first we’ve heard like this nor will it be the last. We need to continue to bring these topics front and center and commit to continuous improvement in the workplace. I’d love to hear how other leaders are handling this topic at their companies. We all benefit from learning from each other, so please share your stories in the comments.

(*) These are just suggestions, I leave the real policy and program design work to the experts 🙂

The CTO to VP Engineering Fork

bfa_code-fork_simple-black_512x512There comes a time in every scaling tech start-up’s life when an engineering team begins to show signs of needing help. The symptoms can include lost velocity in releasing new products/features, attrition or morale issues, fragile code or lack of innovation. I frequently hear CEOs and founders say “we need a new CTO” or “should we hire a VP of Engineering?”. But what does that really mean? A title is one thing, but the skills necessary to cure the symptoms is a whole other challenge.

Most tech startups have someone serving as CTO — whether it is one of the co-founders or a first senior hire. The role of the CTO is not straightforward and as a company scales, it’s unreasonable for that role to be the end-all-be-all. In the early days of a startup, the CTO is often the chief cook and bottle washer for all things technical. She is coding, serving as the de facto IT person and project manager as well as meeting customers alongside the CEO and helping with hiring decisions. She is expected to be deeply technical and often a domain expert. Firing on all of these cylinders may meet your company’s needs in the short-term, but quite often, there reaches a point where your CTO is no longer being excellent at what they came to your company to do.

In my experience, there tends to be two types of CTOs that evolve as a company grows:

The Evangelist — The shameless promoter of your product, this CTO is out on the road meeting prospects, existing customers and partners and marketing your product. At the same time, they are gathering valuable insight into your product, its pain-points and understanding how it compares to the competition. They are mindful of industry trends and the ecosystem of which your product belongs. They are the ultimate voice of the customer and are keenly aware of the product priorities. They set the vision for the “.next” of your product and the long-term roadmap. They may have once been a coder and understand the basics of your technology architecture. They can go head-to-head with other technology leaders in your space and represent your company at technology conferences. They also tend to be a recruiting magnet for engineering talent.

This CTO works hand-in-hand with the CEO and sales and marketing leads to set the strategy for the company — from market direction to the operations and scale of the business. They are financially savvy and comfortable presenting to and working with your Board of Directors.

The Expert — Often a domain expert or technical guru, this CTO is heads down with your engineering team ensuring your products are built to perform at scale. They may code, sit in code reviews, and mentor junior engineers. They are either designing your underlying architecture or at the very least leading that conversation and signing off on proposed plans. Also talent magnets, they attract senior engineers who wish to learn from this CTO’s experience. They may be key contributors to the open source community, prolific in filing patents, publishing technical papers and speaking at technical and academic conferences. While they enjoy meeting customers and value the insight from those meetings, they prefer more intimate meetings with technical members of customer teams and whiteboard sessions to brainstorm solutions vs. “selling” your products.

This CTO works closely with the sales and support team and often leaves the company strategy and growth discussions to the CEO and other leaders of the organization. They have an opinion on where the company should go, and they’re not afraid to share that, but they leave the details up to “management”.

In both cases above, it’s rare when one of these types of CTOs is also a master at execution. This is when it is important to have a VP of Engineering (VPE). While a VPE can often be someone who can serve as a voice of the customer, be a technical expert and/or represent the company in technical forums, the VPE’s focus is on GSD. Key characteristics of a VP of Engineering are:

  • Process oriented — highly organized around priorities, velocity, quality and meeting deadlines. They have strong project management and communication skills.
  • Great at hiring — pattern matching skills for not just technical expertise, but for people who are collaborative and mission-driven. Knows how to ID the prima donna engineer from the eager-to-learn engineer and when to say “no” even with a great looking resume. Team fit is paramount to success.
  • Great at growing their team — this isn’t about going from 10 to 40 engineers. This is about career development. They’ve got a track record for bringing junior engineers into an organization and developing them into technology leaders and domain experts. Their former engineers have followed them from company to company because they are great to work with. They know how to have fun, but also how to appropriately push a team towards meeting a deadline with urgency and not burn them out.
  • Challenges the status-quo — they won’t just keep building what the co-founders started, but will question both the what and the how. They understand the impact that technical debt can have on the long term scalability of your products. They also know how to tune processes without overkilling the company with process. They are motivated to deliver products and features that customers not only need, but love.
  • Not afraid to get their hands dirty — they lead/attend code reviews, can code if there is an emergency, enjoy tinkering with competitors’ products to understand advantages/challenges of your own products, and appreciate the fine art of squashing bugs. They come in early and stay late when there’s a deadline — even if it’s to make sure engineers are getting food and coffee.
  • Strategic thinker — while a VP of Engineering may not be at the the table deciding the fate of the company, they are part of the discussion. They understand tradeoffs of time-to-market vs. quality and value the need to get a MVP out the door to garner customer feedback early on. They may push for a product or feature, but also respect the larger vision of the roadmap and know when to let go of something that isn’t a priority — in fact, the really good VPE’s kill things sooner than a CTO or CEO may like for the sake of velocity and GSD.

When you’ve decided it’s time to fork that technology leadership role and have both a CTO and a VPE, look for someone eager to create a partnership. Someone who prefers to lean into GSD and growing teams and who values the technology leadership, vision and evangelism of your CTO. Be leery of career CTOs who seek a role as VPE at your company — they may say they’re willing to be in charge of GSD, but could easily step on your CTOs toes. Look for examples of past engineering leadership roles as managers or tech leads. Also look for measurable achievements like improved velocity rates, quality improvements or hiring/team development metrics. Those are telltale signs that you’ve got a solid VPE candidate.

Sometimes it takes a lot of soul searching for a founding CTO to realize they’re not serving the company well around VPE-types of activities. I’ve seen plenty of CTOs worried that with a VPE on board, they’re not sure what’s next for them at the company. I’ve also seen CTOs excel when partnered with a great VPE where they can set the vision and execution strategy in tandem. Fortunately, I am lucky to have such a VPE on board here @DigitalOcean — as well as two awesome Engineering Directors with whom we partner to drive our technology roadmap.

Have you struggled with the CTO to VPE fork? Share your experience in the comments!

Visualizing Mile 26

Boston Marathon

“I don’t know how you do it” seems to be the comment du jour these days. I think it’s a compliment most of the time – an appreciation for everything I have taken on – but I do get this little jab in my brain when I hear it and it makes me wonder if I am insane.

I have a lot on my plate, that’s true. I am the CTO at a growing tech company in NYC, I teach a very hands on course at Harvard Business School in Cambridge. I have three daughters – one college kid in NYC, and a freshman and senior in high school (that’s right folks, college application season, round two!) – and two cats (one of which has a chronic disease requiring daily meds). I manage my household solo (yep, I’m a single mom) and I advise a few companies, coach a few rising stars and sit on a couple boards. Oh, and I occasionally blog.

What?

Ok, so I have taken on a lot, but I simply LOVE everything I do and I make it work by visualizing Mile 26.

I have never run a marathon, but I did the 26 mile Walk for Hunger many years ago with two of my BFFs. I remember being at mile 24 that day and thinking “oh my God, two more miles?!”. I had practically lost my mind because my feet hurt and I was tired and hungry, but instead of throwing in the towel, I just powered on and ran the last 2 miles and left my two friends in the dust, aghast. I had committed to this thing and I wanted to reach mile 26. It was for a good cause and my feet would feel better a week later.

Our lives will always have peaks and valleys. There were many sleepless nights when each of my girls were newborns that I thought would never end. By child three, when I had some experience under my belt, I got through those hard days of barely having time to eat, let alone take a shower, by visualizing Mile 26. The time would come when they’d all be sleeping straight through the night and the days would come when I had to drag them out of bed for school! I was close and I could make it to the end of this phase – Mile 26.

We also have to constantly recalibrate our priorities. When my Dad had major heart surgery back in 2001, I was running Engineering at a tech company and I had two little girls at home. During that time, my mile 24 was several weeks of a daily drive from work to the hospital to home to keep all the balls in the air. I missed many dinners and bath times with the girls, and my work suffered a bit, but Dad was a priority at that time. He eventually was back to himself and under good care at home – Mile 26 – and I was back to having dinner and splashing in the tub with the girls.

I’m not the only one trying to balance so much at once, so here are a few tips and tricks I use to keep it all together (most of the time) that others may find useful:

Give yourself permission to let stuff slide and get help
The school months are my most hectic time of year with many mile 24s (think: 90 degrees and humid running up a hill after 23 miles). I visualize many Mile 26s during this time, like holiday breaks, scheduled trips and the summers when school is out. During these killer mile 24s, I let some stuff slide like that growing pile of clothes I should really get to Goodwill or cleaning out the refrigerator (petrified clementines are cool). I may skip an evening networking event in favor of sleep or to catch up on work and I get help when I need it for errands, home repairs and cleaning (thank you InstacartTaskrabbit and Handy!).

Say “No”, but offer an alternative
As my career has progressed, I get a lot more requests of my time outside of work. I love paying it forward whenever I can, but my cycles are few and I am getting better at saying “no”. I’m flattered by every ask for advice, to speak or to attend an event of some sort. I wish I could do all of it but over the years I’ve learned to become more selective about what I say “yes” to. Whenever I have to say “no”, I try to find an alternative for the requester. Someone else who could coach or speak or attend the event. I find it not only gets me off the hook, but it usually ends up being a great experience for the alternate and very often the requester is quite happy with the result. It’s great when these situations turn into a win-win.

Block time off to GSD
I routinely block off time to make sure I can get stuff done (GSD). Sunday mornings are my most productive times – because #teenagerssleepuntilnoon. I focus on cleaning up my in-box and getting prep work done for the coming week. I have help at work with my calendar, but I do all of the personal stuff myself like making doctor appointments or coordinating carpools. I maximize driving/Uber time for that sort of stuff. It’s important to me that I stay plugged in and not offload everything – especially most things to do with my girls – and there’s something satisfying about getting out of the car and feeling like I just knocked a few things off of my to-do list – mini mile 26s!

[If Applicable] Respect your kids – you only get to do this once
My mile 24 life has taught my girls to be highly independent which is not so bad! They can make themselves meals, do their own laundry and help around the house (ok, with some prodding). That said, I make sure we have dinner at the table together a few nights a week and we have a no cell phone rule at meal time so we can actually talk with each other face-to-face.

I keep an open line of communication for my kids to voice when they need me for anything or feel like my crazy life is not in sync with theirs. When I’ve got a lot going on in a given month, we have “family meetings” where we make sure their priorities for me are in check. For the theater geek, I have a minimum number of shows I must attend (I usually make all of them, tyvm!) and for the sports kid, I have to attend at least two games a season – home or away. I get quality time with my big kid in NYC (perk of the job!) and thank God for texting and social media where we all stay connected probably more than my parents did with me when I was their ages! From Instagram, FB and snapchat to our “My3girlz” text stream that’s endlessly entertaining and annoying 24×7, we are in constant communication.

Take Care of Yourself
If I’m not ok, no one in my life is OK. I do yoga, walk or run a couple times a week. I am a self-proclaimed spa addict and try to get to one at least once a month – even when I was just scraping by early in my career, I made the budget work for this little luxury. I love to travel and take my all three of my girls on a trip together at least one a year. I do acupuncture, sleep eight hours most nights and I am a total freak when it comes to what I put into my body (GF, sorta vegan, organic). I also make time for friends – because friends are what keep me whole beyond my kids. Whether it’s a well needed night out on the town or just a long stream of texts to vent or to laugh, I have an amazing network of people that bless my life.

So, I guess that’s how I do it. I’d be lying if I said it’s a piece of cake. Sometimes I lose it amid a mile 24 and snap at the girls when I’m exhausted and stressed. Sometimes I cancel a few meetings and check out for a couple hours when I’m at work because I need to just think. Sure, a few balls get dropped on the floor – maybe a lot, sometimes – but that’s life and I try not to beat myself up over it. After all, Mile 26 is right around the corner.

Do you take on a lot or wonder how you can take on more? Share your thoughts and concerns in the comments.

Scaling Another Rocket Ship: Hello DO!

Every once and awhile, I meet a company so exciting, I can’t sleep because I’m thinking non-stop about its potential to scale, massively. Fortunately for me, I ended up joining two of them that turned out to be great success stories and I think I just found my third. Starting this month, I am joining the ranks at DigitalOcean as their CTO.

Sammy10

Anyone who knows me well would agree that as much as I am an organizer and planner, I am also a risk taker. I love diving into challenges and creating results that require skill, agility and building relationships. While business savvy and technical skill are paramount to growing a successful tech company, understanding the human element and building high performing teams is what separates the good from the great.

In 1999, with a three year-old and an infant, I quit my healthcare IT job to go to Akamai to help them get organized before our IPO. Most of my friends and colleagues thought I was nuts, but I was hungry for bringing order to chaos and building something that made an impact. My three years at Akamai were among the toughest and most rewarding years of my career. We created the world’s first CDN for businesses and turned it into the backbone of the internet. The teams I led and partnered with were some of the smartest and coolest humans I’ve had the pleasure to work with. We pulled all-nighters together, cried together when we lost our CTO-Founder Danny Lewin on 9/11 and still celebrate the company’s success together at our annual “Akamai Pre-2002’ish Employees” reunion.

In 2005, I landed at VMware right after the EMC acquisition to help them figure out how to run a global engineering team. I took a leap of faith that we would not get fully absorbed into EMC (which was their MO at the time) and that I could help build another company made to last. What I found when I interviewed at VMware was the same good vibe I had at Akamai. Super smart people, fun, passion and humility…and of course, a wicked cool product. I still remember my final interview in Palo Alto – a last minute “Diane Greene would like to meet you” – that threw me for a curve. I was pretty frank with Diane that I wasn’t sure I could balance my role at VMware with three small children. She assured me that VMware would make it work, and they did. Both my career and the company flourished over my eight year tenure at VMware. When I joined the company, we had just over 800 employees and around $200M in revenue. Today, it boasts close to 19K employees and 2015 revenues were $6.57B. It was an incredible ride to help scale something that spectacular.

When I left VMware in 2013, I felt very lucky to have been part of two incredible rocket ship stories in the technology industry. After much soul searching around “Julia.next”, I settled into the startup ecosystem in Boston. I became a mentor at TechStars and recently began teaching a Product Management course at Harvard Business School. Until recently, I was fairly certain this was the tail end of my journey, but something was gnawing at me that I had at least one more in me. One more amazing rocket ship I could help scale.

Over the past few years, I’ve made a few investments and became a formal advisor to the founders of several local startups. It was one of these founders who introduced me to Moisey Uretsky, DigitalOcean’s co-founder and Chief Product Officer. For those who don’t know Moisey, let’s just say brilliance and tenacity is an understatement. Despite my protests against working with a company in NYC, Moisey convinced me to come to DigitalOcean HQ back in January to meet his equally brilliant and tenacious brother and co-founder-CEO, Ben, and get to know the business. One visit became several and within a matter of a few weeks, I was fully enamored and signed up to advise the company.

During my early work with the DigitalOcean team, my instincts told me that this is going to be another winner. It is beyond impressive how, in just four short years, DigitalOcean has built such a strong platform and community. Ben, Moisey and I – along with the other key members of the DigitalOcean leadership team – began to work together to forge a partnership that will enable us to super-scale this company. The achievements we’ve made to grow the business so far left me unable to resist the temptation to join full time to help take it all the way. So now here I am, honored and excited to be DigitalOcean’s new CTO.

So what is it about DigitalOcean that gets me so excited?

In addition to our tremendous business growth, strong culture, talented team and impressive list of investors, the most striking is the simplicity of DigitalOcean’s features that developers love. We let developers create, automate, and manage a robust cloud server infrastructure out of the box with floating IP addresses, shared private networking, tier-1 bandwidth, team accounts and SSD hard drives which all come as standard. And all of our services can be provisioned in as little as 55 seconds with a plan for as low as $5 a month.

I am continuously blown away at the reaction I get from people in our industry who hear I am working with this company.

“I love how easy it is to spin up a Droplet to build software!” – MIT graduate student building software for his own startup

“I have 6 Droplets of my own!” – Boston VC

“Their tutorials and community engagement is the best in the industry” – Engineer building a neuroscience application

“DigitalOcean gets developers – they give us what we need with no BS” – SaaS application developer

In addition to our core feature offerings, our multiple data centers around the world and a 99.99% guaranteed uptime enable companies to build and scale robust SaaS applications. Even more exciting is what’s to come. Our storage capabilities will begin to roll out this summer and what follows is a list of features that developers building production applications will surely love. Because at DigitalOcean, it’s all about love…

This is going to be another incredible journey of risk, opportunity and balance for me. We are an organization that values learning and what better way to hold that true than to continue teaching my course at HBS (fear not, @teisenmann & PM101’ers!). And, while I’ll certainly be spending a lot of time at our HQ in NYC, I will remain living in Cambridge and to continue to be an active member of the Boston area startup community.

Finally, I am hiring! We’re looking for amazing talent across the company. Check out our current career opportunities both in and outside of NYC.

Will DigitalOcean be another massively scaling rocket ship ? I’m pretty bullish about it. So check back here soon for updates on how it’s going!

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Adding Value By Transforming Your Business

business-transformationIn addition to creating a new company that is disrupting the status quo, many founders are also challenging the old norms of how businesses operate in order to add value. When you are struggling to raise capital, hire, and scale your business, is there time and energy available to also rethink how you do business in general? How much effort do you want to put in to stand out as a company not only creating something spectacular, but also a company that differentiates itself as an employer? What truly matters in the end is whether that transformational effort adds value.

In 2012, the gaming company Valve published their novel Employee Handbook  which outlined their organization structure (or lack thereof). Valve challenged the notion of having assigned projects to work on or managers to report to. Many other companies have taken similar approaches not only to attempt to operate more efficiently, but also to attract and retain talent by differentiating their companies from the mainstream.

Whether or not the super flat organization or self-directed projects works, these companies have challenged the standard on how business are “supposed” to run. One could argue that these attempts to be different are distracting and time consuming when the work just needs to get done. However, by taking a chance at doing something different, not only are they attracting new talent, these companies are fueling creativity and innovation across their organizations.

Transforming your business doesn’t always have to be time consuming or distracting. The company Amplitude challenged how businesses handle equity compensation by extending the company options exercise windows to TEN years vs. the standard 90-day window most companies offer. Amplitude also helps employees understand the complexity of their equity plans by outlining in detail the possible scenarios and potential outcomes of their particular grants. The message here is A) you add value to this company and should benefit from it well into the future and B) we want to be sure you fully understand that value as an important member of our team. I imagine neither the window extension or transparency tactics were very time consuming or distracting to implement (well, perhaps the former took some selling to their investors!), but they certainly make this company stand out as an employer and innovator.

Most recently, eShares has stepped up their game by revamping the offer letter. CEO Henry Ward decided that, being in the business of equity management, they should excel in helping job candidates and new employees fully understand what it means to have options in their company. There’s even more to it though, as the offer letter outlines very clearly where a new hire will sit in the organization and what their first week of work will look like. The have transformed the on-boarding process by starting with the offer letter vs. waiting for a new employee to sign and come on board. Perhaps this is an attempt at self fulfilling prophesy (if we tell them about their first week, they’re more likely to accept our offer!), but regardless, the effort to be transparent sets this company apart from so many of the humdrum companies doing the same old thing.

Just because it’s been done that way forever, doesn’t always mean it’s the best way to do business and it certainly won’t set you apart from your competitors. Many entrepreneurs are getting advice from old-school investors and advisors who saw it done a certain way that worked in their day, but that doesn’t mean that’s how it has to be done. If you choose to take a new approach, don’t do it for the sake of being different, do it because it either enables your company to run more efficiently and/or it adds value for your employees or customers.

Have you transformed your business beyond the new products and services you offer to your customers? Share what you’ve done in the comments.

 

Note To Parents: When The Helicopter Flies Too Close To Work

Last week I had the pleasure of co-hosting an event with the wonderful team from Inteligent.ly. Our goal was to pull together local Chief People Officer types from startups (COOs and CFOs included) to get a conversation going around scaling organizations. It was a wonderful dialogue centered around talent acquisition, development and retention as companies scale. I think most of the attendees would agree, we could have talked for hours if we had the time. One striking take-away from the evening, however, was the topic of parents involvement in the hiring process.

Yes, you heard me, parents are flying their helicopters too close to the work place.helicopter_PNG5313

The topic on the table was “hiring and working with millennials” and the question was how far to go to cater to this demographic. One attendee told a story of a recent job candidate with approximately 5 years of experience who was shopping his offer from his company around to others to see what kind of deal he could get. The experienced, C-level, leader telling the story had given this candidate a short window to make a decision – he either wanted the job or he didn’t. When the candidate didn’t respond by the deadline, he was informed via email that the offer had been rescinded. The candidate responded with a detailed email on why he needed more time. When the leader questioned the rationale for needing more time, the candidate responded with “that’s what my parents told me to say”.

Most of the group hearing this story were not surprised. Many of them have been in hiring or manager roles of some sort in the past ten years and reported that it is becoming more common for those helicopter parents who harassed teachers about grades or college professors about assignments to continue on to the workplace and be over involved.

Another dinner attendee asked the group how many of them have received a phone call from an irate parent about the salary or benefits their child was being offered. I was aghast at how many nodding heads there were around the table. Seriously?

Every summer, my daughters attend an all-girls, sleep away camp in the Berkshires that develops young women to be independent thinkers and leaders. When the girls “age out” of camper status, they have the option of applying for a Leader in Training (LIT) program. There are only ~30 positions available for this coveted program and an average of 2-3 times that number of former campers apply. Each year, the camp director sends a very stern email to parents that explains the selection process and the competitive nature of the few spots in comparison to the number of applicants. She makes it clear to parents that she welcomes a call “from your child” if she is not selected and wants feedback or guidance on other leadership pursuits that summer. Yet, the camp director says that every year, without fail, parents continue to call on behalf of their daughters.

Certainly it is a big disappointment when your child doesn’t get what they want or you want for them. When one of my daughters did not get into the camp LIT program it was a very mournful day (more like a week) in the Austin household, but my daughter grew tremendously from the experience. She not only learned how to accept rejection, but she became more aware of who she was and what she really wanted to pursue. It was a pivotal moment in her life and one I am so grateful for her to have experienced at such a formative age. She has since applied to programs more thoughtfully (she ended up spending that summer doing a program with NYFA and is now a sophomore in NYU-Tisch‘s Film and Television program) and is now experiencing the job application process with mixed results (“how does one get their first barista job if they all require prior barista experience??”). It has been entertaining and sometimes heartbreaking to watch her trip and fall as she gains her legs as an adult, but hey, we watched her learn to toddle a long time ago. We never did the walking for her.

One of my favorite parenting books read when my girls were very young is The Blessing of A Skinned Knee, by Wendy Mogel, PhD. She writes of over-indulgence in today’s society (too much stuff, over-nurturing and soft structure) and how it leads to bless_knee_coverchildren actually feeling unlovable, needing constant affirmation, lack skills and lack self-sufficiency. Many managers of young professionals today, express frustration with these characteristics of their work force – needing constant affirmation and lacking that self-starting grit that comes from many a skinned knee.

Our job as parents is to provide our children with tools to handle what life brings them. To be empathetic and good listeners when they’re thrown a curve ball and to make suggestions and offer guidance when things are tough. If we do it all for them or augment their work, how will they ever be self reliant, confident, members of society?

So, put that phone down and delete that draft email ,moms and dads! Go fly that helicopter over the Grand Canyon or some other joyful place. Let your kids skin their knees, get rejection and suffer the consequences. My bet is, most of you did that when you were their age and you became capable adults through the process.