Archive for the ‘Failure’ Category

Cookbooks as companions of life

January 4, 2021

By Peter Zaballos

The home I grew up in was somewhat of a cooking wasteland. My mother, in spite of her good intentions and efforts, was plainly speaking a horrible cook. Multitasking did not come easily to her, and neither of my parents had strong organizational skills. The concept of a pantry was new to me as an adult. In the home I grew up in we very much operated with a “just-in-time” food inventory approach. We had one of everything, and when we ran out of something, you went to the store to get another. And meals were simply functional. A time to eat. Not a whole lot of conversation: just focus on the food and be done. And we rarely went to restaurants, and when did it was generally for simple and quick meals.

I write this not to condemn my parents. They did the best they could with the tools they had at the time. But it did cause me to approach cooking differently. And things started to change when I got to college in Berkeley. My friends were from all over, mostly California, but from all sorts of backgrounds. I went with these friends to restaurants — all sorts, because well, it was Berkeley. It was there that I had — for the first time —- sushi, Chinese, Thai and Indian food, pizza not from national chains, French and Italian food, all sorts. We cooked a little bit but mostly this expanded horizon came through restaurants. Although I do remember going to Chinatown in San Francisco with my fraternity brothers, Eric and Chris, one weekend and buying 50 pounds of shark steaks and lugging this big plastic bag back to our fraternity house and grilling those up for a summer get together.

It was as I made my way through life working as a young adult in Silicon Valley after college that I was able to more intentionally follow my nose into the kitchen. Where the range and quality of food exploded. When I was at LSI Logic we would head over to an incredible burrito shop in Mountain View where they would grill the meat right in front of you, assemble the burrito and slather it with salsas so hot you’d be sweating for the next 20 minutes. This was the mid-80s, and the food trucks that are so abundant now just didn’t exist.

It was with my first roommate out of college, Bryan, a colleague at LSI Logic responsible for managing our European business, that I made my first serious kitchen commitment. Bryan would head off to Europe for three weeks or a month, and come back with stories about food he’d eaten and recipes and ingredient lists I had never heard of. He would make these incredible dishes and I would try to recreate them. As they say in the tech world, the bit flipped for me in that apartment we shared in Redwood City. 

The first cookbook I purchased, in 1984

That’s where I started to really learn to cook. The first book I bought was “The 60 Minute Gourmet” by Pierre Franey. I got it because other recently minted adults like me used it, and I liked the approachable context. It wasn’t until I met the woman who would later become my wife that my interest — and aptitude — in cooking really took off. When I met Kristine she was a manager at one of the more prominent restaurants in Boston; as she describes, she’s “had had every job in a restaurant.” Her cooking skills were incredibly solid. So for our first Christmas together, when we were friends and not yet dating, I pulled out that book and made us Steak au Poivre. It says a lot that by then I was feeling confident in my skills to take this on at such a pivotal juncture in our relationship. And it says a lot about Kristine that she clearly enjoyed me taking the lead on the meal without getting too involved in the production.

Throughout my cooking journey she has been kind and supportive, encouraging me to take a stronger and stronger role in the kitchen as we built our lives together. The first dish where I followed my nose in the kitchen was making pizza. Soon after we married, I started making pizza every week. I’ve continued to do so for almost three decades. At first I used store-bought pizza dough and made sauce from jars of marinara sauce I would embellish. I soon made the same realization many home cooks do — making something from scratch is simply better and not a whole lot of extra work. So I soon had a family recipe for pizza dough and pizza sauce that worked wonderfully.

Let’s follow this pizza thread a bit further. We had four kids in five years. The first night we brought our oldest home from the hospital, I made us a pizza. Pizza night became a big deal in our house. And as our children grew older, pizza night became a reason to invite their friends over. There were many, many evenings when there might be eight or ten kids in the basement, and I would go down there, take orders, and then turn the kitchen (which in the farmhouse we renovated, was properly huge) into a full-blown home pizzaria, with Kristine often serving as sous-chef preparing the toppings.

Along the way we collected cookbooks: to learn the basics, to explore new cuisines, and increasingly to inform where we travelled and what we did on those travels.

And it’s only with hindsight that you look up from one of those cookbooks and realize just how they have become these documents of life. They mark meaningful moments and become part of you. Cookbooks can be an incredibly emotional record.

Like Proust’s madeleine, when you open them up certain cookbooks can provoke a flood of warm memories — of the journey you took to master (or not) a particular recipe, of the meals it produced, of the people you shared those meals with. 

There are three cookbooks that quickly come to mind that have had a deep and meaningful impact on me, our family, and our friends.

Note the $20 price

The first is Volume Two of Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” This is one of my favorite and most cherished cookbooks. I found it in the used bookstore at the Milwaukee airport. (The single most awesome aspect of Milwaukee is that they have a used book store in their airport! We have almost missed more flights than I can remember because we were lost in the shelves there.) I paid $20 for it (it still has that price tag on it).

I learned so much through this book. First and foremost is that Julia Child’s recipes are bulletproof. If you follow her clear and lucid instructions, the dish will turn out. Every. Time. She’s amazing. And through Volume Two I discovered her paté recipe, which I make to this day. I recently made two batches and gifted mini loaves as holiday presents to our friends. And then there’s the braised rabbit: oh my, that dish is so yummy, and it always makes a complete mess of the stove top. 

And finally Potatoes Anna, which is fairly labor-intensive: you have to slice a pound or more of potatoes into evenly sized slices, then dry each slice with paper towels, then layer the slices in a circular pattern in a cast iron skillet all the while drizzling them with clarified butter. It’s a lot of work, but when you bake them and turn that skillet over onto a platter, the resulting round loaf of golden-crusted potato goodness is wonderful.

When I read Julia Child’s autobiography, I learned that in the baking section of Volume Two – which her husband Paul did most of the recipe crafting as he was the baker in the family – it instructs you to use a slab of asbestos for a baking stone. The book was published just weeks before the FDA announced a ban on asbestos, and Julia was horrified. She had her publisher rush to pull the remaining copies of Volume 2 from the shelves and amended it to instruct you to use a terra cotta tile. I literally set her autobiography down and ran to the kitchen, pulled our copy and looked up the baguette recipe. And there it was, the instruction to use an asbestos tile. I bought a first edition. In a used bookstore. In the Milwaukee airport. For $20.

Instructions to “cut 1 inch shorter and narrower” – the hazard of asbestos is what happens when the fibers become airborne. Yikes!

Acquiring that cookbook coincided with us moving into the circa 1860s farmhouse we renovated in Wisconsin. Meals for us are social events that bring our family and friends together. Yes the food is important, but the real reason we share a meal is the conversation we share the meal over. It’s where we talk, catch up, check in. It’s where the puns fly, and laughter is abundant and overflowing. My parents would come and stay with us in that house for weeks and sometimes months, and it is the meals we shared that helped our children develop deep relationships with their grandparents, and vice versa.

The recipe is rock solid, notes to save some effort

Our copy of Volume Two is properly stained, dogeared, and annotated. Like all the cookbooks that became staples of our kitchen library.

Next, “The Food Lover’s Guide to Paris” by Patricia Wells, was given to us by my wife’s dear friend, Heidi, who lost a battle to cancer in 2007 and is dearly missed. That book is wonderful because Wells shares recipes for food that you’ll find in the restaurants in Paris that everyday Parisians frequent. That book informed many of our dinners at home and helped us discover a little bistro in Paris that Kristine and I went to more times than I can remember, and where we had my 60th birthday dinner with our four children and three of my closest friends — Erika, Amy, and Duane — a surprise I discovered as we made our way to the table.

The guide also pointed us to Balzar — a restaurant that is so damn Parisian. Small tables inches apart with starched white table cloths. It’s where I had two infamous escargot incidents. 

The first was in 2000 or so. Kristine and I were there together, elbow to elbow with the other diners. Across from and to the right of me was a gentleman wearing an exquisite white shirt with a bright green tie. I ordered escargots to start with, and the odd thing about that dish is that the tool you are given to hold the snail shell while you pry the meat out is counterintuitive. You squeeze the tool to open its jaws and then release the tool to clamp down on the shell.

As I struggled to get the meat out of the shell, I increased my pressure on the tool, causing the shell to slip right as I pried on the meat with the little fork they give you. A jet of hot butter, parsley and garlic shot out of the shell across our table and over to the next, creating a stream of green that left my plate and went all the way up the sleeve of that gentleman across from me.

My French was still a bit rough then. I was mortified and unsure of what to do. So I did nothing. I kept my gaze fixated on either my food or Kristine across from me. At one point in my peripheral vision I saw that gentleman glance at his sleeve, then follow the stream of green back over to me. I was mortified but did not meet his eye. He decided to not say anything. To this day I am as embarrassed as I am astounded that nothing came of this.

Fast-forward to my 60th birthday week in Paris in 2018 with our family and friends. Kristine and I went back to Balzar with our son Jameson and his friend Mitch, who was visiting from Barcelona, and as we were enjoying our meals at the table next to us was a mother with her adult daughter. The mother ordered escargots. And as she was prying the meat from the shell, a stream of green shot across the table and landed on my blazer. I burst out laughing. As she apologized profusely she puzzled over my reaction. My French had fairly improved, I was able to explain to her that I’d done the same thing to another diner in that very same restaurant almost 20 years earlier. I assured her it was karma coming home to roost. Eventually she seemed to enjoy the irony as much as I did.

Most recently, “Night+Market,” which Kristine got me a year or two ago, has become a staple. Like Volume Two, it has bulletproof recipes and is a delight to simply read to gain perspective on Thai food, ingredients and the role food and drink have in Thai culture. It has been responsible for many of us in the family making Pad Thai a mainstay of our cooking. 

Awesome pad thai, dangerous roasted chili pepper flakes

I love the care this book takes with recipes for the basic ingredients of Thai cooking. There’s an awesome appendix with recipes for stir-fry sauce, everyday curry paste, and roasted crushed thai chili peppers. That latter ingredient has also been responsible for near life-threatening levels of capsaicin fumes as I roasted Thai chili peppers in a hot wok. (Worth it.)

What sent me down this rabbit hole of cookbooks to write this? Well, the BBC naturally. 

In their series on cooking, “The Food Chain” there was a wonderful segment on the role cookbooks play in the lives of people, and they featured two women whose cookbook collections are legendary. In both cases these women describe how their cherished cookbooks are repositories and records of memories: the food splotches, the notes — all of that have meaning. And how simply buying a replacement book cannot replace those memories and records.

So the thoughts of the stories shared above all flooded me as I listened to these two women describe in their own way how their cookbooks had informed and enriched their lives, just like our cookbooks have done for us.

To bring this back to where I started, I may have grown up in a home where cooking lacked a central role, but it turns out, because of our own ethos on cooking, we passed on to our children a love of cooking and the role food plays in life, relationships, and being together. They all know how to make pizza from scratch — first one and then another took over the weekly pizza-making job when I worked remotely — and make it themselves with regularity today. 

In fact, one year when our middle son, Benjamin, was away at college in New York and a storm came through and knocked out power for the campus, he happened to be living in an on-campus apartment that had a gas stove. And weeks before while on a video call with him, he expressed a desire to make pizza there. So while on the phone we ordered the equipment and the ingredients and had it shipped to him. A case of San Marzano tomatoes, 50 pounds of flour: you know, a normal amount. Let’s just say Benjamin was well prepared, and quite popular, when he had the only functioning kitchen on campus and was making pizza after pizza when the power was out that weekend.

We never really sat our kids down and said “here’s how you make ____.” They have all become confident and comfortable in their kitchens mostly from being an observer and being a part of making the meals we shared when they were growing up. It is incredibly gratifying to hear, like I did yesterday, one of our children let me know he would be late to our online gaming and to hear his two siblings respond with “No worries! We need to make curry!”

And in this world of COVID, perhaps it’s the absence of these family meals that I miss the most. Our family loves to be together, and being together for us is often about sharing a meal. And while group Discord video calls bring us together to be seen and to talk, these do not replace the hours of casual conversations among us about what we should have at that meal, and the preparation of that meal together. And the sharing of that meal together.

With me mostly retired and Kristine still working full time I am the one making most of the meals, and the one benefit of this COVID landscape is that we are eating at home better than we ever have. Every week we’re trying something new as well as going back to an old standby. We’re eating more plants and beans, and making more things from scratch. It really helps that we live literally a block away from Seattle’s Pike Place Market, so pretty much any ingredient we need or want to try is at our fingertips.

Cookbooks indeed are a record of memories, and I am glad my COVID memories are being memorialized in the cookbooks and recipe binder we have here. I’m even more looking forward to the memories yet to be recorded — when we can all share meals together again. 

Read “Whistleblower” Right Now

February 25, 2020

By Peter Zaballos

In the space of a few hours I devoured Susan Fowler’s incredible story of strength — “Whistleblower” — and you should too. Right now.

The bravery this woman demonstrated, telling a story of harassment and mistreatment that is sadly prevalent, is as important. The strength it must have taken her to press “publish” on her blog post, not knowing the impact or the consequences, is simply staggering.

Her story shines a light on what women confront every day. And men may either see it happening or are perhaps a party to, and in any case most certainly are not doing enough about ending the behavior.

MEN DON’T SEE OR FEEL WHAT WOMEN EXPERIENCE

That’s right. Women put up with significant – for lack of a better term – abuse – that men simply don’t. And worse, that men don’t even see it or are aware of it. They may not be aware of it for benign reasons – perhaps you can’t see what you haven’t yet experienced yourself. And they may not be aware of it because they are the perpetrator of the abuse. But the difference between the paths men and women traverse each day is real, and significant.

There’s the sexual abuse of being cat-called when walking down the street. Being touched inappropriately and the unwanted and unwelcome hugging. Or being told something offensive – a joke or a reference to their body – and then being admonished for not going alond with “the joke.”

Put another way, men simply don’t worry about the following:

  • Walk down a street at night, by themselves
  • Go for a run or bike ride, by themselves
  • Walk past a group of the opposite sex
  • Meet a member of the opposite sex in a business context without worrying about a sexual advance

I have lost count of the women who have told me this is their DAILY life. This list is as sobering as it is horrifying. And men never worry about having any of these circumstances happen to them. And what they don’t see, they often don’t feel or believe.

WHAT SUSAN DESCRIBES IS REAL

Being a woman is hard enough, but what’s worse is not even being able to do your job – the one place which should be a safe place to be yourself and do your best work. And in the last ten years of my career, the more I took the time to speak with the women on my teams and in the companies I have worked for, I can say that Susan’s treatment is not uncommon.

I have spoken to tens of women who have described major and minor acts of abuse. There’s the daily intellectual abuse of being talked over, having ideas appropriated, or being simply ignored or dismissed because they are women. And then there’s sexual abuse or even assualt. And as Susan so bravely points out, there can be shocklingly little in terms of protecting women, with limited or no options to respond.

Susan Fowler is courageous because she wrote about what she experienced not knowing what the consequences would be for her. And the consequences in the short term were huge — (did she lose her job? Spell out the consequence for those who don’t remember the details of the story). And, we learn in the book, this was not her first experience speaking out and paying dearly for her bravery and honesty. What she endured at Penn pursuing her degree (or rather, degrees) was horrifying.

READ WHISTLEBLOWER, NOW

Please buy and read Whistleblower. It will show you in searing detail what it is like to be a woman in a male-dominated culture. It is extreme. Uber was much worse than many companies, but what she experiences there is a reflection of what women experience in general as they make their way through careers, and life.

Thank you, Susan for being brave enough to share your story. We all now have the obligation to make sure this doesn’t happen again.

Thank you, Malcolm Gladwell

January 23, 2020

By Peter Zaballos

Why we donated to Diablo Valley College instead of MIT

I listen to a lot of podcasts. It’s one of the reasons why living in the heart of Seattle is so awesome — I walk a lot every day, and that gives me plenty of opportunity to get lost in a good story.

For the past five or so years, when I could see retirement on the horizon, my thoughts shifted to the crazy career path I had and of course the schools I had attended. I got my MBA at MIT, and they do an outstanding job of alumni relationship development. It’s amazing how easy they make it to stay in touch with classmates. I love this because I started some incredibly wonderful friendships there, and MIT has helped me maintain and strengthen those relationships.

And the MIT Foundation does an equally skilled job pursuing alumni to make donations and to help the school. Over a period of a few years, a talented member of their development office pursued me about a modest donation. These were real, substantive conversations. Honest and transparent.

My wife and I were beginning to start thinking about not if, but when, and how much.

But about two years ago I was binge-listening to Malcolm Gladwell‘s Revisionist History podcast. And his three-part series on the state of philanthropy in higher education really got my attention. The series nets out to this: Any name-brand private university is awash in money. Especially the top-tier private universities. Like MIT. Any contribution we could make just won’t move the needle for a student there.

But in his episode My Little Hundred Million, he made the point that making a contribution to the lesser-known institutions is where you can make a real and significant impact on the lives of the students that attend them. And it was like a thunderclap in my head.

It was then that I realized the school that literally made my career possible, where I was able to first see and feel my potential, was a junior college in northern California: Diablo Valley College (DVC) in Pleasant Hill.

I went to DVC from high school because I was, as Scott Galloway terms it, unremarkable. My high school grades and test scores were horrible. And at DVC I discovered math and engineering and honed my writing. I transferred to UC Berkeley, which put me into my first high-technology job and the career path it produced.

Diablo Valley College, Main Quad

So I called DVC. In an instant it became clear this is where our contribution would have an impact, where we could work closely with the educators and the staff to create a program that could really help people get a leg up.  These students are people who are uncertain of the future — so uncertain that four-year college is not an option. Ground zero of a career that might not happen due to lack of opportunity and frankly, lack of belief in their own abilities.

When I thought about my career, I could so clearly see that it had nothing to do with what my major was or the schools I went to, because I never worked in a job in my major or got a job as a result of the people I met at UC Berkeley or MIT. The path I took had everything to do with being curious, learning how to learn, and solving problems. Not grades or individual classes or test scores.

More important, my path was formed from building real relationships with the people I worked with. Literally every job I got after leaving Cal was the result of knowing someone who knew someone who was looking for a person with my experience and talent. To me the real lesson of careers is that their foundation is formed on the relationships you make along the way. 

So we crafted the program at DVC around four tenets that I can see with the benefit of hindsight were the principles that formed my career:

  • Problem solving skills and collaboration capabilities are the true foundation of future success
  • Careers are profoundly shaped on the strength of the personal relationships you form along the way
  • Curiosity and learning capacity are more important to your career than your coursework or even your major
  • And, critically, career potential is not reflected in test scores or grades

My wife and I have spent the past year working closely with the team at DVC helping create this program focused on high school students who have the potential to go to college but may have been told they aren’t college material or whose grades or test scores make college seem unlikely. The program shapes students’ problem solving and collaboration skills and provides them the support they need to find a path either to transfer to a four-year college and or to a professional role — or both. 

The program welcomes its first cohort in February 2020.

And we’ve named the program Diamante Scholars. Diamante is the Spanish term for diamonds; the program’s aim is to help find the diamonds-in-the-rough who are out in high schools. The overlooked, the unseen. And we chose the Spanish term, diamante, as a way to also honor the Spanish immigrant heritage of my family.

So, thank you, Malcolm Gladwell. If I hadn’t listened to your podcast, I never would have headed down the path that led to the Diamante Scholar program. And I am so looking forward to seeing where these scholars will take themselves.

What I’ve Learned Over a Career

September 19, 2019

By Peter Zaballos

Reflections Upon Retiring

I have officially “stopped working,” which is a way of avoiding saying I have retired. I’m still active on two technology company boards. Still very much on a number of near-vertical learning curves.

But leaving my professional role has caused me to look back. And looking back, it’s easy to see and feel what was meaningful — and what wasn’t — in 30+ years of building high-growth technology companies. Let’s start with what wasn’t.

What wasn’t meaningful were the financial and business milestones I had a hand in achieving,  because business metrics are outcomes — of strategy, execution, and culture — but they aren’t the end in themselves. They’re the means to an end. I helped three companies change the very shape of computing, and only one of these companies — LSI Logic — had the winning trifecta of brilliant strategy, incredible execution, and a culture of compassion and performance. C-Cube Microsystems and RealNetworks failed miserably on culture.

And along the way I met some incredible, incredible people. People with staggering intellect and, most importantly, people with huge hearts and abundant generosity. But I also met a lot of people with none of those qualities. And who seemed to become quite successful as well. That was puzzling and frustrating.

And the long hours I put into my different roles? Not a lot of meaning there. As a matter of fact, the further into my career I got, and the higher I rose in the executive ranks, the more jaded I became at the devotion to long hours. 

I wish I could have told this to my younger self, especially when my wife and I were in the thick of raising four children born over a span of five years. A few years ago, when I was at SPS Commerce, I heard a sales rep tell a group of people they had cut their honeymoon short by two days, at the insistence of their manager, to attend a meeting. As I sat there I thought — with the benefit of hindsight — that no meeting would be worth cutting your honeymoon short.

[And it told me about the real culture at that company. Not the one written down. More on this topic further down.]

And on a related note, I also grew weary of the need to always being “hard core” about competing, about winning, almost for winning’s sake, of what in the end were ephemeral competitions.

But when I think back to what was meaningful, it really came down to this: being in a position of power and authority to create the conditions where the people that worked for me could do their best work and discover their best selves. To set the tone, to shape the culture. To be able to actively work to achieve equality in the departments I led. And to be a voice on an exec team pushing for equality across the companies I worked at.

Equality created lasting effects for the people on my teams, and is the polar opposite of a business metric. The people on my teams were able to achieve and exceed business metrics/targets because they could be valued for their contributions. 

The first time I noticed inequity in a specific case was when I was at RealNetworks in 1999 — having joined through their acquisition of Vivo Software — and I inherited a department to run. The first homework I gave myself was to look at compensation across my teams, by role and by gender. I discovered one woman was paid substantially less than her male counterparts. 

It took almost a year of fighting process and bureaucracy to “true-up” this woman’s compensation. And it started me doing a similar analysis in every leadership role I had after that. But that was super tactical, from ground level looking skyward.

I think the first time I realized the impact I could have on equality and culture from the top down was when I wrote my first user manual when I was an exec at SPS Commerce. This simple document simply outlined what I expected of myself, my peers, and the people on my teams. 

Feel free to check out my User Manual

It was the act of writing this document where it dawned on me that not only did I have the ability to set a tone of equality in the orgs I led, but that I had an obligation to my teams and to myself to do so. I was literally kind of giddy over the next few months.

The flip side is that it was sobering to realize how much opportunity I took for granted as a man that women had to work for, fight for, or just resign themselves to never having. And I discovered this because once it became clear for my teams that our values and culture were real, the results were shocking:

  • That the  woman on my team (quote is above, sent to me and her manager) thanked me for making her feel comfortable and empowered to take time off to attend her kindergartner’s graduation.
  • I have had a woman tell me I was the first executive to tell her that taking care of her health in her very stressful role is more important than her job.
  • I have had a male boss ask me, every single time a woman on my team was pregnant, “Do you think she’s going to come back after maternity leave?” He never once asked me that question about any of the men on my team whose wives were pregnant.
  • On the day when we finally (after weeks and months of proposing this) had “equality” on the exec staff agenda, I had our male CEO open the discussion with “Well, I assume if we had an all-female leadership team that would be sexist.”
  • I have seen women on my teams treated like servants by men who were their peers — asked to literally get coffee for the men or rebook their hotels with better rooms when they were traveling as a group.

I have also seen people make amazing contributions and incredible achievements in their roles, when provided the conditions to be their best.

  • I witnessed a shy, unsure of-herself customer service rep make the huge leap into product management and then, over a period of 18 months, turn into a bad-ass, decisive, confident product manager responsible for more than half the company’s revenue.
  • I witnessed a woman who had previously sold cell phones at a Verizon store become a master of marketing and digital demand gen and, as a result, was headhunted to be a marketing executive at another high-growth technology company today.
  • I had the good fortune to hire two phenomenally talented product designers, one in his first role designing software. And by giving these people the freedom to follow their creative instincts, create a culture of design excellence that produced truly delighted users of their products.
  • I witnessed a two-member team apply record-breaking amounts of curiosity to become masters at digital marketing through constant reinvention and data-driven refinement. 
  • I hired a brilliant person from a shoe company into his first full role in marketing. He left a year later to go back to the shoe industry and has so far reinvented two blockbuster, multi-billion dollar international footwear brands.
  • My partners at Frazier Technology Ventures – Len Jordan, Scott Darling, Paul Bialek, and Gary Gigot – discovered that when we stripped away our egos we could have direct, blunt conversations about decisions we were making. This set the standard for me valuing the lack of ego as a chief hiring criteria.

What have I regretted? Well, I mentioned above, working long hours in the end just took time away from my family, and I really can’t point to a meaningful source of business satisfaction that makes up for that. Other regrets:

  • That I did not listen to that little voice inside me when I had to fire people — or ask them to leave — because they were not performing or were not able or willing to live up to the expectations for conduct I had for them. That little voice said to go the extra mile, to fight with HR and in some cases the CEO, to get these people a package that would let them leave gracefully.
  • That I did not listen to that little voice inside me and instead followed the advice of others in letting people go with the bare legal minimum in notice, disclosure, and dialogue. I expect those people left my departments feeling they were not treated with the respect they deserved, and earned, through trying as hard as they could.
  • That I did not put my own job at risk more often pushing for more equality as a company, pushing the CEO and leadership team to take a more difficult but right path. This is where hindsight really stings — when I can see I was right but was afraid or buckled under pressure.

What else I’ve learned along the way:

  • Your brand – personally and as a business – is built on how well you say “no.” You say no 10 time more than you say yes. Doing a good job saying no means you are creating 10 times as many positive word-of-mouth evangelists. It also means you keep your focus on empathy and humility.
  • And since you say no much more than you say yes, you’ll spend time with people who you won’t say yes to. Learn to give more than you take when you do this. Help them some other way. Introduce them to someone else who can help. Offer wisdom and experience.
  • Treating people well on the way out the door is as important as it is rare. Being generous to people you fire, who decide to leave to advance their career, or who are just not a good fit matters. A lot. It is shocking how rarely I have been supported by HR leaders and CEOs on this topic.
  • How a company treats the behavior of their salespeople and developers defines the culture, not the “values” that are written down. I have seen sales people lie (to customers, to me, to other employees) but suffer no consequences because they “deliver.” Same for developers. That corrodes the culture and causes the high-value talent to leave.
  • How a company handles equality defines the culture, again regardless of what “values” are written down. It takes real bravery to foster equality in a culture. It is always easier to let fear cause a company to tolerate harassment. We need more bold, brave leaders. We absolutely need more women leaders. And leaders of color. And leaders from other cultures.

So at the end of this phase of my professional life, I would say that what mattered, what was meaningful, what was important was creating conditions for people to be their best selves. And that how you treat people matters, enormously.

What’s next for me? I’m on the board of two tech companies in Boston and am for sure going to continue stay on steep learning curves there. 

And my wife and I are launching the Diamante Scholars program at Diablo Valley College (the community college I attended)  to help under-performing, high-potential students find their path (more on that in an upcoming blog post). 

I’m attending community college myself to learn Spanish. 

And I am learning to drive race cars

But most of all, I am going to keep learning to be better. At everything I do and am. If I learned anything from 30+ years building high-growth tech companies, it’s that you can always be better. You can always learn.

Looking through the turn

June 24, 2019

By Peter Zaballos

I recently started learning to drive a race car, something I’ve always dreamed of doing. 

With the encouragement and support of my wife and all four children, I began taking high-performance driving classes at one of the best driving schools in the country, in Kent, Washington. And I wanted to share what I am learning there, because I’ve discovered that driving a car fast on a race course is a lot like making your way through a career or through life.

When you’re driving a race car, one of the first skills you learn is to “look through the turn.” It’s the habit of having your eyes focused on where you want the car to go, not where it is right now. And it’s super pragmatic. 

When you’re driving a car at high speed, whatever is in front of you is coming at you so fast that if a correction is needed, that correction needed to take place seconds earlier. You literally can’t fix the problem at that point. When your eyes are focused on what’s directly in front of you, it’s called “driving from the hood of the car.” Best case, you’re going to exit that turn slowly, poorly positioned for the next turn. Worst case — you’re going to drive off the track.

So you’re instructed to split your field of view, with the majority of your vision focused far down the road and only your peripheral vision tracking the close-up things. Sometimes that turn ends over your shoulder, so you go into the turn literally looking out the side window while the car is barreling forward through the turn.

And it gets harder still because you really do need to keep track of close-up things coming at you. There is a point where you need to start the turn — called the “turn-in-point” — where you stop going straight down the track and you turn the wheel. You need to do your braking before this point because you can’t brake hard and turn at the same time (and you need to brake hard to get your speed down).

When you turn in, you need to arc the curve of your path to hit the part of the corner that will produce the largest radius turn you can trace — a larger radius means higher speed — so you are also tracking for that critical spot that ensures you are carrying the maximum speed through the turn. You need a telltale mark for this “apex” point.

Finally, as you exit the turn you need to aim for a spot that finishes that largest radius turn you initiated way back at the turn-in-point. This is called the “track-out” point.

And this is not just about that one turn you just negotiated. It’s about considering the entire track and all of its turns and how you think about what will produce the lowest overall time through the course. It could very well hurt your overall lap time to go through a particular turn super fast, because it could send you into the next turn poorly positioned.

At driving school, there’s a traffic cone conveniently placed at the turn-in, apex, and track-out points. But in racing — as in life, of course — there are no cones at these telltale points.

So for every turn on a track, you need to memorize some physical object — a visible patch of dirt, a tree on the horizon, even a porta-potty off to the side of the track — to help you know when to turn in, where the apex is, and where to end your turn. The chief instructor of the school, Don Kitch, has raced in the 24 Hours of LeMans, and said it took him and his two co-drivers a year to prepare for it. They took hundreds of photos so they would know the key telltales of every turn on the track.

Everything I just described about learning to drive a car on a racetrack is also true of navigating your career and living your life. Keep your vision fixed on the long term, but be intentional and precisely aware of the tell-tales along the way.

From a career perspective, every turn on the track is like each job or role you have. The goal is to decide when to take that job, how to maximize your “radius” through it so that you construct the most impactful and rewarding career, and when to “track out” for your next opportunity. 

It’s not about maximizing the results from any one role, but being very intentional about how your progression of roles link and make sense together. It’s why focusing just on compensation or a title for that next job may not, in fact, set you up for the role you really want, two or three career moves later.

So, on the track and in your career, look through the turn.

Unthinking Power and Authority

September 4, 2018

by Peter Zaballos

This past week my wife and I moved our youngest of four children to college – totally fun and a momentous occasion for the three of us, and the family as a whole. And it was an awkward, even painful learning moment for me in how easy it is for men to assume positional authority and ignore better input from women.

Image result for not being listened to

In this case, we were moving our son into a college outside New York, and wisely chose to fly there instead of doing the 14+ hour drive (which we have done one too many times with one of his older brothers and older sister). We landed at JFK and I picked up a rental car and headed to campus. I grew up in California and am definitely a product of that state’s car culture – I don’t mind driving at all, I kind of like it. And having spent 10 years living in Boston, I also have gotten completely comfortable in driving amidst the aggressive chaos that is northeast urban auto jostling.

I now travel with a phone case that plugs into the dashboard, so am good about getting our coordinates in Google and letting that take the load of getting us from starting point to destination. Early on Google had a disclaimer on their directions that said something like “do a reality check before following these instructions” and that is precisely where I ran afoul of getting us from where we started to where we needed to go.

My wife on the other hand is confidently old school. When we travel the first thing she grabs is a printed map. She is as awesome at orienting herself with a map as she is adept at using it to explore and get to the destination. We’ve taken some wonderful vacations where her annotated and highlighted paper map of where we went and what we explored is such a rich record of time well spent.

What made this drop off at college different from the other three is that my wife and son had been to the campus earlier in the year and spent a fair amount of time exploring it and getting to know it. And there was me with Google and at the wheel of the car striving to get us to where we needed to go from Google’s perspective. And that’s where the humbling learning moment for me started to take its slow motion trajectory.

As we got closer to the campus I was following Google and my wife was following her experience and astute sense of memory and direction. As we got to the campus I was trying to find what Google was telling me to look for, and my wife was telling me what she knew from experience and her sense of direction. I effectively ignored her until it was too late. And I can try and explain why “ignore” was not really ignore, but this is where it doesn’t matter what I feel or think, but what she does, because she is on the receiving end.

The analogy I will use here is as spot-on as it is uncomfortable. If a woman feels she has been harassed, it really doesn’t matter what the harasser feels or how they interpret the circumstances. The sole “owner” of that perspective is the one on the receiving end.

But what ended up happening was a fairly tense exchange that shut us both down in the moment. Her lingering frustration later caused her to have to speak up and effectively justify why she should have been listened to and considered. And me trying to justify my behavior around being focused on getting to the “destination.” – which in hindsight is ridiculous.

From her perspective she was put in the position of (a) having better information and (b) having her better information ignored and dismissed. Sound familiar women?

But at the time I had both position (I was the driver) and authority (google maps) – and we were conditioned that when we drove places it was my position and authority that made the final decisions. Nothing malicious here, but over time, it put me in the position of being the decider. And in this case, I sure was deciding. And my wife was sure feeling not listened to or considered.

At the time neither of us realized any of this. We both just shut down and simmered. Until we found the right parking lot, and our attention conveniently shifted to this wonderful day and our son’s new adventure at college. We avoided the fact that if I had been listening to her we would have been where we were supposed to be sooner, with less stress, and more focus on our son’s first day at college – which for she, me, and him was such a wonderful, wonderful moment to savor.

It wasn’t until much later that night, after we had flown back home and were on our way (with me driving) from the airport to our house. It was then my wife brought up the whole experience. And it was through the process of unpacking the issue that we both reached a point where we able to focus on how each of us felt, which is where the real conversation happened.

We talked about how we became conditioned to me being the driver over time and that there were a few ways to address this. One might be her driving more when we are together, especially when she knows the terrain more. Which is a good alternative, but to me feels a bit “brute force.” Switching the position and the authority. To me the real solution is creating the conditions where I listened to hear and she could feel heard. That’s the harder solution.

I take women’s equality seriously. Yet here I was, repeating a pattern of male behavior and causing my wife to repeat a pattern of feeling ignored or dismissed. It was pretty easy to respond so unthinkingly – isn’t that the opposite of thoughtfully?

And it made me consider how hard it is to create the conditions where these kind of conversations can take place. In most workplaces women don’t get that safe place to share their thoughts like this and be vulnerable. They just learn to deal with being dismissed and not heard. We have to be able to do better than this.

Because in those moments, the focus needs to be on how to get to the destination as efficiently as we can – whether a marketing campaign or an algorithm – and savor the moment of why we are all together, working on a common goal.

 

There is no “career path,” just a network of relationships

March 30, 2018

And how you get from one adventure to the next

A few weeks ago I was asked to give a talk at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater College of Business and Economics, on the subject of career paths. And the title of my talk was “There Is No Career Path.”

I wasn’t all that that creative. Steve Jobs made this point in his Stanford Commencement speech in 2011, six years before he died. His point was that a career path is only visible in hindsight. The “path” is produced by following your interests and talents. But I want to take that a step further.

My observation is that your career is a product of the relationships you develop along the way in your job along with following your interests and your talents. Notice I didn’t say college alumni networks. One of the points I made to the UWW students was I attended two of the top five universities in the world (Berkeley and MIT), and my alumni networks have produced zero jobs for me.

Networking

But the relationships I developed at LSI Logic, at C-Cube Microsystems, at RealNetworks, and as a venture capitalist at Frazier Technology Ventures have produced six incredible jobs, and have formed the foundation of my career.

When you unpack “relationships” there’s a lot to examine. For me, relationships are formed by establishing trust and credibility with the people you work with and for. And you do that by doing what you said you would do. By speaking your mind. By being honest. By acting with integrity. By being in a culture that aligns with your values.

Your network of relationships is fundamentally about about your personal brand.

That’s right, your personal brand is made up of the people you work with. How well you communicate to them. How well you support others. And that all involves . How you treat them. Those experiences, those memories persist. They’re your personal brand.

Finding the next adventure

And here I am, at another juncture where I am about to move to my next adventure. I left my role as CMO at SPS Commerce in early January, to return to Seattle. Family reasons draw us there, and I really wanted to get back to my roots – building category-creating technology companies.

And it’s this network of relationships that is guiding me. Which made me think of another set of conversations I’ve been having with folks I know – about how instrumental these relationships are to discovering your next adventure.

I’ve been employing the method that has propelled me to where I am now, and which I know will get me to where I want to be next. It involves four activities:

Hone your story – What this means is having clarity about what it is you want to do and what you’ve done to prepare you for this, and it’s being sober and humble about what you’re really good at. And finally, it’s about being compelling about why this next adventure is right for the role and for you – and for whoever it is you will work for.

“Your story” is what you say after you meet someone, you exchange pleasantries, and there’s a pause. You then tell the story. Why you’re there with them, why there is context, and you paint a picture of your future that they might be able to help you with.

Lots of conversations – This is the foundation of the process. This is where you start speaking to lots of people who might be able to help sharpen your focus, sharpen your story (you’ll be telling that to them), and who might know someone else who you might meet. But fundamentally you are asking someone to spend time with you. To help you.

It’s awesome your contact will meet with you, so be considerate of their time. Thank them. And make sure you see if there’s anything you can do to help them. It will make you feel less bashful about asking for feedback, or to be connected to someone else.

Considerate networking – Expect and insist on “double opt-in introductions” – this means the person connecting you someone needs to check with that person to confirm they’re interested BEFORE making the introduction . Only after that person agrees to be introduced, then expect the introduction. This means there’s mutual interest in the conversation.

This also introduces an obligation to responsiveness on your part. That means as soon as you see that email connecting you to the other party, respond promptly – before the other party has to. Your contact is doing you a favor, so demonstrate grace by making it easy for them for them to find a time and place to meet. And while you’re at it, be considerate of the person who made the introduction. In your reply, move that person to the bcc line of the email. That way they will see that the connection has been made, but they are not burdened with seeing the 7+ email exchanges that went into finding a date and place to meet.

Let go of the outcome – This is the hardest part. The only part of this process you can control is your ability to meet with people, tell your story, and explore where this all takes you. What it won’t do is provide a linear path to an awesome next role for you. But enough of these sincere conversations, where you’ve been considerate and forthcoming, will produce a conversation, at some point, that will point to a person or a role, that is exactly what you’re looking for.

It’s that simple. I can tell you every one of the awesome opportunities I am exploring right now have followed these four steps. And it has had nothing to do with where I went to school.

And like with you career – there is no deterministic path you can see stretching forward. Just a network of relationships guiding you down the road.

 

I’m done with Uber – The moral cost is too high

November 29, 2014

I was one one of Uber’s best fans – I must have recruited a dozen friends and colleagues to the service, because it fundamentally is just so much better than taxis or car services. Wonderfully inspired idea, and at the street level, brilliantly executed. I loved it.

And I use the past tense because I did love it. But not anymore. The trickle of moral lapses by Uber’s CEO, Travis Kalanick, have become a roaring torrent. Uber has an ethics problem, but most importantly it has an ethical leadership problem.

Peter Thiel summed it up succinctly: “Uber is the most ethically challenged company in Silicon Valley.”

Which is why the details of the plan to smear journalists who create unflattering views of the service pushed me to the point of being all done with the service.  So, on November 25 I sent my request to Uber to cancel my account, as “the moral cost to me of doing business with your firm is more than I can afford, and I have happily created my first accounts at Lyft and Curb.”

And in efficient Uber fashion, I received this confirmation of my account cancellation, which is sad. The service and drivers are great. But that’s not enough today. You have to believe in and trust the people at the top. And I can do neither with Uber the way it is being run right now. Travis – until you show some leadership and I won’t be back.Uber Cancellation

Personal Heroes

October 21, 2013

I have personal heroes – folks who have lived their lives in ways that give me inspiration and a vocabulary to name my own ambitions. People who are unafraid to say what they believe, regardless of what it will cost them.

David Walsh is one of my personal heroes

Few people outside of professional cycling know who this man is, but he’s the journalist who first suspected Lance Armstrong of cheating, and spent 13 years doing the difficult work of uncovering the evidence and speaking the truth. And he became the target of all Armstrong could throw at him.

This Sunday Times article says it all:

When Lance Armstrong won his first Tour de France in 1999, David Walsh wrote in The Sunday Times that he watched the race in sadness. Armstrong’s astonishing exploits, just three years after his successful battle with cancer, did not make sense to him. Rather than joining the unquestioning journalists who lauded the American’s achievements, Walsh called for an inquiry into the Tour de France in July 1999,….”

CTWThink about the context. In 1999 – the first year of Armstrong’s comeback – Walsh calls this out. And for the next 13 years  pretty much everyone else tells him he’s wrong. It costs him his job, professional and personal relationships. How lonely it must have been for him.

I’m not going to re-hash the whole Armstrong crime, but if you want to dig in, look here, and here, and here for a start. David’s books are “Seven Deadly Sins” and “From Lance to Landis”.

I am a huge cycling fan, and my family and I spent five  vacations in the French Alps to watch the race in person. In 2006 through a journalist friend, we struck up a dialogue with David to encourage him to write what became “From Lance to Landis” – his first english language book that laid out the evidence Armstrong was cheating.

David flew to France and spent the weekend with us. I was awestruck at the simplicity of his motivation: to expose a lie. It wasn’t personal, it was about values. This was a man of principle outraged at the crime he clearly saw but was incredibly inconvenient and unpopular to expose.

Over dinner long into the night, and then again at breakfast the next morning, the talk centered on the crime that was happening in plain sight. Incredibly we were sitting with him at that dinner when his phone rang – another journalist  calling him with the news that Floyd Landis had tested positive at the just completed Tour de France. Talk about being at ground-zero at a pivotal moment.

Looking back I can’t believe that weekend actually happened. What brought us together? I would like to think a sense of shared values.

This is a man whose humility, values, and sense of purpose we can all learn from. A true hero. I’ve got a few other people who serve this kind of inspiration, I’ll write about them later. For now, thank you, David.

My User Manual

October 12, 2013

A little over a year ago I started a new job, and a big component of my role was to help the company bring a lot of scale to their marketing, and bring a higher tempo and user focus to the company’s product development. This meant taking three groups of already high performing teams, and leading them into territories unfamiliar to them, while also helping them develop skills and capabilities new to many.

This is the kind of job that comes around in your career rarely. Tremendous, tremendous fun, and the best part is it’s only just beginning. We’re growing like crazy, and are about to enter that phase of the market where we have the right offering at the right time, and are about to see some pretty breathtaking expansion.

transparency

And I found myself explaining how I work, how I manage, and many of my core values as a manager, but also as a person. A lot.

So much of creating the opportunity for the rapid experimentation, fast failure, “iterate to excellence” team performance is based on how you work as a team, not what you work on as a team.

I mentioned this to my wife in a text message while on a train headed to work, and she pointed me to an interview with a CEO about his “user manual” – a one page document that lays out how anyone in the company can easily understand how to work with him. I LOVED it. A combination of approaches, philosophy, and personal values.

By the time I got off the train I had a complete draft of my User Manual. Check it out, I’m on v4.3

By the time I’d plugged in at the office I published it to  everyone on my teams via Chatter, as well as my counterparts on the exec team and a bunch of others I work with frequently.

Folks on my team appreciated the transparency, and it’s made it so much easier to engage with other teams and get to a place of trust and performance that much more quickly.

But the best part was for me. Any time you have to be intentional about something, and write it down, you learn something about yourself.