Archive for the ‘fear of not succeeding’ Category

PART THREE: WHERE’S MY DAMN PÂTÉ?

April 13, 2021

By Peter Zaballos

TALES FROM THE EARLY-ISH DAYS OF SILICON VALLEY

As the visibly angry man stormed across the break room holding an empty plastic container, I heard him bellow “where’s my damn pâté? Who the hell ate my pâté?”

It was the summer of 1985. I had arrived at this potential LSI Logic customer, Ardent Computer, minutes earlier and was walking with their head of engineering to a conference room to discuss the custom semiconductors they were interested in building.

What Al Michaels so desperately craved

And that man in search of his pâté? It was none other than Al Michaels: a silicon valley legend who had founded Convergent Technologies, a pioneer of multiprocessor computers. 

And his ego — I realized just then — was as large as his reputation.

The head of engineering and I went to the conference room and he described the basic system architecture of the multiprocessor supercomputer and high performance graphics subsystem they wanted to build. They needed custom semiconductors to build the vector processors needed for the graphics subsystem. And there was a sense of urgency here.

You see, Al and his founders had this idea at almost the same time Bill Poduska decided to build a similar supercomputer in Boston. Bill was also a legend in computing, having founded Prime Computer and Apollo Computer. Al and Bill were effectively racing to market, believing the first one to deliver on their promised performance would get the majority of the huge potential.

But that was pretty much 10am on any random Tuesday back in the mid-to-late 80s in silicon valley. 

The advent of rapidly customizable semiconductors had unleashed a tidal wave of innovation and startups, all rushing to market. With everyone predicting their product would be the big winner and they’d deliver thousands and thousands of products, even millions, to their customers.

As I mentioned in my earlier blog post, all these companies forecasting huge volume were a blessing and a curse for a semiconductor company. There is a finite amount of capacity in a semiconductor fab, and more than one chip company went under by making poor choices about who to allocate that fixed capacity to. Allocate it to a company that failed in the market and your fab would be empty and your company would have no revenue. Allocate it to a company that succeeded and you’d have that fab running 24/7 shipping crates of completed product.

The ’90s would not be kind to Stardent

So while the head of engineering was explaining the nature of the chips they needed built, the sales rep and I had been trained to ask a lot of questions to understand their readiness – where were they on staffing, how complete was the system design, what other dependencies did they have on getting to production, who their investors were.

Our sales reps were bringing multi-million dollar deals to us almost every day. Or rather, “potential” multi-million dollar deals. Part of my job running marketing for Northern California was trying to assess these deals and then sorting out which ones looked the most likely to succeed.

But in reality, it was like I was floating in a fast moving stream and all I was doing was trying not to drown. Too often I would follow the path of a deal rather than affect the path. I was young. I was still finding my voice and experience base. So more often than not I would let momentum dictate the path of a deal

Eventually all deals would flow into a review with all the other marketing managers, the head of sales, the Bill O’Meara (CMO) and at times our Wilf Corrigan (CEO). Frequently my counterpart in sales would make the case for the opportunities in my region – these were their customers, and their literal paychecks on the line.

Ultimately it would fall to Bill and Wilf to make the harder calls. A lot of the less difficult ones my peers and I would work through with Brian Connors and Perry Constantine who headed up sales.

But when I look at my role honestly, I did not do a lot of the advocating, and instead worked furiously to help support the path the deals were already flowing in.

Just as Al Michaels and Bill Poduska were competing to get to market first, I was competing with my colleague, Rick Rasmussen who was responsible for product marketing for the east coast at LSI. Stellar Computer was his potential customer. And we both were likely to need the same allocation of fab capacity. 

One of the many reasons I loved the culture at LSI Logic was that we were fierce competitors – in the market. But inside the company there was none of that fierce competitiveness across departments or within departments. We all knew what we were trying to do, and it was to create a blockbuster category and the company that dominated it. 

So while Rick and I were competing fiercely for this fab capacity, there was zero animosity between us. In fact, Rick and I were good friends, Rick was the guy I worked with at Fairchild who got recruited to LSI Logic, and it was Rick who recommended they bring me over from Fairchild. [Rick and I would work together at C-Cube Microsystems later in the the 1990s]

But make no mistake, we each knew fab capacity would be tight and we wanted our respective customer to be first in line.

Once I had enough information, I put together a proposed set of pricing for the chips Ardent needed. Our proposals had two components

  • The fee to produce the prototypes. This included time in our design center, support from our applications engineers to help with any design issues, the time to run the simulations on our IBM mainframe, the cost of developing the metalization layer mask set for production, and finally, a small wafer set run through production.
  • The per-unit price of the completed chips in volume production. We would ask the prospective customer what their forecasted volume ranges would be – and these typically spanned 2-3 years, and then price the chips accordingly.

We pioneered the category of these custom semiconductors and were acknowledged as the market leader, and we had competitors who were nipping at our heels quite aggressively. I had surmised from my conversations with the folks at Ardent that we were the favored supplier.

But LSI had this weird pricing schizophrenia. We tended to come in with a proposal that presumed that as the pioneer and leader, we could charge a premium. And we would generally submit pricing proposals with a pretty hefty premium. The customer would get the proposal and be shocked at how expensive it was. So they would head straight to our competitors and come back with a set of pricing from them that was 50% of what we had proposed.

And what would we do? We’d drop our prices 50% to take the deal. I was in my mid 20s and I just didn’t know any better to question this. Knowing what I know now, this was a stupid self-inflicted wound and the today “me” would have stopped the process and asked a lot of questions about whether we really thought this was a fair price, did this price represent our brand and values? But 26 year-old me was all wrapped up in the headiness of crafting deals like this and working with everyone to bring them home.. 

I think the origin of our approach to pricing was\ simply hubris. We invented the category. We absolutely knew we were hands-down the best. So I think our corporate ego demanded that we price with a hefty premium. But that same corporate ego was a ruthless competitor and we hated losing business.

It was a stupid move because those customers would react to our suddenly cheaper proposal with a wary eye. “What was that first proposal then? If I had gone with that I would have been paying twice what I am now, and you wouldn’t have told me?”

And that’s what happened at Ardent. My followup meeting with the head of engineering was awkward. He said that Al Michaels was incensed at how we had dropped the price and had no intention of giving us the order. The head of engineering was super frustrated and upset. He and I had gotten to know each other well and spent a lot of time together. He really didn’t want this order to go to our competitor, but our whole pricing process had created a huge mess for him.

And remember, Ardent was competing with Stellar to get to market first. Changing to the competitor chip supplier was going to cost Ardent time. And it was going to make the life of this head of engineering miserable.

He and I both wanted this deal to go to LSI. So I asked if it would help if Bill O’Meara came over and met with Al Michaels. At a minimum this would let Al tell Bill exactly what he thought of our pricing practices. And maybe it would help salvage the deal.

So the meeting got set. I drove over there with Bill and our sales rep along with the rep’s manager. We went into Ardent’s board room and got as settled as we could given the awkwardness of the circumstances. The Ardent team trickled in. About ten minutes after the meeting was supposed to start, Al Michaels came in.

I can’t remember who spoke first, but the head of engineering and I each took turns explaining how hard we all had worked to get this proposal together, how much we respected the other’s time and attention.

Al cut in and said – in the same tone and volume he had expressed astonishment his pâté was missing – “These platitudes are nauseating. We’re here because you’ve wasted our time, which we don’t have a lot of. We worked with you for the past few months on this deal, and you show up with pricing that was so high it was insulting. And then you have the nerve to come back and cut your price in half – only because we got a competitor to give us a reasonable price. How can we possibly trust you? I’ve checked around and we’re not the only company you’ve pulled this on. But the real crime here is our wasted time.”

The room went silent.

Then Bill spoke up. 

A bit about Bill. He was one of the four co-founders of LSI Logic and he was not a silicon valley wunderkind. He got started late in his technology career. Bill was a graduate of West Point. The license plate on his car was USMA59. He had learned to lead, he had learned how to earn the respect of his troops. How to motivate and inspire. He was whip-smart and had an equally sharp sense of humor. If you looked up “inspirational leader” in the dictionary, there would be Bill’s photo.

And as you might expect from someone who had been responsible for other people’s lives, he had a disarming ability to connect with people. When you were speaking with Bill it felt like you were the most important person in the world to him right then. Well, because it was true. He was a phenomenal leader.

And as I shared with my Gucci Luggage experience, he had an unshakable sense of ethics. He took full responsibility for his mistakes, and in this case, the mistakes of someone in his organization – me.

He began with “you are right to be outraged and to question whether you can trust us. It was wrong for us to give you such a high priced first proposal and I take full responsibility for how we got here. We were full of ourselves, overconfident and we clearly have to clean up our act. You have my commitment that whether we win this business back or not, we will do the work we need to in order to not repeat this with you or anyone.”

“But I can tell you one reason we priced the way we did is because we also know that we are the best at building custom semiconductors. We invented this category. We have the most reliable technology and process. And we realize your time is precious. What you can count on with us is that once you commit that design to silicon, it will work. And we can scale your production. You can count on that. I’m sorry we broke your trust, but I can assure you we can get you to market faster than anyone.”

Acknowledging our mistake and owning it created an aperture that enabled another twenty minutes of conversation between Bill and Al. The meeting ended and Al said they would have a decision within the next 24 hours.

I believe this meeting was a turning point for LSI Logic. We did examine our proposal process and amended our pricing – not to meet our competitors – to be more competitive with our first proposal.

What Bill didn’t say? What role I had had in the proposal or the role the sales rep and sales manager had had in the proposal. He took complete responsibility. And I believe he did this for a simple reason. If we won this business the salesperson and I were going to have to show up at Ardent frequently. He preserved our relationships.

The story of Silicon Valley

And while the semiconductor project moved forward, Ardent’s overall product development struggled for reasons not related to our semiconductors. They battled getting the cost of the system down, and as a reset their system design ran into some serious delays.

It turns out so did Stellar’s. In their race to market both companies ran into similar system design challenges. And they were burning cash at a furious rate.

The companies combined forces and changed their name to Stardent (a horribly clunky name, but one that could be logically explained). And they, like so many other promising startups went out of business in the 1990s, a victim of being too expensive for the performance they delivered.

I learned a lot from this experience. I learned about leadership and personal relationships that would eventually show up when I was an executive.

Bill O’Meara’s owning up to when he or the company was wrong, owning when he screwed up made a deep impression on me. In a lot of respects he passed along to me his definition of “ accountability” he learned as an Army commander – something that I would never personally know. And as important he imprinted on me his ability to accept personal responsibility for a mistake someone in his organization might have made. 

More than once as an executive I have had to say “I screwed up” or “I made a mistake” – whether I personally made the mistake or someone in my organization did. As the leader of that organization it doesn’t matter who made the mistake. Ultimately the mistake is mine.

Years and years after hearing “Where’s my damn pâté” the Ardent fiasco informed my behavior when I was CMO of SPS Commerce. One of the super, super talented product managers on my team was about to introduce a fundamental redesign of our core product – a product tied to 80% of our revenue. The stakes were incredibly high. We were a public company and this product launch had to go very smoothly.

The week of the launch, I pulled the product manager aside and told her “This is your product, you’ve put 18 months into leading and orchestrating the redesign and have done a fabulous job. This week as you’re on stage launching this to the company and all our customers, I’m not going be anywhere visible. This is your product and your time in the limelight. But if anything happens, if anything goes wrong for whatever reason, I will be out front and be very visible. So go out there and soak it all in, and do that knowing I have your back the whole time.”

And because she was so damn good at her job, that whole week no one saw me.

PART TWO: DID WE JUST HEAR THAT?

April 7, 2021

By Peter Zaballos

TALES FROM THE EARLY-ISH DAYS OF SILICON VALLEY

Managing the product marketing at LSI Logic for silicon valley and the greater Bay Area in the 1980s was equal parts daunting and thrilling. I wrote earlier about how groundbreaking LSI’s custom semiconductor technology was and how it helped unleash a massive wave of innovation across the landscape of computing.

LSI made it possible for a startup to come up with a product, and build it in just a few months. We helped lower the cost of starting a company, and shortened the feedback loop to that company finding out of their product hit the mark. And at this point in the computing industry, Apple had proven the merits of a personal computer with the Apple II (launched in 1977), and IBM validated Apple’s direction by introducing the IBM PC (launched in 1981).

But the world (and users) needed so much more to make these tools really productive. Bigger disk drives. Better graphics cards. Support for printers. So these Apple and IBM – along a host of other IBM PC clone makers (Texas Instruments, AT&T, Radio Shack, HP, Commodore,..and literally 100+ others) – stormed into the market to get their share, and add their value.

And the rapidly customized semiconductors we invented at LSI Logic fueled and enabled them all. It seemed like every new customer we met with was planning for a big future – either with a truly novel new product or a quick copy of someone else’s – they all had production volume forecasts in that classic “hockey stick” growth curve

I was a year or two out of college, and my days were spent meeting with customers or prospects, spending time with our salespeople, and crafting six and seven figure revenue deals those hockey stick volume curves promised.

It wasn’t exactly a bubble forming, it was more that entirely new categories of computing appeared on the scene, and there was a scramble to fill the voids this innovation created. The two big areas we saw our customers furiously attacking were the markets for graphics cards and disk drives. I was literally in meetings from 8am to 6pm every day with companies bringing products to those markets.

[And I learned that this would be my “normal” for most of my career. In meetings all day accumulating work to follow up on, then spending most of the night and early morning getting all that work done. This really never changed. In my last two roles as CMO of two tech companies it was the same. All that changed was the nature of the work I was doing, but the pattern remained the same throughout.]

And unlike today’s elastic cloud computing world of software where supply is never an issue, in the semiconductor industry, supply is always the issue – just ask anyone in the auto industry, like General Motors, right now. There’s a finite number of chips on a wafer. A finite number of wafers that can be processed each day. And capacity increases are generally measured in “buildings” – so ramping capacity takes lots of time and lots of money.

So while we were furiously meeting with all these companies storming into the graphics card and disk drive markets, we were also having to assess their likelihoods of succeeding, and try to figure out who would get what allocation of our finite supply of wafers. This was a real issue, 98% of these graphics card companies went bankrupt or were sold for scrap eventually. The same for disk drive companies.

Consolidation in the disk drive industry at a high level

Allocating capacity to a company who failed in the market meant we would not ship those wafers/chips and collect OUR revenue – and as a public company, our revenue forecasts mattered a lot. So every new piece of business of any significance was something we all scrutinized, frequently meeting with the CMO (Bill O’Meara) or the CEO (Wilf Corrigan) before closing a deal.

The flip side of that was every company we met with was convinced (as they should be) that THEIR revenue plan was rock solid. And since it was a competitive market (generally we competed against smaller firms like VLSI Technology, or the custom chip divisions of larger semiconductor companies, like National Semiconductor) we had to fight hard to get orders.

This all created a wild environment, and whenever there’s loads of demand coupled with a constraint on supply, weird behavior starts to show up.

DID WE JUST HEAR THAT?

I remember going to meet with a customer in Berkeley who made popular graphics cards. I went with our sales rep who happened to have recently come to the US from Ireland and I think part of his enjoyment was experiencing this industry in the context of American culture. He was super smart and had an awesome sense of humor. He picked me up and off we went up the freeway to the customer.

The salesperson, Fra Drumm, had been meeting with this customer for weeks, and had been told they were ready to place a $1M+ order for a new graphics chip they wanted us to make for them. And they were also speaking to our main rival, VLSI Technology. It was going to be super competitive. This was an important piece of business we wanted, and we’d had a meeting with Bill O’Meara reviewing the terms we were going to propose and what room we had to negotiate. 

Bill wanted me to call him as soon as we left the meeting to let him know how the negotiation went.

Vintage Gucci Luggage Set

We got to the company and were seated in the Purchasing Manager’s office, made introductions, and quickly reviewed the outlines of the potential order. When we pressed for an indication of how competitive we were the Purchasing Manager waited a bit, and then said that they liked Gucci luggage. And I thought, “not my style, but lots of people like it” and I said something like “that’s interesting, a lot of people love that.”

Silence

The Purchasing Manager again said that they liked Gucci luggage.

I glanced over at Fra real quickly and he gave me a look that said “WTF? Did we just hear that?”

It dawned on us both, at that very moment, that we were being asked to buy this person some Gucci luggage to get the order. 

And we both had the same reaction. We quickly apologized for having to leave, but we had another meeting to get to and would be in touch.

And we left.

I was pretty bewildered. There was no way I was going to bribe this person, but I also wondered if I had blown up a big piece of business over the cost of some luggage, and immediately got worried about the reaction Bill and the other sales leaders would have to this.

This was right about the time that “car phones” were a thing, and when we got into Fra’s car I dialed Bill and told him about the Gucci luggage “hint.”

He asked what I did, and I told him we got out of there as fast as we could.

He had a quick and curt reply: “Good” followed by “that’s not how we work.”

At the time I was relieved. It is only with hindsight that I can see that something I had taken for granted was the integrity of Bill and the other leaders at LSI Logic. I’d only known Bill for months, and never really had an issue like this crop up. It was reassuring at the time, to say the least. BTW, that graphics card company was out of business within the next year. We dodged an allocation bullet there.

But as I progressed in my career I came to realize just how unique the culture at LSI Logic was. How important it was that we built that business with integrity.

At some point in the next year one of the sales reps at a distribution partner got ahold of the price list for VLSI Techology’s products and brought it to our office. For a nanosecond we were thrilled. When Wilf Corrigan found out about he was livid (and he was unambiguous with his anger) and instructed us to get it out of the building. Now. Which we did. Unambiguously.

Going back to Bill O’Meara’s reaction, he provided me with an internal reference for how to behave under pressure, how to keep clarity on what really mattered. At various points in later in my career I worked in organizations where I witnessed salespeople lying to get orders. In some cases lying to me in my role as an executive to get an order. And in those organizations the CEOs did not have Wilf and Bill’s integrity, and reacted with “but we got the order.”

No surprise that I left those companies and wondered how I chose to work there in the first place because it is critically important that you work with people who have uncompromising integrity. Because every business runs into problems. And it’s when you’re facing those problems you want the people above and around you making decisions you can stand behind.

That was the best Gucci luggage I never bought.

PART ONE: EVERYONE GETS A JOB LIKE THIS OUT OF COLLEGE, RIGHT?

March 31, 2021

Tales from the early-ish days of Silicon Valley

By Peter Zaballos

For the first 2+ years of my tenure at LSI Logic I was the product marketing manager for Northern California and the Pacific Northwest. I didn’t ask for this geography, it was the job they offered me. I took it without fully appreciating what I was about to get into, and accepted it largely on the basis of the quality of the people I knew there, and met during my interviews. 

All of them were super, super smart. Ambitious. Uncompromising. Kind and fair.

I had spent the past year (to the day) as a Product Marketing Engineer at Fairchild Semiconductor, responsible for their high performance ECL (emitter coupled logic) product line. And a colleague there got recruited to LSI. Within a month or so, I was also recruited to join the company. In 1983. I believe I was employee #87.

The co-founder and CEO of LSI Logic had been the CEO of Fairchild, hence there were lots of Fairchild folks jumping ship to join him.

[BTW, Fairchild Semiconductor was formed when the traitorous eight fled Schockley Semiconductor. Among those eight: Bob Noyce and Gordon Moore (founders of Intel) and Eugene Kleiner, co-founder of the legendary VC firm, Keliner Perkins). Fairchild is truly the foundation of what became Silicon Valley]

All I knew about LSI Logic was the reputation it had for creating a new category of semiconductors. Semiconductors that could be easily and rapidly customized. Back in the early 1980s it could take two years to create a custom semiconductor, because the entire chip had to be designed from top to bottom. And computer simulation tools were still in their infancy, so a fully custom chip pretty much had to be designed by hand.

Semiconductors are sort of like a pizza. There’s a silicon substrate, and on top of that different chemicals are added to different portions of the chip to affect the conductivity (or resistivity) of the silicon. And then layers of insulators are added, that are put down in such a way to keep openings for layers of metal to be added, connecting the spots needed for electricity to run.

So a fully custom semiconductor required that everything – all the way down to the substrate – had to be designed and built. And since ultimately the cost of a chip is proportional to the amount of silicon it takes up, a lot of work went into laying the chip out in such a way as to pack everything together as tightly as possible. Custom chips were incredibly expensive and time consuming to build. So they were really only used for highly specialized and valuable products – that could put up with a two year development timeline.

The founders of LSI Logic – Wilf Corrigan, Rob Walker, Bill O’Meara and Mick Bohn – saw a huge opportunity to disrupt this market. Making it possible to create a customized semiconductor in less than twelve weeks. Yes, twelve weeks.

The first innovation was in separating the semiconductor fabrication process into two parts – creating a standardized substrate and then a customized metalization layer on top of that. Rather than starting with raw silicon, LSI started with a large array of transistor “gates” – initially 1,000s of these, later millions. These base wafers could be mass produced by contracted semiconductor fabs and sent to LSI’s facility in Milpitas. And in the Milpitas facility we could connect those gates in the metalization process to create the specific functionality the customer designed.

Let’s pause for a bit to talk about how semiconductors chips are made. With a base layer of transistors laid down, those transistors can be connected to each other by laying down metal – in very thin lines – across the chip. Which means that you need a pattern of where the metal should go, as well as a pattern where you need to insulate transistors used for other parts of the design from the ones you want to connect.

The result is a series of masking steps that are performed. You might produce a masking pattern of insulation, followed by a different masking pattern of metal connections, and then add another insulation masking pattern on top of that protecting and exposing different connections, and add another layer of connections. The set of “masks” would be the recipe to create the functions of the chip you were fabricating.

So by separately creating the base layer of transistor gate arrays there was no need to as tightly pack the transistors together. You gave up some real estate for overall speed and flexibility of production. And the real value came in the process of connecting all those transistors together to perform the specific function the customer needed.

The second innovation was creating powerful semiconductor design and simulation software (running on IBM 370 mainframes) that would enable a customer to take a logical design of the custom product they wanted to build and simulate its performance. Up until this point companies had to build a physical prototype of a product using a collection of building block, general purpose chips to see if the product would work. And then begin the process of converting that into a custom chip. One of the factors driving the 2+ year custom chip timelines.

An IBM 370 Installation – about the size of our computer center at LSI

LSI’s third innovation was that the computer simulation could produce the connection pattern for those base wafers – to produce the design the customer wanted – and create all the “mask” information needed for a mask vendor to create all the fabrication templates needed to build that custom chip. 

Once the mask set was sent back to LSI, then our fab in Milpitas (which only needed to manufacture the connection pattern) could produce a set of prototypes in about 10-12 weeks.

If the customer had a well thought through design when they showed up at our simulation center, they could have that design simulated and validated in a few weeks. All told, from showing up at our facility to having prototype chips in hand could be as little as 3-4 months.

This was earth shattering for a number of reasons. First was simply shrinking that time to prototypes. From years to months. Second was the economics. Because we were typically taking designs that would have required tens or hundreds of discrete semiconductors and turning all of that into one chip, our products would pay for themselves in cost savings to the customer. And the resulting product could be dramatically smaller, physically. So entire new categories of products became possible. The IBM PC, the Macintosh, disk drives, network routers, Sun Microsystem workstations and servers. Eventually cell phones and digital audio and video.

But even more important than economics, what we did at LSI Logic was disrupt how rapidly a company could bring a product to market. And speed up the tempo of innovation in a market. Forget about cost savings. The value of dramatically speeding the pace of innovation is what transformed the market.

Going back to taking that offer to join LSI. My territory was Northern California and the Pacific Northwest. My customers – who were startups back then – were Sun Microsystems, Seagate, Silicon Graphics, Apple, Cisco. We put those companies in the positions they soon commanded, to transform their industries through the rapid pace of their own innovation.

And when these customers came to us with their new product designs, delivering the resulting prototypes became a treasured ritual. I remember walking into Silicon Graphics with the prototypes that would power their first workstation. And later seeing them boot up the system and load Flight Simulator – and the tens of people crowded around the engineer flying an airplane on a computer screen.

So, what LSI Logic made possible was taking the functions that would fill a computer the size of a refrigerator and shrinking that onto a single chip. And making it possible for that single chip to go from design to prototypes in ~12 weeks.

We fundamentally changed the economics of computing and the pace of innovation. 

You can listen to Wilf Corrigan tell the origin story of LSI Logic in this recording of his keynote from our 1986 Sales Conference, which was held in Sunnyvale. I was in the room for this, and it is just as thrilling today as it was back then. And Wilf does an excellent job highlighting the many talented folks who made our business and technology so successful.

And I thought that everybody got a job like this out of college. I mean I didn’t exactly look for this job. Someone I worked with at Fairchild called me and asked me to join him there. I came over for an afternoon of interviews and was offered the job. Responsible for perhaps the greatest single concentration of computing innovation in the world. 

It is only with hindsight that I can appreciate how fortunate I was. It’s also where I now see the pattern that fueled and informed my career in high growth technology companies: working with highly talented, highly ethical people. And those people tend to congregate with other good people.

Steve Jobs did a wonderful job explaining the impossibility of predicting career paths in his Stanford Commencement speech – that you can only connect the dots of your career path in hindsight. Joining LSI Logic fundamentally shaped the path of my career in a few ways.

First, it taught me how important it is that you work in a company where the definition of “good” is far, far greater than what other people experience. “Good” at LSI Logic was making it possible for Cisco to deliver its first router. For Seagate to ship its first hard drives. For Sun Microsystems to ship its first SPARC workstation.

“Good” meant that you delivered a product that was 10x what the customer was expecting or even imagined. LSI Logic was at the forefront of that “10x, not 10%” mentality that causes a business to create an entirely new category.

And to do that, the company needed embrace another Jobs-ian tenet: “A players hire A players, B players hire C players.” Bill O’Meara ended up taking over as CEO of C-Cube Microsystems and enabling digital film and digital TV (and brought a lot of us LSI folks along with him). My colleagues JenSen Huang founded Nvidia, Bill Tai became a world class venture capitalist, David Baillie became CEO of not one, but two technology companies, and John Daane became CEO of Altera.

We all left our tenure at LSI Logic clearly understanding what it took to build a business that invented an entirely new class of computing technologies, what it meant to disrupt a market, and how to fundamentally change what your customers thought was possible.

I left LSI Logic after nearly seven years there to go to business school, but shortly after graduating and right after getting married, I got a call from Bill O’Meara, telling me about a company he had just become the CEO of – C-Cube Microsystems – and asked me to join him there. And the next adventure unfolded.

Work for many companies

March 12, 2020

By Peter Zaballos

One perspective I’ve gained of having worked in lots of different places (the Bay Area, Boston, Seattle, the Midwest) is that you can see the variety of experiences you can take advantage of, and the impact that can have on your skillset and career path.

[And remember, a career path is drawn in hindsight]

Today, I would say that the Bay Area, Seattle and Boston (NYC as well) share a lot in common. Tremendous innovation, extensive ranks of startups — largely founded by experienced, successful entrepreneurs — and available capital. And those high-growth companies tend to share or are adjacent to categories with lots of competitors.

What does this mean to your career path, and most importantly, your personal experience base?

Well, you will have the opportunity to work for a lot of different companies in and around your field, exposing you to new challenges, company cultures, managers, partners and customers. This is going to help you get out of your comfort zone, learn unexpected things, and become more resilient in the face of change and uncertainty.


That last part is super important. Uncertainty and ambiguity are prevalent in high-growth technology companies. As much as we all crave stability and consistency, those conditions will be few and far between when you chart your course in the tech sector. In fact, your ability to learn and grow is diminished in stable, predictable environments.

I just finished reading “Range” by David Epstein, and much of his book is devoted to research-based evidence that the more varied our experiences, the better we become at our jobs. It’s not just about resiliency, but about decision making. In a rather counter-intuitive manner, Epstein shows how knowing a little about a lot of different areas of expertise enables you to make better decisions about any one area.

Seattle has an ecosystem chock full of companies breaking new ground, creating new categories, and changing the directions of computing. No surprise that the Bay Area does too. So when you have reached the limits of what you can learn from one role, you can move to another company (with effort) and expand your experience and fluency with a different set of business problems and technology solutions.

You can also learn what it is like to build a business across different company cultures, CEOs and executive teams, direct managers and co-workers. This matters a lot and is super valuable. The enlightened CEO is a very rare occurrence. Friction-free relationships between Product and Dev teams happen less frequently than you’d imagine. It’s the same with friction between sales and marketing teams. 

So you learn how to manage around or change with these fractured department relationships, or you move on to a more productive next role. Tenure in these three highly competitive geographies can be measured in months. Sometimes years. Rarely a decade.

I would argue the ecosystem dynamic is completely different in the Midwest — this region has a much thinner entrepreneurial ecosystem. There are high-growth tech companies there, but generally only one in a category and little-to-no competitively adjacent companies. This means that to expand your experience base in that geography, you need to change industries or change categories that are far apart within an industry. 

This is really hard to do. 

A recruiter I worked with years ago summed it up this way: “You can change categories or industries keeping the same role, or change roles within the same category, but you can’t do both at once. It’s too risky for the employer.”

What this means in these competitively thin geographies is that employees tend to stay at the companies they were hired into. For a long time. And because there tend to be few adjacent competitors in these regional hubs, if the job you got hired into doesn’t work out, you’re facing a transfer within the company to a different role — further insulating you from broader experience. 

Or you can relocate to another geography to stay within or adjacent to the category you’re already in. Or you can remain where you live, change career paths and start close to the beginning. Both of those options are hard. So you tend to stay put.

Most people are going to stay put. They will tolerate a poor culture, or poor manager. They will tolerate poor relationships across departments. But staying put is the safest of the options. This means the culture of the company you work is the only one you are likely to know. The experiences you bring to your role and threaded through this one company. Tenure matters more than broad experience or innovative thinking. Tenure gets measured in 5/10/15 year increments.

What does this all mean? It all depends on what you want for a career. If you really want to stay at the forefront of your field, it’s clear that getting broad exposure to a variety of roles and company cultures is critical. You’ll be exposed to more unknowns, personalities, and methods, which will help you shape your skillset and experience foundation.

And if you want that broad experience base but are living in a competitively thin geography, this also means you will need to be super international about embracing those new roles, and the sacrifices you may need to make in the short and medium term, to gain that broad experience foundation that could fuel your medium- and long-term ambitions.

It’s that intentionality that is the important part. What do you aspire to do and become? It may be more important to you to push at the forefront of your discipline and be the agent of change in your role and industry. It may be more important that you live in an area you love, and that giving up on career innovation is less important.

But know the landscape. And know yourself.

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.

Unseen Entrepreneurs

September 12, 2019

Why are some innovators so easily overlooked?

By Peter Zaballos

I want to tell you about a serial entrepreneur I know in the small town I used to live in.

When my wife and I moved the family to Wisconsin in 2001, the state was “trending” — its economy was fairly strong and it was attracting entrepreneurs who were finding like-minded folks interested in bringing new ideas to life away from the intensity of the coasts. (This changed during the recession, and Wisconsin, at least, hasn’t really recovered.)

Image result for wisconsin

The region in general is one where there is not a lot of risk taking. For good reason — if you’re a farmer you control so little of what might make your season successful, you can’t count on abundance every year. Taking risks is hard, and being bold even harder. When I was a venture capitalist looking at investments in the Midwest and as an executive at a technology firm in the Midwest I ran into the same thing — a very complicated relationship with being bold.

That entrepreneur I know there, while born and bred in Wisconsin, seems to have the same high tolerance of risk that I do. And, like me, when they see a problem or opportunity they have a viable solution for, they can’t not do it — they simply just can’t let it go.

Let me give you an example. In our college town of about 14,000 residents — only about 8,000 are full-time residents (the rest are students living in rentals who generally leave over the summer) — a small farmer’s market in a parking lot of a hardware store on the edge of town brings a dozen or so produce, honey, and other vendors together with the people who want those things on Saturday mornings. People drive in, pick up what they need, chat with a vendor or two, maybe stop into the hardware store, and leave.

It totally works in terms of a marketplace, but it misses a bigger opportunity — creating a space that could bring the community together and foster business, cultural and social growth.

The entrepreneur I know was a founding board member of a downtown revitalization organization that was frequently asked by community members to bring the market downtown, where there are parks and greenspaces designed for public events and businesses that could use the added foot traffic. Multiple times the group reached out to the Saturday market — once going as far as scouting locations with them — but the Saturday market always ultimately declined to move downtown.

Everyone saw this as a problem with just one solution: get the Saturday market to move downtown. When the City Council asked the downtown group to try, once more, to establish a downtown market, the entrepreneur went outside of the box and proposed adding a second weekly market instead.

They were met with “Why do that, when we already have a farmer’s market?” and “Are you going to be able to get enough vendors or enough visitors and customers?” and “Isn’t it too late to start a market this year?” The entrepreneur didn’t know the answer to any of these questions, but they were willing to try anyway. So they proposed 1) a team of key stakeholders, including vendors from the Saturday market, to plan the market, and 2) that the new market be a pop-up, a proof of concept, to make people feel less anxious about the risk.

This is where their world and my technology startup world have a high degree of alignment. Starting a tech company is one long slog through “won’t big company X just kill you?” or “that’s not going to get to scale” — in both of our cases you create something by focusing on the very small number of reasons why it will succeed while ignoring the substantially larger number of reasons why it will fail.

The entrepreneur led a team through the process of researching the market, engaging key constituents such as city officials and understanding their concerns so they could be addressed, deciding what kind of market they wanted to be (Grower only? Arts and crafts? Dog-friendly? Live music? Food carts? More about the quantity of options or the quality of options?) and then, finally, deciding when and where it would happen. Subgroups focused on critical operations needed to make the market happen: working with the city streets division and the police to ensure public safety and needed infrastructure like trash pick up and caution cones; attracting vendors mid-season (to reduce perceived hurdles for risk-intolerant vendors, the entrepreneur had the key insight of waiving vendor fees for the first year); and getting the word out to the community, among others.

With clarity of vision and a well-thought-through plan, the team launched Whitewater City Market on July 21, 2015. The planned layout was for eight vendors: 17 showed up. By week five, 45 vendors were coming, and the community was showing up in droves.

The entrepreneur and their team worked furiously to keep up: collecting stats, taking surveys, meeting every week to assess what went well, what didn’t, and adjusting accordingly. And with clear consistent communication and a continuous process improvement approach — the market came to feature local craft beer and kombucha and moved from its initial location to one that provides more shade, among other improvements — the number of weekly vendors grew to 60 (after swelling to 90, a number unsustainable for the size of the town), and the visitor count routinely exceeded 1,000. 

This is significant in a city of 8,000 full-time residents. Imagine creating — out of thin air — a forum that brings more than 10% of a community together. Every week. 52 weeks a year. Because, by popular demand, the market runs year-round, moving inside a local library on Saturday mornings November through April where about 20 vendors offer eggs and kombucha and bread and winter vegetables and aquaponically grown greens and the like. The market is sustainable, generates income for vendors and its parent organization, and supports two part-time paid internships.

And there are numerous unseen benefits to the market. In recent years the community lost its local grocery store, so the need for locally produced food is even more critical. The market offers “incubator” spots free of charge to new vendors for up to three markets so they can test whether there’s a market for what they have. Because there are two markets in town — the other one continues to happily plug along — having two places to sell his produce helped at least one farmer stay in business and on their farm.

And the large number of customers make for fast innovation: the market’s honey vendor went from testing home-brewed kombucha with customers to bringing it to the market, launching Komboocho Brewing, selling it at multiple markets and finally commercially canning and bottling it and making it available in retail locations in less than two years.

The Whitewater City Market is also the only place I know where you can get your axe sharpened while enjoying a wood-fired pizza.

Truly a success story, and one of many I can tell you about this person. Before I introduce the entrepreneur, tell me — who did you imagine them to be? 

If you pictured a man, you wouldn’t be alone. The image most people tend to have when you say “entrepreneur” is generally about mostly men building high technology companies. Lots of growth. Computer science nerds. Engineering chops. 

What if I told you that entrepreneur was my wife, Kristine?

I wrote earlier about the painful lessons Kristine and I learned when we decided she would leave her career to care for our children and I would focus on my career. It did my career well — I’ve spent it entirely in high growth technology startups and as a venture capitalist. Hers, not so much. So, over the years she’s thrown her excess capacity into side projects that combine her strategic ability to see viable solutions to an unmet need and and her dogged focus on process and communication to actually get the job done.

The more I witnessed the success and trajectory of the Whitewater City Market, the more it became apparent that I was, in fact, married to an incredible entrepreneur. Starting a city market was exactly about seeing a need no one else has seen — or, if they had the idea, was unwilling or unable to see through to fruition. Because, in life as as in tech startups — ideas are cheap; it’s execution that matters. 

And the skill and insight to do this is the same whether you run a tech startup or a nonprofit. The need to deeply believe in the value of your solution in the face of — best case, aggressive indifference, but more often disbelief or opposition — is exactly the same. And the need for funding, to be constantly fundraising and making due with what your financing will support — also exactly the same. 

Don’t believe me? Let’s see what key challenges both for-profit and nonprofit leaders face:

  • Identifying a truly unmet need. That’s easy to say. Maybe it’s better framed as “seeing the potential for a solution when no one else does.” It’s the same whether you are building a software-defined anything or bringing a community together.
  • Assembling a leadership team. Whether you’re a venture-backed startup or a community market manager, finding competent leaders who can scale what you’re doing is hard. And essential. 
  • Leading. Leading with a capital “L” is essential to any business breaking new ground. This is so much more than leading employees and volunteers. It’s about orchestrating buy-in from all the people and entities that have an influence on your idea. Investors, partners, government entities, neighbors, and even competitors — they all need to see the potential and follow.
  • Communicating a vision. This is inextricably linked to leading. But in a nonprofit you are leading people whose compensation is not financial. Communicating a vision to inspire volunteers is sure a lot harder than doing it for folks you are paying to listen to you.
  • Orchestrating change. I mentioned before, in both for-profit and nonprofit startups the biggest execution challenge a CEO will face is orchestrating the massive change this new opportunity is going to require. It requires focusing the one reason you will succeed and ignoring the tens or hundreds of reasons why you might fail. 
  • Persisting despite setbacks. Another key quality of leading is pushing yourself and your team over the hurdles and regrouping and persisting when you hit a wall — and you will. Managing setbacks and outright failure is one of the most difficult and most vital aspects of leadership. 

It’s pretty much the same challenges — the difference is in how we reward success (or not). But despite the similarities, I have seen the bias against non-profit street cred first-hand when my wife and I go someplace and meet people, frequently other folks from the tech industry. When they ask what I do and I explain, there’s this instant acceptance and validation. And all I usually say is something like “I ran marketing at a cloud computing company.” And truly, all my companies have ever done is solve a fairly technical problem that, unless you’re in DevOps or are a CTO, you won’t understand or appreciate. But I get instant credibility and interest.

When Kristine explains what she does, the conversation path is short and awkward, and she is generally received with what amounts to “well isn’t that nice, you’re helping people.” I have seen the eyes glaze over, and I have rarely heard anyone ask a follow-up question. It really annoys me, because that rigid mindset is the kind of mindset that prevents seeing an incredibly successful serial entrepreneur at the top of her game.

I say “serial” entrepreneur, because the market is just one of the side gigs she manages on top of her day job in marketing and communications at the university in town. She’s not unlike Marc Beniof, who saw the potential for software-as-a-service and faced a full decade of “smarter” people telling him his idea would never work. (That idea was SalesForce.com.) Originally I’d compared her to Elon Musk, who started and runs multiple companies, but but both my wife and my daughter pointed out that he is rather creepy in terms of his relationships with women. 

What’s the tie-in with Beniof and Musk? In the same way people wonder how Elon Musk can run three companies at once, the people in our community (and I) wonder how Kristine can run all three of the businesses she is the founder and CEO of (more on the other two in another blog post) in addition to her day job at UW-Whitewater. She does it because she can’t not do it and she puts in the hours to make it happen. Just like all the entrepreneurs I know.

So why am I writing this? It’s hard not to acknowledge that this is most certainly a love letter to my wife. But it’s also a letter of admiration to an inspirational entrepreneur from a guy who spent 30+ years building technology startups and lamenting that people starting and running “nonprofit” businesses are not seen as peers to people running for-profit businesses. And when I say “people” — I really mean women as well as people from diverse backgrounds.

Kristine isn’t just “behaving entrepreneurially” but is in fact a kick-ass serial entrepreneur. Maybe you have one in your community. You should tell them that.

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.

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.

 

Why video games are awesome preparation for life, and careers. By Peter Zaballos

March 23, 2018

And why adults get video games wrong

Recently, my world has been totally rocked with the multi-player game “7 Days to Die” which is a zombie apocalypse game that my children and I play together, even when scattered across the country. Sunday at 7 is our time, and we generally play with me in one city, each of our kids in other cities, and some of their friends in other cities as well.

7DTD is a game where every seven nights (in game) a zombie horde attacks, and the rhythm of the game is to spend your time between hordes preparing. It’s all about cooperating, and dividing up the work – where the work can be scavenging supplies, making building materials and tools, crafting weapons and ammunition. And developing a plan to defend ourselves. We all log on, and setup a group phone call, and there’s a constant stream of updates, suggestions, and help.

Here’s the base we’ve created. My main skill is converting rocks and sand into concrete. You can see how we put that to use. BTW, this base was shredded later that night (horde night). We survived, but the base took tremendous damage. Which caused us to assess what had gone right, wrong, and what our next defense setup would need to look like. We figure out what’s working, what’s not, and adapt. This is what I do at work every day. Except for the zombie horde. At work it’s competitors.

7DTD base

It’s an easy way to spend five hours without even realizing it. And it is a rock solid environment to hone the kinds of skills any of us needs to get through life, and succeed in our careers.

But every week it’s the same focus. We develop a plan to build defenses, a plan for how we’ll cooperate and support each other because we all have different skills and resources. And like all plans, they become obsolete the moment the zombie horde arrives. Here we are at night, my avatar’s name is RaceCondition (inside computing joke there) and the view is from one of my son’s avatar. We’re all so relaxed because since hordes swarm every seven days, and it’s day 58, we can more easily gather like this at night (in this shot we’re at an abandoned city looting).

7DTD crew

But before going on, let me tell you about how my children (and their friends) and I got here.

It may be that our family is unique, but I really doubt it. Our kids grew up playing video games. Freddi Fish was a big hit when they were little. They played them on the desktop computer we had way back then.

But even then the play had a strong social component to it, since we had four kids in five years, there was lots of group play involved. Two or three of our kids would be crowded around the monitor watching the other play, and there’d be banter throughout the game.

When the subject of getting a video game console came up, my wife and I proceeded cautiously. We’d “heard” so many scary stories about them. About how people’s kids would disappear for hours/days/weeks into a basement TV room and waste away there, living this solitary existence staring into a screen.

What we got wrong about video games is how incredibly social they are. And how much the games foster problem solving and collaboration.

We started slowly, with a Nintendo Wii. And it was fun. Mostly family fun. And soon the topic of an Xbox surfaced. Their friends had them, and over time we reluctantly agreed. There we some conditions, the biggest was that the kids would need to pay for it themselves, along with the games they wanted. So they saved, and did.

What ended up happening totally surprised us. This was full-on social pandemonium. There’d be upwards of a dozen kids at time in our basement – some playing – but most watching the others play. And the conversations, laughter, and screams of delight that grew and grew as the games progressed could be heard throughout the house.

We also witnessed our kids spending so many hours playing with all their friends and spending those hours talking…about the game, about life, about anything and everything. And there’s a growing amount of research showing video game play does create better career skills.

Which is why I was so touched when our youngest child, four years ago, suggested I learn to play Halo. He was patient, it took me literally almost a year before I didn’t feel completely incompetent. But we played through Halo 2, then Halo Reach (as far as our children are concerned, the franchise effectively stopped there). Eventually I would even get invited down when all the other friends were there and play with them, and hold my own.

I went on from that to play through Portal, Portal 2, and Bioshock Infinite. All three of these are phenomenal problem solving games with awesome story lines. Portal 2 is worth playing just to experience Stephen Merchant as the voice and personality of Wheatley – likely the single best voice performance in a video game, ever..

The more I observed how our kids played these games with their friends the more it looked like the environment I like to foster on my teams at work: goal-focused, team-oriented, sharing data to make better decisions. The more it looked like the environment I strive to live up to in my User Manual.

So of the many good decisions my wife and I made as parents, one was being open minded about video games, and trusting our children to make good decisions about how to embrace video games. We learned a lot as a family there, that has helped prepare our children for career success.

Why conversion rate optimization is the most important role in marketing. By Peter Zaballos

February 26, 2018

And it’s as important as your product

Why? because conversion rate optimization is the function that reveals the truth of your brand, your product, your business. Holistically.

It’s where you have to think deeply about the problem your customer or prospect has, and the information path they will follow to find a solution. But it doesn’t stop there.

Many marketing orgs look at “conversion” as the final step. But it’s really the beginning of the customer journey. It’s when all that carefully crafted terminology has to be aligned to what the customer experiences with the product you just sold them. The customer journey is about delivering value. And having a happy customer come back. And bring their friends and colleagues.

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I was having a conversation with a senior exec at a successful cloud application provider last month, and they mentioned that they were having a hard time converting free trial users to paid subscribers. They were asking my opinion about what communications strategies I’d used in the past to boost these.

My first thought was, “you may be too late to do a whole lot about it.” If the content path that caused someone to find your solution – all those carefully crafted conversion junctures – did not line up with the first experience of the product, then you’re stuck.

No amount of in-app or email or chat communications will fix that. You might make the bad situation a bit better, but you really need to see this as a continuum of your brand promise. It’s what creates the words that draw a prospect in, and the experience they have with your product.

Like with almost everything today you get one shot at establishing trust and a relationship. Whether you’re a marketer or a product manager. And as a marketer you’re ultimately marketing a product experience. So there’s got to be tremendous coherence and alignment between what you market and what happens the very first time that former prospect becomes the user of your product.

Activation is different from retention. Retention looks past that first experience and presumes activation. Activation is converting the promise of a solution into…an actual solution to a problem. Retention is ensuring that the solution is durable, compelling, and lasting.

So if I were to pick one discipline that a marketing org should master it’s conversion rate optimization. Above any other. It’s the moment of truth for your business. It’s measurable. It quantifies your ability to deliver value to your customers.

And this is why it’s awesome to be a CMO and to be responsible for Product and Marketing. Because you are accountable to the business for ensuring the brand promise gets delivered. Everywhere. Every time.

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