Archive for the ‘Self-knowledge’ 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. 

Black Lives Matter

June 23, 2020

A post from the DiamanteScholars.com blog

By Peter Zaballos

Seattle protest organized by Black Lives Matter, June 3, 2020

[This post originally appeared on the Diamante Scholars Blog and was published there on June 11, 2020]

When we founded the Diamante Scholars a year ago, one of the core tenets of the program is that it “helps high school students with overlooked and unseen potential find a path to higher education and career success.”

Overlooked. Unseen potential.

What has happened in this country over the past ten days is all about overlooked, unseen potential. It’s about systemic racial discrimination. It’s about the fact that the United States is a fundamentally racist nation that (hopefully) is about to admit that and do something about it.

Achieving equality begins and ends with understanding what life is like for someone other than yourself. My wife and I attended the George Floyd protest at Westlake Center in Seattle on Saturday, May 30. And we saw people of all colors there. Peaceful. Families. And we also saw agitators — like a white guy carrying a baseball bat. Who brings a baseball bat to a peaceful rally? We all know where that rally went. But those peaceful people of all colors were not the instigators of the violence or the looting.

We also attended a protest rally outside the Seattle Courthouse on Wednesday, June 3 that was put on by Seattle Black Lives Matter. Again, people of all colors were there. And one of the speakers, who I believe was Ebony Miranda, made a point of thanking all of us for being there. They also reminded us that when it comes to defining the issues that matter, Black people are the ones who define what matters to them. They are the ones living with racist oppression every day because of their skin color.

I cannot know what it feels like to be Black – I’m a white male and have lived my life with privilege. Every step of the way. For years my black friends have told me about what it is like to be them. To be highly educated and highly successful and to still endure the constant judgment and discrimination that comes just from the color of their skin. One of my friends years ago educated me about DWB traffic violations – Driving While Black. About how often he is pulled over in his car simply for being Black and driving a nice car.

But it’s not just this one friend. This past week a close friend, Dave Cotter, who is Black — and a successful technology executive — wrote a heart wrenching blog post about what it is like to be him. About being pulled over in his own neighborhood and in the surrounding neighborhoods and being asked “is this your car?” and “why are you here?” He’s even been pulled over driving his ski boat, and asked if that was his.

For those of us who aren’t Black this moment is all about listening. It’s all about empathy and understanding. And all about empowering, about hope, about opportunity for action.

And about how the direction we need to head is clear. 

Why am I writing this on the Diamante Scholars blog? Because we are committed to helping students find their paths and realize their potential. Regardless of race, ethnicity, religion and many of the many other factors that make us human and unique. Because we are committed to seeing our students for exactly who they are: people with dreams, people with futures ahead of them, people who deserve to be seen for their talents and actions.

While racial injustice and racial discrimination are not new, what does seem to be new is the broad acknowledgement that enough is enough, and it is time to do something about it. And what is getting done is messy. It is certainly unfortunate that violence and looting have happened, but it’s a fundamental tragedy that Blacks have been systematically oppressed for 400+ years. And we have to change this.

On August 28, 1963 Rep. John Lewis gave a searing speech at the “March on Washington” and his words are just as urgent and relevant today as they were then. Which is tragic in its own right, but this passage seems to be fit once again for what we are seeing across our nation:

“To those who have said, “Be patient and wait,” we have long said that we cannot be patient.  We do not want our freedom gradually, but we want to be free now! We are tired. We are tired of being beaten by policemen. We are tired of seeing our people locked up in jail over and over again. And then you holler, “Be patient.” How long can we be patient? We want our freedom and we want it now. We do not want to go to jail. But we will go to jail if this is the price we must pay for love, brotherhood, and true peace.”

We are committed to seeing our students for exactly who they are: people with dreams, people with futures ahead of them, people who deserve to be defined by their deeds and actions. And who deserve to be free. We strive to empower our scholars to use their voices, to be advocates of racial justice. And their voices are here for us to listen to them, and for us to learn from them as well.

Here is how Kristine and I are personally supporting change where we live, in Seattle. 

We support the brave protesters who are literally putting their lives on the line to stand up for justice by helping them with bail as they get arrested. 

We support the Black-owned businesses that are critical employers and fixtures in our community.

We support local politicians who can take on the structural change that is so urgently needed

Finally and most important, we are listening and learning:

  • And most importantly, we spend time with our Black and brown friends, to clearly understand how different the paths they take through are from ours.

We found some of the above resources from the 2020Protests.com website, which also lists protest resources for people in California.

Do what others doubt. Help end racial injustice.

Building mental health and resiliency amidst COVID-19

March 24, 2020

By Peter Zaballos

Given most of our energy and attention is focused on life during coronavirus, I thought I would outline a few actions we can all take to preserve our mental health, the relationships around us, and our career integrity.

Stay in tune with coronavirus updates, but sparingly. We all learned this with politics and the election cycle. With 24×7 news cycles, the same angst-enriching programming is served up, continuously. And there is ample research that shows you all this does is create anxiety for you, because you can do nothing about. So be informed, but not obsessed.

Make the most of your isolation time

Reinforce distanced relationships. We’re all bereft of socializing with friends and colleagues right now. A good friend whom I haven’t seen in a while texted me two days ago. Just to check in. He said he’s intentionally dropping short notes via text and WhatsApp to friends to let them know he’s thinking of them. We had an awesome ten-minute exchange. I am paying that forward. Contact your friends and colleagues, briefly but frequently.

Buy locally, tip generously. While we do rely on Amazon for a lot, we have shifted as much of our spending as possible to local merchants. Grocers, convenience stores, tiendas, restaurants doing take-out. These resources are going to be the backbone of a socially-distanced lifestyle that may last months. Support these folks. Tip generously. I mean 50%-100% generously.

Exercise – in your home, outside if you can, safely. There are awesome exercises you can do in your home, without equipment. Do this – it will given you a break from work and keep your mind and body healthy. If you can go outside, do it safely, if you are allowed to. Research shows that getting out – in a safe manner – can help you manage your mood and overall well being. It’s one of the reasons why victims of the Spanish Flu were often treated outdoors. Sunlight and fresh air truly are medicine.

Prepare for a lot of change, and a lot of friends’ change. And light touch reconnections is a good foundation to lay for helping you and your friends cope with a significant amount of change. The gig economy worked great in a boom market, but we are going into a profound recession, and those same jobs that are easily added are being easily shed. I have a lot of friends who are freelancers and consultants. Those fields are going to see significant employment reductions as well.

This last one is perhaps the most important. No matter where you work or what you do, people are going to be losing jobs or having hours reduced. I have checked in with my friends in the VC community and they are handling this environment the same way we did at FTV in 2008: freeze hiring, scrutinize budgets, eliminate unnecessary spending, and conserve cash.

And that’s just for the tech sector. The hospitality industry is being fundamentally gutted right now. Everywhere you look demand is drying up, which means business will either forcibly or voluntarily close, and people — friends, friends of friends, neighbors — will be out of work or at risk of losing their jobs.

In this time of need, your friends and neighbors will need you to help them cope, help them find their path, help them find their place of calm. This is when the best can show up in you and the people around you.

Be the catalyst, be the hope, be the inspiration.

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.

Gracefully forming connections

March 4, 2020

By Peter Zaballos

Gracefully. That one word caused me to pay much closer attention to the “how” of what I do when I introduce people. 

I was made aware of it by Ben Elowitz, when he was CEO of Wetpaint.com, a company we funded at Frazier Technology Ventures (FTV). I was an observer on the Wetpaint board for five years and saw first-hand Ben’s incredible intentionality about pretty much everything he did. The culture he fostered at Wetpaint, and especially the relationships he developed along the way.

At one point I connected Ben to someone I knew. I don’t remember the context or even the person I connected him to. But what I do remember that when Ben replied, he did so promptly, and moved me to the bcc line of the email. And at the bottom of his reply he wrote “Putting Peter on the bcc line so he can fall off the thread gracefully.”

That he was acknowledging the role I had played in this introduction, and the care he showed for how I would be treated as this introduction took its course was classic Ben. And it made a lasting impression on me.

There is art and science here.

That was more than 15 years ago. But it wholly changed how I looked at introductions. Up until that point I think I had viewed them as important but somewhat transactional. Getting one person in touch with another so something beneficial could possibly take place.

But there is so much more to the process of introducing people to each other. It’s about extending the relationship you have with two different people and handing it to each of them.

Purely logistically, I am referring to the “double opt-in” method of making an introduction. That means before the actual introduction is made, I check with each person separately to give them a clear sense of why I would like to make the introduction, who this other person is, and why I think the introduction is a good use of both people’s time.

In this manner, both parties can decide if they would like me to make the introduction. They each opt in.

And more holistically, there needs to be something worthwhile for both people. And to me that is the fun part.

Frequently these introductions originate as one person needing something that I suspect the other person might be able to help with or provide. But the truly rewarding aspect of crafting a productive introduction is understanding how each person could benefit from the introduction.

And one of the most critical benefits of connecting people is not what they can do for each other, but that you’re connecting people who will enjoy speaking with each other. Getting to know each other. 

By way of making the introduction, I can convey just how much I enjoy each of these people, to help set a tone for that first conversation. It could be sharing an anecdote or an unknown common interest. Or just how much I respect and adore each of these people, and why.

So, ever since Ben Elowitz enlightened me to the art of introductions, I’ve been making them this way ever since. 

At FTV we had this ethos that when we met with people we “gave more than we took.” So when I am making a connection, I am generally connecting two people who I have given something to — in some cases significantly, in other cases less so. And the two people I am connecting I believe have something to give the other. Everyone should win here.

I recently made an introduction like this, After checking with both parties — who agreed to the introduction — the resulting email was this:

There is something innately satisfying and rewarding connecting two people together who don’t know each other, and don’t yet know they may find some commonality or even synergy between them. And it wasn’t until way, way after I had been fostering connections between people that I realized just how productive it can be, and how intentionally it depends on forming true, trusted relationships.

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.

 

Being Mansplained To And The Opportunities That Are Missed

July 25, 2018

by Peter Zaballos

I’ve certainly been aware of mansplaining and am generally sensitive to it. But I have seen it happen less than I have had women remark on it. And they remark on it with a sincerity and authenticity that is breathtaking.

It was on a recent business trip when I experienced this myself, first hand. I was traveling with a woman who is on one of my teams, and we were visiting some of our sales regions to review our marketing plans and priorities to get feedback and engagement. One of those invaluable investments of time that ensure we develop campaigns that are relevant and have impact.

And before I go further, the story I am about to tell involves really talented, experienced, and caring people – we have an awesome culture and that’s one of the many reasons I love being here. But that is also the point. Even with talented people in a great culture, this can happen.

That’s certainly one way to approach this

At the first meeting we had a handful of sales reps in the room, and before I’d even gotten to the overview of our plans one of the reps spent literally ten minutes explaining how demand generation worked. Ten minutes.

How his prior company did it. The concept of a buyer’s journey. The need to ensure you have marketing plans directed all the way through from the top of the funnel to the sale.

Some of his pronouncements were on target — many interpretations of how marketing gets done from the vantage point of a sales rep. I sat there and every so often responded with “that’s certainly one way to approach this.”

But it was ten minutes. Of him explaining to me what I’ve been doing for more than 20 years. And I’m really good at marketing. A two-time CMO. The first CMO at my current company. But he explained it all to me.

When the meeting ended, my female colleague and I shared a laugh about it all. To me, it felt like a single occurrence.

No way, really? Is that how you do that?

Two days later we met with the entire sales team for the region. And as I was reviewing our plans for marketing, there was an active discussion and then a series of mini lectures on how to do our marketing well, which culminated with a discussion of competitive analysis and a sales rep reminding me “don’t reference our competitors directly in our marketing.”

At this point I lost patience and — in front of everyone — replied “no way, really? Is that how you do that?”

When the meeting wrapped up, I pulled my colleague aside and asked her “is this what mansplaining feels like, is that what happens to you?” And she rolled her eyes and said “yes, all the time.”

So when I saw the awesome tweet featuring an “Am I mansplaining” flowchart from Kim Goodwin I felt like I understood this a bit better.

Men, study that flowchart. Commit it to memory.

The opportunities missed

But what really happened in my exchanged with these talented salespeople here was a series of missed opportunities. By leading with explaining and not questions, it both annoyed me and focused my attention on being explained to, and not on exploring what we could all be doing together to ensure our marketing had the greatest impact possible.

It would have been awesome if these conversations had started with “can you tell me about how you’re going to approach marketing?” instead of “this is how we did it at my last company.”

And when you consider that what happened to me were isolated instances on this trip and that it happens to women systemically – the greater issue is how much opportunity is unexplored when men talk over women, when men lead by explaining and not by asking questions.

We lose all lose as a culture by letting mansplaining persist, but women bear the professional and personal consequences of confronting it every day, of having their ideas ignored or talked over.

As I have posted before, men just glide through life feeling little if any of what women feel every day — encountering obstacles, biases, and mansplaining and being talked over.

On this business trip, I visited this landscape but so easily could return to my male-centric journey through my career. Women are not so fortunate. Men can help here. When you have that urge to explain, ask a question.