Archive for the ‘Self-knowledge’ Category

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 a 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.

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.