Why You Need Access to Inspiration and Experience (#2 of 8 Lessons from 8 Startups)

I’ve recently been giving a presentation I titled “8 Lessons from 8 Startups.” It’s a history of 8 young companies where I’ve worked or founded, and give a story from each that led to a teachable moment. For the next couple of months, I’m going to follow up each of the 8 lessons with a blog post. The first lesson, “Good leadership is a prerequisite for a good business,” came from my time at KnowledgeSet Corp in the late 1980’s. Here is what’s next...

Startup Two, Verity Inc.

This second lesson is from my four years at Verity, a pioneer in full text document search, starting in the late 80’s.

When I joined Verity, we were developing a “concept-based” search system, called Topic, that enabled natural language searching across large bodies of unstructured documents. It was at the same time as Larry Ellison took Oracle public, growing a software market for structured data. This was before the commercialization of the web and the tech era of web search. It was both academic and innovative. Verity had enterprise B2B customers like HP, Nabisco (yes, the recipe for Oreos), and various three-letter agencies of the US government. We searched static databases as well as real-time feeds.

I think I joined as the the 8th engineer in the development organization. I’m pretty sure I was the 4th Mike/Michael (1 2 3, maybe even the 5th counting 4, reminiscent of Monty Python’s Bruce’s sketch). These guys were smart. My boss had degrees from MIT, Harvard MBA and Stanford PhD. Everyone else was from MIT, went through the same program, belonged to the same fraternity. I broke the model. I was a public college graduate (CUNY) relocated to Silicon Valley from the Bronx. I didn’t speak the MIT language (everyone talked in concepts with course numbers that had to be translated for me). It was challenging and rewarding. I made good friends there, it was a good team.

My second day at the job was October 17, 1989 - the deadly 6.9 magnitude Loma Prieta earthquake. I sat at my desk at 5:04pm when the quake hit. I was quick to jump up into the doorway, luckily missing a tall bookshelf that soon after fell over onto my desk. Our building (now part of Googleplex) was on the landfill edge of the SF Bay and windows bowed in and out pretty intensively (as they were designed to do). It took over three hours to get home 14 miles to San Jose. Memorable, but having nothing to do with this article, the rest is for another story at another time.

My boss was the VP of technology and co-founder. We grew to about 40 people in the development organization with a rather flat structure. We were young and talented, intellectual, and about as arrogant as one might stereotype such a team of engineers (though maybe not as bad as Nick Burns). Emotional Intelligence wasn’t our strength. The company’s quick growth brought a lot of chaos. We didn’t have processes that were working. The sales teams were selling whatever prospective customers requested (without regard to what the software could actually do). The system was complex and tech support needed a lot of engineering help. Innovation was a key to our continued growth and long term survival. The product management organization, part of marketing, tried to bridge the gap between our development team, sales, and the customer. Needless to say, tensions were high and development had a reputation of being difficult and strained relationships with the rest of the company.

Uh oh, maybe I had “people skills”

To solve that problem, my boss reorganized the department. I remember him approaching me with a statement to the effect of “you’re one of our developers with decent people skills, so…” I was offered a promotion to Development Manager of the newly formed Operations Group. My first management opportunity, which I gladly accepted. Amazingly, I found the announcement of the promotion in an old file, proudly displayed here.

 
 

Like the engineer that I was, I dove in and started solving problems. I created a department to perform functions that let development produce high quality products and allocate resource for the rest of the company. APIs. QA. Documentation. Portability (we supported 20 different versions of Unix in 1990, along with DOS, Windows, Mac, and VMS). Internationalization. Technical support. It was rather exciting.

Kind of exciting. I wasn’t happy, though. Things weren’t working. I recall feeling like I was a wall between development and everyone else and no one else seemed to be changing despite the new org structure. Engineers weren’t responsive to the company’s needs. The company didn’t feel like I was solving their problems. My relationships with my peers was becoming strained.

Making every mistake in the book

Amidst the tension, I was making every rookie management mistake in the book. Except I didn’t even have a book. I had no management experience and no training, nor did anyone around me. I made hiring mistakes. We were offered a course on Behavioral Interviewing, (which was the best thing I learned and saved my book, 20+ years later, pictured here), but even with the training, I put the wrong people in the wrong jobs. I recall my QA Manager being a disaster. There were other performance issues on my team. Wondering what to do when I found an employee sleeping under his desk. I didn’t know how to handle any of them. I tried to use my engineering skills to fix the problems, but you can imagine how that turned out...

The following performance review I got from by boss was mediocre - the first time in my career that I wasn’t naturally good at something. I was offended and defensive. I wrote a 3 page rebuttal to the appraisal, which I also found in my file, but am not sure if I ever presented it to anyone there. The excerpts from all these documents in this article are originals. (How did I know that if I saved them for decades, they’d eventually become an effective learning tool?)

 

I can take solace in that I wasn’t the only one in management who was struggling. Eventually my boss was “promoted” to VP of Special Projects and the CEO brought in a technology leader with experience, Mike Kallet, from Harvard Graphics. Iron Mike, as he was affectionately called for obvious reasons, was a manager’s manager and a role model that I had been missing. Finally, structure to the chaos and someone from whom I could learn. (I recently reconnected with Mike Summer 2015 in Denver.)

But not for long. His boss, the CEO, was the next to go and the Board brought in a turn-around guy as his replacement. Quick decisions the new CEO implemented was to clean house, form an inner circle, and get rid of a layer of management, most with VP titles. He held a “DASH” meeting on his first Saturday, all hands, brought everyone in from the field offices, and proceeded to have some people publicly justify their salaries. The era of positivism of which I had only just gotten a taste didn’t last so long. I ended it there. Knowing it was time for me to find another company with a better culture and management, my wife and I took the opportunity to move back to the East Coast to raise our kids near our extended family.

 
 

Verity did turn around, went public and was later bought by Autonomy then subsequently acquired by HP. As I went to Philadelphia, Some of my colleagues went to work at a startup called Netscape with Jim Clark and Marc Andreessen. That’ll be a story for another article.

Leaders and businesses need to coach and mentor

It is completely normal to make mistakes when trying a new skill. We learn from our mistakes. However, making as many as I did in a chaotic, tense and culturally unhealthy environment is the way we become demotivated. It is a leader’s job to keep a team motivated and a big part of what was missing for me, ultimately leading me to seek a new opportunity. The lesson here is that without a coach or mentor, developing a new skill is immensely more difficult.

In a Harvard Business Review article, “How to Master a New Skill,” the author includes getting the right help as one of her nine principles for self-improvement. “Eliciting support from others can greatly increase learning. Find someone you trust who has mastered the skill you’re trying to attain.”

In my not having sought or received the right help, my path to learning was deprived of the following benefits:

  • Success is better achieved and accelerated when we have access to inspiration and experience.

  • Emotional intelligence and an outside-in perspective allows us to better evaluate ourselves and our progress.

  • Coaches and mentors create personal level of accountability that are more effective than our own intuition or any operational systems of measurement.

  • We perform better when our anxiety is reduced.

In psychology, there is the concept of the four stages of competence (the "conscious competence" learning model). We start naïve when we begin something new, both low on consciousness and competency, “unconsciously incompetent.” As a first time manager at Verity, I didn’t know what I didn’t know, a stage of ignorance. An outside-in perspective would have helped me recognize my own “incompetence” and the value in becoming a manager, allowing me to more easily move to the next stage of learning.

My brief time with the new VP at Verity did give me inspiration, and I benefited from his experience. He understood that it is the responsibility of a healthy organization with a good leader to provide the coaching and mentorship that allows its team to learn and grow. In another HBR article, “You Can’t Be a Great Manager If You’re Not a Good Coach,” the author states “the most important thing you can do each day is to help your team members experience progress at meaningful work.”  (BTW, if you’re interested in business, management, or leadership, HBR should be part of your reading.)

Coaching helps grow skills

Coaches help grow skills, mentors impart wisdom. Seek to always have access to both and your path to growth and success will be more rewarding and enjoyable.

It has taken me two decades to practice my own management and leadership, to make mistakes, learn, and develop the skills. As a result, it naturally led me to become a mentor and coach. As part of my own continuous improvement, I have my own mentors and coaches because it makes the journey more rewarding and success more achievable. Of all that I learned at Verity, most important is to always be sure to have a coach or mentor (or both).