Tag Archives: leadership

It’s a Marathon, not a Sprint…

What makes a career successful over the long term? How do you sustain (or even increase) your professional impact, while also deriving meaning and enjoyment from your life? This was the question I set about answering in my talk at StretchCon last week. To see my answers, you can watch the presentation. You can also view the prezi1966321_313990785474109_1977531760847682083_o

The Backstory

I asked eleven colleagues about their success. I chose colleagues who have made it to the C-suite (whether as a CEO, CTO, or another C-level designation) and that appeared to do it with balance between their professional and personal lives. Ten of the eleven responded, and nine of the ten shared thoughts before my deadline. I thank Chris Caren, Adrian Colyer, John Donahoe, Ken Moss, Satya Nadella, Mike Olson, Christopher Payne, Stephanie Tilenius, and Joe Tucci for their help.

I sent each of these colleagues an email that went something like this:

I am speaking about successful careers being about sustained contribution (and not a series of sprints, all-nighters, or unsustainable peaks). Would you be up for giving me a quote I could use and attribute to you? I admire your ability to work hard and smart, while obviously also having a life outside of work.

Their replies were varied, but as you’ll see in the video, there were themes that repeated in their answers. I shared edited quotes in the talk, and promised that I’d share their complete thoughts in my blog. The remainder of this blog is their complete words.

Chris Caren

Chris is the CEO and Chairman of Turnitin. We worked together at Microsoft, and Chris was (and sometimes still is!) my mentor. Here are his thoughts in response to my questions:

My philosophy:  I do my best work when my life is in balance — family, me, and work.  I need a routine of hard work, but no more than 9-10 hours a day, solid exercise daily, low stress (via self-control), 7-8 hours of sleep at a minimum each day, and the time I want with my family and for myself.  When I maintain this balance, I am maximally effective at work — both in terms of quality of thinking and decision making, and maximum output.  More hours worked actually pull down my impact as a CEO.

Adrian Colyer

Adrian was the CTO of SpringSource, the custodians of the Spring Java programming framework. We worked together at Pivotal, where he was the CTO of the Application Fabric team. Recently, Adrian joined Accel Partners as an Executive-in-Residence. Here are Adrian’s thoughts:

A great topic! Maybe the most counter-intuitive lesson I’ve learned over the years is that I can make a much more valuable contribution when I work* less. So work-life balance isn’t really a trade-off as most people normally present it (I have more ‘life’, but sacrifice ‘work’ to get it), it’s actually a way of being better at both life *and* work!

* ‘work’ in the sense that most people would intuitively think of it – frenetic activity.

When I’ve analysed this, I came to realise that when work crowds everything else out I often end up in a very reactive mode. But the biggest and most impactful things you can do – especially as a leader – don’t come about during that constant fire-fighting mode. The vast majority of my important insights and decisions – the things that made the biggest positive impact on the organisations I was working with at the time – have come in the space I’ve made around the busy-ness of the office to actually allow myself the luxury of thinking! Running, cycling, walking and so on have all been very effective for me over the years. But so is just taking some time out in the evening and not necessarily even consciously thinking about work, the brain seems to be very good at background processing! That time has also given space to allow my natural curiosity and love of learning to be indulged. In turn that creates a broader perspective, exposes you to new ideas, and allows you to make connections and insights that you otherwise might not of. All of this feeds back into the work-related decisions and issues you are wrestling with and helps you to make breakthroughs from time to time.

To the extent I’ve been successful over the years, I attribute much of that not to being smarter than the people around me, nor to working ‘harder’, but to creating the space to think.

John Donahoe

John is the CEO of eBay Inc. John was an enthusiastic sponsor of my work while I was there. When I asked John for his thoughts, he sent me a speech he’d recently given to the graduating class at the Stanford Business School. In it, you’ll find John’s thoughts of his professional and personal journey.

Ken Moss

Ken recently became the CTO of Electronic Arts. Prior to that, Ken and I worked together on, off, and on over a period of nine years. Ken was the GM of Microsoft’s MSN Search when I joined Microsoft, and left to found his own company. I managed to help persuade Ken to come to eBay for a few years. Here are Ken’s thoughts:

Always focus on exceeding expectations in the present, while keeping your tank 100% full of gas for the future. There is no quicker way to stall your career than by burning yourself out. I’ve seen many potentially brilliant careers cut short as someone pushed themselves too far past their limits and became bitter under-performers. It’s always in your control.

Satya Nadella

Satya became the CEO of Microsoft at the beginning of 2014. Satya was the VP of the Bing search team at Microsoft for around half the time I was there, and we have stayed in touch since. Here are Satya’s thoughts:

I would say the thing that I am most focused on is to harmonize my work and life vs trying to find the elusive “balance”. Being present in the lives of my family in the moments I am with them is more important than any quantitative view of balance.

Mike Olson

Mike is the Chairman, Chief Strategy Officer, and former CEO of Cloudera. We have interacted during my time at Pivotal, and also during my time at eBay. Mike was kind enough to invite me to give the keynote at Hadoop World in 2011. Here’s Mike’s thoughts:

I have always tried to optimize for interesting — working on problems that are important to me, with people who blow my hair back. The combination has kept me challenged and inspired, and has guaranteed real happiness in the job.

By corollary, you have to be willing to walk away from a good paycheck and fat equity if the work or the people are wrong. Money is cheaper than meaning. I’ve done that a few times. There’s some short-term angst, but it’s paid off in the long term.

Christopher Payne

Christopher is the SVP of the North America business at eBay. Christopher and I have worked on, off, and on for nine years. Christopher was the founding VP of the search team at Microsoft. He left to found his own company, his company was bought by eBay, he hired me to eBay to help run engineering, and he then moved over to run the US and Canadian business teams. Here are Christopher’s thoughts:

I believe strongly in the need to maintain my energy level in order to have the most impact in my career. To do this I find I have to make the time to recharge. For me this means taking walks during the work day, taking all of my vacation, and not being on email 24/7. With my energy level high I find I can be significantly more creative and productive over the long term.

Stephanie Tilenius

Stephanie recently founded her own company, Vida. While she’s spent parts of her career at Kleiner-Perkins, Google, and other places, we met at eBay where we spent around six months working together. Here are Stephanie’s thoughts:

… my point of view is that you have to do something you love, that will sustain you. You also have to know what drives you, what gets you out of bed, for me it is having an impact (for others it may be making money or playing a sport, etc.) You will always be willing to give it your all and you are more likely to innovate if you love what you are doing and constantly growing, challenging the status quo (stagnation is really out of the question, humans don’t thrive on it!). I am committed to my work and to constant innovation but also to having a family and I could not be great at either without the other. They are symbiotic in my mind, they both make me happy and a better person. I have learned it is about integration not necessarily perfect balance. If you integrate life and work, you are much more likely to be successful. The other day my son was out of school early and our nanny had an issue so I brought him to work and he did code academy and talked to some of our engineers. He enjoyed himself and was inspired.

Joe Tucci

Joe is the Chairman of EMC, VMware, and Pivotal, and the CEO of EMC. I met Joe in the interview process at Pivotal, and have worked with him through board and other meetings over the past year. Here’s Joe’s thoughts:

Being a successful CEO is relatively straight forward… 1st – retain, hire, and develop the best talent, 2nd – get these talented individuals to work together as a team (do not tolerate selfishness), 3rd – get this leadership team to embrace a stretch goal that is bigger then any of them imagine they can attain, and 4th – maniacally focus the leadership team on our customers (always striving to exceed their expectations)

I enjoyed giving the talk at Stretch, and interacting with these colleagues in putting it together. I hope you enjoyed it too. See you next time.

6 secrets for successful small teams

Managing small engineering teams is fun. You’re close to the technology, close to team that’s writing code, and solving problems hands-on. Don’t get me wrong: it’s satisfying, rewarding, and impactful to manage large teams, but there’s nothing like being in the details and seeing a product come together. You lead a small team, by being an example that folks can follow; in contrast, you manage a large team. It’s different.

Here’s six things I’ve learnt along the way about leading small teams. This post was inspired by Greg Brockman’s 6 secrets for building a super team — Greg explained how to hire a small super team, and this is my sequel on how to make it world class.

1. Lead by Example

I’ve seen newly-minted leaders of small teams fail. One of the common reasons is they stop doing what they’re good at: being technical. And when they stop, engineers stop following them. Engineers want their leaders to be driving engineering, working on the hardest problems, and setting an example.

Great leaders of small teams are at least 50% technical, they spend more than half of their time writing code, creating designs, proposing architectures, doing code reviews, solving technical problems, or otherwise getting deep in the details. They know everything that’s going on in their team — they’ve got the right people working on the right problems, they’re driving the people at the right pace, they’ve holding people accountable for doing everything the right way, and they know the teams’ designs and code like they know their own. In the other 50% or less of their time, they’re passionate and focused on process, people, teams, and leadership — they have just the right amount of process to keep the team on track and happy, they’re managing their dependencies, and they’re spending time growing their people and team.

2. Set clear, simple goals, with clear, measurable metrics

You won’t be successful if you don’t know what success is. It’s surprising how many teams build a product without a way of measuring whether they’ve been successful, deciding when they need to be successful, or even without knowing where they’re headed. You should always start with goals and metrics.

Let’s suppose you’re leading the home page team at a major web company. You’re charged with leading a team of seven engineers, who together build all of the components on the page, and deliver everything from the platform pieces through to the pixels. You know who your competitors are, and you’ve got some great ideas on how to build a better home page than they’ve got. You’ve thought about this — you know that owning the home page means you’re the front door to the store, it’s your job to get the customers inside so that they can use all the products and features that the other teams have built.

I’m a fan of having two or three clear goals and objective ways of measuring them. You might decide that success is having the acknowledged leading home page on the web. How might you measure that? Here’s two or three ideas: first, you have lower abandonment than your competitors (lowest percentage of visitors who don’t click anything); second, you win a head-to-head taste test against your competitors at least 2/3rds of the time; and, third, your page is faster to load that your competitor’s. These are all criteria you can measure on a daily or weekly basis, and you can track them and share with the team.

If you want to create drive, fever, and passion in your team, consider setting a Bold Hairy Audacious Goal (BHAG) date. Decide that you’re going to have the best homepage by January 1. Put a graph up on the wall with the months on the x-axis and your objective, measurable success criteria on the y-axis. Every week, update the points for you and your competitors. Huddle the team around the graph, and work together to make success happen. You’ll be surprised how effective this can be in firing up your team, and getting creative ideas into the product.

3. Balance the portfolio

Small successful teams spread their bets. They have many small projects going on, and a couple of large ones. Importantly, the vast majority of the projects are impactful — they’re projects that are pushing the team towards their measurable goals. Good teams avoid doing work that doesn’t matter.

Why are small projects important? Well, first, they mitigate the risk if a large project gets delayed or doesn’t hit paydirt. Second, they give the team a real rhythm: every week there’s something new going out that moves the needle, and the team stays fired up and on track to their goals. Doing only large projects can be a death march — and it’s hard to keep teams fired up on one of those.

4. Meet the team

You have to know your team to be a successful leader. You need to understand the people who work for you, and customize your style to get the most from them. Some folks will need more advice, others will need to be pushed, some will rebel if you push, and some just need to know the goals and be given plenty of space. There’ll always be some conflict brewing, and everyone will have something on their mind that they want you to know — and the only way to find it out is to meet them regularly, really get to know them, build trust, and help them be successful.

I recommend a weekly 1:1 that’s at least 30 minutes, and not focused on the day-to-day. Ask questions in a 1:1, and leave plenty of white space in the conversation for the person you’re meeting to talk to you. Listen to what they say, and ask more questions that explore what they’re saying. Most importantly, be open and honest — say what you think, and it’ll likely work both ways. Conversation is key to being a successful leader.

5. Keep it simple

When the team’s small, you don’t need onerous process, too many meetings, or too much email. I’d recommend a daily stand-up meeting as the basic tool to stay in touch: go around in a circle, and ask each person to say what they did yesterday, what they’re planning on doing today, and anything that’s blocking them from succeeding. Buy some hour glass timers, and make sure everyone stays under two minutes. Don’t allow point-to-point conversation, the meeting is strictly for broadcasting information (the 1:1 or 2:1 conversations can happen after the meeting). Tell the team you will buy them coffee and food if the meeting goes over 20 minutes, and work hard to keep it under 15. Keeping it tight on time and high on information content will ensure you get good attendance and participation.

My hour glass timers. A large one tracks meeting time (20 minutes), and the two smaller ones are for individual speakers (2 minutes each) — one for the current speaker, and one for the next speaker.

When it comes to tracking a project, I recommend simple (and so do most of the people I work with). If it’s six to eight people, you can track projects with sticky notes, a whiteboard, and a camera for recording key information. I’ve also used a simple spreadsheet, where engineers can record the list of tasks that they’re working on and the time they will take, and the sheet automatically burns down the time remaining and computes completion dates. All the engineer has to do is keep the list of tasks in the sheet accurate, and the time estimates up to date, and the rest takes care of itself. In either case, simple is the key — very low overhead for the engineers, and pretty simple for the leader.

6. Keep it small

What I’ve shared applies to teams of 4 to 8 people that work for one leader. Beyond that, the team isn’t small anymore — you’ll find it nearly impossible to be more than 50% technical, and still get in the 1:1s and run an effective team. I’ve met a few people who can do it, but they’re usually super experienced or have super experienced teams.

We’ve all heard the stories of small startups with a few employees doing amazing things (think instagram or pinterest). It’s often because they’re lead by technologists, who’ve set crisp goals, spread their bets, kept it simple, and know their teams well. If you get your small team leadership right, your small team can change the world — and small teams do regularly change the world. Good luck.

Fighting fit: Why you need to be in top shape to be a leader

People are surprised I lead a team of over 700 people and find time to stay in shape. For me, one isn’t possible without the other. And my advice to you is to take your physical wellbeing seriously if you want to have impact over the long haul.

I believed for a long time that my impact at work was simply the product of the quantity of time by the quality of how I used it. Quantity just means hours spent. Quality means what I spend those hours doing, that is, how effectively I use my time.  I’ve never met a successful person who doesn’t work hard and use their time effectively. And for you that means: work hard and smart, and you’ll have the basic ingredients for success.

But it turns out for me that this basic equation doesn’t work for the long haul. There are two other ingredients for me: physical and mental condition. If my physical condition is great — I am fighting fit— then I’m alert, less stressed, positive, less prone to illness, confident, balanced, and slower to burn out. Being mentally in top shape is critical too, particularly making sure I find meaning in what I’m doing, and getting the balance right between family and work time (a topic for another time). So, these days I’d argue that my impact at work is something like: quantity times quality times physical condition times mental condition (with some constants that I don’t yet understand). In this post, I’m going to tell you why you should stay fighting  fit too.

This is an entirely non-technical post from a primarily technical person. Take it with a grain of salt, and see your doctor before you take any of my advice.

Top 10 Tips for being Fighting Fit ™

Let me just cut to the chase, and tell you the top ten things that you can use to be fighting fit:

  1. Don’t eat wheat. Better still, don’t eat grains
  2. Avoid high sugar foods. If it has more than 10g of sugar per 100g of product, don’t eat it
  3. Drink lots of water. Aim for at least 96oz or 3 litres per day
  4. Get a decent night’s sleep. It feels to me like 8+ hours is the sweet spot
  5. Have a big breakfast
  6. Have a small dinner
  7. Work the big muscles with resistance training three times per week
  8. Stretch
  9. Do cardiovascular exercise
  10. Ignore the above nine items for just one day each week (and be perfect the other six)

That’s in priority order. The top six are all about nourishment, the next three are about fitness, and the last one is a rule that governs how to apply the others.

To be fighting fit, it’s 70% nutrition and 30% exercise. I’ve worked incredibly hard at exercise and weighed 15 pounds more than I do today. These days, I’m pretty much at my high school weight, stronger than I’ve ever been, and the difference is nutrition (and perhaps more focus on strength or resistance training).


Do you want to be 15 pounds lighter? Follow rule #1 and you’ll be well on your way. Don’t eat grains because they’re full of carbohydrates, and that causes insulin to spike, and the body to enthusiastically store carbohydrates as body fat. Same with high sugar foods like sodas. Instead, eat more protein, and healthy fats. I’m big on egg whites, nuts, avocado, meats, and so on. Try a salad for lunch, with plenty of chicken, turkey, or tuna.

Fats don’t make you fat. Fats are just an intense source of energy, and you need to avoid eating too much. Eat nuts, avocado, egg yolks, and other healthy fats in moderation. Carbohydrates are the bad news problem.

Drink lots of water to keep yourself hydrated, and your metabolism running efficiently. Everything I read says drinking lots of water is a good idea.

I eat a massive breakfast, and try and go easy at dinner (though I struggle to do that effectively). The rationale is that in the morning, I need energy to get through the day. In the evening, I’m going to bed, so there’s no sense in consuming a ton of calories. Try and tilt your plan in that direction.

If that’s all too hard, follow rule#1: don’t eat wheat. You’ll get somewhere, trust me.


Exercising is my passion. I hit the gym four or five days a week, run a couple of times per week, do yoga once a week, and add in some exercise at home (like mountain biking, boxing, jump rope, or agility work) on the weekends. It just plain makes me feel great, lowers my stress, and gives me space and time to think about ideas and problems that are important in life and work.

How do I fit all that in? Pretty simply, really: I just make it my number one priority. When I was at Microsoft, my motto was “I’m not canceling the gym for anyone except Bill Gates”. And I stuck to it and still do. My rationale is that the company needs me to be effective for the long haul, and this is what makes me effective. I’m happy to be at work any time I’m not in the gym.

I’ve learnt that to be fighting fit, you need to do more strength training and less cardiovascular exercise. The nice thing about strength training is you burn some calories while you’re in the gym, and then a lot more afterwards: your body is busy repairing and growing the muscles you’ve worked. Most cardio burns more per minute in the gym than strength training while you’re doing it, but then the burn stops afterwards. Focus on your big muscles: leg and butt, chest, core, and muscles that help you maintain a reasonable posture (given you likely sit around a lot in front of computers). Working those muscles burns more calories than the ones you see in the mirror (you can skip the biceps). Get a personal trainer, ask them to put together a strength training routine, and do it 2 or 3 times per week. The results will amaze you.

It turns out that exercising hard requires maintenance. Maintenance for me is stretching, and I use yoga as the key way to do that. Yoga is seriously hard work: it requires core strength, balance, and flexibility. I’m not good at it, but it’s helping me be flexible and loose, and that helps me stay fighting fit.

I like cardio, I love going for a run (that’s something I’ve been doing regularly since 1995). I also love riding my bike. So, I get out and do some. But strength training is the key: if you don’t have much time, skip the cardio and go do some strength training.


I try hard to be good for six days in every seven. I have no trouble doing that with exercise. But with food it’s harder. One day a week, I let loose. I do whatever I want, and that gives me willpower for the rest of the week.

This is really important for you: cheat every day and you will get nowhere. If you want to be fighting fit, be disciplined six days out of seven.

Final Thoughts

Personal training is a great investment. I’d recommend to you that you get a personal trainer: it makes strength training safe and challenging, and helps you learn about how to make yourself fighting fit. Getting some nutritional advice from a nutritionist is a great idea too; diets are the worst thing in the world, it’s far smarter to eat to a plan and enjoy the results.

So that’s my Fighting Fit plan to make you an effective leader for the long haul. Remember the basics: don’t eat wheat, avoid high sugar foods, get in some strength training 2 or 3 times per week, and cheat once per week. You will be a fighting fit machine in no time (and I look forward to hearing about your results).

Please don’t blindly copy my plan. Please talk to your doctor, fitness professional, or nutritionist. And remember that I am a computer scientist, so you should Read My Disclaimer.

An Afterword of Thanks

My trainer is David Macchi in the eBay gym. Dave’s awesome: he’s taught me hundreds of exercises, and got me working on muscles that help posture and keep me balanced. He’s also good on the nutrition tips, and pushes me that little bit harder than I’d push myself. We’ve also partnered together on programs to help get our technology team at eBay more active, and help charity at the same time. I’m working hard to spread the fighting fit message.

Cheat day, and focusing harder on nutrition, is a strategy I learnt by participating in a “12 week challenge” with the I Choose Awesome guys in Inverloch, Australia. Great guys, and I owe them a bunch of thanks for helping me explore more about being fighting fit. They also taught me some sayings:  “Nothing tastes as good as lean feels” and “Pain is just weakness leaving the body”. You might need those sayings.

My trainer when I lived in Redmond, Washington, and worked at Microsoft, was Dirk Huebner. Dirk got me excited about agility drills, Fartlek training, and medicine balls. Another great guy to know.