Thursday, September 27, 2007

Connecting women and technology

There is a very important annual date coming up in a few weeks – the Grace Hopper Conference of Women in Computing. This is a fantastic, annual conference, put on by ABI, to run panels, sessions, training and celebration focused around the opportunities and challenges for women on a technical career path, particularly computer science.

We’ve just moved the conference to be annual and the number of attendees continues to climb dramatically. We expect 1500 attendees this year – probably half will be students, the remainder are technical women from industry. Companies like IBM, Cisco, Google are sending teams of employees and not only participating in the conference, but also are holding their own events at the conference to bring women together from across their organizations to discuss the joys and issues of being in a technical career as a woman. We’re also holding our first CTO Forum to bring together CTOs (male and female) to debate how to encourage more women to develop technology careers.

If you have never been together with 1000+ women who are passionate about technology – and you’re one of them, or you are an executive who hires engineers – check out Grace Hopper. You’ll never think the same way about women and technology again.

More creativity in the heartland

I wrote a few weeks ago about the difference in the environment for institutional investors outside of New York. I recently came across a great comment on this theme about a high-performing manager at Rainier in Seattle. The Barron’s profile called out that

“Working outside big financial centers like New York, Boston or San Francisco -- Rainier is based in Seattle -- helps Margard and his colleagues maintain the necessary focus."

So I went and I looked in salesforce and asked around my client services team - and I came away seeing an obvious pattern: our clients away from New York are some of the most creative we have – and make a disproportionate impact in pushing us in new directions. Whether it’s St. Louis, Chicago, Rochester or Dallas they are reaching outside of convention to mine the web for ideas.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Startup to IPO: Good hiring practices

When you are growing fast it’s critical to have a process to ensure you are hiring the best talent. In small companies there is no room for mediocrity at any level. The old adage “A players hire A players, B players hire B players” is so true, and hiring B players can be fatal to a startup. (especially executives – see my recent post on that)

The most common hiring mistakes I have seen people make are:
- hiring people like them
- hiring in a hurry to get someone into the job
- hiring someone who is “good enough”
- hiring without listening to other people’s input

Everyone makes hiring mistakes (and if you do the most important thing to do is to recognize it quickly and move the mistake on) but there’s a process that can help reduce the number of mistakes which I’ve used at my companies. Most of this is obvious, but often not followed.

The steps are:

Write a job description – be clear about the attributes of the ideal candidate – make sure the interviewers have a copy of this job description

Choose an interview team from a cross section of people who will work around the new employee (above, below and alongside)

Set up the interviews – make sure the candidate knows who they are meeting and why

Follow up with each interviewer as soon as you can to get their independent, fresh reactions

Hold a meeting with all the interviewers (we call it a round table) where each person expresses a) the positives b) the risks (negatives) and c) advice for the hiring manager. This meeting is not a concensus decision making meeting – it’s a forum for everyone to give advice to the hiring manager and through the process to buy in to doing their part to make the new hire successful, or for the hiring manager to get enough information to decide not to make the hire

Make the decision, generate the offer

This process can be light weight and very fast. When you need to hire a number of people very quickly (as we do right now) you can get through the process in just a few days. You just need to be focused, but not skip the critical round table step.

The bottom line in a startup is to hire people who are really smart. IQ and attitude matter more than any other aspect in a young company. If your employee is smart and motivated they’ll learn what needs to be done, especially if you are in a new market where you are having to figure it out as you go along. If I have to choose between IQ and experience when hiring I’ll hire IQ every time. The only exception to this is when you need real experience in a technical field – like the CFO or CTO. Then you must find both!

Monday, September 24, 2007

Ask for Forgiveness or Permission?

Terrific article in the WSJ today on Managing Innovation. Having worked in both startups (I'm on my third now) and big companies over my career, and sold to many global giants, I have definitely seen the effects the panel discusses here. And the systemic ways innovation is often crushed in large companies.

I live by the phrase "It is better to ask for forgiveness than permission". It's all about risk, and your comfort level with risk. Young, high growth ideas (read companies) have to embrace risk to survive and thrive so I believe a risk tolerant culture is required to create innovation.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Building an Advisory Board

When you’re building a new company there is so much you just don’t know. You need answers to questions, both tactical and strategic, that you think someone knows (ie they are not waiting to be invented) but just not you – especially if you are going into a market that is new to you.

When this is the case it can be energizing and a huge help to build an advisory board.

This is typically an informal group with some key characteristics:
1. They like you, want to see you succeed and are willing to put time in for no guarantee of payment

2. They are typically paid in stock options (see #1)

3. They are diverse in experiences. Best case you have:
- a couple of customers
- a couple of execs from parallel companies who have been through, or are going through, similar issues to yours
- a marketing/sales type
- a couple of technologists or professors
- an industry observer or two (journalist, industry researcher etc)

4. They respect confidentiality – and will sign an NDA

5. They are willing to openly brainstorm with you and your management team about what to do

6. They don’t take offense if you don’t follow their advice – but they love it when you do.

Once the group is built I like to hold advisory board meetings once a quarter. Since these are not formal board meetings they need to be fun and interesting for your advisors. A good flow for these meetings is
- social preamble – check in with everyone
- brief overview of company status – make sure everyone is up to speed on major developments and customer wins
- present 2 or 3 questions for discussion

The last is where all the value is. The trick is to bring in the 2 or 3 questions you are genuinely wrestling with and to get the discussion going so you get input from everyone around the table. You can then formulate decisions live with the group, try them out and see if you are on the mark – especially if you then test those decisions real time against the customers in the room.

I’ve held the meetings in my garden (before we had an office or on lovely California summer days), in conference rooms (when we needed to make a technical presentation or demo), and great restaurants (when I wanted a free flowing discussion about go-to-market questions). I don’t think formality is necessary (unlike a directors meeting) but the free flow of ideas is.

I recently joined an advisory board for a new company being run by a friend of mine – Raul Camposano at Xoomsys. I can certainly say that for me, to be able to help a small company on just a couple of hours a month, and to know it is making a difference is great fun and very rewarding.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Stop stereotyping women's leadership style

The WSJ article Advice for Women on Developing a Leadership Style irritated me – yet again promoting the stereotype that women are inherently less assertive and so have to work to develop a leadership style.

I just don’t buy this any more. Yes, maybe 20 years ago women were coming up through the workforce who were less assertive (although I never had that problem) but today’s young women come into the workforce with a much stronger, in-built belief that women are equal and have equal opportunity to the men around them. And I see this as much with our young women coming into the workforce from India and China as I do with US educated women - sometimes more so!

I have, and continue to, mentor many young women and give talks at women’s organizations. 20 years ago I would hear about women not being listened to, having to go above and beyond to be heard, but it is just not as prevalent today. And I think this is as much a result of the men changing as the women. Today’s generation of college educated young men have been raised in a more equal world and so are much less likely to fall into the aggressive “I’m superior because I’m male” type of behavior. I gave a class for TechLeaders at Google last year and was delighted to get a ton of input from the women in the class that the men they are working with are not at all like the stereotype of past years.

Because I have chosen to work in and around very much male-dominated worlds (semiconductor, venture capital and now wall st) I do see prejudice and assumptions about women being less capable - but it's with the over 40 generation typically, not the under 40s.

So I get aggravated when writers perpetuate the myth of the woes of being a young woman in the workforce.

The coaching I give is consistent – stay focused on results. In the end, for any business, that is what counts. If you are in sales, stay focused on producing business; if you are in R&D stay focused on the creativity and excellence of your code; if you are managing money stay focused on your returns. And stand up for your ideas and your contribution. Be direct and to the point. Don’t play office politics. If you do that, and you are good at your job, you’ll be successful. And, if you are in a company that does not play by those rules then the solution is simple: find a better company.

I have a favorite story on this one: A friend of mine - now close to 50 - has managed money on wall st for over 20 years. She's a tough chick and a good looking one - but one who does not wear nylons and so in the NY summer goes bare legged. One summer her older male boss came to her and told her she should wear nylons - her reply "Do you think my fund will post higher returns if I wear nylons?". The subject never came up again.

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