Fail forward: an origin story

It was the winter of 1983. I was a senior in high school. I had told my parents that I didn’t plan to go to college that fall. So I didn’t apply to any schools.

As a parent today, the thought of this terrifies me. A college degree is a ticket to lifelong opportunities. So I can only imagine what my parents were thinking at the time. I was in a private, all-boys high school known for graduating 98% of its students to college. And I had enough ability to do the same.

But the reality was a bit different than that first principle of “thou must go to college if you can”. I was suffering from years of depression, my grades had deteriorated in my junior and senior years, I was soul-searching for who I was. I didn’t feel ready to continue the shitty academic experience I’d been having by continuing on to college.

So my dad did something surreptitiously. Knowing he and my mom were about to move back to Nova Scotia from New Hampshire to be closer to my ailing sister, he called the dean of admissions at Acadia University in Nova Scotia.

Somehow my dad got me in over the phone. He must have been a pretty good salesperson, because Acadia has been ranking in the top 3 schools in Canada for decades, often ranking #1. And it was weeks past the application deadline.

My dad came to me afterwards and basically said, “write your application and essay and you’re in”. For reasons I can’t recall or are buried in my psyche, I went along with it.

The first years at Acadia were a continuation of my struggle. But somehow I stuck with it and gradually became engaged as a student. I graduated with mediocre grades but at least I had that piece of paper. The thing that opened the door to future opportunity.

Parlaying that degree into career opportunity back in the United States wasn’t easy, but we’ll save it for another story.

There’s multiple lessons to be taken from this story in my opinion.

First, even in the times of struggle and failure, an opportunity exists if you choose to take it.

Second, we can fight ourselves over seizing opportunity. Perhaps because of limits to our own self-esteem.

Third, there are always people in your life who are willing to help you and give you that opportunity. Bob Stead was the Dean of Admissions at Acadia. He had no reason to admit me. But for some reason he did. I am forever thankful.

Have you ever met the type of person who was a class valedictorian? The one who was both gifted and driven? Who got into Stanford, or Harvard, or Princeton? Who got hired at Bain or Goldman Sachs? I know some of these people, and I’m not one of them. Never been.

So if you’re not that “achiever” persona how do you succeed?

Fail forward.

“Failing forward” for me is a metaphor for seizing opportunities when they are there, risk-taking, and learning from failure. In my case, I don’t have that valedictorian pedigree. So to the extent I have built a successful career, it’s been from a series of fail-forward events, originating all the way back to high school.

Only as I get older and wiser do I see the outright merits to embracing this idea and accepting it as a blueprint for success.

Did Billie Eilish write the perfect love song?

I’m neither a musician nor a composer, but I do love music. And one song has me trying to deconstruct why I like it so much.

Here goes my attempt to explain the perfection of Billie Eilish’s “I Love You“.

First, the song is slow and spare. Very few notes and words. This negative space gives every note and word the ability to have maximal emotional impact.

Second, she chooses words with very common ending sounds like “oo” and “eye” so that she has many words to choose from. Those well-chosen words can be short and simple but still convey intense meaning.

This is a kind of Hemingway-like genius. As the master himself said:

If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader….will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. – Ernest Hemingway

Third, she sings the verses very quietly. You’re drawn in to listening the way you listen harder to someone who’s whispering.

Fourth, the refrain builds from that quiet baseline to a crescendo of a held word, along with a single held note on a bass guitar or string instrument. “I love yooooooooooooou”. This prolongs the climax of emotion and the point of the whole song..

So that’s it. Slow and spare. Simple, emotionally laden words. A quiet that draws you into listening. And a refrain that brings home the emotional point of the song.

Have a listen for yourself.

Fail forward?

I’m playing around with a book concept. Something I probably won’t get to writing for a while, given all that’s going on in my life.

But the central premise is that all forms of personal and professional growth are borne of risk-taking and failure.

This isn’t a new idea.

So why don’t we take those risks? Why don’t we maximize our learnings from failure? Perhaps these questions do merit writing more about.

I’ve written only a little bit about the failure of my startup Bluenose Analytics, here and here. But in the years since, I’ve reflected extensively on the experience and what I could take away from it.

First lesson: adversity builds courage and much more. For example, the utter magnitude of Bluenose’s failure, and my accountability for it, mean that I won’t experience anything so monumental (unless & until I start another company!).

The effect is that I don’t freak out over risk-taking. New challenges that I might never have faced before become less scary. Scary, but less scary. So I’m now inoculated from the paralyzing fear of failure.

So remind yourself: at some point in your past you’ve taken risks and survived them. Even overcome them or outright prospered. Which can increase your appetite for risk-taking from here forward. If you’ve been so risk-averse in the past that you can’t draw lessons from risk & failure, then ask yourself what you are waiting for?

Second lesson: failure can create resiliency. But failure can also create negative feelings of defeat. So how to become resilient?

I think the key to failure is to own it. I *never* characterize Bluenose as anything but failure. Failure of the business and failure of me. Despite the fact that we achieved many things to be proud of. But “owning” failure means to not qualify it as somehow being less than it is. In my case, I lost $13m of famous investors’ money, denied my employees the ability to experience success from their hard work, and disappointed our customers. I own that no matter what else happened.

And to own it is to be able to move past it. I speak openly now about this failure, without sugar-coating or avoiding it. Because I can use this experience in many positive ways. This is resilience.

Third lesson: you can build stronger connections from failure.

In my case, I think one benefit of failure is that I am more vulnerable and engaging to the extent that I talk about it. As a leader, it’s tempting to try to project perfection. But what people really want from their leaders is a sense of connection. I’m good at projecting confidence, so using failure as part of my narrative is important to remind me and others of my utter humanity and fallibility.

Building connection from vulnerability can also position us to better empathize with others who are working through their own challenges. That empathy creates the pathways to be helpful by listening, questioning and advising.

So risk and failure can build courage, resiliency and connections. When you frame it like that, what’s the downside?

Leadership is a privilege

I’ve been thinking a lot about leadership lately, as I make the transition from McAfee to my new role at Barracuda Networks.

As I was leaving McAfee, I heard from a lot of folks expressing appreciation for my leadership and contributions. Some comments were about positive changes I drove at the organizational level and other comments were about how I helped individuals in their roles. All of this was heartwarming.

But I’m not naive. No leader has a 100% fan base. And the fact that I drove a lot of cost cutting and personnel changes probably did not endear me to a lot of my people.

But the stories people shared with me on my leaving, and some that I heard secondhand, made me realize that as a leader you can have a profound effect on people for better or for worse.

Consider the cases in your career where you’ve done great work. Were you well and truly proud, or did it take some sort of validation from your boss to bring it home for you? I think the validation means a lot.

And conversely, when your boss doesn’t validate your work, it can really affect you. If you’re like me, you like to deliver and to please. I think it’s a very basic human need.

So if we as leaders carry this type of influence, perhaps we should think of leadership as a solemn responsibility. As a privilege.

This can be a very different way of thinking. Many career-minded people who have become managers “keep score” in their career according to metrics like the number of people they lead, their title, their pay, where they fit in the leadership hierarchy, etc. This mindset can desensitize us to the real foundation of leadership effectiveness and growth, which is to understand the privilege bestowed upon us.

With that “privileged” mindset, we move towards thinking of ourselves as coaches, enablers, even servants to our team. I think that’s a much more powerful way to orient ourselves as leaders and to guide our own professional growth.

On gratitude

Rob J. wrote me an email a couple years back, out of the blue. We’d lost touch since our days in Boston, as close friends back in our 20’s.

His email told me how he appreciated our friendship from those distant times past. My first response was sorta cynical. I thought maybe he was in some type of self-help program.

But his words were kind and sincere. And that email stuck with me.

Inspired by Rob, earlier this year I started sending thank-you emails to friends new and old. In some cases, I’d just thank them for our friendship. In others, I pointed out something they did or said that helped me. My hope was that maybe I could help them appreciate the positive effect they had on my life.

I sent these emails because it made me feel good. And I hoped they would make others feel good, just the way Rob’s email stuck with me.

Last week, news of my departure from McAfee was announced. I got many kinds notes and calls. And in some cases people cited examples where I had a positive impact on their work or professional lives.

Some of these examples surprised me. Seemingly small or trivial things I did or said had a positive impact on others. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised given my experience with thank-you emails.

What I also took away from these notes is that as a leader, one’s words and actions can have a much larger effect on people than one might realize. This can produce both positive and negative effects. It’s an awesome responsibility one bears as a leader.

Why I lead

Why do leaders lead? For some, it could be for the money, power, or notoriety.

For me and probably many others, the reason for being a leader is the ability to positively affect the careers – and therefore the lives – of others. That’s what gets me out of bed every day, ready to face the challenges of being a leader.

I got this text recently. Her message made it all worth it. I’ll probably find years of motivation from this:

Heartwarming

There’s a concept in leadership doctrine called “servant leadership”. I’m intrigued by this idea because it seems to orient leadership towards unlocking the potential of those who are being led. Maybe it’s just another way of saying “be a great coach”.

When the startup that I co-founded had ultimately failed, it was a crushing blow. I knew that my own career was going to be fine, and perhaps even enhanced by this experience. But what tore at me was the idea that I had failed my employees and their hopes and dreams. Some lashed out at me in anger, which is understandable. But others remained engaged, and sought out my advice after we all parted ways. It’s been a joy to stay in touch with them, helping them along their journeys.

What I didn’t expect from my startup experience is that other companies that subsequently entered the same market space sought me out for advice. I think it’s pretty cool that those founders had the intellectual curiosity to approach me for my perspective, because they could have written me off as having failed and therefore not having something to offer them. So I’ve talked to every one of those who have asked.

For me leadership boils down to being a great coach and being generous with one’s time for advice and counsel. When that positively impacts someone else’s life, it’s magical.

“100% of my female friends have been sexually assaulted”

A female colleague told me this recently while we were discussing the Brett Kavanaugh nomination process. I was incredulous. “You’re certain it’s 100%?”, I asked. “Absolutely”, she replied.

It doesn’t stop there.

I went to a candlelight vigil for Dr. Ford a couple weeks ago (an aside: I was there because I wanted her claim investigated fully, not because I had judged her claim in advance). A friend I was with said she knew that 50% of her friends had been assaulted. We both surmised the percentage was higher because some of her friends presumably hadn’t revealed their truths.

I had dinner recently with another woman who related her own story of assault. And she knew many, many female friends with similar experiences.

There is very real damage to being a victim. The emotional trauma often begets physical damage in turn. Any other condition that caused such damage, at such a widespread rate, would be considered an epidemic. What is the appropriate response here?

The most pernicious aspect of sexual assault is that it happens in so many cases without witnesses. And surely women choose to not disclose their victimization, and especially decline to pursue justice, because their claims are not believed or taken seriously.

Perhaps the way forward relates to the Harvey Weinstein phenomenon. In the court of public opinion, certainty about his behavior increased with the number of accusers. It’s the pattern of behavior, not the provability of any one incident (or even victim), that gave credence to the accusations.

What I hope is that women are emboldened to tell their stories. And that all of us take those claims seriously in terms of acknowledging the epidemic and our obligation to act.

If you think I am exhibiting bias toward the victims, you would be right. The shame and stigma of being a victim today means that anybody who makes a public claim does so with expected negative consequences. They know they will have their reputations challenged. For example, Dr. Ford, who lives in my neighborhood, fled her home after receiving death threats. One day, a news helicopter hovered over her house. A victim’s courage is unto itself a reason to take their claims seriously.

I say all of this despite the fact that I was falsely accused of being an assaulter.

Recently, I rode in an Uber Pool along with two other passengers. In the back seat, alongside me, was a young woman. Three days after the ride, I was contacted by an Uber employee investigating a claim that I inappropriately touched this young woman, was asked by her to stop, and continued to do so.

I told the investigator that this was a serious claim indeed and that Uber was right to take it seriously. I strenuously denied the allegation. I asked if they had interviewed the driver yet, and suggested that he would verify that no conversation at all occurred between any of the passengers. I was banking on the contradiction between the accuser’s story and the driver’s as a basis of discrediting the claim itself. It also happens to be the case that I’ve used Uber since its beginning years ago and had an extremely high passenger rating without incident.

Ultimately, Uber dismissed the claim and reinstated my suspended account.

All of this got me wondering about the complex nature of the situation for Uber, for me and for the accuser. What was Uber’s policy to adjudicate this issue? Were they to apply a legal standard of (my) presumed innocence? If not, then what criteria to judge the merits of the claim? Would the accuser have any other recourse, such as the legal system? Under what circumstances would my identity be revealed? A subpoena? Etc.

Despite this incident, I believe that the bias of victims’ illegitimacy remains. To deal with this epidemic, we need victims to come forward. And we need others to say that it’s needed, it’s ok, and that we take their claims seriously.

On Dr. King: “The arc of the moral universe…”

Martin_Luther_King,_Jr.“The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice” – MLK

It’s MLK Day today. I celebrated by reading some of his quotes and watching David Letterman interview Barack Obama and John Lewis.

At times like these, the many gains since the 1960’s seem lost. Instead of an African-American president signifying the permanence of a new era of equality, we find ourselves regressing.

Or, to be more precise, the face of hatred for equality has revealed itself again. Only this time that face is aided and abetted by our President.

My friend put it well. At no point has she and her family been more civically engaged. Their understanding of government and their involvement in civic discourse has never been higher. I could say the same for my family. This engagement can, and must, lead to a counter-reaction to the forces of inequality and ignorance around us.

Today is a day to remind ourselves of the principles that make our country great and that must be defended by us as citizens:

  • we are a nation of immigrants, from which our unique strengths are derived
  • our diversity must be matched by equality in every way: across ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender
  • tolerance and empathy will prevail over intolerance and ignorance

It is both a blessing and a curse that I’ve never felt more connected to Dr. King than right now. May his spirit guide us forward.

Why I work at McAfee (and you should too?)

Last week, I spent 2 days with our CEO Chris Young and his leadership team, talking about where we want to go in the next 3 years.

Chris kicked off the meeting with a recap of our 5 core values, our mission and our employee pledge, all designed to protect the world in our online lives.  You can read Chris’ public letter about McAfee’s future here.

This clarity of purpose makes it easy for me to know the “what” and the “how” of my work in support of our goals. This hasn’t been the case at many companies I’ve worked for in the past, so I don’t take it for granted. Perhaps you’ve experienced the same challenge in your past.

I had the pleasure of working with Chris before, and also with my boss who leads our consumer business.  And several other former colleagues who I respect and know are here, too.

So, I’m here because of the clarity of our purpose and because I work with people I trust and respect. Maybe McAfee would be a great place for you too? We’re hiring….

Two big, new business influences

One of my personal delights is to come across new concepts and ideas that advance my professional thinking.

I’m usually suspicious of “form over substance” business books.  I’m attracted to the esoteric, favoring concepts that are meaty and somewhat hard to grasp at first. To me, the really valuable stuff is probably hard.

Two things I discovered in the past year have really got me thinking.

Amazon’s recipe for success is…..API’s?

Amazon’s success is hard to argue with.  Much has been written by the business media about their formula for success, deciphering Amazon’s culture and values such as the 2-pizza rule for organizational design (which I am a believer in, too).

This blog by Steve Yegge takes you much deeper into a seemingly arcane Amazon mandate that might have more to do with Amazon’s success than anything else.  Seriously.

I’ll tease you a bit:

So one day Jeff Bezos issued a mandate. He’s doing that all the time, of course, and people scramble like ants being pounded with a rubber mallet whenever it happens. But on one occasion — back around 2002 I think, plus or minus a year — he issued a mandate that was so out there, so huge and eye-bulgingly ponderous, that it made all of his other mandates look like unsolicited peer bonuses.

Before you click away and read it (as you should), it’s written by a technical leader who worked at Amazon for several years before working at Google for several years. He wrote this as an internal memo at Google, trying to explain why Amazon was succeeding where Google was not in the realm of public cloud services.

The gist of the memo was that Jeff Bezos himself was resolute in requiring that every system of theirs must interact with every other system using defined interfaces (API’s).

This is profound because:

  1. it meant that each team can operate autonomously of the next, maximizing each team’s agility
  2. this forced the creation of a technology services catalog well before Amazon Web Services was ever launched. Amazon was Customer 1.0 of AWS “for real” before anyone else. When AWS launched it was truly prepared to satisfy the needs of its customer base, and has sustained that ability over time

These days, business and IT are inextricably linked. If you can “grok” this article, you’ll be ahead of most in understanding how and why.

Wardley Maps: peeling a very large & useful onion

I’ve been interested in, and performed, strategic planning at times in my career.

However, strategy has gotten a bad reputation, and for good reason. Most of it doesn’t work in leading companies to having success or not.

Like so much innovation, the most interesting innovation I’ve seen about strategy came from an outsider.  Simon Wardley’s experience was not from the strategy industry of consultants, MBA’s etc.  Rather, it was from his functioning (and failing?) as a leader of a technology business.

His “Wardley Maps” resonate with me because they pinpointed why my past work on strategy was flawed in ways that I couldn’t quite articulate at the time.

Here are short and long versions introducing his work:

Wardley’s work is like peeling an onion. You can explain Wardley Maps succinctly as “value chain meets the dimension of time & evolution”.  But I’ve spent many, many hours with his writings and I still feel like I’m only peeling the outer layers. He writes about gameplay, team behavioral types, and much more.

Grand unification

What’s really interesting is how Steve Yegge’s memo and Wardley’s writings relate to each other.

Warley has written about AWS’ success using Wardley Maps to explain why. You start to understand why Amazon’s “API edict” in Yegge’s memo was so important in unleashing their business agility.  That agility has made it awfully hard for anyone to catch them in e-commerce or cloud computing.

If you’re in the tech industry, I hope you find the time to explore and enjoy these authors as much as I have.