Speech at Georgetown Masters in Foreign Service Commencement

I was honored to be invited to speak at the graduation for the Georgetown MSFS, georgetownthe program where I received my degree in 1986.  The text of my speech is below.  This photo was from the dinner with other speakers and dignitaries before the ceremony.  Pictured is the other speaker Ambassador Lakhdar Brahimi UN and Arab League Special Representative for Syria, MSFS Dean Anthony Arend, Secretary of State  Madeline Albright and me behind her.  I’ll post the video when available.

May 16, 2014, Washington, DC

Congratulations fellow MSFS graduates. I am honored to be here to share this special day with you, your families, friends and teachers.  The fact that you are here today speaks to your hard work, dedication and significant accomplishments.

The study of international affairs has never been more important. In a world where thousands of nuclear weapons exist and terrorist states are trying to acquire them, where suicide bombers kill without warning and thousands die each day from poverty caused simply by the way the international system operates, we need to understand international relations.  Put simply, international relations is about war and peace, conflict and cooperation, wealth and poverty – these are literally life and death matters.  We need to understand the issues and behavior patterns between the actors in the world, be they individuals, societies, states, and corporations so that we can lead and influence them for good.

International affairs has never been more important to business – the world in which I have operated for the last 25 years.

I was bitten by the international bug during a foreign exchange program in high school.  I loved learning languages and studied international relations, economics, Spanish and French. I followed a non-traditional path after Georgetown.  I enrolled believing that I would become a diplomat and was fortunate to study under one of the most impressive ones at our school – Secretary Albright.  However, an internship at A.I.D. writing memos that would literally be “through” layers of bureaucracy before getting to the “to” person convinced me that I didn’t have the patience nor personality for government work.  I made a course correction (in Silicon Valley we call them pivots) to focus on international business.

As I graduated Georgetown the typical international business recruiters, natural resource firms or commercial banks, were growing relatively slowly.  The companies whose exports were and still are growing the fastest were technology and life sciences.   According to the Brookings institute, the US industries with the most patents, export the most.  This makes perfect sense of course – we are competitive in intellectual capital and innovation – not manual labor.  That observation (and marriage to a Californian enrolling in UC Berkeley law school) led me to Silicon Valley.

My first job was at Informix, a young growing database company.  After 4 years in marketing I seized my first big international opportunity – Latin American sales.  I had no sales experience but knew the product, knew the region and spoke Spanish (unlike my boss).  I spent many months in Mexico and the Andean region setting up our distribution channels and then moved (with my 2 children and nanny) to Brazil to open our first office.  I was only 27 and not the typical demographic to go open a new subsidiary but I was in fact ready.  Prepared by my MSFS experience with unique international skills of analysis, language and ability to connect across cultures.  It was a whirlwind but successful 6 challenging months of learning Portuguese, hiring staff and selling lots of software to companies as varied as Sao Paolo banks and the largest iron ore miner in the world.

I made my way to Netscape at the dawn of the internet where I managed international marketing and development for the browser.  Highlights included striking a deal with IBM where we jointly translated the browser to 23 languages – a critical development in making the internet accessible in new markets.  When we open sourced the browser we also open sourced the localization toolkit allowing anyone to translate the browser to their native tongue, an important step for preservation of such cultures as Maori and Welsh and other indigenous languages.  This was diplomacy albeit in a nontraditional venue.

While leading the Mail team at Yahoo we aggressively expanded into Asia and Europe.  Just as many of you will work for foreign companies, I then went to work at the leading Israeli security firm, Check Point, heading up several US functions and bridging the sometimes wide cultural gap with headquarters in Israel.  As CEO of SugarSync, a cloud company, we leveraged international partnerships in Korea, Japan, Italy and France early on to grow our business, which was half international in our second year of revenue.  In fact, in 2011 there were more people working on the SugarSync product in Korea than in California.

In summary I found that the tech world is a great place to exercise and develop your international skills in a growing, challenging and constantly changing field.

And it is a worthwhile place.  Technology has tremendous impact, clearly supporting the Georgetown mission of “pursuing justice and the common good” and “creating and communicating knowledge.”  Internet connectivity plus inexpensive devices plus a Khan academy or MOOC gives a child in Central Africa many of the tools previously found exclusively in the first world.  Sure it’s not the Cathedral school down the street, but the gap is dramatically narrowed.  It has always been said that access to information is critical for democracy and free society.  Technology facilitates the sharing of information and as such has supported transitions to democracy.  By accelerating mass communication, YouTube and Instagram are like the printing press of half a millennium ago – altering the structure of society.  Technology can be a tool for increasing the voice of women, one of my other favorite subjects.

It’s commonly thought that, like travel, technology is a force for homogenization between cultures.   That may be true but short of a dystopian homogeneous world we still need to bridge differences and technology brings us into cross cultural and political contact more frequently and more deeply.  I see this happening even in the diplomatic corps.  In the pre telegraph and telephone stage diplomats had more independence – that waned as those technologies allowed decisions to be made back in the home country.  But I believe the trend has reversed towards a larger role in-country.  I see local staff in embassies with twitter feeds and engaging in social media as part of their people to people efforts.  The State Department TechWomen program, in which I have mentored two Jordanian women technologists, is another on-the-ground example.  It is not just about working in technology but using it.

As productivity gains from technology can be had dramatically cheaper, it can be a force for reducing poverty. Technologies such as the cloud and mobile devices democratize access to capabilities previously only available to big companies in rich countries.  Technology is so ubiquitous that there are more mobile phones then toilets in the world!  We see technology democratizing many fields – agriculture, business, healthcare, media – the list goes on.

But it’s not so easy and technology companies need people like you, with international sensitivity.  A case in point is Yahoo – failure to recognize all the implications of its actions, handing over email to the Chinese government, led to a dissident being jailed, Google’s European privacy disasters, Ebay selling Nazi souvenirs.  The dilemma of engagement in order to influence versus withdraw or sanction to try to force change happens for technology companies such as Google withdrawing from China similarly to countries such as the US today with Russia.   The exact same technologies that protect companies from hacking are used by governments for surveillance on their citizens.   The iron curtain has been replaced with an electronic curtain. We have seen this dramatically in regimes resisting Arab Spring.  And speaking of Arab spring, technology was a critical amplifier, not causing the change but surely accelerating it where news is breaking first on Twitter.  Our intelligence agencies need to be social media experts.

Companies have significant international businesses earlier in their evolution.  It is not only the Google’s and Yahoo’s of the world facing international issues.  In 2010 SugarSync, like Facebook, Dropbox, Twitter and others was blocked by the great Chinese Firewall.  Some of the most dramatically successful companies – WhatsApp, Skype, & ICQ were primarily international in their customer base from day one.  The model of figuring out the product and customer fit first in the home market then going abroad is becoming antiquated in non-regulated markets.

As you graduate and go off into the world, my concluding message to you is this – technology is quite impactful on the international stage – mostly for good but sometimes for evil.  It is important.  It is exciting, and, it is fun to work on.  So I invite you to join me on this exciting journey.  Some of you may do this directly – starting or working in a technology company but I encourage all of you to join me at least indirectly, leveraging the power of technology to amplify your international skills and efforts wherever you chose to apply them.

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Dependent -> Independent -> Interdependent

I was reminded of this psychological construct popularized by Steven Covey when chatting with an entrepreneur today.   I was encouraging the founder to seek help with a particular product issue – he resisted at first, expressing that it would show a weakness to “need help”.

The ever popular Stephen Covey, in his Seven Habits of Highly Effective People describes the maturation process from dependent to independent then interdependent. The independence stage is where we demonstrate mastery and competence. This is the developmental task of children and peaks for teens and young adults. Parents need to allow children space for this development even when that feels risky. Independence is very much encouraged in today’s world. It seems logical that it would take someone with a strong sense of independence and competency to leave the security of a university or large company to start a company. Our society admires and encourages this independence and some of the entrepreneurs’ energy may be derived from their desire to demonstrate independence. I believe this was true for me. But we can be stuck in our independence and I believe that startup founders are at risk of this trap by their very personality.

Many of the most rewarding experiences in life, however, happen when we transition from independence to embrace interdependence. Biology is full of interdependence examples.  Common_clownfish_curves_dnsmplFamily is obviously one of the most cherished interdependent structures in our society. Many musical and sports activities are interdependent. Interdependence is, I believe, the essential quality in business environments today which absolutely require teamwork and good leadership.   Interdependence at a societal level has had profound impact – countries that are interdependent with one another are less likely to resort to war to manage conflicts.

It seems that the more successfully independent we were as a young person, the more difficulty we have during the inevitable later bumps in the road where we need the support of others.  Appropriate interdependence is not automatic – it is learned and takes practice. I was empathizing with one of my young adult children over a particularly difficult research paper they were writing. It was an esoteric topic outside their comfort zone. I asked if they had brainstormed with peers – the answer was “no” as it might be viewed by the professor as “cheating”. I found this interesting as I cannot remember the last time I wrote an important document – e.g. presentation or business plan completely by myself. That’s simply not how the business world works. Even if I were fairly independent in developing the content I would certainly show it to colleagues to find ways to improve – everything from graphics and language to logic and examples. And often the core idea is developed in a collaborative manner.

In my own life, I have found that the times when I have done something significant to seek  support or collaborate – taking what felt like a risk – have directly correlated with the times when I’ve had the most significant personal breakthroughs. When we are encouraged to seek support or other help, it is easy to perceive it to be a step back towards dependence when, in fact, accepting that support is moving forward towards interdependence and progress.

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Hitting our Stride

Last fall, Steve and I went back to Boston for our 25th HBS reunion.  We had an incredible turnout and great fun reconnecting with old friends from literally around the world. In addition, I just happily celebrated a milestone (50th) birthday.  Both of those events, I suppose, leads me to become more thoughtful on the topic of age and  work stage.

It was interesting to see the broad range of stages people were at in their careers. A few of our friends that were in semi or complete retirement mode.  At the same time many, particularly women, were just gearing up.   Several of our female friends were going back to work after some time focused on children with a few starting brand new enterprises.  For example it was great to reconnect with MaryAnne Gucciardi and discuss ecommerce strategies for her cool new startup DragonWingGirl.  Others hadn’t left the working world to parent but were clearly putting the pedal to the metal now that they are becoming “free birds” (a.k.a. empty nesters).  I could certainly resonate with that pattern.  While I have been continually intense in my career focus, the jump to entrepreneurship was a better fit for me when my kids were past the baby stage.

I am seeing a similar pattern outside of my alumnae network.  Since selling Catch.com as I have been exploring new startup ideas I have worked with, advised or met several 40’s and 50’s women embarking on an intense entrepreneurship journey.  Examples include Sarah Frisken of MadeWithMischief to Trish Costello of Portfolia and my former employees Tanya Roberts starting SheByShe and Melinda Byerly, founding Vendorsi.

I am thrilled to see such accomplished women as Janet Yellen (67) and Christine LaGarde (58) in literally two of the most powerful positions in the world.  While I cannot deny the uncanny abilities of Mark Zuckerberg in creating a multibillion dollar company in his 20’s, I must say that I’m glad that the leaders of the free-world’s financial system have a bit more experience under their belt!

Sadly, closer to home, another accomplished female economist, my cousin Pearl Kamer passed away at 74 during the height of her career.  The obituaries and eulogies, noted her impressive accomplishments as the foremost economist for the Long Island region.  They also remarked on what she was recently in the process of doing and what she could have still accomplished.  She clearly had more to contribute.  Her insights were astute – forecasting the real estate bubble and other key economic trends.

I get a thrill every time I see my former professor and thesis adviser Madeline Albright lecturing or on the talk show circuit making mincemeat of tricky questions or difficult presenters on the other side and I hope to have the opportunity to support Hillary Clinton running for and achieving the Presidency of the US.  The supreme court of our country includes among its three women an impressive octogenarian.  Ruth Bader Ginsburg must be one of the toughest human beings on the planet.  Not only has she survived two bouts with cancer she was back hearing oral arguments 12 days after pancreatic cancer surgery and didn’t miss a day of work when battling colon cancer.  While in law school and right after the birth of her daughter, Ginsburg’s husband was diagnosed with cancer.  She attended class and took notes for both of them; typed her husband’s papers from his dictation; and cared for their daughter and her sick husband – all while making the Harvard Law Review.

I am fortunate to have role models in my family for prioritizing continued work and contribution.  My great-uncle Frank Kamer (father of Pearl) practiced as an attorney until age 98.  Both of my parents, and my father-in-law, all in their 70’s, are actively practicing as physicians.  In fact, just a few months ago, my mother who worked as medical director of the North Shore Hospital Drug Rehabilitation program for more than 30 years was offered a promotion to lead an even larger program at a neighboring hospital

I aspire to follow in their footsteps.  While able to leverage my years of experience, I believe that I still have much to learn and contribute.  With each new technology, market or situation I find myself on a steep learning curve which is what makes work so exciting.  For this reason, I find biases such as the ones described here  and here to be so distressing and damaging.

This article provides a more nuanced and explanatory view and explores solutions.  As bad as the biases may be in real life, the fact that the media portrays them as completely pervasive makes their impact even worse.  In fact, the reality of startup land is much, much more diverse than the media portrayal.  This was clear to me even at the recent Launch festival here in San Francisco.

There are many great startups being founded and managed by 40 and 50 somethings.  In February, I visited Paula Long, my former board member at SugarSync, cofounder of Equallogic and now cofounder of the hot startup DataGravity.  DataGravity raised a $30million series B led by Andressen Horowitz – they are innovating at the intersection of storage and big data – exciting and critical fields today.  I didn’t see a single hoodie or masseuse at their office in Nashua.

Of course, in addition to startups being founded and led by this demographic, there are impressive members leading some of the biggest and most important companies in tech – HP, IBM, Xerox and beyond – eg GM to name a few.

Lets be sure to get the story of these women as publicized as the male 20 something story.  Half the battle towards ending these biases is awareness and information.  I believe that seeing these role models frequently and in a fair and reasonable light would encourage young women to stick it out in their careers during the challenging baby stage or maintain their skills part time or even simply dive back in later.  This pool of talent has so much potential and our society and they have so much to gain

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Two Steps Forward One Step Back

There is a famous Jewish teaching that has been on my mind given recent events in both women in tech as well as in general business:

It is not upon you to finish the work, but you are not free to ignore it.” (Mishna, Ethics, 2:21)

I wrote a few months ago about the HBS W50 event I attended – it was a gathering of HBS alumnae to celebrate, reflect on the progress (and lack thereof) of women in positions of leadership.  We were briefed on programs they have instituted to improve gender relations.  That program was highlighted in the recent New York Times piece

The article elicited mixed feelings from the classmates I have spoken with.  The consensus was that things as described in the article seemed significantly worse in terms of blatant sexism then when we were there.  It is incredibly disturbing to see regression on treatment of women. There was some question, however, if being married (or engaged) as the 3 local friends I spoke with perhaps shielded us from some of the issues?  Certainly there is some data to support this – the gender gap didn’t exist for married students.  Apparently since those students didn’t feel the pressure to find their mate amongst their class mates they could feel free to express themselves more fully in class.

But whether or not the situation at HBS is the same or worse than 25 years ago the most important point is that it is unacceptable and kudos to the administration for actively working on change.  That change is ruffling feathers and making people uncomfortable.  Perhaps there were missteps in the process – to be expected with such a complex problem but the point is that the status quo is not tolerable.

I was also encouraged to see the about face made by GoDaddy on their advertising tactics.  They finally figured out that it’s not good business to run derogatory advertising making your target customer feel degraded as described here.   Better late then never but progress.

Lack of progress, however, was on display at the TechCrunch Disrupt demo fiasco.  TechCrunch allowed (encouraged?) clearly misogynist demos.  I won’t link to them here because I don’t want TechCrunch to continue to benefit from such willful sexism.  This issue was so blatant that it almost defies a tactical response.  One cannot even discuss programs to target awareness and sensitivity when the behavior seemed so deliberate as to question any motivation for acceptance of women in the arena.  At least TechCrunch apologized.  At DefCon the sexist content is part of official programming – “Hacker Jeopardy” features a woman undressing.  Seeing people such as the CTO of Business Insider in reputable positions in the tech world defending offensive “brogrammers” is particularly upsetting and overwhelming.

It is easy to be discouraged and give up trying to right the situation.  But the glimmers of hope surround us.   Institutions such as HBS in a position of influence struggling to change and changing.  Nine year old Alexandra Jordan presented the hack “superfunkidtime.com” on stage.  Business Insider sent the aforementinoed CTO packing.  All of the aspiring girl programming I’m seeing in this year’s Technovation program not to mention the apps and the teams that built them in last year’s competition.  I’m looking forward to this year’s TechWomen program where I will once again be mentoring a Jordanian female technologist.

More importantly, the opportunity is huge.  Solving the gender gap in technology would go along way towards solving the shortage of programmers.  A 2007 Goldman Sachs report concluded that closing the gap between male and female employment would add 9% to US GDP, 13% to European GDPs and 16% to Japan’s GDP.

Feeling like we can’t solve the problem is not an excuse to not make progress.  Stepping away from “overwhelmed” to concrete steps, small or large.  It is not upon us to finish the work, but we are not free to ignore it.

Catching a Wave

When I wrote about my transition recently, I mentioned my excitement about the possibility of working with up-and-coming startups and helping them develop their products and businesses.  I also can’t seem to ever get enough of the productivity tool space – (e.g. Yahoo! Mail, Netscape Communicator, SugarSync – I’m hooked!)  I get a thrill seeing how these tools and technologies can improve people’s lives.  So when the founders of Catch asked me to consult with them as acting CEO I was thrilled to jump in.

I’m so impressed with what this small team has accomplished.  They have an absolutely gorgeous app – so beautiful that Apple has it plastered all over their home page, store and headquarters.    applehqCatch is at the intersection of some of the most exciting trends in technology – mobile, collaboration, ideation, search, cloud and b.y.o.d.   At the same time, Catch, like many early-stage, technology driven companies, has yet to figure out and implement its long-term business model.

So what is Catch?  Catch is a mobile-based collaborative note taking application.  While simple note-taking functionality a la Evernote or Google Keep is great, I believe that notes achieve their true power as the most natural basis for collaboration.  We see this clearly in the usage patterns of Catch – all kinds of business teams sharing notes to manage projects, update status – even manage field sales teams.  And the best part is it’s super light-weight, intuitive and easy-to-use.

Having a couple of months off to enjoy my family (including my east-coast children), reconnect with friends, read, hike and recharge has been great but not a long-term state for me, at least not now.  I love my work and feel fortunate to have been connected to Catch and for this timing to work out.

Some exciting things in the works here that you’ll be hearing about in the weeks ahead – stay tuned!

The Danger of Assumptions

An assumption is something we take for granted or accept as true without proof.  Assumptions are a necessary and important part of life – without them we would waste a tremendous amount of time verifying every detail of life’s operations. Assumptions make daily living more practical in matters ranging from interacting with our family to driving a car and doing complex projects at work.

But assumptions can be dangerous – they can limit our options and creativity, even our growth and development.  My focus here, however, is when assumptions lead us to errors in our actions and judgement with negative consequences.  I’ll give an example.

Early on at SugarSync we identified the need to improve many of our written documents – marketing, support articles, product documentation etc.  We were still small and only had  budget for a part time contractor.  One of our team members knew of such a person from a prior technical company where she also was a part-time contractor.  She is a mother with young children, her husband traveled quite a bit for work and at the time she wanted a part-time flexible arrangement.  This was a great mutual fit and she joined our team in this capacity.  She was highly competent and well liked by her colleagues.  As SugarSync grew we realized that we really needed full-time efforts on this function.  It didn’t occur to us that she would be interested in such a role so we started recruiting.  A couple of months later (we hadn’t hired the full-time person, in part because they didn’t measure up) our contractor gave notice that she had a full-time offer.  How could this be?  She assumed that we must not have liked her very much if we didn’t offer her the position.  We assumed that she was not interested in full-time work or would have spoken up when the workload increased or when we posted the position.  Fortunately this situation had a happy ending and she joined SugarSync full-time but it was an unnecessarily close call with a lot of avoidable heartache and time spent by both sides on recruiting.

This was a reminder to all involved about the need for extra communication and especially about the need to validate assumptions.  These types of assumptions about an individual’s career goals are particularly risky and can be incorrectly influence by gender.  Assumptions that were once valid can become erroneous in even short periods of time.  People change, their situations change.  Marketplaces and business, especially in technology, are extremely dynamic making assumptions particularly risky.

I believe that consciousness of our assumptions is one of the key foundations of critical thinking skills.  Engaging in a Socratic thought process of “what are we assuming” “how did we choose those assumptions” and “what could we assume instead” can raise this consciousness and open up creative avenues for solving existing problems with new ideas.

Assumptions are at the heart of bias and stereotypes and recognizing and questioning our assumptions is the key to change.  I believe the overwhelming evidence that diverse teams create better results is founded on the higher likelihood of those teams to overcome false assumptions and biases.  Successful leaders foster an environment that challenges assumptions and associated limits.  Innovative companies by definition have successfully challenged widely-held assumptions.  That’s why my favorite saying on the topic is this one by Ken Olson “The best assumption to have is that any commonly held belief is wrong”

I’d love to hear any examples you want to share of interesting or important false assumptions!

Why Read “Lean In”

I was fortunate last week to spend four straight days of focus on women in business and education.  One of the highlights was getting to hear Sheryl Sandberg talk about “Lean In.”  I had just finished reading the book a couple of weeks ago – most of the material in her talk came straight out of the book but it was nice to hear it directly.

My takeaway is this – the messages in the book are truly important for both women and men to hear.  They are well researched and presented with personal examples which makes the book enjoyable to read.

The messages that I found most significant that I wanted to reiterate are these:

1. Be cognizant of the negative images presented of working mothers in the media.  After all, it’s not a very interesting story to talk about how people are functioning well.  The vast majority of working mothers are portrayed negatively – either as having no personal life or as “always harried and guilt ridden think Sarah Jessica Parker in I Don’t Know how She Does It” (p.23).  Women are surrounded by headlines warning them that they can’t do it all, even though the data actually contradicts this – “Employed women reap rewards including greater financial security, more stable marriages, better health, and, in general, increased life satisfaction” (p.24).

Reminding ourselves that there is tremendous bias in this portrayal and noticing the role models who are thriving can help us aspire to the same.  As parents we can point them out to our children and remind our friends and colleagues. These societally driven negative perceptions will be self-fulfilling prophecies if we don’t guard against them.

2. Multiple research studies show that women underestimate themselves and society underestimates them.  When women underestimate themselves and when they attribute their success not to themselves but to others or luck (a related tendency) they, not surprisingly, do not aspire as high.  Our culture and the media confirmation perpetuates this.

Awareness of this self talk, boosting our female colleagues, friends and family and debunking unfair reviews by media and others are important to balance this tendency.  Keeping these biases in mind, women can ask themselves are they not applying for or accepting the promotion due to unsubstantiated insecurities?  Similarly, as managers we may need to seek out women and suggest they consider expanded roles, and certainly not hold it against them if they don’t apply as readily.

3.  Sandberg describes the success/likeability double standard that pervades our culture.  The research clearly shows that “success and likeability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women” (p.40).  Women are intuitive enough to sense this double standard and either consciously or unconsciously hold themselves back.  I’ve seen devastating consequences of this double standard for my women friends and colleagues – both socially and professionally.  It takes a very thick skin to put yourself in the fray and there is a price to pay.  This ties back to the underestimation point (above) as stated by to author Ken Auletta in the New Yorker “self-doubt becomes a form of self-defense”

This barrier is a tough one to get over – we are social creatures, we want and even need to be liked.  Unfortunately, for now, we need to learn to withstand this criticism – not ignore it  – it is ok to let the feelings exist, but by not dwelling we can prove this myth wrong and work to change it – once again, awareness is the most important step.

There are other important messages in the book and I applaud Sandberg for putting herself out there in writing the book and for including her many personal stories.  Of course, her resources gives her options and support that most working mothers don’t have.  I found myself chuckling that her description of her and her husband’s marital division of household labor doesn’t even acknowledge the existence of things like laundry and cleaning (p.111).  Nevertheless, the main points and issues she describes and certainly the ones above are true for women of all socioeconomic positions.

As far as the criticism and controversy that has surrounded the book, especially at first (I note that it has died down – I think now that more people have actually read it) I find it to be the height of irony.  Many of the critics are displaying exactly the kind of biases  Sandberg writes about – certainly the likeability one.  I see no reason not to assume her absolute best intentions.  We should applaud her for applying her talents and ambition and “Leaning In” to support and encourage women and families.

Working From Home

The recent Yahoo policy banning working from home has become quite controversial spawning many articles and even a highway 101 billboard.  Over the years I’ve managed teams using a range of policies so I have some definite views about what works and what doesn’t in different situations.  And that is the key point…this is not a one size fits all theory but one that is specific to the business and it’s situation at the time.

It wasn’t so long ago that we did not have the tools to make working from home practical.   As I’ve written about here previously, in my early days at Informix – pre laptop, pre internet at home, I would need to go back to the office to work in the evening or weekends.  Those tools and technologies enhanced by web and video conferencing allow us to be extremely effective even when not in the office.

I’ve experienced varying degrees of remote work effectiveness during my career.  When I was at Netscape (post IPO 97-03), the success of the Mozilla project and browser development in general was strongly impacted by key developers who worked remotely.  Their talents would become obvious from their open source contributions and either they would participate long term as key volunteers or in several cases we hired them as employees.  Most of those individuals stayed working in their locations as far away as Europe and New Zealand.  We also had some star employees who had to move out of the area for personal reasons.  What made these situations work well was the proven talent and work ethic of these individuals plus the open source infrastructure to manage their contributions and assess their performance.  There was a critical mass of remote employees that meant that large group meetings were always set up with dial-in numbers and managers were trained to facilitate.  We even had one director who effectively managed a multi-location team from Boulder.  That being said, most employees were in the office most of the time and it was a very collaborative culture.

My next role, ironically given the impetus for this post was at Yahoo.  I was there from 2003-2004 – during the heyday.  It is interesting to note that people rarely worked from home during that time.

When I got to Check Point to manage the Zone Labs division I inherited a very liberal work from home policy.  In addition, Wednesday and Friday were supposed to be “no-meetings” days.   Early on my manager Eyal Desheh expressed concern about the productivity and work ethic of the team.  My first assumption was that he didn’t understand Silicon Valley culture and how this could actually work.  Unfortunately, his warnings were correct.  The issue wasn’t the work from home as much as a lack of drive related to many typical post acquisition HR issues.  The work ethic issues were far from universal but they were contagious and affected everyone and working from home accentuated the problems.  I quickly changed the work from home policy for the people who reported to me.  The “no meetings” policy was changed to not apply to my team nor managers in the engineering organization and it eventually fell away (although managing the amount of time spent in meetings, particularly for engineers is critical).  The transition was difficult and created lots of handwringing but it improved productivity quickly and morale soon after.

When I started at SugarSync I was glad to see that our culture was one of people working primarily in the office.  In January of 2009 we were 13 people – the challenge was great to just get the job done with such a small team.  We couldn’t afford missteps anoffice spaced missed communication and collaboration possibilities by not being together.  We kept that policy going as we hired – it is much easier if the ground rules are clear from the start.  We designed our new office to be a very open setup to foster collaboration.

This didn’t mean it was easy – SugarSync has several people commuting long distances.  We always have had flextime – working slightly earlier or later schedules to avoid the traffic but still we were generally in the office together during the main part of the day.  Of course this doesn’t mean we didn’t recognize that people have life issues that require occasional work from home – a sick child, dentist appointments, plumbing emergencies but those are the exception not the norm.

For a startup in a fast moving industry such as the cloud, the work environment is dynamic and high-pressure.  Challenging problems require creativity and quick teamwork to solve.  I believe we were much more effective at SugarSync by being together.  As the team grew the learning curve was shortened dramatically for newcomers working alongside the experienced people.  Once people were working in our environment and saw the benefits of close proximity and collaboration they understood why it was needed and embraced it.  One of my favorite questions to ask new hires was what surprised them the most about SugarSync – a frequent answer was how they thought we were a much larger team than we in fact were.  I think this was a reflection of the team’s productivity.

Is it always better to be together in the office?  For certain tasks that require extended, uninterrupted time, working away from the office can be more productive (assuming you have an appropriate environment for concentration at the alternate location).  Some roles, like sales or field support by their nature are not in the office.  Many people have critical points in time where they need more time away from the office perhaps due to a health or other personal issue for them or a family member.  Allowing them to work remotely allows key people to stay with the company and maintain project continuity.

So what’s my net on this important debate?  For me it’s clear.  If at all possible, have the team primarily working together in the office during work hours.  If there are critical hires you can only make (or keep) it might be worth considering exceptions recognizing the consequences and need to manage around them.  For a company in crisis or a turnaround situation (like Yahoo) or where there is reason to believe there are productivity issues (again like Yahoo) having everyone much more together in the office may be one of the keys to the turnaround.   For a fast growing startup in a very intense space requiring collaboration and team problem solving working in the office together is important.

Does this make juggling work and personal life less easy – perhaps.  This is why companies need to be reasonably consistent.  If the reports of Marissa Mayer’s in the office nursery are true I would find that to be insensitive to the other parents of babies who are coming to the office without that close access.  We must, after all,  lead by example.  The example that I tried to set was to work hard and collaborate together during the workday.  When not in a crunch time, to leave early enough to have a few hours, including dinner, with the family and then, if needed, get back on line after the kids went to bed (or were doing their homework independently).    As managers and leaders we need to figure out what works best for our businesses and our teams.  These observations are what I have found to be most effective.

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Transition Time

I’ve written quite often on this blog about transitions – they are a natural part of life and any business ecosystem, and embracing change is part of making the most of new opportunities.  2013 marks a transition for SugarSync, and myself.  We have launched a search for a new CEO.

SugarSync has undergone a wonderful transition over the last several months.  SugarSync 2.0 launched successfully to great reviews including PCWorld and PCMagazine.  I couldn’t be more proud of this product.  Our team of designers and engineers took our highly-rated core sync foundation and rearchitected the user experience for simplicity while continuing to innovate around sharing.  The goal was to better serve an ever-expanding set of users, including businesses and larger enterprises who are rapidly moving to the cloud. Consumerization of IT is real and we are experiencing this phenomenon first hand at SugarSync.

Simultaneously, the mass-market consumer space is experiencing a competitive environment that poses challenges for any company who wants to invest in growth.  SugarSync is in a prime position to continue our growth trajectory serving business customers in addition to consumers. From a product perspective, our strategy remains strong. The vast majority of upcoming features will serve both audiences extremely well.

From a company prospective, SugarSync needs to evolve its strategy to better serve business customers. This means dramatically expanding SaaS channel opportunities and corporate sales functions, among other changes.

After quite a bit of thoughtful introspection, I came to the realization that SugarSync would be best led by a CEO with deep and recent expertise in this type of SaaS enterprise environment.  After further discussion with our board of directors, we agreed to begin the search for a new CEO for SugarSync.

It’s impossible to fully express my gratitude to and appreciation of the entire SugarSync team. What an amazing group of professionals and technologists. I will continue to serve as CEO and Board member during this transition and will do everything in my power to support the Board and new CEO.  After four years of building such an exciting business, I am committed to doing everything possible to make sure we realize SugarSync’s maximum potential.

Of course, this was an extremely difficult decision.   I have often said that while I did not give birth to SugarSync (for that I need to thank its visionary founders), I adopted it and have loved it as if I were here from the start.   I joined the company during one of the most challenging economic times in Silicon Valley’s history.  We were near bankruptcy, the broader economy had melted down and employees were fleeing – we were down to 13 people.   I’ve loved pouring my energies into rebuilding the team, launching a successful freemium model, signing and launching many major partnerships with global companies such as Samsung, Lenovo, and many others.  We’ve raised multiple rounds of financing at increasing (more than twenty fold) valuations, and so much more. SugarSync increased its user base five fold last year and experienced a dramatic increase in our revenue. We were proud of achieving 99th in the 2011 Inc500 with $11million of revenue and have continued to exceed a 100% growth rate. More importantly, the business is in an excellent financial position to continue strong growth.  I’ve been honored to be a part of this team.

So…what’s next for me?  SugarSync was a turnaround situation based on an idea and a dream from the original founders.  I have some startup ideas of my own and I’m excited to invest time vetting these possibilities to understand their true potential.   In addition, given my experience leading both direct-to-consumer and partner-oriented successes at SugarSync, I am being approached by several companies to advise or help lead the charge to solve similar go-to-market challenges.  I want to be able to give those opportunities due consideration and I’m really looking forward to helping make a difference in start-up successes.

And finally, as readers here know, I’m deeply passionate about supporting women in startups and technology. Silicon Valley is more welcoming to women entrepreneurs than ever before in my 20+ years here, and it’s an exciting time to support this new generation of leaders. I’m looking forward to having the time to take a more direct and active role in supporting their success.

As CEO of SugarSync I haven’t had the time to participate fully in the broader conversation of women in technology and, even more interestingly, envisioning new experiences on the internet – I look forward to doing that in the coming months.

I’d like to take one last opportunity to thank the amazing SugarSync team, our dedicated board of directors, and most importantly, all of our loyal customers. This has been an amazing and humbling experience, and I’m grateful for every second of it.

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