Tech CEOs’ first jobs: Licorice maker, housekeeper, scuba diver and more

Before their corporate jobs, many tech CEOs got their hands dirty, scrubbing oils stains off asphalt, cleaning bathrooms, and shoveling monkey cages. Here are their stories.

ceo first jobs

It can be a long climb to the top of the corporate ladder. We asked tech CEOs who’ve reached the highest rung to share their first job experiences. Some were entrepreneurs at an early age, offering lawn-mowing and scuba diving services. Others toiled in the fields and factories. Many got their hands dirty, scrubbing oil stains off asphalt, cleaning bathrooms, and shoveling monkey cages. Here are their stories. (See also 12 career tips from tech CEOs.)

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David Flynn, Aerohive CEO

Not long after David Flynn got his driver’s license, he saw a guy in scuba gear at a marina and learned that boat owners would pay a diver to clean boat bottoms and do salvage work. Flynn, who got his scuba certification when he was 12, started plotting his new business. “I drove around to all the marinas in the New York metro area and Connecticut and put up fliers advertising my scuba services,” he says. He’d clean boat bottoms, scrape off barnacles and get rid of algae. He’d also retrieve lost items, such as a dropped winch handle or missing anchor. “I’d crawl around in the mud at the bottom of the Hudson River, finding lost moorings.”

Aaron Suzuki, SmartDeploy CEO

At age 12, Aaron Suzuki found farm work in his rural Minnesota hometown. One of his jobs was picking rocks: “You walk up and down these rows and rows of corn and bean fields and grab any large rocks that are turned up in the process of tilling the soil and hurl them onto a flatbed being pulled by a tractor,” he recalls. Another job was spraying weed-killer to protect soybean plants. “We generally got started around sunrise and went until we were done at 4:00 or 5:00 or 6:00 p.m.” With the money he earned, Suzuki bought his first computer, a Commodore VIC-20.

Ditlev Bredahl, OnApp CEO

Cleaning oil spills off asphalt was a tough, physically demanding job for an 11-year-old boy, but Ditlev Bredahl spent two years doing it. Early on, he left one day at the end of his shift, even though he hadn’t managed to remove some particularly tough stains. “My boss called me late at night and told me to come back down to the gas station and finish the job. He even stayed late to watch over me. I had a really hard time cleaning it, and asked him with frustration, ‘What do you want me to do?’ His answer was, ‘Whatever it f****** takes.’ That was a serious lesson -- really. I stayed all night, and the asphalt was sparkling clean after that.”

Shawn Jenkins, Benefitfocus CEO

After working on a fishing boat, Shawn Jenkins set his sights on flying. He got his pilot’s license at 17, achieved an instrument rating, added a multi-engine rating, and then became a flight instructor at 19. “I could get in a plane by myself and fly to other locations. I loved the freedom and independence of that,” Jenkins says. He spent about a year working as a flight instructor, and some of the training has influenced the way he runs a company. “Our managers go through a manager certification program, and it’s patterned after aviation pilots,” Jenkins says. “You have to go through classes and stay current to keep your certification. It’s a direct rip-off from how I learned to fly.”

Jesse Rothstein, ExtraHop Networks CEO

When Jesse Rothstein was a teenager, he spent four years working at an Italian restaurant as a busboy -- but that’s not what he called it. “Even back then, I joked that I was a ‘table maintenance engineer’ not a busboy. I valued a good title,” Rothstein quips. His responsibilities included not only clearing tables but also vacuuming the restaurant, cleaning the bathrooms, and seating customers. “I had to choose who got seated in which section, and if the waiters or waitresses thought that you were favoring someone, they wouldn’t hesitate to tell you. That was my first experience with office politics.”

Steve Wiehe, SciQuest CEO

When Steve Wiehe was a teen, his parents bought a chain of laundromats to supplement their teaching salaries. “It was a great concept, but my father couldn’t drive a nail into a piece of wood if his life depended on it,” says Wiehe, who became the de factor repairman for the family business. During his freshman year of high school, he went to three weeks of night school, where he learned plumbing fundamentals and how to repair washers and dryers. “On Saturdays, may dad would drive me to the laundromat and I’d fix all the broken machines and do all the plumbing. I really enjoyed it, because I’ve always been very interested in how things work.”

Mike Granby, Red Lion Controls CEO

Mike Granby parlayed his computer programming hobby into his first paid gig when he helped a friend’s father, who was starting his own business, create financial modeling documents. “I knew nothing at all about business, and he knew nothing about computers. But between us, we had to construct the P&L, cash flow statements, and balance sheets for the new entity he was creating.” That summer, Granby got hooked on entrepreneurship. “That’s when I decided what I wanted to do in life was to run my own business. And that’s what I did. I even skipped college to do that.”

Stephane Bourque, Incognito Software CEO

Stephane Bourque’s first job was working for Y&S, a licorice maker owned by Hershey. The company had a machine that loaded candies into plastic bags, and “my job was to get the candy and feed the conveyor belt all day or all night,” Bourque recalls. “One night I remember I physically moved 56 tons of Goodies.” One lesson Bourque learned in the factory is the importance of appreciating all employees, especially those who do work that appears unglamorous. “You have to appreciate them and you have to make sure that it gets contagious, so other people appreciate them as well,” Bourque says. “You can’t have a company where anyone is not treated with respect, regardless of their job. Everyone is valuable.”

Bill Morrow, Quarri Technologies CEO

When Bill Morrow was nine years old, he started selling strawberries to earn money for a ping-pong table. By 12, he’d started a lawn-mowing service. At 15, he went to work at a monkey farm. “My job for the first few months was shoveling out old pebbles from the cribs and shoveling back in new pebbles. Then I began to feed the monkeys, and over time I came to be a physician’s assistant of sorts and would participate in the treatment of the monkeys,” Morrow says. “I’m one of the few people who worked there for multiple years and still have all my digits.”

Ben Smith, ShopCo CEO

“This job is where I first got my hands on a computer that I could play with,” says Ben Smith of his job working at a small-town pharmacy owned by two brothers. “On Saturday afternoons, one of the brothers always worked because it was slow, and he could watch the Alabama and Auburn football games. We would always spend time programming simple applications on a Timex Sinclair computer, which sold for $99 with 2K of memory. I learned a lot from James Stalling on Saturday afternoons about building ‘stuff,’ and most importantly, building relationships.”

Carlos Escapa, VirtualSharp CEO

“My boss was a very enthusiastic guy, very easy to get along with, simple and kind, patient as can be. He was a morning person if I ever met one, so even if we arrived to work half asleep, he made sure we were awake before we started the huge industrial-size ovens,” recalls Carlos Escapa, whose first job was to prepare hot breakfast for students. “Being an early bird and working hard while people are still sleeping gives you a tremendous advantage the rest of the day. Also remembering how people like their eggs cooked helps build nice personal relations.”

Michael Sandoval, Atigeo CEO

At six years old, “I gathered frogs, snakes, and salamanders from marsh lands in my wagon and sold to kids in the developed neighborhood nearby,” recalls Michael Sandoval. “Gathering the creatures was fun, as was taking care of them; even sledging through the mud and muck was enjoyable! Pulling my wagon full of marsh water, buckets, and creatures into the neighborhood was physically exhausting and on my first attempt of sales, I ran out of product. My last creature was a salamander that I sold to the highest bidder for $2, and the losing bidder punched me in the face.”

Dave Rich, Revolution Analytics CEO

When he was 16 years old, Dave Rich got a job calling local football games: “I would follow the game, announcing and analyzing every move the players made. I would add a little color to the game myself, too,” he recalls. “As PA announcer, I overcame any shyness I might have had. I quickly developed a thick skin and learned not to be rattled by other people’s opinions. This is a hard lesson to learn at such a young age and a very valuable one.”

Andy Hurd, Epocrates CEO

Before joining the tech world, Andy Hurd was a free agent with the Chicago Bulls and later went to play basketball in Europe for the Glasgow Airport Flyers in 1987-1988. “My first ‘job’ was actually playing basketball overseas, which was a lot of fun,” Hurd says. “Athletics has provided me with a great foundation in building and leading teams and the disciplines necessary to build positive growth in those teams every day.”

George Teixeira, DataCore Software CEO

George Teixeira ascended the ranks from housekeeper to hotel manager, but not before “cleaning and making more beds then anyone should,” he recalls. The housekeeping job taught him a lot about humility, dealing with difficult and demanding people, and making the most of every opportunity. “When you start out as a housekeeper, you're at the ground level of a hotel’s operation, so you really get to see and learn how things are. As a CEO of a software company, I’ve done most of the jobs within the company. It gives you an idea of how all the things work together,” Teixeira says. “Everyone today wants to start off as an executive. But you can't.”

Josh McCarter, GramercyOne CEO

When he was 12 years old, Josh McCarter worked at a Volkswagen dealership getting new and used cars ready to sell, which meant doing everything “from degreasing engines, to polishing rims and cleaning out cigarette trays.” As the only non-Hispanic in the detail shop, he started to learn Spanish so he could communicate with his coworkers, and it sparked an interest in studying the language. “I ultimately became fluent, lived in Central America, tutored athletes at UCLA in Spanish, and got my first job out of college opening up sales and distribution partnerships in Latin America,” McCarter says.

Kevin Thompson, SolarWinds CEO

Kevin Thompson started mowing lawns when he was nine years old, after he convinced two neighbors to let him cut their grass while they were on vacation. Through word of mouth, he gained about a dozen residential jobs and later added some business customers. During the five years he mowed lawns, Thompson learned a lot about time management, how to deal with people, and doing good work. “If you do a really great job for someone, they’re going to tell someone else,” he says. “Once I did those first two lawns, I really didn’t have to go out and knock on a bunch of people’s doors.”

Pete Khanna, TrackVia CEO

Pete Khanna’s first job was to move hay bails from a wagon trailer to conveyor belt and then stack the bails in the barn. Pay was based on the amount of hay moved, Khanna recalls. “We got paid the same amount whether we worked one hour or 20 hours. It motivated us to find ways to work together and get the job done faster.” The lessons he learned about putting in a hard day’s work stayed with him: “Regardless of the job or position, saying to an employer that you'll work harder and smarter than anyone else makes a difference,” Khanna says. “And in today's competitive job marketplace, getting that message across can be the difference between landing a job or not.”

Mitch Medford, RF Code CEO

“As I approached 14, I was so excited to get my worker’s permit. I would say that was almost as exciting to me as getting my driver’s license,” Mitch Medford says. His first hourly job was at an ice cream distribution center, where he loaded trucks, cleaned trucks, and occasionally worked inside the retail store scooping ice cream. “That entire summer I kept the worst head cold I ever had in my life,” Medford says. “I would go wash a truck or two, get soaking wet, then go into the sherbert freezer, which is below zero, and load trucks, then go wash a couple of trucks again. I didn’t figure out until the end of the summer the proper order to do things.”

Ratmir Timashev, Veeam Software CEO

Ratmir Timashev skipped life as an employee and jumped right into entrepreneurship. “My business partner, Andrei Baronov, and I didn’t have any software experience and, really, no experience working in any company at all outside of grad school. So it wasn’t only our first job at a software company; it was our first job ever,” Timashev says of their startup, Aelita. “I liked that we had to learn everything and that the business grew exponentially. But we were constantly making mistakes due to our lack of experience. It’s the only way to learn, really, but those mistakes were really upsetting.”

Jim McCluney, Emulex CEO

Jim McCluney grew up in a small town in Scotland, where his first job was delivering groceries on a bicycle. “I was about 11 or 12, and it was nice to get some pocket money,” he says. The job called for him to leave the groceries on customers’ doorsteps, but sometimes he carried them inside and helped put them away if people needed assistance. “I quickly learned that giving a little bit more customer service, sometimes you get a little bit better tips, maybe even a glass of lemonade. At an early age, I learned try to delight the customer; you never know, they might delight you back.”

Gord Boyce, ForeScout CEO

“Delivering papers in January after a blizzard in Northern Ontario” was a low point in Gord Boyce’s two-year tenure as a paperboy for the Globe and Mail newspaper. Papers were expected to be delivered by 7:00 a.m., no matter the weather. The job taught him that “customer service is extremely important, and you have to meet your commitments,” Boyce says. Another lesson learned? “It's difficult to do a job that you don't at least like, if not love.”

Sacha Labourey, CloudBees CEO

Long before the days of consumer-handy GPS, Sacha Labourey had an internship in a research lab for a Swiss watch maker and was tasked with helping to develop a feature that would allow the wearer to locate the direction of Mecca. “It was very basic, but pretty accurate and simple to use. At the time, there was no easy way for travelers to know where Mecca was,” Labourey says. The internship helped solidify a career path for Labourey, who had been considering business school. “Two hours into the job, I knew I wouldn’t go to business school. I would do something real and become an engineer. To be with so many PhDs and researchers -- I saw them working on really cool stuff,” he says.

Alex Pinchev, Acronis CEO

After leaving the Soviet Union with his family in the late 1970s, Alex Pinchev spent six years in the Israeli army. “I learned a lot in the Israeli army that I have carried with me through my adult life. The most valuable lesson was an ability to respond to any situation quickly and not just wait until somebody will do it for you. Take control when you need to, correct a mistake if you make one,” he says.

Sanjeev Gupta, Realization Technologies

Sanjeev Gupta took a job as a dishwasher at Virginia Tech to earn money for books. “I was a graduate student, but my boss was sophomore undergrad. He managed an operation of 50 people, and that such a young person could be so responsible was pretty amazing to me,” Gupta says. He learned from his boss “that young people can do a lot. It’s just a matter of putting them in the right position. That stayed with me, that young people can be given that kind of responsibility and they will come through.”

Scott Abel, Spiceworks CEO

Working at Der Wienerschnitizel “Looking back on that first job through the lens of what I know now, what really set it apart from other fast food places in town was the culture instilled by the owner and his managers. It was a culture of hard work, ownership and accountability, and fun. … I'd actually look forward to going to work for a 12-hour shift,” Abel says. He’s tried to duplicate that experience with his last three start-ups. “We try to make the work itself fun -- engaging and challenging where the team gets to plot their own course. If the work is fun, you don't need to make up reasons for people to come to work to have fun - they just do it.”

Saar Bitner, SysAid CEO

Saar Bitner’s first job was during the dial-up age, when he provided technical support for an ISP in Israel. He enjoyed the job -- talking customers through troubleshooting processes, and interacting with smart, technically-inclined coworkers -- and it helped him decide what to study in college. “I had been considering whether to go into accounting, or to study math, but during my time there, working with technology helped me to decide to get my engineering degree.”

Tomer Kagan, Quixey CEO

“As a small theater, we did everything from running the counter, setting up the films, cleaning up and doing whatever was needed to keep the doors open,” Tomer Kagan says of his summer job at a movie theater. “The most satisfying part of the job was being able to be very customer-focused. Because we were a very small theater that served only a couple of dozen people in the middle of the day, we were able to deliver food and snacks directly to their seats, get to know recurring customers by name, and generally do things that larger corporate theaters couldn't do.”

Thad Eidman, Knoa Software CEO

Thad Eidman’s first job was at the first Toyota dealership in Texas. “I worked in the ‘new car make ready’ department. Once a customer purchased a car, we got it ready for delivery by the sales team,” Eidman says. Back then, the quality of Toyota cars wasn’t what it is today, he says, but the company was committed to getting better. “From those original fragile cars, Toyota has built an empire based on recognition for high quality. … It didn’t happen overnight. They listened to their customers and focused on improving each part of their car, every year. We need to do the same with technology products,” he says.

Kris Duggan, Badgeville CEO

“As an assistant to my dad's chemical company, I did whatever was needed. One of my main jobs was to drive around and test chemicals for our customers, which was part of their full service package. I also quickly became the company’s go-to technical resource, launching our first website and implementing Salesforce.com for the company,” Duggan says. “While I quickly decided I wasn’t cut out for manual labor, I enjoyed the idea of being a knowledge worker, and being able to grow a company from nothing.”

Andy Grolnick, LogRhythm CEO

For Andy Grolnick, a free scoop of ice cream during every shift and the chance to work with a girl he had a crush on were the main benefits of working as a dishwasher at Swenson’s Ice Cream Parlor. “No job or task is beneath anyone and each role is important to a successful operation,” Grolnick says. “Take pride in what you do and do it well. Everyone, including the CEO, needs to be ready and willing to roll their sleeves up and do whatever is needed.”

Joe Fantuzzi, Agiliance CEO

Joe Fantuzzi delivered newspapers for five years, until he turned 16 and was promoted to district manager. “My news carrier role taught me important early lessons and skills in promotion, competing, selling, service, risk taking and rewards, well beyond the monetary benefit,” Fantuzzi says. “I bought my first car -- a new VW Rabbit -- at age 20 using cash, solely from profits during my years as a news carrier and temporary district manager.

S.K. Ho, Biscom founder

S.K. Ho’s first job was working at an aerospace consulting firm during graduate school in the early 1960s. After graduation, he was hired as a research scientist. He stayed a couple of years in the mathematics-heavy environment, but found he was drawn to the world of digital technology. His engineering career eventually included 19 years at Wang Laboratories. “I directly reported to Dr. Wang, and I learned a lot from him,” he says. “When I joined Wang it was a $16 million company. When I left, it was $3.5 billion.”

Chris Gladwin, Cleversafe CEO

Chris Gladwin joined the working world when he was 12 years old and began delivering daily newspapers and collecting subscription fees from roughly 100 customers. "I learned the value of hard work, not only in making money but also the self-esteem that comes from getting a job done," Gladwin says.

Mark Lucas, Imation CEO

Mark Lucas lobbied hard for his first job, calling every week after submitting his application until he was hired to work at the Norwalk Cove Marina on Long Island Sound. “I did everything from clean bilges of marina-owned boats, to yard and maintenance work, to errands, to being a gasoline attendant on their gas dock. I simply wanted a job around the water,” Lucas says. After three years at the marina, when he was 18, he became dockmaster, managing the docks and customers of more than 500 boats. “I changed my college major as a result of the learnings at this job.”