12 tips from tech CEOs on how to succeed

Tech CEOs share what makes them different -- the hobbies, habits and traits that influence how they run their companies

LogRhythm CEO hobbies

Andy Grolnick donned a suit coat and tie and readied himself for a frothy commute. The CEO of LogRhythm was among 200 people who tubed down Colorado’s Boulder Creek, outfitted in helmets and business attire, on July 14.

“There are pretty good rapids,” Grolnick says of the two-mile passage to LogRhythm’s offices, which took about an hour to navigate. It’s also cold. “It’s all run-off from the 14,000-foot peak. You’re definitely shivering at the end of the ride. It’s invigorating.”

This year, roughly 80 of the people who braved the creek for Boulder’s Tube to Work Day were from security analytics firm LogRhythm. It was Grolnick’s second year participating in the event.

For Grolnick, it’s a way to stay connected to employees while having fun. Just as LogRhythm’s corporate softball, basketball and hockey games give workers a chance to unwind outside the office and get to know more of their coworkers, the tubing event brings people closer together.

“From the beginning we’ve been focused on building a culture that we – that anyone -- would actually enjoy working in,” Grolnick says.

Making the workplace attractive to technology pros helps with recruiting and retention in a competitive hiring environment. There’s a productivity payoff, too. “Teams that know each, that trust each other, are going to be more effective,” Grolnick acknowledges.

Paying attention to corporate culture is just one way Grolnick aims to be a better leader. He’s not alone. Tech CEOs have many different strategies for success.

We asked tech CEOs to share what makes them different. We weren’t looking for management advice, but for personal habits or traits that influence how they run their companies. Here are some of their ideas.

Being a lifelong learner

James Tauber has completed more than 15 MOOCs over the last two years, tackling topics such as astronomy, molecular biology and musicology. He’s currently doing graduate-level studies in Ancient Greek, and he recently passed the first-level sommelier exam.

Continually learning new things makes him a better leader, says Tauber, who is founder and CEO of Eldarion, an incubator and open source web development agency.

“It has enabled me to be more adaptive to change and to identify common patterns that people with a more narrow focus of interests might miss,” Tauber says. “Through a broad base of knowledge, you can relate to many different types of people and perspectives, which means you can see more opportunities and are able to act on them.”

Getting energized

Gary Oliver, CEO at data intelligence company Blazent, finds an escape from the office can be therapeutic and enlightening.

“As most CEOs would attest, turning off the day job is very difficult, even if you have many interests outside of work. You don’t have to be sitting in the office to be thinking about strategy, or the business model, or that new market you are looking to expand to. It is there in the back of your mind all the time.”

“Getting outdoors is what I do to recharge my batteries and clear my mind, and my favorite activities are those that require complete concentration,” Oliver says. Fly fishing, skiing, surfing, and photography are a few of his pastimes. “What all of these activities have in common is they require total concentration and physical effort, which is so therapeutic. Sometimes breakthrough ideas also come right after…like on the ski lift back to the top of the hill or sitting by a roaring fire after a day on the river.”

Another tactic of Oliver is to look outside his own business to broaden his perspective. For example, Oliver serves on the board of Special Olympics, Northern California and Nevada, and recently finished two years as chairman. “We have 22,000 wonderful athletes in the program, and we are now focused on integrating the curriculum into the school systems, which is changing lives in a profound way for all students, not just those with intellectual disabilities,” he says.

“Getting outside of your own business to help others will also benefit your company in the form of new ideas, fresh approaches, community impact, and employee morale,” Oliver says.

Staying disciplined

Maury Blackman says being disciplined outside of the office helps him stay balanced professionally. He trains for and competes in Ironman races (2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike and 26.2-mile run).

“At first, it was a bucket list item, then I realized what a powerful impact it had on my professional life,” says Blackman, CEO and president of Accela, which makes cloud software for government.

“I often get asked, ‘how do you have time?’ We all have the same 24-hour clock – it’s what you do with it!” Blackman says. “In order to be successful, I adopted a daily and consistent regimen of exercise (two hours per day average), sleep (7-8 hours), and healthy eating. The key is ‘daily’ – that focus provides that the balance and predictability in my personal and professional life.”

A coach once told Blackman that the key to success is to keep moving forward, no matter how hard or adverse the path may be. “I try to lead with that same mantra – look forward, keep running in a positive direction, and success will [be] at the finish.”

Being accessible

Accessibility is a hallmark of Tim Chen, who has worked to create an open and approachable culture at DomainTools.

“From the beginning, there have been no offices at DomainTools. I have a stand-up desk in the middle of the floor, and all executives are similarly located,” says Chen, CEO of the DNS and domain name specialist. (See also: Tired of sitting all day? Tech pros take a stand)

He also makes sure to stay involved with hiring. “Over the last six years, every single person at DomainTools, regardless of role or seniority, had me on their interview schedule,” Chen says. “Hiring and retaining outstanding employees is the absolute most important thing a CEO does. Period. So you have to set and defend a very high hiring bar and remain very involved.”

But weekends are his own. “I try very hard to avoid working weekends, and I do not subscribe to the mantra of being ‘always connected’. Sure, if I have a board meeting or other important deliverable, then weekend work is necessary. But I try hard to avoid it, to disconnect and take a digital-break,” Chen says.

One of his weekend activities? Surfing. “It’s the one thing I do where I never ever think about work. The benefit for the company is clear -- I enter Monday well rested, with a clear mind.”

Preserving culture and connections

As ExtraHop grows, making sure the company culture remains intact is an ongoing priority for Jesse Rothstein, CEO of the data analytics platform maker. He stays involved in hiring, and he’s diligent about connecting with employees. Email is an important tool for staying on top of corporate issues, so he always handles his inbox personally rather than having his messages screened by an assistant.

“You really have to think about how you scale the company and how you gain leverage from the fewer touchpoints and the fewer interactions that you have,” Rothstein says. “It’s why I read all the emails, it’s why I send people notes, and it’s why I try to make sure I meet all the new hires. It’s very important stuff.”

In his downtime Rothstein reads with his 13-year-old daughter – “we have an informal father-daughter book club. I end up reading a lot of young adult dystopian books and young adult supernatural books,” he says -- and watches cartoons – “I watch a fair bit of Star Wars: The Clone Wars” -- with his 10-year-old son.

Achieving a healthy work-life balance is an ongoing goal – and one that Rothstein knows is shared by his colleagues.

“I certainly identify with a lot of people who are trying to find that balance between work and family because it’s a balance I continually struggle to find. No sooner do I think I’ve found it in a particular day or particular week, and then I feel like I’ve lost it again. It’s a constant struggle.”

Staying hands-on

Dirk Paessler, CEO of Paessler AG, writes and looks at code nearly every day. In addition, he makes time to answer a number of support tickets each week, keeping him connected with customers who use the company’s network and IT monitoring software.

“I’d actually recommend that every executive out there go and stand in his own shop or answer his clients’ emails, because that’s how you learn what people really want. Not by buying and reading extensive market analysis.”

Seeing the bright side of tech

Tech can be an equalizer, according to Todd Thibodeaux, president and CEO at nonprofit IT industry association CompTIA. He takes inspiration from the creative, innovative and inclusive aspects of tech.

“Tech is an egalitarian thing. It aims to bring tremendous capability to the masses, and I think that breeds a sense of inclusion,” Thibodeaux says. “Tech is also very forward looking and optimistic by nature. It gives you faith in the future. The sense of optimism and dynamism is a crucial part of leadership.”

In his free time, Thibodeaux loves to travel and explore. “I practice yoga, meditate, stay active with running, biking and hiking. I play pool, bowl and have an indoor golf simulator,” he says. Those activities, in turn, help him stay relatable. “A global perspective and a wide range of interests gives me a sliver of something in common with a wide range of people.”

Welcoming change

Amit Yoran, president of RSA, aims to create a culture that mixes opportunities to unwind with opportunities to reinvent.

“For me, it’s the attention to workplace culture that makes RSA what it is – a place for employees to take a spin around the hallways on a big wheel bike, grab a ping-pong paddle for a quick game, or take part in a ski trip with colleagues,” Yoran says. “Whatever it takes to inspire greatness. If you can’t have fun at work and still do genius things, why bother?”

At the same time, he believes in disrupting the status quo. “Between my military, government, and private sector experience, I’ve been in the security game a long time and I try to apply everything I’ve learned to transform one of the cybersecurity industry’s most storied companies,” Yoran says. “RSA has always been at the front of people’s minds when they think of security. But times change and threats change, so we’re reinventing ourselves for the challenges customers face today and will face tomorrow.”

Fostering endurance, humility and collaboration

James Bindseil, CEO of managed file transfer specialist Globalscape, draws from his military background to continually foster the traits he views as critical to the company’s growth – namely “having long-term vision and endurance, discipline and careful calculation, and precise and adaptive strategy.”

“I come from a military background, which while common among many security practitioners, is less common among executives. That background has informed and influenced how we work as a team, how we approach the business, and how we address the market. We are all cut from the same cloth,” Bindseil says.

“While many company executives seek out the spotlight, I feel my role is to be that steady officer who is fair but firm, and eschews attention. It is about my team.”

In his personal life, he maintains a similar drive. “Focus, endurance, humility and clarity are not traits that are given to you, they are continuously earned. For myself, I continue to nurture and support both my collaborative and competitive drive through triathlons – this year I completed my 12th triathlon, including two 140.6-mile Ironman races as part of Britton’s Tri Force based in San Antonio, Texas.”

Fighting the good fight

“I run a company of hackers fighting cybercrime, and I'm often asked if I ever recruit from the dark side. My answer surprises people: black hats aren't good enough,” says Michael Tiffany, CEO of White Ops.

It’s not that black hat hackers aren’t smart enough. Rather, they’re not committed enough, he says. “The thing about high stakes grand challenges -- the kinds of problems you can get lost in, for good or bad -- is that success doesn't depend on how smart you are at hour 1. Everything depends on how smart you are at hour 5,000. Black hats are mercenaries. And mercenaries can never stick it out that long.”

“The people at White Ops work astonishingly hard, at hour 5,000 and beyond, because I'm not asking them to make the most buzz-worthy mobile social app that they can," Tiffany says. "Instead, we get to wake up each morning and take on some real adversaries.”

When Tiffany interviews prospective hires, he looks for people who understand the importance of the job. “I want people, including me, looking back at their time at White Ops feeling proud of the mission and of the problems they chose to take on, proud of their accomplishments, and pleased with the ways they were able to stretch. I'm selecting for people who find our kind of work deeply meaningful.”

Prioritizing patience, endurance

Stuart McClure, CEO of endpoint protection company Cylance, touts the value of patience and endurance – two traits he’s sharpened through his love of road cycling.

“To people like me, who have a high sense of urgency in everything we do, patience can provide great focus. Cycling long distances has been a specialty for me over the years. I have often taken on 100, 150, and 200+ miles in one sitting. The ride gives me time to reflect on the current top-of-mind issues but it also gives me great tolerance for pain, both physical and mental.”

Being ok with being uncomfortable has served him well as a leader and entrepreneur, McClure says. “By leveraging my comfort with pain (endurance), I strive to build a great and enduring company, team and culture that will withstand anything it faces. By building endurance and patience into everything we do, we build focus and the ability to overcome any obstacle, any challenge and any milestone, together.”

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

The 10 most powerful companies in enterprise networking 2022