Is there a place for liberal arts majors in the world of high tech? And if there is, what qualities contribute to leadership in the field? Those provocative questions were put to speakers as part of a Communication Leadership Speaker Series this fall that looked at leadership from many angles.
A number of SMC-educated tech wunderkind returned to Saint Mary’s to take part in the ambitious speaker series, which was developed by Communication Professor Fr. Michael Russo and sponsored by the Disney Forum, and shared some priceless insights into their route to success.
Among them was Jason Shellen, a self-described “kid from Fremont with an art degree from Saint Mary’s” who has put his creativity to work to help develop Blogger, Google Reader, AOL’s instant messaging group and, most recently, Boxer, a new app that he promises will “make mobile email hip.”
Shellen, who graduated in 1996, found his entree to the world of high tech in an experience familiar to every SMC grad—Jan Term. On a whim, he signed up for a class in web publishing and, after graduation, applied that newfound skill to propel him into more and more senior roles in marketing and business development.
But Shellen says it wasn’t the web publishing skills that pushed him to success so much as the habits of thought that he learned in classes like Seminar. “What really helped me was learning that critical thinking, being able to look at a problem from all angles,” he said.
"Students of the Human Condition"
Saint Mary’s also gave him another edge in the world of business—insight into how people think and what matters to them. “Problems in business are usually human problems, not product problems,” he said, adding that “as students of the human condition,” Saint Mary’s students should have “a very good road map” to that landscape.
To succeed in the world of tech, you don’t have to be an engineer, he argued, paraphrasing his friend Evan Williams, co-founder of Twitter, who famously said: “Here’s the formula if you want to build a billion-dollar internet company...Take a human desire, preferably one that has been around for a really long time…Identify that desire and use modern technology to take out steps.”
Another speaker who has made his mark in tech and returned for the series is Brandon Pierce, who graduated in 1993 with a degree in communications and history. He worked at CNN, Fox and KGO-TV before he caught Internet fever, landing at Yahoo! when it had just 200 employees. He quickly rose to senior sales executive there, and later at Microsoft, before moving on to Facebook, where he’s director of mobile partnerships.
Connecting With People
For Pierce, the key to success is people skills more than technical skills. “When you’re asking for millions and millions of dollars, you have to be able to have an evangelical ability,” he said. “It comes back to the ability to connect with people and build a shared experience, and being very excited with what you’re presenting and believing in what you’re presenting.”
He credits SMC, with its crucible of Seminar and Lasallian tradition, for some of his achievements, saying, “The foundation that I got at Saint Mary’s is something that I have today—the confidence to be able to think for myself and put ideas forth in a manner that is both collaborative and ethical.”
So what else helped these SMC alumni make their mark in some of today’s top tech companies?
A number of speakers mentioned the importance of connecting with a company’s culture. “At the end of the day, the company is its people. The product is its people. That’s why there’s such a big emphasis on hiring and building culture,” said Andrew Haywood, a 1999 SMC graduate who has shaped hiring decisions at Google, Twitter and, most recently, Rocket Fuel, the fastest growing advertising technology company in Silicon Valley.
A Penchant for Risk-Taking
And then there’s the capacity to embrace a culture of risk on the road to success.
“You have to be willing to take on things outside your comfort zone and do the things that make other people tuck their hands in,” said Brandi Narvaez, who earned an MBA at Saint Mary’s in 2006 and is now chief operating officer of Aventura Corp., which develops software to support the medical profession.
At Facebook, risk is central to the culture, Pierce said, and the building is plastered with mottos like “Move fast—break things” and “Fail faster.” He advised students setting out in their careers to “constantly try things and don’t be afraid of failure because more than likely that failure will enable you to move your company to the next level.”
What seemed to energize most of the speakers was not the next technological innovation but a vision of a world united through technology. Although they conceded that there are dangers to such a world, as demonstrated by the recent NSA domestic spying revelations, they see more promise than peril in the road ahead.
“The greatest democracy in the world is access to information and the ability to be able to have a voice. Technology is going to make the world smaller,” said Pierce. “It’s going to give everyone a voice and an ability to share ideas, and that has profound impact on the future that we want to live in.”
By Teresa Castle
Office of College Communications
Photos by Katherine Crawford