“Leadership is actually nothing other than taking a little bit more responsibility than anyone is expecting you to.”
For those of us in technology, Marten needs no introduction. He is the CEO of HackerOne, the leading provider of hacker-powered security. Previously Marten was the CEO of Eucalyptus Systems, acquired by Hewlett-Packard where he served as head of the cloud business and was the CEO of MySQL AB from 2001 to 2008. He served on the board of Nokia from 2012 to 2015. Marten holds a M.Sc. in technical physics from Helsinki University of Technology in his native Finland. He also maintains a leadership blog called the School of Herring. Few others have such incredible experience in both software and leadership as Marten, and he spent some time with us to share what he’s learned along the way…
OpenChannel: You’ve said “Not all leaders can lead a distributed team“ but also “Offices are so last century!”. What skills are unique to distributed team leadership and what can companies do to make a successful transition to a distributed team?
Marten Mickos: To lead a distributed team, you must go all in digitally. You must not just put your management and leadership online, you must put your personality online too. People who work in an office can observe their boss coming to work and going home from work, being relaxed or being stressed, and so on.
In a distributed organization, we must bring those same personal signals into the digital channels. To be a good leader of a distributed organization, you must also learn to love “radio”, i.e. communication that is broadcast to an audience far away. And you need to learn to love written communication. Whatever tools we use, a lot of the institutional capital and ideas of the organization will get communicated and documented in writing.
If you are converting an organization from office based to distributed (as we did at Eucalyptus Systems), it is important that you are committed and deliberate but also patient. As the leader, you need to extricate yourself sufficiently from the office and show everyone that you can lead from another location. That’s a signal to employees that they, too, can contribute from another location. After every physical meeting (even ad-hoc ones that may happen in the kitchen) you must openly ask the question of how to convey the same knowledge and decisions to everyone else. As a leader, you must make sure that everyone is heard, especially those who work from their homes.
OC: How can a technology platform instill trust in their developers?
Marten: Trust is about expectation management. When people can predict what will happen under given conditions, they can trust the system or the platform. But trust is not enough. The platform must first delight the developers so that they get interested, and then serve them in a useful way so that they get a concrete repeatable benefit. First delight them, thereafter serve them in a sufficiently predictable way. Surprises are OK if they are positive!
OC: What software platforms or communities do you really admire and why?
Marten: Slack, it has such a cool UX. Burning Man, as a community although it is so large and diverse. Slush, which a startup event organized entirely by about 2,000 young volunteers, and the Scout Movement, it may be the best community on this planet.
OC: Software platforms face two large challenges; growing a developer community and matching developer solutions with demand from end users. HackerOne has successfully done this, building a community of security researchers and matching them with demand from companies. What advice would you give to companies tackling both of these challenges?
Marten: Being a two-sided marketplace is never easy. You try to serve both sides, but in every action and decision, you typically serve one better than the other. If you can build trust and excitement, you are off to a good start. Fairness is important. You must also know that if you have no detractors, you are not really popular yet. At HackerOne we have drawn the philosophical conclusion that everything starts with the hackers, not with the customers. If we take care of the hackers, they will take care of the customers. In our daily work, we take great care of both sides. But we start our thinking from the hacker side, because that’s where the solution to the work at hand originates.
OC: Building a developer community is popular among companies today, what mistakes do you see companies making when trying to build their developer community?
Marten: The difficulty in building a community is that you need to treat everyone as an individual although you actually lack the resources to do so. You need to build clever systems and models that allow you to listen and communicate individually using just a small team. You need to hire people who have endless empathy and who will NEVER be offended or intimidated. Never. Members of the community are not always nice to you, but you need to be nice to them. I once learned the 70-20-10 rule (or something like that). When you have a broad community and you make a statement, 20% will immediately love you for it and 10% will immediately hate you for it. You don’t have to agree with the 10% that hate it, but you need to know that even though remaining 70% don’t care about the topic, they very much do care about how you treat the 10% that do hate it it. So you need to treat everyone with respect.
OC: On you blog School of Herring, you list books for CEOs and make the distinction of “must” read vs “should” read. What distinguishes a “must” read book from a “should” read book and why?
Marten: In my personal view, we should read as many books as we ever can fit into our busy lives, so to me the “must” and the “should” are equally good. But I realized that the list is long, so I wanted to highlight those that have the most advice packed into the fewest pages.
OC: You’re active on Quora, and for this question you’re the only person (of 14 ) that answered someone who is struggling with a compliment. Is that a conscience company or community management approach you use and why?
Marten: Yes. I try to always find something positive in everything. I don’t do it so much to be nice to others as I do it to be nice to myself. If I see something positive in everything, my day is better. And, hey, THERE IS ALWAYS SOMETHING POSITIVE in everything. We just have to look and keep looking. When we find it, we make the world a more bearable place. We find the unique value in every human being and this allows us to respect each other.
OC: You wrote about career transition, we’re also fascinated with company transition. How can a company or community leader find conviction to change and navigate a new and necessary transition before it’s too late?
Marten: Oh that’s a difficult one. Someone smart, I think it was Gary Hamel, once said that “a turnaround is a necessary strategic transformation tragically delayed”. I think it’s the same with people. We should evolve and change long before we have to. The transformation work should start when we are still on the top, not only when we starting to slide down.
OC: What important practices do you do regularly at HackerOne to ensure you’re building the company and community you want?
Marten: We start with the goal in mind. We are clear about our mission and our values. Then we ask what we should do to fulfill our mission. We also force ourselves to think in terms of quantum leaps – i.e. 10x. We don’t ask ourselves how to double some key performance indicator, but how to grow it 10x. We currently have around 100,000 hackers on our platform. We are already planning for 1 million. We have paid $20 million in bounties to hackers. We are already planning for $100 million and beyond. The model of hacker-powered security is strong at its core, but it has not been introduced to all companies and organizations yet. We probably are at just 1% of where we should ultimately be. So we focus on growth. In all of this, we make sure we follow our values and culture. For instance, “Win as a team” is a value at HackerOne. So we make sure that we win, but we also make sure that we win as a team. Individual wins don’t count.
*Note from OpenChannel, everyone should read this post on the values at HackerOne and how they created them, it provides great insight on the process.
OC: You’re from Finland and have said some of their public policies influenced your thoughts on open source. What can we do in the rest of the world to encourage developers to participate in open source?
Marten: I am not sure we should. I completely agree with Linus Torvalds. Someone asked him under what conditions one should consider becoming an open source contributor. Linus looked at the young person who asked the question and calmly said: “If there is nothing else you can think of doing.” The point is that working in open source is not easy and not always fun. You must have a deep belief in it for it to work. Once it works, it is wonderful. But we should not encourage people to join who may not have the mental fortitude to keep going.
OC: Many people are working on important and difficult technical problems, but their impact at scale will depend on leadership. For young leaders and people early in their career, what should we be teaching or exposing them to?
Marten: Leadership is the key to solving all problems of mankind, including these ones. When things don’t work or don’t happen, it is always leadership that is lacking. We need to let people learn leadership. I am not saying “teach leadership” because it can’t be taught. The principles can absolutely be taught. But leadership as such cannot. You have to do it. That’s why we should encourage young people to join youth movements where you work in teams. It can be sports, mechanic stuff, cooking, politics, dance, music, scouting, large families etc. as long as it is teams. In teams, you learn leadership. And leadership is actually nothing other than taking a little bit more responsibility than anyone is expecting you to.
We want to thank Marten for his time and openness in sharing insights from his amazing career. If you want to learn more you can follow him on twitter, join the community at HackerOne, check out his Wikipedia page and subscribe to his blog School of Herring.