Starting out as a developer, Kaj van de Loo always knew he had change things up to keep things interesting. Now a CTO at UserTesting, van de Loo shares his wisdom with Pulse Q&A CEO Mayank Mehta on talent retention and the importance of staying passionate about your job.
Mayank Mehta: Talk us through your journey Kaj.
Kaj van de Loo: I started as a developer. I’ve always done things that I find interesting. I think if you do stuff you’re interested in, you get good at it. If you then don’t let yourself get comfortable, you go do something new. You have to also be willing to get out of your comfort zone, once every two to three years.
Mehta: So is that what differentiated you from your peer group as well?
van de Loo: I think it helps a lot. If you looked at the CTOs of software companies–each company is different–but you want somebody who can do a lot of things. Being an expert in one thing doesn’t help. Whether it’s process or technology, you’ve got to know a little about a lot.
In hindsight, the years at SAP in the 90s were fantastic. I learned so much that it’s super relevant to the everyday today. Now I have more of a framework to put those learnings to use.
Whether its employees of our company, or customers, understanding the people and the human aspect of things and seeing them grow, be successful and be happy is a big motivator.
Mehta: In terms of how you evolved as an engineer into being a leader, are there specific things that you saw yourself doing differently, perhaps even better, relative to your peers?
van de Loo: Bill McDermott, who was CEO of SAP, said that what makes a leader is that they have followers. I think what makes you have followers is if you’re really passionate about something. If you are super interested in what you do, people notice that. We’re not going to follow somebody who’s not passionate about what they do.
If you’re genuinely interested in the problem you’re solving and in your customers business, that excitement in your archetype suddenly has people looking to you for guidance. It’s that simple. If it excites you, you will be good at it and other people will notice.
When I started developing, I found the technology really interesting. It was fun to code and see results. And then, after some time at SAP, I noticed what I really got interested in was the business problems of our customers. We were not developing technology for technology’s sake. Sitting down with a customer, understanding where they are taking their business, and then figuring out how we can build products to support them became my second phase of things I became interested in.
Over time, I also realized that what motivates me the most now is helping other people. Whether its employees of our company, or customers, understanding the people and the human aspect of things and seeing them grow, be successful and be happy is a big motivator.
Mehta: Growing a team is not always easy, especially in the Bay Area. How do you guys recruit top talent?
van de Loo: That’s a good question. When I joined the company, we had been a little slow and engineering hiring was way below or target. So I spent a lot of time on this. The top of the funnel is essentially anything you can make work from just the careers page and how things get picked up by search engines and computers. One interesting thing our chief people officer found is that the location in the job posting matters because of localized searches.
These job boards and their search engines give higher ranks to things that are near a candidate. We found it harder to fill roles like Big Data engineers here given the Bay Area’s huge demand.
Most people in our industry are pretty smart people who can figure out how to get somewhere as long as they know where to get to.
The most important piece is then to start selling to these candidates and move them through the funnel without losing them. Surprisingly many companies don’t have this nailed down. They fumble somewhere. It’s as much about selling the company as it is about assessing the candidate.
One thing we are very good at is working remotely. So everything happens over Zoom. It works when people are very respectful of remote attendees. There is no hitting the mute button and having a side conversation. That is of course a top of funnel thing that we can locate. We can we can get you in every market and give people a meaningful chance to be successful.
Mehta: How do you guys think about retention?
van de Loo: I believe the number one reason people stay at a job is that they believe in where the company’s going. They’re passionate about the problem they’re solving and they believe in the direction of the company. As long as that motivation is there, you don’t have to inflict much pain on people.
I think the one thing I’m always focused on is the vision and direction, making sure people believe in what they are working on. Whether this is designers or engineers, product managers. If people really believe in the problems we’re solving and the opportunity ahead then you just have to make sure that it’s relatively smooth and that you don’t mess up.
Don’t mess up the basics. Have a motivating vision and then give people a lot of freedom. Most people in our industry are pretty smart people who can figure out how to get somewhere as long as they know where to get to. I think involving people is key. Everybody needs to be engaged and be part of shaping the direction.
I think people need to believe they can engage with big data, machine learning and AI.
Mehta: Is that a recent thing you guys have put into effect?
van de Loo: It’s always seen as effective. I think it’s going to be effective here. I was with ForeSee for three years where we had extremely low, regrettable turnover on the team. Maybe 2-3%.
I think people need to believe they can engage with big data, machine learning and AI. That was super interesting and we can make a conscious effort that–even if not everybody can work on these areas–everybody can learn about them. We can train people and encourage people across the whole organization, including support, to learn about machine learning and AI.
Mehta: What are some of the new technologies you’re excited about?
van de Loo: Machine learning and AI. I was at SAP at the time when they were called the client server architecture giants and now it’s a 150 billion dollar market cap company by getting one such change. Look at the other companies born around the client server like Oracle. SAP actually survived it but they were pretty much the only ones that did. We saw the next thing with SaaS and how SaaS made on-premise software development.
There’s more computing happening now than ever. And therefore more software. Same thing with SaaS. It made the whole consumption and payment for it so much easier than when you had stuff on-premise. It’s much more with AI and machine learning. One thing I believe in that could be the killer app for this for these technologies is the interaction law. LinkedIn and Core are really getting it right. They’re serving up personalized content. The interaction model has been the same. It’s when someone wakes up in the morning and says, “Let me log into my system to see what’s going on.”
Whatever you want to call all these things: big data, machine learning AI, we have the opportunity now to have the algorithm turn through the data and vast amounts of data that no human can look at. We can use the interesting insights, package them up, maybe analyze them and serve them up to the users.
I think if you look at Salesforce, they used to be super vulnerable. Now, because of their size, they may be able to buy their way through it. But if you would have really good algorithms, looking at the kind of data they have that just recommends sales people what to do. Like the top three customers in the following order that you should call today and here’s what you should talk to them.
Mehta: Really appreciate your time Kai.
van de Loo: Great talking to you.