…Decision making — The CEO is often portrayed in TV shows as the one that has to make all the decisions. In reality, that’s not the case. You need to know when you’re not equipped to make a decision about something. You really need to rely on people around you to make better decisions than you can in areas you’re not equipped to answer.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Jacob Hsu. Jacob is the CEO of Catalyte, a software development and engineering company that uses AI to identify anyone who has the aptitude, regardless of background, to become a software developer. Prior to joining Catalyte, Jacob was CEO at Symbio, a global IT services company with development centers across China, Philippines and Scandinavia. Jacob is a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum, was named as one of the world’s Top 12 CEOs by Chief Executive Magazine, is a founding member of the Markle Foundation’s Rework America Task Force and a board member of Welcoming America.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Serendipity, more than anything. I began my career as a young investment banker doing M&A on Wall Street, then founded a few startups. I didn’t get into the engineering services industry until I was at my last company, Symbio. I wanted more experience in managing and wanting to learn something new. After I sold the company, I was ready to retire to Sweden, but then I heard about and fell in love with the Catalyte mission and business model.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
On my very first day at Catalyte, the very first time I’d stepped foot into the office as CEO, a developer got up out of their chair, came over and introduced themselves. And, on top of that, offered to get me a cup of coffee.
This might not seem like a big deal, but to me it was something I’d never experienced in over 20 years in Silicon Valley and in the tech industry. It was my introduction to the Catalyte culture and the different ways in which our developers interact with people, solve problems and aren’t afraid to put themselves out there personally and professionally.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
My first week on the job at Symbio, I had to give a talk about a granular part of engineering. I read an O’Reilly book to brush up on my technical skills, and thought I could confidently cover the topic. It turned out my audience was really advanced engineers from Cisco. I learned the lessons of humility and preparation, which have helped me grow. And it wasn’t all bad. One of the people I met at the event ended up being a business partner!
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Catalyte stands out because of our people. We find individuals from all walks of life who have the ability to be great software developers. These are people from untraditional backgrounds who might lack the markers of pedigree — education, prior work experience, business network, socioeconomic standing — that other companies require for employment. In a former life, they may have been baristas, security guards or roofers. Now, they’re developing software-many for Fortune 500 corporations.
One of the best examples of this is the story of Tim, an engineer in our Baltimore office. Tim was the first in his family to go to college. But, like many aspiring graduates, the financial burden became too much and he had to drop out. Tim was always mechanically inclined, so he started looking for engineering jobs. He found Catalyte on Craigslist, took our screening, passed our training and has now been with the company for more than three years. In that time, he’s become a leader in our quality assurance practice, went back to complete his associate’s degree and is looking to buy his first house.
This is what makes Catalyte stand out. Our ability to give talented individuals the opportunity to thrive where other companies would not.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We’re working to leverage Catalyte technologies to other industries and extend opportunities to even more talented individuals who have been overlooked for great jobs due to societal norms like pedigree. Many companies are asking us whether they can use our platform to build long-term sustainable talent pipelines from scratch, because they’re struggling to hire from the current market. Companies are asking if our platform can be customized to identify individuals who fit their organizations’ culture. We want to be able to go into any office in any industry and transform their workforce. For example, for someone working in retail, we want to help them by upgrading into higher economy jobs within that same employer.
What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?
Help your employees grow. Companies need to figure out how to map career growth within a company. It sounds obvious, but if you look at new economies, technology companies aren’t doing this. For example, if you get hired as an engineer, you can often times get stuck. To thrive, companies need to invest more in mentorship programs. Many companies are focused on delivering their products, and they don’t have time to focus on their employees’ career progressions. Employers should be looking at a “hire within” philosophy and develop predictable paths to help employees grow.
What advice would you give to other CEOs about the best way to manage a large team?
Humility, trust and investment are the most important qualities in leadership and success. Be humble, trust and develop your people.
You’re only as strong as your team. Even if you’re Superman, you’re not going to be able to cover everything that needs to be covered. You need people who can execute work that you can’t handle or control.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
My mentor named David Lee who, in 1971, was the first Asian American to take a company public. From him, I learned you don’t succeed because of a particular business strategy. You success because of your philosophy. His was, “First you make friends by helping people when you can, and then you can do business.” It sounds like a simple thing to do, but it’s really a principle of how I manage. I try to meet and help a new person every week. A lot of breakthrough deals I’ve done have come from bumping around and making new relationships.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
The idea of giving people the first job or foothold to climb the economic ladder is near and dear to me. My father immigrated to this country and, despite completing college with an engineering degree, struggled to land that first job. Once he did, the world opened up to him, and for his family.
I measure my success by the success of our employees and our company’s mission to discover hidden talents and extend opportunities to individuals, many who have been overlooked by our society’s existing norms. Are we doing enough to expand opportunity to as many Americans as possible? Are we targeting previously underrepresented groups in tech to show them that yes, you belong here? Are we changing the national conversation about what greatness looks like, so more companies are willing to look beyond someone’s pedigree and see what they are capable of as individuals?
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Fundraising is not an exit — People think fundraising is a means to an end. A lot of entrepreneurs are inflating the value of their paper, and then they’re increasing their hurdles higher.
- There is no template to be a great CEO or founder. If you look at it, you can come from any background and the secret to any leader, you need to build that team around you and be honest with yourself about what you’re not good at.
- Decision making — The CEO is often portrayed in TV shows as the one that has to make all the decisions. In reality, that’s not the case. You need to know when you’re not equipped to make a decision about something. You really need to rely on people around you to make better decisions than you can in areas you’re not equipped to answer.
- Don’t always rush to make a decision — Maybe this is my Wall Street background, but having the option to make a decision is valuable. A lot of first time founders will make a call to get something off their plate, but I think you should wait till the last minute to make a decision. Whenever I have to make decision, I have to let it roll around in my head to make a final call.
- You need to focus on simplicity — there is this tendency where you go big really fast. I made this mistake in my last company. We made it big by doing several different things. When you’re first starting out, you try a lot of different things, but there comes a point where if you don’t simplify, you end up hitting a wall and everything grinds to a halt form complexity. I’m a big believer in trying to find the simplest way.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Kill the resume and pedigree. We need to stop hiring people because of where they went to school, where they came from, etc. We need to start giving more people a shot at economically beneficial jobs.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My favorite quote is a Chinese one. “Wind. Rain. Fire. Mountain” — to be a great leader, you have to silent like the wind, as deep as the ocean/water, you have to be as intense as fire, and you have to be as solid as a mountain.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
Jeff Bezos. In tech, you find people who have had the right product at the right time. Jeff Bezos earned his spot. There was systematic plan and strategy he had. He built Amazon over the course of 20 years. It’s a 20 year organization. There were times where he spent time in the desert, but he had a vision and he grew it. He earned his spot and he didn’t get there just on timing or luck.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
You can follow me on Twitter @jacobjjhsu or connect with me on LinkedIn.