Eat more veggies and less sugar, get proper sleep and exercise, study and work hard, show gratitude and serve others, expand your spirit and have fun, learn and teach others, be humble and believe in yourself.
As a part of our series about “Optimal Performance Before High Pressure Moments”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Troy McAlpin.
Troy McAlpin is CEO of xMatters, a company that helps enterprises — including BMC Software, Credit Suisse, Danske Bank, Experian, NVIDIA, ViaSat and Vodafone — prevent, manage and resolve technology incidents. He brings more than 20 years of experience to his leadership role at xMatters, with expertise in process automation, strategic initiatives and corporate strategy. Under Troy’s direction xMatters has empowered over 650,000 paid IT power users and 2.6 million total users on the xMatters platform worldwide to prevent IT issues from impacting the customer experience. Troy’s domain experience includes IT strategy and vertical market expertise including technology, banking, consumer and retail industries. Prior to founding xMatters, formerly AlarmPoint Systems, he managed marketing, sales, development, M&A and financial aspects at two successful start-up companies and also worked at AT&T Solutions and Accenture.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
A native of Northern California, I was raised by a single mother with Multiple Sclerosis. Working at or near full-time since age 14, I put myself through college and then joined Andersen, LLC doing management consulting for companies going through mergers, acquisitions or general corporate restructuring. Later, I moved to ATT Solutions as a Strategy Consultant serving its Fortune 1000 clients.
What or who inspired you to pursue your career as an entrepreneur or business leader? We’d love to hear the story.
After years of coaching business leaders as a consultant, I wanted to see if I could do it myself. I had several ideas for new products and was specifically interested in consumer and technology products. Ultimately, I decided to focus on areas where technology could solve meaningful issues that caused real headaches in large organizations.
None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?
There has been a symphony of people that influenced me throughout my life with positive and critical feedback.
It started with my Middle School English teacher, Donna Altes, who taught me critical thinking skills. I also had supportive maternal grandparents that always believed in me. I was fortunate to have mentors throughout my life that recognized my hard work in every endeavor — from washing dishes to hot air ballooning and auditing to consulting. It’s so important for people to take a little time to say “good job” and, perhaps even more importantly, to say, “I believe in you, and I think you can do better.”
One specific incident where I received critical, but motivating feedback was during a VC pitch. The pitch ended in a “No,” but then he added, “I can tell you came from a poor family, otherwise you would have had that gap in your teeth fixed. I like backing poor people because they don’t give up.” In the moment, I was pretty offended by his comment and committed my efforts to ‘showing him’ by succeeding. I later realized that he was right, despite being a little blunt in his delivery. When you are raising capital there will be 50 “Nos” for every “Yes.” You simply have to resolve to believe in yourself, accept criticism and keep going. And by the way, Michael Strahan has the same gap.
The road to success is hard and requires tremendous dedication. This question is obviously a big one, but what advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your success?
Don’t stop. Most people stop, so don’t stop. I’ve learned that failure, setback, insult and plain “Nos” are actually important inputs to the success process. Without those negative inputs, you’d spend time and effort going down avenues that are likely to eventually end, but by eliminating those alternatives, you refine your approach, your direction and your will to succeed.
In the end, critical feedback makes for a better you. So while some people will quit because they receive “Nos”, you will fight through the temporary defeats, believing in yourself and your abilities to find a better path. No one can take away your desire, your will or your tenacity — and only you can surrender those qualities.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
There are so many great reads and all for different reasons. I’ll start with personal and end with professional. I enjoyed Born to Run by Christopher McDougall, because I realized I could go from running only 26 yards to 26 miles. I love The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho, because it reminds me that life is all about the journey. I also enjoy parables from the New Testament because I see their modern-day application.
For professional development books, I enjoy The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg, because it helped me understand I can affect the outcome of the habits I have and rely on; Brain Rules, by John Medina, for understanding what’s going on up there; Tony Hsieh’s Delivering Happiness because Zappos literally wrote the book; Radical Candor by Kim Scott; and, the Jim Collins’ series starting with Good to Great for setting the record straight about what makes great leaders and companies.
Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?
“Fear and faith cannot exist at the same time.” I don’t recall when or where I first heard this, but I firmly believe in it. You’re either surrendering to fear and giving up or you’re leaning into the headwinds and believing you can achieve your desired outcome.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?
All of our competitors are large firms with more cash, people, customers and resources. But at xMatters, we believe. We believe in ourselves, our customers, our product and we believe our approach is unique and what the industry truly wants — and needs. Figuring out how to be smarter, faster and more creative than the Goliaths every day keeps us busy.
Currently, we’re reinventing the industry’s approach to Incident Management, a practice that’s existed since technology started breaking — so, a long time. We believe technology can be applied to prevent incidents through the orchestration of signals, data, processes and people to solve tech problems early in the cycle — before customers are even aware there is an issue.
It’s a big vision because, if we’re right, then we’ll reshape decades of process and learning into a more lean, more automated, more efficient and effective outcome. We want customers to have better experiences, developers to be happier (or at least less grumpy!) and enterprises to be able to build more products and services faster and without expending excess capital. If we’re wrong, then we’ll refine our approach and keep trying.
OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. As a business leader, you likely often face high stakes situations that involve a lot of pressure. Most of us tend to wither in the face of such pressure and stress. Can you share with our readers 3 or 4 strategies that you use to cope with the burden of stress?
First and foremost — breathe. Learning to know when to react quickly and when to pause is an important lesson. Taking a moment to pause puts you in control of the situation. Choosing to think before you react puts you in control. I find that breathing, eating, sleeping and exercise are equally important ingredients required to be ready to make hard decisions when needed.
Next, know yourself. How do you react under pressure? Snappish? Crabby? Scared? Overconfident? Good leaders study themselves and their habits and put effort into improving themselves. For instance, if it’s lunchtime, I’m crabbier, and that’s important for me to acknowledge. Any habit can be tempered — as I mentioned earlier about the book The Power of Habit.
And lastly, serve others. I find that when I’m under stress it helps me to go perform a service project. Serving others grounds us. It connects us to the fabric of our fellow humans, our community and our society. Service to others puts life and issues you may be facing into perspective — helping you as much as it helps others. Serve in a way that moves you — but go serve others.
Aside from being able to deal with the burden of stress, can you share with our readers 3 or 4 strategies that you use to optimize your mind for peak performance before high pressure, high stress situations?
Balance in life is important — and not always valued in the technology field. There’s this crazy myth that working 20 hours a day makes you more valuable! It does not. Sleeping 8 hours a day makes you more valuable. Some believe that being able to down 10 tequila shots when you’re out with clients makes you more valuable. It does not. Nutrition, exercise and self-improvement make you more valuable. If you want to be at your best then put yourself in position to be at your best. If you were to think of yourself as a ‘world-class athlete’ in your field or occupation, how would you prepare for your biggest game, match or race? I know that sounds like more hard work than fun, but it’s the training that matters! Eat more veggies and less sugar, get proper sleep and exercise, study and work hard, show gratitude and serve others, expand your spirit and have fun, learn and teach others, be humble and believe in yourself.
Do you use any special or particular breathing techniques, meditations or visualizations to help optimize yourself? If you do, we’d love to hear about it.
I believe in the power of prayer and I’ll explain why from a non-religious point of view. Prayer is you taking a few times a day to humble yourself, close your eyes, calm your heart rate, slow your breathing, focus on a single thought, show gratitude, listen intently, block the noise, stop the voices of chaos and recharge your mind.
Now, whether that’s prayer to an Eastern or Western deity, meditation, deep breathing techniques or something else that works for you — it all has the same important physiological effect on the body and mind. It produces a sense of calmness, reduces anxiety, increases the flow of oxygen in your body and instills in you a sense of humility, regeneration and focus.
Do you have a special technique to develop a strong focus, and clear away distractions?
I believe this goes hand in hand with knowing yourself. Be cognizant of what causes you to lose focus or get distracted and what causes you to feel anxious. Is it too much time on social media? Turn it off. These simple actions are all in your control. Understanding the habit, the triggers and how you react is important. We don’t control what happens to us, but we do control how we react. How do you react? Do you want it to be different? Can you learn the trigger and then replace your usual reaction with a new one? Yes, yes you can.
To focus at work, I subscribe to the “One Thing” concept — priority is a singular term. I focus on one thing during my best work hours, which is 6 am-9 am, and I turn off all distractions during that time. No Slack, no email, no social media — just me and the project that needs my attention. I attend meetings and address Slacks and emails later in the day when my mind is less focused.
We all know the importance of good habits. How have habits played a role in your success? Can you share some success habits that have helped you in your journey?
I’ll be honest here — I don’t exercise nearly enough and I don’t eat well all the time. In fact, it’s a constant battle. I know what I need to do but I don’t always do it. But I have changed a few habits — I sleep much more. I used to sleep 4–5 hours a night, but then I read Brain Rules by John Medina and now I sleep 7–8 hours a night. I feel better when I eat a largely vegetarian diet, but I love BBQ. All we can do is try to get better and when we fail, we need to recommit and keep going.
What is the best way to develop great habits for optimal performance? How can one stop bad habits?
I’d recommend reading The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg and then actually experimenting with the book’s suggestions by implementing them in your daily life. Don’t just read the book, try it. You have to actually implement the change by altering your reaction to certain triggers — join a social group to help you stay focused and stay on it for a long period of time. Try changing just one habit at a time and stick to it for a long period of time until you feel you’ve mastered it.
As a business leader, you likely experience times when you are in a state of Flow. Flow has been described as a pleasurable mental state that occurs when you do something that you are skilled at, that is challenging, and that is meaningful. Can you share some ideas from your experience about how we can achieve a state of Flow more often in our lives?
Yes, indeed. Flow, in my opinion, comes when you are in a good physical and emotional space. Flow is achieved when you are properly rested, calm, well fed, not upset or worried and it’s the best time of day for you.
Interruptions take you out of Flow and it can take 20–30 minutes to recover. We all know this from experience, so block interruptions for 2–3 hours and jealously guard that time. Then identify what helps you get into a state of Flow. Is it music? Is it having your dog in the room? Whatever it is, put yourself consciously in a position to achieve Flow and then rock it!
Ok, we are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I wish every person that has enough food helped just one person who does not. I wish every person with a good education tutored one person who needed help. I wish every white software engineer helped one Black child learn to code.
I believe the most racist force in the United States is the disease of poverty. It affects generations of brown and Black kids disproportionately. It robs children of hope and greatness. It breaks up families. It leads to a life of crime and punishment. It’s a short journey from poverty to depression and addiction. The poverty facing our brown and Black brothers and sisters is the number one enemy of our nation and is at the root of inequality. Help one person break the bonds of poverty and you help the generations behind them to lift themselves up into a productive life.
If you don’t know where to start, I’d recommend The Hidden Genius Project or BlackGirlsWhoCode. It is just important to get involved and change outcomes.
We are very blessed that 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, whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them 🙂
I think I would like to ask President Bush and President Obama just one question: “What can I do to be a better participant in our democracy?” And, if they’re not available, I’d like to just hang out with Steph Curry for three minutes. It’s not a big ask, just three minutes. Please?
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Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success.