Also, I do make sure they understand they have an obligation — an obligation to strive, to be independent, to make their own way in the world. Thinking about college? Good. Make sure you’re thinking about something that allows you to become an independent adult and a useful member of society.
As a part of my series about “How extremely busy executives make time to be great parents” I had the pleasure to interview Dave Merkel — usually called Merk — who is the co-founder and CEO of Expel, a cybersecurity startup located in the Washington, DC area. He’s been involved in the information security field for nearly 20 years, first as a federal agent pursuing cyber criminals in the era of floppy disks and 2400 baud modems, then as CTO and vice president of products at Mandiant. Following FireEye’s acquisition of Mandiant, Dave served as the global CTO of FireEye. Before that, Dave spent another decade as a security practitioner. He got his start as a special agent in the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, pursuing cyber criminals and conducting digital forensic investigations, and later served as the head of AOL’s technical security organization.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us your “childhood backstory”?
I grew up in the mountains west of Denver, Colorado. I did all the things you’d expect a kid living in Colorado to do — rode horses, went fishing and skiing. You get the idea. My greatest brush with celebrity was being in the same Tae Kwon Do class as one of the creators of South Park. (And yes, I do know all of the places in that show and some of the people the characters are based on.)
I was a video game fanatic and computer nerd from an early age, which has stuck with me my whole life. I’m old enough to know all about Atari 2600s, Commodore 64s, TRS-80s and acoustic coupling modems. It blows my mind that my children will someday think of iPhones and FaceTime as “old tech.”
I went to the University of Colorado on an Air Force ROTC scholarship. This was probably the only way I was going to get to go to college without bankrupting my family, and I had become interested in the military at an early age. Turns out it was a great choice — it gave me a solid start to my career, and set me on the path to where I am now.
Can you share the story about what brought you to this specific point in your career?
After college I went into the Air Force. I was an agent in the Air Force Office of Special Investigations. Every military service has an agency like this. It’s kinda like NCIS, although we didn’t have a TV show. During my time there I focused on computer crime and network intrusions — basically chasing hackers. That experience allowed me to move into the information security business when I left the Air Force.
Fast forward to today, where I’m the CEO of an information security startup. I got here because I was previously part of a successful infosec startup.
Like so many of us who live in the startup world, long ago I said, “I will never do another startup in this industry again.” Guess what happened? Fate conspired and here I am.
Can you tell us a bit more about what your day to day schedule looks like?
Every day is different, and I’ve learned that Calendar Tetris is a real skill.
Typically when I’m not traveling, I’m up by 5:30 or 6. I see my son before he heads off to high school, and then I head to the gym or go out for a run. After that I head to the office, usually before 9, but if I need to do something else around the house — take my daughter to school, for example — I may roll in just a tad later.
My office departure time depends on what’s happening with the kids’ activities. If I need to get my son from track practice, I head out around 5 or 5:30. If my daughter needs to get to soccer, then I leave as early as 4:30.
I shuttle the kids to and from their events, potentially sneaking in some email or a call while waiting around at a soccer field and then we head home.
Some nights I cook dinner — roasts, stews and anything grillable are my go-to meals. Some nights we do leftovers and other times it’s takeout. We usually get one or two “around the table” family dinners per week and I’m grateful for that. I’m usually in bed by or before 11 — unless it’s Friday and then I’m undoubtedly up gaming with some friends until far too late.
Let’s jump to the core of our discussion. This is probably intuitive to many, but it would be beneficial to spell it out. Based on your experience or research, can you flesh out why not spending time with your children can be detrimental to their development?
I won’t lay claim to any academic expertise here and will instead share what I’ve experienced.
At an early age, my kids learned about the world from my wife and me. We helped put things in context and tried to set some rails around behavior so our kids learned how to behave at home, at school and everywhere else. (We’ve all been around those kids that you can’t take anywhere, right?)
My wife and I decided from day one that we wanted our children to experience the world. By “experience the world” I really mean participating in activities outside the four walls of our home. Like having dinner out at a restaurant where kids usually don’t go, attending concerts in the park, going to the movies or going to a social event where they need to shake hands and say “hello.” While I do want them to see the Broader World (™) that really starts by getting out your front door, and often.
That’s much easier when they know how to behave. And it’s pretty tough to set these expectations if you aren’t around. It also undermines your relationship with them when they get older.
I also want my kids to come to me with questions when they stumble into the unknown, and I want to have a sense of what they’re up to without enacting some authoritarian surveillance and restriction regime. If you aren’t there — at the dinner table, at their sports games, at their school plays — that won’t happen. Kids will have secrets and they will make mistakes. I think if you’re present as a parent, they’re less likely to make mistakes that irrevocably harm their future selves.
According to this study cited in the Washington Post, the quality of time spent with children is more important than the quantity of time. Can you give a 3–5 stories or examples from your own life about what you do to spend quality time with your children?
When my kids were younger, I was directly involved in their sports activities — organizing, coaching and managing — and today I make sure I’m at their sporting events. This gives us a chance to talk about how they’re learning, growing and performing. It’s also a chance to just ask about their day when you’re driving back and forth to a field or track. Of course, my son is now a teenager so I have to ask more probing questions if I want an answer more detailed than, “My day was good.”
When we’re doing things around the house, I try to involve my son and daughter in those activities. I even do it with the seemingly mundane things — clearing a drain, changing light bulbs, fixing the internet connection, connecting an Xbox to the home network, getting a stain out of a shirt you like — that kind of stuff. It gives us something to talk about and they just might learn something from it. Being involved in those everyday tasks helps them get a little bit of context around the kinds of things you have to care about when you start adulting.
My kids and I also cook together. I think it’s ridiculous when I hear stories about kids who go to college and have no idea how to make real food, and live off of sandwiches and ramen (although there is nothing wrong with having a good sandwich or well crafted bowl of ramen occasionally). My daughter in particular has become quite a baker. She loves to make cakes, cookies and brownies from scratch.
Movie nights are also a great way to spend time with the kids, but I’ll be the first to admit that’s a bit challenging in our house. Finding something everyone likes isn’t always easy. My daughter and I like the same stuff — Guardians of the Galaxy and any Avengers movie works well for us — but my son has probably already seen whatever we want to watch with his friends. And my wife thinks we’re all nerds and would rather watch something with fewer explosions and aliens. Oh, well.
We all live in a world with many deadlines and incessant demands for our time and attention. That inevitably makes us feel rushed and we may feel that we can’t spare the time to be “fully present” with our children. Can you share with our readers 5 strategies about how we can create more space in our lives in order to give our children more quality attention?
1: Don’t work for crummy people at crummy companies. If the people you work for and with don’t value their own personal time, they won’t value yours. You do need to put in 80 hours a week to change the world…but only 40 of that is your office work. You’re changing the world by creating good humans too. And you can’t do that if you aren’t spending time at home.
2: Even if you’ve got #1 covered, life gets super busy. You have to make it happen. Just. Go. Home. It’s true that sometimes you can’t. But sometimes you can and are just telling yourself you can’t. This was hard for me to figure out. I’ve always defined myself by what I do for a living. I’ve fooled myself into thinking I needed to stay late when I really didn’t. Often the thing I thought was important really wasn’t, or it could wait. At the very least, it could wait until after I went home to cook dinner and eat with my family.
3: Have some help. It’s tough doing anything momentous alone. There are few things as momentous as raising good kids. If you’re married or have a partner, you and your significant other will have to work together. You will each have good days and bad days. Be there as each other’s backup. One of you will be good at some parenting things and lousy at others. Cover each other’s weaknesses. If you’re a single parent, extended family and friends can help support you when you stumble. And we all stumble at some point.
4: It’s okay to make mistakes. You will miss some events. You will be less present than you want to be sometimes. You might have a bad day, week, month or even year(s). I’m thinking of myself here when I say “years.” I had two particularly bad years in my not-too-distant past. Get back up and try again.
5: There is no #5. Seriously. I’m sure you thought I had a master plan here. This is a great example of how we’re all making this stuff up as we go along.
How do you define a “good parent”? Can you give an example or story?
Oof. This is a tough one. I think most of us are good parents who have not-so-good moments from time to time.
If I had to lay out simple criteria for being a “good” parent, I’d go with this:
1) You love your kids.
2) You’re trying your best.
3) When you fail, you try again.
How do you inspire your child to “dream big”? Can you give an example or story?
The things I do that I hope help my kids to dream big are pretty simple: I expose them to the world and answer their questions. And that goes beyond taking them on trips or drilling facts into their minds. I mean having discussions about topics in the news, my own past experiences, mistakes and decisions. I try to explain whatever it is they want to know about from different perspectives.
I don’t know if these things will lead them to dream big or not. I hope it at least keeps them from constructing barriers for themselves. I’m not a big fan of sports analogies but “you miss 100% of the pitches you don’t swing at” is true. That’s what I want my kids to understand.
Also, I do make sure they understand they have an obligation — an obligation to strive, to be independent, to make their own way in the world. Thinking about college? Good. Make sure you’re thinking about something that allows you to become an independent adult and a useful member of society. When they leave the house, they shouldn’t plan on moving back in. It’s not that I won’t help them if they fail, but their plan for their 20s (and beyond) shouldn’t include “move back in with mom and dad.”
How do you, a person who masterfully straddles the worlds of career and family, define “success”?
I’m not sure I’m masterful at straddling the worlds of career and family, but I am happy to say I’m better at this than I used to be. I’d say “success” is still about giving it your best, day after day, even when stuff goes sideways (and it will).
What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a better parent? Can you explain why you like them?
I find that the people around me are more inspiring than books or podcasts. My wife, Lisa, for one — she is good at so many things I’m bad at, like being patient and optimistic. My co-founder here at Expel, Yanek Korff, has an amazing discipline around getting up from his desk and going home, while still getting all the work (and more) done. My neighbors, Chris and Amanda, have three wonderful children who are practically family to us and a joy to be around. They’ve prioritized their lives far more around their family and I continue to learn from them. Joe and Deb, my other neighbors, have three children who are all in college now, but we watched them grow up from kindergarten through adulthood. They are all wonderful humans — patient, giving and caring. Color me cynical about someone who doesn’t know me or my life situation giving me parenting-advice-of-the-week through a podcast.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Wisdom comes alone through suffering,” Yeah, lots of rainbows and unicorns here. And no, I don’t go around reading Greek tragedies as a matter of course. But it’s a quote that’s stuck with me since I first heard it in college.
The older I get, the more I appreciate these words. When you screw up, you learn something. The older you get, the wiser you are because you’ve had more time to make mistakes and learn from them.
It’s influenced how I think about parenting. I’m not here to protect my children from everything. They need to make their own mistakes. But I’m here to put up guard rails to deter the fatal mistakes — the things that ruin your future or end it entirely — before you even get a chance to try your hand at being a good human and a productive member of society.
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?
I despise the bro-tastic nonsense culture of yesteryear’s (and some current) technology companies. And, frankly, it’s the fault of people who look like me with backgrounds like mine because we created it.
That also means it’s the responsibility of people like me to be part of stopping it and creating something better.
My children have a lot of advantages, and they’re fortunate that they won’t face the barriers others will face as they grow up. I’d like to inspire others to be a part of taking down those barriers for all children. Other people’s children should get the same shot at life that mine will. Succeeding is on them, but they should be able to take their turn at bat.
Thank you for all of these great insights!