Success in tech begins and ends with people. Build a team of open-minded, collaborative, hard-working, and intellectually curious people. In my experience, if it comes down to hiring for attitude or aptitude, attitude wins every time.
As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Black Men In Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Thabang Mashologu. He has over 20 years of experience in the technology industry, doing everything from engineering to marketing, product management, and strategy. Since 2018, he has been the VP, Marketing of the Eclipse Foundation, one of the world’s largest open source software foundations. In this role, he is responsible for global marketing strategy, brand management and communications, and stakeholder engagement. He is passionate about the power of technology, diversity, and inclusion to make the world a better place.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I grew up in the Kingdom of Lesotho, which is a beautiful country in Southern Africa. Lesotho has the distinction of being an independent, sovereign state that happens to be completely landlocked by the Republic of South Africa. I come from a long line of teachers and educators. My grandfather graduated from university in South Africa in 1930, which was no small feat. So education is hugely important to my family. In high school my favourite subjects were the humanities and arts, but I also did well in STEM. After high school in Lesotho, I came to Canada where I got degrees in physics and engineering. Out of university, I started out in R&D as a hardware designer in telecom, then I realized that I wanted to get out of the lab and interact with people more, so I went to business school.
After getting my MBA, I discovered marketing, product management, and strategy roles would allow me to leverage my technical skills and creativity to accelerate innovation and growth. So I have lived professionally at that intersection for several years with software companies, telcos, and service providers, and now in the open source industry at the Eclipse Foundation, one of the largest open source foundations in the world. Our community members are active in every major technology growth area, including the cloud and edge, the Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, automotive, digital trust, open silicon, and many others, so it is a great place to be right now.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
Millions of developers use and contribute to our technologies on a daily basis, so I knew that we had a great community, since community is the lifeblood of open source. But when I went to my first EclipseCon developer conference in Toulouse, France, I was blown away by the passion, enthusiasm, and positive energy from everyone. Since then I have continued to be impressed and motivated by the commitment of our community. Sharing their successes with the world is one of the best parts of my job.
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?
Early on in my career at a multi-billion dollar telco, I mistook my company’s CEO for a vendor I was supposed to be meeting. Fortunately he took the mix-up in stride and we had a laugh. Aside from learning to spend more time on my corporate website, the key takeaway for me was to not take yourself too seriously, whatever your title may be.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
When I was 17, I moved from Lesotho to Vancouver for university. Being over 10,000 miles from home at a commuter campus without much school spirit was very challenging. At many points I did consider giving up and I would not have made it through were it not for the support and encouragement of my family and friends.
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?
There are so many people who have contributed to any successes I have achieved and I am grateful to have had many mentors. One that stands out is Dax Nair. He was my manager for almost a decade. His dignity, fairness, humility, and ability to take stands when needed still inspire me to this day. He came to Canada as an immigrant, like me, and built a great life for his family through hard work, grit, and smarts. I remember telling him that I was considering abbreviating my first name and going as “T” so that it would be easier for people to say. He looked me in the eye and told me that if a company can’t say your name and accept you as you are, then they don’t deserve you. When I was in the hospital with a life-threatening illness, he and his wife Shyama showed up at my house with meals prepared for my wife and toddler. My life has been propelled and sustained by the support and encouragement of people like Dax.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Be the change you want to see in the world,” which paraphrases a longer quote from Gandhi. We should expect nothing more and nothing less from the world than what we ourselves are willing to contribute and give to others. Whenever I catch myself judging other people or complaining about what others have done or have not done, these words help to focus my energies on the things I actually have control over, like my attitude and the amount of work I put in.
Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. The United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This is of course a huge topic. But briefly, can you share your view on how this crisis inexorably evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?
My family on my father’s side is from the Eastern Cape region of South Africa. On my trips to South Africa as a kid, I experienced the last decade or so of apartheid, which was institutionalized racism in South Africa roughly equivalent to the Jim Crow South of the US. I also had the experience of repeatedly being called the N-word as a child growing up in the 1980s in Canada when my dad was posted in Ottawa for work. I have seen things and have been treated in ways that I am frankly hesitant to tell my children about. All of which to say that I think I have a very high threshold for racism and calling things out as racist. What I have seen unfold in the United States is a painful but necessary reckoning with a racist past that has been for far too long invalidated and swept under the carpet. I think South Africa can serve as an example of how acknowledging racism and listening to the perspectives and stories of the people who have suffered through it can help to bring about change. In South Africa, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was a restorative justice body and process assembled exactly for the purpose of hearing the experiences of the victims and survivors of apartheid. That may be a viable model for the US. I am hopeful that the crisis will catalyze the work required to build a society that truly accepts Black men, values their contributions, and empowers them to be their best selves.
This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons. Why is it so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
First of all, it makes good business sense. There is a growing body of evidence that diversity in the executive ranks leads to stronger economic gains for tech companies. Also, by having people of colour represented in executive and leadership roles we show people that they can be here too. I was lucky to grow up with many strong and positive Black role models in my family and larger community. Black female and male doctors, lawyers, engineers, professors, and architects were around me to inspire, motivate, and encourage me. I saw myself in them and they saw themselves in me.
Let’s zoom out a bit and talk in more broad terms. It’s hard to be satisfied with the status quo regarding Black Men In Tech in Tech leadership. What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?
We need to take meaningful and quantifiable action to address systemic racism in the corporate world, starting with representation at the top. Getting more talented and qualified Black men into these spaces will take action and investment, not just words. In tech we often talk about being data-driven, so I think we can take that approach to create measurable and sustainable change. I think we can learn from gender diversity programs that have clearly worked to achieve greater gender representation in corner offices and corporate boardrooms.
We’d now love to learn a bit about your company. What is the pain point that your company is helping to address?
We help software developers and companies of all sizes around the world contribute to and safely extract value from open source software. The majority of technology innovation in business is now driven by the open source model and as digital transformation has expanded into many industries, including transportation, logistics, healthcare, telecoms, pharmaceuticals, mining, energy, you name it, open source software has become crucial for the continued competitiveness of the global economy. We provide a governance and legal framework that ensures a level playing field, manages intellectual property, and ensures compliance with legal requirements so that our members can fully and safely participate in the open source ecosystem.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
There’s a lot that makes the Eclipse Foundation stand out. But I would say the most important thing that sets us apart is that we are at once code-first, community-driven, and business-friendly. We have a global community of developers, startups, and the world’s largest companies that collaborate on a level-playing field to innovate on software that gets built into commercial products and makes a difference in people’s lives and creates economic value. We conducted an analysis recently that, if you consider the approximately 240 million lines of code and counting that have been contributed by our community over the years, the code base under our stewardship would be conservatively valued at over $13 billion.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Yes, we are in the middle of the most exciting shift in our history. We are moving our legal residence from the United States to Europe. Our goal is to create a global institution that builds on our existing membership base, active developer community, and strong institutional relationships to enable the free flow of open software innovation throughout the entire world. We believe that more choice and greater regional diversity will be of benefit to both the global open source communities, and for the industries that rely upon and collaborate with them.
What would you advise to another tech leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth or sales and “restart their engines”?
To be perfectly frank, I have yet to experience this at any of the organizations in which I’ve played a leadership role. I think there are other respondents more qualified to provide advice on this front.
Do you have any advice about how companies can create very high performing sales teams?
Not really, since I’m not in a sales role.
In your specific industry what methods have you found to be most effective in order to find and attract the right customers? Can you share any stories or examples?
In my experience, finding the right customers involves talking to many customers. And by talking, I really mean listening. Listening to their pain points, challenges, priorities, and problems they’re trying to solve and taking the time to learn about their organizations, strategies, and the customers they serve. Gathering data and studying behaviour often helps to uncover unsolved problems and unmet needs. Several years ago, I was brought into a once-promising B2B startup whose growth had stalled. We had a sizable base of tens of thousands of enterprise customers, but we had no competitive edge to speak of, and the market had cooled on our core technology. Over several months, my team did the work of interviewing decision-makers and influencers at 20 companies, made up of our strongest supporters and advocates and customers who were at risk of attrition. We used the insights from this research program to define and focus on the “perfect” customers whose needs aligned best with our value proposition and corporate DNA. We pivoted our strategy and roadmap to focus on rapidly building capabilities that our perfect customers would be willing to pay for. Roughly a year later, we were acquired, largely due to our reinvigorated products and strong customer base.
Based on your experience, can you share 3 or 4 strategies to give your customers the best possible user experience and customer service?
Again, this specific question is not applicable to me, so I’ll leave this to others to answer.
As you likely know, this HBR article demonstrates that studies have shown that retaining customers can be far more lucrative than finding new ones. Do you use any specific initiatives to limit customer attrition or customer churn? Can you share some of your advice from your experience about how to limit customer churn?
First and foremost, invest in getting to know and continually engage with your customers, not just at renewal time. That constant contact will ensure that you are aware of their current needs, pain points, challenges, and priorities, so you can evolve your offers accordingly and support them in achieving success on their terms with your products. In the enterprise space, customer advisory boards and periodic business reviews are some of the ways to surface customer issues and gain insights that can feed into mitigation strategies. And having a strategy is key; your churn reduction initiatives can’t be disjointed tactics. You have to do the work to build out a plan with goals, objectives, and time-bound measures of success. Finally, my teams have had a lot of success by continually providing proof-of-value through rich content like case studies, customer contributed blogs, and testimonials that help demonstrate ROI.
Here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful tech company? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Success in tech begins and ends with people. Build a team of open-minded, collaborative, hard-working, and intellectually curious people. In my experience, if it comes down to hiring for attitude or aptitude, attitude wins every time.
- Know what real-world problem you are solving and for whom. Each person in your organization must be able to clearly and simply articulate the problem you solve and value you provide.
- Do the work to identify that one thing or few things that make you stand out from the competition and focus on strengthening that competitive edge.
- Fail fast. Make small bets, experiment, gather customer feedback, measure obsessively, and repeat. Do more of the stuff that works and less of the stuff that doesn’t. Work hard and try to get better every day and the results will follow.
- Put customers and customer experience at the center of everything you do. Prioritize customers who understand your value proposition and are willing to pay for it.
Wonderful. We are nearly done. Here are the final “meaty” questions of our discussion. You are a person of enormous 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. 🙂
I am a huge believer in the power of compassion and kindness to make the world a better place. One of the ways I tap into compassion for myself and others is through mindfulness meditation. I think mindfulness would work wonders for communities of colour, particularly related to dealing with the trauma and chronic stress of racism. When I first went to a meditation group in Toronto, I was the only visible minority in the room. I am happy to see that now in the US and Canada there are meditation groups for persons of colour and there is more diversity in terms of teachers and students studying mindfulness.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders 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 🙂
Well, my father and I live over 8,000 miles apart and I rarely get to see him, so he would be my first choice. Barack Obama would be a close second.
Thank you so much for this. This was very inspirational, and we wish you only continued success!