“You want to create a culture where people tackle hard challenges with creativity and hard work, and they do so in a playful way.” with Vijay Tella and Phil Laboon

You want to create a culture where people tackle hard challenges with creativity and hard work, and they do so in a playful way. Earlier this week, a couple of our customer success team members were working on adding support for new Salesforce capabilities around workflows for a new listing on AppExchange. We are the […]

You want to create a culture where people tackle hard challenges with creativity and hard work, and they do so in a playful way. Earlier this week, a couple of our customer success team members were working on adding support for new Salesforce capabilities around workflows for a new listing on AppExchange. We are the first vendor to support this feature and it turned out to be a lot more challenging than we had initially thought it would be. Our team was jamming through late evening to get this done. It felt like everyone was engaged in a friendly competition, playing a game to win and be the first to support it, versus just doing a job.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Vijay Tella, CEO of Workato. Tella has led the creation of market-defining technology-based solutions across the enterprise and consumer segments. Before Workato, he was the CEO of Qik, a consumer video communications company, which was acquired by Skype. Prior, he helped create two multi-billion dollar integration products. He was part of the team that created the world’s first middleware platform, TIB at Teknekron Software Systems, which was acquired by Reuters Plc, in 1994, and was on the founding team and SVP of Engineering of TIBCO through its IPO. As Chief Strategy Officer, he helped launch Oracle’s Fusion Middleware platform in 2005. His current position at Workato, which is a mashup of ideas and technologies from his time in the enterprise and consumer space, completes the circle for Vijay.

What is your “backstory”?

I was fortunate to be a part of the team that created the very first integration platform in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It was called The Information Bus or TIB. This led to TIBCO and a wave of middleware technologies. I went on to be the starting SVP of Engineering at Tibco Software and then Chief Strategy Officer of Oracle Fusion Middleware.

My time at Qik was a complete 180 from work done at Tibco and Oracle. We created an Instagram-like mobile video app with live streaming before Instagram even existed. It achieved a cult-like status with about 20 million users in the first couple of years after iPhone launched. It was the top paid app in Apple’s app worldwide. I had to unlearn nearly everything I knew about software to help create and grow a compelling product in the consumer space. I had to build a very different kind of team and take a completely different go-to-market approach. In important ways, the bar for design, ease of use, and user expectations around things like uptime and reliability was much higher for our inexpensive, freemium consumer product than it was to Oracle or Tibco where products often cost millions of dollars.

After Skype acquired Qik, I returned to my middleware roots by co-founding Workato. We created a fusion of our past teams — people with completely different backgrounds that were deep in the consumer or cloud and integration space. It has been incredibly fun and rewarding to see how smart people from very different arenas and cultures can meld together to rethink a big enterprise software problem and create a new category of product that we call Intelligent Process Automation, something that democratizes enterprise integration and automation by making it accessible to business groups in companies far beyond IT.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

Very soon after we first released Workato, we were fortunate to land a strategic role as the integration partner for the largest consumer technology company in the world as they were entering the world of business software. We were in a tiny 800 square foot office in Cupertino with no windows. When this partner wanted to bring a large delegation of its top worldwide field execs to visit us in our offices, the startup hustle began! Within two weeks, we moved into a bigger, brighter space; and with the help of family and friends (pizza bribes can do wonders), did a marathon build-out of Ikea furniture over one weekend.

To make the office look fuller, we had all our advisors and investors come in on the day of the visit. Markus, our German business development person, organized a complete German beer and food tasting. My wife set up nice Ikebana arrangements in the office. Thankfully, the visitors loved our story and the meeting was a huge success. They told us it was the best visit they had out of a half dozen companies they saw that week, all much larger than us. The product we created for this partnership eventually became Workbot, a popular tool that helps digital employees master the complexity of their workflows by harnessing the power of their apps and technologies like AI, NLP, Bots and RPA.

How do you synchronize large teams to effectively work together?

There are three things that I’ve found are important for synchronizing large teams: over-communication, spending time together in the same place for launches or milestones, and no a**holes policy (excuse my French!), especially for the more senior people.

Over-communicating is key to synchronizing large groups of people. If you say something once, a few people might remember it, but to make something a shared objective, you really have to reiterate it in team meetings, one-on-one, and in your own actions as a leader. Creating this shared mission and empowering your employees to contribute helps keep the entire company pointed towards the North Star. This is an area where we are always working to improve.

I also really believe in the value of being together as a team for big projects and milestones. We have team members who live around the world, from our Singapore office, to NYC, Seattle, and Spain. When we celebrate a milestone, we try to fly everyone out to Cupertino. It’s great for morale and it helps everyone feel closer to one another as we work towards our common mission to democratize integration.

That leads me to my last point — the No A*holes policy. We have a team of smart, self-driven people that work hard and enjoy the time with each other. No matter how good you are or what your pedigree is, if you can’t work respectfully and be supportive of other smart and dedicated team members, there’s no role for you on this team. With these three elements in place, working together beautifully generally follows.

What is the top challenge when managing global teams in different geographical locations? Can you give an example or story?

Workato is very global and I think there are a lot of strengths that come from that. But, of course, it also comes with its challenges. Besides the obvious issues around finding time to meet, I think the bigger challenges are creating a shared culture and the dynamic between tracking and executing work with remote team members.

For example, with our remote engineers, the system we’ve found that works best is a 10 am and 10 pm check-in a few days a week. The rest of the time, the teams work on their own. You don’t want to micromanage your team members, but because you can’t just walk over to their desk, you do need to put some sort of checkpoint in place. We also have a big Slack culture. Our remote workers spend their day on Slack and communicate with everyone in the company on it.

Lastly, in order to create that shared culture, we ensure remote team members from around the world spend significant time in Cupertino. Our remote engineers, project managers, support staff, customer success team and content team come every quarter and we gather our entire sales and sales support teams twice a year for Sales Kickoffs. We even rent a large house near our office to make the long stays easier, especially when people come over from long-distance locations. This makes days in the office really fun. There’s always a nice rotation of new people visiting, infusing new life into the office dynamic and opening up new collaborations.

An example of this:a couple of years ago our content team from New York and IT team from Singapore were in Cupertino for a couple of weeks at the same time. Our IT team had created over 200 Workato recipes to automate and streamline all of our operations across the company — sales, marketing, customer success, business operations and HR. The content team was blown away by what they did with Workato and that’s how we wrote our first “Transform Your Business with Intelligent Automation” book. Inside, we showcased all of Workato’s internal integrations and automations, providing a clear behind-the-scenes look at how the company runs. This has since been updated every year and become our most popular eBook.

What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?

Start-ups are hard. Every bit of progress is self-generated. Ben Horowitz had this right in “The hard thing about hard things.” So, when I’m hiring new people, I would challenge them on why they would choose Workato over the other options they have that may be easier and seem more stable.

At the same time, we are in this for the very long term. So, equally, we believe that a healthy work-family-personal life balance is important, as is a place to grow in their career.

Family is important to me. I have twin boys and I want to be an effective leader for my company as well as a great dad. I know my employees have families and hobbies too, and I want them to lead full lives. My advice to other CEOs and founders is to make sure you aid employees in their request to achieve work-life balance, from small things like buying fitness trackers for the company to encourage a healthy lifestyle, to big life events like the birth of a child or unfortunate medical emergencies. A new employee from Singapore landed in San Jose for the Sales Kickoff only to find out his wife was in labor. He got right back on a plane to Singapore! Our entire Singapore team will be “working from Bangalore” for a week in August, celebrating a colleague’s wedding.

The other role for a CEO is to make sure you identify talent and give them room to grow in their role. Nothing makes employees churn faster than feeling stagnant or unappreciated. When you see someone adding value to the company, don’t wait for them to ask for recognition — make it a priority. This goes a long way and it’s an area where we can all improve. I’m proud that two-thirds of the leadership team and senior staff are people I have worked with creating billion dollar businesses elsewhere. It means a lot that they were willing to come work with me on a completely new adventure. While we are a hands-on group, we are designed for the long-haul and aim to create a forever company and brand.

Most times when people quit their jobs they actually “quit their managers.” What are your thoughts on retaining talent today?

This is so true. We want everyone to feel safe about their feedback, questions, and fears. We really try to maintain strong communication across hierarchies. People working for my leadership team all the way to the new hires on the frontline should feel safe to communicate and catch up with anyone at any time, regardless of who they report into.

As a company grows, hierarchical lines of communications can create big disconnects between groups, in my experience. Our approach helps us with transparency and to maintain a 360-degree awareness of our managers and team members. The No A*holes policy applies even more to managers!

Based on your personal experience, what are the “3 Things You Need To Know To Successfully Manage a Team.” (Please share a story or example for each, ideally from your experience)

Hiring right is half of it. In my personal experience, this means hiring people with initiative, ambition, smarts, a strong bias towards action, great personal work habits, and a hunger to learn and grow. Integrity in how they work with others is as important as the hard skills required for the job. An example of this is the first intern we hired at Workato, Allan, to help with business development. Allan was the epitome of all of these traits. On returning to Singapore after his internship, he opened up Workato Singapore. He hired and grew a team with these traits. We now have as many people in Singapore across all business functions as we have in Cupertino HQ. That team and office have become, along with our product, a big part of our secret sauce.

Nurture a culture where individuals and teams achieve a state of ‘flow’. You want to create a culture where people tackle hard challenges with creativity and hard work, and they do so in a playful way. Earlier this week, a couple of our customer success team members were working on adding support for new Salesforce capabilities around workflows for a new listing on AppExchange. We are the first vendor to support this feature and it turned out to be a lot more challenging than we had initially thought it would be. Our team was jamming through late evening to get this done. It felt like everyone was engaged in a friendly competition, playing a game to win and be the first to support it, versus just doing a job.

No boundaries. Most companies have groups and hierarchical reporting structures. We do as well, but the key is to have no boundaries between people and groups. Someone straight out of college or an intern should be able approach a very senior person in another group and have a serious discussion on any topic without fear or hesitation. If an intern is proposing something that has value, we will adopt it. Workato has a reputation of being a great company to work. Our customer success team and processes were created bottom up from the front lines, guided by an exec that has done this on a much larger scale at other places.

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. 🙂

As cliche as it may be, children are our future, especially in a world that is becoming more divisive and facing unprecedented challenges impacting our planet. I believe focusing on children is the best way to make a long-term impact. If we can cultivate a better educated, more empathetic generation the the world will be a better place.

My wife and I started the Tella Sakamoto foundation to try to help give disadvantaged children a chance to succeed. Much of the foundation’s work has been in the state of Andhra Pradesh in India where we focus on building and renovating elementary through high schools in rural areas;funding education, health and sports programs and staff at these schools; and in supporting orphanages in the region. The foundation has also supported children-focused projects in the aftermaths of the Sendai earthquake of 2011 in Japan, the South Indian floods of 2008, the Pakistan earthquake of 2005 and the Indonesian earthquake and tsunami of 2004. Closer to home, we have supported a program called FAST (Families and Schools Together) run by the Family and Children’s Services of Silicon Valley in elementary schools in East San Jose.

While we have been heads down building out Workato, the leadership team and I are committed to supporting passion projects of our employees as we believe is important give back to the communities we live in.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“You have to believe it before you can see it.” — Unknown

Belief in your inspiration or gut helps you see things others don’t yet see. The common thread in my four start-ups has been a deep conviction in a fundamentally new path and having the confidence to bet the company on it. Customer feedback is essential to validate the ideas and to get a more precise calibration on the product, and especially, the go-to-market. This is different from surveying customers for ideas. Henry Ford said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

Workato, an integration product, was inspired by the few years we spent immersed in creating consumer mobile apps. We saw that it was not enough to make enterprise integration simpler and more modern. There was a need and opportunity to completely rethink both the problem being addressed and the approach. We listen very closely to what customers tell us about our product, but we did not canvas the traditional integration buyers about what they wanted before creating something tangible that they could respond to.

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