The Software Agents is a new podcast series sponsored by CloudBees. Each week we bring you leaders from many fields applying software to reimagine them for the new world under construction.
Our first guest this week is Will Hayes, CEO of Lucidworks. His company powers search for major retailers among others. Will tells us how in the months since lockdowns began, most brands’ online stores went from just one of many sales channels to their flagship presence. How does his company’s software let them bring their unique in-store experience and expertise to online customers? Will also talks a bit about his personal journey as one of the few Black CEOs in Silicon Valley.
Announcer: Welcome to the Software Agents, a podcast series that brings you the people using software to help change the world in this time of transformation. With the help of some of the brightest technology minds, we'll explore how almost every possible area of life, society, and business is being reimaged through the power of software.
Christina Noren: Welcome to the first of many podcasts on how software is helping the world survive and evolve right now. I'm Christina Noren and my cohost is Paul Boutin. Hi, Paul.
Paul Boutin: Thanks for tuning in.
Christina Noren: This podcast is sponsored by CloudBees, leader in software delivery automation and software delivery management, with over 40 percent of the Fortune 500 relying on its leading continuous integration, continuous delivery, feature flagging and cloud-native products. What I'm excited about is today we have one of my favorite people as our first guest, Will Hayes.
He's the CEO of Lucidworks, and we'll let him tell us a little bit about himself and we'll get started there.
Will Hayes: Great. Well, thank you. I'm very excited to be here. I'm Will Hayes, CEO of Lucidworks. Lucidworks, we provide a proprietary search engine that combines the power of search along with AI and machine learning to aid in providing personalized data experiences, recommendations, discovery, and we can apply this to areas such as retail.
So customers such as Nordstrom Rack and REI, when you're shopping online, and then even behind the firewall we power things from Morgan Stanley's wealth management desk to a number of enterprise search and knowledge applications across the Global 2000.
Christina Noren: So the reason, you know, we're doing this podcast is to explore a little bit about the software stories behind the scenes of how the world is shifting rapidly. Like you have people talk about digital transformation accelerating, you know, 10 years – in a few months, these days. And, you know, so for me I've known you for a long time, Will, and I know what Lucidworks has done for a long time, and it seemed that the shift from retail to – I will use the stupid term – e-tail, you know, has been incredibly rapid and I can only imagine how that's affected your customers.
Will Hayes: Yeah, it's significant. I mean, you know, obviously pre-COVID everybody recognized that you need to digitally transform or die.
We've seen, you know, just massive disruption in the retail sector in terms of folks who just simply didn't make it to consolidation through PE and otherwise, and so we were working with a number of the leading brands on just really accelerating those digital strategies, ensuring that they're providing experiences that are comparable to what folks can get from places like Amazon or Walmart.
Obviously, when COVID-19 hit it went from, you know, digital is yet another channel – and in fact, a really interesting metric that somebody shared is they think of their website like one of their stores in Union Square, and so it's not that this is a whole other paradigm, this is yet another storefront. So imagine now that Union Square storefront went from doing, you know, 5 percent of revenue to 100 percent of revenue overnight. This is effectively what has happened with these online properties, and they simply just were not ready for it.
And so not only do you have to worry about availability, can we handle the load, can we ensure that every customer is being served and transacted and we're capturing that value, but how do we think about the experiences that they have? How do we meet the expectations that they've been conditioned to expect from other consumer experiences – Netflix, Amazon, Facebook and so forth? And so there's been a whole lot of urgency and acceleration of getting to a point of not just being digitally transformed but really about sort of being a digital master, right? Where I can now really drive this portion of my business as my primary vehicle towards monetization.
Christina Noren: So tell me a little bit more about Fusion as a platform, and if you can take me through a specific customer of – you know, naming's not necessary, but a specific customer of why they became a customer pre-COVID and how they've evolved their use of Fusion post-COVID.
Will Hayes: Yeah. So let's focus on the digital commerce business and we can talk about the digital – what we call digital workplace a little bit separately, because the motivations there are different.
But commerce, again, is something that we all can kind of understand because everybody shops online in one form or another, whether, you know, you do your once-a-year type of holiday shopping or you get groceries every single week, and so it's becoming more and more pervasive in just kind of the way that we live. What we have been helping customers really achieve over the last couple years pre-COVID is how do I leverage technology, specifically things like machine learning, to serve a more personal experience for my customers?
And when you think about what is a personal experience, there's sort of three dimensions to creating a truly engaging personal experience. One of them is just findability. I know that I want something. I'm coming into Home Depot or Lowe's and I know there's a particular tool. Or even more abstract – I know that I'm trying to perform a task, I'm trying to demolish a bathroom. Well, if I walk into the store not only can I state that intention and somebody will guide me to it, but along the way they can give me some expertise and some information.
They can provide recommendations. This is why we like going into a store. Typically there's an expert that we can converse with. When those experiences need to be taken online, and we don't want to just simply compete on price and convenience – because guess what? You're going to lose. Amazon's already got that game won. We need to start thinking about how we leverage technology to meet those expectations. So ensuring that as a customer comes in to look for something, can they find it?
Are the results that they're being presented with, are they relevant? Did they ask a question? Can we answer the question rather than just showing a bunch of blue links? So that's sort of step one to that experience. Step two is discovery.
How do we implement machine learning and AI to provide product recommendations, recommendations that understand your favorite color, recommendations that understand the propensity for high end versus low end, or recommendations that are simply just based on the fact that we have a bunch of inventory that we want to get rid of and we want to put those in front of somebody. Then the third dimension is merchandising.
I am a domain expert. I understand activewear, I understand – REI is a large customer of ours, and so outdoor goods. You walk into an REI because if I want to go on my first hike or I want to go climb Mount Kilimanjaro, somebody can guide me through that experience. Well, the same folks at REI want to then merchandise things digitally, so as you're looking for hiking boots maybe they know that you might want some poles. Maybe I'm going to use my expertise to recommend a certain style of pant given the temperature and given the type of boots that you're looking for.
So how an organization can use technology to bring product recommendations, personalized search experience, and then allow their domain experts to merchandise results is where we come in. Before us they were relying on either hiring the expertise that Google and Amazon and Facebook have internally, which is very difficult once you go east of the 101, or they were relying on very archaic sort of rule-based systems, things like Oracle Endeca that were very manual.
Sometimes you have to create tens of thousands of rules to create that perfect experience. Obviously machine learning and AI, we can adapt and we can adjust based on the inputs and the signals that we're seeing, and so that's where our technology comes in and really empowers these customers to deliver on those three paradigm.
Christina Noren: That's fascinating. So after – you know, at the beginning of lockdowns, did you find that your retail customers we recalling you for different kind of consulting on how to apply this?
And did you find that you were talking to a different audience within those companies?
Will Hayes: So what was interesting for us, so every customer – sorry, every retailer typically they know when their peak season is going to occur. For a lot of them it's pretty easy; it's Black Friday, right? And so availability is important, being able to respond to trends with merchandising and promotions, all of that is critical.
And so one of the things that we were well positioned for is dealing with abnormal spikes of traffic because we typically are focusing our sizing efforts around these sort of Black Friday types of events. What happened post shelter-in-place was almost across the board – I want to say every single one even though that sounds crazy, but I'm pretty sure it was every single one of our customers saw Black Friday-like spikes in traffic right away. This is kind of getting into like kind of the mid-February, and they sustained them for about the first three to four weeks of shelter-in-place.
So not only did you have this sustained level of traffic but suddenly you had to start asking yourselves, what happens if this doesn't change, if this is the new normal? And so a lot of what we were working with companies to do was to put their sort of Black Friday readiness in March, which is not something you would typically see. Now, you know, we have certain customers, a large grocery provider where Fourth of July is a big spike for them, right? One of our activewear customers, funny enough, January 1st.
Right after New Year's they get a big increase. So we're all kind of conditioning for those events, but here we saw them in a far more unpredictable – and then another thing happened, by the way, and this is kind of crazy. Then the traffic went away. So you got this huge spike and this huge, sustained period, and then guess what? Everybody got a new bike and a new mixer and a new yoga mat and a new whatever it was that they needed to stay sane at home and then they kind of calmed down again. And so now companies were trying to figure out their post-sales motions.
What do we need to do to continuously promote and provide services and maintenance and other things back to these customers on a cycle that's not our typical cycle? Sorry, I think I cut you off.
Christina Noren: That's fine. I just have two questions there that are divergent. So my first question is does Lucidworks offer Fusion mostly as a SaaS or mostly is on-premise? And my second question is kind of, you know, search experience you were talking about earlier was – is that something that you've been trying to figure out how to deliver in an email or whatever kind of nurturing kind of form?
Yeah. So I mean on the first question, SaaS versus on-prem, and this is one of the opportunities and challenges of the transition that we're going through right now, which is we have primarily worked with very sensitive payloads of data with very calm technology-centric companies, and so what that means is even some of our retail companies or customers tend to operate more like technology companies.
So very competent and very comfortable managing their own operations, they've got their own playbooks for SLAs, for RCAs, and we would plug right into that. When we're dealing with banks and healthcare, obviously the data sensitivity, they would also want to run those on-prem. In the last year we've seen a shift where about 80 percent of our business is going towards SaaS of new business. About 20 percent of our on-prem customers are actively migrating and, you know, the other kind of 80 percent of legacy is sort of sticking with the on-prem model.
So there is a bifurcation and it's one that, you know, we have to think about constantly in terms of how do we build our org charts, how do we go to market, how do we provide support, because we're starting to create these two very different constituencies of users. So that was the first question about SaaS – the second, excuse me, if you could just repeat it. [Laughs]
Christina Noren: No, I was wondering about, like, you know, so you're delivering search experiences, and what I know from working with you over the last few years is, you know, four or five years ago you guys were visionary in figuring out that it was about an experience, not about I'm typing in terms into a search box.
And so, you know, as retailers like – you know, Neiman Marcus has been my experience with lockdown retail, and I've had this – and I was searching online and my saleslady there, you know, was trying to help me remotely because she was trying to keep her commission, so I was trying to keep her in business. [Laughs]
You know, but the emails that Neiman's is sending me – and you don't have to disclose if they're a customer – but the emails that they're sending me, how much are they informed by search algorithms and what you're doing?
Will Hayes: Thank you. This is the golden opportunity, and so I'll talk about what our vision is and then specifically to why the Neiman's problem exists and why this exists in so many places.
And so our vision goes well beyond search. We believe that every digital interaction needs to be better informed and better enriched, and so what I mean by that is if, you know, pre-COVID I said to you I need you in New York tomorrow, there's probably about a half dozen screens and applications in which you're going to go engage. Each one of those is an opportunity to be more productive, to know your seat, to know your time preference, to know which hotel based on your calendar. I mean you could think of a world in which all of the data is informing every engagement that you have. Now across channel that can be quite difficult.
Across company or provider obviously nearly impossible. But within an individual branch, the fact that I cannot provide you that consistent experience from the time that you talk to an agent on the phone from the time that you go online to the time that you receive an email. What I often say to my customers is, "Look, you are treating me as if I am a different person depending on which channel that I show up on. Guess what? I don't feel like a different person." My engagement with Neiman Marcus doesn't change based on the fact that I'm on the phone or I'm on an email or I'm on a mobile device.
What changes is that the way that we've architected solutions has created these silos where now the application is like an instantiation of me in this silo, not an instantiation of me just an individual who happens to be showing up through a particular channel. So part of delivering our vision is that we are creating almost like a cloud in which we can inform interactions. An interaction might say Christina just ran a query; what color should I rank that query by based on her preference?
I'm going to send an email to Christina. Which color should be in the email? A really simple example; but again, that one consistent thread that could tie that personal experience creates that level of engagement and trust, because most companies grow through acquisition – we acquired a mobile app company to go build our mobile experience, they're creating a set of insights to go build a great mobile experience. Web marketing has been collecting insights about customers since the beginning of email, yet they're doing it on their own. The website and the search team are doing it on their own.
These insights end up getting siloed which creates this breakdown in experience. So over time we are solving the search problem that's attached to revenue, but our vision is to help customers break down the insight silos across every channel that informs and touches the customer interactions.
Paul Boutin: I know that people talk about an omnichannel experience, and right now the omnichannel is pretty much the one channel, which is the website, but I'm curious from an outside – from a demand side point of view.
The two things I've – as you were speaking that came to my mind. The first is just the simple one of what else besides my favorite color and other proclivities might you know about me that I as a customer never realized?
Will Hayes: Yeah, a lot. [Laughs] And I mean that. I mean what's interesting – so let me give you an example of one of my favorite from a home improvement customer, and here's something that they do which I think is so slick.
So you show up and you start searching for a faucet because you need to replace a faucet. Maybe it's broken, maybe you don't like the color or whatever. Okay, so we're going to help you find the best faucet. We might rank it based on whether there's a certain finish that we know you like, we might rank it based on your propensity to buy high-end appliances versus low-end.
But what they're doing is we're creating what's called a customer data profile. The next thing you do, you look for a shower curtain. Okay, maybe I serve you a shower curtain. Next you want a toilet seat. Time out. We can interpret that now – you have an entirely different intention.
You went from replacing a couple things in your bathroom to doing a remodel. I can completely change the experience now. Let's get away from just serving you up a catalogue list of faucets and toilet seats; let's start talking about projects. Oh by the way, have you seen what we have over here in the pro section and do you see the services that we can have to go offer? So that's step one, intersection that to map you not only to a certain preference but to a certain intention that you might have.
The same customer now you've come back two or three times to the site and you either have this obsession with remodeling your bathroom or maybe you're a contractor. An entirely different experience is going to be presented back to you. So it's not just like tracking kind of the more personal stuff – do you like this or do you like that? – it's the brand trying to understand you, because they have their own domain knowledge. They can spot a DIY bathroom remodeler just from the way they walk up and down the aisle.
How they do that digitally and craft that experience digitally, that's what will keep you going back to this particular customer and not just buying the stuff for cheaper on Amazon.
Christina Noren: So Will, let's bring that back to the current moment. This is really profound for me, which is basically, you know, what are associates trying to do inside of stores that they can't do during lockdown and depending on how long lockdown is going to happen?
But coming back to your customers right now, how have you had to help your customers deal with this adjustment where you don't know if it's, you know, four weeks and then, you know, four weeks of they are done buying their Pelotons and yada, yada, and now we're thinking about like what does four years like this look like?
Will Hayes: Yes, yes. And it's funny because it's four weeks of buying followed by a month of support and getting it set up then quiet, right? [Laughs] And so a really good example of where we've had to step in –– and in fact, we accelerated our roadmap based on this, is call centers, and so we've been working on a feature which we call Smart Answers, and the premise of this feature is that we can process lots and lots of content and try to detect question and answer pairings out of it, very similar to if you ask a question to Google you'll notice that it will pull answers out of Wikipedia. It's training on Wikipedia to answer questions about people or places, events, and so forth.
Well, you know, within the corporate – or the – yeah, the corporate corpus of information there is a massive amount of knowledge, there's a massive amount of answers, but corporations obviously can't use Google to train on top of their proprietary data. So we built a system to help train question and answer pairs out of massive amounts of content. This was something we were actually going to release later in the fall. One of the things that happened as a result of COVID, and this was really interesting – I don't know if people fully get this – obviously while your customer service call centers are being massively overrun, or so it seems –– call times are longer, I'm being directed to the website, they want to call me back, whether it's your credit card, your airline, you name it. Now in the case of –
Christina Noren: Don't get me into the two weeks of trying to _____ lobby enterprise. [Laughs]
Will Hayes: But here's the key, here's what people don't understand; it's actually not the volume. The problem is getting people equipped at home to take calls. You have the problem of equipment – I need special software, I need special hardware – you also –
You know, a lot of times the people who come in and work at call centers, these are a very transient workforce, so you typically have people who don't stay in their jobs for very long, they rotate very highly, and so typically in those situations more supervision is required so it's harder to have people working remote. So it's not that we're necessarily getting inundated with call volume. What's happening is companies simply cannot service call centers remotely and it's causing a huge headache.
So one of the things we did is we accelerated the release of smart answers because really the core value prop here is call deflection, helping your customers get answers faster and resolve issues on their own using this question and answering technology, and so that's something that, you know, our customers pushed us to release based on the fact that they're having this bottleneck with their call centers just not being equipped for remote work.
Christina Noren: So let's shift gears a little bit. So you have been in the news recently as one of the few African American CEOs of a Silicon Valley 20:59 company.
So, you know, would love to understand a little bit about how recent events have affected you personally and, you know, you were dealing with a first wave of COVID and lockdowns in your professional life and then there's been this surge in issues that probably affect you on a personal level.
Will Hayes: Yeah. I mean [laughs] you kind of summed it up.
You know, the current wave, I mean to what you said earlier, which was, you know, we were all dealing with this sort of unprecedented amount of just adversity in our businesses no matter who you were. This is just – it's hard to scale, it's hard to make decisions, it's hard to not feel overly reactive when there's just so much uncertainty. You just don't know. Are we going to be closed in lockdown for a month, for a year? Will the economy bounce back in Q3 or in 2021? So obviously that created a lot of just angst, and as leaders of organizations just a lot of feeling like you're sort of grasping in the dark at times.
But, you know, collectively as an industry I mean everybody's sort of going through this together, so that's always a nice equalizer in terms of dealing with issues. When you bring some of the social issues that came on top of that, I think there's sort of two things that come up. I mean one, it's just more stress for your team. So we worry now about people's personal safety, we worry about, you know, the situations in the communities that they're in and that's just us ensuring that we're providing as much support as possible for our companies.
I think for myself, you know, being a black leader, there was this added, I'll call it just sort of burden of now, you know, what are you going to say or do about this thing that has affected you your whole life but is suddenly very topical [laughs] and people want statements and they want you to express your feelings, either as an organizational leader in terms of what we're doing for the company or as a black leader.
And, you know, to be honest, the burden kind of just pissed me off at first because it's frankly just more stuff to deal with. You know, in the end, what I got both comfortable with and convicted behind was, one, I'm just going to tell my own experiences, because that's the best thing that I can do. I have experiences growing up with police, I have experiences in just being in the Bay Area and being in tech, and I'm not here to cast those experiences as being negative or anything. I mean I'm here where I am today as a result of everything that I've experienced.
But I will share the story, because people seem to be listening to the story. And then number two, what I recognized was that having gotten to the point that I'm at is a privilege and I can use that privilege to either just keep my head down and continue doing what I'm doing and hope nobody takes notice and kind of leaves me alone, or again, I can use it as a platform to share. Because being somebody who's successfully raised money, who has more or less successfully navigated the Valley, I felt that it was important for people to know that I still deal with this crap.
And it's discouraging and it's frustrating, and even though I was able to kind of push through it there's plenty of people who would not and there are some simple things that could be done, like looking up who the CEO is on LinkedIn prior to a meeting, that would significantly reduce the burden that founders and CEOs, particularly black founders, feel in this entire game. And so that's where I just got comfortable where, okay, if my – the mark that I can leave on the world is just that I'm more than happy to participate in the conversation.
Christina Noren: [Laughs] I'm laughing because that's the same thing I've been saying about the experience of being a female CEO raising money in the Valley with experience. It's like, literally, you know, I've been asked if I had worked for people that I had hired in their first job.
Will Hayes: Oh, yeah. There you go. And this was clear when my article came out of many women leaders were sharing very similar experiences. I mean it's so maddening again because it's such an easy opportunity to get it right.
You don't have to do a whole lot. It doesn't cost you anything to do that right. And the impact and the cost of getting it wrong is significant and people recognize that, but then here in lies the catch; now you realize you made a mistake, now you're even more uncomfortable, which means your ability as a female CEO, as a black CEO to go out and raise money has been severely handicapped, and that's a problem.
Christina Noren: Yeah. Well, I think that's true.
So I think it would be helpful for our listeners to hear about your personal journey. You know, so where did you start from and how did you end up CEO of Lucidworks? And tell us a little bit about the scope of Lucidworks as a company right now, you know, size, funding, yada, yada.
Will Hayes: I met you in 2005 and the rest was history.
Christina Noren: Not true, because you came – I'm going to lead the witness, because you came in as a group of the young engineers that really created Splunk.
That's a very understood part of Splunk's history.
Will Hayes: Sure. No, I appreciate that for sure. You know, like my background, and I think this is also why the conversation around race and everything else gets more complicated, at least in my perspective, just because I don't fit any mold that you'd probably consider to be in this role or doing kind of what I'm doing now. I grew up in the Bay Area. Dabbled in college.
Didn't really find any success there, but had always been just a lover of all things technical and so was very fortunate – I had a computer in my house growing up, which was very rare. I even had internet, like going back to the '80s, and so I had a lot of exposure to things like BBS and IRC, and I remember just the infatuation I had with connectivity, like the fact that I was talking to people all over the world. I thought it was just fascinating. Then when I learned that the internet was not only this really cool vehicle for connecting and having fun but I could manipulate it, meaning I could write applications, I could build stuff, just completed fascinated me.
I was always an entrepreneur by heart, starting businesses from mowing lawns to babysitting to just anything I could think of to go make money, and all of a sudden I just unlocked this world where I could build and I could build anything to my heart's desire and I could build applications and I could build things for companies. And so as a teenager I was actually making – earning money just doing a lot of technical things. Again, this was the '90s. I just want to be clear. Like today it's pretty hip to be into tech and coding and all these things when you're young.
Back then this was not ever heard of. [Laughs] In fact, we were – me and a couple other guys in my school who ended up at Splunk as well, we're all very quiet about our passion for technology, risking get our butts kicked literally. And so –
Christina Noren: _____ much more into Trans-Ams than tech.
Will Hayes: You got it. Yeah, you know exactly who I'm talking about. So fast forward and, you know, I had built a couple different apps, and again, just kind of got a real feel for tech and what I wanted to be and what I wanted to do.
I ended up with an opportunity out of high school to go intern at Genentech which then turned into a contracting job when I was going to go back to school, and then when school didn't work out it very quickly became a full-time offer. So I was very fortunate that as the real hype of the first bubble was occurring it would've been really easy for me to get consumed by that and potentially just spit out the other side, and instead I landed somewhere that was incredibly supportive, just had a very rich culture, and allowed for kind of an awkward 18-year-old to kind of figure himself out in this sort of corporate setting that frankly I had very little to no exposure to prior to that.
So I worked at Genentech for about six years, and got a call from a friend of mine who said, "You know, we're hiring a QA engineer," and I think I was like – at that time I was about 24, and I remember my – the calculus that I did in my head to see if this was a good career opportunity was, one, was it in the city, because I was driving to South City in a car that I hated that was like literally dying on the side of the road every other month –
– and then two, they had an Xbox, which I just thought was like – well you can't have a software company without a video game console. And so that's what led me to Splunk and meeting you and the team and, you know, I think I was somewhere in that first sort of 12 to 15-ish employees and, you know, we were turning over a few at the time. Not a lot of people in engineering. One of the things that was really prevalent to me when I go to Splunk was I was in QA, so I was hired in kind of the most junior engineering role that you could possibly be hired in.
But I had come from a highly-regulated, process-oriented industry – biotech. And so the big contrast to me coming into this startup was just there was no process, and I remember working with you and even Paul at the time actually about just how we can figure out what needs to be tested for a release, what needs to be documented, and kind of started putting some of that more program management behind engineering, and that had quickly sort of evolved into being kind of a program manager for engineering.
I'm sorry. You were going to say something?
Christina Noren: I was just saying something, because we lost all of the state department's firewall logs for three years at that time.
Will Hayes: Right.
There was quite a bit that was going on, yeah, that the lack of process showed, but we were building the right thing, which is what matters most, kids. And so, you know, in that experience I got to go from working in engineering, work really closely with you and the team, and then I went into the field where I got to be an SE for Biz Dev, which was really fun.
Because, you know, you got the experience of being in sales and understanding how that worked, but at least BD I felt – it allowed me to be very entrepreneurial still. We were thinking about solutions and new markets and building things, so it never felt like I was just in that rinse, wash, repeat cycle that a lot of sales engineering gets into. That I felt like really kind of rounded me out, and so it was a great experience and obviously we scaled that through IPO. And then, you know, frankly I mean you could tell the rest of this story, you called me and you told me about this company that was sort of going through some growing pains and trying to figure out its identity.
And luckily, I was pretty naïve as to like how much work it would take to turn around a company, [laughs] so I was like, well, Christina thinks I can do the job and I have this idea of what I would go build, so I'm just going to go join this little struggling startup and how hard can it be? And lo and behold it turns that, you know, any pivot, whether the company's sitting at $2 million in revenue or $20 million in revenue is incredibly difficult and it requires a lot of conviction from the organization as a whole.
And we could spend a whole podcast talking about turnarounds but, you know, I'll close in summary to say that I think the combination of having a very deep technical background when I was young, especially since I didn't have a formal education, you couple that with the just perfect marriage of a young company that's about to explode, you know, great mentorship from people like yourself – and I mean that from the bottom of my heart – it was one of these things that just set me up so perfectly that when Lucidworks needed a leader you couldn't have really crafted I think a better job for me.
And I say this humbly just as if like it's a coincidence. It was very, very easy for these two things not to line up. But just given the Splunk experience, given that they were sort of need for more kind of a technical founder foundation, it created an opportunity for someone like myself with little operational experience to come in and be a CEO, and seven years later here we are. [Laughs]
Paul Boutin: Here's my question. What is the short, 15-second radio answer of the one thing that when you became CEO you realized this is a totally new thing that I have to be good at besides everything else I've got?
Will Hayes: I'll tell you, it's funny because I was telling somebody recently; the way people relate to you. I'm a very kind of social person. I feel like I get along with people, I'm very empathic. It's just kind of myself. Like I just – I love people. I find people fascinating.
And so I like to engage with people very closely. What I learned was that those organic sort of engagements between me and call it an employee were not always between Will and an individual. They were this person and the CEO, and agendas turn on and whether they know it or not they're kind of somewhat manipulative, and that was hard. Because again, I just wanted to be – you know, I'm just like everybody else, because frankly I am, but the role carries a certain just context in which people react to regardless of how hard you try to just connect with somebody on a personal level.
Paul Boutin: That's the premise of The Office sitcom, is that the guy wants to be a pal when what they need is a boss.
Will Hayes: They need a boss. Right. Yeah, yeah. [Laughs]
Paul Boutin: And it causes them to not respect him. One more thing I wanted to bring up per our previous topic, and I just want to hear about your experience. I am well aware and have dealt with people…I don't even want to talk about it.
That as a black CEO with a substantial revenue under your belt right now and success in six years, I'm sure you've dealt with people who think you're a figurehead. Oh, you're not really the CEO. And what – how do you – I'm thinking in terms of people who hopefully will find themselves in your seat and therefore will have to – what will they have to deal with that you've had to deal with?
Will Hayes: Yeah. I mean first it's one of these jobs where I think everybody's got a better opinion, right, on how to handle it.
In fact, I made the statement to the company the other day. I said, "Look, like one of the things I've also had to accept in my role is that I will never be given the opportunity to make a unanimously popular decision." Like, never. Because no matter what I do there's always going to be somebody that it was just – it went against their agenda. In fact, it was funny; what I thought to be the most popular thing I ever did was during – when shelter-in-place first started and it was just a very intense time and everybody was just kind of trying to figure out life, you know, we granted what we called mental health days.
And we gave a long, four-day weekend and said, "Look, no PTO. Nothing. Just go get your stuff in order." Like everybody's just got a lot on their mind and, you know, here I thought like, oh, what a great leader I am just offering these free days. No, of course like the sales team started complaining to me about meetings and how SEs don't want to show up and this and that. So I bring it up just jokingly but the truth is that you're never able to make a popular decision in this capacity and you just sort of have to accept that, right?
That if they were easy decisions to be made they'd probably be made before I got involved. [Laughs] I'm getting involved because frankly the answer's gonna suck one way or the other and somebody's got to be accountable for that.
Christina Noren: You're right. We've hit a little bit on the issues of how your customers are changing their demand for your products in response to this. We've hit a little bit less on the issues of how, you know, you just barely touched in answering Paul's last question on how you've had to deal with changing your work patterns within the organization.
And then we've also, you know, hit on the issues of how your personal story has led you to this current point and it slight affects, you know, how people deal with your decisions.
Will Hayes: You're definitely grabbing them all, and I will – just to kind of put some more color on Paul's question of sort of the perception that people have, you know, it's amazing – and I'll share this. And it's not – it doesn't feel good, but it does happen.
There's been cases, particularly with senior employees – so folks call it director, VPs and above – where they seem to still not fully grasp the fact that I'm in charge. [Laughs] And I mean that just – and again this is where unconscious bias is so interesting, because these are people that I think I have great working relationships and we have mutual respect, but what they don't necessarily recognize is, you know, often going to the COO for maybe permission for something or organizational changes or –
It just shows up in these very subtle ways. I've even had cases of, you know, employees frankly trying to confront me around strategic decisions, which is always interesting because I welcome that level of debate any time, any day, but just the way in which people do it and you can sense this sense of like, oh wait, you actually feel like [laughs] you're going to be right here regardless, you know?
And so that's where, again, unconscious bias, it plays in, even in the cases where frankly it can be career-limiting for folks. They sometimes don't have an ability to either catch it or measure it, so just something worth thinking about.
Will Hayes: Yeah. I mean I've experienced that as a woman leader, and I can only imagine how it is, you know, with a much more deep – you know, it's like a developed _____ bias, you know, where –
Will Hayes: Yeah, I mean I think it – again, everybody has their experiences, but I think the concept of structural bias, we all know what we're talking – like we've all experienced that thing even though it shows up differently.
And frankly, you know, I think this is – we're talking about it now at the more specific, abstract level than whether or not somebody's a sexist or a racist, because that's not the issue in my mind that we're here to discuss. We're here to discuss about, you know, how do we get leverage across all walks of life here to build better businesses? And frankly, we are missing that because of some of this institutional bias that's embedded in the way we operate. It's just bad business, first and foremost.
I can talk about socially why it bugs me, but frankly just, you know, as an entrepreneur, as a capitalist, we could do better here and this is the opportunity. So I'm hopeful, but I'm cautiously optimistic.
Christina Noren: Well I mean it seems like we can emotionally sense when we're dealing with somebody who is not coming from that place, and I feel frankly, Will, like this is part of your and my bond over the years, even though we've often been set on politicized opposites.
You know, so – but I feel like we can sense that we're coming at this from a place of who is this person, what do they have to offer intellectually and emotionally and not from whatever background they come from.
Will Hayes: Absolutely.
Christina Noren: And I hope this moment actually brings – you know, brings us to more of that.
Will Hayes: I could not agree more. No, I could not state it better. And again, hope is the term that I've bene using a lot lately. I'm encouraged, but I'm not naïve. [Laughs]
Christina Noren: This is close to the end of our time together. [Laughs] So Paul, what was your biggest take out of this?
Paul Boutin: That retail is one area that everyone understands that applies to what we'll be talking about every week, that there are many areas that people don't think of as being based on software, reliant on software, or being totally remade for their own benefit, for people's benefit, by software.
And yet here we are, because what used to be, oh yeah, we have a website has suddenly become that's what we have. And yet behind that isn't just uptime and reliability and scaling; it is really taking what makes a retail store something you love to go to – why do I love going to Ralph's instead of the other supermarket – and bringing that into an online, on-the-phone experience in a way –
And maybe – and this is my last question. It'll be really quick, just yes or no. Are some of your customers coming to the decision or thinking about deciding that what used to be their differentiator and brand bond in the brick and mortar world is not going to be what makes them special online?
Will Hayes: Yes, every single one.
And it's terrifying, but if they can look at it with the right lens it should be an exciting opportunity, but there is no question across the board that if you're competitive advantage was that in-person experience, you're going to have to transform that rather rapidly. Carrying forward, what makes Ralph's special, what makes REI special, what makes Best Buy special? The blue shirts, the experts, the way the merchandise is laid out on the shelf; all of that expertise and knowhow is still valid. It just needs to be applied now digitally.
And if not, I think we know what happens.
Paul Boutin: And is it possible there's something else that isn't any of those things that might bring in and say, "We have this and we see that Amazon doesn't so people will come to us"?
Will Hayes: Experts. Depth. It always comes down to depth. One of my favorite stories from a fashion apparel retailer here in the Bay Area actually was the difference between us and Amazon is Amazon has no taste.
Paul Boutin: [Laughs]
Will Hayes: And so, you know, Amazon's going to recommend you whatever the machine recommends. That's machine learning, ladies and gentlemen.
For the rest of us it's – this particular company said, "Look, we set the style for the summer. You want to buy that shirt with those pants? I don't care if 99 out of 100 customers buy that shirt with those pants, if we don't determine that those two things go together we will never merchandise them, we will never recommend them." So the difference is, you know, Amazon, you're shopping for a lawnmower and you keep getting running shoes recommended to you, right? Because Amazon just – like again, they're just a movement machine. Other brands are really about creating an experience, right? Creating a sense of trust.
And that's not by me just jamming stuff down your face. It's about curating those experiences.
Paul Boutin: And I'll throw in one last thing, that I have been in the store where the clerk, who's not one of REI's experts, says, "Oh, everybody's buying these," and doesn't realize that's the last thing you want to tell some people.
Will Hayes: Oh god, yeah. There you go. Thank you. [Laughs] Right. Yeah, exactly. No. Yeah. Guide me towards that thing that feels specific for me. My wife will tell you – I'm a sucker for that. I can be upsold anything.
Because the moment you tell me, "Oh wait, I gotta show you this thing," you and I have a trust going that makes me a sucker. Anyway…[laughs]
Christina Noren: Well, I have a lot more on that but I'm not going to take more time because we're out of time, and that was a really good return to, you know, what's changing. So a little bit of an insight into how maybe software's not changing the world during this time but maybe software's enabling the changes that are happening.
Will Hayes: Oh, yeah. No question.
Christina Noren: Thanks, Will. Thanks, Paul. And we'll look forward to another episode of –
Will Hayes: I had fun. I hope I get to come back after the inaugural wave gets aired here. But thanks for having me. This was a ton of fun.
Paul Boutin: Thank you so much, Will.