Culture Posts

December 9, 2015

Startups should embrace both diversity and inclusion

During the NewCo Boulder festival, web development agency Quick Left gave a talk about diversity and inclusion in the workplace. The panelists shared stories of their experiences around diversity—good and bad—and gave advice on what can be done to make workplaces more inclusive. It was one of the best talks I heard all year.

After much discussion, both philosophical and tactical, an audience member expressed concern about counter-discrimination. Would the time come when he would be overlooked for a job because he was not a diversity candidate?

This is not the first time this has been brought up in diversity discussions, and he was expressing what many (perhaps too many) straight white males think when diversity is discussed. To the credit of Gerry Valentine, one of the panelists, he did not chastise the audience member, and instead commended him for his bravery. The man who asked the question gave voice to a common concern that is often thought, but rarely brought up. The panelists at NewCo Boulder handled it very well, pointing out that no one wants a job just based on their gender, skin color, sexual preference, or anything other than their ability to execute on the job. And, collectively, we want to create a world where everyone has the opportunity to compete for jobs on equal ground.

I was truly moved by the entire session, but found myself upset that even at the close of 2015 we are still answering questions about counter-discrimination. When Gerry commended the question for its bravery, I first wondered if he was being glib. But knowing Gerry, I was certain he was serious about his comment. Upon further reflection, I realized what's interesting about this "pale and male" pushback is that it comes from a place of fear. A fear of discrimination is at the root of the question when someone asks, "As a white male, am I going to get passed over for a job because this company wants to hire for diversity?"

Following Gerry's example, it's OK to acknowledge that fear. It’s OK to point out that white men don’t want to live in a world where they are discriminated against, even subtly. While that is a valid fear, for the straight white male candidate, it is only a fear of a potential future. If they can imagine potential discrimination, can they acknowledge that the reality of our world today: anyone who isn’t a straight white male does experience this as real fear. Imagine walking into a job interview having to first overcome the things about you that you cannot control (gender, skin color, sexual orientation, physical handicap, economic background, country of origin, etc.) just to get to a level playing field with the other candidates. If you don't want this for yourself, you certainly wouldn't want it for anyone else.

In startups, we love to talk about unfair advantage, but when it comes to hiring, the only unfair advantages should be skills and experience. What the movement for inclusion and diversity is about—and what we should be striving for—is a world where we all compete equally. If it is a brave thing to express your fear publicly, it is braver still to acknowledge the reality of the situation and work to rectify it.

One of the things I love about the startup community is that once we identify a problem, we move forward to solve it in as many ways possible. The path to inclusion in the workplace doesn't have to be a pendulum that oscillates between two extremes—discrimination and counter-discrimination—before settling down in the middle. Pendulums are a relic of the industrial era. In the digital era, we can choose our target, set our standards, and move forward as a community to achieve them. As you build your startup, build inclusion in your workplace from day one.


October 21, 2015

The Dumbest Thing I’ve Ever Said

Last week, I attended the LAUNCH Scale conference and had the pleasure of attending the VIP dinner the night before the event began. We hosted the top 10 startups from the IBM SmartCamp worldwide competition for the dinner and throughout the events. Famed Internet entrepreneur Jason Calacanis joined us for the dinner and gave a quick pep talk to the teams. He mentioned that people come up to him and lament that they wished they’d gotten into the "Internet thing" earlier—and that he's been hearing this since 1999. His story reminded me of a similar personal experience.

In the fall semester of 1995, I was a junior at St. Bonaventure University, working in the computer lab. One day after helping a cute girl I had a crush on, she said to me, “You’re so good with computers, why aren’t you a computer science major?” Swelling with pride, I tried to sound impressive and intelligent as I definitively stated, “Windows 95 just came out, and pretty much everything that can be built with computers has been built.”

Yep. Windows 95. The pinnacle of software achievement.

It is easily the dumbest thing I've ever said—and perhaps up there as one of the dumbest things anyone has said. Ever.

But I hear corollaries to this fairly often, both in and outside the startup world. "There's no room for innovation there," or "You can't make money there," or "That sector is awful, don't bother." I'm guilty of a few of those statements myself—yet businesses find a way. We live in an age of unprecedented innovation. Just because one person didn't have the key to unlock it doesn't mean the door is closed.

Catch yourself before you fall into this loop of thinking. It might mean being the "Uber of X" or starting a business that's far ahead of its time. Think it's crazy to say everything that can be built has been built? I think it's just as crazy to say, "It's too late to get into ___ market."

For example, when markets grow in size, they also grow in complexity. The first mover in the space defines the market, catches the innovators and early adopters, and builds the bridge over the chasm to the early and late majority. (For more on this, read Crossing the Chasm by Geoffrey Moore.) When a market begins to service the majority, the needs of many are not being met, which leaves room for new entrants to build a business that addresses the segments dissatisfied with the current offerings or needing specialized versions.

The LAUNCH Scale event showcased dozens of startups and the innovation out there in the world always amazes me. I'd recommend it to any startup that has built something great, and now needs to scale. Still haven't built something yourself? Think you missed the opportunity to build and create? In 1995, I didn't think about how things would change in five, 10, even 20 years. Now it's 2015 and the startup world has been growing faster than any sector in history.

Think everything that could be built has been built? Think again. Want to build something? Do it. Build something. What are you waiting for? Go make a difference in the world.


April 24, 2015

Working Well With Your Employees

In the past 17 years I’ve worked in a clean-room laboratory environment as an in-house tech support person managing windows machines around dangerous lasers and chemicals, in the telecommunications industry as a systems analyst and software engineer, and in the hosting industry as a lead developer, software architect, and manager of development. In every case, the following guiding principles have served me well, both as an employee striving to learn more and be a better contributor and as a manager striving to be a worthy employer of rising talent. Whether you are a manager or a startup CEO, this advice will help you cultivate success for you and your employees.

Hire up.
When you’re starting out, you will likely wear many hats out of necessity, but as your company grows, these hats need to be given to others. Hire the best talent you can, and rely on their expertise. Don’t be intimidated by intelligence—embrace it and don’t let your ego stand in the way. Also, be aware that faulty assumptions about someone’s skill set can throw off deadlines and cause support issues down the road. Empowering people increases a sense of ownership and pride in one’s work.

Stay curious.
IBM has reinvented itself over and over. It has done this to keep up with the ever-changing industry with the help of curious employees. Curious people ask more questions, dig deeper, and they find creative solutions to current industry needs. Don’t pour cold water on your employees who want to do things differently. Listen to them with an open mind. Change is sometimes required, and it comes through innovation by curious people.

Integrate and automate everything.
Take a cue from SoftLayer: If you find yourself performing a repetitive task, automate and document it. We’ve focused on automation since day one. Not only do we automate server provisioning, but we’ve also automated our development build processes so that we can achieve repeatable success in code releases. Do your best to automate yourself out of a job and encourage others to live by this mantra. Don’t trade efficiency for job security—those who excel in this should be given more responsibility.

Peace of mind is worth a lot.
Once a coworker and I applied to contract for a job internally because our company was about to spend millions farming it out to a third party. We knew we could do it faster and cheaper, but the company went with the third party instead. Losing that contract taught me that companies are willing to pay handsomely for peace of mind. If you can build a team that is that source of that peace of mind for your company, you will go far.

When things don’t go right.
Sometimes things go off the rails, and there’s nothing you can do about it. People make mistakes. Deadlines are missed. Contracts fall through. In these situations, it’s important to focus on where the process went wrong and put changes in place to keep it from happening again. This is more beneficial to your team than finger pointing. If you can learn from your mistakes, you will create an environment that is agile and successful.

- Jason

April 17, 2015

A Grandmother’s Advice for Startups: You Never Know ‘til You Ask

Today my grandmother turns 95. She's in amazing shape for someone who's nearly a century old. She drives herself around, does her own grocery shopping, and still goes to the beauty parlor every other week to get her hair set.

Growing up less than a mile from her and my granddad, we spent a lot of time with them over the years. Of all of the support, comfort, and wisdom they imparted to me over that time, one piece of advice from my grandmother has stood the test of time. No matter where I was in the world, or what I was doing, it has been relevant and helpful. That advice is:

You never know ‘til you ask.

Simple and powerful, it has guided me throughout my life. Here are some ways you can put this to work for you.

Ask for the Introduction 

Whether you're fundraising, hiring, selling, or just looking for feedback, you need to expand your network to reach the right people. The best way to do this is through strategic introductions. In the Catalyst program, making connections is part of our offering to companies. Introductions are such a regular part of my work in the startup community. In my experience, people want to help other people, so as long as you're not taking advantage of it, ask for introductions. You're likely to get a nice warm introduction, which can lead to a meeting. 

Ask for the Meeting 

Now that you have that introduction, ask for a meeting with a purpose in mind. Even if you don't have an introduction, many people in the startup world are approachable with a cold email. 

Guy Kawasaki, former chief evangelist for Apple, and author of 13 books including The Art of the Start 2.0, wrote a fantastic post, "The Effective Emailer," on how to craft that all-important message with your ask.

Another great take on the email ask is from venture capitalist Brad Feld, "If You Want a Response, Ask Specific Questions." This post offers advice on how not to approach someone. The title of the post says it all, if you want a response, ask a specific question.

Ask for the Sale 

Many startup founders don't have sales experience and so often miss this incredibly simple, yet incredibly important part of sales: asking for the sale. Even in mass-market B2C businesses, you'll be surprised how easy and effective it is to ask people to sign up. Your first sales will be high-touch and likely require a big time investment from your team. But all of that work will go to waste if you don't say, "Will you sign up to be our customer?" And if the answer is a no, then ask, "What are the next steps for working with you?" 

Empower Yourself 

It's empowering to ask for something that you want. This is the heart of my grandmother's advice. She is and has always been an empowered woman. I believe a big part of that came from not being afraid to ask for what she wanted. As long as you're polite and respectful in your approach, step up and ask. 

The opposite of this is to meekly watch the world go by. If you do not ask, it will sweep you away on other people's directions. This is the path to failure as an entrepreneur.

The way to empower yourself in this world starts with asking for what you want. Whether it's something as simple as asking for a special order at a restaurant or as big as asking for an investment, make that ask. After all, you'll never know unless you ask.


December 24, 2014

Holiday Traditions

Whether you believe in Santa Claus or not, there’s just something about this time of year that makes us giddy for tradition. For me the holiday season isn’t complete until I’ve watched National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. Watching their “fun, old-fashioned family Christmas” turn into a “full-blown, four-alarm holiday emergency” has turned into a yearly tradition that helps make my in-laws (and my family for that matter) seem just a little bit more jolly to be around this time of year—who doesn’t have an Aunt Bethany or Cousin Eddie hiding in their family tree somewhere?

We didn’t create a new holiday song this year (we’ve been busy opening data centers!), so we’re presenting our 12 Days of Christmas rendition again. Between decking the halls and dashing through the snow, we’d like to invite you to add a new tradition to your cloud holiday season.



December 4, 2014

Advice from the Catalyst Team: Pitching Like George Lucas

SoftLayer’s Catalyst team hears startup pitches constantly.

We support more than 50 accelerator programs in the Global Accelerator Network, the TechStars programs, five hundred startups, and more. We hold office hours, offer pitch practice, and attend demo days—in short, we hear a lot of pitches.

Condensing the essence of how you’re changing the world into a five minute sales pitch, while still including other key elements like the business model, traction, early wins, team, and “the ask” is incredibly difficult. There’s a lot of ground to cover and very little time to do it, especially when you consider that likely half of your audience is focused on their phones.

A pitch must be concise, informative, and attention grabbing. The worst thing you can do is pitch like George Lucas’ dialogue in the Star Wars  prequel trilogy movies—clumsy and over-explaining.

  • Yoda: Always two there are, no more, no less, a master and an apprentice.
  • Mace Windu: But which was destroyed, the master or the apprentice?

This particular quote is the epitome of terrible dialogue because it communicates the same thing multiple times; the second line is superfluous. I don’t need Mace Windu to re-explain to me exactly what Yoda just said. I have ears. I’m paying attention. Imagine how much more powerful that scene would be with just the first statement.

Most of us have a natural tendency to over-explain a point, but by doing this, we insult the intelligence of our audience. Plus, over-explaining eats up precious time and causes the crowd to disengage. I can’t think of a worse combination.

If you find yourself saying any of these phrases, cut them immediately:

Let me show you . . .
I’d like to tell you . . .
I’m going to . . .
I think . . .
For example . . .
As I said before . . .

Simply put, don’t tell me you’re going to tell me something. Just tell me.

George Lucas did write some great lines of dialogue. Watch the Dagobah scenes in Empire Strikes Back. Yoda’s lines are pure brilliance. The message is simple and powerful, which makes it one of the most memorable lines in cinema.

“Do or do not. There is no try.”

During a pitch, you’re not writing a screenplay, so you don’t want to leave your audience guessing, but you still need to explain the problem, the solution, and why you’re the best at solving it. Don’t leave your audience confused from a lack of information, but don’t insult their intelligence by telling them you’re going to tell them something. Just tell it. Or better yet, show it.

You want your pitch to be like a Lightsaber: an elegant weapon for a more civilized age.


November 24, 2014

Auto Scale Your Holiday Season

‘Tis the season for holiday shopping, but is your online business ready to handle the rush?

According to the IBM Digital Analytics 2013 Holiday Benchmark Reports, Thanksgiving Day through Cyber Monday recorded the highest online sales period on record—up 16.5 percent from 2012. Thanksgiving Day online sales grew by 19.7 percent, and Black Friday online sales increased 19 percent. But Cyber Monday still came in as the biggest online shopping day in history with a 20.6 percent increase in online sales.

For 2014, IBM is predicting a 15 percent increase in online sales over the five-day period between Thanksgiving and Cyber Monday with more than half of Thanksgiving online traffic coming from mobile devices.

"Without question, this will be a strong holiday shopping season, supported by the power of big data and analytics, which are helping brands better understand their consumers and make crucial decisions in real-time.”

-Jay Henderson, director of strategy, IBM ExperienceOne

And although many are rejoicing this holiday season over the improved economy, managing the infrastructure changes to accommodate the influx of users can cause strain on IT departments. Dealing with crashed sites, slow loading pages, and system backlogs take away time from focusing on growing a business. They are also major complaints of online shoppers.

It might seem counterintuitive, but these problems are good signs that business is doing well. To keep customers happy and coming back, it’s best to avoid Internet lag. With Auto Scale you can deliver an optimal user experience regardless of the volume of traffic or amount of resource usage.

How does it work?
Auto Scale automatically scales up and adds servers to meet high traffic demands providing a smooth running site or scales down so you’re not paying for what you’re not using. For our existing customers, access the customer portal to customize Auto Scale in three simple steps:

  1. Define a Group: Determine which servers you would like to scale in which data centers.
  2. Set a Policy: Establish rules for adding and removing virtual servers from your environment.
  3. Define a Trigger: Create schedule- or usage-based triggers that provision or de-provision virtual servers based on your policies.

Based on last year’s results, online sites would do well to set a policy to add extra servers—depending on the size of business, maybe that’s 10, 20, or 100 servers. Setting triggers when traffic increases around 7:30 in the morning and during high traffic, after-work hours will keep consumers from experiencing unnecessary lag.

Spend money on gifts, not on underutilized capacity.
The last thing you need this time of year is another bill. Auto Scale is free (mostly). You only pay for the servers you need, when you need them. And you can change the group, policy, or trigger in the customer portal anytime. You’re not locked into any long term plans.

The unofficial start of the holiday shopping season kicks off this week.
If you haven’t already Auto Scaled your cloud environment, it’s time to do it. Set up Auto Scale here.


September 4, 2014

Keeping your private parts private.

Even with the knowledge that images can live on forever to haunt you, people continue to snap self-portraits in compromising positions (it’s your prerogative). Heck, before smart phones came along, people were using Polaroids to capture the moment. And, if history teaches us anything, people will continue the trend—instead of a smart phone, it’ll be a holodeck (a la Star Trek). Ugh, can you imagine that?

The recent high-profile hack of nude celebrity photos came from private phones. They weren’t posted to Facebook or Instagram. These celebrities didn’t hashtag.

#birthdaysuit #emperorsnewclothes #whoneedsdesignerthreads #shegotitfromhermama

Their sensitive data was compromised.

After speculation the hack stemmed from an iCloud® security vulnerability, Apple released a statement saying, “We have discovered that certain celebrity accounts were compromised by a very targeted attack on user names, passwords and security questions, a practice that has become all too common on the Internet.” The cloud platform was secure. The users’ security credentials weren’t.

These were private photos intended for private use, so how did they get out there? How can you protect your data; your images; your privacy?

You’ve heard it once; twice; probably every time you create a new account online (and in this day in age, we all have dozens of user accounts online):

  1. Use a strong password. This SoftLayer Blog is an oldie but a goodie where the author gives the top three ways to make a password: 1) use a random generator like; 2) use numbers in place of letters—for example, “minivan” becomes “m1n1v4n”; 3) write your passwords down in plain sight using “Hippocampy Encryption” (named in honor of the part of the brain that does memory type activities). Or take the XKCD approach to password security.
  2. And for heaven’s sake, don’t use the same password for every account. If you duplicate usernames and passwords across sites, a hacker just needs to access one account, and he or she will be able to get into all of your accounts!
  3. Craft little-known answers to security questions. Don’t post a childhood photo of you and your dog on Facebook with the description, “Max, the best pup ever” and then use Max as a security validation answer for “What’s the name of your favorite pet?” It’s like you’re giving the hackers the biggest hint ever.
  4. If available, use a two-factor authentication security enhancement. The government (FISMA), banks (PCI) and the healthcare industry are huge proponents of two-factor authentication—a security measure that requires two different kinds of evidence to prove that you are who you say you are and that you should have access to what you're trying to access. Read our blog or KnowledgeLayer Article for more details.
  5. Remember passwords are like underwear—don’t share them with friends and change them often. When it comes to passwords, at least once a year should suffice. For underwear, we recommend changing more regularly.

We won’t tell you what to do with your sensitive selfies. But do yourself a favor, and be smart about protecting them.


April 15, 2013

The Heart of SoftLayer: People

When I started working for SoftLayer as a software engineer intern, I was skeptical about the company's culture. I read many of the culture posts on the blog, and while they seemed genuine, I was still a little worried about what the work atmosphere would be for a lowly summer intern. Fast-forward almost a year, and I look back on my early concerns and laugh ... I learned quickly that the real heart of SoftLayer is its employees, and the day-to-day operations I observed in the office consistently reinforced that principle.

It's easy to think about SoftLayer as a pure technology company. We provide infrastructure as a service capabilities for businesses with on-demand provisioning and short-term contracts. Our data centers, portal, network and APIs get the spotlight, but those differentiators wouldn't exist without the teams of employees that keep improving them on a daily basis. By focusing on the company culture and making sure employees are being challenged (but not overwhelmed), SoftLayer was indirectly improving the infrastructure we provide to customers.

When I walked into the office for my first day of work, I imagined that I'd be working in a cramped, dimly lit room in the back of the building where I'd be using hand-me-down hardware. When I was led to a good-sized, well-lit room and given a Core i3 laptop with two large monitors and a full suite of software, I started realizing how silly my worries were. I had access to the fully stocked break room, and within about a week, I felt like part of a community rather than a stale workplace.

My coworkers not only made me feel welcome but would frequently go out of their way to make sure I am comfortable and have the resources I needed to succeed. While the sheer amount of new information and existing code was daunting, managers assigned projects that were possible to complete and educational. I was doing useful work building and improving a complex production system rather than the busy work offered by many other employers' internship programs. I learned several new techniques and solidified my understanding of software engineering theory through practice. The open-door policy and friendly people around me not only created a strong sense of community but also allowed more efficient problem solving.

You may have noticed early in this post that I joined the company on a summer internship and that I also told you it's been about a year since I started. While summers in Texas feel long, they don't actually last a full year ... After my internship, I was offered a part-time position as a software engineer, and I'm going to be full-time when I graduate in May.

It's next to impossible to find a company that realizes the importance of its employees and wants to provide an environment for employees to succeed. The undeniable runaway success of the company is proof that SoftLayer's approach to taking care of employees is working.


December 24, 2012

Giving From (and For) the Heart

This time of year is often referred to as "The Season of Giving," and we thought we'd share two SLayers' stories about their involvement in the American Heart Association Heart Walk. Like last year, we split up into fundraising teams for the AHA with a goal of raising $100,000. In addition to those fundraising efforts, SoftLayer also encouraged employees to get active and get involved in the annual Heart Walks in Houston and Dallas. Here's our on-location coverage from two team captains who attended those events this year:


My name is Fabrienne Curtis, and I work in the Accounting Department at SoftLayer. I joined a team with thirty other people (from several different departments) to raise money for the American Heart Association, and because I love to help and work on community projects, I volunteered to be a team captain. Our team had a ton of great ideas for fundraisers, so we set an ambitious goal of raising $12,400 ($400 per person). When the dust settled, I'm proud to report that we me that goal with a total team tally of $12,488 (which SoftLayer then matched).

Beyond the fundraising, participating in the Dallas Heart Walk at Victory Park was a highlight this year. No one on my team knew that this walk had a personal meaning to me ... I lost my dad to congestive heart failure and wanted to walk in his behalf. When I got to the Heart Walk, I was touched. There was a "Survivor Wall" and there were several signs where you could share who you're walking on behalf of. If not for SoftLayer, I probably wouldn't have participated in the Heart Walk, so as I wrote on the wall and created a sign for my dad, I thought about how good it felt to work for a company that truly cares about the well-being of its employees.

SoftLayer Photo Booth

SoftLayer added a little flair to the event by setting up a photo booth for people to take pictures and take home, and with the help of Don Hunter, Hao Ho and my husband Jerry, 679 photos were taken!

SoftLayer Photo Booth

Here are some pictures I snapped from the 2012 Dallas Heart Walk:

SoftLayer Heart Walk
The Start!
SoftLayer Heart Walk
The SoftLayer "Uniform"
SoftLayer Heart Walk
The Crowd
SoftLayer Heart Walk

Thank you SoftLayer for having a heart! If you want more coverage of this years event, check out this Dallas Heart Walk 2012 video and click through to our Dallas Heart Walk Flickr album.



Dallas didn't get to have all of the fun when it comes to the AHA Heart Walk, and I made sure to document the Houston goings-on to share with our avid SoftLayer Blog readers. From bake sales to ice cream socials, the Houston office was diligent about donating money and raising heart-health awareness for months prior to the 2012 walk, and those months were extremely eventful. Like Fabrienne, I jumped at the opportunity to be one of 18 team captains at SoftLayer, and considering the fact that cardiovascular disease is the number one killer of Americans, I was inspired to get everyone involved.

I'll be the first to admit that I am not in the best of shape, so a five-kilometer walk through a course at Reliant Stadium would be pretty challenging. My team had been tirelessly preparing for the 5k "mini-marathon" walk, and as November approached, you could sense the excitement and enthusiasm brewing. Walking only one mile can add up to two hours to your lifespan, so in the process of preparing for the walk, we added quite a few hours to our collective lives. When the big day finally arrived, we were ready:

SoftLayer Heart Walk
The Houston Heart Walk SLayers

Given that our day started at an unbelievable 7:00am on a Saturday, most of our participants were tired-eyed and ready to chow down on the free burritos and fruit provided by SoftLayer, and by the time we fired up the photo booth and broke out the goofy props, everyone was wide awake. It's like they say, "Give a man a fish and he'll eat for a day ... Give a man fun props and a camera, and he'll have a blast (and pictures that can be used against him." Actually, I don't know if "they" say that, but it's true:

SoftLayer Heart Walk

Before we knew it, a gunshot of glitter and colorful confetti got the crowd of people moving down the 3.1-ish mile track, and we were hooting and cheering, pumped to represent our company! By mile two, my legs were a little wobbly and the sun was scorching, I could see that our dog, Rikku (whom had been carried the entire way) looked was confused about why I was putting her through the exhausting task of being comfortably in my arms as we herded through the people like cattle.

SoftLayer Heart Walk

AHA water stations and mile markers reminded us that we were doing it for the best cause ever: The people we love and the people of the past that have been lost due to heart disease. It's a safe bet that if you don't know someone directly affected by heart disease, you will eventually. The American Heart Association organizes these fundraisers and walks every year across the world to gather donations and raise awareness so that one day, we may be able to conquer this silent killer. With their donations, they're able to participate in research for preventative treatment, provide education to children to avoid obesity and fund medical research that could one day breakthrough and save lives.

All in all it was a wonderful experience, one that I'll definitely be sure to be a part of next year.


SoftLayer Heart Walk

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