5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became A CEO: With Billy Bosworth, CEO of DataStax

“I had a teacher, Mrs. Kladakis, who made it her personal mission to make sure her students were learning about software development. It was my first formal education in computers and she had a big impact on me.”

I had the pleasure to interview Billy Bosworth, the CEO of DataStax. DataStax delivers the DataStax Enterprise platform built for the performance and availability demands for IOT, web and mobile applications. This gives enterprises a secure, always-on database technology that remains operationally simple when scaling. DataStax is the database of choice for some of the world’s most innovative companies, such as Netflix, Adobe, Intuit and eBay. Based in Santa Clara, Calif., DataStax is backed by industry-leading investors including Comcast Ventures, Crosslink Capital, Lightspeed Venture Partners, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Meritech Capital, Premji Invest and Scale Venture Partners.

What is your “backstory”?

I grew up in Weirton, West Virginia, a little steel town about 20 minutes outside Pittsburgh. I came from a large Serbian family and my parents and aunts and uncles were mostly steelworkers. We were a big loud family that spent a ton of time together. My parents worked different shifts in the mill, so it wasn’t uncommon for us kids to sleepover at our cousins’ or grandparents’ house. The whole family took turns taking care of the kids. I had a passion for technology from the first time I laid eyes on a programming book back in grade school in the early ’80s, and I fell in love with technology. But, being from an industrial area, I was pretty much alone in my passion for computers among my family. It was about as far from Silicon Valley as the agriculture world. I wasn’t that into sports in middle school, but being that our area was crazy about sports, all my friends were playing football in their freshman year of high school. In my sophomore year, I went out for the team, but wasn’t very good! However, I guess I was a late bloomer, because I finally played varsity in my senior year, and ended up getting a full football scholarship to the University of Louisville. After graduating with a computer science degree, I found myself coaching high school football in addition to my job as a software developer. A lot of my communications and coaching skills were learned from my experiences growing up in a large family and from sports, both playing and coaching.

DataStax provides data management for globally-distributed, real-time applications that power the right-now enterprise. Consider, for example, DataStax customer Netflix. Netflix uses our technology — DataStax Enterprise — to collect and store information about each subscriber’s usage, including the titles they play, what titles are played before and after, why they abandon after five minutes viewing, and where they pause. We help Netflix collect these data points to tailor the overall experience to each customer.

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

I was recently in Germany, and in the last meeting I was in, I had kind of a bum chair. So I switched. The Germans were introducing themselves and I leaned back in the new chair… and didn’t stop! Full ‘humpty-dumpty’ right during their introductions. At 6’4, 280 pounds, there I was with my feet completely vertical as I fell backwards on the floor in my nice suit and tie. The Germans were shocked and didn’t know what to say. There they stood, mouths gaping. I just rolled over, told them I played football and that at least I didn’t get a concussion. How they avoided laughing — I do not know because I was having a hard time keeping it in!

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

We are the only solution that powers the highly-personalized, right-now moments that customers expect and we do it through data management of cloud applications. Our customers are able to drive better customer experiences, because they can deliver what their customers expect, and in many cases, delight them ahead of time by innovating services that save their customers time and money. For example, First Utility uses DataStax Enterprise to power their MyEnergy application, a simple online tool that gives First Utility customers the information they need to control their energy usage and reduce their bills. First Utility can now see that customers who use the platform regularly use 5–6% less energy and save, on an average, £45 a year based on an annual spend of £900. Customers are also happier, and stay with them 60% longer than before.

None of us achieves success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person to whom you are grateful for helping you get where you are today?

There are so many in my family, but outside of them… in 1986, during my junior year of high school, technology was not pervasive and especially not in my hometown of Weirton, West Virginia. I had a teacher, Mrs. Kladakis, who made it her personal mission to make sure her students were learning about software development. She enrolled in a computer class at the University of Pittsburgh, and would drive to her class at night. Once she had a handle on the material, she would then build her own curriculum to teach us what she was learning. I remember she told us that software development were going to be a big trend and that we needed to learn about them. And she made it her mission to teach us. She was a real advocate in exposing us to what was happening in the world of computer science. It was my first formal education in computers and she had a big impact on me.

How have you used your success to bring good to the world?

For me personally, it’s not about making one great big contribution to the world. It’s about showing up everyday and really caring about people. If you go through life and you don’t touch the minds and souls of those around you, to me that’s not living. In the big picture, DataStax is making a difference in people’s lives every moment of everyday — and I’m proud of that. But personally, I want to know that I live in such a way that people know I really care about them.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO” and why? Please share a story or example for each…

  1. It’s a lonely job. Lonelier than you might realize. The reason is you are positioned in the entire organization as peerless. Your bosses have peers, they’re the board; your subordinates have peers, they’re the executive team. You have no one with whom you can share at a peer level. You walk a very fine line between appearing confident, having the answers, having things under control, and at the same time you don’t have anybody that you can easily vent to and commiserate with. You have to be very careful about doing those things outside the organization, too.
  2. It is impossible to over-communicate. I advise aspiring CEOs to take what you think is going to be a sufficient amount of communication and multiply it by ten. That’s the level of communication you need to commit to with people.
  3. Prioritize your own wellbeing. If you take on at a personal level, too deeply, all of the concerns and stress and frustrations of the board, the company, the customers, the market — you actually diminish your ability to function at a high level. It’s good to early on get into a habit of setting some very personal goals on your own — spiritual, mental, physical wellbeing — so you don’t get into the trap of suddenly realizing you’re trying to be everything to everyone 24/7. You really have to make time for you — for real, it’s not a nice to have. The reality is you’ll do everyone a disservice if you’re not at your best. Yeah, you’re going to feel guilty about making time for you, but you have to get over that.
  4. Everything you do is amplified and magnified in its impact to the company. That cutting comment you make to someone, that good word, that sign of fear — they’re all going to be amplified to levels you will never be comfortable understanding. You have to be conscious of this and realize that every little thing you do and say has a huge impact on the company and your employees.
  5. Don’t drag your feet on giving feedback. You should get in the habit of giving feedback quickly and often to your team. Sometimes CEOs want to overcoach for too long, or don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings, or think they can save or recover someone instead of facing the reality head-on. But then it builds over time and it becomes a dump truck on someone and it’s a very bad thing. Give feedback within a few days. As soon as you’re sensing something, schedule a meeting and have that conversation and don’t let it build up over time. It’s also so important to never surprise anyone; don’t surprise the board, your team, the company. Operate with a no-surprise philosophy. Nobody likes to be surprised, especially not by the CEO.

Some of the biggest names in business, VC funding, sports, and entertainment read this column… Is there a person in the world with whom you’d love to have a private breakfast or lunch and why? She or he just might see this!

There are several, but the one person I wish I could have spoken with would have been the legendary football coach, Bill Walsh. Sadly, he passed away in 2007, but I have so much respect for that man. He’s famous for how he reinvented the game, particularly with his mastery of his West Coast Offense while he coached the ‘49rs. It wasn’t so much what he did that I love, but how he did it. He had this professional, cerebral, academic style — he was fiercely competitive, but he was always a gentleman-professional. Smart, confident; never cocky or arrogant. He had extremely high standards and a plan for everything — if you were part of his organization, you knew what your role entailed. He also believed in ridiculous amounts of communication. His book, The Score Takes Care of Itself, has played a big role in my leadership development. He’s had a big influence on me and he still does.