I had the pleasure of interviewing Aled Miles as part of my series about “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy.”
Aled is president and CEO of Sauce Labs, the leading provider of continuous testing solutions that deliver digital confidence. He has more than three decades of experience in enterprise IT, with an extensive focus on the development and implementation of SaaS delivery models. Aled was previously CEO at TeleSign, where he helped transform the company into a leading provider of platform-as-a-service-based customer identity and engagement solutions, and guided it through its successful sale to BICS, a telecommunications provider jointly owned by the Proximus Group, Swisscom and MTN. Previous to TeleSign, Aled was a senior vice president on the executive committee for Symantec Corp., where he oversaw the largest global enterprise accounts for the company and its flagship Norton business. He was also responsible for Symantec’s IoT and SaaS strategies.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I’d sum up the beginning in one word: happenstance. A three-hour ferry journey across the Irish sea became a nine-hour nightmare when two engines on the ship failed in the high seas. Never one to get seasick, I was on the upper deck, getting soaked but keeping my eyes constantly on the horizon when I met two entrepreneurs with equally good sea legs. They had realized that technology was about to become commonplace. After six hours together, bonding on a slow boat in the eye of a storm, we decided to start a business in technology. This was 1990, the age of MAC SEs, IBM PS1 desktops, and early inkjet printers with great margins being bought by corporations across the U.K.
Before that chance meeting, I thought I was about to spend a lifetime in the arts, but the excitement of starting and leading a business just felt different, and in a good way. The artistic side helped so much in my early years in business. Creativity, setting direction, common performance goals, listening and learning from people, being part of an ensemble, telling a good story in a great way, and improvising and adjusting quickly were and still remain essential components of a career in leadership. And for pure focus to separate the trivial many from the critical few, throw in a commission-only salary for three years. I learned to be precise. You don’t win, you don’t eat.
For me, it has always been about influencing outcomes through personal behavior. Learning to make good decisions in the moment, on stage as it were, and being humble enough to recognize mistakes and change quickly. Being self-aware and open to the gift of feedback, and always keeping your eyes on the horizon, no matter how rough the seas and how many engines are failing.
I wanted my future to be at a software vendor. As computers proliferated at incredible speed, so would the need for software. The operating margins were incredibly strong and that gave the ability for continued investment in R&D, and that virtuous cycle was attractive. Every time the Claris, Adobe, or Symantec rep came to visit our dealership, my horizon was clear. In 1992, I crossed another sea and moved to the Netherlands to start what would be a two-term, 20-year career at Symantec, eventually reaching the executive committee.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
In my first month at Symantec, I participated for the first time in a video conference. There were 40 of my teammates distributed across the world on the conference call. Video conferencing was in its infancy, and as an early user, I didn’t really have the etiquette nailed. (How history repeats itself as we Zoom through seemingly every day now.) I was having a conversation with my wife on my mobile with the video system unmuted and the sound turned off. I couldn’t even hear people telling me to stop, so I carried on blissfully unaware that I was sharing mine and my wife’s displeasure that I had to take another trip to the U.S. the following week.
The lesson was that you are always on. I learned that quickly. It was also an important symbolic moment for me. As a leader, mindset and behavior is everything. Behind the scenes or out front, behavior defines culture and it defines the results you get. Strive for truthful (and painful) self-awareness; it makes for a great foundation to enable authenticity and humanity in leadership, the latter of which is a vital quality as we lead through this moment in history.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
Without hesitation, “Surfing on the Edge of Chaos” by Richard Pascale has been a huge influence on me since I first read it in 2001. It was first published in 2000 and has been my go-to book for nearly 20 years now. The fundamental premise of the book are the parallels drawn between the laws of nature and the laws of business. Today, in the midst of this difficult pandemic and the resulting economic challenges, it seems more relevant than ever. Chaos, inherently perceived as negative, represents significant opportunity for rebirth and regeneration. Harnessing the power of chaos can be a highly creative, highly trans-formative experience, but only if you build the fundamentals of operational depth, so you can be adaptive, nimble, and culturally capable of transformational change. This is a form of change that so many of us should be making now as we seek to survive and thrive in this new low-touch physical and high-touch digital world.
The book also champions the idea that adhering to the status quo simply because it’s the status quo is the precursor to company demise. We at Sauce Labs are striving to help our customers deliver their apps faster and better in this high-touch digital world. I am reminded of a quote from the book every day:
“Equilibrium often wears the disguise of advantage.”
Since the pandemic began in earnest in late March, companies have had to condense years of needed digital transformation to build businesses where consumers can click to connect, collect, and communicate with online experiences that are trusted, secure, and on brand. Equilibrium is not the norm, and that’s OK. Unique creativity and innovation emerges from chaos if harnessed correctly.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started with your company, what was your vision, your purpose?
My personal purpose when I joined Sauce Labs was the exact same as it is today, seven months in: to build (on top of the company’s extraordinary legacy to date) a sustainable, high-growth business that’s relevant to customers, fulfilling to employees, and creates value for shareholders. None of those three are negotiable, and no one element is truly sustainable without the others. If you’re building great products on the back of dissatisfied employees, you are doing them a disservice. If you’re creating an incredible work environment but delivering a service that isn’t relevant to customers, you’ll see customers voting with their feet. And if you’re doing both of those things, but aren’t doing them in a way that builds value for shareholders, you will fail to create sustainability over the mid- to long-term.
My vision is for Sauce Labs to be recognized as the trusted leader for every company that needs to produce flawless digital experiences for their customers across web and mobile applications.
But it’s more than that. We all need purpose, personally and professionally. A business is no different. It’s a living organism, made up of people, each with their own desires and aspirations. A purpose should unite a company around a common good, not just a common goal. Our collective company purpose is to enable digital confidence. It starts with empowering organizations to test everywhere in the software development life cycle. That outcome has all of us at Sauce striving to support our customers. We want them to have the utmost confidence in the digital relationship they have with their customers. That means delivering a flawless user experience in which trust and security are inherent. Purpose builds passion. Passionate teams focus on service, not profit, and their customers can see and feel the difference.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
Put simply, developing and maintaining a “true north” compass. No matter how tough it is, every decision has to be made against that true north integrity and morality bias. That’s what enables you to make the hard decisions that are ultimately in the best interest of the business, and it’s what enables you to chase down the right answer when you’re initially unclear what that answer actually is.
As a great CEO I served under would remind me: “Good leaders manage for the short or the long. Great leaders manage for both.”
We had a true north moment recently at Sauce Labs when the pandemic started to grow. One of our oldest and largest customers is a leading brand in the travel and hospitality sector. They’ve obviously been hit hard in recent months. We’ve worked with them on an arrangement that allows them to conduct their automated testing throughout the pandemic period on restructured terms, enabling them to continue to deliver and sustain digital confidence despite what they’re facing. For me, that’s an easy “true north” decision.
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
The biggest challenge for me from a personal and family standpoint has been transitioning between work and home. You don’t have that hour-long commute to decompress before time with the kids before bed. That time is reduced to 30 seconds as I walk from my home office to the kitchen. As a family, we’ve had to “re-contract” our relationships. My wife and I have had active and specific communication about this new life we are living. We have discussed what we call the “family gap.” In other words, identifying what everyone’s needs are and where the gaps exist right now that we need to fill. What do we both need, what does my wife need, what do the kids need, when do we need it, and how can either one of us fill the “family gap” when we need to, especially when the other is running low on fuel?
The same is also true of work relationships as well. We can’t operate in the same way we used to, nor should we. This is too easily forgotten. What we should do instead is use this period of disequilibrium to produce better behavior and a better result. Today, kids of Saucers happily wander into video calls, joining in during our Zoom-based all-hands meetings, no doubt using our boring work moments as a way to fall asleep. My 7-year-old recently came running into my home office at a critical moment during a call with senior leadership at our largest client and yelled, “Mommy needs you to change the baby’s diaper and lunch is ready.” The client couldn’t help but smile. Who says you can’t build social relationships over video?
Can you share a few of the biggest work-related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
I tend to think of it as two sets of challenges. The first is the people component and the impact this is having on all of us as humans. And then, of course, you have the top- and bottom-line impact on the business itself.
In terms of the people component, I think the natural inclination was to have a sense of concern over how you keep momentum going when you’re moving from seeing people face-to-face every day to a remote environment where you can’t get the human touch. But we’ve actually faced the opposite challenge at Sauce Labs. It’s been extraordinary to watch how our employees have moved into overdrive in response to this crisis. People are working harder than ever now in our all-remote posture. It’s been so impressive to see, but as a leader, I want to ensure that the right pace is found, and that we constantly concern ourselves not only as to what more we could be doing, but also to what we need to stop doing in order to create the right pace.
We have given everyone the freedom each week to take a morning or an afternoon of their choosing and spend it however they want. We want all of our employees to know they have the space and flexibility needed to find the pace that’s right for them. Some are parents, both working and dealing with the extraordinary demands of home schooling. Some are single, living alone and are craving a return to the office for all its social benefits. We must be mindful of the variety of needs across a diverse and international work force. Our German office thinks and acts differently from our Vancouver office, which thinks and acts differently from our headquarters in San Francisco. All of this must be taken into account.
As for the business itself, it’s about defining your priorities and focus. Ensure your cash position gives you sufficient and (realistic) runway. Build scenarios and give yourself optionality, but also figure out how you emerge stronger through the acceleration of bold choices, focused investments, and/or the opportunity to rethink how you should be. We are being forced to think differently, and that’s a unique opportunity that should not be missed.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the corona virus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
The best advice I can offer is to be present and seek optimism. Being present is about the little things that are actually big things. Being around the table for breakfast and dinner. Leaving the devices in another room, if only for 30 minutes. Not zoning out on over-repeated, over-hyped negative news stories where the worst quote makes the best headline. Instead, do something that you’ve not been able to do since the commute has stopped. Eat better, walk more, breathe. Those moments create the sense of balance and normalcy that everyone might feel like they’re losing.
At the same time, be honest about the fact that this isn’t a normal time. Be honest with your family about where you need support and encourage them to do the same. You don’t have to carry all the stress and burden inside. Open communication and sharing is always important, but it’s especially important now. The reality is that our own response and behavior is all we can control, no matter how hard or difficult that is.
Obviously, we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time, the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
I think the biggest opportunity that comes out of this crisis will be the widespread recognition that digital experience is everything, and that what constitutes a great experience no longer varies across verticals. With the amount of time we’re spending on digital platforms, we’re able to directly compare the experience we have with an online bank to that of an online retailer, for example. So, that means if you’re the bank in that example, it’s no longer acceptable to have an experience that’s just on par with that of other banks. You need to create an experience that’s as good as any your customers will find from any other brand, regardless of vertical.
So, this is an opportunity for every business to take a hard look at the experience they are creating for their users and commit to making the changes necessary to transform that experience from good to great. This crisis is going to force us to know our customers better. It’s going to force us to make overdue investments in digital. And it’s going to force us to prioritize quality and deliver a better experience. These are all inherently good things for our business, and in that sense, they’re all opportunities.
Clearly, if you can operate in this new low-touch economy, or better yet, be a leader in the low-touch economy, you have a significant opportunity as people learn to operate their lives differently.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
I think much of how our behavior changes long-term will be determined by how our behavior changes right now and the extent to which we, collectively, are open about acknowledging the ways in which we were and weren’t prepared for this type of crisis. To go back to my earlier point, to what extent are we willing to harness the chaos and use it to drive positive transformation? This is an awful tragedy, but it’s also an opportunity to rethink how we live and work. We have an opportunity here to create a better way of life for people. I genuinely hope this is a wake up call for the importance of climate change. I genuinely hope it’s a wake up call for income inequality. I genuinely hope it’s a wake up call for how we treat our elderly. All of these opportunities for positive, permanent change are right here in front of us. We must take them.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
This is something Sauce Labs was talking about long before the crisis, but COVID has laid bare how essential it is for organizations to build digital confidence. This crisis will pass, but the centrality of digital confidence as the connection point between consumers and brands will not. That’s what we’re going to be focused on as we look to grow our business both now and in the post-COVID economy. We’re going to invest in the products and innovations that give us a greater presence in the software delivery lifecycle and help customers test their web and mobile applications quickly, effectively, and at scale.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
First and foremost, use this time to deeply understand your employees and their needs. You’re not going anywhere without them. And be transparent with them. Let them know how the company is doing. Give them the authentic truth. Then think about your customers and the kind of experience you should be delivering them right now. Offer them optionality where they need it. It’s about managing what’s in front of you, and doing it together.
And again, look hard at your priorities. What is going to be vital for you to come out of this stronger? What are the things you simply have to do? Get serious about self-analysis. Model and be prepared for all possible scenarios, and be prepared with plans to mitigate those scenarios when they change, as surely they will.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
This one is easy for me. It comes from the great poet Robert Browning.
“A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”
It reminds me that aspiration and purpose are the guiding lights. It reminds me to stretch forward. To lean in. It reminds me that good old-fashioned grit and grind still matters. It reminds me to always reach beyond myself, and lead in a way that encourages others to do the same.
Leadership is to make happen what might not happen otherwise.
How can our readers further follow your work?