As a part of our series called ‘Five Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became A CEO’ we had the pleasure of interviewing Amanda Richardson.
Amanda is CEO of CoderPad, the leading software platform for evaluating technical talent. With nearly 2,000 customers, Amanda has led the team to consistently expand features, add new customers and improve customer retention. She is a chief executive with extensive experience in product management and strategy having helped to scale multiple technology startups to hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I started out in investing, getting my undergrad degree in finance, and never thought I would move into the operating side of things. I actually fell into the tech industry and quickly realized it was much more engaging to run a company than getting lost in spreadsheets all day as an analyst. I spent much of my early career in product management. My roundabout way of getting into product management is different from a lot of PMs out there — I didn’t get a computer science degree or graduate with my first job in big tech, meaning I’m not wedded to a particular style or dogma about product management. I have the perspective and well-rounded experience to get great products delivered to users.
My fluency in finance was a big help in my career path. That experience lets me break down problems into specific inputs and outputs, helping with everything from product problems to understanding users to company data. I wanted to make the leap to the C-Suite, understanding this more holistic view is necessary for the job. I spent about a year as CEO of Rabbit, a platform to share and watch content with friends, before moving to CoderPad, a technical assessment platform. I’ve been with CoderPad for two years, where I’ve been responsible for the platform’s massive growth and have taken the company from a team of 4 to roughly 80, while maintaining strong profitability.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Closing an acquisition deal in the middle of the pandemic. We’d been talking to CodinGame, a French-based startup and candidate screening platform, for months and were in diligence, but it was getting to the point where it was time for a face-to-face meeting. We’d done all we could via Zoom but the borders were closed so there were limited options. The day the EU opened borders to the United States, I booked a ticket and two days later, was flying from San Francisco to France on a strangely empty flight, in the middle of Covid. Armed with masks and multiple Covid tests, I found myself in CodinGame’s office, meeting their leadership team in person after many months, which was so worthwhile. It was my first flight in over a year, and I felt so removed from the normal routine of business travel, from airport restaurants being closed to not knowing what to pack in my carry on. But it also reminded me of the power of great people and that nothing takes the place of in-person shared experiences.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I’m especially grateful for my dad, who taught me to face challenges head on and never be bashful. One story I often reflect on was from the fourth grade, when I got a C in gym class. I always got A’s and was athletic, so it was unusual, but I wrote it off as a dislike of the gym coach. My dad, though, insisted that wasn’t a good enough answer and wanted me to figure out the reason for the C. I mustered up all the courage I had to meet with the coach, who in my 9-year-old brain towered over me at 6’10” (which I’m sure is an extreme exaggeration) — and who happened to be meeting with the Principal at the very time I walked in to talk. The result from this meeting? I got a C because I didn’t wear white socks seven times, each of which cost me a point off. My dad (along with the principal and anyone reading this) saw the absurdity of this reason and was no longer disappointed in the grade. And I was proud that I made the point of understanding the reasoning behind it — and faced my fear of the gym teacher to ask the question. To this day, you can always count on me to ask the hard (and sometimes awkward) questions.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
That this needs to be a question underscores the breadth of the issue. Having a diverse team leads to better decisions. As a company, we make stronger products and do better for our customers by looking at questions, strategies, products, and initiatives from multiple perspectives. It’s so important to look for diversity beyond the surface level to avoid groupthink. Consider diversity in experiences, jobs, educational background–all of which will lend different approaches to problem-solving. There is no right or wrong answer in many situations, just different views of the same situation, which is necessary when designing an optimal solution.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
Judge people on their skills, not on their resumes or connections. A lot of people get a foot in the door because of who they know, which doesn’t account at all for how good they’d be for a certain job. Some employers put a ton of weight behind certain schools or past employers — again, these factors are not necessarily an indicator of how well someone will perform in a role. We need to focus on evaluating skills and competencies as the primary way to assess candidates to make more progress here. We do our best to get work samples and use interviewing styles that are representative of the work that will be done — not based on past experience.
Also, you have to model the behavior and inclusive culture you want to build. Think every day about what you’re doing to include everyone on your team, hire representative teams, and reward equitable behavior.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
As a CEO, I’m an expert in nothing but my company. Part of the job is having to look 5–10 years out to assess the industry, competitive landscape, funding, trends, and customers, while simultaneously faced with conversations and metrics taking place day-to-day. And these conversations and decisions are being made within minutes of each other. I might spend an hour in an investor meeting talking about high-level direction and market opportunities, and the following 30 minutes preparing for a new demo of a feature. The need and ability to switch contexts is different from other leaders who are more focused in one area.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
That everything is in your control. I’m not a sales expert, a marketing expert, or an engineering expert but I hire teams who are. It’s also a myth that you know everything or that there are right answers. The more you learn, the more you realize you don’t know things. So it’s about making the best decisions you can with the information you have — and the instinct and experience you’ve built in the industry, company, and market over time.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
I don’t think I was expecting how fast we’ve grown. It’s been a whirlwind going from four employees to nearly 80 in less than two years. I hate unnecessary growth and frivolous spending — in fact, I’m known to be stingy. But we’re continuing down a high-growth path and I love being a part of the ride.
Do you think everyone is cut out to be an executive? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
As I mentioned before, to be successful, you need to be great at context shifting, going from the micro to macro instantly. You also have to be able to build rapport quickly and get your entire team inspired, despite spending limited time each week with most.
Another big one is the ability to re-prioritize. You have to accept that not everything on your to-do list will get done. Things that were important on Friday will no longer matter on Monday and you need to learn how to let that go.
Finally, you have to be really comfortable with making big decisions based on incomplete information. Going back to a previous point I made around not being an expert in marketing or engineering, I may have a 45-minute briefing from which to make a multi-million-dollar decision. You need solid judgement and unwavering resolve.
What advice would you give to other business leaders to help create a fantastic work culture? Can you share a story or an example?
Creating a strong work culture starts from the top. Be yourself and by that, I mean show up with all of your warts, humility, and mistakes. Be approachable so your team gets to work with someone they like — that goes a long way. Celebrate your team’s wins and encourage them to do the same. Especially in a remote world, it’s hard to feel the camaraderie during big moments.
Figure out what your company’s values are and bring people in who reinforce them. Define what those priorities are and recruit and retain for it. It has to be intentional; it doesn’t just happen without thought.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
Growing CoderPad is helping bring transparency and fairness to technical hiring, both of which are a problem in the industry. CoderPad was founded to even the playing field during technical interviews, and to put technical skills front and center in the hiring process. Too many employers use certain schools or experience at shiny tech giants as a signal of a candidate’s skills, rather than actual technical abilities. That is significantly limiting the candidate pool and furthering the problems with diversity that are rife in the industry.
We’re operationalizing research that shows that traditional technical interviewing doesn’t net the best performers — but instead rewards those who perform best under scrutiny, which often has a negative impact on women, people of color, and those who are under-represented in regards to hiring outcomes.
Fantastic. Here is the primary question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Figure out what’s broken in your company and determine if it’s in your power and skill set to fix it. In my case, focusing on customer growth through product usage and looking at the strategic market opportunity was right in my wheelhouse. If something was broken in sales, I know I would not be the person to fix it. Understand your strengths and skills to determine if you can make a difference — before you take the job.
- It’s nothing short of a great adventure and you go through ups and downs each day. You really need to find your inner Zen and be able to go with the flow, changing priorities and tasks sometimes by the minute. You may start off your day with a great investor meeting and strong metrics reporting, only to be dealing with a delayed product launch moments later. You have to go along with the rollercoaster of a ride — which has ups and downs throughout the day. Be ready for the whiplash!
- It’s a grind. Trying to go from zero to one when you’re first starting something is hard. A CEO job means long days, and if you’re taking over an existing CEO job, you’re actually going from negative one to zero, before having to figure out how to get from zero to one. You begin by running against negative momentum to course correct. Don’t get me wrong, like all grinds, it’s exciting and interesting, but it’s important to realize the work that’s cut out for you. It’s hard work — hard, never-ending work.
- Understand the half-life of your energy. Tone comes from the top down and it’s obvious to see when you sit at the top. If you start out the day not giving 100 percent, that will trickle down throughout your team. If I go into a meeting with 80 percent energy, my executive team is already at 40 percent. And their managers are down to 20 percent. By lunch, you can hear a pin drop. I’ve AB tested this theory — if I come in with high energy, the executive team will carry the energy throughout the company. It’s part of the CEO job to be a motivator and a cheerleader for your team. You set the energy and the attitude.
- You can bring change really quickly. I remember when this one first hit home. I had been in my job for a couple weeks and made an offhand comment about an HR policy that I thought was a waste of time. The CFO looked at me and said “well, change it.” And I thought, “really, I can do that?!” This is a minor example but is reflective of exactly what is expected of you.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
Better education, starting with women. Women and girls are the most underutilized resources in the world. I strongly feel that education can solve a lot of problems.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Never underestimate the importance of a positive attitude.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them
Condoleeza Rice..she has seen a lot. She lives pretty close to me In Stanford, so holding out hope I’ll run into her one day. In general, I’m fascinated by female groundbreaking leaders. They’ve experienced so much and I’d love to hear more stories about their lives.