As part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became a C-Suite Executive” I had the pleasure of interviewing Israel Niezen, CEO of Factored, a business that helps leading tech companies build world-class data science, machine learning and AI engineering teams much faster and more cost effectively. He has 15 years’ experience growing businesses in the tech industry and holds an MBA from Harvard Business School.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive into our discussion, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
My current career was greatly influenced by my entrepreneurial marketing professor at Harvard Business School. He advised me not to follow the herd into consulting, banking, or hedge funds, and instead to get a job “as close to the customer as possible” at a startup. Against the advice of many, and taking quite a hit on salary, I took a job at a startup in the role of sales, and have since had the privilege of spending 15 years helping grow multiple tech startups. There is nothing more exciting than building a team and a company from scratch, and seeing the direct impact of your work and passion.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
My career in AI is the product of my failed startup years ago. I launched a company that was initially promising, but then we hit a few product related issues. Back then, I mistakenly thought that CEOs did not have to concern themselves with technology and should just focus on the business side of things. I could not have been more wrong, and my startup suffered because of it back then. Since then, I promised myself to become much more educated about technology and product. I have spent many years learning how to code, for example. I finished UCLA’s fullstack programming bootcamp and found myself building data-driven products, then finished a data science bootcamp, and an applied machine learning with Python bootcamp a few years later. That’s how I fell in love with machine learning, AI, and data-driven solutions, and transitioned to this industry. Admittedly, I am nowhere near as good a programmer compared to my engineers (I’m pretty bad actually!), but at least I know enough to be dangerous and effective on the business side of tech startups.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
“If we have data, let’s look at the data. If all we have are opinions, let’s go with mine.”
This is a famous quote by Jim Barksdale, the former CEO of Netscape, and it’s a quote I often use with my team because we are a data-driven company, and because most high-performing companies make data-driven decisions. So when data is available, I’d like suggestions to be driven by data, but when it is not available, that’s when experience comes in. In business, one needs to make tough decisions, and sometimes data is not always available, so leaders need to empower their team to make data-driven decisions as much as possible, and step in when more experience is necessary.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on your leadership style? Can you share a story or an example of that?
I really like the book “Founders at Work” because it tells the true stories of the early days of many successful companies like Apple, PayPal, Hotmail and others from the perspective of the entrepreneurs themselves. It shows would-be entrepreneurs that building startups is not easy, and even the most successful tech giants had very difficult problems in the early days, and very human reactions. I tend to be motivated by true factual accounts more than by inspirational advice, so I found this book very effective in showing me that even the most legendary tech leaders questioned many decisions and made mistakes along the way.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
At Factored we are very selective about hiring and accept only about 2.5% of applicants. In addition to talent, experience, and intelligence, which are prerequisites of course, passion is the most important ingredient for a new member of our team. I believe that talent alone is not enough to build great companies, and that the combination of talent AND passion can move mountains. I think passion about our mission helps us attract and retain the best engineers, and deliver the best possible results to our customers.
The road to success is hard and requires tremendous dedication. This question is obviously a big one, but what advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your success?
Never ever stop learning. Many believe that university or even grad school will prepare them to be successful in their careers from the get go, but the truth is far from that. A formal education is helpful insofar as it teaches people how to learn in a structured way, helps them develop communication and presentation skills, and exposes them to some elements in their respective fields. It shows prospective employers that you have the ability to learn, and the discipline to finish something you start. In the real world, however, things are always changing, and you can never stop learning new skills.
Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?
When selecting my first college major, I was interested in Computer Science, and some people incorrectly told me that unless I had been coding since I was a child and was really into video games as a teenager (I wasn’t), that I should not pursue computer programming as a career. I studied Finance instead. I wish I had not listened to them and had studied Math or Computer Science as my first degree. I still would have gone to business school for my grad degree, but having a more heavy quantitative background would have helped my career in tech and AI. I found out way too late that I actually love coding and building cool applications, but now I add more value as a business person so that’s probably what I will do for the rest of my career.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
Focus on what matters: in the world of startups, most things can go wrong and failure is the default, so a leader needs to get their team focused on the few things that MUST go right any given day or week, instead of obsessing on the things that could go wrong. I often remind my team that they need to determine the few things that matter and make sure they deliver on those, and that they can drop the things that are neither urgent nor important which are too often distractions that fill our daily schedule. Focus helps us make tough decisions which is the hallmark of good leadership.
Optimism: when times get tough, leaders need to step up and rally their team to victory. We don’t do that by feeling sorry for ourselves or making excuses when things go wrong. We do that by solving problems and leading our team to see the light at the end of the tunnel, even in the darkest moments. Last year, when Covid hit, we lost one of our major clients. We could have easily given up, but instead of firing people, we actually made a bet on hiring more engineers, and when remote engineering bounced back, we were in a great position to take advantage of this new opportunity.
Transparency: I believe that when you hire smart people, those people expect you to treat them like adults and like partners. If you want your team to act like fellow owners and not just employees, you owe them transparency.
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 C-Suite executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what a C-Level executive does that is different from the responsibilities of other leaders?
At the C-level, one doesn’t really get to stay in their own functional box — you need to understand at least a bit about all the different functions and how they each work together towards a common goal to develop and sustain a competitive advantage; sales, marketing, finance, operations, all working together. It is not enough to be a functional expert in one area if you can’t piece all those aspects together. Additionally, the pressure is heavy from all angles, and C-level execs need to be attentive to everyone’s needs and become their shoulder to cry on; from customers, to employees, to investors, C-level execs are responsible for all of these stakeholders being satisfied and motivated.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive? Can you explain what you mean?
I think there is a myth that CEOs are sitting in their fancy corner office drinking scotch with important clients and holding investor meetings all day long. The truth is far less glamorous — great CEOs are getting their hands very dirty making decisions and driving many details of their company. Their schedule is filled with non-glamorous calls and activities to serve many stakeholders and employees. They often wake up before anyone else, and work later than everyone else. Our work never stops, we never stop thinking about our companies.
What are the most common leadership mistakes you have seen C-Suite leaders make when they start leading a new team? What can be done to avoid those errors?
A great business leader once said that the single hardest, but most important, decision a leader should make when building teams is firing people with bad attitudes, even if they are a high individual performer. People with bad attitudes who are abusive to their team members create a toxic environment. It’s easy to get rid of toxic people when they are not good at their job, but a much tougher decision when they are individually great performers. Nonetheless, team cohesion matters more than individual greatness.
In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?
Solving problems and making decisions. I think people sometimes perceive the CEO role as a public figure-head who mainly wines and dines clients and investors, but our day is mostly filled with making all kinds of impactful decisions about many things and like chess players, we need to think three steps ahead of our competition and think about all possible angles and repercussions when making these decisions. We also need to motivate others constantly, so there is a big psychological toll on having to be the rock that provides stability to ever growing teams.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading From the C-Suite”? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Be accessible and transparent. Too often, new leaders believe that leadership is derived from a higher job title, but not that employees have many options of where to work and they don’t follow you because of a job title; they follow you because you are real, accessible, and transparent with them and because you involve them in decision making and make them feel like an important part of the team.
- Managing up is important. Very often, great leaders work their way up in their career by first being good individual contributors, and then leading people below them, but nobody tells you how important it is to manage up; for example, how to deal with investors and their expectations. This often takes new leaders by surprise because they assume that investors and management are always aligned on objectives and expected outcomes.
- Execution is everything. Too often, smart people are trained to over-analyze everything, to do tons of research, spend months on “strategy”, etc. That creates great wantrepreneurs with pretty slide decks, but in the real world, execution is everything. It’s better to start building, as imperfect as a plan or product may be, than to try to get everything perfect on paper only to realize that the real world has completely different views on your business or product. So start building asap and focus vehemently on execution.
- Build a great team and empower them. It’s impossible to do things alone, and every great company has a great team. A few of our engineers have quickly moved up the leadership ladder because they want to help build the business, not just engineer technical solutions. They have helped us figure out better ways to sell, to market, to hire, and to operate.
- Numbers and fundamentals are still important. When you build a sustainable business, you become less dependent on the whims of investors, the market, and other external factors. Sustained growth allows you to attract great employees, and to deliver excellent solutions and service to clients.
In your opinion, what are a few ways that executives can help to create a fantastic work culture? Can you share a story or an example?
Get rid of the suit and tie and the corner office. Become a real human, admit mistakes openly, express your concerns, ask for help, laugh with your team, play music with them. People are inspired by real people and motivated by accomplishing things together. Honesty and transparency can lead to a few awkward and difficult moments at the micro level, but on the macro level and over time, it is still best to run a company that is open and honest because smart people appreciate and expect this, and they feel more invested when their help is needed and people tell them the truth, even when it’s difficult to do so.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I think technology has the potential to become one of the greatest tools to move humanity forward, but unfortunately, when used improperly it can also lead to great disparity. When the benefits of technology are concentrated on a relatively small number of people, that disparity continues to grow unabated, when it should actually be distributed and shared with many more people. Something we strive to do at Factored is to share the wealth of opportunity created by AI technology with as many people as we can. Our goal is to hire and train as many brilliant minds as possible, exposing them to world-class training and Silicon Valley-level opportunities so they can accelerate their careers in the promising world of AI. More tech companies should invest in training new people as opposed to poaching the same engineers from each other.
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