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 Max de Lavenne.
Max de Lavenne is the founder and CEO of Buildable, a custom software development company in McMinnville, Oregon. A software engineer and architect at heart, Max is dedicated to solving challenging technology problems and bridging gaps between users and software apps, through creative thinking, methodical user experience research, robust software engineering, and frequent communication. A master of all things software, Max has designed, built, deployed, and maintained hundreds of web apps, custom apps, and processes.
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 first started working on computers in France in the mid ’80s, way before we had the internet. All I had was a Pascal programming reference book and had to figure it out as I went, using trial and error, until I had my first breakthrough around age 13 and moved on to learning assembly language by age 15. I realized then that I could have a career in this industry. As I continued developing skills, I was always working on a software project of some kind, including building the software for a winery in France. By the time I got to college in Paris, I already knew exactly what I wanted to do. I took as many programming courses as I could, and ended up getting an internship in Los Angeles. Ultimately, my career path has been one of discovery and innovation; I’m always chasing the next thing.
I’m now the CEO and founder of Buildable, a custom software development firm, and I also teach at a local university in McMinnville. I’m passionate about preparing the next generation for a successful career in software development, and am fortunate to be able to do so, both through my business and as a professor.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
As the leader of a custom software development firm, I have many interesting stories and insights, but one thing stands out in particular — how much I work with people, versus software. One would think that a career like mine would be entirely focused on software development, but it’s really about people. For me, being a leader means navigating with people, their emotions, and their professional development. Many people have a certain perception of what software engineers are like — maybe a bit antisocial or awkward around others– but I firmly believe that good engineering and good people skills go hand-in-hand. Whether it’s communicating internally with our team or externally with clients, a successful software development project begins and ends with good people skills, and it has been essential to the growth of our business.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
The funniest mistake I made happened while I was working on a mainframe at a train control center facility. My project manager had been confident enough in my skillset to let me install upgrades at the train control center on my own, using 8mm tapes at the time, and I was feeling very confident. Well, sure enough, I was working through the terminal to update the software and proceeded to delete some files. But I had forgotten to change directories, and issued a command which could have resulted in the total destruction of the server. Oops. After worrying madly for a bit and attempting in vain to reach my supervisor, I realized I had also forgotten to login as “superuser,” which meant that my delete command had absolutely no effect and did nothing, luckily. The lesson I took away from that experience was that two pairs of eyes are always better than one, and over-confidence is the software engineer’s ultimate nemesis. Mistakes happen and they’re an important part of the learning process; nobody is shielded from making errors. It’s critical to have someone double-checking your work and clean processes to follow.
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?
There isn’t one particular person, but rather a group of people at the first company I worked at. They introduced me to concepts that I didn’t even know existed. Of course, I learned a great deal in university, but schools tend to teach concepts that have already been around for a while. With that company, I learned so much about the methodology behind software development. You can’t build software without considering the structure behind it, and the strength of your own personal toolkit will dictate the integrity of that structure. My former colleagues taught me to shape my toolkit to help shape my software.
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?
Diversity is incredibly important in the workplace. The last thing you want to do is have an executive team where everyone has the same perspective or the same playbook. When that happens, you’re setting your company up for mistakes and blind spots. If everyone has the same perspective or background, you’re unwittingly closing the door on opportunities that you may not even know exist. Of course, differing perspectives can lead to conflict so there’s a fine balance as you want people to collaborate instead of disagreeing. However, I think sometimes that kind of conflict is productive, assuming you’ve hired the right people with compatible personalities and strong communication skills. It’s crucial that your team is able to present and process unique perspectives, because diversity ultimately leads to much more innovative and efficient business operations.
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.
For the most part, business leaders are not looking to solve the problems of the world. But what they can do is provide people with opportunities to which they otherwise wouldn’t have access, due to systemic barriers. Business leaders like me have the responsibility and privilege of unlocking the potential in others — especially those who may have been underserved or marginalized. Applying for a job may seem like a simple task to some, but for others it’s an enormous lift just to travel to a job interview and obtain conventionally professional clothing. Furthermore, some candidates might not look appealing on paper, whether due to employment gaps or lack of experience — but these candidates are the ones that business leaders should lift up. You have to recognize that these candidates are real humans with valid feelings and experiences, and they deserve the opportunity to succeed. At my company, Buildable, we switched to a remote model during the pandemic, and that shift allowed us to connect with more diverse candidates than ever before. Some candidates we hired outright, and others we’ve been informally mentoring as they work to line up their experience with what we’re looking for. For me, it’s been such an honor to meet these so-called unconventional candidates and open the door for them.
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?
For me, the biggest difference between a CEO and another leader is that my day doesn’t start at 8am and end at 5pm; it never ends — I think about work all day long, and many times through the night. The biggest problems usually all end up on my desk; the buck stops with me. In an organization, problems tend to bubble upward. The small and medium problems get addressed by other leaders on my team, but the largest problems always bubble up to me. But interestingly, as CEO, I’m not here to solve all the problems, but rather help everyone solve them and empower my team to make tough decisions. Whereas other leaders at my company might spend a large part of their time on software development, I find that nearly all of my time is spent taking care of my people — mentoring, helping, coaching them. Typically, this mentorship is all happening quietly in the background, so a good CEO will be selfless and not crave the limelight. It’s about keeping the company moving, staying calm, and shielding the stress.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
The biggest myth is that the CEO job is easy; once you’re a CEO you don’t have to work as much and you’re never in the office. That’s completely false. A CEO’s day is likely 12 hours, 14 hours, even though they might not physically be at their desk for all that time. Being CEO is really challenging, and there’s no CEO school. I went to business school and certainly learned a lot, but nothing can really prepare you ahead of time to be CEO. You’ll never have all the answers and that’s okay; I surround myself with people who can help and am never afraid to ask peers for advice. The best CEOs, I think, are the ones who ask all the right questions, provide vision and guidance and empower their employees to grow and thrive. Being in the driver’s seat is hard and exhausting, and you never really get a break, but it’s incredibly rewarding to watch your company grow and your team succeed.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
The first thing that comes to mind is the idea of looking at a faraway mountain and thinking, “Wow that looks beautiful, I’d love to climb it.” When you actually get to the top, sometimes you’re too tired to look around and appreciate the view. When I started on my career path I didn’t necessarily expect to be a leader; I’d say the opportunity found me, rather than the other way around. I’ve always been an innovator and challenge-taker. I’m sure I had preconceived notions that I wouldn’t have to deal with a certain type of problem once I ran the company; maybe I thought my team would deal with all the problems for me, but that’s certainly not the case. The problems are there and they always find me. If you want to lead a company and fulfill your vision for the company, you cannot get detached from the company’s challenges and obstacles. Finally, CEOs might expect that they can run their company 100% their own way, but I’ve found that you need to respect your employees’ processes and simply hand them the tools they need to do their jobs. Your employees will be much happier and much more productive if you can relinquish some control and let them work the way they know is best. You think you have to have all the answers; in reality as a CEO the toughest thing is to continuously set up your people for success — but it is incredibly rewarding.
Presumably not 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?
CEOs need to be constantly available and responsive to their team. They need to be able to prioritize their internal team above everything else — even clients. Clients can always wait. Your internal team deserves your full attention. It’s also crucial that CEOs don’t merely impose their ideas; someone who always has to have their way would be a horrible leader, frankly. CEOs should never impose, but rather give everyone else equal space to voice their concerns and opinions — not just the employees who may be the most outspoken — and then provide guidance, vision and take decisions.
CEOs also need to be able to deescalate a situation when tensions are high. They should recognize that the tension exists and give employees the space to vent, but they cannot get swept up themselves.
Finally, CEOs must be able to deliberately surround themselves with people who are very competent. You have to recognize that your ideas aren’t the best and others have expertise you need to listen to; you have to have humility and own the fact that you need your team. The worst kind of CEO is the person who believes that they always have the answers. The best CEOS don’t have all the answers, but rather ask all the right questions.
What advice would you give to other business leaders to help create a fantastic work culture? Can you share a story or an example?
It sounds obvious, but the most important thing to keep in mind is that your employees are humans — they have feelings and families and personal lives. They have good days and bad days. If CEOs are focused on good work culture, they need to have a constant pulse on the overall stress level at their companies. In my industry (and likely many other industries) there’s a big cultural focus on delivering exceptional work for your clients, which can too easily lead to working long hours day after day after day — that can’t be the norm. CEOs need to constantly check in with their team to ensure nobody feels burned out, because that’s when attrition happens.
It’s also important to encourage (and organize) team-building activities outside of work. At Buildable, we do a lot of team gaming. Sometimes it’s after work, sometimes it’s during work hours. Everybody needs a break and it’s so important to be able to blow off steam while still building relationships with your team. Not only will your team appreciate the balance, but they’ll know that you as a leader have their best interests at heart. Happy employees are productive employees.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I am fully aware that I’m not saving lives; I’m not a nurse or a medical professional. What I can do, however, is lift others up and give them the tools to succeed, which is why I am also a professor at Linfield University in addition to being CEO of Buildable. I can make the world a better place by opening the door for others, by coaching them and empowering them. I also think it’s incredibly important to serve your local community, so at Buildable we always have a portfolio of pro-bono work for local businesses and nonprofits. Our door is always open for local community members or businesses who need our help, whether it’s educational content for kids, a website for an adoption agency, or any other project where we can step in and give back. I can’t perform surgery or administer a COVID vaccine, but I will always strive to open the door for others and empower them to the best of my ability.
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.)
- “Are you sure?” — Maybe you’re ready for more in your own career, maybe you think the grass is greener as a CEO or executive. But you can’t really be a CEO and an employee at the same time. Eventually you’ll get to a crossroads and you’ll have to decide which path to take. There is a lot to be said for being “just” an employee; there’s a lot of comfort and stability there and you have the ability to simply go home at the end of the day. You need to be 100% sure before you go down the road of CEO, because you will be driving that car alone. Nobody else can take the wheel.
- “Pace yourself.” — Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Don’t aim to grow too fast before you think you’re ready for it. Don’t aim for an IPO just because you’ve seen others do it successfully. Go at your own pace and don’t skip any steps. If you’re a turtle, don’t hunt the lion’s prey.
- “Don’t be a one-man-show.” — Seeking council is so important if you want to be a CEO. There will always be times when you need to get others’ opinions before making big decisions. You cannot do the job alone.
- “Get a good HR person.” — Being a CEO is largely about people management. You can’t just figure it out as you go through trial and error, because that’s incredibly unfair to your team and they don’t deserve that. You need a good HR person from the get-go.
- “Get a seatbelt.” — It’s going to be a rollercoaster. Get ready.
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.
The cause I’m most passionate about is education. If I could inspire a movement, it would be a movement to teach people to fish, so to speak. Give people knowledge, sure, but more importantly give people the tools they need to succeed independently. How do you solve problems when do you don’t know the answer? How do you go about finding an answer? How do you ask for help? These are such important skills for any walk of life, and I’d love to teach those skills to anyone who needs them.
I hate the idea that students have to pay exorbitant fees to attend college and therefore stand a chance at getting hired in the job market. I hate how expensive higher education has become. Far too many people aren’t able to access the same educational resources as everyone else, and it’s a travesty because they are incredibly determined and hard-working. They deserve a chance. I think education should be free. That’s the movement I’d love to inspire.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Don’t sweat the small stuff. There are so many ways to stress out in life. It’s so easy to get drawn into problems that don’t actually matter that much. But you only have one life. Don’t sweat the small stuff.
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.
I’d love to get breakfast with Richard Branson, the founder of the Virgin Group. I love his story. He’s one of the few people, I think, who is a born visionary. I am so inspired by the way he grew his business and brand. He’s a self-described “yes man,” and I love that. I definitely look up to him and I have no illusions: I will never get to that level. He’s also a kitesurfer like me, which I greatly appreciate. I’d actually rather go kitesurfing with him and then have breakfast.