On the lighter side of things we ask Ken McElrath, Founder and CEO at Skuid, what makes him tick.
What would you describe as your most memorable achievement?
After several near-death experiences in my life, the answer to this question has been made quite clear to me. You can’t take anything with you, other than your family and friends. Relationships matter more than anything else. So, maintaining a healthy marriage for 38 years (so far) has been and will likely continue to be my most memorable and fulfilling achievement. Nurturing an ever-expanding family that cares for each other and sincerely enjoys being together runs a close second to my marriage. In fact, every other accomplishment has been rooted in the support of my wife and family.
What first made you think of a career in technology?
I wrote my first program in BASIC on a Digital VAX system in college. I was hooked. In my early career, which coincided with the introduction of the Apple Macintosh, I worked in a variety of design and marketing positions and developed Mac expertise long before big companies began to take the Mac seriously. Then I landed at MicroAge, which grew from a computer reseller chain to a Fortune 500 master distributor and systems integration company. While I started as a graphic designer, my expertise with the Mac and databases helped accelerate my career. Looking back, it seems I was most comfortable when standing at the intersection of technology and design. This unique blend eventually landed me a position as Head of Marketing for the company-owned systems integration branches at MicroAge.
I left MicroAge to help launch a non-profit called Trueface. In my ‘spare’ time I wrote and sold software to manage non-profits. Afterward, I worked with a series of technology start-ups, including my own companies. My experience included using software to solve problems in retail, supply chain, education, real estate, non-profits and marketing. Solving all these problems ultimately led to launching Skuid, which solves a huge problem common to every industry.
What style of management philosophy do you employ with your current position?
The most important thing for managers and leaders to focus on is taking care of their employees. You serve them, not the other way around. I think culture is job one, and it starts at the top by defining the values you will hire for and live for. Your employees need to share those values, feel the same passion, and experience the same sense of belonging if you want to achieve your vision. You have to start with taking care of your employees so they can take care of your customers. From this point, as coach Bill Walsh said, the score will take care of itself.
What do you think is the current hot technology talking point?
Amid this pandemic, it’s all about getting and staying connected to your customers and employees in meaningful, helpful ways. Companies that formerly had alternatives to technology, such as physical storefronts, offices or travel, have been forced to completely rethink their go-to-market and other business strategies. Even companies that used technology heavily have realized just how dependent they continue to be on software that has failed to deliver the levels of utility, clarity, efficiency and delight required to achieve appropriate levels of customer and employee adoption in our new reality. Apps that were ‘good enough’ last year have proven woefully inadequate during a pandemic. For many organizations, Digital Transformation has accelerated faster than it would have without the crisis. For others, it has been too little, too late.
How do you deal with stress and unwind outside the office?
First, I take care of my body. I’ve become an SOS vegan, which means I eat a 100% plant-based diet with no added salt, oil or sugar. In addition, I work out with a trainer three days a week and do some form of exercise daily. This has made a dramatic difference in my stress level and health. Second, because I have tendencies toward working too much, I set more realistic expectations for my workday, and have been much more intentional about spending time doing things that bring perspective, like working in the yard, hiking with my wife, doing a remodeling project, listening to podcasts (I love Tim Keller’s stuff), or having dinner with my family. And I give myself permission to take vacation and mini-vacations. These things have all been super helpful to maintain mental, physical and spiritual health. It’s all connected.
If you could go back and change one career decision what would it be?
I don’t think I’d change anything. The failures taught me more than the successes. Mistakes taught me humility, and that is probably the number one thing anyone needs to learn before leading others. Avoiding the pain would have been more comfortable, but suffering from failure has a way of cementing important lessons into your soul. There is one particular conversation with Steve Ballmer that I wish I could redo. But I was young, and frankly pretty clueless when that happened. Sorry, Steve.
What do you currently identify as the major areas of investment in your industry?
Many of our customers are investing in portals – applications that deeply connect them with their employees and customers. They come to Skuid because with our toolset, they can create a fully branded, ultra-sophisticated experience that simplifies the user experience, masking the necessary complexity behind the scenes. And they can get a portal into production in less than half the time of using other low-code technologies and about one-tenth the time it would take to write code. We’re seeing tremendous growth in portal applications with adaptive intake forms. Stuff that used to be done with a whole lot of paper or hundreds of clicks can be reduced to just a few clicks with Skuid.
What are the region-specific challenges when implementing new technologies in North America?
As a cloud-native offering, we don’t really experience region-specific challenges.
What changes to your job role have you seen in the last year and how do you see these developing in the next 12 months?
The biggest change has been to manage through a crisis. While every CEO faces daily challenges, the pandemic has forced me to act more like a wartime leader. Because of our values, we decided that it is very important to help our customers through this crisis in any way possible.
So in very tangible ways, their challenges have become our own, which means we have done our best to help some of our customers to just keep going while helping others to scale far more quickly. Every day we’ve lost and won some battles. The emotional highs and lows can be exhausting, but you have to keep on. So truly, the past year has felt very much like a war, and that takes a different kind of leadership than managing in ‘peacetime.’
What advice would you offer somebody aspiring to obtain a C-level position in your industry?
Look for people you can trust with yourself. Find mentors – one or two people who have done this before who are willing to walk beside you. Being a C-level leader is a lonely, often thankless job. The money does not help overcome the loneliness. Working harder only makes it worse. Invest in your ‘family’. If you are married with children, learn how to do these relationships well. If you are single, connect with people who can support your emotional and spiritual needs and with whom you can reciprocate the love. If you grew up with dysfunction like the rest of us, find a counselor. Find others who can coach you. Admit that you need others and remember that they need you. You will need this foundation of loving relationships outside of work if you want to thrive and finish well.Click below to share this article