Frank Slootman is an experienced tech CEO, having worked at a number of successful software companies. In his current role as CEO at Snowflake, Slootman took the company public back in 2020, with a record breaking IPO. Last year, Slootman published “Amp It Up” in which he shares his learnings as a tech CEO. “Amp It Up” starts with quite a lengthy history of Slootman’s professional journey before Slootman gets into the meat of building companies.
For starters, Slootman is a firm believer in mission-driven companies. Slootman doesn’t believe in management by objectives (MBO) which he feels causes employees to run their own show. Instead, Slootman argues that companies need to have a clear and compelling mission. He explains that to be mission-driven a great mission needs to meet three criteria:
- A great mission is big (but not impossible!) — For example, Snowflake’s mission is to mobilise the world’s greatest data and applications platform, not just of the cloud era, but in the history of computing. That is one big and bold mission, but not in the realm of the impossible for a company like Snowflake.
- A great mission is clear — For people to rally around and focus on a mission, it needs to be well defined and intense. You know that you’ve got a strong mission, Slootman explains, when people can easily bat away any distractions that aren’t related to the company mission. To achieve this sense of focus, it’s important to narrow down the mission continuously and avoid “mission creep”.
- A great mission isn’t about money — Naturally, any company needs to make money and be financially successful. However, Slootman views meeting financial milestones or company listings as milestones along the way to a company meeting its true mission.
In the book, Slootman also declares the war against incrementalism: “incrementalism is about avoiding risk by building in whatever has already been achieved as a stable foundation.” He stresses that incrementalism carries its own risk: companies might not lose, but they won’t win either. Rather than seeking incremental progress from the current state, Slootman encourages readers to think about the future state that you want to achieve and to then work backward to the present.
Execution over Strategy
‘Execution over strategy’ is one of the aspects covered in “Amp It Up” that resonated strongly with me. A lot of people, myself included, have a tendency to talk more about strategy than about execution. Slootman says that in technology and other sectors there isn’t a shortage of great ideas. What we lack is people who are great at taking these ideas and turning them into a reality. “Amping it Up” is about scaling up and running a disciplined and mature organisation. A strategy needs strong execution because “without strong execution, there’s literally no way to know whether a strategy is failing.”
Slootman talks about “going direct”; encouraging people to reach out to cross-departmental colleagues directly if a problem cuts across departments. Silos are real, especially in large organisations and Slootman points out that organisational structures aren’t sacrosanct. Whether you need a peer in marketing, customer support, sales, figure out who in those departments can most directly help you address the issue, and reach out without hesitation. “Everyone gets a seat at the table as we hash out challenging issues” Slootman explains.
Analysis before Solutions
My final learning from “Amp It Up” is about a tendency of business people to be “solution centric”: spending most of our time discussing solutions rather than diagnosing problems. Slootman writes about our tendency to race to conclusions about what’s wrong and what to do about it. He talks about “pattern matching”, where we react to situations based on our individual experience rather than studying the specific situation in front us from a broader perspective.
Instead, we should start with an analysis of the problem, and walk back to the beginning. Slootman explains that “once you start examining and pulling a problem apart, the perspective often changes the range of possibilities.” This thorough understanding of a problem will create a broader perspective which often changes the range of possibilities to consider. This in turn helps us prevent a mistake that would have forced us to backtrack later on — wasting time, effort, and money in the process.
Main learning point: There are a lot of valuable lessons to learn from Frank Slootman. “Amp It Up” is an insightful book with strong pointers on how to build a business and pitfalls to avoid.