Tales of a Modern CEO with Atlassian and Trello (Video + Transcript)
What keeps CEOs up at night? Shareholders, competition, the next big thing? Sure, but there are many other challenges. Modern CEOs are also thinking about how to build inclusive workforces, how their companies will positively impact the world, or what societal issues to advocate for. In this session, Atlassian co-CEO and co-Founder, Mike Cannon-Brookes, and the Co-Founder of Trello, Michael Pryor, talk about what it means to be a modern CEO, how the role has transformed during his 15 years at Atlassian’s helm, and advice he has received from other leaders.
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Michael: All right. I got an easy one. Tell us a little bit about Atlassian, what the company does, and what your job is as the CEO.
Mike: We’ve been around about 15 years. What hasn’t changed in the time, our mission is to unleash the potential of every team. As you all know, we make a whole series of different collaboration applications for teams, project management, documentation, communication, whole bunch of different things.
My job, I’d say there’re things that I do. My job changed a lot over 15 years. Obviously, I don’t write a lot of code anymore. The three things I do every day or every week, number one is people equation. A lot of recruiting still, we’re growing really fast, and making sure we’ve got the right people, managing culture and all the people issues that come with that.
Second part of my job is storytelling, going around to all the different offices globally, and telling stories and explaining the company in a human manner so the teams can understand and do what they need to do.
Third part is strategy, obviously. We as founders set the North Star as you do for Trello, like where are we headed to give people a little bit of the map, and then they fill in the detail.
Michael: You said you don’t code anymore. It’s a lot different now what you’re doing. They showed in the video before we came on, you were speaking at “TED” about impostor syndrome, and you said…I think you said you’re totally unqualified for your job now. What did you mean about that?
Mike: I gave a TED Talk on impostor syndrome, which was rather more popular than I anticipated. It’s a very common founder phenomenon, a number of founders since have come up and said, “Man, I feel exactly like that every day.” It’s a simple phenomenon that you turn up to work and you realize that you don’t actually know what you’re going to do each day, that you’re out of your depth.
As I say, as you put it aptly unqualified, I wouldn’t get hired to run a two‑and‑a‑half thousand person public company off the street. If we got an executive recruiter, I wouldn’t be on the list.
Michael: You might, now.
Mike: Still doubtful. The thing about that impostor syndrome that I was trying to get across in the talk that sometimes resonates is it doesn’t go away. If you’re aware of it and you understand it and you lean into it, you can make it a positive.
We work harder because we know that we don’t know what we’re doing. You’re constantly afraid of being caught out, means you test your own ideas a lot more and you take more feedback and things like that. It’s a positive place to be as long as you don’t get paralyzed by it.
Michael: Your jobs changed a lot in the last 15 years as the company’s growing. The industry and work has changed as well. What do you think about how work has changed and what are the biggest changes in the way people work today?
Mike: Look, we’re obviously writing a huge wave in terms of teams. We’ve been on it for a while. We feel like people are somewhat that was catching up, it’s really good. If you look at work, it’s increasingly smaller teams, more distributed, less hierarchical organizations, more organic autonomous as a general trend. That creates a whole different set of management challenges and coordination challenges.
This industrial era command and control doesn’t work as I’m sure anyone in any technology business. You can’t work that way anymore.
Collaboration becomes more important. Goal setting and allowing autonomy to happen in a somewhat controlled fashion. I used to say that my job is to run in nuclear reactor. There are two things you can do in a nuclear reactor. You can take cooling rods and you can put them further in and cool the thing down, and the reaction will slow down.
If you do that for too long, it just shuts down and it’s not going to happen. If you pull the cooling rods out, different result…My job constantly is to know if they’re too far in or too far out. You want some chaos and reaction going on internally, but not too much. You want it to be somewhat of a controlled chaos.
Distribution global companies are global and are lot more separated, a lot more quickly. Remoteness, I mean you guys brought our largest remote team. You’re probably better qualified to talk about remote work than I am, but it’s a huge challenge that obviously we’ve been dealing with and working through as a company.
Michael: I think that was a big part of what we’re trying to do with building our company and distributed workforce is trying to building a tool for this to work. It’s funny that a couple weeks ago, we had something happened at work where we really shined a light on having a distributed workforce and benefits of it.
Back when we first started Trello, we were housed in a data center in downtown New York. Hurricane Sandy hit and the storm surge came in, filled all the basements of the buildings, including the one that our data center was in. The generator was up on the roof, but the fuel tanks were in the basement.
They all got ocean water all in the pumps and everything. I got a call from the data center, and they’re like, “Your services are going to be shut shown in three hours because we’re going to run out of gas.”
At that time, AWS was barely around. This is probably 2011 or some…
Mike: Good tales of a modern CEO. You don’t have to carry diesel anymore.
Michael: Yeah. Basically, that’s what we did. We went down there and we bribe diesel truck drivers for fuel. They poured it in a 55‑gallon drums and we took buckets from my aquarium and siphoning into the buckets, carried it up 18 flights of stairs for three days pouring into the generator to keep the generators running.
At the same time, we also got a couple developers who were like, “We need to move to AWS.” I was like, “Now?” They had been…
Mike: How long did it take you to move to AWS?
Michael: They had been investigating this beforehand. My co‑founder and I were like, “How long is it gonna take? How much is it gonna cost?” They were like, “Well, we think it’s gonna take six months.”
We went up. We had to run up the stairs in the building that the developer was in, because his elevator wasn’t working. There’s no power in his building. We wake him up. We’re like, “You need to move us to AWS in three hours.”
He went uptown to some place with power and was like, “Mm‑hmm,” and he did it in three hours. It’s funny. Six months, three hours…
Mike: Developers, man.
Michael: We got in AWS but the funny thing. It was a couple weeks ago, December 23rd, it was Friday night, right before Christmas. I got a call that an air‑conditioning unit in our office in New York City ‑‑ we have a supplemental unit. There was a pipe that was there. A cap came off and the water just started flowing in the office.
No one’s there. It’s 10:00 PM, two days before Christmas. Did that for eight hours, on the 25th floor of the building, filled the entire building with water. We had four inches of water in our floor. It rained down. All the elevators were ruined. It was just a giant disaster.
It’s a lot to clean up, a lot of work but it didn’t have any impact on the business because everyone’s already used to working…more than half of the people were spread out over the US and we’ve already have a culture of working remotely with people.
That’s the difference between Sandy where it’s like we’re running out of gas and in this time, our office was destroyed but it didn’t have any impact on our velocity.
Mike: I love every Founder/CEO you find has some organic formative experience. I bet that that couple of days of ferrying diesel out, how many was it like? 17 stories?
Mike: That was probably pretty good for the team culture, actually. When you look back, it’s event you all look back and be like, “Man, remember when we had to do that.”
Michael: Yeah, pretty bonding event.
Mike: Sorry, I’ve totally distracted your talk show here.
Michael: No, no, no. One of the…
Mike: This is really funny by the way. Michael reports to me, so we normally have one on ones in a business scenario, and this is like completely different.
Michael: When you came to…
Mike: I feel like I should get out the Trello board of what we’re working on, and be like, “Hey, let’s just, yeah.”
Michael: One of the interesting things when we first started talking about the acquisition…It’s almost exactly a year since we closed the acquisition of Trello. When we first met for like lunch that one day downtown New York at that Mexican restaurant, I gave them a great review. I said, “This is a get place to get acquired Google.”
Mike: [inaudible 11:07] .
Michael: I remember that conversation because the stuff that we were talking about was about the people, and the values. A lot of times when you think about companies, and their values, it’s like this thing that they put on the website.
Something that was very important, and eye opening to me was the way that Atlassian’s values are just woven throughout the company, and actually practiced on a daily basis. In fact, we were talking about things that were similar between Trello and Atlassian, and trying to find alignment of these values.
One of the Atlassian values is be the change you seek. At Trello, we had one called, “Don’t do nothing.” It’s a similar intent which is to give people autonomy and responsibility, and let them act. Another one of our values at Atlassian is built with heart and balance. Can you talk a little bit about that, and tell us how you do that?
Mike: Sure. First I’d say when you talk about the evolution 15 years, and stuff, we started building products. We were two engineers, and we wanted to build things. We didn’t really want to build a company. We wanted to build things.
As the things that we built got a little bit successful, we built another thing, and we were very focused on customers, products, and features. We evolved into realizing that the company challenge of building was more exciting and interesting than the product challenge of building.
We still build products. We’re a product company through and through. What didn’t scale in that model was the founders. We could no longer go, and talk to every single person individually. We stopped interviewing every hire, and you start thinking, “Shit, OK, how do I scale this ‑‑ what we’ve been doing?”
One of the things we came to was the values. When I tried to explain them to founders, I say, “Think of it as an engineering scale issue. If you have to write down what it is that you never want to lose about the company, don’t write down anything you aspire to be in the future. That’s not the way it works.”
You can’t say, “I really want to do this.” First of all, don’t write down anything you aspire to be. Secondly, don’t write down any basic human values. You’ll notice our values, there’s no honesty, there’s no integrity. That stuff, you get hired or fired for. That’s like simple basic human values. That’s not unique company values of how you want the company to feel.
We write them down, and they’ve worked really well. They’ve lost to the test of time. How long they’ve been written down ‑‑ for 13 years, 12 years, something like this, and everything else. Anyway, build with heart and balance is, how do I explain it? It’s one of my favorite values.
The other thing I should say about the, Atlassian values, they’re designed to be axiomatic. They’re not a set of equations that you answer problems with. They’re thought provoking lenses to look at questions, or decisions that you have to make, and you want people to consider how they are affected by these things rather than…
It’s not a weapon. You should never say, “We are doing this because of value X.” We’ve had plenty of people try to do that internally. It’s supposed to be axiomatic. Build with heart and balance, we’re building things to what we do as a company.
When we build the company, the way I explain it is there’s a lot of really hard decisions we have to make. My job is making hard decisions on a regular basis. When I make those decisions, or when anyone is making decisions in the company, I want them to consider both the hard aspect and the balance.
Balance is easy. You want to consider the options. You don’t want to just head right because you happen to prefer that. You want to think about left, think about right. Have we taken a balanced approach to the problem? Consider the customer, the shareholder, the staff, whatever. The balance to the decision is a bit hard and abstract.
Secondly, you want to do it with heart. What does that mean? It means two things to me. One is you want to do it with passion. You’re making a decision, you want to lean into it, and actually do it, and show people why it’s exciting or the good way to go.
Secondly, you want to do it with some form of caring. Because these hard decisions have impacts on people, on customers, on someone, and you should think through the impact. It doesn’t mean the decision is wrong, but the impact of that decision needs to be thought through.
Too many times I think people take the abstract, a company as a legal entity. We always say we don’t solve technology problems. We solve people problems. That’s what we do as a company. That’s what we build. That’s what we do internally.
When you’re solving people problems, you have to care about people. You have to care about how they feel, and think and are impacted by a decision, but you still have to make the right decision by the company, by the rest of the staff.
That’s what’s that’s trying to be informative on. Always trying to help people at least think about the different aspects when they’re making a decision.
Michael: Do you have a time when that was difficult to do or hard to do?
Mike: We have lots of examples we’ve had to employ that I suppose if you want to think about it. Whenever we’re letting people go is a good time. Whenever any manager has to say, “Look, this job is not a fit for this person at this particular time,” you want them to do that in a constructive, and caring way, but you also want to do it with the rest of the team in mind, and all the different bits and pieces.
We know this. We’ve recently moved a product from one office to another office. Classical business problem. Really hard to do.
The way I think most businesses approach this problem is to move a little bit of it. “We’re going to start a second team over here. We’re going to do this. We’re going to do that,” and then after a while, they’re like, “Yeah, we’re going to move the next,” and then eventually they shut down.
They never really give employees the full story of what’s going on. When we moved that product, we tell people a year ahead, “This product is moving from office A to office B. Here’s why,” and we were very open about why it was moving, and explained all the reasons.
I think that when you’re open as a company, that leads to better decision making because you have to be able to explain stuff. Hard decisions and easy ones.
We told people what was happening a year ahead of it happening internally, but we tried really hard to think about how that would impact employees. We had people who had been working for 10 years on a product, and being told that product is moving to another country, and that’s hard.
It didn’t mean it was the right decision for us to do. We got through it pretty well, and the employees at the end of the day I think really valued that we were very open with them, treated them as adults, and gave them the full story, gave them time, and pulled the thing.
Michael: I think back on that, and that was one of the big reasons why I thought this was the right move for Trello, was because those values were so important to the company. When we were going through that acquisition, Atlassian had done, I don’t know, 18, 19 acquisitions before that.
One of the things I also noticed was that there was this constant sense of learning, perfecting, and getting better at doing everything including acquisitions. Can you talk a little bit about maybe for people that are thinking about acquiring companies or…What things have you learned? What’s important during that process?
Mike: With the acquisitions, they’re hard. They’re really hard to do successfully. Any business literature will tell you that most of them fail, etc. We’ve had a pretty good track record. No pun intended. You got to think about both sides of the table, and be very open about how it’s going to work.
We’ve always tried to get cultural alignment number one. If a culture is not going to fit, it’s just not going to do. It doesn’t matter how strategic it is. It’s just going to end badly. The second one is there’s really vision alignment.
I don’t know if that’s the technical business term, but like you got to explain why you’re doing this, and what you want to achieve out of it from both sides, and be able to see that it’s a good deal for everybody. Because otherwise, you’re going to hit some rocky period down the line.
We were very clear. We want to invest in Trello. We think it’s a great business. We want to continue its momentum. We can provide staff, help, and all these things. Largely, we’ve done that. If we had wanted to shut it down, and use the talent for something else, we should have said, “This is the reason we’re doing the acquisition.”
A lot of them failed because there’s like an internal agenda, and then the deal agenda. It kind of is different. When they come together, it doesn’t really work very well. Other than that, it’s people problems.
We spend a lot of time talking to the Trello team. We’re very honest about how difficult the process is going to be. We tried to get as many people on the Atlassian side of the fence to meet as many people on the Trello side of the fence.
Michael: That was super helpful.
Mike: One of the things we’ve noticed is you get this us and them phenomenon, and you have to move everybody to a “we.” It sounds like bullshit, but it’s really important because you start having people saying, “Well, at Atlassian, they do it that way, but at Trello, we do it this way.”
You’re like, “We’re all doing it the same way. We’re all on the same team now,” and get people to see that through a series of exercises, meetings, and projects. Putting them together, and having Trello people run parts of Atlassian. Having the acquirer not talk down to the acquiree.
I think that’s really important at all levels. Generally, a bigger company acquiring a smaller company, you have this thing where people go in, and be like, “Hey man. Son, let me tell you how this is done. We know how to do this.”
It just pisses people off. No one wants to feel like that. There are things that we did better. There are things that you guys did better, and we tried to tell our staff, “We can learn a lot from this remote work.”
Being one, a lot of things on the technology side, we can learn a lot about how freemium businesses work. We’re spending a lot of money to buy something, let’s learn a lot, and treat people as adults. I don’t know.
Michael: We’re going to run out of time, so I want to shift gears a little bit. A lot of us might have watched the Falcon Heavy yesterday. A pretty exciting moment.
Michael: Thinking about Elon, recently you had a little interaction with him on Twitter. Can you tell us this story about that, and what happened?
Mike: Sure. Kind of irrelevant, I suppose. I’ll try to make it relevant. Look, we have some power problems in Australia. Both physical power problems and political power problems. The physical power problems are there are parts of our grid that just don’t work, and we’re going off. The parts that were going off were heavily renewable driven.
The political power problems are we are the largest exporter in the world of coal, uranium, gas. Top three. We export a lot of shit, but when you have a country that’s one of the sunniest countries on the planet, but is also one of the largest exporters of coal, guess who wins when it comes to political decisions? There’s not a lot of sun lobbying going on.
Actually Lyndon was down ‑‑ ran as the CF SolarCity, and ran Tesla Energy ‑‑ talking about launching the Powerwall, and saying that Tesla thought that they could, with a large scale industrial battery, solve the state core South Australia’s intermittent power problems.
I was up late one night with one of my kids, and on Twitter said was he serious about this. We’ve got a little bit of clout now which is a weird phenomenon for us, and we could try to help things move along.
We threw a rock down the hill as I like to say, and it became this massive avalanche. People poured on, the media poured on, and now we have the world’s biggest battery in South Australia that’s like three tons larger than any battery man has ever made. It’s working. It was employed within 48 hours to solve problems.
Michael: I think you said Elon said he would do it in 100 days or it was free or something?
Mike: Yeah. He got it done in 100 days. Actually started before the contract was signed. They still got it done in 100 days, but he did it in like 30 days quoting the clock. Yeah, it’s running.
Michael: It ties into this because I think that interaction, and politics and things. One of the journalists in Australia called you an activist CEO at the time, and I think Atlassian, there was the marriage equality vote in Australia.
Going back to the open company, one of our values is open company. No bullshit. Let’s get those things out there, and talk about then. What are your thoughts on that? Like taking political positions, and as the CEO, how that affects internally the employees, and externally the customers.
Mike: A bit like the impostor syndrome. It’s a challenging area, and you need to be thoughtful about how you do obviously all those interactions. The worst thing I think you can do as a CEO is be paralyzed, and do nothing.
Again, fade back into that faceless corporate entity. One of the things we try to do is foster internal discussion, but do it in a constructive manner. These are human beings. We have internally all sorts of viewpoints. All sorts of views.
People have to be able to have conversations with fellow colleagues and staff members, and see that there are other points of view. They don’t have to agree with them, try to open your mind to different points of view and debate and understand that not everyone feels the same way about every issue.
At the same time, one of the reasons we were very I guess stridently public on that in Australia is we were telling people, “You can vote whatever way you want. It’s a vote. You vote the way that you feel, and you believe in your life experiences have.”
We have a group called the Atlassians, and it was a tough period for that group of south members. We were trying to tell people, “Hey, here’s a group of people who have made a set of life choices. You can agree or disagree with them. That’s your own personal choice.”
“But you can at least acknowledge that they are going through a very hard period when their way of life, and everything is being publically dragged through the media, and you’ve got outlets on one side, and outlets on the other side. These people coming to work and crying.”
It’s a hard period, and we can all see as humans that they’re in a tough spot whichever way you’re going to vote. We should be able to stick up for our colleagues, and say that this is the way that it should be.
Activism is I feel like we’re going to go, and save whales on a boat. It feels like a different thing we do than sticking up for people that work for us, and acknowledging the differences that we all have.
Michael: I think that sense of team, and if you grow, and if the company grows. It’s actually an interesting…Another question I have which is one of the things I noticed. I used to tell people like, “Hey, if you have any questions or concerns, or whatever, just come to me.”
We have 20 people, 30 people. It happens. Like you’ll have a little whole company meeting. People will just speak up. You get to this point around 60, 70, 80 and people stop speaking up. Around 100. People just don’t stop by your office anymore. It’s the old guard that might come talk to you, but the new employees just are like, “Oh, I’m not going to talk to the boss.”
As much as you can say I’m open. My calendar is open. Come talk to me,” it doesn’t necessarily happen as you scale up. How do you stay connected to the people in the company, to the product, or what’s happening at Atlassian when you get to 2,000 people?
Mike: We try to model good behaviors. If you think, Atlassian is a collection of little companies, and products and different things if you take that lens on it. They all have the same problems.
Communication is hard and critical. We’ve learned over the years, you can’t communicate too often. We have a weekly town hall. Like you do in Trello, we have one for all Atlassian. 2,500 people dial in global.
Michael: At that stage, it becomes this.
Michael: It’s a broadcast.
Mike: That’s one form of communication. That’s right, but one of the things I personally have found most useful is whenever I travel, try to gather groups of 15 to 20 employees together, and that’s what I call the story telling sessions. I just tell them, “Turn up with questions, and you can ask me anything.”
In a group of 15, people will ask you questions. They’ll say, “Hey, how did you get started or why?” or like, “Strategically we’re doing this. I think it’s a stupid idea,” and it might well be a stupid idea. It might be a good thing that someone said that. You might not know that that’s happening, or you might have to defend it or explain it, or they just don’t understand.
That happens in a small group of people, and part of my job is to continually go to smaller groups of people, and do that communication. The other aspect about staying connected that I think is important is I always believed in this notion of the distance to the customer.
As you grow, companies get further from their customers which is a weird phenomenon. Founders do, and everyone else does, and you have to constantly be finding ways to reduce the distance of every employee to every customer if you can draw some sort of, I don’t know, set of strings and lines. The company grows, they move further apart.
Bringing that internally through scalable ways of telling customer stories, and the benefit we’re having, and the pains that customers are having, and how we’re bringing that into product teams is hard. It’s really hard, but it’s something that I think you have to invest in.
It will be different for every company in the manner that which they do that, but I used to talk to customers directly all the time. Right now once or twice a year, we have these big conferences, and I get a massive rush of customer stories, and you have to find a way to make that a daily part of things.
Also not just give it to me. Get it to the engineer who’s building the feature.
Michael: Oh, that’s right.
Mike: Or get it to the product manager to really get direct interface with customers to try to figure out their pains and problems.
Michael: Having been to that conference, to the summit, it’s like that’s one of the biggest wins for us as a company. Is when all the employees are there, and all the customers are there, and we’re talking. Also all the user groups that we have around, and then you go visit them, and stuff.
We had a minute left. You also do some angel investing on the side, so you’re on the VC side of things. Do you have any advice for founders, let’s say?
Mike: What do I tend to tell founders? Two things, I guess. One is ‑‑ they’re both a bit clichÈ to be honest, but they’re both very true ‑‑ treat it as a marathon. Not a sprint. If there’s one thing I’ve seen founders do, I’m personally very concerned. Founder mental health is a big issue. When you look at some of the causes of that, it’s they sprint too hard, too fast, too long.
You guys were running Trello for like five, six years.
Mike: We’ve been running Atlassian for 15 years. It’s a marathon. You’ve got to maintain a sustainable pace in whatever way you do that, with family, health, fitness. Different people have different devices for that. Working 20‑hour days seven days a week, it’s not going to be sustainable. You can’t build a business that way.
It’s not going to happen. That’s certainly something that I tell people. The other thing I think that’s important, and especially when you’ve been on a journey like we have, is our last chairman used to always say, “Remember that these are the good old days.” Right now, these are the good old days in a growth company.
It’s too easy for people to look back and be like, “Man, remember when we had 500 people? Oh, you can get so much shit done, like, I knew everybody. That was just a purple period. That was so good, and now, it’s just kinda miserable.”
I’m like, “Yeah, you know what’s funny is when we had 500 people, everyone was saying, ‘Remember when we had like 50 people, and we could put everyone around a table,’ and like, ‘500 people sucks.'”
At every phase, the company is different. Appreciating where it is now and not constantly looking backwards is an important aspect for…
It’s a fun journey that we’re all on, whatever their company is. Enjoying the now and appreciating where you’ve been and where you’re going and today, rather than constantly looking backwards with some rose‑colored glasses.
I don’t know. It always resonated with me when he said, “These, these are the good old days, like, someday, people will look back, so enjoy it now. Don’t have some perverted backwards view.”
Michael: Thanks for coming to the…
Mike: Thank you. To your show?
Michael: It’s the first and only Mike and Mike show. Thanks for having us.
Mike: Thank you.