A Conversation with Matt Madden and Kevin O'Dell

Life at a startup isn’t like a typical 9-5. Sometimes we’re working until 7 p.m. to meet a deadline, and other times we leave early to meet our CEO for coffee and conversation about our personal and professional goals.

At Stratifyd, regardless of what’s going on in the office, we strive to promote a flexible work-life balance. Many of our team members are bright, young professionals just starting their careers (would we be a startup if we didn’t have millennials?), but we also have many individuals who are just starting their parenting journeys.

With Father's Day right around the corner, Our CTO, Kevin O’Dell, and Solutions Engineer, Matt Madden, sat down to chat about life at a tech startup and their forays in fatherhood.

Matt Madden: Kevin, you want to dive in? What do you think it's like working in a startup environment as a dad?

Kevin O’Dell: Startups are fun, but startups are less fun when you have kids and the older you become. We were talking about this earlier a little bit, right?

So why don't we have more people from Fortune 500 enterprises banging down our doors? It's because having a startup is very similar to having a kid – at least in my opinion. It's another thing that I have to constantly watch. It's not a person like a small child, but you still get to watch it grow. You still get to watch it make some of its own decisions, right or wrong. You hopefully get to influence them more right than wrong, but you can't control everything. It's not a traditional 9-5.

So, that's my take on it.

MM: Yeah, well, this is my first startup, and the experience that I'm bringing into it is weighed against more of a traditional corporate job leading up to Stratifyd. I've had more opportunities here than any experience I've ever had in my life and being able to dive in is just part of the journey.

I like that each week is different. There's lots of different projects I've been able to get involved with, from speech analysis capabilities to helping with some existing customers. There’s a lot of great opportunities on the horizon, but being a dad is what drives me to work as hard as I can. Thankfully my wife, Emily, has been able to be home with Hudson. It helps to give little more flexibility schedule-wise.

KO: How do you think you balance working here and being a dad?

MM: I mean, I think that's the first thing that comes to mind is what's a typical work week look like versus a startup environment? Here, we have a little bit of flexibility when it comes to our schedules. Some of my team members like to come in later in the day and work later into the night. I prefer to come in earlier and leave earlier. But it really varies because sometimes I'm here from 7:30-5, and other times it’s 9-6.

Working here has pushed me to think about the importance of communication as a dad, and it’s forced me to be little better about asking Emily, “What's this week looking like?”

What about you, Kevin? What’s your work-life balance like?

KO: I'm not entirely sure there is healthy work-life balance in the startup world, to be honest. Once you have kids, your whole family dynamic changes, and devoting 60 hours to work each week isn’t possible. I travel a lot for work, but I try to make sure my girls get what they need from me, and that I don’t stress my wife out even more than usual.

KO: Do you think that having a kid changed the way that you interact with our coworkers?

MM: I think so, yeah, because it really opens up in a conversation and you quickly figure out who has kids, and who doesn't in an office. This is the first environment where I think it's less structured to where I'm able to interact with so many people from different departments, and that’s great. You can bond a little more with people that are going through what I'm going through where the kids are at in their development.

You said earlier, Kevin, that before you had kids, you and your wife had more downtime and would go out with friends or coworkers. It's kind of the same thing where now I maybe won't be as involved with post-work activities like that. Like when the office participates in rec league sports, that becomes a little harder now because of family obligations, as awesome as that would be.

KO: Yeah, it runs, I think, a little differently for me on that side. But you nailed it on the head. I can't play in the dodgeball league or the bowling league, because that's time that I want to give to my children.

I have two girls: a 4-year-old and an 18-month-old. And when I start to think about how I want to interact with our coworkers – and this is little more specific to me, being on the leadership side of the company – I think, "What's the culture that you want to put forth and leave behind?” Because the culture that we build here is crucial for our younger team members because they’re going to be the future leaders one day. They're going to potentially be who my girls work for.

I think about the values that I want them to have, the core work ethic that I want them to see, how I want them to think about situation-handling, how I want to handle diversity, and what causes I want to specifically promote.

It's a really big dynamic where in the back of my mind, it's like, how would I want my girls to grow up in this type of environment? Is this where I want them working? And, if it's not, what do I need to do to try to help change it to a place that I would be comfortable having them at?

For example, myself with two girls, I really want to be involved with women in code and STEM and all the initiatives that drive women and help bring them up in the science community that's been primarily male-dominated. With that said, if they don't want to be engineers, I'd never push them into something they don't want to do, but I’ll push them to do something practical, as I was taught by my parents as well.

MM: Yeah, that makes sense. I do think about interactions with the younger demographic. That's when I think about what drives me to want to grow and maybe gain more technical skills in my role, thinking about the value of where we're heading in the future, because I think about the value of being able to better communicate that down to my son or, if we have other children, them as well.

Plus, we kind of see where the ball's going a little bit in certain areas. Especially how AI’s starting to impact many different paths, which is in our everyday lives outside what we specifically do at Stratifyd. We think about the impacts and start to incorporate that into our parenting styles.

My younger brother was here visiting me this week. He’s in high school about to go into his sophomore year, and I'm like, kind of wearing the hat of, “Hey man I really want to encourage you to maybe start looking at programming a little more, or build technical skill sets, because you're just at such a prime time where you could do that.”

But it's a fine line because you want to be able to communicate those opinions to your kids without forcing them, telling them this is what you should do. And I think about when I reflect on my parents and my dad and his stance on encouraging me to do something, or what direction would be good for my future, that was part of it. He’s a creative person, I mean, professional artist. He always encouraged me to do some creative role, but wasn't going to force that upon me, and so I do think that does kind of ripple into what I do at work.

I've been lucky to guide some of the newer BAs on our team, and just try to hopefully share some information that I found helpful. It's, like, still that balance between you don't want to tell them, “This is exactly what you need to do,” because I don't know if that's right, but here's what I found helpful. But it does kind of stem back to some of the things I'm trying to teach Hudson now, and some of it's, like, this is how you do it versus you letting them explore, too.

KO: “Here's how you could do it, but feel free to do what you want.” My wife and I have that discussion all the time where I'm like, “Yeah go for it.” My wife thinks they’re going to get hurt, and I'm like, “That's probably not high enough,” or “That's probably not dangerous enough to hurt her, but she may figure out that's the wrong way to do something.”

One of the things I've really learned from parenting that I've brought to the office is a little less micro-managing and hands-on, and a little more, just like, giving a task and letting people do it.

With my oldest, we're learning how to clean up our room. Before I'd sit there and help her clean it up each time, and now it's like, “Alright, go clean it up,” and I'll come back behind her and say, like, “Oh here's what you missed,” “This needs to go in here,” or “Don't forget to pick these up.”

And not to say I treat my team like my children, but in the same sense, like, “Hey, here's a task, go do your best at it and let's meet at the end of the week to go back over where I think the output needs to be.”

How do I let them be more independent, because that's what I want my children to be. I want people in the office to learn and grow, and more importantly, make mistakes so that they learn that mistakes are okay, that you're not going to get fired for making a mistake, just don't keep making the same mistake because then, it's negligence.

MM: What if you make bunch of different mistakes?

KO: Different mistakes are great. You want to make a ton of different mistakes, go for it. Just don't make them again.

Learn from that. But in the parenting world with little ones, you have to learn patience. They’ll continue to make the same mistake over and over again because they're just not wired for that yet.

MM: Yeah, that is so true.

Okay, I have a question. You’re further along in number of kids right now. And you've also been at multiple tech startups at this point, so you’re far wiser on both fronts and just wondering –

KO: Oh, I don't know about all that.

MM: For somebody that's maybe a younger dad or younger in their professional journey, what advice would you give to them that you’ve learned as you think about continuing to progress, and whether they're a dad at Stratifyd, or another tech company at a similar stage, just any advice?

KO: If you're working for a company that doesn't practice what they preach from a family-first mentality, you're in the wrong place.

You can make a ton of money over your career; you can’t make time. Whenever you have the time, whenever you need the time, do what you need to do.

If you've been on a heavy travel schedule or have been traveling for four days straight, and if your work's not cool with you doing a half day so that you can spend some time with your family, or help your wife out with the kids, you're probably in the wrong place.

Look at the company culture. What are they doing? Again, are they practicing what they're preaching? Are they building up the next generation? Are they trying to help make things better than they found it? Again, if they're not, is that the legacy you want to leave for your children? Because that's how you are going to change the world.

I'm not going change the world – you might, Matt – but my hope of changing the world is through my children. And the only way I'm going to do that is by enabling them to do that. And you can't enable them to do that if you're never home, or if you compromise your values at every point, if you leave a giant mar on the Earth from working for a company that cuts down the rainforest. That's not a place that I want to be at.

Make sure that it aligns with your values and that you're in a family-first organization, otherwise you're going to find that you spend a lot of time helping make some other people very, very rich, and not a lot of time enriching your family.

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