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People – Why we are Here, How we are Going to Succeed

Frederic Kerrest

Building Okta over the last 18 months has proven to be an exciting ride.  When people ask Todd and me "what has surprised you most", Todd being the wiser one often answers something very simple, profound and true like "everything takes longer than you think."  I often tend to offer something more pedestrian (and less profound, but equally true) like "building a company isn't as easy as it sounds".

As COO at Okta, my job consists of many things: working with our customers, making sure we pay our bills, interviewing candidates, writing web content, taking out the trash, etc.  But when I was thinking through the list in preparation for an all hands meeting the thing that really surprised me was that I actually spend the most time, day-in day-out, on people.

That time really breaks down to two kinds of people.  I work closely with my customers, to understand how Okta is working for them, what they need next in the product, and hopefully what is making them successful with Okta.  I also spend a lot of my time focused on the employees that I work with or the candidates we are trying to recruit.  Are they happy, do they have a good work environment, would they be a good cultural fit for our organization, do they like coming to work, how can we get them a pre-tax commuter package without bankrupting the company, etc - and trying to find more great people to join our team.

At an all hands meeting last week I shared this insight on people with the team, and I saw some surprised faces in the crowd.  What caught the group's attention I think was not the piece about the customers.  Everyone at Okta is very focused on customers because transparency and honesty with customers is a fundamental tenet of our business philosophy..

What surprised some of my teammates when I spoke about my focus on people were my comments about employees and candidates.  Todd and I started Okta because we sensed a great pain developing inside forward-thinking companies -- they needed help building the next generation of IT.  Todd in particular saw a great opportunity to build an important company in the industry to help IT manage and secure and control this new hybrid on-premise / on-demand IT infrastructure.  But we also started Okta to have a positive impact in our community and the economy, to create jobs and a work environment that smart, talented, motivated, fun-loving people wanted to work in.  We've made decisions from Day 1 that were very important to our philosophy: open conversations and direct dialogue, but also very tactical decisions such as "every employee at Okta can have great medical, dental and vision insurance for $2 / month -- we'll pick up the rest."

This company culture is very important when we interview candidates, and more than one great candidate has passed the programming exam and theoretical computer science quiz with flying colors only to get turned down when a couple team members offered a "I'm only so-so on the personality fit."

We went to a SF Giants game as a company last month (one of the many advantages of our brand new downtown San Francisco office, just blocks from the ballpark!) and I was surprised to find that every Okta team member showed up, and most brought spouses and children too.  In fact, we even had a couple of folks that haven’t officially joined Okta yet turn out.  It’s exciting and truly special that we have built a team with such strong bonds that everyone not only relishes spending free time together, but also wants to share and meet each other’s families.  Many teams pay lip service to “building a family” but its powerful and inspiring to watch and be a part of it actually happening.

So I've got a new answer when people ask me "what has surprised you most."  What has surprised me so far in building Okta is how vitally important people are to building a company and to making customers successful, and how key it is to attract the right first ten-twenty-thirty teammates.  (We're hiring!)  But more fundamentally what has surprised me the most is how critical friendly, smart, intelligent, passionate, considerate people are to building a true team and to bringing to life a set of values that make my "work" such a great place to spend my time.