Season 2 · Episode 9
Opinions are Inside, Facts are Outside: Listening to the Customer with Verizon's SVP of Platforms & Infrastructure
Greg Sly, SVP of Platforms and Infrastructure at Verizon, has nearly three decades of experience driving innovation and operational efficiencies for organizations. In this episode, he talks about maintaining employee morale during times of change, delivering an experience the customer wants and learning how to listen to others. Greg also shares what he's currently reading and which three people he'd invite to a dinner party.
Narrator: Inspired Execution is a podcast featuring tech leaders from some of the world's largest enterprises and fastest growing startups. Hosted by DataStax Chairman and CEO, Chet Kapoor, each episode follows a leader's journey to scaling a massive business while inspiring their teams. Join us to learn about the experiences that have shaped them, challenges they've overcome and the advice they'd give to their younger selves.
Narrator: Greg Sly, SVP of Platforms and Infrastructure at Verizon, is a seasoned technology leader with nearly three decades of experience driving innovation and operational efficiencies for organizations. He's been a part of Yahoo's evolution–from the early days at Overture to its acquisition by Verizon in 2017. Today, Greg talks about maintaining employee morale during times of change, delivering an experience the customer wants and learning how to listen to others. You'll also find out what he's currently reading and which three people he'd invite to a dinner party.
Chet: Hey, Greg. Welcome to the podcast.
Greg: Thanks, Chet. Really happy to be here.
Chet: So, you've been at Verizon for two years, and before that at Yahoo. You've led product, engineering, and data teams. Tell us a little bit about your journey.
Greg: Sure. It started about 2002 with Overture, who was bought by Yahoo and was there until around 2013 or so. Then, I went over to Intuit for about three years, and have been back at Yahoo ever since. And then we got bought by Verizon a couple of years ago. So it's been a long journey from the early days of the internet coming through. Like you said, I've held a lot of different roles– everything from the NOC manager to leading development teams to engineering teams. It's been an interesting course. Certainly wasn't one I plotted in college, but it's been an interesting journey.
Chet: What's been the biggest challenge through all these different gigs you did?
Greg: There's two that kind of stick out in my mind. Both deal with morale. One was the late 2000s when Google came on the scene. And before that, Yahoo, we were the 800-pound gorilla search engine. Then Google came along and kind of dominated in that space.
Greg: We kind of had to struggle a little bit for a while on redefining what we were as a company and what our team was doing because, being part of the team that invented paid search at Overture, it was near and dear to our hearts. Being a search engine, and then suddenly being second place in that space was a bit of a morale blow, and we kind of had to deal through that.
Greg: And then, honestly, when Yahoo was purchased by Verizon. We had a bit of an identity crisis there too with the team because we'd been Yahoo, we'd been this iconic brand for so long and now we're part of a large telecommunications company. But it was interesting. Verizon was going through a transformation, too, to be an engineering company. Both of those points of time were different, but the same in that it was kind of dealing with keeping the team focused. We were focusing on morale, trying to lead them through how we're going to get back on track with some of this stuff and maintain our identity as an internet company.
Chet: That must've been hard, right?
Greg: It was an ego blow for sure. It was an ego blow.
Chet: Yeah. Top of the game. Google comes in. 2004, it goes public. And then Yahoo gets settled into telco. I'm sure there are a lot of engineers that went through like, "Oh my God, what is happening to all the hard work we did?"
Greg: Yeah. And I guess the problem was, or the challenge was, it was unclear what our destiny was going to be in that everyone assumed the glass was half empty. So, rather than coming out of some of this with redefining ourselves, both when Google showed on the horizon and when Verizon showed up, immediately everybody went, "We're going to lose our identity. We're not going to be who we are."
Greg: And it turned out well, of course. Leadership was smart enough to kind of go, "We want to invest in those assets that we've bought, but also we want to keep those brands that are iconic out there." I think for me personally, where we could have done a better job was reinforcing the trust or the demonstration of what we'd seen in leadership up to then. They're not going to throw away an asset this large and that's not going to suddenly be rebranded as something new.
Greg: Have a little bit of faith in the leadership. There's some smart people in the room that are figuring out where we're going with this, and have some trust in it. I think that was a learning point both times for me: trust that there's a plan here and be part of the plan. Just don't sit back and wait for somebody to tell you what to do, but continue on the journey that we were on and just be part of the solution. And don't sit back waiting for someone else to tell you what to do.
Chet: That's a great way to look at it, and something that I think you, all the folks you coached, everybody will take away from that, from both of those events– Google, as well as Verizon. The very first line on your LinkedIn bio section says, "It's about protecting the customer experience." We talk a lot about obsessing over enterprises and users. What does obsessing over users mean to you?
Greg: Well, I think that's really what it's all about. I'm sure there's a percentage of it there of being innovative, inventing new and interesting things, but that's really all in service to the customer experience or being obsessed about the customer experience. That could be anything from how to reduce the number of clicks it takes to do something, what's the latency. One of the things we had years ago was our landing page was getting slow because we just overloaded it with too many things.
Greg: So how do you make that a fast, clean experience? How do you service customers giving them what they need rather than what you think they need? And that was some turning points in our journey as well, of listening more to our customers. That's one of the things when I was at Intuit that Brad Smith is really well-known for. You meet with your customers on a regular basis. In fact, he used to have us go down every quarter and sit in the call center and listen to customer inquiries coming in and customer complaints coming in to see what we could do.
Greg: It's all about not what your engineering teams think your customers need, but more about what we're hearing from our customers on what the customers need. And that's both internal as your employees–my primary responsibility is the internal experience for Verizon–but also the external experience on the web, our CDN, latency. And with so much going on now with what we're doing on our phones and tablets, the biggest area for me has been focusing on how do we provide a network and latency that's reliable, dependable, and fast. Because the days of waiting for things to load when we're on dial-up modems, that's the thing of the past anymore.
Chet: It's really interesting. I want to talk about data centers in a second, Greg, but one of the things I talk a lot about is: "Opinions are inside the building and facts are outside." Basically, obsessing about users is not getting our point of view on what they want, but getting their point of view on what they want. And that's exactly what you just said. I think that's super insightful. And it's interesting that a lot of people forget the simple fact of you may have a point of view or an opinion, but make sure that you validate and get the facts from people who are going to use it. Because you can try to walk in their shoes, but you need to talk to them as well.
Greg: Agree completely. And it sounds simple, but it's a little harder to do. And then the other trap you can fall into is always going back to the exact same people to ask them for their opinion all the time. And we found that you continually have to change your customers that you're speaking to.
Greg: Sure you have your large ones that you know are very important to the company. But we found if you continually change the makeup, the diversity and who you're talking to, you'll find themes, but you won't always get the: "Oh great. You fixed the three things I cared about." And then suddenly you're sitting on your laurels thinking that we've solved all the problems. That was another lesson we learned, as well, is to continually change your data input points to get different opinions and different outlooks.
Chet: A lot of folks who use apps today think that it's about the app, as they should, because that's the tip of the arrow. But behind that is the CDN, the data centers, all the infrastructure that loads pages faster, that just makes everything go really, really well. You've built some of the most efficient data centers in the industry. How did you achieve this? What was your approach?
Greg: Well, I can't take too much credit here, other than maybe listening. But there was a brilliant woman engineer we had, Christina Page, who came up with the whole idea of building data centers without chillers or without air conditioning in them. She studied how anthills are built in the desert ,and cooling, and she looked at chicken coops. We affectionately call them the Yahoo! chicken coops now. What they did was in order to build greener, carbon-friendly data centers. The long-and-short of it is we basically took the servers, turned them around the other way, and had the air blowing into a hot center that goes up through the top.
Greg: And if you've ever seen a chicken coop, it has a cupola at the top, and we just circulate air through that. We run our data centers at 80, 85 degrees, as opposed to the traditional, which is in the 60s somewhere with all these chillers. It's reduced the cost of operating data centers by about 75% by not having to run chillers and stuff. Even in the hottest days in the summer, we have water that runs along the outside of the walls and goes through these fiber cells. And then if we need to, we can turn on some fans and blow cooler air on it.
Greg: But there's usually only a very small number of weeks in the year that we actually have to do that. It was really this amazing woman, Christina Page, who came up with an idea, wouldn't say no, went to Laurie Mann and David Filo at the time, and a few others. We went with her, and she had this idea. And just through sheer will and determination, she made people listen. And then once we started to listen, we started to learn, and we built these revolutionary, very innovative data centers that are being now copied by several other companies around the world.
Greg: It really just boiled down to: be open to where ideas come from and just listen to people who have really off-the-wall ideas. Because back then, saying we're going to build a data center and we're going to build it with no chillers was just like, "It'll never work. There's one way to build a data center and you do it this way. We've been doing it that way since the fifties. Just keep going." I think that's applied across everything, and you know how our application developments happened, how our innovations happened. Starting to listen to sources that you maybe had discounted because they weren't the leadership, and now listening from the ground up has really started to change things.
Chet: For sure. One of the things that you would agree with is innovation happens everywhere. Your inspiration for the innovation doesn't have to come from just computer science. You've talked about the data center stuff. It can come from many different things that you encounter in life. That's the thing that I find really interesting as technology has become mainstream in our lives. The inspiration for innovating our world comes from all these different places and it doesn't have to just be user innovation. Because at the end of the day, a data center innovation actually shows up in the user's world.
Greg: Absolutely. I think to what you're saying, Chet, it even expands outside of this space. One of the things I've tried to advocate in my team is, feel free to steal someone else's idea, but absolutely give them credit for it. Everything doesn't have to be built here or invented here. If you see someone else has got a great idea, acknowledge the idea, but maybe you can iterate on it, as well. It doesn't always have to be some brand new thing that you've just thought up. But I think we've all heard inspirational speakers out there. We've met people that have come up with innovative ideas and to go, "Wow, I wish we would've thought of that first." And it's like, well, when a certain person wanted to put a thousand songs in our pocket, no one had that thought of that before, but look where it's gone since with what Jobs started.
Chet: When you and I have spoken about leadership, I can reflect back to our first conversation when we were both having a blast talking about our past and our experiences and how we approach leadership. You are very keen on talking about leadership being a successful blend of analytic rigor and human empathy. Tell us a little bit more about that.
Greg: To be honest, I think it's in the second half of my career that I've learned more about empathy, and that's still a journey I'm on. I think the needle changes a little bit as you kind of go through manager, senior manager to director, VP, SVP. At one point you're much more driven on the analytics– OKRs and SLAs or whatever you've got. But also as it comes up, you're looking at your budgets, you're looking at all of the data endpoints you get about pulse surveys, or data you're getting from your customers or from your end users. And then how do you layer that on with what is your employees' experience? What is your customer's experience? It can't be all in chase of just driving the last 10 cents or the last penny out of everything we do.
Greg: It's got to be a work-life balance there. But there's also got to be what's right for our customers. But I think mostly–and the pandemic's taught us this quite a bit, or at least me personally–we moved a lot in this last year around listening to our employees and listening to our customers more about what they really want. We still leveraged a bit on engineers being influential in what our designs were, but as far as leading with employees now, it's really been getting to know them more. I've had to switch now.
Greg: We can't fly around the country as much and do town halls, but I'm doing 8, 10, 12 skip-levels per week, and getting to know people and getting to know what they're going through and how work is affecting them and stuff. It has been really interesting to see how we've adjusted, how we manage work through our agile processes, how we interact with each other has changed. I think for me personally, over the last 10 years probably, the human empathy part has got to be a greater piece of it than it was in the past. But it is a balance between providing value for our shareholders, but also providing feedback or providing value for society. But also balancing it with, these are real people that we're working with, and the things we do affect their lives. It's a constant adjustment, but it's been a really interesting journey for sure.
Chet: Especially, as you said, over the last year. Greg, have you found that over-rotating on either is problematic? If you over-rotate on empathy and you don't have an analytical approach. Or if you do too much data-driven stuff and don't have empathy. Do you find that over rotating on either one of them is not the right thing to do, you really do have to get a balance?
Greg: Yes. Absolutely. I find if I go too data-driven, I've seen from my own experiences, you end up driving the team almost too hard because you're so focused on delivery dates. And yes, we have commitments and you have delivery dates, but you can get into, "Everybody needs to work an 80 hour week to try to get the work done." On the other side, you can kind of go, "Do whatever you want. We want everybody to be happy at work." You can't get things moving. People don't show up to meetings because they have something else that they want to do or need to do. So I find if I went either way, you either started to alienate the team by just becoming a task master, by just doing everything through analytics, metrics. And then if I swung the pendulum too far the other way, things were just not getting delivered on time or with quality because we were not trying to inconvenience anybody.
Greg: There is a fine balance there of getting shareholder value, what the company needs to get done, but also everyone having some work-life balance. I've had years where I was doing 80, 100 hour weeks for two, three years at a time. You realize that was not the way to go either. I think it's constantly adjusting depending on the circumstances. Obviously with the pandemic that's been going on, we've been leveraging a little bit more on the human empathy side of things. It'll be interesting to see, as we're starting to see some light at the end of the tunnel, how that pendulum adjusts in the next year to continue to focus on what we need to deliver, but also how do we operate completely differently than we ever have before.
Chet: I'm going to ask you four questions. These are rapid fire, quick response questions. Let's get started. What new technology are you most excited about?
Greg: Well, I think I'd have to say 5G being at Verizon. But there's just so many things that's opened up now on the medical side and sports side. And it's going to be really interesting, 5G, what we can do with it.
Chet: What are you reading or listening to right now?
Greg: Personally, for fun, there's a book series by John Conroe that I'm listening to as well. But on the work side, it's Nonviolent Communication, Marshall Rosenberg's book.
Chet: If you have a dinner party with only three other people, who's on your invite list?
Greg: Only three is difficult to do. But I think Elon Musk is one, just because he is such an interesting, disrupting character. Ruth Bader Ginsburg is just an iconic person in our history. And Amina Mohammed, who's the current Deputy Secretary General of the United Nations. I would love to spend some more time with her. She's an amazing, amazing person. I got to listen to her speak at one of the United Nation dinners that Hans Vestberg took a few of us to. You really walk away from it going like, “I don't do enough for the world.” She sets the bar so high you walk out with your head hung like, “I could do so much better than I do today.” My other three dinner party guests would be three of my daughters that I haven't gotten to see much in the last year or so. That's the other dinner party.
Chet: For sure. By the way, that goes without saying. Those are the best. What's one word or phrase that defines a good leader?
Greg: Inspirational. And by inspirational, I mean they could be a great listener, they could inspire great trust, or they could just inspire you. Like we just talked about Amina, she's one who just inspires you to be a better person. I think inspirational and the many dimensions that that covers.
Chet: Who inspires you and what inspires you?
Greg: Right now as for leadership, it's Brad Smith, who's the Chairman of Intuit, and Hans Vestberg. I know that sounds a little bit like he's the boss, and I'm just stating that. But I've actually spent a little bit of time with Hans, and the work he does with the UN, and how he's responded to the many social issues over the last year– I think he's probably one of the best leaders that's out there right now of how he's led the company through this, but also wears his heart on his sleeve. He is such an authentic person. He can lead a 150,000 person company, but do it with a lot of humanity. It's amazing to see and watch.
Chet: And what inspires you?
Greg: It's the millennial generation right now. We're actually starting to see some change in how people treat each other, how we interact with each other as a society. It's really starting to see some of these movements maybe actually affecting change. Growing up here in the 60s and 70s, we saw some change and some revolution back then. It seemed to have gotten quieter in the 80s and 90s. But it seems like the new generation is going to move us forward to do better by the planet, do better to ourselves. It's really inspirational to see what the youth are doing right now.
Chet: Totally agree. They have a point-of-view and it's deeply thought-through and they're sticking to it. That's the interesting part. Just watching them do what they do, and it is super inspirational to see the new generation doing all these great things.
Greg: I'm hoping it's going to be a better place for my kids. I have three biological daughters and three daughters that we've absorbed into our family. Just hoping that for these six girls, life's better for them going forward. And my son.
Chet: Great. So what advice would you give a younger version of yourself?
Greg: Well, beyond, “Buy Apple stock when it comes out.” That would have been nice to do. But I think it would have been to listen. To be honest, when I started my management career, I thought I knew everything. I took a few classes, read a few books here and there, but didn't really spend the time learning about myself. But I was a little bit of one of those managers that said “I'll tell you what to do.” I was a little too commanding control. I wasn't quite the smartest person in the room because we had some really, really smart people inventing technology. But I felt I was the smartest manager in the room and led a little bit with, “I'll tell you what to do. You don't tell me what to do.” It didn't take me long to get disabused of that, but it would have been nicer to learn to stop talking and listen to the people in the room much earlier in my career. I think it would have served me well.
Chet: Very sound advice. I think all of us could use it, not just a younger version of yourself. Greg, this has been awesome. Thank you very much for your time. Really appreciate it.
Greg: I appreciate it, Chet. Look forward to when we can get together in person and have some dinner and catch up some more.
Chet: All right, thank you.
Narrator: If there's one thing we take away from today's episode, it's that listening is at the core of successful leadership. To keep your team motivated, you have to balance analytic rigor with human empathy. To deliver the best customer experience, you have to listen to what your customers need. And to find innovative solutions, you have to welcome new ideas, no matter how extraordinary they seem.
Narrator: Thank you so much for tuning in to today's episode of the Inspired Execution podcast, hosted by Chairman and CEO of DataStax, Chet Kapoor. We have many more guests and amazing stories to come, so stay tuned. If you haven't already done so, subscribe to the series to be notified when a new episode is released. And for Apple Podcast listeners, please rate and review the show to help give it a wider reach to listeners such as yourself. And feel free to drop us any questions or feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.