People who meet Marissa Root instantly experience her exceptional ability to inspire and her passion for everything important to her. Based in the Bay Area, she grew a stellar career in software marketing and growing tech communities internationally. In 2016 she became Chief of Staff and Head of Operations at Cloud Foundry, the leading open source cloud applications platform.
We talked to Marissa Root about staying innovative, how collaborations benefit businesses and about being a female leader in the tech industry.
After graduating from acclaimed Scripps College and writing your thesis on visual portrayals of women in the Italian Renaissance, you have chosen a career in technology. Which moments in your past have been encouraging for you to take this path?
From a very early age, I’ve always loved art and history but when I started dipping my toes into those fields during summer internships I discovered those jobs were both hard to find and moved too slow for me. A liberal arts degree focuses on communication, particular the written word – I just didn’t know at the time that I could parlay that into different industries beyond my degree. I initially had a job at a non-profit after graduation but did an informational interview with a family friend working in tech who introduced me to their PR firm. It was the perfect match as it gave me an opportunity to learn about traditional technology marketing plus product and press cycles – while leveraging my ability to communicate in person and on paper. And then over time – I was able to move from PR to Consulting to Marketing to Customer Success and now Operations.
What was the best advise that you ever received in your life – personal or job-related?
My parents instilled in me the need to have compassion and understanding for everyone – regardless of they are an intern or the CEO. Plus I believe in always paying it forward – whether that’s connecting someone to my old company as a favor or just being nice to strangers. You never know how someone might come back to influence you – so taking a few minutes to help them can have a surprising impact on your life down the line.
Back when working at Zendesk you contributed strongly to the success story of the company by building strong ties with online/offline communities as a contributor to their marketing organization. From your experience what are critical challenges in marketing a platform service, and how to respond to them?
First of all – I believe that Zendesk is the exception not the rule when it comes to software companies because the product is exceptionally built, loved by practically everyone who tries it, and the founders saw a traditionally boring industry as an opportunity. If you look at a product and you can’t figure it out – then you certainly shouldn’t be taking on the challenge of marketing it. The API is very intuitive and it’s incredibly easy to start a trial – so removing any barriers to entry for both end users and technical folks is the first step. Understanding your funnel, your target audience, and what they care about is next. I loved listening to customers to better understand their setup or why they did actions in a particular way – and making them feel heard strengthens the relationship between two humans instead of simply someone who is selling to them. Don’t underestimate your community and word of mouth marketing – most of Zendesk’s first customers were startups that just thought they were cool. A great book on platform strategy is The Platform Revolution – it looks at the most successful platforms globally and how they were able to move the needle.
Now that you’re Chief of Staff and run Operations at Cloud Foundry – could you share what it’s like to work in open source and support a diverse member community?
I have to say after selling enterprise software for nearly four and a half years – it’s nice to work at an organization supported by the biggest technology companies because they are passionate about doing what is best for the ecosystem. Having the backing of the Linux Foundation is huge – they’ve been around the block and have experienced similar challenges. We encourage our members to be collaborative with us as well as each other – they contribute engineers as well as membership dues which helps us all work towards the same goals. I think the community behind Cloud Foundry and all the open source projects within Linux is the most inspiring aspect – we can build great things for the betterment of the industry, together. Additionally – with everything going on in the world right now – it’s nice to work at an organization that values inclusion and diversity so fiercely.
As digital marketing, product development, and creative require strong and open collaboration, where do you see are (still) shortcomings when it comes to streamlining processes and communications? And how to address those?
The biggest need is that leadership sees eye to eye and can address issues without getting into political struggle. There has to be a clear vision from the top down of how different teams are expected to work together. If product can’t play nice with sales and marketing – who doesn’t agree with how long creative takes, nothing will get done. If you’re constantly paying an outside agency or acquiring teams vs. building them from scratch, they will never feel a part of the culture and it’s likely they will not do the best work. Understanding each other’s viewpoints is always a good way to start – getting people out of their element via an off-site or a simply happy hour reminds them that while we might have different expertise, we can have fun and appreciate each other.
What makes a great team and how to grow talent?
The willingness to collaborate, people who get shit done, and do it with a smile are my top three categories when hiring. I’m much more likely to choose a humble candidate instead of an overly confident one. In my current role, I have stellar people above and below me – both levels push me to be better, support me when I need it, and acknowledge our collective wins. As a manager you have to recognize your flaws, your own career history, and take a hard look at the person you’re hiring to make sure you get along and can help each other grow. I’m a bit of a perfectionist and I’ve had to temper that – having the emotional intelligence to recognize your own flaws only makes you a better manager.
From your experience, what are four pieces of advice on how a company can stay innovative?
1. Understand your competition – I highly recommend Rita Gunther McGrath’s book, The End of the Competitive Advantage because it opens you up to thinking about your own challenges in a totally different way.
2. Be mindful of doing things “just because everyone else in the Valley is” – there is so much of that here and it often leads nowhere.
3. Hire people who are smarter than you and nurture them – their ideas will push you further as long as you give them the room to grow.
4. Run experiments within reason – set a timeline, test something out and see how it goes. After two to three months it will be very clear if it’s working or not.
Please complete the sentence: Being a female leader in a tech company …
Means knowing your value, nurturing your team, and fighting passionately for what you believe in.
Male entrepreneurs often struggle to promote their female employees into higher management positions. Some feel whatever they would do, women don’t like to take on the opportunity to lead. What do you think could help women in general and in a company environment to become more confident and to take on leadership roles?
Say what you want – but if you are a woman and you have (or want!) a family, you will always have to balance more things in your life than your partner. Full. Stop. In the workplace, I have witnessed a lot of women on women crime and it’s something that hurts me to my core. At certain points in my career, I’ve actually preferred to work with men because they can be straight with me and then we can move on. I’ve also witnessed male leaders be dismissive of women’s opinions or actions so as much as I want to think things are changing, at the end of the day, a powerful woman is (sadly) still scary to some. You really can’t underestimate environment and management expertise – competitive or closed organizations full of politics aren’t places that interest me anymore. It’s taken me a long time, but when I witness something that I don’t think is fair or appropriate, you would be amazed how simply speaking up makes a difference. The key is knowing your value, trusting your gut, and fighting for things you believe in – if you are at a place that isn’t valuing you, it’s time to move on. And asking for what you want – in your personal and professional life – cannot be undervalued.
About the author
Nadine Bruder is the founder of #YesBrandPlease and curator of its newsletter series INTERSECTIONS. Her vision is to empower and to connect a new international breed of brand and business leaders that want to make a sustainable impact in our society.
She is a brand & marketing strategist as well as business innovator helping technology and lifestyle companies in Europe, Asia and in Northern America to grow or transform with forward thinking visions and strategies. Her work as been awarded with several prizes.