During my time in Atlassian’s APM program, the single most memorable training session I attended was a presentation by Joff Redfern, Atlassian’s first-ever Chief Product Officer.
His core thesis: think about your career in terms of ‘waves’ of innovation 🌊
Joff has built a highly impactful career by riding the internet and mobile waves, including:
- Starting the internet group at Fidelity investments in 1995
- Being an early employee of a VC-backed startup in 2000, later acquired by a major bank
- Serving as VP Product at LinkedIn and Yahoo for a combined 12 years
- Founding his own personalised kids gifts startup
Along that journey, his most important piece of career advice comes from his dad, a serial entrepreneur & software engineer at the dawn of the tech industry:
“If you want to be in technology, just stay in front of the wave”
The ‘wave paradigm’ for careers is not something we’re taught to think about by default.
Here are the most important lessons Joff has learned in spotting waves:
Defining a wave
While he was a student, Joff’s dad asked him the following question:
“Technology changes so rapidly, and it’s easy to jump on an elevator going up or down. Which part of the technology market do you want to enter?”
To answer that question, Joff set out reading as much as he could about technology.
One of the most important books he came across was The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn, which talks about the notion of waves in scientific progress.
Joff learned that “In science, there are periods of ‘normal science’ with iterative development, but then periods of ‘revolutionary science’ where a crisis challenges the core thesis and shifts the whole paradigm.”
A classic example that he points to is the Copernican Revolution in the 1500s, whereby “The world went from believing earth was at the centre of the universe, to a heliocentric model, with the Sun at the centre of the solar system.”
That’s not a slow, gradual change towards the truth, but a transformational flip of a core belief that forever changed human society.
So when you think about waves in your career, don’t join a business slightly better than competitors.
Join a business making an uncommon and opinionated bet on a wave. A business that represents a fundamental shift in how society operates.
Successes in spotting waves early
In 1986, the personal computer came out, and Joff’s dad told him it was going to change the world.
That laid an initial foundation for two of the biggest waves Joff would spot in his career:
The Internet Wave 🌐
“The first time I spotted something on my own was in grad school at Cornell. I was working in the computer lab and got exposed to the Internet there.
I thought holy shit, this is going to be huge.
I was approached by the team at Fidelity Investments and decided to help them bridge the gap to the internet,” says Joff of the first big wave he caught.
That first product job at Fidelity’s founding internet group laid the foundation for Joff’s tech career as a product leader at Yahoo, LinkedIn, Atlassian, and several startups.
The Mobile Wave 📱
After his tenure as VP Product at Yahoo, at the time a world-leading internet company, Joff struck his next big wave when joined LinkedIn.
Reflecting on that time, he notes: “The #1 computing paradigm in the world right now is mobile, but prior to the iPhone 2007 launch, mobile was an edgy bet.
I joined LinkedIn as their mobile lead when only 8% of the LinkedIn traffic was mobile.
I said LinkedIn would become a mobile-first company which people laughed at then. 8 years later, 55% of LinkedIn usage was mobile."
Spotting waves early
”It’s hard to spot waves early; much easier to identify a wave once you’re in the early majority stage of the technology adoption life cycle, or the late majority or laggard stage,” says Joff.
Importantly, he points to Geoffrey Moore’s Crossing the Chasm, whereby the early adopters of the product (visionaries & tech enthusiasts) may have very different needs & expectations to the early majority (risk-averse pragmatists who are open to change).
So when innovators and early adopters are playing around with a new trend, how do you know if it’s durable?
There’s no silver-bullet answer. But Joff recommends first-principles thinking.
He notes SpaceX as a prime example: “Elon Musk was looking at commodity pricing of shooting rockets into space, and realised it could be done way cheaper than NASA. The materials are going to get cheaper. Computing power is going to get cheaper."
Once you spot that wave, Joff says you should be prepared for vociferous disagreement: “If it’s not confusing and if people aren’t vehemently arguing against you, it’s probably too late.”
He recounts conversations with early investors in Airbnb: “When he first invested in Airbnb with Greylock Partners, Reid Hoffman told me that strangers would stay on your couch, use your bathroom, live in your home, and use your kitchen .
The Greylock investment team had a mixed response to Reid’s recommendation. He was even told: ‘Every venture capitalist has to have a deal that they can fail on. Airbnb can be yours’,” Joff noted.
Building the courage to disagree
Joff mentions a humbling moment in his thinking around disagreement: “I was reading the book Zero to One by Peter Thiel, and when I read the question: ‘What important truth do very few people agree with you on?’, I couldn’t go past chapter one because I couldn’t answer that question.”
He admits he struggles with the question and notes that seemingly controversial answers like “I don’t believe in god” and “Our educational system is broken” are still fairly common beliefs.
Encountering this question helped Joff realise that there is an emotional toll in pursuing a new wave.
“A lot of new ideas that begin innovative waves are unconventional and contrarian. There’s a hardship in going against the grain of society,” he says.
So how do we build the confidence to bet on a new wave?
Starting within, Joff gives two pieces of advice:
- Be comfortable being misunderstood
- Be comfortable with people that you respect telling your idea is stupid
“Everyone that goes against the grain will have self-doubt and impostor syndrome. But to stay strong in my belief, I remind myself that I have my own points of view, and I haven’t heard evidence that would make me change my mind,” he says.
Beyond self-talk, the other side of building confidence around new waves is finding safety in numbers.
To do this, Joff focuses on:
- Celebrating other independent thinkers creating their own thing
- Finding a handful of other people that also believe in the mission and vision
“Small groups of people working together - Jobs and Wozniak, Bill Gates and Paul Allen - were key to getting the personal computing wave off the ground,” he says.
Lessons from missing waves
The places you learn most are often the places where you fail.
For Joff, his six-year tenure as VP Product at Yahoo from 2003 to 2009 was where he learned his hardest lessons in missing waves.
“When I joined Yahoo, it was the king of the internet. Ultimately, however, Yahoo failed in my view. It went from a ‘Stanford’ to a ‘Cape Cod Community College’. I take full responsibility for not seeing the waves at Yahoo; it was a personal failure,” he recounts.
Yahoo today barely gets a mention in tech & startup buzz, but it’s important to put in perspective the opportunity it once had.
Joff gives some important context: “In the 1990s, the world wide web was really unruly. Yahoo came out with a portal that organised the internet, aggregating areas like news and sports.”
However, he notes that “over time, people realised they didn’t need a portal. To find the things they wanted, they needed a search engine.”
So where did they go wrong? He identifies four key waves that Yahoo missed:
- The Search Wave
- The Social Wave
- The Mobile Wave
- Streaming Wave
When you look at leaders of these waves like Google & Facebook, the remarkable thing is that Yahoo had several opportunities to buy them out at the earlier stages of the waves.
Larry Page and Sergey Brin approached Yahoo to sell Google for $1.5M in 1998, which was knocked back. Four years later, as Google was blowing up, Yahoo came back and offered $3B. Google wanted $5B and Yahoo knocked them back again.
Yahoo had a bid of $1B for Facebook knocked back in 2006, but the Facebook board of directors were willing to accept an offer at $1.1B. Yahoo execs declined.
Joff left Yahoo for LinkedIn with a brutal lesson learned: “Yahoo played in all four waves but took half-measures and didn’t go all-in on one, or go in on any early enough. That’s why they went from 112B to 4.8B”
The next big waves
When I asked Joff about the biggest waves he’d recommend for someone early in their career to ride now, there were three he called out at the early adopter to early majority phase:
- Artificial Intelligence
- Quantum Computing
Should you ride a wave on your own or join others riding a wave?
If you have a strong opinion about a massive wave in the future, there’s a tricky question you face.
Do you start/join an early-stage company to chase that wave or join an established tech company with the resources to execute at scale?
Joff has covered the full gamut of experiences here. He’s:
- Started his own company
- Been the first hire in a startup
- Joined LinkedIn at 450 employees, going all the way to 10,000 employees
- Joined Atlassian at 1500 employees, now also rising to 10,000 employees
“If no company is doing work on the wave you see, go and do it yourself”, Joff says.
But he gives some cautionary advice after having seen both sides: “Startups can be hard. You’re constantly needing to raise money and things often don’t go well. Even successful startups often take 7-8 years to go idea to IPO.”
On the other hand, Joff notes that “big companies have already achieved product/market fit, distribution channels and a certain scale that gives them a higher % chance of impacting the world.”
“I loved the mission of unleashing the power of every team, and Atlassian has 200,000 customers and the distribution to reach a lot more,” he says.
Regardless of what company stage you choose, Joff recommends a core principle for anyone wanting to ride a wave: “Find people you love working with who share your vision”