On Women In Tech

Editor’s Note: This guest post is written by Matthew Prince, the co-founder & CEO of CloudFlare, the web performance and security company. Today CloudFlare accelerates and protects more than 30 billion page views for more than 450 million unique visitors every month.

Geeklist must never have learned the first rule of holes: When you’re in one, stop digging. I was all the way on the other side of the world at a conference held at a random amusement park in the German countryside and it still seemed like the Geeklist boys had almost dug their way to me. ┬áI first got wind of the┬áincident, which appears to have reignited the women in tech debate, from an Australian who was also attending the conference. “Silicon valley hasn’t changed since I left there years ago,” he said over a beer. “Still a bunch of frat boys running the show.”

Later, over Skype, I asked Michelle Zatlyn, one of my two co-founders at CloudFlare, what she thought of the whole thing. “What happened at Geekwire?” she wrote back, having missed the meme. I told her it was Geeklist, gave her the gory details and said I was surprised she hadn’t heard. “Sorry,” she replied, “busy building a company :).”

Startups and Women

There’s a lot of talk about how to get more women in tech and whether women entrepreneurs are discriminated against by VCs and the rest of the startup ecosystem. That’s not what I want to write about here because 1) I don’t have an easy answer to the former, and 2) in our experience starting CloudFlare I haven’t seen evidence of the latter. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen or isn’t a problem, I just haven’t seen it.

What I wanted to write about instead was what it’s meant having a woman as a colleague, a co-founder, on CloudFlare’s Board, and shoulder-to-shoulder on our executive team making the technical, strategic, and tactical decisions that have allowed us to succeed. Just a year and a half after our public launch, Michelle helps us handle more than 450 million monthly uniques, and power more page views than Amazon.com, Wikipedia, Twitter, Zynga, Aol, Apple and Bing — combined. We handle a billion page views per employee. I don’t know of another company in history that has ever done that.

Frats Preserve Tradition, Startups Disrupt It

Steve Blank, the Half Moon Bay, Calif.-based strategy guru, is often quoted saying that a startup is “a temporary organization designed to search for a repeatable and scalable business model.” I founded my last company with two other guys. We’d all gone to junior high school together. We could finish eachother’s thoughts because, truth be told, we all thought the same.

You’ve never heard of my last company because, suffice it to say, it hasn’t done as well as CloudFlare. In retrospect, it’s not clear why we needed three guys, all of whom thought the same, as we searched for our business model. One of us alone would have done just fine and cut our burn rate by two-thirds. This is proved most clearly by the fact that the company has turned profitable and is doing much better now that two of the three of us stepped down from day-to-day operations. The model of bringing together a bunch of dudes that all look the same and drink the same beer works for fraternities, but fraternities are set up to preserve tradition not disrupt it.

Creating a Sustainable Culture

CloudFlare isn’t run like a frat. Don’t get me wrong, we have our share of fun, shoot Nerf guns at each other, and there is always beer (and wine) on Friday at 5:00pm. But, if you come in to our office, you’ll see people working hard, getting their work done, and going home at a reasonable hour. We don’t try to out-macho each other. It’s not a badge of honor in our office that you slept under your desk last night. And, as a result, we have a relatively healthy workplace, have had no turnover, and have some of the brightest engineers in the world camping in our hallway for a job interview.

Is any of that because Michelle is a woman? Maybe. It could also be that she’s Canadian. I’m secretly hoping this post will stir up the “More Canadians In Tech” meme too. Or maybe it’s that Lee Holloway, my other co-founder, is married with a 3-year-old son who he always makes time for. Part of building a repeatable, scalable business is building a healthy, sustainable culture. And the foundations of a healthy culture are set early with a founding team that includes a diverse set of skills and outlooks.

Diversity for the Win

In my mind, the women in tech discussion should really be framed as a diversity in tech discussion. Not diversity to fill some quota, but diversity because having different people with different experiences and different outlooks helps you build a better product. If your goal is to build a successful startup you don’t want it to be populated exclusively by a bunch of men, nor do you want it populated exclusively by a bunch of women. Neither is healthy or likely to be disruptive.

Our team of 30 at CloudFlare hail from 9 different countries and together we speak at least 12 languages. Women today make up 1 in 10 members of our team. I’m not proud or ashamed of that. We get many fewer women applicants, but I’m hopeful that will change as word spreads that not every startup is run like a frat. We don’t favor women in hiring decisions, nor do we discriminate against them. Find me a woman engineer who can shave a millisecond off each request passed through our network and I’ll hire her. Of course, find me a man who can do the same and I’ll hire him too.

What I believe is important for the long-term is that when he or she starts they’d find a culture that is adult, respectful of people regardless of their gender or background, and has had, from Day One, a woman serving in its most senior ranks. That, to me, is a critical part of the recipe for encouraging more women in tech.

The other day a senior associate at one of the VCs we’re working with pulled me aside. He told me about a portfolio company that was having some operational challenges. “Do you know anyone like Michelle?” he asked. “Because she’s exactly what these guys need.” Hey, it’s a start.