An interview with Stefan Valentin
Tell us a bit about why you came to The Predictive Index in the first place. What drew you?
I actually came on board as a referral from PI’s only product manager at the time. I’ve known her for years and she’s the type of person who always goes all-in on things with a passion and subsequently excels at what she does. A recommendation from her saying PI had such a great culture and was an awesome place to work had a lot of weight so I kind of went in blindly thinking “Yeah this’ll prolly work out”.
Beyond being sold on the culture, I was also sold on the opportunity of starting on a very small engineering team. I was looking to have a little more sway in the direction of the engineering organization and getting in at the ground floor was where I wanted to both try my hand at more management, as well as to see the genesis of a growing org.
So I flew out from Austin to interview and see what’s what and was sold on the people and the opportunity.
You’re an interesting guy with a lot of different interests. Some might even describe you as eccentric! Tell us about how you feel like you’ve fit in at PI.
I don’t know that I’m particularly interesting but I *am* a total weirdo. I regularly go in mosh pits at death metal shows, read manga, listen to jazz and Phish on a motorcycle, and make (bad) electronic music. I think I fit in at PI not because a ton of people share my interest in the Katamari Damacy series or whatever but because it’s a culture that values passion.
In a management development meeting we recently talked about “growth mindset” vs “fixed mindset.” It’s the idea that it’s always better to think of things you’re not good at as “I haven’t learned that *yet*” vs. “I *can’t* do that”. It’s about always believing that things can change and that you can grow; nothing is fixed. I think that’s something that’s somehow passively been baked into our culture. I had maybe played three games of ping pong before I came here. But then I came to PI, where people played it regularly. It didn’t matter that the people playing might not be the best, but they damn sure were going to practice until they became the best. Now I can actually play fairly competently because I adopted that same mindset. I fit in because, of all my interests, my chief interest is in learning and getting better at things. I think that’s an interest that everyone here shares.
You actually got passed up for a promotion shortly after coming here. Tell us about that experience.
It was great. I mean, ok, that discrete event was not great—but the outcome was great. I’d say it was a good learning experience. So, context: I came on, like I said before, shooting for more of a leadership/management position. When the first position for lead software engineer opened up, it was between me and another engineer with a bunch more management experience, who’d been busting their ass trying to better organize the team and even starting events like our game night. Getting passed on that first promotion felt like my plans being diverted. At that point I had two choices: tap out or lean in. Thankfully I chose the latter. I just focused all my energy on being as productive and valuable as I could.
Another thing I learned in this process was that having the title of manager and being a leader are two entirely different things. It turns out you can be a leader without having someone say, “You’re in charge.” And in fact, the most effective leadership is done without relying on the “I’m in charge” card. That situation forced me to learn that lesson in practice. I did that by spending extra energy on trying to make the team more cohesive, and making sure my voice was heard when I thought we could be on a better course.
You did end up catching a break and getting promoted. Talk about that.
Yeah, so I was kind of heads down doing my thing, being an individual contributor while still trying to flex some leadership chops where possible. Unexpectedly we did some shuffling around of the teams and a new lead position opened up. It was one of those moments where your manager says “Hey, do you have a minute to chat in my office?” and you’re all like “Oh shit– what’d I do?” But then I go in and my manager asks me “So what do you think about leading a team?”
I guess the takeaway is not how it happened but rather that it happened because of that previous decision I made before to “lean in”. By focusing my energy on being a valuable team player in my current role, while also trying to cover some of the bases of the lead role, I put myself in a good position to transition into the lead role. In fact, there weren’t that many more responsibilities added to my plate that I wasn’t already trying to do as it was.
Do you feel like you have been able to learn about leadership from those around you here at PI?
Absolutely. Among the senior leadership and director level, there are a bunch of people who are really effective and compelling leaders, each one in their own flavor. That’s actually one of the main reasons I’m thankful to be at a company like PI. Not only do I have a bunch of awesome role models to learn from by watching them but they’re also great people who are always open to share their knowledge and coach you if you’re willing to learn. That’s something I’ve tried hard to take advantage of by getting lunch or coffee with them so I can soak up every insight possible.
We’ve heard you describe working at PI like flying at high altitude. Unpack that for us.
It’s an off-the-cuff remark, but I think it holds true. One way to describe our culture is: it’s like operating at a high altitude. It might be really hard to breathe at first but once you acclimate, you’re operating at a higher level. You just know that if you went back to lower altitudes it’d be easy. But why would you leave? Wouldn’t you rather keep the challenge and keep ascending? I think that performance-oriented facet is integral to a good culture. You want to feel like you’re constantly being challenged.
And it’s not to say you’re going it alone. No, it’s a team journey. You’re surrounded by other people that are challenging themselves as well. To extend the analogy even further, when you’re climbing a mountain, you’re challenging yourself, sure. But you’re doing it as a part of a team. Your teammates will help you if you trip but they’ll also hold you accountable. Cause you’re holding their rope as well.
Lots of opportunity for growth. We’re a growing company there’s a ton of voids we need to fill, a lot of things we’re not doing that we could do, and a lot of things we’re doing well that we could do better and better. Find one and conquer it and you’ll be recognized.
Lots of opportunity for learning. We take risks on smart people who want to learn. So if we’re doing something that you want to learn how to do and you can prove that you’re smart and willing to do the work, you can come and do that thing here.
Lots of change. If you need stability or to know definitively what you’re going to be doing next month, this likely won’t be a great fit.
Not a lot of structure. If you’re someone who needs to come into an existing structure, you might have a tough time. If *however* you’re the type to be able to create your own structure where there is none, to make things more efficient, repeatable, sane, or whatever, then absolutely this is a good place to join (see above: opportunity).