Networking

Hard lessons learned on the executive fast track

They were living the American dream?playing a key part in the establishment of major companies, wielding power, and making big money. So why did they quit? Read the true story of two wildly successful techies who got out of the rat race.


Grant Gordon and Peter Camenzind couldn’t wait to hop onto the corporate fast track. For a while, both men were moving at warp speed, thriving on the relentless adrenaline high of being part of hot technology companies in a fiercely competitive marketplace. Gordon was director of global service operations at San Jose, CA-based pioneer Internet networking company Cisco Systems. Camenzind was project manager at Software.com, an Internet e-mail service company in Santa Barbara, CA. The driven Gordon and Camenzind (coincidentally, each man is 36 years old) played critical roles in putting their companies on the map. But to achieve that end, they sacrificed their social lives and eventually burned out from the inhuman pace.

Perhaps their experiences aren’t anything new, but the lessons they learned along the way are bits of wisdom that we in the industry should all heed. Here are their stories.

Getting in on the ground floor
Gordon and Camenzind were part of their respective company’s original teams. When Camenzind, a software engineer, joined Software.com in 1996, the company employed only 13 people. When he left in the spring of 2000, the company boasted 500 staffers. “We weren’t growing as fast as Netscape, which bolted from a handful of employees to 1,500 in a couple of years, but we were moving fast,” he says. “It was a constant race to get products out the door and grow as fast as we could.” In May 2000, six months after Camenzind left the firm, Software.com was acquired by Phone.com and the name was changed to Open Wave Systems Inc. The new company employs more than 2,000 people.

Prior to joining Software.com, Camenzind was a software engineer at a medical device company. He had a good job and a bright future, but the pace was too slow for him. “It didn’t have that cutting-edge feeling that Sofware.com had,” he says.

Similarly, Cisco employed 1,000 people when Gordon joined in 1993. Now it supports an international workforce exceeding 44,000 employees. But Gordon’s story is a little different from Camenzind’s. Before joining Cisco, he worked for Sun Microsystems from 1986-1993, where he was in charge of product, inventory control, purchasing, and material planning. Back then, Sun was a “rising star” company with 800 employees (compared to its present worldwide workforce of about 39,000). Cisco made him an offer he couldn’t refuse, so he joined its executive team responsible for outsourcing its repair operations. Hardly six months later, he was also running materials planning and logistics repair as well as warehousing operations. “When I started working for Cisco, it had two warehouses; now it has 700 around the world,” says Gordon.

Sweet smell of success
Gordon and Camenzind rocketed up the corporate ladder. Gordon received a promotion every year, moving from senior product manager through seven job titles before leaving the company. Camenzind, who started out as a software engineer, was rapidly promoted to engineering manager, followed by director of quality of assurance, and then to his final position of technical product manager, responsible for managing new product releases and defining technology for future products.

Both men lived similar lifestyles. Their jobs became their lives, and for the better part of their stays with their companies, they thrived on the pace and often worked around the clock. Gordon worked seven days a week, putting in 12-14 hour days. Camenzind tried to take one day off each week but was constantly interrupted by phone calls. His cell phone was a permanent appendage: It never left his pocket and was never turned off. Friday and Saturday nights often included hour-long conference calls to resolve some emergency.

Gordon spent 200 days a year on airplanes, shuttling to more than 35 countries to set up service operations. Even though he had 400 people reporting to him, Gordon ran the show and reported directly to Cisco CEO John Chambers.

It never bothered Gordon to be away for five or six weeks at a time. He can’t remember a time when he wasn’t frantically trying to meet a deadline or complete a project on schedule. Every second counted. Gordon was constantly racing to an imaginary finish line that could never be crossed. “As soon as I landed in a foreign country, I went to work,” says Gordon. “Over the years, that took a toll because my body never had a chance to adjust to the time differences.”

Both men are single and enjoyed little to no social life during that tumultuous period in their lives. “There wasn’t time,” says Gordon. “I couldn’t even have a dog—no less sustain a relationship—because I was hardly at home for more than a few days a time.”

Blood, sweat, and tears
By Camenzind’s fourth year into his job, his frenetic pace took a toll on his health. “I stopped going to the gym and practically lived on junk food,” he says.

“It was a hard lifestyle,” Gordon reflects, “but I loved it. It was an exhilarating experience because I worked for a pioneer company that helped put the Internet on the map.”

Gordon sounds like a recruitment ad for Cisco, but he means it. He worked at a history-making company when corporate loyalty was real. And he made a pile of money, as did everyone else on Cisco’s payroll. “Warehouse employees earning $8 an hour were millionaires,” Gordon says. “That was when Cisco’s stock went up every day.”

Beyond the money, “We all felt we were part of something great with visionary leaders running the company,” Gordon adds. “During Cisco’s first five years, there was virtually no turnover.”

Camenzind felt the same way about his company. “I wanted to work for a company in which I could play a central role in shaping and building the company,” he says. Financial rewards certainly were a part of the attraction, but both men considered them secondary.

But the bubble burst for each man in different ways. For Gordon, things started going downhill when the networking giant found itself competing against a slew of competitors, such as 3Com Corporation, Cabletron Systems, and Nortel Systems. Morale declined as workloads increased to meet accelerated production schedules to combat its slipping market share. By 2000, Cisco stock began its rapid descent from a high of 82 to its present 18. (Cisco recently laid off 8,500 employees.)

As the marketplace changed, the pace at Cisco became even more frenetic. The flame that fueled Cisco’s engine in its heyday no longer burned as intensely. As the pace accelerated, managers and employees began jumping ship to join dot coms (which turned out to be a monumental mistake). If Gordon’s job wasn’t tough enough, the pressure to perform was even more intense. Cisco employees were working harder to take up the slack of those who left.

Gordon had to push himself beyond his limits. “You can keep this pace just so long,” he says. Buried under work and pressure, he was burning out quickly. What was once a passion turned into a job for Gordon—and a grueling one at that. It took him about a year to make the biggest career decision of his life: He had had enough and left Cisco in 1999.

Surprisingly, Camenzind’s company managed to do well, despite a down market. But like Gordon, he was losing steam, and the veteran techie wasn’t surprised either. Gordon thought he was invincible and could keep up the inhuman pace forever. Camenzind, on the other hand, expected to burn out in about four years—coincidentally, just when his stock options vested. “From the onset, I sensed that I wouldn’t be able to keep up the pace indefinitely,” he says. By the beginning of his fourth year, he recognized the symptoms of burnout. “I started getting tired of responsibility, managing people, and the endless hours,” he says. “I stopped being motivated. I’d have piles of things on my desk, and I couldn’t deal with them. Hiring, which I once loved, became a chore. In short, it was hard putting in the hours. I was bored.”

Looking back
Looking back, would Gordon and Camenzind replay the past? Absolutely, they say. And each one came away learning invaluable skills, such as working under intense pressure, hiring and managing people, handling multiple projects simultaneously, coping with mounting responsibility, and pushing yourself beyond your limits.

Yet Camenzind says not everyone is cut out for the fast-track lifestyle. “It starts with having or sharing a vision,” he says, “and pushing yourself to achieve it. In the beginning, you have to deal with a great deal of uncertainty, especially if it’s a start-up. You don’t know what is around the corner.”

Gordon adds commitment to the requirements. “You must be committed to the mission and have the energy and devotion to achieve it.” Both men also cite having a driving motivation. But at the head of the list, you must be passionate about what you do. “It has to be the center of your life,” Gordon adds.

Think you’re up to the task? It’s no crime if you’re not.

For the moment, Gordon and Camenzind are in limbo—temporarily retired, if you will. They’re traveling, soaking up the sun, and doing all the fun things they didn’t have time to do when they were on the fast track. But count on both men not staying idle for long. Gordon said he’s already looking at projects and even considering starting a company of his own. Camenzind is talking about consulting. After all, it’s in their blood.

Taking stock
Where do you stand in your career? Are you fully challenged? Bored? Burning out? Do you have any tips on keeping burnout at bay? Send us your thoughts by e-mail or post a comment below.

 

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