CTO Jon Zerden of EXOS, a leader in sports training and physical therapy for athletes, talked to TechRepublic about the importance of focus, strategy, and his passion for tech.
Jon Zerden is strategic. You can tell, when he's answering a question, that he's already a few steps ahead. He quietly thinks of an answer, trying to understand its reach and ripple effects. Though he's worked in a variety of different industries — publishing, professional wrestling, internet building, and now athletic performance, a passion for technology and how it affects our world has united them all. Zerden is, at heart, a programmer.
"Back in the day, literally in elementary school, I became fascinated with computers and how they talked to each other," said Zerden, the CTO of EXOS, a sports performance company that integrates nutrition, physical therapy, and sports training for athletes of any stature as well as other industry professionals.
A few years after Zerden's first encounter with a computer, his father had a friend who needed help fixing his computer and volunteered Zerden to do the job. He became passionate about the communication between computers and other electronic and mobile devices, and decided at an early age to build a career out of it.
Currently, Zerden is responsible for all technology and systems that support both the online content and training presence for EXOS, as well as all of the in-facility infrastructure for the company. He's been with EXOS for seven years, although the company was called Athletes Performance until January 2014. EXOS sets up wellness programs through corporations, digital fitness products, in-store movement evaluation stations, and both digital and physical gym memberships and workouts. The company has facilities in Phoenix, Arizona, Carson, California, San Diego, California, Gulf Breeze, Florida, Raleigh, North Carolina, and Frisco, Texas, and they also support various professional teams around the world.
"We traditionally train Olympic, professional, and elite athletes. There are four pillars: mindset, nutrition, movement, and recovery," he said. "The idea is that we integrate those solutions for the outcome and performance for athletes."
Zerden's aptitude for strategy has led him in many directions, but a project he's currently working is his favorite thing he's worked on in his career. It involves the military — where a reliable strategy is the most important aspect of the job. He couldn't discuss the details, but EXOS has added several new services and software programs over the years in which he has worked on tailoring therapy and training programs to the military. Some of the aspects include professional evaluations, tactical operations, and the integration of family members into the training and recovery via software programs and internet platforms, which has become an important aspect for him. EXOS will train military personnel in the field and at base stations around the US, and help them recover if they return home with physical injuries or emotional trauma like PTSD.
"We have a complex vision...[we are] upgrading lives. Add the altruistic piece in, it was a no brainer," he said.
Before joining EXOS, Zerden was vice president of global media for World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), where he handled the mobile and internet initiatives. He ran the tech side, he said, of everything that wasn't part of the live shows. He wasn't much of a wrestling buff himself, but he often caught it on Monday nights when he flipped the television on, and said he always appreciated how dedicated the fans were to the sport.
His work life before WWE didn't have much to do with sports. He worked for Publisher's Clearing House in a variety of different technology roles, as well as AOL, where he helped build Motley Fool, and Triad Communications prior to that.
Zerden mentioned again how it has always come back to the technology for him. He has been able to excel in the all of these positions, no matter how varying they were, because he kept his passion for each job strong. His best advice for that, he said, is to truly focus on one task at a time.
"Turn off the phone and email. It's a personal process, but get out of the office, go wherever to focus and execute," he said. "Build a framework for how you're going to solve the problem before you are going to solve it, and then extract it for a broader problem. Solve it again and again in a different structure."
In his own words...
What do you look for when hiring someone?
"Skill is obviously important but not the only thing. You can be the best artist but if you can't get along with people, it only goes so far. Have a desire to learn, don't come in as an expert, but feel comfortable, embrace that, and take ownership. And passion. If you're not passionate, you won't be as efficient or as great as we would hope."
What's your favorite tech tool?
"I try them all, naturally, and very few actually have long term stickiness. Today I happen to use tablets, now I have [an iPad] mini. I'm platform agnostic. I use Android, Mac, PCs...I want to try everything so I know the standards [if I] want to integrate it."
What music do you like?
"I grew up in Baltimore, so heavy metal was popular during that time. My dog's name is Axel. I tried to name my daughter Slash but my wife wasn't going for that."
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