Amazing Across the Board: Cristina Cordova in Kick Ass Interview #3
You guys are in for a treat. Kick Ass Interviews have returned (see one and two) and they’re starting off with a bang. We’re joined by Cristina Cordova – a rising star in the tech world and an all around awesome gal. She shares some great stuff with us including:
- How she ended up becoming VP of Business Development at a super hot startup
- Her 3 key instructions for people interviewing at startups
- The pen-and-paper productivity hack she uses that’s “better than any app”
- The 4 lessons she’s learned on kicking ass
- And why she thinks Facebook is “skirting its ethical responsibilities”
You work as the VP of Biz Dev at Alphonso Labs, which makes Pulse, an iPad app that made a big splash last year and even got Steve Jobs calling it “a wonderful RSS reader”. How did you get the opportunity to work in this role? What is your work like day to day?
I was in my last year at Stanford and working for Tapulous (makers of the Tap Tap Revenge iPhone game) in May of 2010. I was just about to finish my work there and relax until I started full-time at Google after graduation. My TA from my computer science class (Akshay Kothari, co-founder /CEO for Pulse) asked me if I could help him and his co-founder out with their app that was taking off. I agreed and I began to help Akshay and Ankit (co-founder/CTO for Pulse) out with marketing and publisher relations plus a few other things.
I left Pulse for a month and a half to give Google a try and it didn’t take long for me to realize what I was missing out on. I came back to work in “business development”, but it would be more accurate to say I do “everything else”.
My work day-to-day varies quite a bit. When I have meetings, I work with publishers big and small to get their content into Pulse. I manage our catalog of news sources and our efforts to get new and interesting content in front of our users. I also run our analytics, assessing our metrics for all the platforms we’re on and making sure our team is focused on key data necessary for our success. I also still do quite a bit of our marketing, blog posts and social media.
It’s fantastic that you’ve had the opportunity to get involved in so many great tech companies big and small. Many of The Art of Ass-Kicking readers are non-technical but interested in getting involved in business positions at tech companies and startups. What are your top recommendations for how they can land a great gig? What are common mistakes you see people making?
At a start-up with a small team, hiring the right people is extremely important and consumes a significant amount of time for the CEO and other key members of the company. Startups can be more cautious with hiring that at larger companies because each hire has an enormous impact on the entire company.
For those who are seeking marketing or business development positions, my first piece of advice is to do your research. Just because you’re not interviewing at a company with a market cap in the billions doesn’t mean that there isn’t information about the company or industry for you to consume before your interview. Read most, if not all of the company’s blog, twitter and facebook posts, locate all the press you can find on it and research who you’re interviewing with and their backgrounds.
Next, prepare for your interview by pretending you already have the job. Ask yourself what your plan would be from the second you started the role. Don’t think you’ll be handed a job description or given an outline of what your role consists of (I have never gotten this at any startup I’ve worked for). Assess what the company is not doing well, whether that is social media or strategic partnerships and prep solutions for how to improve it. Be creative and have at numerous ideas for what you would do if you got the job.
Last, be passionate. An interviewee can have all the experience in the world, but if he or she is not passionate about the product and the team, the company won’t take the risk.
You’ve been co-hosting the Girls Out Loud podcast on tech news with your friend Maya for over 6 months with 30 episodes under your belts. I enjoyed listing to Episode 29, where you explored some of the ramifications of the tsunami on the Bay Area. The dynamic between you and Maya is also great. What drove to do this initially? What keeps you going? How do you find the time?
Maya and I met initially through a mutual friend – she was just about to finish her first year at IBM and join a startup and I was working for Tapulous at the time. She wanted to start a podcast focused on technology and asked me if I would join her. We both knew that there was a lack of a female perspective on technology and we thought that we could deliver it.
It’s great to see how far the podcast has come. Some things haven’t changed – we’re still recording over Skype with the microphones on our Apple headphones.
Finding time for it has been a challenge at times, especially when we’re traveling or have big deadlines for work that require working at all hours (we have certainly missed a few weeks of episodes). I often take over the sole conference room at work at night and take a short break to do the podcast. Making time when you have very little is probably the hardest part.
Time seems to be the one thing that no one has enough of and it seems to be slipping through our grasp all the time. What is your approach to managing your work so that you have the time to do the things you need to / want to do? (Apps you use, processes you employ, mindsets you hold, etc)
For work, I stick to a to-do list in a small lined notebook. Every day I start a new page and list out everything I need to get done. If I don’t finish something, I move it to the next page for the next day. Crossing items off the list is much better than any feeling an app could give me. I try to keep my inbox to less than 20 when I leave work at night.
Some days it’s impossible, but as it piles up I’ll have an “email day” where I knock everything out. For managing relationships, I use a Google Docs spreadsheet listing all of my contacts, things that are pending etc. I try to work out everyday for at least 45 minutes. I work non-stop during the week, but the last 30 minutes before bed are for relaxation, usually watching TV or casual reading.
I try to stay away from my computer on Saturdays and go outside, take walks, have long meals with friends and generally enjoy life. It’s a mistake not to take time for yourself – even if you have to make time to do it.
You wrote a thesis on ethics of privacy in social networks. I think that’s great that you picked a more mainstream and accessible topic than most people do (my Ethics in Society thesis was on liver transplants). Can you summarize the overarching message of the thesis? What was the most valuable thing for you about writing it?
The basic message of the thesis is that there are ethical standards for using personal information (whether online or offline). I argue that Facebook violates many of these ethical standards by not notifying you before it collects your information, not giving you the opportunity to refuse consent to share and for using your information for purposes beyond which it was originally gathered. Facebook has been making it more difficult for you to control your information over the years and has been skirting its ethical responsibility to make it easier.
Taking part in a large research effort over a year and half was definitely my most treasured academic experience and taught me quite a bit about a product’s user experience as well. It also taught me to take my academic experience into my own hands. I didn’t want to write the typical honors thesis that never sees the light of day. I wanted it to be relevant and I wanted to it to be something I was personally and academically invested in.
It’s ironic that you said how accessible and mainstream the topic is. My thesis adviser recently told me that faculty in the department thought my topic may not have been worthy of academic inquiry in the beginning. Thankfully he didn’t tell me this until after I submitted my final copy because it ended up winning the award for the best thesis in the department. That’s probably another lesson in going after what you want when your own blood, sweat and tears are involved.[Editors note: see a presentation of Cristina’s thesis here and the full paper: “The End of Privacy as We Know It?: The Ethics of Privacy on Online Social Networks” here.
I love that you chose this topic and succeeded with it even though others felt it might not be worthy. Way to get after it. This blog is all about learning how to kick more ass at stuff. What’s your take on the idea of “kicking ass”? What lessons have you learned about how you can take matters into your own hands and make things happen?
Kicking ass to me is being excellent at not just one thing, but everything one does. I admire people who have interests beyond work (i.e. staying fit, spending quality time with family, hobbies, philanthropy) and are amazing all across the board.
Lesson #1: Ask and you shall receive. Most women don’t negotiate their salaries and go on to make less than their male counterparts. Everyone has some leverage and can use it to their advantage in negotiations.
Lesson #2: Never be afraid to take a chance. I would consider myself someone who likes to play things safe, but I’m willing to take a risk if given the right opportunity. This played a key role in my move back to Pulse from Google.
Lesson #3: Plan to get where you want to be. If you want to move up from being an Account Manager to VP of Sales, get on the path that leads there and stick to it. I’ve been a planner my whole life. I applied to 17 colleges, numerous scholarships so that I didn’t have to pay a dime to attend and had ridiculous spreadsheets to track completion. Planning can get you most of the way.
Lesson #4: Never let obstacles stand in the way. I applied for an internship at Google and didn’t get it. I worked at a startup for the summer instead and got a full-time job at Google a year later. If something doesn’t work out, take an alternate route.