I grew up near Seattle in Bellevue, and I was a precocious, nerdy kid drawn to computers at an early age. I started playing around with programs and creating my own games. Eventually my neighbor took notice of me. He had a software company, and they developed Christmas software, with screen savers and games…
This interview with Aaron Bell, C.E.O. of AdRoll, an online advertising placement firm, was conducted and condensed by Adam Bryant.
Q. Tell me about your early years.
A. I grew up near Seattle in Bellevue, and I was a precocious, nerdy kid drawn to computers at an early age. I started playing around with programs and creating my own games. Eventually my neighbor took notice of me. He had a software company, and they developed Christmas software, with screen savers and games.
So I was a Jewish boy creating a Santa’s workshop and games where you fly reindeer around. I loved it. My dad would pick me up after middle school and drive me to work in Redmond nearby.
In a bit of serendipity, Microsoft was two blocks down the street. And they were hungry for engineers, gobbling up talent whenever they could find it. They started pulling people from my neighbor’s company to work for Microsoft. And as more people left, I took on more responsibility at this software company. Pretty soon, I was leading the Christmas software project. I was 14 years old.
As the people I worked with went to Microsoft, they then told the company about me, and suddenly I was interviewing at Microsoft when I was 16. They asked programming questions, but they also asked interview questions like “How do you know the light goes off in the refrigerator when you close the door?”
I had a baby sister, so I said, “I would put my baby sister in the refrigerator and then pull her out and check the dilation of her eyes.” They said, “That’s morbid, but it’s pretty clever,” and they hired me.
I spent about six years at Microsoft. I was able to work it out with my high school where classes would end at noon for me and then I’d go to Microsoft and try to stay within the labor laws for hours worked. During the summers, I would transition to intern and take advantage of those programs.
I did manage to spend some time with Bill Gates. Every summer he would have a barbecue for the interns. After being there for so many summers, I figured out the pattern. He would come out of his house and go right to the dinner line. So I would wait by the door, and when he came out, I’d get in the dinner line with him. That way, I’d get to sit next to him, too.
Tell me about the culture of your company now.
I have this overall philosophy that a company is like a human body, which builds up toxins over time. Every company has problems and issues that build up, and you need to find outlets for those things.
I think a lot about how you come up with different practices in the company that are a kind of cleanse. So we do a weekly all-hands meeting, and it’s a weekly flush to get the toxins out.
Before our all-hands meetings, I send out an email with a question-and-answer board and I encourage people to post their questions. You can vote up your favorite questions, and they’re anonymous.
If you give someone a mask, they’ll tell you the truth. I also encourage people to post their fears, their uncertainties and doubts. And there’s a guarantee that any question that is asked will get answered or addressed by me, unless they are personal in nature about someone in particular.
The alternative, if you don’t do that, is that you have people behind closed doors chatting about the company, gossiping, saying negative things.
If you address everything, people feel much more trust. They feel like they know what’s happening. And they’re going to make better decisions because they know what’s going on.
After you’ve been at AdRoll for six months, you have to write a letter to yourself as a new employee about what you wish you had known and had been taught. Then we compile those, and new hires get a 100-page book of these letters. It encourages people to really help each other out.
How do you hire? What questions do you ask?
There’s no silver bullet question, but I usually advise my employees to ask themselves about the person they’re interviewing: “What is the No. 1 thing you’re worried about? When you leave the interview, what are you going to be thinking about or wondering about?”
Then I tell them to spend all their time drilling into that one area. Keep asking questions. It’s O.K. to prod during interviews.
I also like to look at transitions between jobs, because that’s a time when someone kind of popped their head up and said, “This isn’t working for me.” Either they got fired or it was mutually not working or there is some other explanation, but I’ll try to get the real story of what happened.
For a company at our stage of growth, I’d also say it’s really important to find people who are interested in building something great, rather than people who are interested in joining something great. So having people who care is a big thing.
So how do you tell the drivers from the riders?
In those transitions on their résumé, you can understand a lot of things. If they talk about problems at a previous company, then the question is, Were you part of the solution or are you just complaining about it?
What career advice do you give to new college grads?
I definitely suggest people work for early stage or midstage companies because you’re going to learn a lot more. I try to steer them away from larger companies. The company is going through more change at smaller companies, and you tend to be in a deeper end of the pool where things are going to get done. So it’s just more of an extension of college. There’s accelerated learning in that period.
Each week, Adam Bryant talks with top executives about leadership. Follow him on Twitter: @nytcorneroffice. This interview has been edited for space and clarity.
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