Jas Athwal, former Facebook Chief Accounting Officer X Hemi Ventures
Over lunch in downtown Palo Alto, Jas Athwal tells his story of a spectacular career — emerging from a small start-up to rising up the ranks at Yahoo to becoming the masthead of Facebook’s financials as the Chief Accounting Officer. In this marvelous lunch-in conversation and interview, Jas offers us invaluable business insights and personal experiences — vignettes from a journey that encapsulated only “what one would experience in two careers.”
Could you start off by telling us how you first became involved with Facebook and your journey there?
“Yeah, definitely. So I was working at Yahoo — since 2001 is when I’d say I started at Yahoo. So it was right after the Dot-Com Boom, but Yahoo was one of the Dot-Com companies that was still standing. And the company that I was working at during the Dot-Com Boom got acquired; it was a startup software company that was ready to go public—it had everything ready to go, the S1 drafted and sent to the printers — everything. In July of 2000, the market started to go south, and the price kept coming down. Eventually, we just pulled it which was disappointing, because a lot of work went into the S1. The company ends up getting acquired. They want me to go move out to Atlanta and I thought, ‘Hmm no, I’m a Bay Area type of guy — I think I’m sticking around the bay Area.’ They put me on a transition package so I stayed around six months to transition the stuff over to the new company. After that, I decided I was going to take some time off.
Two days before we were going to leave on vacation, I go talk to Yahoo. And I really like the people. I was like, ‘I really like this — I really like the position.’ And you know, I know the company’s going to be around and they go, ‘look we’re going to make you an offer.’ And I told them I’m flying out soon. They go, ‘well, we’ll mail you the offer and tell us where you’re going to be, and we’ll Fedex it to your hotel.’
So they did it. And it was the lowest offer out of all the other offers I got. I mean by far — like 40% lower than some of the other ones. But I was like, ‘man, I really want to go work there.’ And my wife was like why? And I told her, ‘I’m going to enjoy it there.’
And for me, that’s a huge component of being successful — is being in an environment that you enjoy being in. It’s not about the money because the money will eventually come. It’s about setting yourself up for success, and you do that in an environment where you feel comfortable and you actually enjoy going in and you enjoy the people that you’re working with. And that’s why Yahoo.
So I’m at Yahoo. I start as a revenue analyst — just a low man on the totem pole. By the time I left, I’m running global revenue operations. So in about six years, I moved up.
So Gideon Yu was the treasurer at Yahoo when I was there and left Yahoo to be the CFO at Youtube —went from Youtube to I think Kleiner. He went to Kholsa. *Sorry.* He was there for a little while and then, he became the CFO at Facebook. So he reached out to me, and I hadn’t really worked with him at all. Actually, I never worked with him. I think I saw him like twice in my entire time at Yahoo. And he was like, ‘hey, do you want to grab a cup of coffee with me at University Cafe.’
He didn’t even know me — why’d he want me to come work there? And he’s like, ‘look, I did my homework, and every person that I called at Yahoo — I said, here’s the role that I need to fill, the first person they said was Jas… talk to Jas. So I trust them, I want you to come interview — interview in quotes — more so, meet some people and see if you want to work here.’ And I’m just like, ‘Gideon, like I don’t know.’ And again, the way I was always rationalizing opportunities was ‘it’s just another startup, like I don’t know about this.’ I like the stability at Yahoo. I think it’s going to be around for a while. And he’s like, ‘I’m going to get busy for a little while — let’s connect in about another month or two.’
So I connect back with him in like the second or third week of September — or maybe it was early October. And finally, I go and chat with people. I still didn’t start until January of 2008. Because even after that, I was still hesitant. And finally, I told myself I would make the move. But then it was Yahoo’s year end, and I didn’t want to leave them in the large because of some loyalties — I had the offer in November — I go I can’t start until the second week of January because I need to see Yahoo through that year-end. Eventually, we agreed January 4th 2008 is when I join Facebook.”
When you first joined, how was the team there?
“It was in finance — there was about 10 of us. The company was between 250 to 300. It was amazing that everyone was so young. I mean I walked in and I felt like an antique, and I was only in my early 30s at the time. At that time, I want to say that Mark was 21 — 22, if that.
My first meeting that I had while I was at Facebook — I was going in as a finance guy trying to put in control, trying to put in processes, etc. — get us ready for some growth. I had been conditioned at Yahoo; every meeting at Yahoo was just butting heads. No one wanted to do anything; It was like, ‘that’s not my end, I’m not doing this, I’m not doing that.’
I went to my meeting and previously, I had to ask people to change a lot of stuff. I went into this meeting and had to mentally prepare myself. And I went in the meeting, and we’re talking about like, ‘hey guys, we want this — to get here, we’ve got to do this, this and this.’ And I was ready for the backlash. But people were volunteering to help! I’m just like, *wow*.
But that was the culture, everyone was in line to make Facebook successful.
There were no egos—no ‘I’m optimizing for myself’. It was so refreshing. Such an amazing place to be in. At that point, I was like, ‘wow, this is going to be good.’”
Would you say the company culture was already established when you got there?
“It was there. The company’s was always there. I think Finance's was finding its way. I want to think I helped play a part in establishing the Finance-side culture. As a startup, especially one that’s growing at that pace, Finance is always trying to play ‘catch-up’. We had to move from being reactive to proactive and getting ourselves aligned with where sales was going — where BD was going, etc.
I was worried that when we grew from 300 to 3000, I saw at Yahoo where the culture declined, I thought we were going to experience the same. But I am shocked , pleasantly surprised, that the culture is not far off. I think that’s all toned from the top. It’s always been an organization that’s not a ‘me first mentality’. It’s Facebook first.
It’s mandate: Mark, Sheryl — We do the right thing for Facebook, we don’t do the right thing for individuals, it’s the company first.”
Do you have any advice on how to develop or nurture company culture?
“You know, it’s difficult. It definitely tones from the top. It’s always from the top. That first and foremost. People look up, and they hear it, and they see it everyday. And you kinda have to fall in line. I think the openness at Facebook aids us — one, just the open seating, but also like the communication. There’s nothing that’s done behind closed doors — at least in the early days. Now, as we became a public company, we had to start shifting that. But we used to share financials. We used to share everything with the entire company. Every Friday we would have all hands-in, and it was all — whatever you wanted to ask Mark, you could ask Mark. We’d present what our revenue was and what we’re doing here; how many customers we’d signed up; what our plans were, blah blah blah. And it was all open. Everyone felt like they were part of the ride. It wasn't like there were only four individuals who knew where they were going and everyone waited to just follow on. It was like, ‘no, I’m part of this journey.’ And that’s huge.
But I mean, you have to do it within reason too. You have to understand that there is a competitive environment. In the area that we operate, there are leaks and people do go want to make a name for themselves by leaking some of this stuff — and that was a challenge that we had at Facebook. And we had to start limiting some of the stuff, because people started leaking. You have to understand that it’s a balance, but to an extent, you can be open and transparent with the entire team.
I think it makes people buy into the vision. They’re actually part of it.”
With such an open and inviting culture, were there any early disputes regarding equity especially among the early team members?
“Oh, I’m sure there were. I think everyone wants or thinks they might deserve more. My belief when it comes to equity and how it’s handled — you have one opportunity. When you’re going in there to negotiate your equity, you negotiate whatever you’re going to get. If you’re not happy with what you get then one, don’t take the job; but if you take the job, you put your head down and you focus, and you do what you do best. You don’t go in afterwards and say, ‘so and so got this, so and so got that. One, you shouldn’t know what so and so got, but you know, people talk.’ It’s just human nature— somehow people find out everything. That’s a lesson — everyone’s going to know everything so don’t try to keep secrets. Eventually it’s going to come out.
And again, it doesn't always become about compensation. It’s about the vision in what you’re building. But that’s hard. That’s not everybody. I think some people think they’re worth how much they’re getting paid. For me, it’s yes, I want to get paid — don’t get me wrong — I’m not going to work anywhere for free, but it’s a combination of how much am I getting paid, how much am I learning, how much am I enjoying it and how much am I building and developing. It’s that whole package.
Compensation is just one element. But I think other individuals view their entire value based strictly on this one element. And I think the mindset that you need to get in team is the entire package.
The equity in equity that people view — it’s the nature of the beast. It’s so unique to every person. You can give this person all the equity they want, and for whatever reason, they see someone else get something — not as much as they did, but they get more than what they think that person should’ve got. Then, they’re still not happy with what they got. And it becomes, ‘hey, I should’ve got even more.’ You just can’t solve that.
So between the growth while you were there — from 250 to 20,000 — , do you think the vision changed? You mentioned it was a very important part of Facebook.
“No. It’s always been — Mark’s vision has always been to make the world more open and connected. That’s one thing that has never changed. Never changed from day one to now.
What’s changed is that you get so many people — you can’t have that same open and transparent culture like I talked about to that extent. You have different levels of management now. It was a pretty flat organization, early days— I mean that’s how all startups are. But you have to place levels and structures in order to grow to that size.
One of the best things at Facebook was the ability to navigate growth and keep that culture, keep the vision and keep the key people.
Again, it’s a testament to Mark’s vision and leadership. And people that he’s surrounded himself with. There’s a lot of people on the management team that have transitioned out and Mark’s always done a great job with surrounding himself with knowledgeable people at the right time. Every stage — early stages he had people with experience with startups; I mean Sean Parker and then, he moved on and got different people, etc. As it grew, he realized he needed the likes of Sheryl — so he’s done an amazing job at building the team, and he understands what his core strengths are. And he understands where he needs support.
That’s key for all startup CEOs: to acknowledge that you can’t be everything. And to turn over the reins to key people and trust them and let them do it.”
How did your personal management approach change as the company grew?
“It’s a lot easier trying to manage a team of three — that’s when I started — than a team of 250 by the time I left. And you have to adjust your management style.
Just my philosophy in management overall is that you can't have a cookie-cutter approach. You can’t say that one style of management is going to fit every single employee that you have on your team.
My belief is that to succeed as a manager, you have to understand what makes each individual tick and focus on that —the good and the bad— and say, ‘hey, this is what you’re really good at and acknowledge that, but also see the areas for development. This is where we’re going to work together to get you better at.’
Again, every individual is an individual. You can't adopt an approach that is ‘this is what my style is, this is what I expect — I’m going to do it for everybody.’ It just doesn’t work.”
How do you scale that?
“Well, that’s the challenge. That’s when you have to bring in people under you and make sure they understand that philosophy and approach — this is how it works. And, it’s a challenge, especially for a new manager, the largest challenge faced by any manger is that he or she will expect people to do things that he or she will do themselves. They want clones of themselves — this is how I do it, this is how I think, that’s what they judge their new employees on. They want them to be just like them. And that’s to me — that’s a recipe for failure. Because you’re an individual, you do it the way you do it. If people are doing it differently, it doesn’t mean that they’re doing it incorrectly. That’s their individualistic way of doing it. That’s the biggest struggle for managers. They want those clones—they want people to be robots of themselves.
The second hardest lesson for a manger to learn is delegation — letting go.
It’s impossible. I mean I suffered from this when I first started managing at Yahoo. I had my first team member. And I thought I was the greatest boss, because I was doing all the hard stuff, and I was giving him like the easy, fun stuff. I thought he must love me because he didn’t have to much to do — ‘he just gets to surf the web the whole day— I must be the best boss ever, I wish my boss did that.’ And then about six weeks into it, we’re having our one on one. He’s like, ‘Jas, I have to ask you…’ I go, ‘heh, he’s going to tell me how great a manager I am right now. I’m excited. Talk to me. Talk to me.’ He’s like, ‘do you not trust me?’ I’m like, ‘what do you mean?’ He tells me, ‘you don’t give me anything to do… like you do it all yourself. And I’m just not doing anything. You give me like these little projects while you’re doing all the work, and I’m not doing any of it.’ I’m like, ‘oh… wow, I thought you liked that.’ I didn’t really know. And that’s when a lightbulb went off in my head. I just realized — I didn’t want to let go. I didn’t want to put in the effort to transition stuff to him and then teach him. I found that one, it’s easier for me to do it; two, I knew how to do it right so I didn’t have to review what he was doing.
And so the lightbulb — *wow*.When I thought I was being a great manager, I was on the other end of the spectrum. And I’m still very close friends with the guy. And I always remind him of it and he’s like,
yeah I wish I didn’t have that conversation…’ Because from that point on, I used to delegate work and he had a lot more work. It was great feedback. I’m happy that he had enough confidence to share that information because some people might be intimidated by their manager.”
When is it a good time to start outsourcing work / delegating?
“When you realize that you’re the CEO of the company, and you’re still reviewing everybody’s expense report, but there’s other stuff. Funding, sales, etc. — stuff that you have to give attention to, but there exists other more important stuff. At that point, you have to start thinking about prioritization and realizing, ‘wow, where am I adding value? What am I, as an individual, bringing to the table. What am I suppose to be doing? Should I be spending time, four hours a day, four hours a week, reviewing expense reports — can I delegate that out to somebody that I trust?’ It's again letting go.
Rightfully so, CEOs should take it as their own personal responsibility to ensure people aren’t abusing stuff, but you can still delegate that. And you don’t have to get involved. But I’ve seen where people who lead organizations want to have that level of control and I think that’s great but again, everything in moderation. There has to be a balance to it.”
At Facebook, how did you create value as CAO?
“Heh, interesting. *group laughs*. No, That’s a good question because you know what, in finance, it’s hard to really create value. I mean we’re a support organization, right?
I used to get asked this a lot by my team, because you know it’s typically all about engineers; it’s how we ship this great product; how we do sales; how do we advertise —all these new initiatives. Nobody’s in there talking about ‘we closed our books’ or ‘we paid these many people.’ I mean, we don’t necessarily get the accolades. Well, that’s true. And one, you probably should’ve realized that when you went into the finance route. That’s kind of the nature of the beast.
Put it in this context, we’re not the engine that makes Facebook go. But what we are, is the lubrication within that engine that without us, the engine that runs, seizes. Because if we don’t pay, people to come to work; if we don’t pay our vendors, we don’t get our product; if we don't collect the cash from our customers, we can’t pay our bills; if we don’t file our earnings, we get D-listed. So without us, without that lubrication — we keep this engine running. Without that lubrication, the engine seizes. We’re not the engine. The engine oil in the engine doesn’t get the credit. But take that oil out, and test your engine, see how long it lasts. That’s what we are. And no ,we’re not going to get the accolades. You guys did this, you guys did that — but just know that there’s no engine out there that can act without the lubrication. And that’s us.”
For startups, most CEOs would have a problem understanding finance — Do you have any advice here?
“Yes, so for a CEO, when they bring in their first hire, an ideal person in my view would be somebody that’s willing to be hands on — somebody that can play with two hands. It might not be the person that ultimately ends up taking you through to an IPO. But it’s the person that can grow the team, grow the processes and make sure the ship’s pointing in the right direction without tilting — and you know, taking on all the water and going down while also providing the advice and counsel saying, ‘hey, this is what I think we should be doing.’
It’s very hard for a company right off the bat to hire their VP of finance or CFO, and that person’s going to be the same person that’s there when you go public. You just don’t see that. I mean I’m sure it happens, but more often than not, you need to hire somebody that can wear multiple different hats. The key function is to provide that sounding board for the CEO, but they also have to make sure they keep the lights on. As the company matures, you end up wanting to get more of a strategic CFO that can create more of a sounding board and how that CFO will delegate the operation is more of a control. Again it’s how do you know when it’s time to delegate — it depends on the lifecycle of the company and then you evolve and if you want to go down the IPO route: ‘is the CFO that we have in place, do they have the where-with-all for he or she to interact with investors and all these outside firms — or do we need to bring someone else in that has all that credibility.’ It’s a constant evolution, but really early days, founders shouldn’t look to get that power CFO type. I think the area we live in, the funding stuff, people, VCs will have to navigate that. You don't necessarily really need a person with a rolodex right now. Early days, unless they’re struggling with funding — and then it’s a different ball game. If they’ve kinda got some funding and their own connections, they don’t need a rolodex CFO — the one that says I’m connected to this, I'll get you this, I’ll get you that. That person should be more of an advisor — a business advisor, not the actual CFO that does the day in, day out.
Constantly thinking about evolving the personnel around you, that is personally, I think very difficult.
“It is. I mean you get comfortable, and it’s hard to move. You know the one thing that people hate — and this is just my observation in twenty years of working — is having critical conversations with people. People hate to give people bad news. If you’re going to get a bonus, ‘hey, great news — let’s have a conversation.’ But if there’s some critical feedback I have to give you, people will try to put it off and try to soften it, and it’s hard to do. It’s not in human nature to give people bad news or to say, ‘hey, I’m going to make a change because of this, not because you’re not going a good job, but because I just want to take this to the next level.’ And people don’t want to have that conversation. And it’s hard.”
With working with such a young team and growing your team, how did you value aptitude versus experience?
“Well, I had neither *chuckles* — You need a combination of both. If you have all the experience, you’re never going to be able to bring new, fresh ideas. If you have aptitude without the experience, you won’t know what’s been tried and what mistakes have been made in the past, and you’ll go redo them. So I think you need to have a combination of both. Especially the leaders. Ideally, you need somebody who has a blend of both — that has the experience but also has the aptitude.
For the more junior levels, I believe aptitude is more critical because they’ll be more willing to try and do things. If you go to high levels of experience, they just want to do things the way they’ve always done it. More junior, aptitude is definitely key. And willingness. you can have people that are really smart— aptitude and being a team player.
It only takes one for your culture to start failing.
Next person — say that person is in a leadership role, when that person hires, he or she is going to look to hire people like him or herself — and not team members. And that will just start growing. And before you know it, you have an organization of individuals and not a team anymore.
When I interview somebody — I assume the person can do the job. One, you’ve already passed the screening, because you’re sitting in front of me. Your resume — you’ve got the experience. My interview is solely about whether the person will fit into the culture and the organization. I’ll touch on experience and what they’ve done, but all my questions will be focused on how will you interact with the team, how will you interact with people who are below you, above you. And how will you contribute to the team environment. And the reason why I do that personally is because if you bring in somebody — say you bring in somebody and they don’t have the experience and can’t do the job, that’s easy to resolve because they cant do the job. So it’s easy to prove that this person can’t do the job, and you solve that by exiting them.
If you bring in somebody that can do the job, but they’re just disruptive on all the other fronts — to get rid of them is a lot more challenging, because it’s hard to prove that they don’t have all these soft things. They don’t have any of the soft skills but ‘hey, I do the job.’ So that exit strategy becomes a lot more difficult. So I feel like you can miss on the experience side. More often than not, people lie on their resumes. You can do the background checks and you can try to get word of mouth on somebody— but it’smuch harder to recover when you miss on somebody that’s not a team player. And that’s why I always focus my energy on that. I mean there have been mistakes where I’ve hired somebody and they can’t do the job. Nice person — they could fit in the team. But that’s an easy conversation— ‘hey, you said you could do this, you tried and you can’t so thank you very much, but this isn’t going to work out~ etc.’ But if you miss on somebody that has the experience and can do the job, but they’re so disruptive in so many other ways, not huge ways, but little ways that cause the team dynamic not to be the way you want it— it’s very hard to exit.
Ending Comments ~
“It was a great journey. It really was. I think I learned so much in my 9 years there. It’s what people would see in two careers. And it’s what I got to see in 9 wonderful years. I was lucky to have great leaders.”