“I am a big believer in making sure you have a network,” says Marianna Tessel, who first used her computer science skills in the Israeli military before working at General Magic, Ariba, Docker and VMware. We talked to her about her work habits, her position at Intuit, and how she keeps a sense of humour around the office.
Location: Mountain View, CA
Current Gig: Chief Product Development Officer, Small Business and Self-Employed, Intuit
Current mobile device: iPhone
Current computer: MacBook
One word that best describes how you work: Breakthrough
First of all, tell us a little about your background and how you got to where you are today.
I grew up in Israel. My tech career actually started off in the Israeli army. Military service is compulsory in Israel and I had the opportunity to get my computer science degree first and serve as a software engineer. This gave me the experience, early on, of working with a team on something that is high stakes, where you need to be creative and resourceful.
My first job in Silicon Valley was at General Magic. We were on a mission to change how communication works with creating innovative PDAs (personal digital assistants). While the company ultimately didn’t succeed, the idea of personal devices, like smartphones, did live on, and the company and its many talented people sprouted much innovation that led to many big companies in the Valley today.
Then, I held various engineering leadership roles, more notably at Ariba and later at VMware. At VMware, in addition to leading the development of several system components, my engineering team was responsible for the technology ecosystem. That really helped me get an insight into the inner workings of our industry.
I left VMware to go to Docker, an open source developer darling where I was at the forefront of the containers movement and had a chance to be part of this amazing, industry-changing ride.
Now I’m at Intuit, where I have an opportunity to apply the latest in technology to make a real difference and power prosperity for our many users. We say we are the “champions of those who dare to dream”.
Take us through a recent workday.
No two days are ever the same, but they almost always are incredibly busy. During the day, I tend to spend much of my time in meetings and interacting with teams and leaders to deliver awesome products to customers, and pushing us to solve high-impact, complex problems.
It is super important for me to stay technical. I am naturally curious about what is new and spend time reading and exploring new innovations daily. I also like to be up to speed on new leadership ideas, productivity tips and other news to keep sharpening my thinking and leadership skills. I’m a constant learner.
I try to also get hands-on with the product and stay close to our customers. I even code alongside the team occasionally, especially when we hold what we call “engineering days”. These are days the team focuses on madly coding on a project they choose and that is an area of passion. While my coding contribution is admittedly very small, it is important for me to be part of the team.
What apps, gadgets or tools can’t you live without?
My phone of course. How do I know that? When I discover I am missing it, my heart drops. It is always amazing to me to see how indispensable it has become to my life.
At work, people joke I am a junkie of Slack, Google Docs and Sli.do. I view those tools as a modern-day desk and meeting room. These tools also help me collaborate with the team more efficiently, and in real time, which helps us stay aligned and move fast.
What’s your workspace setup like?
My desk is very simple, it has a screen and a plug for my laptop and phone. I love sticky notes and you can find them all over my desk full of ideas and to-dos. A few years ago, at another company, when I was out of the office for a week, the team put stickies all around my office: On the walls, the ceiling, and the furniture. They said that “your absence was note-worthy”. It was only then I realised that I use stickies so much.
I also have Tylenol, water and a bunch of snacks nearby, because life is short but some days do feel long.
What’s your best shortcut or life hack?
I know when to be serious, but my best life hack is to not take things too seriously. I work very hard, but when things are tough I find that humour is a great way to approach things. Done right, it can help in many situations. The best part is that it makes your life lighter and more fun.
There is research that says that humour supports better health. There is also research that says that fake laughing tricks your brain into happiness. But fake laughing is where I stop.
Take us through an interesting, unusual or finicky process you have in place at work.
We start our staff meeting with a round of “what I’ve learned this week”, where each person shares a quick topic that involves a discovery in the past week. We started it as a way to get to know each other but it was so great that we just kept it.
The richness of items that come up is amazing: We talk about project issues, new tech, books, articles, farms, family, life lessons, work dynamics, et cetera. It helps us all learn about something new and to get to know each other a bit better every time.
Who are the people who help you get things done, and how do you rely on them?
I rely on a lot of people both at work and home. At most I rely on my husband, Dror. We met in engineering school, so we talk shop all the time. He is a huge supporter and a great person to get advice from, and he can empathise with both work and home life.
I am a big believer in making sure you have a network. It only works if you’re sincere in your relationships. Help others and get help when needed.
How do you keep track of what you have to do?
I have multiple systems for keeping organised. I use my calendar, Slack, stickies, Quip and email. As you can see, it takes a village. Every day I am trying to balance multiple priorities, and types of “to-dos” for both work and home.
I find that different things work for various items. For example, I block time off in my calendar for myself to work on items I need throughout the day. I use Quip as a tool to track my personal to-dos and collaborate with my family. The pile of books next to my bed is my “reading list”. I don’t have a single tool or system that works for everything for me. Tips anyone?
How do you recharge or take a break?
I try to maintain some family time as sacred. I have four boys and it is always fun to hang out with them. On weekends, I try to keep work to a minimum so I have some time to unplug.
For longer breaks, I love travelling, learning about other cultures, and eating good food.
I like exercising and in particular I like yoga. Standing on your head definitely gives you a different POV, literally.
What’s your favourite side project?
Growing up, I was always passionate about medicine and science. I actually considered becoming a doctor. I love computer science, but I do wish to spend more time on projects that use technology to help the field of life science. There is still so much opportunity there.
I have a few patents for an innovation in the medical-tech field, which was a project I took over from my dad some years ago. It is really cool and useful and I hope at some point to find more time to work on it.
What are you currently reading, or what do you recommend?
I finished it a while back, but I loved Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, a super engaging review of human history by Yuval Noah Harari. Currently I am reading The Defining Decade, which was actually recommended by our CEO in a meeting.
Who else would you like to see answer these questions?
Gosh, I have such a long list. Aileen Lee, who is a managing partner at Cowboy Ventures, is phenomenal! Also get Dan Ariely to answer. I listened to him a couple of times. His research is mind blowing.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
That I can learn anything if I put in the effort into it. This enables me to think of work and the world as unlimited in possibilities.
What’s a problem you’re still trying to solve?
My ultimate career goal is a bit cliché or can be considered naive, but it is to make a positive impact on the world with technology. At Intuit specifically, I’m inspired by the mission to harness some of the latest technology to power prosperity around the world.
Personally, just as so many people, I feel that there is so much to do and so little time. Still waiting for that time machine.
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