Alumni Q&A: Neil Shah (MSE, BSE ’04)

“We are in the Midst of a Social Revolution”  – Alumni Q&A with Neil Shah (MSE/BSE ‘04), Corporate Development and Strategy @Twitter

The entrepreneurial spirit sparked at the University of Michigan can drive every career decision you make. Neil Shah joined Twitter when “hashtag” had only been a verb for a few years, and the company that would change the way we all communicate was hovering around just 500 employees, in one office location. And when he accepted a role with Twitter, it wasn’t the safe career choice for someone who describes himself as risk-averse; it was the perfect marriage of timing, revolution, and innovation that inspired him to say “yes” to the opportunity. Jessica Henry met up with Neil over a pour-over coffee (the drink that is quickly becoming the San Francisco staple) in Twitter’s new-ish headquarters on Market Street to talk about career, family, mentorship, hiring, and how his most productive time of day can be attributed back to his times on North campus…

What did your day look like yesterday?

A typical workday has 4 different phases:

Phase 1. Daddy. 6am-8am.

I have a 2-year old son, Kayden, and have the blessing of getting him up and ready in the morning (you can imagine how this goes… Terrible 2’s are a real thing). But I’m fortunate that I get to see him every day, and have found Silicon Valley companies to understand this… especially because most get off to a late start (engineers sleep in typically).

Phase 2. Employee. 8am-7pm.

Factor in a 1 hour commute each way, emails (oh, the emails… can’t imagine how people managed to communicate prior to emails!) and meetings, and you basically have my workday. On a good day, I sneak in a few hours of real work during the day, but often reserve this for Phase 4.

Phase 3. Husband, 7pm-10pm.

My wife and I have now been married for 9 years (met at UofM during Freshman year Markley!, became close friends throughout college, and started dating during senior year when we were both on the board of IASA). We are more of a semi-homemade type dinner family and love to crack open a bottle of wine that we finish over multiple days – Cabernet is the wine of choice right now.

Phase 4. Night-owl Employee. 10pm-12am.

Taking from my habits of late-night, uninterrupted Eng Campus focus sessions, my most productive work time is typically after the family is asleep. Yes, this often involves creating Keynote slides and writing docs. I might have left consulting, but old habits die hard.

And then there are the weekends – these are focused on family. Parks, play dates, the library and your typical suburban family trips to Target – and of course, the peace and quiet of nap times.

Joining a company in growth-mode is obviously different than joining one in optimize-mode, even in technology. You joined Twitter in 2011, when the company was likely around 400ish employees (and not yet at this great HQ space on Market!). Can you share the story of when you knew joining Twitter was the right career move for you?

I remember the day vividly. I was having lunch at Dish Dash with a close friend, and he was helping me evaluate opportunities between a high-growth (but large) consumer tech company, an established enterprise company, and an emerging information and social network player (Twitter). With my risk averse nature, I was leaning towards the former – stable, strong brand, great products, etc.

His advice: We were too young to truly understand and learn from the Internet revolution of the late 1990s/early 2000s. While we do not yet know if Twitter will succeed, what we do know is that we are in the midst of a Social revolution – and this will control the way we live for decades to come. The people I meet and the experiences I gain will be invaluable.

Student entrepreneurs are always seeking mentors as they develop their ideas and shape their innovation paths…the challenge is: how do they find a mentor. How did you meet your mentors, and how do they play a role in your career?

In my experience, I have found that mentors are rarely identified through seeking them out specifically. A great mentor is one that has a vested interest in you, both personally and professionally. My most respected mentors are ones that were either a former manager or a trusted family member. It is probably best to have at least 2-3 mentors in your life, and they themselves having a diverse background and experience is most effective.

One of my mentors, my older brother (UofM Class of 2000), is not part of Silicon Valley – and brings across a balanced perspective of personal and professional. This is critical as it is incredibly easy to fall into a specific way of thinking based on your environment, and having trusted mentors pull you out of that day-to-day makes you a more well-rounded individual, and ultimately a stronger employee.

You now manage a team at Twitter (or should I say @Twitter!) – what skills/traits/attributes do you look for in prospective talent?

More than anything else, I look for someone that is,

  • passionate about consumer technology/Twitter (I want my team to care about the product, and be truly motivated by its success);
  • has the ability to problem solve and structure their thinking – again, the consultant in me (I believe I can teach my team frameworks, etc. – but it is much harder to teach someone how to think);
  • cares deeply about business partnering

What is your go-to read/listen/watch?

Morning commutes consist of Mike & Mike for Sports radio, CNBC for news radio (sometimes almost comedic), and Radio Alice for entertainment radio (thanks, Sarah and Vinnie). And, of course, Twitter as a jumping off point for news throughout the day – there is no better place to keep up with what is happening in my world.

Outside of information – I’m a huge TV buff (as is my wife), and we are far from cord-cutters. Our favorite shows are comedies (Big Bang TheoryThe Goldbergs) and dramas (Game of ThronesHomelandThe Good Wife). I am not into reality TV.

What is the best – and the worst – advice you have ever received?

Best: Know your north star, and make moves to get there over time. You don’t need to get there overnight.

Worst: I have been fortunate that I do not believe I have ever really received bad career advice.

And finally, many in the Class of 2015 are launching their post-UM careers. If you could go back in time, what advice would you give recent-alumnus-Neil when you graduated in 2004?

You don’t have to get to your final destination (or don’t even need to know what it is) right away. Take the opportunity to learn from others, and be proactive in seeking new opportunities. Spend time figuring out what drives and motivates you professionally, and then make steps over time to build the skills that will get you there. Surround yourself with smart folks who will teach and mentor you. I have always optimized for team and manager vs project/industry/company, and believe it has served me well so far.