MEET Frederic

Frederic Kerrest is co-founder and COO of Okta, a leader in workforce and customer identity that serves thousands of organizations around the world. He started playing ice hockey at eight years old and is currently in several Bay Area leagues—which he calls “awesome” and “a great way to get hurt.”

What is something you’ve learned that you lean on daily?

The power of being organized, which is something I picked up from my mom. I took it for granted growing up, but now that I have kids I realize she was, and still is, a machine.

I think being organized comes down to knowing what you’re going to do next. That little bit of preparation gives you so many opportunities to use your time well. Optimizing your morning routine is a good example. Every day I get The Wall-Street Journal’s 10-Point News and CIO Journal in my inbox. I may or may not read every article in its entirety, but it gives me a good sense of what my customers are thinking and talking about, and I don’t have to go digging. I’m also a hockey junkie, so I get hockey news emailed to me every morning, which helps me know what’s going on and what podcasts I might want to listen to. Then I commute, and I always have a plan for that time, whether it’s podcasts I’ve curated or just taking calls. Putting in the effort up front pays off, because time is your most valuable asset by far.

What one piece of advice would you give someone starting a company?

Go on a vision quest. Surf if that’s your thing, mountain bike or take an early-morning hike. It doesn’t matter exactly what you do, as long as you go off by yourself and really think about what it is you’re going to build.

Aspiring entrepreneurs often have never failed at anything, and they don’t internalize how hard it is to start a company. That was my attitude exactly, and I wish someone had forced me to sit down and think about it. I would have started the company anyway, because I like building things too much not to. But I would have had an easier time if I’d known going in how tough things would be, especially in those early years.

Part of the problem is that all people ever see are success stories. The media makes startups seem glamorous, which does founders such a disservice because 99.99 percent of them will fail. Even the ones that succeed will take a decade to get there, and the process will probably be a shit show. I’m actually working on a podcast right now called “Zero to IPO,” and we’re encouraging our guests— tech and business leaders—to tell the stories of their big failures, like when their service went down or when they couldn’t close their first customer. It’s coming out in February 2019, and the idea is to help entrepreneurs understand that we all experience similar struggles.

What small change has made a big difference in your life?

Having children. That’s a big change, but it prompted a bunch of small ones because it changed my priorities. When I co-founded Okta, my wife and I didn’t have kids and she was in medical residency, so I worked all the time. And I think I did a lot of things that I should have hired someone else to handle. When you’re spending a bunch of time flying at a lower altitude for one specific kind of activity or task, that’s a good indication there’s a problem.

Part of that changed naturally as the company grew, but having kids was a big catalyst because it was so important to me to be present as a father. Whenever I’m in San Francisco, I’m home for dinner with them, so now I leave work by 5:50 p.m. I basically refuse to do weeknight events. I drive a plug-in hybrid so I can use the carpool lane and shorten my commute. And then when I walk in the door, I put the iPhone down and don’t pick it up until they go to sleep. Everything is about prioritizing time with my family, because it goes fast and you can’t get it back.

What don't you know that you wish you knew?

I wish I knew how higher education will evolve over the next 15 to 20 years, and what I can do to prepare my children. I was very fortunate that my parents put a computer in my room in 1985. They didn’t know how to use it, but my father had seen computers starting to show up at work and figured my brother and I should learn about them. That had a profound impact on my life—it led me to a CS degree in college and eventually a career in high tech. Now I ask myself every day, “What is the equivalent of that computer for my kids?”

So much has changed since I was their age, from skyrocketing tuition to online options, to the growing argument for vocational and pre-professional studies. Do I ignore all that disruption and plan for my kids to get a traditional science or liberal arts education? Or should I take my parents’ approach to the extreme and get them coding kits for their birthdays or send them to developer camp? They’re growing up at a time when even JPMorgan requires every employee in its Asset Management division be able to code Python.

What books are on your nightstand right now?

There are a bunch of them. Patty McCord will be a guest on my upcoming “Zero to IPO” podcast, so I’m reading her book, Powerful: Building a Culture of Freedom and Responsibility. It’s helped me realize I need to do better in giving people the benefit of the doubt, and I think there are valuable takeaways for the whole company in terms of better communication. I’m planning to get a copy for everyone on the executive staff.

I’m a history buff—it was my undergrad major before I switched to CS—so I’m usually reading something in that genre, too. One right now is The History of Money, by Jack Weatherford, which is to help me understand cryptocurrency. I’m just reading specific chapters, but it’s really good. I’m also reading Wager with the Wind, by James Greiner, which is about the man who built the first bush plane service in Alaska, and The Age of Edison, by Ernest Freeberg, which is phenomenal. I’m also about halfway through Battle Cry of Freedom, which is a Pulitzer-winner about the Civil War by James McPherson. It’s about 1,000 pages long—way too much to carry on a business trip. But I like reading physical books, so I cut it up into thirds.

When did you realize you were wrong about something?

In Okta’s early days, our go-to-market approach was totally wrong. We focused on SMB instead of enterprise and missed many of our sales forecasts for two years. The failure was extremely painful, and it could have sunk us. Looking back, I understand why it happened. When you start out, big companies are not going to take your calls, and we were just trying to find a modicum of success. But in the end, there was a much bigger demand for what we do in enterprise.

As co-founders, we were trying to figure out what was going on ourselves during that time, and we didn’t do a good job of communicating to the rest of the team. Engineering would build something as planned, and then wonder why it wasn’t working. In hindsight, we should have just said, “Hey, our go-to-market is off. Let’s do a six-month plan and see how it works.” Eventually, we learned to communicate more, and more often. We started doing a weekly all-hands meeting with blind Q&A, and we still do, even though it’s by far the most expensive hour of our week. It’s that important to make sure everyone’s on the same page.

What unit of time matters the most and why?

In a professional environment, I think it’s minutes, because you’re trying to be as efficient as possible. If I have seven minutes before my next meeting, I know which two things I can tackle with that time.

But at home, I think it’s years. Part of that is biological necessity—if you really remembered every moment of the first six or nine months of your child’s life, we’d probably be extinct. Erasing that tape is what allows you to think, “Yeah, we should definitely have another kid.” And parenting is all about the long run. You make mistakes in the moment, but what matters is that the kids are taken care of and get a lot of attention and love.

Hard-won advice