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Seven Questions with Mike Vernal

Classic advice for founders from the Sequoia community.

Mike Vernal joined Sequoia in 2016 after eight years as a VP of Product and Engineering at Facebook. In college, he was once pranked by his freshman year English professor for “misattributing quotes” after his last-minute spell-check changed his paper on Salman Rushdie to one on “Salmon Residue.”

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

Most conflict is rooted in information asymmetry. When I was at Microsoft, I remember one of the VPs saying, “Look, it’s not easy to get a job here. Always start by assuming that the other side is smart and well-intentioned.” I try to remind myself of that whenever I’m in a tense situation. If there’s conflict, I assume there’s something the other person is seeing that I’m not, or vice versa. If you work through that asymmetry and there’s still a conflict, at least you’ll better understand each other’s perspectives and can hopefully find common ground.

The same mindset is helpful when you’re mediating a conflict. It can be easy to decide that one side is right and the other is wrong, but there are usually elements of truth on both sides. At Facebook, we had one team working on our public Graph API, and then another team started the GraphQL project. The API team was worried that the new team was duplicating their work. The GraphQL team was worried they’d be deprioritized if they joined forces. In a situation like that, you have to really understand and be able to argue both sides before weighing in. When everyone feels like you deeply understand their point of view, it’s easier to say, “Here’s what I think we should do.” In that case, we kept the teams separate and GraphQL has gone on to have an industry-wide impact.

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

When you’re deciding whether to start a company, or what company to start, don’t over-intellectualize it. I’ve seen very smart founders begin with a Google Sheet full of startup ideas and systematically go through it, trying to figure out which idea is the best. That might work at first, but when you’re three years in, everything is going wrong and you just want to give up, how emotionally committed are you going to be to idea No. 23? At some point, all startups are irrationally hard. To have the motivation to push through, I think you need to be working on something authentically important to you.

That goes for other important decisions, too. So many high-performing people spend a good chunk of their lives playing by other people’s rules and optimizing for external validation. They go to Harvard or Stanford or law school or business school based on what they think they’re supposed to do—instead of figuring out what their actual purpose in life is. Most successful people spend time on things that are prestigious rather than meaningful. The happier ones figure out how to flip that.

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

In college, I was proud of the fact that I only slept four hours a night and pulled multiple all-nighters each week. Looking back, I’m horrified. Consistently getting a good night’s sleep has made me so much smarter.

Like a lot of engineers, I used to stay up late—but then I’d have early-morning meetings sometimes, so my schedule was irregular. At the same time, Bay Area traffic was getting worse, so I started leaving for work at 5:30 a.m. to beat the rush. Now I’m in bed early and up at 5 a.m. most mornings. The difference in my productivity is night and day.

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

Of all the courses I took in college, probably three-fourths were in math or computer science. I gained a pretty deep understanding of how computers work from the operating system level up, and I’m grateful for that. But I do wish I had a more formal understanding of some non-CS areas, like macroeconomics. I’ve intuited a lot from working on multiplayer products that have complex incentive structures. But I don’t have the formal language.

I also wish I could go deeper on the hardware side. I have a decent understanding of systems down to the kernel level, but my knowledge of how that maps to the underlying system architecture is much more anecdotal. I can’t easily intuit what’s happening on the chip. For most software companies, I can usually guess how things work in pretty good detail. For a semiconductor company, I’m a novice. Luckily, we have folks like Bill Coughran who understands chip architecture incredibly deeply.

What books are on your nightstand right now?

The Power Broker, by Robert Caro, who is an exceptional biographer. This was his first book, about a guy named Robert Moses who was a public official in New York and probably the most prolific civil builder of the 20th century. I’m only a few hundred pages in—it’s more than 1,200 pages long.

Moses was a complex character. He built New York as it is today, including most of the parks, roads, bridges and tunnels in Long Island and New York City. He was an optimist—his initial motivation was to bring nature to families who lived in the poorest neighborhoods in the city. But at the same time, he displaced hundreds of thousands of people and contributed massively to the congestion and traffic in NYC. He destroyed entire communities in the name of progress. To me, the book highlights the tension between progress and stasis. It’s also interesting to see how history may view the builders of today.

When did you realize you were wrong about something?

I struggle with unstructured time. My schedule often pushes me to be as efficient as possible, and I often project that world view onto other people. I assume they’re as careful about their time as I am about mine. For instance, I would never just call someone on the phone and say “What’s up?” I feel like I need a reason or agenda.

But I know that some of the best thinking and conversations come from brainstorming—toying with an idea out loud in an unstructured environment. And for many people, it’s one of the key ways to build trust and rapport, as well. So I’m trying to embrace that and be more careful about projecting my efficiency-driven personality onto others.

What unit of time matters the most and why?

6 to 9 p.m., because that’s when I get to go hang out with my kids. It sounds clichéd, but it’s the best part of my day. I recently heard someone say that the best predictor of resilience as an adult is the amount of love and support you get in your first five years. So I’m trying to make sure I spend as much time as possible with them while they’re still small—and while they still want to spend time with me.