The CMO Files: Yama Habibzai, Densify
Human Resources

The CMO Files: Yama Habibzai, Densify

07-03-18-yama-habibzai-densify

 

Name:  Yama Habibzai

Organization: Densify

Job title: CMO

Location: Washington D.C., US

 

  1. Where were you born and raised?
    I was born in Afghanistan and while I was a kid, my family had to escape to Germany during the 1979 war. But the Germans didn’t want us there, so we ended up in the US. Therefore, I was raised in Afghanistan, Germany and the US, and my story of escape and travel is long enough that a book could be written about it.
  2. What was your first job?  
    I studied Electrical Engineering, but in my fourth year I realized that while I loved math and science, I didn’t wish to be an engineer and loved business much more. So, I took a job as a technical support engineer at The MathWorks, which required my technical skills, but gave me the opportunity to jump into marketing. After only one month in the job, I asked the VP of marketing for a job in her department. After two years of persistence, she eventually let me make the move, to code and build the marketing demo software. I’ve been in marketing ever since.
  3. What was the first product you got really excited about?
    The first product I got excited about was in 1995 and was called Matlab, a product that The Mathworks still develops to this day. I wrote a bunch of programs with it, including a simple mortgage calculator that is still being used as a user contributed file on the Mathworks’ web site. Whilst at Mathworks, I also experienced for the first time the ‘Mosaic Internet Web Browser’ - that was a pretty cool tool too.
  4. Who has been the biggest influence on your career?
    In 2006, I came across a company by accident called Netcordia, who had just brought in a new CEO named Don Pyle. Don taught me so much in the 4 years we worked together and then went on to sell the company to Infoblox. A lot of the things I do today, and the way I manage my team, are skills I learned from Don. Unfortunately, in January of 2015, Don’s massive Christmas tree caught on fire in the middle of the night and his house was burned down. In that fire he, his wife and four grandchildren perished. He not only taught me a lot about my job, but gave me the opportunity to run marketing and I’ve been running marketing organisations in a variety of companies since then. I continue to miss him and thank him for everything he did.
  5. What has been your greatest achievement?
    My biggest achievement was with a company called SevOne. I joined the company in January of 2012, and in less than 11 months, we changed the entire company look, brand, and positioning. We got the company covered in all sorts of major media outlets, and as a result, in the end of 2012, Bain Capital made a $150,000,000 investment in the company and set the company towards a major success trajectory. I would say, that what was achieved in that short period of time, under my watch, was my biggest achievement.
  6. What has been your biggest mistake?
    I am what you would call a serial start-up CMO. I’ve joined a number of small companies, grown them to a sizeable organization and then either sold them or taken them public. I was recruited into IBM to work in their Cloud business and I took that on as a new challenge. What I learned quickly was that what I enjoy about my job, is to pull the trigger and make things happen and see the results immediately. Unfortunately, nothing happens fast at companies like IBM. It took me literally nine months to change the home page message on the web site. While IBM is a wonderful company with amazing people, it just wasn’t for me.
  7. What is your greatest strength?
    My greatest strength is in building great teams that work well together, are the very best at what they do, and fit well into the organisations. This is what I believe should be the #1 priority for every manager. If you have the best people around you, then you and the organisation succeed. I’ve had to make the difficult decision of letting people go and replacing them with better people. And that formula has worked really well. I’ve seen managers keep people that are not the best fit for too long, and that hurts everyone.
  8. What is your biggest weakness?
    Some may disagree with me, but I’ve always felt that mastering the English language has been a weakness. I’ve had to learn three languages in my life time, and I wish that I only spoke one language and spoke it perfectly, rather than three languages, with none being perfect.
  9. What do you think is the aspect of your role most neglected by peers?   
    My job keeps me pretty busy, generating marketing activities that feed sales with new opportunities, but I’m actually pretty good at sales. I’m naturally a people person and I’ve had very good success in the past getting buyers over hurdles to make a purchasing decision. I also do well in negotiations and if I had more time, I would get more involved in sales deals and help close them.
  10. Which word or phrase is your mantra and which word or phrase makes you squirm?
    My mantra is: ‘Less is more’, particularly in marketing. Across every aspect of marketing there is room for simplification to focus on the nuggets that move the needle for the business. I’ve seen so many companies make this simple mistake.  
    The phrase that makes me squirm is something I recently heard, BOHAG – Big Hairy Audacious Goal - which was introduced in the book ‘Built to Last.’ I just feel there is no such thing. You either have goals that you are striving for, or this massive type of goal that is set to make you fail, as everyone knows it’s impossible to hit. And the phrase doesn’t really sound that great either.
  11. What makes you stressed?
    What stresses me with my job, is when I feel that I don’t have everyone on the team backing a particular effort. My goal is always to go forward with everyone beating to the same drum, but sometimes you have one or two individuals that may not believe in a project or have their personal reasons for not executing towards the same plan, which causes a hiccup in the entire process. And I’m not the type of manager to force people to do things they don’t believe in. I then have to figure out how to get these guys excited and execute as expected. In some cases when this has happened, I’ve realized and learned that it’s me and not them - I have not done my homework well enough and these guys have their reasons for not executing. And we all learn something new.
  12. What do you do to relax?
    I’m an avid soccer player and it’s the only time and place that I can completely disconnect and focus on the sport. After the soccer game, I feel so alive. Also spending a day at the weekend, from morning till night, with my two young daughters is physically exhausting, but mentally I come out fresh and satisfied.
  13. What is your favorite song?
    Pick any song by Billy Joel. But if I had to pick one, “Movin Out” - by Billy Joel, of course. 
  14. Which book taught you most?
    Good to Great by James Collins. I still apply some of the concepts of that book to my day to day job, such as getting our team to sit in the right seats on the bus.
  15. Do you have a team or sport that you follow?
    I love the Barcelona soccer team. Unfortunately, I don’t have a lot of time to follow them regularly, but will watch a game when possible. I had the pleasure of being in Barcelona, Spain last year and was able to catch a game at Camp Nou, sitting five rows away from the field. It was an amazing experience.
  16. Which country would you like to work in?
    Having lived in Germany, I still have a strong connection with the country. And the fact that my wife is from Germany and she and my kids are all German citizens, also makes it interesting. I think it would be great to work in Germany for a little while – also to brush up on my German.
  17. Which company do you think has the best marketing?
    Companies like Apple do a wonderful job of marketing, but you already knew that. However, when I used to work at Concord Communications, there was a company called Mercury Interactive that we competed against, and they came out of nowhere, changed their look, messaging and refocused their testing tools against our monitoring products. Their product capabilities were below average and weak compared to ours, but the company was made so sexy and so cool inside and out, even at the product user interface level. In just 2-3 years after this massive shift in brand, HP acquired them for $4.5 billion. It goes to show the power of what marketing can do.
  18. What do you love most about your job?
    I love my job at Densify. There is nothing else I would rather do. Except play professional soccer of course, but I’m pretty sure I’ve missed that window of opportunity. What I love about my job is that it allows me to take risks, try new things, and see the results immediately. Marketing is the only department that has changed the most in the last few years, and continues to change every single day, with the introduction of new concepts, tools, social media, video, etc. How you market and how you get the best results continues to evolve, and every single day I am learning something new, or trying something new. This continuous learning, creativity and adjustments on the fly is what I love about my job.
  19. What is your favorite book?
    The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger continues to be my favorite book, even though I read it many years ago.
  20. What keeps you awake at night?
    Nothing really keeps me up at night, I’m pretty good with sleep. However, some nights my best ideas for marketing come to me in the middle of the night. I then can’t sleep for the rest of the night with excitement, eager to share the idea with the team the next day.

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