About This Episode

EPISODE 4 features the CEO of Pier Labs Ben Widhelm. Ben has had a major impact in the world of Software & Development over the past 25 years. Working with companies like Verizon, Yahoo, and Nexage in many areas of software engineering. From Web Interface Design, Mobile Gaming, App Development, and even the first stages of cloud storage. Ben’s leadership experience has given him incredible insight into building relationships in workplace environments. Creating a culture of transparency, accountability, and quality perspective. 

Ben’s Top 5 Leadership Tips:

Below is a summary of the Top 5 Leadership tips shared during the interview this week.  Take a listen to the episode to learn more about the thoughts behind these tips –

  1. Engineering Creativity
  2. Time Management
  3. Complete Transparency
  4. Friendship With Boundaries
  5. Empathy & Understanding

We hope you enjoy the episode. You can find even more Full Stack Leader episodes here:


Show Transcript:

Ryan: Hi, welcome to this week’s episode of full-stack leader. We’re here this week with Ben withheld. I’ve had the pleasure of working with Ben in the past, in a CTO capacity. He’s a great leader with lots of inspiring ideas. Ben welcome. 

Ben: Thanks. Ryan. Happy to be here. Great to see you. Great to do this. 

Ryan: Awesome. Maybe you could tell everybody a little bit about, your past and where you’ve 

Ben: come from. Yeah. So, you know, I’ve lived a lifetime longer than I care to admit in the, um, the software and product development world. 25 years started my career at sun Microsystems building operating systems, bound to the Java API.

 So, , kind of the real early days of that got pretty early into the web 1.0 day. ran that gamut. And then, along with you, built an amazing company in Berkeley, sold that through to Apple and stayed there for a little while to get the product and the teams integrated and then kind of went on a really long journey of kind of furious.

Mergers and acquisitions activity between, millennial, Verizon, Yahoo, Nexage. And, yeah it’s been a wild ride. 

Ryan: Yeah, you’ve really touched on a lot of different periods of the tech industry and really seen it grow up over the course of time.

You also, I know, have touched on different aspects of it, everything from, web interfaces to mobile gaming, mobile app development, really in the early stages of that, cloud storage, a whole bunch of different environments. You’ve been through a lot of experiences and I’ve actually been through a number of them with you, which has been an amazing process.

And I’ve watched the way in which you lead. Can you tell us one common theme that’s run through your leadership experiences over the last decade or two?

Ben: Yeah, it was a great question. I think the theme is culture it’s environment. That is the first, last and middle of. Achieving great things not only in building software and tools, but everywhere.

and my most effective teams, my best experiences have been in those realms where we’ve been able to engineer that and. For creativity and for Excel 

Ryan: because you’re building things and you’re trying to inspire people to innovate and create. It’s actually, one of the things I’ve noticed about you over the course of time is how much you put focus on creating an environment where people can actually.

Generate ideas, test them out, play with them. A lot of my experience with you, especially in the startup side of things, when we were working in that was, the concept of playing with different things and playing with technology and then playing as a team. Right. So we all played together. Can you talk a little bit about how that concept of playing might help people blossom into the creativity?

Ben: Yeah, I know. So , as you’re aware, when we were working together, firstly, we had a kind of accelerated. Development of the product, utilizing offshore resources. Right. Now we’re living in a virtual world, but, the kind of sense of ownership or that.

Fun or teamwork aspects often gets lost. And I think one of the things that we were able to do there, which was really exceptional, was to kind of marry those two, those two things together and make that team in Eastern Europe. Part of our team. And, in fact, as you’re aware, we, you know, brought some folks over to California and I got them H1B visas, and kind of turn them into the best evangelists for the culture that we were creating.

And it wasn’t that we were trying to get them to COVID. What was a command and control culture Eastern Europe, but to kind of marry those two things together I don’t want to say laissez Faire what we did was we created a hybrid and that was accountability. And at the same time, the fun and the ability to think freely, to speak freely and, , kind of not have that thing be so hierarchical. 

Ryan: Yeah. I think the whole organization had kind of a flow to it.

Right. And it felt very much like it’s funny because. Literally in Santa Monica next to the waves where you could go surfing and it had kind of that flow. I think that speaks to a lot of the Silicon beach environment and like the kind of playfulness of Santa Monica and you brought in this very pure engineering mentality and marry those two things.

And it actually created a great environment. We all like working there. 

Ben: Yeah. As I was saying, the most rewarding parts of my career had been about helping people find those scenarios, those outcomes, those environments, where they can be the best versions of themselves.

 They’ve got a voice and, um, it’s not so easy sometimes. Right? I mean, I think there, air can be sucked out of the room, especially when you’re dealing with, , companies raising lots of venture capital and lots of things at stake and, kind of life or death circumstances at every juncture.

 But knowing that. Where doing things that are going to create value is going to be . Beneficial to folks that are involved and making sure that again, you’ve nurtured that environment for creativity and innovation. Okay. As you’re, as 

Ryan: you’re working with more advanced engineers or more advanced business leaders like CEOs, now I know you’re you do a lot of support and a lot of company building.

That’s a big part of what you’re doing. Do you find that there is a balance of where you like really create connection with them versus like apply pressure where necessary and is there a formula to that? Or how do you, how do you engage? I, 

Ben: I wish I could tell you that there was a formula for it.

 I do think everything has to start with the connection. Right, it’s connection with accountability. One of the themes that I’ve carried for. I’ve tried to create a family- like environment, like a pirate ship sensibility amongst the groups that I’ve worked with.

 The ship sinks if people aren’t doing their jobs. So it’s um, yeah it’s cordial. It’s comradery but with accountability. 

Ryan: Tell me a time where a team’s been on like a really great pirate adventure together that you’ve been deep in. 

Ben: Well as you’ll recall, one of our anchor clients back at Berkeley, it was, Rovio a developer of angry birds. And it was a bit of a white whale for us that was there, the foreign away like the biggest game at the time.

Yeah. the leading player in the app ecosystem and based in Helsinki. So that required that you and a lot of other team members were, getting on the phone and about 11:00 PM working a full day in Santa Monica and then getting on the phone, at night and just going through everything that we were trying to accomplish.

 Going to Helsinki to meet the executives from Rovio was, was maybe one of the funniest experiences ever. So, there’s a Sonic culture in Helsinki. And, You will probably remember one of our engineers. What went into the sauna and then decided he was going to take a plunge into the, as cold and then the ice cold water.

 Right afterwards. And, that was a mistake. I think he still rues it to this day, but like those kinds of experiences, I kind of having that moment, having that time. And creating those relationships and those experiences gets you through a bunch of the drudgery. Yeah.

Ryan: Yeah. The bonding in doing those kinds of things together, or I would remember simple things of that same organizational experience. I remember simple things like, you remember the, the board that we would spin and people could win prizes on it, but like, the bonding that came out of just those, it brought that team rather than, 

Ben: yeah, this was, this was fantastic.

I mean, we were integrating ads into mobile apps and then they are not necessarily the most world changing kind of thing to do, but, Yeah, the wheel, which we respond to every Friday, had real prizes on it too. I mean like apple TVs and nights at nice hotels, but nobody ever wanted that.

What they wanted was to humiliate you and me, that was like let’s get Ben to dress up as a break dancer and have him break dance on the third street promenade. Have Ryan dress up in a presentation one time you remember that? That was awesome. And we all, yeah, we had a virtual burning man in our office.

Ryan: That was fantastic. Was kind of adventures though.  They like brought people together. that whole team was loving that moment. How do you think I got a question for you? So kind of hold 

Ben: So kind of hold on before, we move off of that one. What was the one?, did Ben have to shave his back?

I think so. I think the shape is back. I think so. Yeah. , he also took a lot. Yeah, he deserved it. 

Ryan: It was really fun. So could you do something like that? And you’ve worked in both startup environments, which that was a very true startup experience, versus maybe a more corporate culture, like a Verizon or like an apple or something like that.

How did those things translate into, in your experience kind of jumping back and forth 

Ben: Between them? You know, I think there, there obviously are opportunities to create that startup mentality within the bigger organizations. Again, , having had the opportunity to be at the, really the early stage ground level, and then being at monster companies like Verizon, it’s easy.

It’s easier to create. , fun and easier to create innovation at the lower level. You have to really focus on it at the big company level. , you have to pause, you have to fight to create that because you’ve got so much inertia and you’ve got so much process and people and things that are in place there too, I mean like you need to disrupt.


Ryan: And get people excited again. Right. And have them have fun and bring that kind of pirate mentality to the projects that you’re 

Ben: working on. Yeah. And bringing the startup culture into bigger companies

Ryan:  So let me ask you the question again. So taking that kind of playfulness or that pirate mentality, how do you bring that into a larger corporate culture? Like a Verizon or an apple or one of the bigger organizations that you’ve worked with over the course of time?

Ben: Well, yeah, I mean, I’m looking, all about creating interpersonal relationships. Right? Right. That’s not something happens naturally, especially in today’s world where you’re just zooming into everybody. I think you need to invest in the time outside of the kind of normal structure of meetings and everything else.

And like, yes, . Google does the , oh, let’s start every meeting with five minutes about how everybody’s weekend was. And in my experience that doesn’t work. you can’t kind of try and integrate that into your normal workflow. What you need to do is engineer that piece, that time, we’re going to sit down and we’re in our cocktails, or we’re going to just talk about.

Not work and it’s been a pretty good experience with me. Like If horizon, as I was onboarding my group of directors, some of which I had no prior knowledge of, right. Just kind of pieces moving around, , I didn’t want to hear a thing about what they were responsible for or kind of what their experience was.

It was more like, let’s just get to know you as a person, man. You like golf, you like skiing, let’s be there, like drop everything right now and let’s be people ’cause it sounds super simple, but like, nobody takes the time. 

Ryan: Right. Yeah.

Everybody’s like, let’s get to work. 

Ben: Yeah. And, by and large, like, look everybody works to work, but I’m taking that moment to say like, Let’s drop everything. Let’s find out about each other, as people as huge , it goes a long way 

Ryan: and it creates a lifelong friendships like this.

Right. Yeah. That’s great. I really appreciate it. 

 As we’ve just heard, Ben has access to the powerful hybrid of accountability and fun to generate a creative team. He has a special leadership skill that fuses a bond between the members of his teams and helps them become the best versions of themselves. Silicon valley has long used flexible collaboration work environments to get the most out of their engineers and keep them inspired to deliver consistent innovation.

Ben, however, brings a unique Los Angeles beach approach to this, which has regularly resulted in an organic playful team experience. Great leaders know that creating impactful projects and guiding teams through grueling engineering initiatives can be difficult, but they also know that extracting the enjoyment of a team bonding experience can be a centerpiece to make it all worthwhile.

Alright, we’re back with Ben and we’re going to run through his top five leadership tips and we’ll roll through these pretty quickly.

I know you’ve got some good ones. So let’s start with, give me a number one. What’s a leadership tip. 

Ben: So, these are all kind of, fit in the same context, right? It’s about creating the environment. Engineering creativity. Yeah. So the word is take a pause, right?

As a leader, sometimes, you know the answer and I’m letting somebody get to it, letting somebody describe it, is big right? In the meeting. Don’t dictate it. Listen, take a pause. Open it up for them. Yeah. Yup., You got to manage your time you gotta be relentless about it. Right.

I have had relatively well structured one-on-ones and group meetings with the teams that I’ve worked with there and everything that works is when. You’ve got your time set up and yeah, things fall apart. But if you are relentlessly managing your time, the rest of the team will see that and they will use that example and hopefully do the same.


Ryan: amazing. All right. What about number two? 

Ben: Number two. Um, Transparency until it hurts. Yeah, I mean just. Obviously in some certain things where  you’re legally obliged not to be as transparent as you can, but , the way that I’ve succeeded is to be transparent to a fault.

Ryan: How does that help?

Ben:I think it creates the credibility and the trust, which is everything in a relationship, right? If you’re being open and honest at all times, and as a leader, at certain times, you’ve got to sell a story and you gotta spin, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.

 I think it’s a matter of mutual trust, right? I am trusting you as our relationship here to be able to deal with this information good or bad and, not gossip, I would on that spectrum, I would air on the side of the meat hook reality


 Awesome. So what about number four? Ben. 

Ben: So, as we were talking about earlier, I I’d like to call it friends with boundaries. Right.

I’ve tried really hard to, , kind of be a friend to everybody that I’ve worked with on my teams, but at the same time that doesn’t absolve the accountability that we hold each other to, for that matter. 

Ryan: You’ve tried to create friendships, but keeping the boundaries how’s that helpful? 

Ben: It leads into my final piece, which is the middle of my kind of tag cloud, which is empathy. Right? Yup. Understand the people that you’re working with and take the time to get to know them and, listen, there are crazy circumstances all around us at all times.

Ryan: So I think what you’re saying is that creating that friendship with boundaries, it allows empathy to open up between. People that are working together. And I think that brings up an interesting last point, which is when you’re working closely with someone, especially to build something or to create something, there is a deeper level of connection that happens that we can sometimes try and keep at a very surface level.

And sometimes we can go too deep into it to where it becomes. Immeshed in our total lives and there’s a balance in there. Right? There’s a balance in all of that where we can. Connect, but at the same time, understand the challenges we’re going through. And I think that part of empathy within the workplace is really, it’s a tricky spot to be sounds 

Ben: right?

Yeah. Certainly in the early stages of companies at the startup phase, like you’re going to war with people. Yeah. And , you have to survive a lot, I think. Yeah. , you need to kind of come to that. Integrity. And you need to come to that with kind of understanding who you’re with, like the, uh, the foxhole people, which of which I would, count you among those, knowing what’s there and being able to have that trust, have that understanding on both sides of that equation, I think is, is critical to being able to succeed

Ryan: Yeah. And bringing that into all organizations that, , no matter the size, you know, it’s really, brings a lot. So anyway, thank you. It was great to connect today. I really appreciate you taking the time. I loved all of the top fives, your stories. I really love them because I was in a number of them.

Um, it’s really great to have you be a 

Ben: part of, I keep on doing this with you. I, uh, I know we’re, we’re racing out, but this is. This is great. Super awesome. Really appreciate being here. Yeah. Great. 

Ryan: Thank you. 

It was amazing talking to Ben today. His insights of listening and transparency offered great perspectives on how he helps his teams get to what are often complex, innovative answers as an overall takeaway. I really appreciated how he called out the importance of generating mutual trust and connection in the teams.

He’s leading. By bringing people together through quality attention on their own circumstances. He demonstrates the importance to guidance and leadership through connection