This has been a tough year for the technology industry. In March we lost Andy Grove, and in April we lost Bill Campbell. Sadly, in May we lost Bruce Williams. Bruce had been fighting Pancreatic Cancer for the past year and a half. He had been in an experimental program at UCSF, which extended his life at least a year.
While I learned much from Andy Grove and Bill Campbell, Bruce had an even bigger impact on me, both personally and professionally, probably more than any other single person.
This article is not just a tribute; I want to talk about two very important topics for product people, the first is work-life balance, and the second is your relationship with customers. As you’ll see, both of these topics were central to Bruce’s work and life.
Most people outside of Silicon Valley would not likely have heard of Bruce, but he was a bit of a legend here. He originally was the co-founder and CEO of an early software company, Westminster Software, and then he founded Westminster Promotions, which has been going strong now since 1992, a remarkable 24 years.
Over the years Westminster has been a trusted marketing partner for literally hundreds of marquee Silicon Valley companies, including: Arista, AT&T, Cisco, EMC, Informatica, LinkedIn, Logitech, Marketo, Marvell, National Semiconductor, NetApp, Palm, Ruckus, Seagate, Stanford, Synopsis, TiVo, and VMWare, to name just a few of those you’d recognize.
Personally, Bruce was a long-time close friend of mine, and he was actually the person that convinced me to start The Silicon Valley Product Group, and he helped me in countless ways to make the business successful.
I have never written about the “work life balance” topic before because, to be truthful, I have always considered myself pretty awful at managing this balance. I have not told many people this, because it’s nothing to be proud of, but when I was working at eBay, my then three-year-old daughter asked my wife one week-end day, “Mommy, where does Daddy live?” I knew something had to change, and that planted the seed for what was to become SVPG.
The whole “work life balance” discussion never rang true for me. The way I thought about it was that there’s only so many hours in a week, and if your job actually requires at least 60 hours a week to do it even reasonably well (which I argue is the case for many roles in the tech industry), then I didn’t see how that would leave much time for family and sleep.
But Bruce showed me another approach, one that provided for a much richer personal life, as well as more satisfaction and enjoyment out of work than I had ever experienced before. I think of his approach as “work life integration.”
The key is that work and personal life don’t actually need to be so separate, and in fact shouldn’t be. You can enjoy very close and rewarding personal relationships with those you work with – customers, employees, and investors – and you can often involve your family much more in your career.
So many of Bruce’s customers became true, long-term friends. At his family events I’d often see people that I know he first met as customers. They loved (I use that word intentionally and not lightly) Bruce because they knew he genuinely cared about them and their families and their careers. He proved this in ways large and small every day.
As Bill Campbell used to say, companies care about what their leader cares about, and Bruce cared about people, so his employees cared about people.
Which brings me to his relationship with his employees.
In an era where the articles you read are often about the “gig economy” where your workforce is just used on-demand, as needed, and loyalty is an obsolete notion, the relationship Bruce had with his employees may look old-fashioned but it was amazing and extremely effective. Most of Bruce’s employees have been with him for more than a decade. Every one of them considered him much more than a manager or the CEO of their company.
Bruce not only considered this the ethical way to run a business, but also, in an industry built on relationships, the smart and successful way to run a business. Bruce developed a set of leaders at Westminster that I fully expect will carry on providing the same level of authentic care for their customers for another twenty years.
Moreover, Bruce taught me that customers, investors and employees are more alike than most people think. The investors are trading their money for equity; customers are trading their money for the product or service you provide; and employees that are trading their efforts and loyalty for their livelihood. All are usually doing this in the hopes of a long-term, mutually beneficial relationship.
So Bruce had a very large and beautiful network of relationships that blurred the lines between work and life. He also made a conscious effort to involve his family in his work. One way he did that was philanthropy. Bruce involved his family and his employees in working on causes they all believed in. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a company invest that large of a percentage of their time and services on charity causes.
So to me it is absolutely not an accident that Bruce was both a very successful entrepreneur, as well as one of the most widely loved people in our industry and our community.
For the past 20 years I have been actively trying to learn from Bruce, and become more like him. I know I have a long ways to go, but his work and life continues to inspire me.
Donations in Bruce’s name may be made to The Helen Diller Family Cancer Center at UCSF.