The Charleston Digital
Corridor leadership profile series is focused on the individuals who are
driving Charleston tech scene forward. This series is brought to you with support from Charleston Southern University.
What Benefitfocus CTO Taylor wants in
a job candidate
Don Taylor is Chief Technology Officer at Benefitfocus, provider of cloud-based benefits management software, located on Daniel Island. He leads an engineering team of about 700. Prior to joining Benefitfocus, Taylor started a Charleston-based technology company called Boxcar Central.
Where did you grow up? What was life like
and your memories from then/there?
I am from Framingham, Mass. It definitely crafted my view on technology, because I grew up on the 128 Beltway, which was, at the time that I was growing up, one of the major technology hubs in the world. My dad was an engineer, and all my neighbors' dads were engineers – and moms. So the culture around Boston was really about technology. And that's why it ultimately seemed like an obvious choice for me.
How did you come to be in Charleston?
I was in the Navy in 1979, and was stationed in Charleston. I left Charleston and went back to Massachusetts when I got out of the Navy, (but) it was extremely expensive to live around Boston at the time, and I had young kids. I ultimately found a job with First Federal of Charleston. They moved me back down here. I was a programmer.
In your own words, what does your company
In the last five to seven years
as a country we have been moving toward a consumer-based model for all of our
benefits. Five years ago, you would go to work for a company and they'd give
you a piece of paper and you'd sign it, and you'd get whatever you got. Now
there's the model we are moving to called defined contribution, where your
employer is going to give you, say, $500 a month, and then give you the ability
to buy whatever you want with that $500. So you can pick your own health
insurance, your own life insurance.
Our mission at Benefitfocus is to
take all of this data, this complex thing called benefits, and make it easy for
somebody to make the right decisions for themselves and their families. The
applications that we build allow a consumer to go in and purchase benefits, and
then provide you access to that throughout the year.
What is your management style?
I've always tried to create an environment where really smart people can come in and have the flexibility to do what they do best. I feel like my job is to, No. 1, help provide some level of consistency and thought across various teams or leaders of those teams, because obviously when you're building a big platform, it's all got to work together.
How has the Charleston technology
community evolved in recent years?
When I got here in 1991, there was no technology community at all. It was somewhat of a culture shock to me because I grew up in a culture of technology and startups. The neighborhood that I raised my kids in, there were no other technologists that lived in that neighborhood.
Now the growth is almost exponential. Once you get some bigger, successful software companies, like Benefitfocus, Blackbaud and some of the others in town, then they start spinning off talent. So people leave there and start their own companies and then those companies start to grow.
We've had several people from Benefitfocus who went out and built very successful companies, which is ultimately awesome. That's what we want to see happen, because then you create more and more companies, which create more and more jobs, which make it more attractive for people to move to this area.
What mix do you find between recruiting
locally and drawing people into the community?
As the years have ticked on, there are more and more people who are in Charleston who have the skill sets and cultural fit (who) would be a great fit for Benefitfocus. Also, the colleges (and their computer science programs) have grown a lot. So there are more and more people coming out of the schools that understand the technology. Plus, with large high-tech manufacturing companies like Boeing opening facilities here, it just brings more technologists.
If you looked at a curve on local hires versus importing people, we're definitely closing the ratio. We don't move nearly as many people now as we did five years ago from other states.
What lessons have you learned from good
bosses? Bad bosses?
I've learned a ton from Shawn (Jenkins, co-founder and CEO of Benefitfocus). Shawn is one of the best technologists that I've ever worked with. One of the things he's taught me is that you have to take care of yourself first. In order to live in the chaotic, high-pace, high-stress environment that we all choose to live in, if you don't have the discipline and the confidence to pack your bags and go on vacation and not be on the phone the whole time you're on vacation then you're doing everybody a disservice because ultimately you're going to burn out. You're not going to be as effective as you can be. You're not going to have the energy for the people who are counting on you.
What do you look for in the people you
Passion is really the No. 1 thing I look for, and then underneath that umbrella, would be character, aptitude and drive. Usually where I can be most successful (in interviewing candidates) is when I can get somebody talking about what they do when they're not at work. If they start getting excited about a project that they're working on from 10 o'clock to 2 in the morning every night after their kids go to bed just because they love doing that, then that gives me an inkling. If I ask somebody what they aspire to do and they say, "Well, I don't know, I'm just kinda trying to figure that out," that's not a good sign.
What advice would you give aspiring
entrepreneurs or new graduates?
To college graduates, be very crisp on your vision. I truly believe if you chose computer science as your degree path and you're passionate and you do a lot of really cool projects and the people you hang around with are doing projects, then when you sit down in an interview and you convince somebody that, "I went to college and I did good well there, but let me tell you about what I really love to do and some of the things that I've done" – that, I think, would get you furthest down the path in an interview process.
On the entrepreneurial side, I do believe to the core of my being that if you set your mind on something and you focus...focus...focus, eventually you will be successful.
What's the biggest misconception about
being an entrepreneur?
I don't think many people
understand how hard it is to get somebody to write you a check.
Are you a Mac or a PC? iPhone or Android?
I am technology agnostic. Now I have a Mac, because we switched over to Macs some time ago. But I have other computers, and I'll have Linux running on one and I'll have Windows running on one, mainly because I like to keep up with the state of each one of them and the nuances of how they all do things. The same with the handheld devices. I really don't care one way or another. I think it's good as a technologist, you should have them all.
One of my core pet peeves is people who are religious about technology. It makes me crazy, because at the end of the day they all do the same thing, just slightly differently. They all have their goods and their bads. You should just pick the right thing for the job.
What is your usual Starbucks (or other
I like Veranda. I (also) have a
Keurig, which I love. They have a great interface.
condensed and slightly edited by Ashley Fletcher Frampton