This interview was originally published in EE|Times Weekend. Reposted with permission.
Jonathan Ross is Groq’s founder and CEO. Prior to founding Groq, he began what became Google’s TPU effort as a 20% project, where he designed and implemented the core elements of the original chip. Jonathan next joined Google X’s Rapid Eval Team, the initial stage of the famed “Moonshots factory,” where he devised and incubated new Bets (Units) for Google’s parent company, Alphabet. Jonathan studied mathematics and computer science at NYU’s Courant Institute and in his second year was the first computer science undergraduate to complete courses restricted to Ph.D. students.
What personal projects will you be working on this weekend, Jonathan?
I’m still a relatively new CEO, so I spend my weekends learning: reading, thinking, and meeting with people. Living in the Bay Area, I meet up with a lot of other CEOs and founders to trade war stories and to seek out their wisdom.
What book do you read over and over again?
This is a really exciting question for me — here comes some uncontrollable geek-out! I actually spend a lot of my free time reading, about one or two books a week (I cheat and listen to audio books). I don’t know that I’ve ever read a book twice, but I do have books I recommend over and over again. Here’s a mix list of 10 off the top of my head:
- If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look On My Face? (Alda)
- Turn The Ship Around! (Marquette)
- The Courage to Be Disliked (Koga and Kishimi)
- When Things Fall Apart (Chödrön)
- No Rules Rules (Hastings and Meyer)
- Influencer (Grenny, Patterson, Maxfield, McMillan, and Switzler)
- Non-Violent Communication (Rosenberg)
- Never Split the Difference (Voss)
- Decisive (Heath & Heath)
- Superbosses (Finkelstein)
Who has inspired you most in your life/career?
When I first became a CEO, I wasn’t very confident, and about two years into Groq, I was struggling as a leader and on the brink of failing everyone.
The CEO of a well-known company offered to let me shadow him for a day, which was super generous. He managed about 2,000 people, and he let me follow him from the time he arrived to the time he left, including in highly confidential meetings, all completely uncensored. It started with his morning brief with his chief of staff, followed by some product decision meetings, offsite planning meetings, one-on-ones with his staff, meetings with his leadership team — it was a little bit of everything. There were two really important things that happened that day that altered my leadership style.
First, in each meeting, when it came time for the CEO to ask a question, to make a decision, or to offer guidance, his response was exactly what I was thinking I’d do. He was certainly more polished about it, but it was the same idea. That meant that I actually knew what to do, and whether I was right or wrong, I at least could make the same calls as this ultra-successful CEO. I left that day with a sense of confidence I’d never had before.
The second thing that shifted my leadership style was that three or four times throughout that day, we stopped so he could debrief and sync with his chief of staff. When that happened, they also asked me for my feedback and observations. Shockingly, I had noticed things of value that they hadn’t. That was when I learned the value of being an outsider to situations. With much less experience, and with much less context, I was noticing things they weren’t, not despite the fact that I didn’t know what was going on but because of it. Since then, I’ve cultivated having the appropriate amount of naivety in the room when making any important decisions.
Now, that’s not the typical “I was inspired by someone” story, and I bet this CEO would be surprised that I picked them as the person who inspired me most in my career. I think there’s a lesson in that too, which is that people are more inspired by the actions of people than by the people themselves. If you want to inspire people, stop worrying about who you are and instead focus on what you do.
What is the biggest threat to society posed by technology today?
What advice would you give to early-career engineers or people wanting to start a company?
I wrote, then deleted, then wrote, then deleted a ton of advice. It’s much easier to say what to do than to actually do it. It’s also context-sensitive. Instead, I’ll just share some signs that you need to watch out for:
- Someone says, “That can’t possibly be right, because if it was, everyone would do it.” When I hear that, I know we’ve either come up with something really good or something really stupid, but it’s certainly not mediocre. Pay attention when you hear this, because all breakthroughs are initially things that no one does until they know about them, and then everyone does them.
- Anxiety, worry, and terror are all the same thing, just to differing degrees. If you’re not feeling fear, then you’re not doing anything important. So when you feel fearless, stop and re-evaluate what you’re doing wrong with your life.
- Your team is the people you’re willing to share rough drafts with. So if you feel the need to withhold information or are worried to share something early with someone, then you’re not working with your team. Fix that situation ASAP — it’s toxic!
How would you describe your leadership style?
I’m still figuring it out, but there are some things that seem to work for me. Say things that are difficult to disagree with, that guide people to make their best decision. Don’t whisper; broadcast. Hire people smarter and better and get out of the way. Effectiveness is better than being right. Learn, learn, learn. Grow people. T-shirt and jeans. Let others speak. Treat my team’s time as more valuable than my own. Maximize talent density. Defy gravity. Get comfortable being uncomfortable. Fear is a sign you’re doing something that matters. Recruit, empower, appreciate, and decide. Every. Word. Matters.