How surviving a civil war in Sri Lanka fostered startup passion for this Usermind executive

Usermind vice president of product Arun Theivendirarajah traveling with his wife and son. (Photo courtesy of Arun Theivendirarajah)

An upside to surviving nightmarish life experiences: it’s great for keeping things in perspective.

At least that’s the case for Arun Theivendirarajah, Usermind’s vice president of product.

Theivendirarajah grew up in Sri Lanka during part of its prolonged, deadly civil war. His family fled to Canada in 1992 when he was 13 years old. At that point, the war had stretched nine years and some of the island country’s key infrastructure had been destroyed. Though he was the son of a university professor, Theivendirarajah hadn’t been to school for a year before his family left.

When you’re living in a war zone, “every day you survive, you’re lucky,” he said. “It was a dead end if we stayed there, literally and figurative.”

Theivendirarajah went on to study computer engineering at Ontario’s University of Waterloo. He first came to Seattle for an Amazon internship, which later became a full-time job for the company in software development. His most recent role before coming to Usermind in 2016 was with RichRelevance, a San Francisco-based marketing company with an office in Seattle.

Arun Theivendirarajah, Usermind VP of product. (Usermind Photo)

His years in Sri Lanka shaped his work style in essential ways, Theivendirarajah said. That includes his positive outlook, an ability to empathize with customers, and a drive to never give up.

“You don’t give up. You fight ‘til your last breath,” he said. “That is why I love startups. It’s always a fight. You can’t quit on yourself.”

Theivendirarajah’s role at Usermind, a Seattle-based company founded in 2013, includes oversight of product vision, strategy and execution. Usermind works in what’s called customer experience orchestration — essentially helping large, Fortune 500-level companies that often have lots of siloed operations to communicate smoothly with customers. He gave the example of a large bank that has individual divisions working on mortgages, credit cards and savings, and customers needing to interact seamlessly with all three. Usermind helps make that happen.

When working with his team members, Theivendirarajah tries to identify what motivates them individually to keep them inspired. He realizes that his experience is rarely directly relatable.

His approach is “more of a lead by example,” Theivendirarajah said. “It’s hard to tell somebody with a completely different upbringing that you should fight until you have nothing left.”

We caught up with Theivendirarajah for this Working Geek, a regular GeekWire feature. Continue reading for his answers to our questionnaire.

Current location: Seattle

Computer types: Work = Mac

Mobile devices: iPhone, iPad

Favorite apps, cloud services and software tools:

  • G Suite: Real-time collaboration is paramount when you need to work fast. I can’t believe we used to pass Excel spreadsheets in email.
  • Figma: UX design tools have come a long way, and Figma leads the pack because it serves the needs of the designer and the product manager.
  • Intercom: I am very impressed with their seamless on-boarding. I value products that prioritize ease of use and intuitive design for first-time users.
  • Google Photos: The image search is really good… so good it’s a bit creepy!
Theivendirarajah’s intentionally spare workspace at Usermind. (Usermind Photo)

Describe your workspace. Why does it work for you? My desk is adjacent to my team. We sit in an open floor plan with a ton of natural light and windows in all directions. The brightness and open-air feel energizes me. The openness also enables ad-hoc collaboration and team building. My workspace is free of clutter (only a laptop, monitor and a picture frame). I am a strong believer that having order, structure and simplicity in your physical space transpires to a focused and clear mind.

Your best advice for managing everyday work and life? Set boundaries and strictly adhere to them. Then, clearly communicate those boundaries to your coworkers and your family.

For example, I set the expectation with my coworkers that every evening I leave work no later than 5:30 p.m. It’s important to me to be home for dinner and to spend time with my two toddlers until they go to sleep. Later in the evening, I will sign back online to finish my work for the day. This routine has three great benefits:

  1. The 5:30 p.m. deadline forces me to prioritize and complete the most urgent and collaborative projects during the day.
  2. My evening work time is free of interruptions, which is conducive to tasks that require deep, independent analysis and synthesis.
  3. Finally, and most importantly, the three hours with my wife and kids allow me to be completely present and focus on my family without work-related distractions.

I truly believe that working smart means you take time off to decompress and re-energize. When I am on vacation, I rarely check email. I set the boundary that if someone needs me, they must call me.

Your preferred social network? How do you use it for business/work? I have greatly reduced the time I spend on social media. You can easily get sucked into the infinite scroll of today’s social network feeds. For business, I only use LinkedIn for recruiting talent and to learn about potential new customers.

Current number of unanswered emails in your inbox? Way too many. Let’s just say it’s triple digits.

Number of appointments/meetings on your calendar this week? 22

How do you run meetings?

  • I set the agenda for the meeting when I send the meeting invite — nothing makes me crazier than someone running a meeting with no purpose or explicit objective. I try to give as much context to the individuals beforehand so that they know why they are there and understand what’s being asked of them during the valuable time we are together.
  • I leave the last 5 minutes of the meeting to summarize key points and agree on next steps.
  • I expect everyone to join the meetings on time. If they can’t join on time, I expect them to let me know prior to the start of the meeting.
  • For our weekly team meetings, I rotate asking different members to lead the discussion. This gives everyone a sense of ownership and accountability.
A Theivendirarajah family portrait. (Photo courtesy Arun Theivendirarajah)

Everyday work uniform? I like to mix it up. One day it might be a blazer, dress shirt, dark denim and white sneakers, and the next I may wear joggers and a hoodie.

How do you make time for family? My family is the core of my being. They are my No. 1 priority above all else. My relationships with my wife, kids, siblings and parents are what fuel my professional drive. Just holding my son in my lap for five minutes washes away all the stress from a hard day at work. This allows me to reset and return to solving difficult problems.

Best stress reliever? How do you unplug? Cooking (there’s a Zen in preparing a great meal from nothing), traveling (preferably to a tropical/warm climate), family time and — I won’t lie — a good cocktail goes a long way in reducing stress.

Having children reinforced Arun Theivendirarajah’s commitment to prioritizing time spent away form work. (Photo courtesy Arun Theivendirarajah)

What are you listening to? Max Richter

Daily reads? Favorite sites and newsletters? Stratechery, Arts and Letters (a great aggregator of long form essays and thought pieces), New York Times, Medium (I am sure this platform is a favorite of every GeekWire Geek), Hacker News

Book on your nightstand (or e-reader)? The new book by Ben Horowitz on culture: “What You Do is Who You Are: How to Create Your Business Culture”

Night owl or early riser? Early riser. Having a 15-month-old child kind of forces your hand. Unlike other super geeks, I need a solid 7.5 hours of sleep to be effective. Each night, I am in bed before 11 p.m. and up around 6:30 a.m.

Where do you get your best ideas? Listening to people share their stories and experiences is a great way to understand the human condition and tease out desires and pain points that can be addressed. I read a ton of materials that are outside of my discipline (natural sciences, economics, fashion, sports), which allows me to see the world from the eyes of people not like me.

Whose work style would you want to learn more about or emulate? There’s no one leadership style I want to emulate completely. Rather, I have read countless books about great leaders that have influenced the way I lead. I have learned to identify and adopt different attributes from individuals whom I admire.

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