Molly Reed, COO — who is, in an alternate universe, your favorite coloratura soprano — joins the show to talk about starting at The Omni Group in her early 20s and helping it thrive in the years since.
She also talks about socks and sandals (don’t do it), solving problems, opera training, being a woman in tech — and about the beguiling Cleopatra the cat. Molly provides this video of Cleo totally trolling Mara the dog.
Some other people, places, and things mentioned:
Brent Simmons: You're listening to The Omni Show. Get to know the people and stories behind The Omni Group's award-winning productivity apps for Mac and iOS. Music!
Brent: I'm your host, Brent Simmons. In the studio with me today is Molly Reed, COO of The Omni Group. Say hello, Molly.
Molly Reed: Hello... Molly.
Brent: Thank you. Can't break my streak! So, the first thing I did, which I do for every interview, is I go to the About Us page on our website, and see if there's anything interesting there. I noted that, not only are you a native Pacific Northwester, but you are actively offended by socks with sandals. Now, I'm with you, but maybe you can explain.
Molly: Yes, that's a true story. I think the Northwest is generally a little bit of a fashion wasteland, and I feel like do my—
Brent: What's wrong with grunge?
Molly: I do my bit to contribute to that, but the socks with sandals thing, I just feel like, people need to make up their minds.
Brent: It's warm enough for sandals, or it's not, right?
Molly: It's kind of a binary situation, I feel like.
Brent: My mind goes straight to politics, like, there is no third party—
Brent: ...allowing you to wear socks with sandals. No. It's one or the other. Listeners, you should know, we're recording this the day after the midterms, so politics is on everybody's mind. I apologize for that. So, you're the COO, and your job here consists of ... what do you do?
Molly: That's a really good question. It's different nearly every day. In general, I would say that all of our business activities, that aren't making software, fall under my purview. The product managers report to me. The Sales Department reports to me. I do work fairly closely with Marketing, and with the other executive staff. A little bit of everything, except engineering.
Molly: So far.
Brent: So far. I hope Tim Wood isn't listening. He's thinking, "What? What? What does this mean?" Relax, Tim. I imagine a lot of your job is just solving whatever problems come up on a certain day.
Molly: Yes. I was thinking about how to describe my job to people, when I was preparing for this interview, and I feel like, the best thing that I can say about myself and my job is that I don't have very good ideas, but when other people have good ideas, I do a fairly good job of making those ideas work.
Brent: That's a huge skill. An old saying in the tech industry is that ideas are worth nothing. It's execution that's everything, right?
Molly: Right, so we try and work on that.
Brent: Brian Covey, the support manager, walked by right before our interview, and he said to ask you about the day that the crane ran into the power lines, and everything went dark.
Molly: ... Sure. Our building, two buildings ago, there was a construction site next door. They were building the condos that are now everywhere in Seattle, and it was a windy day. I feel it like it was November? It was the fall. I could be wrong about the month. Maybe I just think it's November, because it's currently November.
Brent: November now, yeah.
Molly: It was a windy day, as happens around here, and the crane operator working at the job site went to lunch, but apparently didn't lock the crane. And so, it had weight on the end of it, and it got windy, and then the crane started flopping around in the breeze, and it smashed into a power transformer.
Molly: So, our power went out, but also, the entire University village, and part of the U District, so... It's not really a story about us, though.
Molly: I don't know why that's so memorable for Brian.
Brent: Yeah, and so, you got it back up and running single-handedly, by recruiting an army of hamsters to run in wheels, or, no?
Molly: No. I had absolutely nothing to do with the event. I had absolutely nothing to do with fixing it.
Brent: Oh, okay.
Molly: But I was there.
Brent: You were there? Okay. So, note to self, next time I interview Brian, I'll ask him, "Why did you have me ask about this story?"
Molly: Yes. Every question you ask Brian should begin with "Why?"
Brent: That's fair. Brian also asks where the batch of Manny's was made. People should know that— you may not know, because it's regional, right? Manny's is a—
Molly: It is.
Brent: ... local craft brew that's quite good.
Molly: Yes. We do enjoy Manny's. The first batch of Manny's was actually brewed in the basement of Omni.
Brent: Ah, which building?
Molly: Two buildings ago.
Molly: The last building that we had a basement in.
Molly: Brewed right next to our holding tanks for our 500-gallon fish tank system thing. The first batch was strong.
Brent: Yeah, stronger. I mean, Manny's is fairly—
Molly: It was stronger.
Brent: How long did it last?
Molly: That's a good question. I don't think very long, because they were perfecting the recipe—
Brent: So, a lot of—
Molly: ... and so, there were quite a few variations there.
Brent: So, it was made by a person named Manny, right? Because it's Manny's.
Molly: Yes. Manny Chao. He used to work for Omni, and his friend Roger started Georgetown Brewing, and that was their first beer, and now they're doing fantastic.
Brent: Yeah. I've enjoyed a Roger's Pilsner, as well. It's good.
Molly: I like the Pilsner. My favorite is Bob's Brown.
Molly: But it's only released once a year, so ...
Brent: Yeah. I don't think I've tried it. But I would. So you solve problems, get things done. What else can we say about your job?
Molly: I try to do both of those things.
Molly: The actual technical bits and pieces—
Brent: So, yeah, I mean, there's a lot that goes into ... insurance, for instance, is a big deal. Got payroll—
Brent: You've got managing the people you mentioned earlier.
Molly: Yes. Payroll, making decisions about benefits, writing policies about the benefits, enforcing the policies about the benefits. Taxes, a lot of taxes.
Brent: Oh, boy, yeah.
Molly: A lot of talking to attorneys and accountants, and other subject matter experts, when something comes up that we just don't know about yet. Lots of financial reports, lots of spreadsheets.
Brent: You like a spreadsheet, though.
Molly: I like a good spreadsheet.
Brent: Yeah. Does the kitchen come under your ...
Molly: Oh, my gosh. Technically, yes. Most of the time, I encounter the kitchen when somebody needs to go to the hospital.
Brent: Oh, no.
Molly: That's why we have insurance. Yes. So I work with Jane, to help design menus, and do things like that, that are kind of meeting everybody's needs, talk about the services that we're providing in the kitchen, what kind of food we have available, making sure that all the vegetarians and meatatarians have self-reported accurately, so we don't run out of food. That kind of good stuff.
Brent: And me and Mark, the two dairy-free people.
Brent: Are there just two? I don't know. We're special.
Molly: Not going to throw anybody under the bus, but no, you're not the only two dairy-free people!
Brent: Oh, okay. It seems like the issue of gluten-free people is going to have to happen, at some point. We are in Seattle, after all.
Molly: Well, what I've said to the kitchen is that we will do our very best to take care of people's dietary restrictions, but not necessarily their dietary choices.
Brent: Okay. Yeah, that's fair.
Molly: Because we're feeding this many people, and it's family style, and we're not a restaurant, and we only have a limited staff, I think that could get out of hand pretty quickly. So they know that I don't like cooked peppers.
Molly: And I feel terrible, and yell at them, every single time they make me a dish, separate, that doesn't have cooked peppers in it. Because I'm like, “this is the sort of thing, this is exactly what you should not be doing.”
Brent: Right, right, but they're so nice.
Molly: They're so nice.
Brent: Yeah, they are, and I don't—
Molly: I just don't want them to get into trouble down the road because they've suddenly created too much work for themselves.
Brent: Yeah, sure.
Molly: That's why, when we moved to this building, too, because we were kind of aware that people had changing dietary restrictions and desires, that we really worked on expanding the salad bar, and the soup offerings, so if the entrée doesn't work for people, there should always be something available that will work for anybody.
Brent: And I've, see, I've been here for just over four years, and I have not once ducked out the street, or something, for a better lunch. I'm happy every single day.
Molly: They do a pretty fantastic job.
Brent: They really do. Yeah. You have a C-level position, and yet, as you know, you're a woman, which is, regrettably, still really rare in our industry. Have you found that to be a challenge?
Molly: The times that it has been a challenge, it's always been some external force that makes it challenging. I've been here for, almost, it'll be 20 years next year, and in a lot of ways, I've grown up at Omni. And so, the folks who have been here as long as I have, literally knew me when I was a kid.
Molly: For better or for worse. And everybody here is— just expects people to do good work, and other than that, there's no judgment around anything. So the times that I have faced challenges and judgment, or people questioning whether or not I'm “allowed” to do something, has always been external.
Brent: Like, do you have the authority to sign the lease for this building, or—
Molly: Right. Yes.
Brent: That kinds of, those kind of things?
Molly: Yes, yes. I've been asked, when writing large checks, if I really was actually able to sign the check. I took an employee to the hospital once, and the doctor asked me if I was the employee's girlfriend or secretary.
Molly: There's been some real zingers in there.
Brent: Wow, no kidding. How did said employee react to that?
Molly: This particular employee is the kindest, gentlest, most mellow person you'll ever meet.
Molly: And this is one of the two, maybe three times that I've seen him ... enraged, would be a good adjective.
Brent: Wow. I hope whatever it was, wasn't serious, and that employee's—
Molly: No. Recovered well. Doing great. Yup.
Brent: Do you feel any extra sense of leadership around this issue, or you need to do extra... Because you're a successful woman in tech, you need to, I don't know what.
Molly: I think that, for myself, and probably for most people who spend very much time thinking about this, my feelings about it are very complicated. On the one hand, I don't really want to have to think about it. I just want to come to work, and do my job, which is mostly what I get to do. So I'm very, very fortunate. But then, there are the times where you get confronted by an issue, and you do have to think about it, you do have to face it. You do have to consider how it affects, not just you, but your organization, and the people around you.
Molly: So I would like to be a good example, and for me, that means just keeping on doing what I'm doing, and doing my best work, and helping the organization grow, and not being limited because of anything, other than my own choices.
Brent: I've talked to a fair amount of young women engineers, and they often talk about imposter syndrome. And anecdotally, I feel like it hits them harder than young men engineers. You're not an engineer, but still, in the tech industry. Was that something you had to deal with? Or, you were so young, you just went for it?
Molly: On a nearly daily basis, certainly. I think that imposter syndrome is something that a lot of people face. I do, but I think I told you earlier, the advice my mom gave me once was, “Fake it until you make it.”
Brent: It's great advice.
Molly: So, I just try and set it aside, and keep doing whatever it is that I need to do for the day.
Brent: Yeah. The advice I've given people is to say, “It's the responsible thing to ignore it, and just, do what you're supposed to do.”
Brent: Right, yeah. I like that. "Fake it ’til you make it,” yeah.
Brent: Now, I've noticed, in my own life, and other white men, that we're forgiven for failure, and in fact, we might get a promotion after failing terribly, or whatever. And it is strange. I've done pretty well, and had some successes, and I've also had terrible failures. Whatever. It's all fine. It's kind of an amazing feeling, to just be allowed to ... that may not be the same for everybody, I realize.
Molly: Yes. Well, thank you for recognizing that it might not be the same for everybody. There's certainly a body of research available that shows that women in leadership positions in businesses are treated differently following failures, than men are, but again, I think that's another case of... We just need to keep doing the work. We need to keep having these conversations. We need to continue to confront assumptions that we may have made for our whole lives, and examine whether or not those assumptions are actually based in any kind of fact.
Brent: I'm guessing that a lot of this starts, even as kids. I remember, my grandparents told me, “Go out and climb the tree. No, keep going!” Like, they wanted me to fall, eventually. Learn that falling isn't that bad. And then, get up, and climb the tree again. I don't remember them telling my sister to do the same thing.
Molly: I think that there probably is a lot of channeling that happens at a young age for girls versus boys. I, again, have been so fortunate in my professional life at Omni, but I was really fortunate with my family, too, because my parents ... I don't think it ever occurred to them to not expect me to do the same things that my brothers did. In fact, my dad, starting ... I think I probably climbed my first mountain around seven.
Molly: Because it was something that he was passionate about. I was the only one who was old enough to go. It didn't matter to him that I was a girl, so off we went.
Brent: Yeah, right. Climbing with the kids, yeah. That's lucky.
Molly: No high risk behaviors here.
Brent: In my life, my mom was a computer programmer, and taught me. My dad was, too, so they both taught me, actually. My mom focused on, kind of, the aesthetics of programming. How to be “elegant,” was her word. How to write reusable code, with the least amount of effort, and so on. She taught me a ton, but I remember going to work parties, or whatever, and half of her co-workers were other women. We're talking about 1980, and I was just 12 years old, or so.
Brent: I thought, growing up, “Well, programming seems cool, and it seems like any other industry.” I didn't think about it that much, but there were men and there were women. And I later seen statistics that something like 1984 was the high water mark for women as programmers, and that it went down a lot since. Maybe it's building back up, but that it just massively... I don't know if “disheartening” is the right word, but certainly upsetting.
Brent: I feel like, at some point in the kind of distant past now, at least for engineers, things were a lot better for women.
Molly: Yeah, I didn't know that. That is sad. It's the wrong direction.
Brent: Yeah. Clearly.
Molly: I guess all I can say is, if you're a woman, and you want to be a programmer, apply to Omni.
Brent: Do we do anything, when hiring, in terms of diversity? Do we hae any different processes, or considerations, or anything that we do?
Molly: One thing that we do to ... I don't know if the right thing to say about is “promote diversity,” but we do try to have gender blind resume reviews. So, when we have a job open, we get a bunch of resumes, and before they ever go to the committee that decides who we're going to bring in for interviews, the resumes are scraped for anything that is a gender pronoun, or would implicitly reveal somebody's gender.
Brent: Does that include their names?
Molly: So, once we've done that, then we submit the resumes to the committee that's going to review them, and then we make a decision about whether or not somebody should come in for an interview, and then, after the interviews, we make the hiring decision. I'm sure that there are other companies that do that, but it's been a really interesting exercise, because we've caught instances where somebody used a description that revealed to one person, but not to another person, what their gender was.
Brent: Oh, interesting.
Molly: So we've learned that, we all have different perspectives that we see that from. And we've also ... personally, I've learned that when somebody does come in for an interview, I've had to confront my own assumptions about who somebody would be, based on those resumes. So I think it's a very good exercise, it's a very good discussion to have, and hopefully, it means that we are truly selecting the most qualified candidates, but also giving everybody an equal opportunity.
Brent: It's tricky, of course, because, when companies say, “Well, we're purely a meritocracy. We select the best qualified.” Then, there is sometimes a piling on, when you make that particular statement.
Molly: Yes, and there's actually somebody here, who I'm sure would go head to head with you about whether or not meritocracies actually exist, but—
Brent: Sure, yeah.
Molly: In the idea of a meritocracy, you're absolutely right. Because, like we just talked about, not everybody comes with the same advantages, or the same ... it's just not a level playing field all the time, and so, you do have to put work into giving people opportunities. If you think that two people with different skill sets, even, could arrive at the same level of performance, at some time, T, in the future, then you should put effort into providing those opportunities. Or providing openings for people to make opportunities.
Brent: One thing I've noticed, in the years that I've been here, is that some people have moved, from one department to another, specifically because they want this greater opportunity, and we've given them that chance, and looks like that's paid off fairly well.
Molly: Yeah. I think, in general, it's been great, and I do want to push back on your description of it being a greater opportunity.
Brent: Yeah, that's fair.
Molly: Because, a lot of times, it's just different. And I try to be really careful about categorizing different departments, or— I mean, they are departments, so they're automatically in a category, but— saying that one is more important than the other. Or one is moving up, then one is lateral, because it's all important. Everybody here is important to the operation of the organization, and sometimes, people do something for a really long time, and they decide, they want to try something different.
Molly: Sometimes, they pick up a skill in their free time, and they turn out to be so awesome at it, that Omni wants to capitalize on that skill, also.
Brent: Yup. Sure. Right.
Molly: So we've had a lot of transition, over the years, and I think it's all been pretty good. But we've also said no to people who wanted to transition, when we didn't think it was a good fit, so ...
Brent: Yeah, and I guess, when I said “greater,” I was thinking of their subjectivity. Like, for them, it would be great, if they could do this other thing.
Brent: For instance, I moved from engineering to marketing, and I couldn't say, obviously, that one is more important than the other. Without engineering, we've got nothing to market. Without marketing, we go broke.
Brent: So, before you came here, you were very young. You were 21 or so.
Molly: Yup. Now, everybody who can—
Brent: Everyone can figure out, yes.
Molly: Everyone can figure out my age.
Molly: I am newly arrived in my forties.
Brent: Newly? Well, congratulations. I surely enjoyed my forties. I'm nearly ... I've just left. Some of my best and worst years were in my forties. No matter what, if you have friends and family, and you're in your forties, it's probably going to have some rough moments. Rough years, even, but eventually, you get to be 50. Then, again, it's very—
Molly: My girlfriend, Heather, keeps telling me that I should be looking forward to my fifties. Because she says, as far as she can tell, from her friends, it's all about sitting in hot tubs and drinking.
Brent: That sounds about right, yeah. Hot tub part is optional.
Brent: But you were going to be an opera singer.
Molly: That's true. I was going to try to be an opera singer—
Brent: Sure, okay.
Molly: I think, would be a more accurate statement, but—
Molly: Yes, when I came to Omni, and for several years, after being at Omni, I was actively studying classical voice.
Brent: So, you were going to be, like, one of the Valkyries in Wagner? What was your thing?
Molly: I think that I would not make a good Valkyrie.
Brent: Okay, all right. That's fine.
Molly: My voice is, I'm a coloratura soprano. It's often called an [inna Anna 00:21:40] voice. I would, like, a lot of Mozart, Verdi, Puccini—
Molly: Would have, would be in my repertoire.
Brent: All right. I have Figaro in my head all of a sudden, now.
Molly: Also not me!
Brent: I hear you, yeah. So, soprano, that's the highest voice? And coloratura means "color."
Molly: Color, yes. It's generally described as a light lyric soprano that can move fast.
Brent: That sounds pretty cool.
Molly: It would be.
Brent: A lot of money in opera singing.
Molly: I think, maybe my financial future is more assured, being at Omni, than ...
Brent: So, did you study here locally, then?
Molly: I did. I studied music at the University of Puget Sound, when I was there, but then I started singing, post-college. And I studied with a woman, her name is Mary Curtis Verna, and she was the artist in residence at the University of Washington for a number of years. But before she came to UW, she was a singer at both the Met, the Metropolitan Opera, in New York, and La Scala.
Brent: Wow. The real deal.
Molly: The real deal, yes. Very intimidating. I did not know anything about hard work until I met this woman. She was really amazing.
Brent: I remember learning that lesson, that any kind of performance takes so much real, constant practice, to even just stay at the level you're at.
Brent: That's a ton of work. So, did she have an office at the school? Or where did...
Molly: My lessons were always at her home, which is on the back side of Capitol Hill, for folks who know the area, looking over the ship canal, and there was a spiral staircase going down into the basement, which we all called, “the inner sanctum.” Down one side of that spiral staircase, it was lined with pictures of her, in all her roles, at opera houses all over the world, most famously—
Brent: Not to be intimidating, but—
Molly: No. Most famously, Aida, and then, the other side was lined with the photos of all her students.
Molly: So it was definitely a humbling introduction.
Brent: I love that she had pictures of her students, though, too, yeah.
Molly: Yes, yes.
Molly: She was very proud of all her students, and maintained her relationship with, even students who had left, and gone on to other things, to other teachers, to opera companies throughout the world. She maintained those relationships until she passed away. She was a great lady.
Brent: Wow. Yeah, it sounds like it. So how did you go from there, to Omni?
Molly: Well, again, I was doing, kind of ... I came to Omni, about that time in my life, but it was just serendipity. I had a friend who was working at Omni, and she decided she wanted to go to Europe, and then not come back.
Molly: And asked if I wanted the job. I'm not even sure she checked in with Ken and Tim.
Brent: I think they're probably fine with it.
Molly: Hopefully! Hopefully they would have let me know if they're not, by now.
Brent: And were you, had you been studying business, or anything related?
Molly: Yes. Technically, that's what my degree is in.
Molly: My undergrad degree, but, y'know, it's college.
Brent: Yeah, right.
Molly: But, as time went on, I became more interested in the aspects of running the business enough, that I went back and got an MBA, several years later.
Brent: Oh, okay. Where's the MBA from? Is it here?
Molly: The University of Washington.
Brent: Yeah, good deal. So you have a cat and a dog. Your dog, we threw a picture up, wearing some kind of safety vest. Mara the safety dog.
Brent: I love that.
Molly: We had some floor warden training here at the office, and they gave us these ridiculous orange vests.
Molly: It just seemed like it was better for Mara to wear, than for me.
Brent: Now, Cleo, the cat, is a Bengal.
Brent: And Bengals are out of their minds, but really super smart.
Brent: You had written a few paragraphs, and sent pictures, and I posted that. I think that may have had more reaction than any other cat picture I've done, because everyone instantly fell in love with Cleo. What's it like to actually live with Cleo?
Molly: It's loud.
Molly: This is the loudest cat I've ever met in my life. If you are sitting in the basement, you can hear her stomping around upstairs. The 100-pound dog makes less noise than this cat. I come home, and if both pets are home, they're usually, first of all, both waiting right at the door, when I open it.
Molly: And Mara is goofy, and wants the love, but this cat will just sit there and screech at me.
Molly: It's never clear what she wants, and then, she usually runs away, screeching. Yeah, they're nuts.
Molly: I think I said, I don't know, maybe I didn't say this in that, when I sent you that blurb, but ... they're best friends / worst enemies.
Brent: Do they wrestle at all?
Molly: They do. When we first brought Cleo home, the dog could not deal with how excited she was. It was just like, running through her very small brain was, “oh, my gosh, it's a kitty!”
Brent: Yeah, yeah.
Molly: “It's what I've always wanted! Do you guys know about this kitty‽ Kitty, kitty, kitty!” Eventually, after a couple of swats from the cat, that wore off. But now, it's—
Brent: Cleo is pretty strong, I imagine.
Molly: She is strong, but she's just so smart and fast, and Mara's ... she's an anaerobic dog.
Brent: I've never heard that phrase before, but I get it, yeah.
Molly: Not a fast twitch muscle in her body.
Brent: Yeah, right.
Molly: Except maybe the ones in her mouth. So, the dog, every once in awhile, will walk by the cat, and snout her, and the cat usually ignores it, or rolls over, which—
Brent: Is a trap.
Molly: Yeah. And then, all of a sudden, the cat, in the blink of an eye, will just reach out her arms, and grab onto Mara's neck. And then, Mara starts shaking her head, but the cat hangs on, flapping back and forth, until Mara finally builds up enough momentum to fling the cat across the room, and then, the cat walks away like nothing happened.
Brent: Right, and there's no video, of course, because it's just impossible to—
Brent: ... Capture.
Molly: Oh, yeah. I mean, the second the camera comes out, they go to their separate corners.
Brent: So you've only made everyone love Cleo all the more.
Molly: Yeah, probably! Yes, we do love having her. I do have to admit that. I never thought I would be sitting here, telling the Internet that I'm a cat person.
Brent: You're a cat person.
Molly: Yes! I will not be ashamed.
Brent: Okay. Here's the thing about the Internet. It really likes cats, so—
Brent: ... I think that you're going to be okay.
Molly: Yes, hopefully.
Molly: This will be my big break on the Internet.
Brent: Now, I pictured a thing you mentioned earlier, in our pre-interview, was that Mara comes the closest to any dog ever, to actually rolling her eyes.
Molly: Her eyes, yeah.
Brent: Eyes, yeah.
Molly: I really, strongly believe in my heart, that if she could, she would. Yup. Like, every time that cat walks by, dragging whatever toy she wants somebody to play with, Mara, just ... I'm sure she's rolling her eyes. The cat fetches!
Brent: Yeah. Brilliant.
Molly: So we'll throw stuff across the room, and the cat goes and get it, and Mara's, like, eye roll.
Brent: I believe. So, does Mara chase the cat, ever?
Molly: Extremely rarely, and then, very short bursts. It's not really a fair contest.
Brent: Yeah, yeah.
Molly: One time, Mara sat on the cat, when she was a kitten.
Brent: Oh, boy.
Molly: Didn't care.
Brent: Mara didn't care, or the cat didn't care?
Molly: Neither one of them cared. I don't think— well, first of all, I don't think Mara noticed, until there was like, a claw in her rear end.
Brent: Ah, right.
Molly: But the cat was completely unfazed.
Brent: Until the claw comes out eventually, yeah.
Brent: Which is really just the polite cat way of saying, “Excuse me, I would like to ...
Brent: “... no longer be sat upon.”
Molly: I've changed my mind about being sat upon.
Brent: Well, on that note, I think we're probably finished. So I'll say thanks, Molly.
Brent: I'd also like to thank our intrepid producer, Mark Boszko. Say hello, Mark!
Mark Boszko: Hello, Mark!
Brent: And especially, I want to thank you for listening. Thank you. Music!