When The Tough Get Coding
There’s a common belief in the software industry that you either write the code or you help market, sell and support the customers who use the code.
Amer Deeba is the rare executive who can do all of the above. During the first decade of his career, Deeba acted as a “hardcore developer,” and was even one of the original engineers on the Acrobat project for Adobe. That said, he’s always been drawn to the product side of building software, especially when it comes to understanding the customers who benefit from it. Since his days as an engineer, he’s held roles as a GM, CMO, CCO, and VP of corporate development and strategic alliances at various tech companies.
As a first-generation immigrant from Marjaayoun, Lebanon, Deeba has overcome many obstacles along the way to a successful career and life, including discrimination and cruelty from coworkers.
I had the opportunity to interview Amer recently. Here are the highlights of that interview:
Jill Griffin: Where did you grow up? Describe your early childhood and its significance on your life.
Amer Deeba: I was born in 1967 in Marjayoun (in English it means “meadow of little creeks”), a small picturesque town in southern Lebanon. The military conflict that would lead to civil war eight years later was still intensifying.
Growing up, my brothers and I enjoyed a wonderful childhood full of love, family and playing outside in the fields — until the conflict erupted in 1976. The sound of military jets, machine gun fire and bombs became a part of my daily life. Many friends and relatives got hurt or killed. Eventually the fighting got so bad where we lived that, in the middle of a siege, my mother smuggled me and my brothers out of town in the trunk of a taxi. We headed to Beirut to seek shelter and refuge.
While the war continued around us, my home was always filled with love. My parents did their best to protect us. They stressed the importance of education, telling us it would give us the chance to build a better future. My brothers and I took their advice to heart. We all became professionals. I graduated from the American University of Beirut with an Electrical Engineering degree, and later moved to California to pursue a master’s degree. I’ve lived here ever since.
As chaotic and crazy as it was to grow up in a war zone, it gave me a great perspective on life. I don’t take for granted the privilege of living in a free, democratic society with civil liberties, peace, and opportunity. I learned to be resourceful and resilient. My experience taught me it’s important to be decisive, and to trust my judgement. It made me prioritize life-long learning and hard work. I have always been willing to stretch beyond my comfort zone to grow personally and professionally.
Griffin: When did you first get the whisper you belonged in business?
Deeba: The first whisper came about five years into my engineering career. I was working at Verity, and then the CEO, Philipe Courtot, started pulling me into customer meetings and product management work. He felt I understood customer needs and communicated well with them.
Fast-forward to five years later… I was starting to feel like I’d hit a plateau. At the time, I had a plum engineering job at Adobe writing software for Acrobat. Philippe had become the CEO of Signio, a payment services startup, and offered me a job there, but on the business side. I jumped at it.
After Signio was sold to Verisign for $1 billion, I became Verisign’s GM of Payment Services and achieved sales growth of 150%. In 2001, Philippe again recruited me. This time it was to work at Qualys, where I held various roles for more than 17 years, including CMO, VP of Development & Alliances, and Chief Commercial Officer.
Now as President and COO at Moogsoft, I’m applying all I’ve learned about sales, marketing, product management, customer success, and strategic alliances — always putting the needs of our customers first.
Griffin: Was there an early teacher that inspired you? Who and how?
Deeba: Yes, Philippe. He gave me my first opportunity to branch out from engineering to the business side and became my mentor. I learned so much from him throughout the years: How to design and build a technology platform; How to run a business at scale; How to understand the customer’s point of view; How to deal with competitors; How to market a product; How to view things not from the conventional angle but from the correct angle. And much more.
Griffin: Describe a painful setback in your life and what it taught you.
Deeba: Leaving home to pursue my master’s degree in the U.S. was traumatic at first. During the first six months, I felt so out of place, homesick, and disoriented that I would have gone back without a second thought. Problem was, I had no money. Working through those challenges in my early 20’s helped me grow and mature, and ignited in me a drive to succeed despite personal obstacles.
Griffin: As you rose in your career, what obstacles did you encounter and how did you deal with these?
Deeba: All sorts of obstacles. They’re always there, yet I take each challenge as an opportunity to learn. It’s the nature of business. Being involved in taking Qualys public in 2012 was full of challenges. But as you face and deal with all those obstacles and challenges, you learn and hone your leadership skills.
Griffin: The tech world is extremely competitive. How did you set yourself apart from others early on in your career, and how do you continue to offer a unique perspective that allows you to provide continued value as an executive?
Deeba: My leadership style is based on understanding things before I act. That means doing my own research and then talking to people who have relevant knowledge and information, whose opinions are valuable. Then I feel confident about making the right decision.
That’s why, once I’ve made a decision, I don’t look back. I don’t get distracted by others. If you’re hesitant and doubt yourself, you’ll suffer from “analysis paralysis” and people around you will lose confidence. What’s worse, the people you manage will sense your lack of conviction and may become confused. I move forward with conviction, but if and when I realize I’ve made a mistake, then I pivot quickly.
Griffin: What’s a great piece of business or life advice you received, who gave it to you, and how has it enhanced your life?
Deeba: In business, Philippe taught me the power of packaging technology to make it broadly accessible, and not just for a technical elite. Democratizing technology is something I’ve focused on at Moogsoft, so our software is always becoming easier to deploy, adopt and use. That involves not just the software features, but also everything around it like licensing, support, packaging — the complete customer experience. That’s what makes any technology ubiquitous.
In life, my wife gave me the best advice: To be more mindful. With her help and encouragement, I started practicing mindfulness and it’s been very beneficial. Mindfulness lets you be in the present moment. It increases your emotional intelligence. It helps you understand your situations, make better decisions, and become calmer, less reactive, and more engaged.
Having grown up surrounded by civil war, I naturally try to anticipate problems so that I can proactively and quickly address them. But too much of that attitude creates unnecessary anxiety, especially when concerns are unjustified. Anxiety prevents you from appreciating the present moment. These mindful qualities are important for business leaders as well, to project calmness and confidence.
Griffin: Please give me the top 3 bullet points in your Personal Leadership Credo.
One: Be customer centric.
Two: Have empathy for the parties affected by your decisions.
Three: Understand priorities in order to make the right decisions, so they come from a place of conviction.
With this credo when I make a decision I’m 100% sure it’s the right thing to do, and make others believe it as well. All team members are on the same page, believe in the same mission, and move towards the same, clear goal.
Griffin: What advice do you have for young, talented, ambitious individuals who want to rise?
Deeba: Seek out what you love and go for it. That’s what I did. I set goals and pursued them. Get a good education, seek the right mentors, insert yourself in the right situations, make yourself relevant. Believe in yourself. You can be your own best friend or your worst enemy.
Leaving the comfort of Adobe to join a startup was by all accounts risky and counter-intuitive, but it turned into the best thing I ever did. I gained new skill sets and experiences. Every time I took on a new role at Qualys, it was one I’d never done before. I put myself out there to learn and to grow. Philippe always told me: “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Even if you fail, failure comes with valuable lessons and experiences. With every new skill, new role, every risk and failure, you get better. That’s the secret.