Chi Hoang, VP of Engineering at Ontra, talks about his vision, shared values, and his plans to scale during a period of exponential growth.
Ontra employee spotlight: Justin Shriber
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When Justin Shriber was in sixth grade, his teacher asked the class to write an essay about their future professions. Justin was the only kid who said he’d grow up to be a woodworker. But he didn’t stop there. He laid out in excruciating detail the woodshop he wanted to build in his garage. “To this day,” Justin reminisces, “I remember that assignment because it allowed me to dream big.” Well, dreams do come true. Justin is proud to report that he’s never parked a car in his garage–just the tools he first imagined thirty-eight years ago. At the time, Justin didn’t realize that his sixth-grade essay would inspire an approach to his education, career, and life that he’s embraced ever since.
Justin sat down to discuss his journey to Ontra, the essential ingredients in a world-class marketing organization, and how being a father of five has helped him become the leader he is today.
Justin, can you tell us more about how the ways you’ve approached your career have contributed to that success?
I love to dream big and envision what could be. That’s where the journey always starts, but the exciting part is discovering where the journey takes me. In the case of my woodshop, I had to build it one tool at a time. During the first years of marriage, finances were tight. But I had my heart set on a table saw. I remember digging through the change drawer to scrape together enough money. Even then, I came up short. I started bringing my lunch to work instead of buying it. And eventually, I got there.
My woodshop is a metaphor for how I’ve approached my career. I’m a builder, and I like to envision where I’ll be years from now. I also love to figure out how all the pieces come together to make the vision a reality. After business school, I wanted to understand business from the ground up. I joined Siebel Systems as a product manager, where I got deep into the tech. Then I transitioned to product marketing and, eventually, sales. I walked away from the experience with a solid understanding of the interlock between product, marketing, and sales. Today, I see them as pieces of a bigger picture rather than discrete functions. I think of all of those experiences as coins in my change jar. Eventually, they allowed me to cash in on something bigger.
What brought you to Ontra, and what are you most excited about?
I looked at Ontra’s customers and realized they were world-class. I knew these firms had done their homework, which gave me a lot of confidence in what Ontra had to offer.
I was also highly impressed with the people at Ontra. Ultimately, a company’s ability to rise above difficulties comes down to the team. The best teams always find a way through. Out of the gate, I felt like Ontra’s leadership team embraced this philosophy and invested heavily in attracting top talent.
I also noticed that Ontra’s client-facing teams were uniquely built. So often, sales organizations struggle because they don’t understand the customers’ problems. That’s not the case here. Ontra’s sales and account management teams come primarily from the legal and financial services industries. As a result, they have tremendous empathy for their clients. They can genuinely say, “I’ve been in your shoes, and I’ve felt your pain.” That creates massive trust very quickly. It’s a huge differentiator.
Ontra has landed on a powerful formula–great products, great people, and a unique go-to-market organization. In terms of growth and reputation, the results speak for themselves.
A big part of your role as CMO is building and scaling a world-class marketing organization. How do you envision this coming together at Ontra?
I enjoy marketing because it’s a multifaceted discipline. But to be great, you have to combine your strengths with a team of people who excel in the areas you don’t.
The best marketing organizations are built on three pillars. Product Marketing needs to understand the customer intimately, position the company vis a vis what the customer cares about most, and equip the go-to-market team with the resources to succeed. Demand Generation needs to build an efficient, scalable engine that transforms marketing dollars into pipeline. And Communications needs to build a brand that represents value and trust in the eyes of key stakeholders. When all three of these pistons are firing, everything flies.
It’s unique for a marketing leader also to have such deep experience in sales. Do you feel that your background makes you approach marketing differently?
Companies rise and fall based on the revenue they generate. As a result, I know sales plays a critical role in achieving success. I believe marketing is more than a beautiful brand campaign with a spot during the Super Bowl. The work we do should always be tied to delivering revenue. The most successful marketing organizations develop a strong partnership with sales to drive pipeline, close business, and expand customer relationships. I know how hard it is to sell because I’ve been there. But because of that, I am willing to ask sales what they need and how we can help. Success requires that we get it done together.
What’s the best piece of marketing advice you’ve received along the way?
René Bonvanie, the former CMO of Palo Alto Networks, said that a marketer must do hundreds of things to keep the lights on. While you’ll get criticized for not doing those things, you’ll never get recognized for doing them well. So his approach was to get the fundamentals squared away and then put the rest of his chips on the one thing people would never forget. There’s a great lesson in that advice that transcends marketing. Life is short, and resources are scarce. So stack your efforts deep rather than spreading them wide.
As a father of five, you’ve done a lot of parenting. Do any of the lessons you’ve learned along the way apply in a professional setting?
I like to say that I was the world’s best parent until Julie and I had our first child. Parenting is something that you never figure out. But I feel like I’ve gotten a lot better over the years. One big lesson I’ve learned–there’s no formula. As soon as I realized that each of my children was unique and tailored my parenting approach accordingly, I took a big step forward. I now recognize that my job as a dad is to help my sons and daughters figure out their gifts and how to amplify them. Not surprisingly, that’s the secret to being a great leader too.
Secondly, being a parent has helped me deal with my shortcomings in a healthier way. In the early days of being a dad, I wanted to be perfect because I knew when I messed up, it impacted my kids. The old saying that the “apple doesn’t fall far from the tree” really haunted me, and I felt a lot of pressure. Twenty-three years later, I’ve realized that while it’s important to set high expectations for myself, stumbling is inevitable. Rather than fear failure or attempt to cover it up, these days, I’m quick to acknowledge it and own it. Since my kids aren’t perfect either, I’ve realized that they don’t need a perfect dad to whom they can’t relate. Instead, they need a dad who shows them by example how to acknowledge screw-ups and say, “I’m sorry. I’ll keep trying.”
I feel a lot of the same pressure when I step into new leadership roles at work. I want to be perfect because I’ve got a lot of eyes on me. Then, inevitably, I screw up. It’s incredible how gracious my team is when I simply say, “Sorry, everyone. That was my bad. I’ll try again.” I think that approach contributes to a positive team dynamic. Once everyone is willing to take accountability for their actions, acknowledge their lowlights, and move on, you start to hit your stride.
Julie and I also really focus on teaching our children how to handle direct feedback. Today’s kids have it rough because so many forces are shaping them–social media, friends, entertainment. These influences often create an artificial sense of reality that disconnects action from consequence. I try to be honest with my kids regarding expectations and how they measure up. I want them to learn that feedback is a gift given by someone who believes enough in their potential to help them improve. I also want them to learn to detach their self-esteem from the negative and positive input they receive from others. Their inherent value is neither diminished nor increased by what others say.
On the business front, I take a similar approach. When I’m building a team, I spend a lot of time thinking about potential. High expectations and ongoing feedback are tools I use to help people grow. But I also want to keep things positive. We all want to work with people who respect and appreciate us and are a lot of fun.
While we’re on the topic of growth, care to share your biggest professional failure and what you learned from it?
Midway through my career, my boss demoted me and significantly reduced my scope of responsibility. Until that point, I’d never had to deal with that kind of professional setback, and it hit me hard. But it also caused me to reflect deeply on how I was approaching my job. I learned some important lessons. I ended up taking another job that brought me to the Bay Area, a move that ultimately led me to where I am today. Ironically, an experience that initially shook my confidence ultimately strengthened it.
Dealing with failure never gets easy, but it often brings self-reflection and pulls me out of the daily routine. It opens my eyes to new opportunities I might have otherwise missed. I think it’s also one of the things that allows us to connect most deeply as humans.
Seddiqi joined Ontra in 2017 and was tasked with building its machine learning and AI programs to analyze and understand legal contracts to augment and automate legal services.