Alumnus, Connected

Monday, June 4, 2018

David Henke graduated from UC Santa Barbara in 1978, before the school had a computer science department, as the top undergraduate mathematics student in his class. He then spent 35-plus years as an architect, programmer, and senior manager in the software/internet field. He founded two successful software startups, TeamOne Systems and CAE Systems, and earned a reputation for recruiting the best talent, developing successful teams, and leading keystone projects while serving as a senior executive in charge of engineering and operations at such companies as Yahoo!, AltaVista, and LinkedIn. He is currently an advisory board member for Avid Secure, NerdWallet, Brigade Media, SignifAI, and Elementum SCM, and a member of the Dean’s Cabinet at the UCSB College of Engineering. Henke has been a “collaborator” since he was a kid growing up in Whittier, California, a small city east of Los Angeles. His friends were the children of Mexican-American immigrants, and gangs were present in his neighborhood. “If you lived there, you learned to speak some Spanish, and you learned to get along,” he says. Decades later, he directs a portion of his philanthropical giving to support immigration reform. Convergence caught up with him recently to discuss his career of collaboration.

C: You began your professional life as a programmer. How did you move into team leadership?

DH: I was the founder and principal programmer at two startups. Then I left and went to a great company called Silicon Graphics, which did all the computing for Industrial Light and Magic [founded by George Lucas to create special effects for Star Wars]. While I was there, I went from being an individual contributor to leading teams, because they told me I had to or I’d be fired [laughs]. They needed to get 64-bit computing to work and said they needed me to lead a team to do it. I soon realized that I could get a lot more done leading teams of people who had common objectives. 

C: What do you think makes you good at what you do?

DH: I’m a good team builder and recruiter. If you put five all-stars on a basketball court, they can be really terrible, or they can play together like the [Golden State] Warriors and win a couple of NBA titles. This is a very important concept, because even teams in the same company don’t always get along. They’re competing for resources. They have different priorities. If you work for me at LinkedIn, you’re working for LinkedIn; I don’t care if you’re on Team A, B, or C. And if you make an argument that we have to do this because it’s my team and my objective, and you don’t understand that Team A and Team B also have to be considered in this equation, then you can’t work for me. You don’t have the right attitude. Pretty much everybody I hire is smarter than I am. They may not be a better leader or a better coach, but they’re better players. That’s good. That’s how you win. You get the best people, and you put them together.

C: You have given generously to multiple causes. What’s your perspective on that?

DH: I am a big believer in giving back, both in time and money. I support medical research, immigration reform, and the foster system for kids. But my favorite philanthropy is for education, starting with UC Santa Barbara. It represents our future.

C: Were there any specific methods you used to ensure that teams would succeed?

DH: One thing we did at LinkedIn was to reorganize our teams so that engineering, product, site-reliability, and quality-assurance people all sat together. That way, they could build solutions together, and there could never be any finger-pointing. They either won as a team or lost as a team. Obviously, we wanted them to win. That was total collaboration; it was all about the team.

C: You have recruited hundreds of people over the years. Have you tapped UCSB as a source of computer engineers?

DH: When I joined LinkedIn, there were two hundred technologists; four years later, we had twenty-seven hundred. One of the things we did was to create an intern program and another was to recruit new college graduates. The CEO was responsible for going to the Ivy League schools, the VP of production went to the Big Ten schools, and I was responsible for going to Caltech, UCLA, and Berkeley. I told them I’d do it, but we had to add UC Santa Barbara, because it wasn’t on the list. I said, “You guys have no idea how good the school is.” I volunteered to make connections and form relationships with the professors, who, I hoped, would send us some of their most talented masters and PhDs in the areas we care about. That’s what we did, and it paid off.

C: Can you talk a bit about your “site up” perspective?

DH: “Site up” refers to the site being up and fully functional all the time. It’s crucial to people who run companies like Yahoo or LinkedIn or Google or Facebook. Those are 24/7 operations, so there is no rest, because if you go down, your customers cannot access the service. Availability, security, performance, and functionality are key. At Yahoo!, it was hard to do because it was what I call a loose confederation of warring tribes. At LinkedIn, which had a more unified approach, we were able to go from being down at least once every day to being up 99.9 percent of the time.

David Henke B.A. MATHEMATICS, 1978. Illustration by Brian Long