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Dan Oros - Why good judgment matters 1000X more in a world with exponential leverage

7 minutes reading time

 

Dan Oros is Head of Marketing at Google and YouTube in Romania, an angel investor/starter at Accel, and a tech advisor. Previously, he was Country Manager with BlaBlaCar, one of the hottest mobility startups, and before that, he used to work in consulting for IBM and Kearney. Dan Oros has been one of our advisors since the beginning. Connect with him here.

Dani, welcome to our chat and, of course, to our board of advisors. You have a dream career path by all standards, so let's expand on that. What’s your narrative, your growth story? 
 

My career growth story has been closely influenced by the rise of the Internet and the acceleration of digital innovation.

Firstly, I was lucky enough to be the first generation that started their career in a world with unlimited access to information. This is an excellent opportunity for any ambitious professional because you can learn and grow much faster when you're one click away from world-class know-how on any topic. And secondly, I got to work from the beginning with emerging technologies. For example, my first internship was writing SQL code for a high-frequency trading product in London. So understanding technology and its effect on other industries gave me a great competitive advantage. Plus, it's much easier to accelerate your career growth in an area that is expanding fast.

So how did you join Google?
 

I was at BlaBlaCar back then, when a Google recruiter wrote to me on LinkedIn about the position and asked me if I'm interested to apply. I was like: it's Google, so I am definitely curious to have a discussion :). And then, the more interviews I had, the more excited I became about the role. So after seven discussions, I joined the company - this was almost 5 years ago. 

Google is a dream come true, yet you definitely couldn’t have imagined working with them as a kid. So, were you one of those kids that had a career in mind, or were you more like, “I’ll figure it out at some point?” 
 

I didn't know what I wanted to be growing up. And it was sometimes a bit frustrating when I would talk to those who knew for sure that they wanted to be doctors, architects, or lawyers. On the other hand, I knew what I was good at, mainly STEM, and I always kept an open mind about where this would lead me. I believe this approach has stayed the same over the years. And it turned out to be good for me because most of the activities that I do today, such as my work at Google, angel investing, tech advising, would not have been career options back then. And I think in a world where the pace of change is accelerating so fast, the best career strategy is to have a growth mindset, build on your strengths, and be as adaptable as possible.

What we ask all our advisers is how do you balance the strategic view and the operational activity? Especially since you wear so many hats?
 

I think the right balance is a challenge because strategy gives you a direction, but you're still in the same spot until you start moving, until you do the actual operational stuff.

Nevertheless, we live in a world with much more leverage at our disposal; therefore, making the right decision on what to work on and how to approach it, from a strategic view, has become more important than ever before. And this is not just because a lot of the operational work is being automated.

In a world with exponential leverage, a good judgment call can make 1000 times the difference in the output.

Previously, you would only be able to allocate more time for strategic thinking as you would advance on the career ladder because you needed a bigger team to do the actual operational work. But in this new era, you can be strategic much early on, because you have part of that “bigger team” already at your disposal through the available technologies, like software and automation tools, online distribution channels, and others.

And how do you organize your day or week around big picture thinking and hands-on activities?
 

I usually think about what I want to achieve in the next year, and then I structure the year into quarters, each with its own OKRs (objectives and key results), which is a planning framework used by Google, that I adopted in my other projects as well.

I try to organize my day to be as efficient as possible, while also keeping my schedule quite open to work on the things that get me the most energized at that particular moment. 

So you're more into what matches your mood at the moment.
 

Exactly. But I make sure that the range of things that I can choose from are all aligned in one way or another with my key objectives. When you’re involved in many projects, you can work on hundreds of different things. But then you need to choose those which are the most impactful. 

I think one of the advantages of my job is that there are a lot of diverse projects I can choose to work on at any given moment, with many of them being equally important, so in the end, I have an excellent “menu” of tasks that I can choose from based on my mood.

Exciting and contrasting viewpoint. Walter Obermeier professed the opposite view - do the uncomfortable work first rather than do what you love right at this moment.
 

I think that's a sound approach as well because we usually tend to do the easy stuff and avoid the uncomfortable. When in reality, those harder challenges are more impactful and contribute to our professional growth. So I think that's one way of, let's say, fighting this bias of choosing the easy things. 

In my particular case, the fact that the work I do at Google covers a wide range of different topics (helping companies succeed online, launching and growing the products, creating educational programs, making new partnerships, growing the YouTube ecosystem, etc.) makes it easier to choose both a project that’s impactful, but also that I am in the mood to work on in that particular moment.

Segueing into growth - how do you define success in your professional life? 

I think our definition of success is a function of our environment, like education, books we've read, people we admire, and so on, which means that it's both very personal, and it can change over time. Most recently I resonate with the idea that success is not winning the game but stepping out of the game, because our life is a series of games, right?

Like getting the job, getting the promotion, launching that company, launching the next project. And the challenge with defining success by winning is that there is always the next level or the next game to play. So stepping out of the game does not mean that you stop doing anything. It means that you define success by enjoying the process, which you control, not by the outcome, which you don't control. For me, success means being excited by everyday activities.

You mentioned something very peculiar -  success is a matter of environment. I know that Google ran a very telling experiment around changing behaviors by altering the environment in their cafeterias. It had to do with adding lids to M&Ms jars, which led to a dramatic decrease in consumption. 
 

Yes, it's the same in most Google cafeterias where I've been. The healthier snacks are on top, and the less healthy snacks are at the bottom. So you have to make an additional effort to reach the unhealthy options. By purposefully designing the environment, you can nudge people to make the right choice.  

Yes, which is what supermarkets do when they choose which products to display on which shelf height.
 

I think it’s all about the incentives in the end, right? And Google is incentivized to keep its employees healthy, while supermarkets want their customers to buy more, whether it’s healthy snacks or not. I don’t think they purposely want to sell unhealthy stuff, they just want to increase sales, and people are more willing to buy what’s tastier, not healthier. So that's why they put it in front of them. And for Google, you want to keep your employees as healthy as possible. So that's why you keep less healthy options at the bottom.

Agree. I'm a big fan of designing the environment as a way to change behavior. It’s the most powerful element, more powerful than information and less invasive than rules. Moving closer to home now, from your consulting and tech experience, what can enterprises do to accelerate digital transformation?
 

I believe digital transformation is all about people. People first, processes and technologies second. The employees are in the driving seat, which means they can either lead this transformation or create the bottlenecks. Enterprises can influence the mindset through a culture of innovation that supports and rewards testing and implementing new technologies. And the right team understands that digital acceleration is not done for the sake of technology but to allow the enterprise to create even more value for the customers whose expectations are continuously rising, as we can see. The speed of the transformation is directly linked to the employees’ openness to innovation and the share of people with digital skills in the company. So the more digitally mature the organisation, the easier it is to go through this transformation.

Accurate, yet you know what they say “the system always trumps the person.” So I imagine if you bring like 10 - 20 - 50 employees, really talented, really entrepreneurial, and innovative, how can you also shape the system to support them rather than stifle their innovation?
 

I fully agree that the system wins in the end, but I think people are defining the processes that make the system. You can bring a small team that's super motivated to do the digital transformation in the company, but if the whole company does not have this mindset, it's very hard. That's why I was saying how important it is that the majority of the people in the company acquire digital skills. I would say it's the most crucial thing because even if you bring the best consulting team and they want to change everything until you work on the mindset of the people in the company, it will be very hard. So it's the culture in the end, right? 

Why did you decide to join FLOWX.AI as an advisor? What did you find so compelling about our startup?

The great opportunity that FLOWX.AI brings is directly linked to my previous answer, empowering everyone to contribute to this digital acceleration. 

For a long time, there was a disconnection between the small group of people who built and understood technology and the rest of the company; for example, those who interacted most often with the customers were not aware of what’s possible with new technologies. On the other hand, the IT department was not close enough to understand the customer's needs. And FLOWX.AI closes this gap. It makes technology easy to understand and implement and directly connected to the business side and the company’s success. It also brings this innovation DNA to the enterprise culture; there's a huge opportunity here in helping companies from established industries speed up digital acceleration and create better products and services. 

About my involvement as an advisor…I remember my first discussion with Ioan Iacob was at the end of 2020, right before the company launch. And I remember being impressed by his passion for solving this challenging infrastructure problem, like how to enable established companies to build fast, modern digital experiences. And also his desire to build a successful high-growth startup from Romania. My main driver when joining as an advisor is the opportunity to engage with smart and highly motivated people that I enjoy exchanging ideas with, and also being involved in intellectually challenging and exciting projects from a technological perspective. As an external advisor, I hope to contribute to scaling FLOWX.AI globally and learn as much as I can in the process.

Finally for the closing question - what are some books that you read lately that really impacted your thinking?
 

"The Sovereign Individual: Mastering the Transition to the Information Age" - it's a book about technology and society. While it was written more than 20 years ago, it's still extremely relevant. It predicted incredibly well a lot of what happened in tech over the last decades and it gives you a great framework to understand what's coming next.

And on a personal level, I’m a fan of "Awareness: The Perils and Opportunities of Reality" - it will help you be more present. It's quite short - I've read it 4 times in the last 2 years.

This interview has been edited for brevity. April 2022.

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