20-Minute Leaders

“Some of the most amazing leaders I've worked for and respected are the ones that took the call at 3 a.m"

Limor Sinay joins Michael Matias to discuss the importance of being genuine and helpful when customers encounter problems

CTech 12:1220.05.21
Focusing on the customer is always key for Limor Sinay, director of solution engineering at Akamai Technologies. Without customers willing to buy your products, your company cannot survive. While this may seem obvious, she says many founders get so excited about what they can create that they don’t think enough about if it will sell. Once you have paying customers, really listening to them and being genuine and helpful when they encounter problems are essential to retaining them, Sinay advises. Along with her passion for customers, Sinay also feels strongly about providing opportunities for women and others who are underrepresented in the tech ecosystem. She believes that being willing to hire people without a tech background who can be trained for their roles and having more women leaders will help create a more representative workforce.



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Before we talk about startups and ecosystems, talk to me about gymnastics.


My real dream was to be an Olympic gymnast. When I got to Israel as a teen, I joined the Israeli National gymnastics team and I was training, actually, with Aly Raisman’s coach. She has won many medals in the Olympics, quite a remarkable athlete. I didn't quite make it there. That's why I moved on to technology. I wasn't that good, but it was a fun experience.


But you won sixth place in the Rhönrad World Championships?


Because I wasn't an Olympic-level athlete, I had to find another sport. Rhönrad was the one that found me. It's kind of a big wheel that you do gymnastics on. It was a very fun sport, and at least I made sixth place in the world.


Tell me about your career journey.


I've really spent the majority of my career using technology to solve business problems. That was even before I came to business school, but certainly after, and I've done that in a variety of ways. The one shared passion that I have is always being on the front lines with the customer because the customer is the essence of the business. You've got to serve those customers. You've got to build products for the customers. Customers have to be willing to pay you for those products. If customers don't exist, it's just not going to work out.


Why is that not obvious to many people?


We tend to get passionate about things we’re passionate about. Technologists are passionate about technology, and they want to build the best product out there, but at the end of the day, if customers are not willing to pay you for that, then it's not sustainable over time. I'm the 9 out of 10 startups that are not unicorns and they don't make it, and I've never done a big exit. You've got to have something out there that customers are willing to pay you for that is sustainable over the long run.


Limor Sinay, director of solution engineering, Akamai Technologies. Photo: PR Limor Sinay, director of solution engineering, Akamai Technologies. Photo: PR


What does it mean to serve customers and to be intentional about that on a practical level?


I think we all need to become better listeners. At the beginning when you're just a startup, it's really about building the best product out there. I think when you're super small and you just have a handful of customers that you are very attentive to, you're listening to every single thing they say and you're putting it right in and you have that quick response time, and that's the energy of the startup. As you grow as a company, how do you do that at scale? You don't have one or two or three customers; you've got thousands. Taking that same listening and the same feedback and putting it in when the operation is much larger is a very difficult thing to do and to do it well.


What have you learned in that domain? What are some things that I need to keep in mind about that aspect of my business?


I think number one: listen more, talk less. Listen, listen, listen to what the customer is trying to tell you; it is super critical. I think being genuine is also really important, especially when stuff doesn't work as expected. Stuff doesn't always work well, but being genuine about what you can do about the situation. You can imagine those really stressful customer situations where customers are really upset about whatever damage you've caused. Be there. Don't hide; you've got to be front and center. Customers will appreciate you for being genuine in the toughest situation. They won't walk away when you're willing to go the extra mile and do the right thing.


That’s a nice idea, but it's far from trivial especially when I'm imagining a situation like what you're describing, where our nature is flight.


It’s not fun to take that call from an angry customer. Those are the make-or-break moments because if the customer knows that you're going to be there for them in those worst moments possible, they know that they want that relationship longer term. Whatever the situation is, there's always a way to make it more right. The damage is done. The question is, how do you make it right going forward?


In a big organization, it is often not necessarily the manager who gets the call. I'm guessing that's a much greater challenge.


As a leader, I think you've got to be there. Some of the most amazing leaders I've worked for and respected are the ones that took the call at 3 a.m. their time when whatever happened happened, and there are a hundred technical people on the line to fix it, but they're there as well listening to make it known that they are there to oversee it and to do the right thing, and that sends a very important, strong message to customers.


Give me a bit of perspective and help me understand what’s happening in terms of progress for women in this ecosystem.


I have three girls, and as such, I'm very passionate about: how do we open up the world of opportunity for these girls? I really think there are two key elements that we need to change and do better at. One is the element of the pipeline coming in. We seem to think that, “Oh, there's not enough women going into STEM and technology and all that,” and I don't think that's the problem. But I think that's one area where the technology sector as a whole can do more. It's not only about the pipeline, but how do we give certificates, do more, and hire in a different way? I don't think we need to hire a person with a computer science degree to do all the roles the technology company needs. The second area is how do we support the progression of women at the higher executive leadership positions? I met a phenomenal woman who had maintained a forty-five to fifty percent ratio in her organization. She said it was very simple. She hired women leaders and kept growing them. It kind of proliferated through the organization, that focus on diversity and giving more people a chance.


What really turns you on when you go to work with customers or managing teams or elevating people around the world?


I think I'm just a passionate person in general. For me, my latest passion is really this diversity angle, doing more in that, and really growing people. I think maybe that's my biggest passion: just growing people, giving people the opportunity to grow, and I'm lucky that I get to do that.


What do I need to intentionally do to help people grow alongside me?


Find their strengths. I fundamentally believe there are no bad people or bad employees. I think there's usually just a wrong fit to a specific position, like someone's doing something they're just not intended to do. So, when you think about people, you think about what are they really, really good at? And then find those roles that are fitting to their strengths.


I have a few fun questions. What was your favorite subject in school?


Math, for sure. It's either right or wrong.


Who is one of your role models?


My husband is positive no matter what the situation, and I think that positivity is just so inspiring; to have positivity in your life is something really important. He's my role model for sure.


What are three words you would use to describe yourself?


It’s passionate, genuine, and smart.



Michael Matias. Photo: Courtesy Michael Matias. Photo: Courtesy


Michael Matias, Forbes 30 Under 30, is the author of Age is Only an Int: Lessons I Learned as a Young Entrepreneur. He studies Artificial Intelligence at Stanford University, while working as a software engineer at Hippo Insurance and as a Senior Associate at J-Ventures. Matias previously served as an officer in the 8200 unit. 20MinuteLeaders is a tech entrepreneurship interview series featuring one-on-one interviews with fascinating founders, innovators and thought leaders sharing their journeys and experiences.


Contributing editors: Michael Matias, Amanda Katz