John Chen calls himself a big kid with an old soul. The founder and CEO of Geoteaming left a successful career at Microsoft to use technology to help teams work together effectively.
By Janice Nesamani
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Being an entrepreneur isn’t a big deal for John Chen when he recalls his grandfather’s journey to the United States. “My grandfather on my mother’s side was a ‘Paper Son,’” he said, giving a brief history of the first Chinese Exclusion Act in 1888 that allowed only 106 Chinese immigrants into the country per year to limit the number of low-income workers. When a fire in San Francisco destroyed the birth records of these immigrants, enterprising Chinese businessmen used the refiling of documents to help other Chinese immigrants enter the country, for a price. Chen’s grandfather was adopted by an uncle, who sold a third of his farm in 1912 for $2,000 and gambled on his grandfather to come to America.
“At 20, my grandfather bought a third-class ticket and travelled with the animals in steerage. He had nothing but the book that contained facts about his ‘family.’ This year, we celebrate the 100th year anniversary of my grandfather passing through Angel Island, where he had to wait three months to get through immigration.”
Chen, who recently embarked on a ‘roots’ trip with his kids, said, “There were all these questions you had to answer. Where does the cat like to sleep? How many windows does your house have? What we didn’t know was that about 10,000 people failed the immigration test. They were to be deported. Many didn’t want to face the shame of going back to their villages and chose to commit suicide instead. It turned out to be a life and death game.”
Chen’s grandfather knew only two English words, Suisun City, the place he was supposed to go to in California. When he got there, he worked for the Army and earned a dollar a week, of which he had to pay 75 cents in room and board. Over five years, he saved enough for 40 gold nuggets, sewed them into his coat and went back to his village in China. There, he married Chen’s grandmother and came back to America, had five kids, and put them through college. “I hope my kids carry this lesson with them to remind them of where they come from,” he said.
Chen’s grandparents on his dad’s side were pioneers in their own right, making a career of taking eastern medicine, figuring out what works and turning it into Western medicine.
“My family has a couple of entrepreneurs. My brother left Hewlett Packard and now sells hi-tech audio-visual gear. He has his own place in San Francisco and has Journey and the Skywalker Ranch in his rolodex. My sister left Sony PlayStation and started turning houses in Portland. She has her own skin care business now. We’re not all doctors and lawyers,” Chen added.
Chen went to University of California at Santa Barbara, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in Computer Science. He developed unique skills at the university, where he was voted outstanding Computer Science student and was president of the Association for Computing Machinery and Engineering Student Council. One of his highlights was being mentored by Brian Fox, a programmer for the Free Software Foundation founded by Richard Stallman.
“Brian played jazz and chess with no college education. Brian helped me develop a script that took a command-line based SUN Workstation and turned it into a multi-windowed environment. We used that script to quadruple membership in The Association For Computing Machinery.”
A career at Microsoft was what Chen wanted though. “It was a no-brainer for me to work with Microsoft. You got 1,000 points in the college interview system and I felt there was no one other than Microsoft I wanted to work with. I bet it all on them and got through the interview.”
At Microsoft, Chen was one of the few people who worked all the three critical jobs that are involved in a product lifecycle — test, development, and program management.
“I wrote code to break code and was one of the first to create a program to run on six different operating systems from the same code base,” he said.
Chen isn’t one to sit around and that’s how he was noticed at Microsoft. “It was very frustrating in the beginning because I was on a project that was late in signing the contract with the outside partner. I went to my General Manager and said, ‘I’m happy to sit around my office and do nothing, but I came here to work. Tell me what else to do.’ So, he put me on a project called LAN Manager. He lent me out until a contract was signed.”
At Microsoft, Chen discovered that one of the systems wasn’t testing effectively and he traced every line of code and presented it to the team saying how he could replicate an 8-hour process within two minutes.
“I said I think we should go this direction and do it this way. That was the first leadership step at Microsoft. I was a tester who knew what I was doing and was willing to teach other people.”
Chen then moved to development and later became a people manager. He was part of the team that helped ship Microsoft Exchange 4.0, 4.5, 5.0, and 5.5, which became the fastest selling client server application with almost 200 Million Client licenses today. He recalls how the system fell over completely the first time the team sent an email to 10 people. He was one of 14 leads that helped make the project a success.
A new direction
Chen knew he had an unfulfilled purpose. Trouble was, he didn’t know what it was yet. “I was in this personal development training program. I was one of the coaches and my mentor was the trainer. He said, ‘Give me a weekend and I’ll tell you exactly what your life’s purpose is.’ At this point, I had enough time and money, and didn’t have much to lose,” he said. Chen flew to Huntington Beach and in two days wrote the entire business plan for his company.
“It was a Jerry Maguire moment, where I mailed 70 people saying, ‘This is the idea that I’m going to do. I really want your help and support.’ I went so far as to say that even if you don’t support it, don’t shoot it down. The outpouring of support he received from friends and family was amazing.
“It took two and a half years. I did it part-time. I still had my job at Microsoft, but I arranged my life in such a way that I could do this at least 12 hours a week. I was holding seminars on the weekends to prove to myself that I could actually do it. It was 1997 and I left Microsoft in 1999,” Chen said.
Today, Chen’s company Geoteaming works with Amazon, Microsoft, Adobe, REI, Boeing, Booz Allen, Wired Magazine, Prudential, Piper Jaffray, among others. After seeing over 1,600 teams interact with each other during team building events, Chen has identified tells for successful teams.
Energy: Winning teams have incredible energy. However, a team with only high energy can lose because they don’t know how to focus.
Collaboration: A team that works well together has a high chance of winning. We once had a team with a very complicated team cheer. It was more than three lines, and so they texted it to each other and were completely in sync.
Decision making: I used to think that a team that made decisions the fastest would win, but that’s not true. If a team spends the entire time forming a team name and listening to each other, I will peg them to win.
Creativity: A team from Amazon that I had recently was great! We gave them a gray bandana and they named themselves ‘Touch of Gray’. Their slogan was: ‘Get off my lawn!’ This creativity shows they are willing to do things differently to win.
The ‘IT’ Factor: When a team is in sync, they are engaged and divide roles instantly.
You can see teams that have IT. I would peg them to win.
Chen’s company works on several types of events. They do large community events, an occasional birthday celebration (they recently organized a ‘Life is Good’ pub crawl at Pioneer Square for a 45th birthday), work with nonprofits especially within the Asian community and corporate events. However, things weren’t always this easy. Geoteaming started out as Playtime Inc.
“I wanted work to be fun, but the Inc. said this was serious. I didn’t want it to be only fun and games because there were too many companies doing that. I thought it would be funny to say, “I had a bad day at Playtime Inc.”
Chen has had to say that only four times in 20 years. One was when he had to fire a salesperson. “Building a team in the team building business is as challenging as building a team in a company,” he said. Another was during the dotcom bust, when he had to adapt his business from a 9-month training program he called ‘The Journey’ during which the team would summit Mount Rainier.
“I got an email from my mentor. It was about geocaching and he said, ‘Wouldn’t this make a great team building event?’ So, I went out, found a geocache near Magnuson Park where I lived, and thought it was just like The Journey, but took 10 minutes and anybody could do it. I called the geocaching founders who were in their parents’ basement on the waterfront here in Seattle. They thought it was a fantastic idea and helped me get over 100 leads per month. That’s what helped me grow my company and they are still part of it.”
Watching teams and different companies work and play together has helped Chen identify problem areas in the workforce today.
“There is a leadership gap coming through. The Boomer generation was so big, they were all the managers. Now, they are leaving this gigantic leadership gap that has to be filled with diversity. That’s going to be interesting to watch,” Chen said.
Managing different cultures in the workforce is something he thinks about too. “The easiest way is traveling to other countries and making friends with people there. Any time you go somewhere, people want to teach you their culture.”
Looking forward, Chen continues to change teams with the latest technology. Chen is excited about drone technology and is a pioneer in using it for team building events.
“The visual impact is a huge tools for companies to remind their teams of their investment in them. Soon, I’ll release a team building event where every team learns how to fly a drone.”
In the future, Chen is looking into Live Streaming to improve team performance.
With an update to his Geoteaming app, every team can be live streaming their performance during the event and coaches give immediate feedback to improve team performance. With every new technology, Chen can get one step closer to the Jerry Maguire vision he wrote of “Life-Changing Adventure, Breakthrough Results.”
Janice can be reached at email@example.com.