My Career Path: Interview with Lance Walter, CMO at Neo4j

This month, we had the pleasure of speaking with Lance Walter, Chief Marketing Officer at Neo4j, about his career path and the decisions that contributed to his success. Here at Stage 4 Solutions, we are committed to supporting professionals’ career growth, and we believe that one way to enable success is learning from leaders.

Lance Walter is the Chief Marketing Officer at Neo4j and has more than two decades of enterprise product management and marketing experience. Lance started his career in technical roles at Oracle supporting enterprise relational database deployments. Since then, Lance has worked at industry leaders like Siebel Systems and Business Objects, as well as successful startups including Onlink (acquired by Siebel Systems), Pentaho (acquired by Hitachi Data Systems), Aria Systems and Capriza. Lance’s first experience with alternative database platforms was at Arbor Software, the pioneer of the multi-dimensional database / OLAP market.

Feel free to: connect with Lance on LinkedIn

Can you walk us through your career path? How did you begin your career?

Lance Walter: I started my career in the early 1990s during a down economy. I heard from so many people that if you graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, with an engineering degree, you would not have any trouble finding a job, but that was not the case for me! I was unemployed like many other new grads and tried hard to find a job. In that pre-consumer internet time, I wrote cover letters and sent my resumes physically to several companies to begin my career. I was not having great success with these applications. However, my luck turned when a college friend who had gotten a full-time job at Oracle reached out to me and said that Oracle was hiring a few temporary workers for $10/hr to do data quality fixing on spreadsheets. He recommended that I apply for it to get my foot in the door and then use internal job boards to look for a full-time job. I took his advice and took the job. Then, I started searching the internal job board as discussed with my friend, and I found a job opening for a technical support engineer at Oracle call center to help customers using Oracle technology. I applied for it, and after a few interviews, I got the job!

After working as a tech support engineer at Oracle for a few years, I was promoted to manager. I think that was because of my natural interest in some of the non-technical aspects of the job. I was curious and interested in analyzing how we communicated with customers, how we scheduled the team, or types of training that would help the team perform better. The management noticed my interest and provided opportunities for me to prove myself. I developed a training program to improve our communication with customers. I would hear so often from my colleagues in my team, “I don’t know why they transferred you to our team. Our team doesn’t cover that technology, and I need to transfer you to another team.” That is one way of expressing it. In the training program I developed, I recommended replacing that statement with “I really want to get your problem fixed as quickly as possible, so I want to put you through a group of experts to help you the fastest way possible, and that’s going to be our tools team. Can I place you on hold for a second to connect you with our tools team?” And, it was very well received by the customers! We communicated the same exact thing, and the customer heard it so differently. Honestly, that was like the germination of my marketing career – knowing customers and being thoughtful about communicating with them.

After a few years at Oracle as a tech support manager, I moved to a startup company, a database disruptor at that time, as tech support manager. Once I was in a small company, I had exposure to the entire organization and was able to see what was going on in other departments. I knew everyone from every department and had an idea about what they were doing. So much visibility! I looked at what product marketing was doing – launching the newest version of the product, training sales, briefing press and analysts, conducting competitive analysis, creating sales materials, and more – all of this looked so glamorous to me! It felt like it required so many skills I was utilizing at tech support, in terms of communicating and understating technology, but in a much more glamorous way.

I became very interested in product marketing and took my chance. I told the company management that I thought I would be good at product marketing, and I was very fortunate that the company gave me an opportunity to try it out. That was the beginning of my marketing career. Then I continued growing my career in product marketing and then eventually became a full-fledged marketing professional.

When you started your career, what were your career aspirations?

Lance Walter: I was focused on finding a job without solid aspirations in the down economy. My major is in industrial engineering and my minor is in computer science. The typical career path for an industrial engineer is working at a manufacturing plant and eventually managing one. Over the years, that industry has mostly disappeared from the US, and getting a job at Oracle in the 90s was such a better path for me, for someone with a great interest in technology.

I had no idea I would ever end up as a CMO! Like many engineers, I think I had a little bit of a cynical view that marketing was mostly about exaggerated advertising or hyperbolic claims. Engineering is all about facts and objective reality and not overstating things. I would like to think that a part of my engineering background is why I always had a strong motivation around reality-based marketing. When I join a new company, one of the things I typically tell the marketing team and the rest of the company is: Marketing is telling the truth in the most positive possible way.

I think what got me so excited about marketing was when I saw the connection to engineering. Product marketing was the way to turn the understanding of technology into articulating its benefits for customers. And I was fascinated.

As you progressed through your career, how did you assess new opportunities?

Lance Walter: I look for opportunities that will lean enough upon my experience that I am not going to fail and also challenge me to grow, whether learning new domains, technologies, or disciplines of marketing I haven’t done before.

Throughout my career, I have come across people who only pursue opportunities that are completely familiar with what they have done so they won’t be challenged or people who are very confident and take on a giant job they are not ready for, and it ends up being a setback. I try to look for that healthy balance to have enough challenges, but also enough components that lean on my existing experience.

How do you define your role as the CMO at Neo4j?

Lance Walter: A huge part of my job right now is helping the light bulb go on for the world around graph technology and graph databases. At Neo4j, we are very much in a category creation play right now. Although that is often told in Silicon Valley, most of the time, it doesn’t happen, but in Neo4j’s case, it has already happened. My team’s goal is mostly about the creation of this category and making sure we do the right things, so Neo4j maintains its position as the leader in this space.

I always remember one of my old bosses saying, marketing’s number one job is to make sales easier. I like this simple statement a lot because it acknowledges that selling is hard, especially if you are selling infrastructure software in an emerging market. We need to educate the market on why there is a better solution for this class of problems. Everything marketing does, from providing great customer experiences and fostering analyst relations to maintaining a healthy pipeline of leads and conducting good competitive intelligence, makes selling easier. With my team, we always think about and evaluate what we do and how we do things to help the company sell more.

What surprised you the most in your career?

Lance Walter: Before the career period, our system teaches us that things happen naturally on a set timeline, for example, going to college after finishing high school. This is not the case in career life! Of course, you need to work hard, but also you need to promote yourself and your work to grow in your career. 

You need to make sure people see your work to be heard, promoted, and acknowledged for your accomplishments. One thing I always tell my team members is to clearly communicate and let others know what we are doing, our outcomes and learnings, so the team is recognized for the work.

What is one of the biggest challenges you have faced in your career and how did you overcome it?

Lance Walter: Because of my technical background, it is very straightforward for me to understand the technology and how it works. I get authentically excited about why and how the technology works and why it is better than others. This brings a challenge that has come up several times throughout my career: It’s easier to connect the dots if you have a technology background, but, in marketing, you have to realize that your customers will not always connect the dots themselves, and it’s on you to articulate why this is better in a language that they can easily understand. Sometimes I tend to take shortcuts while communicating the technology. I then resist my urge to get overly excited about the technical aspects and focus on being more thoughtful about how to better translate technology into business value.

How do you balance your professional and personal goals?

Lance Walter: 15 years ago, the conversation was all about work-life balance, and now, it is more of work-life integration. It has been already happening but accelerated by the pandemic. Now, it is normal or expected to take a call at an unusual time if you work with colleagues distributed globally working at different timezones. On the other hand, it is a lot more socially acceptable these days than before to do your workout at 2 p.m. on a Wednesday or go pick up your kids from school in the middle of the workday. Companies with a solid culture are more accommodating and understanding. Many of us have had urgent emergencies that needed to be taken care of, especially during the pandemic. Employees and employers are collectively recognizing and embracing work-life integration.

I developed a method to keep me on track of both my personal and professional goals. I ask these questions every single day: was I a good manager for my team today, did I do a good job for my boss, did I do a good job for my spouse, was I a good father for my kids, and did I do a good job for my health?

Rarely is there a day where I say yes to 5 out 5! I know people who don’t ask these questions at all, and they go on for years without questioning. Then, they realize they have fallen out of touch with their kids, or their health has deteriorated, or their relationship with their spouse is not what it was once. My daily assessment doesn’t give me the right answers, but at least it stays top of mind and lets me think about what I can do better for tomorrow.

What advice would you give to your younger self?

Lance Walter: I tell people pretty frequently if I could go back in time, I would have focused on developing and getting really good at listening skills. Practicing and being intentional about listening to others has been incredibly helpful in my personal life and professional life.

I used to think of leadership as exercises of authority. Not at all; I realized how much influence and leadership could be done through authentic listening and making people feel heard.

It is essential to try to authentically understand one another, respect each other’s opinions, backgrounds and experiences.

What advice do you have for empowering teams?

Lance Walter: Giving your team members a range of freedom to experiment is important. If the team member is successful, then you make those boundaries wider and wider to encourage growth. This often happens when people get promoted; your responsibilities and decision-making authority have grown without having an actual conversation. Your company and manager watch you do well and acknowledge your work, and then the promotion comes naturally. 

I would again emphasize that listening is my key advice. And also empathy. Especially right now, the pandemic means something different for each person. Really listening and understanding each team member’s own challenges and their unique situation and supporting them makes a big difference. 

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