Optional AI Audio play:
Welcome to our interview with Andy Yen. Andy is the Founder/CEO of Proton Technologies AG. The Swiss-based Proton Technologies is building a suite of security software solutions. These include ProtonMail, the world’s largest secure email; ProtonVPN, a security-focused VPN service that enables Internet access without surveillance; and other upcoming projects.
Andy has over eight years of experience in distributed computing for demanding particle physics applications. He was a researcher at CERN from 2009 to 2015, where ProtonMail’s founding team met. He has a PhD in Physics from Harvard and a degree in Economics from Caltech. He is a long time advocate of privacy rights and has spoken at TED, SXSW, and the Asian Investigative Journalism Conference about online privacy issues. You can watch his TED talk to learn more.
Andy, welcome to this forum and thank you for contributing to the questions that are at the heart of the Exploring Forward Thinking Workplaces 2.0 conversation.
Bill Fox: How can we create workplaces where every voice matters, everyone thrives and finds meaning, and change and innovation happen naturally?
Andy Yen: Inside our company, one thing that’s helped us a lot is having a rather flat hierarchy. Everybody can contribute ideas no matter what their level is in the organization,
We have a culture where anybody who wants to talk to the upper management can. This allows everyone to have a sense that their voice matters. It also allows ideas to come from any corner of the organization. Even ideas for one department can come from a different department. This open sharing of knowledge and ideas helps us be more innovative and allows us to change and adapt more quickly.
Bill: What does it take to get an employee’s full attention and best performance?
Andy: You need to have an efficient workforce to be competitive. For getting the best performance and full attention, it’s getting the right fit for people.
There’s always a job description, but it’s very rare when someone is 100% perfect fit down to last detail. Everybody has their individual quirks, habits, strengths, and weaknesses. It’s important to tailor people’s duties to leverage their strengths and weaknesses. This requires management to be more flexible and tentative at the beginning. When you get people into a role where they fit, then you see that the results become dramatically better.
Bill: What are people really lacking and longing for at work?
Andy: The key thing that people miss is having real meaning to their work. Many people do jobs without knowing what is the purpose or the big picture of how their work is changing the world. This is what we call a dead end or even a bullshit job.
It’s important to reduce those types of jobs. Make sure that everybody has a lot of meaning in their work, so people can see the impact their work has on the world. It’s management’s responsibility to convey that to the workforce.
Bill: What is the most important question leaders should ask employees?
Andy: It’s very important for management to ask questions to employees. The most important question is to ask employees, how can you do your job better?
Often there’s a tendency to tell employees how to do their jobs. But in fact that’s not effective because many times managers themselves don’t know how to do the job. It’s much better to ask the employees, who are experts in their area how they actually could do their job better. What resources do they need? What changes would help them be more effective? Then incorporate that feedback into the way they do their jobs.
Bill: What is the most important question employees should ask leaders?
Andy: The key factor is to make sure people have the right motivation. Then people can learn faster, adapt faster, and will work harder.
As an employee, you need to be at a job that keeps you motivated. So it’s important to understand the vision or the big picture of the company and where the business is going. The key question employees need to ask management is, what is the vision for this company? Where is it going? If the answer doesn’t motivate the employee, then they are probably in the wrong place.
Bill: What is the most important question we should ask ourselves?
Andy: Whether you’re a manager or an employee, the main question I’ll ask is, are we proud of our work? Is your job making the world a better place? Is it something that is improving people’s lives? Is it something that forty years later you can say, “You know, my life was well spent. I made a difference.”
That’s a question we all can ask ourselves. If you’re working at a tobacco company, that may not be a job you look back at and say, “Wow, I improved people’s lives. I did well there.” Maybe we shouldn’t have the world’s best talent working on that.
Companies who are building new technologies, innovating, and making life better, that’s where we need to focus the world’s talents. Therefore, it’s very important for everybody to ask, is this work we can be proud of?
Bill: It’s very interesting to note that Proton Technology’s mission is to protect people’s privacy and how that intersects with a recurring theme in our interviews⏤the critical need for people to share their point of view without editing themselves. Care to comment on this?
Andy: That’s a very interesting point. For safety and providing people a place to speak honestly, a key part of that is confidentiality. We can encourage this in the workplace with HR policies, but the same idea also applies to all aspects of human life.
We believe a respect for privacy is a must in the digital age. Look at the tech giants like Google, Facebook, and others that are obsessively capturing data and selling it. That’s a very poor business model for society when we remove the privacy, confidentiality and security required to have an honest discussion. If you’re a citizen living in China or Russia today, you can’t have an honest or transparent discussion because you don’t know who’s listening. If you’re not careful, you might end up in jail.
The cornerstone lesson of democracy is freedom of speech, which stems from privacy rights. This is why the work we do at ProtonMail is so important. We’re helping to ensure that democracy survives in the digital age. This is the reason we get up every day passionately motivated to go to work.
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