WhatsApp COO Matt Idema Headlines Fairfield Dolan Dean’s Executive Forum

WhatsApp COO Matt Idema Headlines Fairfield Dolan Dean’s Executive Forum

Photo of Matt Idema

WhatsApp COO Matt Idema

Dean Zhan Li, DBA, and Assistant Professor of Marketing Nazuk Sharma, PhD, co-hosted the first Dean’s Executive Forum of the academic year earlier this semester. Distinguished guest Matt Idema, chief operating officer at WhatsApp, spoke to students from his home in California about the most popular messaging app in the world.

If you’re not the type who can anticipate what [customer] needs and wants will be – like Steve Jobs – you have to at a minimum be aware of how preferences are changing and be open to what it is that people will demand.

— WhatsApp COO Matt Idema

Idema’s career path was anything but linear, he told the audience. “I grew up in Michigan and loved math and science. I always thought I would be an engineer, but after an internship in mechanical engineering, I just knew it wasn’t for me,” he recalled.

With an engineering degree from the University of Michigan in hand, he took a position as a consultant, intrigued by the idea of travel and working with others just out of college. That job “broadened my horizons and exposed me to things I found interesting. One of those things was technology integration, which was a new concept at the time. I understood then that the internet was going to change the way we did just about everything, and that I’d have to come out to Silicon Valley to be part of it all.” 

He joined Yahoo!, in a role that allowed him to support small businesses. He was there for over two years, and in that time came to believe that social media and location services would change how small businesses would market, relate to customers, and sell their products. The place doing the most exciting work in this area, he said, was Facebook.

“It was a big choice to leave Yahoo! with its $700 million in revenue, hundreds of thousands of customers, and my very large team, all to be an individual player at Facebook at what was a later stage in my career,” Idema says. “But I knew in the long run that it was the platform that would really matter, and over the years they’ve been building out their products and services.”

Facebook acquired WhatsApp about 12 years ago. The product is used in over 180 countries and has two billion users, making it the primary means of internet communication in much of the world. It’s particularly popular in areas where SMS messaging is expensive, such as Latin America, Asia, and Africa.

Business will build what people want, and our wants and needs change all the time. “If you’re not the type who can anticipate what those needs and wants will be – like Steve Jobs – you have to at a minimum be aware of how preferences are changing and be open to what it is that people will demand,” Idema said, citing Yahoo! as a company that started strong but has not kept up with a change in demand.

In response to a question by Dean Li about the traits companies like WhatsApp look for in a new hire, Idema was quite positive. “Graduates are definitely starting careers at a unique time. There is a need for talent far greater than the number of people available. Our biggest constraint on doing the things we want to do is the ability to hire enough people.”

Students eyeing a Silicon Valley job often think they need to major in computer science, but that’s simply not the case, Idema said. “For every engineer we hire, we hire someone who is not technical. We need lawyers, marketers, sales people, those who understand policy, and researchers.”

The Fairfield Dolan Dean’s Executive Forum is a regular event, bringing thought leaders and executives together with students and professors from the Dolan School for informal discussions on the job market, career direction, and issues that impact business and/or society. Last month JetBlue CFO Ursula Hurley ’04 headlined a second Dean's Executive Forum of the semester. Stay tuned for details of Hurley's talk in the next newsletter.

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