Product Culture Christian Idiodi

Breaking Down Walls

By SVPG Partner Christian Idiodi

Note from Marty: I was lucky enough to know Jeremiah, and I considered him one of the best VPE/CTO’s I’ve ever had the opportunity to work with.  Christian worked side by side with him for many years, at two different companies, so he’s the perfect person to write this article that not only makes several important points about transformations, but is also a beautiful tribute to an extraordinary mind.

Several years ago, I accepted the position of Head of Product at the Merrill Corporation, which at the time, was a legacy financial printer. My daunting mandate was to help transform the company. Although intimidated at first, I soon knew I would have a fighting chance the moment I learned I would be working alongside their new VP of Engineering, Jeremiah Ivan.

One of the early problems at Merrill was the bureaucratic, mental, and physical walls inhibiting any form of collaboration among employees. Fortunately, Jeremiah Ivan was the king of breaking down walls – sometimes with brute force.

One afternoon, while walking around Merrill’s offices, assessing the dated ten-foot-high cubicles dominating one room after the other, both Jeremiah and I agreed the cubicles had to go. Having a shared vision is key to successful transformation, as is troubleshooting potential solutions as a team.

“You can’t just change your cubicle,” I explained to Jeremiah. “You need to submit a ticket and get permission. And it’s a union job, so getting approval can take months.”

“Is there any way to speed it up?” Jeremiah asked.

I thought about it for a moment, then told him the only way to circumvent the time-consuming approval process was to put in a repair request. Jeremiah nodded, walked over to one of the cubicles, raised his fist, and punched a hole in the wall.

He did the same to a second cubicle, then a third.

“Christian,” he said with a broad smile, “these cubicles are definitely in need of repair. Let’s put in a request.”

That was Jeremiah Ivan – unconventional, sometimes even wild, but he always got your attention. And he simply made transformational change happen.

Agent of Change

Transformations are difficult. Nothing ever goes exactly as planned, and there are always bumps in the road. Throughout the journey from the current state to the future state, there will be naysayers, people at every level of the organization at every stage of progress, that either lose faith or are unwilling to make the sacrifices necessary to succeed. Lasting transformation requires multitudes of individuals to leap into the unknown, disrupting what they’ve defined as normal. It demands uprooting their vision to plant roots in something that is sometimes intangible.

Because of this radical expectation to trust the process, transformation requires special people to act as a catalyst – an incendiary spark to ignite change and keep it moving – for me, Jeremiah was that flame-thrower.

Not only was he skilled at his job, and knowledgeable about the business and its industry, but to be a true agent of change, he also needed to have something extra. I soon discovered that extra something to be his tenacity.

When fear inhibits buy-in, and uncertainty urges organizations to abandon ship and cling to the old ways, no matter how dysfunctional and obsolete, an actual agent of change stands up and says in a resounding voice, “Yes! We are on the right path,” and “No! We are not going to quit.”

That’s how I’ll always think of Jeremiah Ivan.

He was my friend and my colleague, but more importantly, he was an inspiration, one of the people that always helped keep me focused and moving forward when the journey seemed impossible. Jeremiah had a strong sense of purpose and a commitment to excellence. He also possessed an unwavering belief in what was right and was rarely swayed by arguments he thought were either self-serving or politically motivated.

He was a brilliant engineer, and above all, he was blessed with a holistic mind, able to visualize and understand all the seemingly unrelated variables attached to a product or project. Jeremiah wasn’t just the smartest guy in the room – he was also the most interesting and charismatic.

A Charismatic Neighbor

I started working at Snagajob in Richmond, VA in 2011 as their new VP of Product. At the time, I hadn’t relocated my family and needed a place to live. The company set me up in one of its corporate apartments, and there I met for the first time Jeremiah Ivan, Director of Engineering, my next-door neighbor.

Though I’d just met him, I’d been briefed about him before signing on. By all accounts, he was smart, assertive, confident, brave, and willing and able to go toe-to-toe with any company executive and usually come out on top – perhaps this is because he loved to argue, and he was rarely wrong.

I discovered this firsthand when Jeremiah invited me over to his apartment for a drink. Having an after-work drink with a colleague is a normal part of corporate culture, so my expectation for the evening was standard colleague banter: “How are you? Where did you work before this? What do you think of the city?”

That type of stuff.

To my delight, what I got was something totally different.

During that first encounter, when he discovered I was from Africa, Jeremiah started talking about Highlife music. For those of you not familiar with the genre, Highlife originated in West Africa in the early 20th century. The music is characterized by a fusion of traditional African rhythms and Western instrumentation, featuring brass instruments such as trumpets, saxophones, and trombones. The lyrics are typically sung in local African languages and address a wide range of topics, including love, social issues, and politics.

When Jeremiah brought up Highlife, he wasn’t doing so just because he wanted to make me feel comfortable; the guy was actually a fan, and he knew what he was talking about. He was not only familiar with musicians like King Sunny Ade and Fela Kuti, but he got even more profound, with a segue into Highlife’s impact on other African genres, including Afrobeat, Soukous, and Juju music.

Jeremiah had a wide-ranging mind, as comprehensive as it was eclectic. One moment he might be talking about local politics or world history, the next about the fall of the Bastille or the Japanese board game GO. He kept a room rolling with his jokes, and whenever he wanted to make a point, he used the most imaginative metaphors to make it memorable. He also loved wines and liquors and had an uncanny way of remembering everyone’s favorite drink.

To say I was impressed with his Highlife knowledge would be an understatement. Jeremiah Ivan was an original, a true force of nature with the brains and personality to connect with people. He was authentic and genuine.

However, that didn’t mean that things always went smoothly.

At Snagajob, we often clashed. I decided what problems to solve, then his team did it. My management style is more coach-like, and I aim to nurture and seek out teaching moments. Jeremiah, on the other hand, was all fire and brimstone. In those early days, we argued nearly every day.

If he thought you were doing something wrong, he would tell you directly. And at the same time, he was fiercely loyal and would go toe-to-toe with anyone to fight for his team.  He might drive you crazy in the shadow of deliverable deadlines and the frenzy of transformation, but at the end of the day, when the dust had settled, he was the one person in the company everyone wanted to have a drink with. With his brain full of random trivia, metaphors, and jokes, balanced with a sharp drive to accomplish tasks on schedule, he organically connected dots and people.

Bringing People Together

Whether punching through barriers to facilitate collaboration, keeping the fire for transformation burning within an organization to inspire change champions, or cultivating the fascinating fact farm in his brain with limitless stories to connect with anyone in the room, Jeremiah brought people together.

As VP of Engineering, another of Jeremiah’s responsibilities was to build a team of talented engineers. He needed to attract and retain people with both technical skills and the ability to think outside the box. Those kinds of people are not only hard to find but even harder to keep; they want to be both challenged and appreciated, and they need to be able to materialize something that doesn’t exist yet while maintaining excitement and trust from those that can’t envision what they can. These professional unicorns need to feel they are constantly growing by learning new skills and attacking new problems, which makes managing them very difficult, especially for someone with Jeremiah’s skills and intelligence because he was a unicorn, too.

Most legends aren’t equipped to manage others. This is because the same talent that makes them irreplaceably valuable is something so rare it can be frustrating to work with others that don’t have that same special spark. Their standard of excellence begins at a level higher than most people can even imagine or reach, which can make meeting their managerial expectations nearly impossible. Take professional sports, for example. Babe Ruth, Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, Diego Maradona – the list of great athletes that failed as managers is endless.

But not Jeremiah. Jeremiah Ivan was different. He didn’t just put together a team of engineers; he assembled and trained a Dream Team of standouts, exceptional by every measure. Sure, he was demanding as a manager. But when he cultivated a team that vibrated at the same frequency where he also excelled, those demands were neither unreasonable nor impossible – not in the moment or in the future. His legacy is not only in the memory of his presence, personality, and leadership but his brilliance lives on in the teams he built and left behind. He set up organizations for success to thrive even after he moved on.

Transformations are never easy. They demand courage and fortitude, flame-thrower passion, and a sprinkle of humor. After working alongside Jeremiah through so many intimidating asks, nearly impossible assignments, complex projects, and never-seen-before products, he has transformed me, too. He elevated my baseline expectations of the kind of rare and wonderful catalysts I want next to me on any team. That’s why whenever I’m ready to get down in the trenches and take on a new challenge, I always make sure I have someone like Jeremiah Ivan standing beside me.

In times of despair and uncertainty, television icon Mister Rogers said, “Look for the helpers.” In the corporate world, when tasked to ignite groundbreaking metamorphosis, I say, “Look for the Jeremiahs.”  I think often, in our product work, we view our legacies as the problems we are able to solve and the lives we impact with the products we create.  And yes, that’s part of it, but Jeremiah showed me firsthand that your true legacy is the impact you have on lives around you – the teams you build, the leaders you stand shoulder to shoulder with, and the friendships you forge through even the toughest of times.

Today marks the three-year anniversary of losing a product icon. I hope we all bring a little Jeremiah sparkle to our teams every day because I’m confident that is how we best live in his memory and continue to impact lives the way he always did. I join all the companies he served during his career – Snagajob, Rent the Runway, and Datasite to celebrate his life and legacy.