Work Smarter Series #6 – Interview with Thomas Kurian, President of Product Development at Oracle

The Work Smarter Series by Workfit explores the productivity habits of the world’s most successful executives.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Thomas Kurian (President of Oracle product development), at his office in Redwood Shores. I knew Thomas well from when I ran the Oracle Data Cloud under his and Steve Miranda’s organization after Oracle acquired BlueKai. I learned a ton about productivity working for Thomas and I wanted to get him to share his thoughts on productivity so it could benefit others.

Productivity

Q: You run one of the largest technology groups of any B2B software company in the world, which means you’ve met and learned from some of the best CEOs and execs in the world. Are there any specific attributes of theirs you’ve observed that impressed you?

Thomas: There are three things that I’ve seen. 

  1. Precision in communication. People usually want to hear what they want to hear. They may listen, but they don’t often hear what you say. You’ve got to be very precise when you’re talking to large groups. Focusing on precision helps ensure what you mean, and also why you mean it is conveyed.
  2. Seeing the long-term view. A key component of productivity is getting people to understand a long-term picture so that decision-making happens within the frame of that vision. Once you have a context that everybody on team shares, decision-making happens much faster because everybody’s using the same frame of reference. 
  3. Make time to learn. The third thing I would say is, if you want to be productive, you’ve got to save time to learn stuff for yourself so you remain fresh and creative. For myself as an example, Fridays are my time. I don’t have any meetings on Fridays. I spend time learning and doing new things, which I feel very important. I think this helps me keep up my own personal productivity. You should have a sense of freshness and energy. For me making time to learn rejuvenates me.

Meetings

Q: I observed you developed great habits around meetings. For example – whenever I had a meeting with you, you had always pre-read the material, and you always followed up on action items in a timely manner. How did your good habits around meetings evolve?

Thomas: Regarding the pre-read – I personally find that I can read much faster than I can listen. The reason I ask for materials to be sent ahead of time is, I can read in 20 minutes what normally would take two hours to get through in a presentation, and that way we can focus on the issues. Another reason I tend to read offline is, I like to make the decision quickly. When you have a large organization, if the person at the top doesn’t move quickly, and decide, and course correct later, the whole organization slows down. As far as action items go. if I take an action item, it’s a courtesy to the people that work with me that just as much as I’m asking them to follow-up on stuff, that I follow-up on stuff. Usually, I draft an email and save it in my draft folder so that I can remember it. Then I complete it that evening rather than postpone it.

 

It’s really a gesture of politeness and courtesy that if you’re with somebody, they have 100 percent of your attention.

Q: Another thing I noticed when I’m meeting with you is you’re not distracted by ten other things. Even though you might have excuses to be distracted, you don’t allow it. How important do you think it is to get people to understand how to be present?

Thomas: When it comes to presence I think it’s really a gesture of politeness and courtesy that if you’re with somebody, they have 100 percent of your attention. I find it’s faster to identify topics in advance, give people your attention, make decisions, and get through meetings fast rather than having long meetings where people are looking at other things throughout the time. My default meeting is 15 minutes or less. To me, it’s much more efficient that way because then, I can meet with the team or the individual, give them complete attention, decide, and then I have 45 minutes to do my own stuff rather than be at an hour-long meeting when people are hearing things but not really paying attention and multi-tasking at the same time.

 

Q: How do you keep your calendar open and maintain the ability to have these meaningful, engaged, prepared meetings?

Thomas: It’s important to me that people who work for me are given consistency, so I give every one of my staff a fixed time every week for meetings with them and their teams. I tend to do one-on-ones when they are needed rather than have it scheduled because then people don’t feel like they have to manufacture something for a one-on-one when there’s nothing to discuss. My normal style is to save at least two hours every day and six hours on Fridays for my time. I feel that to be a creative person leading an engineering function, you must have your own independent view of technology. You have to stay current on it. You have to have ideas that people believe in. For me to have those boundaries and personal time I save for myself, I have to be comfortable delegating. An important aspect of being able to work with people is being able to delegate decision-making and not have to be involved in every decision yourself.

 

A meeting is not about getting people together for the sake of getting people together. A meeting is to accomplish a decision.

Q: How do you focus your teams on having productive meetings that drive good decisions and important actions?

Thomas: A meeting is not about getting people together for the sake of getting people together. A meeting is to accomplish a decision. If there’s nothing to be decided, we don’t need a meeting. I can be updated on email. I can read a memo somebody sends. I can listen to a voice update. I don’t need a meeting to be updated on things. That’s a very important element. When you have that belief, I think meetings become much more focused and constructive. When people think of most of the nine billion meetings a year, surely they’re not nine billion things to be decided. Right? A lot of meetings are just meetings for the sake of having meetings. When the top people in an organization enable those types of meetings, it leads to a real difficulty for people more junior in the organization, not only not to mimic them, but even just to say, “Hey, I don’t know why I’m coming to your meeting. It’s taking a lot of time, and I have to prepare a lot of stuff, and it doesn’t accomplish anything.” One of the things I find effective in meetings is when the participants take what I call a “top management” viewp point. Think “What would the person I’m talking to think about, and what decisions are they facing, and how would I phrase the options that they have and therefore make a decision?” I think if you foster that in people, they become much more effective. A lot of the times, when people think like that they find they can make the decisions themselves and they don’t need to have a meeting with you after all. When they adopt that mindset they gradually get more confident in decision-making.

 

Q: Is there a secret of productivity that we haven’t discussed yet?

Thomas: Once you get to a point that the technology and facilitation mechanisms are operating smoothly, the elements I discussed earlier can show their value. When the team you’re working with share the same frame of reference and develop an innate sense of what other people would want to do, I think the decision-making becomes much more natural and therefore things move much more quickly.

 

 

Thomas Kurian is president of Oracle product development and reports to Oracle Executive Chairman of the Board and Chief Technology Officer Larry Ellison. He is responsible for leading software development and transitioning the company’s technology to Oracle Cloud. For the past several years, Kurian has been responsible for the Oracle Fusion Middleware family of products. Under his leadership, that business became the fastest-growing within Oracle and the industry’s leading middleware product suite. Since 2008, Kurian has also led the development for Oracle’s next-generation business applications, Oracle Fusion Applications

—The above post was written based on an interview we conducted with the participant. We’ve made minor edits to improve readability.