Ep 6: Unique Paths to the Top in Tech: Music and Resilience

Jay Simons and Sanjay Poonen are both software executives, but they have completely different paths to success.

Jay Simons and Sanjay Poonen are both software executives, but they have completely different paths to success.

Sanjay Poonen grew up lower-middle class in India and pushed past rejection to become one of the most respected executives in Silicon Valley; he's now chief operating officer at VMware. Jay Simons' detour before law school took him playing piano across Asia – and inspired him to ditch law for tech, where today he's president at Atlassian, one of the industry's hot young companies.  

For most of us, the path to success isn't going to be a straight line. But those who make it learn a lot of lessons you can't capture on a résumé. So what qualities separate the best from the average? 

I sat down with Poonen and Simons for the latest episode of the Fortt Knox podcast, and the two executives shared some wisdom from their journeys that should help others along the way.

Traditional qualifications aren't everything

After undergrad, Simons thought he'd be a lawyer. But a lawyer mentor offered him important advice: Slow down and be sure. A few years of international travel and playing piano taught him a few things, including that his passion wasn't in law. It was tech. After he landed back in the states, he moved to California and snagged a tech job where risk-taking and a global mindset paid off.

Rejection is part of the drill

Poonen applied to three U.S. schools for undergrad. One accepted him. He also applied to a bunch of business schools and got rejected by all of them ... except Harvard. Winning, it turns out, isn't about being offered every opportunity, it's about making the most of the ones we get.

Do what fuels you

Simons runs to work every day, and still practices the piano days he's in town. It's part of his routine. Poonen likes to focus on helping the needy in his community – especially when he's going through a rough spot in life, and he might be tempted to simply mull his own problems.

Subscribe to Fortt Knox on Apple or Google Play. Next week: Feeding America CEO Diana Aviv on leading with emotional intelligence.