Operator Spotlight: Cloudflare Co-Founder & COO Michelle Zatlyn

Looking for practical help and advice on an operational area that may be outside your realm? Each month we spotlight one of our talented operators, who’ll share their expertise and offer insights and ideas that may help improve your own operations. This month we spoke to Michelle Zatlyn, Co-Founder & COO of Cloudflare.

You founded Cloudflare in 2009. How has the landscape changed for women founders/operators since then? 

MICHELLE: As I reflect on the last decade, what’s changed is that there’s an increased awareness of the gender imbalance. That’s a good thing – There’s more awareness today that there are fewer women in technology, across a broader set of people. Now we need to see continued progress on making change. There are so many incredible women in technology, and I hope more of them choose the founder/operator path. We need all of you! I’m optimistic for the future.

This year has been full of disruptions. What are the biggest operational challenges you face right now?  

MICHELLE:  Our team is focused on how we can continue to provide the best Internet experience for our customers and the online world in a time when the world is relying on the Internet more than ever. The superheroes of this crisis are the medical professionals and scientists taking care of the sick and searching for a cure to this disease. But the faithful sidekick has been the Internet. Globally there’s been roughly a 50% increase in Internet utilization since March – and while the Internet isn’t necessarily a public utility, there aren’t many utilities that would continue to function if they saw a 50% increase in utilization over the course of a few days. As one of the guardians of the Internet, I’m proud of how our team has risen to the occasion to support our customers, new and old, as they deal with unprecedented challenges.

Last year you brought your family with you to the NYSE for Cloudflare’s IPO. Why was it important to have them there? 

MICHELLE: Building a company is an incredible, rewarding experience, but one that takes a ton of time, work, and energy. That’s true for the team that shows up every day, but it’s also true for the team’s loved ones. 

As I reflect on building Cloudflare, I was lucky to start the company with my co-founder Matthew Prince, and then take it public together a decade later. That was a real pleasure, and something we’re both proud of, since it doesn’t always happen that way. But as we prepared to go public, I had this realization of how lucky I was that my husband Jamie had also been there from Day 1. We were dating at the time and living in Vancouver. He encouraged me to move to the Bay Area to pursue this opportunity to see where it would go. I realize how fortunate I am that I had a supportive partner who encouraged me to go for it.

So a small group of us got together to talk about who would be on the podium the day we went public, and I thought about having Jamie and my kids there with me. It wasn’t a clear decision; several people thought it was a bad idea, plus you can have 14 people on the NYSE podium. I also reached out to Stitch Fix Founder/CEO Katrina Lake since she’d done it ahead of me; she encouraged me to do it.

In my late 20s, I remember having a conversation with myself about how I really wanted to have a career, a loving relationship, and kids. As I built Cloudflare with Matthew and our incredible team, Jamie and I created a life together in parallel. I made choices along the way to enable this. But as I faced the decision of who would be on the podium when we went public, I knew it was important for my family to be right there with me. 

Cloudflare is a security infrastructure company. What’s one insight no one knows about web security? 

MICHELLE: Organizations of all sizes are under cyberthreat. We see it with businesses of all sizes and in all kinds of industries. Small businesses are threatened by email-borne ransomware and phishing to get access to bank accounts and payroll systems. We’ve seen competing day spas launch attacks against each other to disrupt their websites – that’s an example that has always stood out to me as unexpected. Large organizations face a wider range of threats including ransomware, phishing, industrial espionage, cyber-activism, defacement, DDoS, and data theft. 

Everyone needs to think about security – whether that’s keeping personal information secure or keeping an organization secure. The good news is most attacks are simple to defend against; don’t get distracted by “movie plot” cyberattacks. Attackers will typically look for poor passwords, unpatched software, phishing targets, and websites without basic DDoS protection. Use password managers, update your software regularly, be careful of emails you open and attachments you download, and you can sign up for Cloudflare to help secure your online properties (websites, apps, APIs, blogs). 

How can the tech industry do a better job of supporting women operators and executives? 

MICHELLE: The best way to support women in tech is to lead or join a company that supports women in the workplace. I’m optimistic that we can continue to move forward as an industry, and I’m proud of how we’ve done this at Cloudflare. We’ve always said that a diverse team wins, whether it’s with our team or on our Board, where three of our eight members are women. Supporting the next generation of executives is equally important. I’m proud of what we’ve done to partner with organizations like Path Forward in the US and Mums@Work in Singapore to facilitate returnships for caregivers and women looking to get back into the workforce. We all need to be able to recruit the best of the best, no matter their background, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or gaps in employment. 

Why is it important for companies to think about building an ecosystem? 

MICHELLE: All companies operate within a larger context. Ecosystems make me think of waves. If you build an ecosystem, it’s like you’re riding the wave and being proactive about what partners you’re working on and bringing more people into your wake. It also amplifies your size, which leads to having more influence in certain conversations and situations. Ultimately, building an ecosystem is a strategy operators can use to make more progress towards their goals, faster.

AOC often talks about the skills she picked up as a bartender, and others talk about what they learned working retail. What were some of those formative jobs for you?

MICHELLE: I love the feeling of being part of something. I worked at my dad’s law office for many summers, answering phones, running errands, and bookkeeping. I learned the importance of sweating the details and building strong relationships. I also spent a summer as a Camp Counselor at a special needs camp. Talk about being inspired! The camaraderie that I experienced there is something I’ll never forget. I’m a firm believer that life is a collection of experiences, and that’s why a winding career path or getting out there and seeing the world in many different ways is an asset. 

What’s one unconventional thing you’re doing to keep yourself sane?

MICHELLE: Just as shelter-in-place measures swept the globe, Cloudflare launched Cloudflare TV, a 24×7 live television broadcast with programming entirely curated and driven by employees to connect with the broader community. I produce and host a show called “Yes We Can,” a weekly segment that highlights non-C-Level women in tech, offering a chance to amplify their stories in one-on-one interviews. I’ve had the chance to interview incredible women showing up every day to build technology that impacts millions of people around the world. Past guests have been leaders in data science, marketing, engineering, design, and business development from companies like Shopify, Uber, Twitter, IBM, Patreon, IBM, and Houzz. I look forward to these interviews every week. I hope the segments show how women are making their marks on the tech industry and that their stories propel other women to choose a career in tech.

What’s the one condiment you could never live without? 

MICHELLE: I’m a proud Canadian, so it would have to be maple syrup. 

We believe culture, diversity, and operational excellence are a key part of building truly great companies. Learn more on our website or on Twitter and LinkedIn.