Technology

How I evaluated opportunities throughout my career…

I try to approach decisions big and small – including career opportunities – by asking myself the question “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” This question was certainly top of mind 18 months ago when I was offered an unexpected opportunity to join Instagram as the first COO. It was an amazing opportunity – but it also meant taking a leap of faith, both professionally and personally. Professionally, I was scared to leave a role that was so fulfilling, and I knew transitioning from a policy role to an operational one would be a challenge. Personally, the job meant moving my family across the country and away from the city where my husband had built his career and my kids were in school. One of the things that kept running through my mind was this question – and answering it helped me get from “no” to “yes.” Ultimately, I decided to take the job and I’m so glad I did. It’s challenging and exciting and I love it. I think this question applies to all of us – no matter what life and career decisions we need to make. If you put fear aside, you will be able to accomplish more and get more satisfaction out of life.

What drew me to the tech industry after public service…

I have always been drawn to mission-driven organizations. I spent most of my early career in government (at the Treasury Department and White House) because I thought it was the best place to have wide-scale impact. I was in my dream political job, working on economic policy in the White House, when I was invited to lead global public policy for what was then a small social-networking company called Facebook.

I had never considered doing policy for a company, let alone a company like Facebook. In fact, I felt pretty strongly that this wasn’t the kind of role I wanted to play at a company. But when I started to look at the global policy issues Facebook was dealing with – issues at the intersection of technology and privacy, health, and human rights – I began to realize the significant opportunity to make an impact in the technology sector and in the world. I was drawn to Facebook’s mission to make the world more open and connected and inspired by the way it was already fundamentally changing the way people were communicating.

Best piece of advice Sheryl Sandberg gave to me…

Sit at the table. I first met Sheryl in 1995 when we were both working at the U.S. Treasury Department. I distinctly remember one of the first times we were in a meeting together. I walked in, the room was jam-packed, and the table was completely full. As one of the youngest and most inexperienced people in the room, my instinct was to hang back and stand near the back wall. But Sheryl didn’t miss a beat – she immediately gestured for me to come to the table and created space for me to sit. What she was saying was, “your voice matters, come participate.” Given the impact this had on me, I’m always looking for the opportunity to pay it forward for others and encourage them to take a seat at the table – both literally and figuratively.

Marne Levine, Chief Operating Officer of Instagram
Marne Levine, Chief Operating Officer of Instagram

Top lessons that I learned early in my career…

First, the importance of finding and using my voice. This is something that took me awhile. I started my career in government working in Washington D.C., a place that tends to be divided hierarchically between principals and staffers. As a staffer, I spent most of my time behind-the-scenes. When I went to business school and professors started asking me for my opinion, I realized how it had become second nature for me to give my boss’ opinion instead of my own. It took me some time to find my own voice and feel comfortable speaking up. I know this can be a struggle for other women, too, but it’s important that they find their voices because they have unique and interesting perspectives that enrich the way we all see the world. It’s one of the reasons I’m proud to work at a company like Instagram that is helping hundreds of millions of people find and use their voice.

I also learned the importance of embracing the rookie advantage. In my experience, women tend to hold themselves back in situations where they aren’t experts, especially when there are others involved who have more expertise. I have been guilty of this more than a few times myself, but I learned to embrace the fact that being a rookie can be a good thing. Research shows that inexperienced people approach work and challenges much differently than people who have more experience in a particular field, and often see things their more seasoned counterparts miss.

Finally, one unfortunate lesson many people learn in Washington, D.C. is that power can be fleeting. Recognizing this has helped me remember the importance of working and leading with humility.

New skills I am developing as COO are…

There are so many. The first relates to my job description. I am continually evaluating the needs of our businesses and teams and the best ways to meet them. This means that I am also changing the nature of my role and where to focus and have impact. This is a job that doesn’t have a set playbook. That is both a challenge and what makes it so fun and interesting. Second, would have to be learning new functions. At Instagram I oversee a range of functions including monetization, marketing, partnerships, customer operations, policy, communications, HR and recruiting. With some, like policy and communications, I’ve had years of experience. Others, like marketing and advertising, are newer to me. Learning on the job can be daunting but I’m enjoying developing new skills.

3 creative ways that entrepreneurs can leverage Instagram…

  1. Use Instagram as your virtual storefront window.
    Instagram is all about empowering people to use their visual voice and tell their story visually. People come to Instagram to connect around shared passions and interests; they are looking to be inspired. With one photo or video, an entrepreneur can turn their passion into their livelihood. Just last week, I met Lila Owens of Cupcakin’ Bake Shop in Berkeley (@cupcakinbakeshop). She posts photos of her daily creations and after seeing photos of the delicious types offered that day, lines form and they sell out. There are countless examples like this all around the world.
  2. Advertise on Instagram to find new customers and drive sales. Businesses – big and small – have always been an important part of the Instagram community. One of the things we heard from the community is that they wanted to take the next step after they were inspired to learn more about the product or service or even buy it. With ads, a marketer can put the right story in front of the right person on Instagram. They can change the storefront window and who walks by. And now the customer can “go inside” to learn more about their discovery. This is a win for everyone involved.
  3. Try out more creative tools.
    Instagram started out as a photo platform but we now support much more. We’re continuing to improve the video experience on Instagram and last year we launched a separate app called Boomerang which let’s you create cool little looping 1-second videos. Sometimes, we want our images to have sight, sound, and motion to get across what we want to say.

Diversity in tech is important because…

More perspectives in the room leads to better decisions, better products, and better businesses. I believe this whole-heartedly and I’ve seen it play out.

Key steps that need to be taken to tackle tech’s gender gap…

To get more women in the door, I think we should spend more time talking about what women are doing in tech at every level. Focusing on executives is important, but it can make it seem like there are only a handful of women in tech doing only a handful of jobs. There is such a wide range of jobs in tech – from engineering to marketing, to sales to PR – and there are amazing women doing all of them. We should talk more about how these women got there and what they love about their jobs. This will hopefully help more young women recognize that they can pursue a job in tech.

The kinds of problems we are dealing with in tech are so new and changing that I focus less on whether someone has relevant experience. I would rather find someone who is a good “athlete” – smart, analytical, and solutions oriented. Once we bring in athletes, we need to invest in them. An important part of any top athlete’s regimen is cross-training. In the workplace, cross-training means creating opportunities for women at every level to get insight into different functions — whether that means bringing a partnerships person along to a sales meeting or a product person to an operations offsite – pushing people out of their comfort zone and into new experiences. Not only will this make them better at their job, but the exposure will also help them imagine where they might want to take their career next.

What entrepreneurs can learn from Instagram’s approach to business…

One of our core values at Instagram is community first. This means that the community is at the center of everything we do – from the way we build products to the way we introduced advertising. Listening to our community has helped us continue to innovate and build a better Instagram for the people who use and love our product.

Advice for entrepreneurs seeking mentors for their business…

Don’t limit your pool of mentors to your specific industry. Often people with an outsider’s perspective can see things you might not and ask different questions.

What I have learned from the small businesses that I meet with through Instagram…

So much. One of the things that has stuck with me the most is the importance of peer-to-peer mentoring. Small businesses on Instagram have formed communities both on and off the platform. People are turning to each other for advice and creating a kind of grassroots movement, which is inspiring to see.

What I love about the Instagram community is hearing and seeing entrepreneurs of different sized companies mentor each other. I’ve watched an online florist owner mentor a shoe company and a beverage company mentor a clothing brand. The peer-to-peer mentoring has been invaluable.

The biggest technology change over the next five years will be…

The rise of camera phones around the world and the resulting shift from words to images. More photos were taken on mobile phones in 2015 than were taken on film during the entire era of the analog camera. Across the board, people are increasingly communicating visually.

I am most excited about this change because…

Images are a new global language that everyone can speak and everyone can understand. They have a unique power to transcend the barriers that so often divide us. In the 24 hours following the terrorist attacks in Paris, more than 70 million people from more than 200 countries took to Instagram to share their support and prayers. A sketch, by artist Jean Julien, combining two of the world’s most familiar images – Paris’s Eiffel Tower and the symbol for peace – went viral on Instagram. Overnight, a simple image became a global symbol of hope and unity. This new global language is creating greater awareness, a stronger sense of connection, and even more empathy.

Images are a new global language that everyone can speak and everyone can understand.

Books that every leader should read…

Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg – A game changer for approaching life and work. Both women and men should read it!

Originals by Adam Grant – I love books that help you explore and understand the world better using behavioral economics and psychology. Originals is one such book that is particularly motivating and has many useful applications in the workplace.

The Emperor’s Seed – A children’s story about integrity, which is one of the most important qualities a leader should have.

Top 3 qualities that make a great leader…

    1. Focus on impact.
      Look for gaps and bridge them. Pick the areas that matter most and concentrate your efforts there.
    2. Be open about your mistakes.
      I often start meetings – both group meetings and 1:1s – with a mistake or a lesson learned. Setting this tone of openness can help create a trusting environment where people are encouraged to be honest with themselves and each other.
    3. Say thank you.
      Say it often and say it with meaning. Say it privately and say it publicly. We often appreciate people but forget to tell them.

My most inspiring moment at Instagram…

I had the opportunity a few months ago to meet a woman named Katie Meyler, one of TIME Magazine’s People of the Year in 2014. For 9 years, Katie has used her skills and passion to try to improve the lives of children in Liberia. In 2013, she opened a girl’s academy in one of the country’s poorest neighborhoods. Then Ebola struck, and Katie found herself on the frontlines of a crisis that brought unimaginable suffering to the people in her community. Schools were closed. The families of her students were living in fear. Many were dying.  Her days were long and very disheartening. Worst of all was the feeling that the rest of the world wasn’t paying attention to the horror she was seeing everyday. Katie started using her Instagram account to show individuals fighting, losing, and winning the battle against Ebola. When I met her she described to me how, in these moments of suffering, it sometimes felt inappropriate, wrong even, to pull out her phone and capture an image. She didn’t want to remember these horrors. But she hoped that by giving this human tragedy a human face, she might inspire others to act. She did and she was successful. Help of all kinds poured in and, for many that was the difference between life and death. Katie saw that Instagram is not just a place for selfies. It can also be a place for the selfless, who use the language of images to move people to act

My mantra is…

Be open, be daunted, be present. This helps guide the way I try to approach life.