Interview with Moira Hardek
Lucy Sanders: Hi, this is Lucy Sanders. I'm the CEO of NCWIT, The National Center for Women and Information Technology. This is another in a series of interviews that we're having with wonderful women entrepreneurs, people who have started innovative companies, doing great things. All the way from cars, to web services, to education, and lots of interesting entrepreneurs in this interview series. With me Larry Nelson, w3w3.com. Hi, Larry.
Larry Nelson: Hi, I'm so happy to be here. This sounds like it's going to be a real interesting interview. Of course it'll be in a few different places, including on w3w3.com, where you can listen to it anytime you want.
Lucy: That's awesome. Well today, we are interviewing an entrepreneur in the quote "gamification space." The combination of education and the gaming fields, and also, I'm very proud to say a NCWIT member company in our entrepreneurial alliance. Moira Hardek is the president and CEO of Galvanize Labs.
Galvanize Labs is a hybrid education and gaming company focused on teaching critical technology skills. They have produced a number of educational video games and most recently, a game called "Taken Charge." That's a merge of players and very captivating learning stories while teaching them some of the fundamental building blocks of a quality technology education.
Before that, Moira spent a number of years at Best Buy where she created and piloted a program I think many of our listeners will know well as part of the Geek Squad Summer Academy. This was a really great hands‑on technology education camp. It's still going on today.
Very successful, and had a particular emphasis on young women. Before we start with the interview questions, Moira, why don't you give us a little bit about the latest at Galvanize Labs? This is a relatively recent startup, correct?
Moira Hardek: Yes, we're just a little bit over a year old, and our big launch right now is Taken Charge. Taken Charge is all about teaching about the building blocks of technology education. To be able to get into things like coding and game design and more advanced technology topics, we are teaching the building blocks of technology to get more kids prepared to get into more advanced topics of tech education, and we're really excited about it.
Lucy: This is a follow‑up question to that. You're in this hot space of computing education in the K‑12, K‑16 spaces. What are you seeing out there that's going on? Is there a shift, do you think, in the general public's interest of this area?
Moira: I think so, definitely. Technology is everywhere. It's not just an industry and a field to work in, although it's a very, very exciting place to work in. Technology is part of any type of career that you want to be part of. We used to ask that of all of our students when we were taking other types of programs. We've challenged kids.
They would say, "I don't know if I really need to have Tech Ed, because I don't know if I want to be a programmer, and I don't know if I want to be a game designer." We challenge them, we said, "Can you name a career or name a job where you're not going to interact with technology?" You can't anymore, so this is important across any type of career that you're going to have. We think this is just a key building block for anything you're going to do today.
Lucy: We agree. We think too, at NCWIT, that we're seeing a key change here and it's good. It's about time. Galvanize Labs is going to play a huge role in that. Moira, why don't you tell our listeners how you first got interested in technology? You had a technology career at Best Buy, and Geek Squad Academy, and now at Galvanize. Tell us a bit about how you got there.
Moira: First, it's that interest in technology, I think probably the way that you get interested in anything. It was just purely curiosity. Not to date myself, but there weren't computer or tech‑ed classes when I was in school. That stuff really wasn't available, and I think the first computers that I ever saw was Apple IIE's, and giant Gateway towers that were like three and a half feet tall.
I was just curious. I just wanted to know what they were and I knew just enough to be dangerous. I think I'll never forget the first thing I ever did was, I'd deleted a file that was called "AutoExec.Batch" because I was like, "I've never seen that, or used that before, so I can just delete that [laughs] and get rid of it."
Little did I know, you need that for Windows to start. I knew enough to be dangerous. Being dangerous means I did damage. Then I had to learn how to repair things. That's was how I got started...
Moira: ...was I was just really self‑taught.
Lucy: I guess that's how you learn how to repair things. I have to tell you a similar story that when Bell Labs first brought Unix from out of Murray Hill and West of the Mississippi, I was one of the first Unix Administrators on a little PDP server, and one of my colleagues dared me to erase a file that was a root file. To sit up at root and do an RM minus RF star and he goes, "Certainly it won't allow you to erase the whole file system."
Lucy: Guess what? Certainly it did.
Lucy: Everybody started complaining, "Where are my files? Where are my files?" I almost didn't want to come to work the next day.
Lucy: It was bad.
Moira: It was the lure of gaming too. I never really had played computer games or anything like that. Someone had told me a story about this game, and it was like, "You can build civilizations." I really like history, and I was like, "Really? You can watch history evolve digitally?" They said, "Yeah, there's this game, it's called Civilization, and it's by this guy Sid Meier."
I was like, "That sounds like the coolest thing." It was the original Civ, but you could really only play it on Linux. I was like, "What's that?" They said, "It's another operating system." I was like, "What do you mean? There's Windows, and what else is there?" I didn't know.
I learned enough, and I remember I had to learn how to create partitions and a parallel boot on my first laptop I ever to at college. It was a disaster, and I totally blew it up, and I think it took me like three months. I finally figured out how to do it, all because I wanted to see Civilization.
Lucy: That's amazing.
Larry: Yes, wow. You certainly do have a very interesting website too, by the way.
Lucy: Plus, I'm sending her all my broken tech.
Larry: Well, very good, excellent, excellent. Oh no, but with all of this in the field that you're in, why are you an entrepreneur, and what is it about entrepreneurship that makes you tick?
Moira: For me, it was just about being able to solve problems. That is just my favorite thing to do, whether it's around the house...Actually, the first thing that I studied in college, and that I was interested in, and I got into it actually in high school, was animal behaviors. I thought that was so interesting because it was very pure and very simplistic.
It was "Why do animals do things?" without the complexity of human emotion behind it, and the drama that we can create, and the circumstances of our situation. It was really just about narrowing it down to the simplest basic need. Problem‑solving became something that was really important to me, and so entrepreneurship became really very natural, because to me it's all about "see a need, fill a need."
It became, "find a problem, solve a problem." That was my favorite part, and I love to do it, whether it's...I think that's probably why I initially started in tech support, and the same way from...I really wanted to see what the game Civilization looked like, and I spent months. I was, "Darn it," I was going to see that game.
I wanted to solve for that. That was the biggest thing for me, and entrepreneurship to me is about solving problems, and I love to do it, and it's why I get up in the morning, is to solve a problem.
Larry: I love it.
Lucy: Along this career path, who has influenced you, what types of mentors or role models?
Moira: Oh my God, I have tons. I think...
Moira: ...the funniest thing right now, the one that everybody gets a kick out of is I am probably some creepy, perfect hybrid of my parents. My mom spent 35 plus years in Chicago public schools as a teacher, and as a counselor, and special‑ed. My father worked in a lot of Silicon Valley start‑ups, back in the day.
To be doing educational start‑ups now is just hilarious for my whole family. It's some perfect kind of...It was very natural to me, growing up around this type of environment. I had no idea what it was when I was a kid. It just seemed to make sense. I never really understood the barriers of big business.
It was just always, "Yeah, if you want to do something, go out and do it." As far as mentors go, and role models, my parents were great role models. I have one sister, my older sister Kerry. I think she's probably got to be the greatest role model of strength I've ever had.
I've spent most of my life looking to my sister and just drawing from her as an example of strength for my whole life. I've had great role models to look to in the industry. A big role model for me was Brad Anderson. He was the CEO of Best Buy for the majority of the time that I was there. People like Dr. Genevieve Bell from Intel, and Jane McGonigal, I think are other great role models.
I have been lucky enough to have some amazing mentors. Probably the most impact was a gentleman named Michael Trebony, and he was my mentor for years while I was at Best Buy, and he's still very influential in my life today. Maybe one of the most important things that he taught me was...There are a lot of really charismatic people out there, there are a ton of leaders, there's a lot of people to listen to, there's a lot of influence.
I think maybe the most important thing that he taught to me, "It's not so much about what people say, it's about who's saying it, and what are their intentions when they're speaking to you" I think that was probably one of the most powerful things he taught me.
Larry: Wow. Who is saying it? Well, I'm going to ask you the question now.
Larry: What is the toughest thing that you've had to do in your career?
Moira: Probably the hardest thing was making the original jump from working for a company, the original jump into starting my own. Working with me was my team, and we've been together for a while. I think that the scariest part, or the toughest thing for me, is the sense of responsibility that I feel for the team that is Galvanize Labs. There's seven of us that make up the company currently now, I'm incredibly close to all of them.
The sense of responsibility [laughs] that I feel for their careers, and their futures, and their families, I think has to probably be the scariest thing I've ever done. I feel so responsible for them. That is the only thing that's ever given me a moment of pause. Usually, I'm pretty risk‑averse, and it really can roll off my back. I probably little bit live on the edge, but when it comes to risking others, that's always the hardest thing.
Lucy: That is hard.
Larry: Yeah, it is.
Lucy: That is hard, and that sense of responsibility never goes away.
Moira: Yeah, it's brutal. [laughs]
Lucy: I know it is. [laughs] You can't just shut it off, and that's for sure. If you were sitting here right now, and giving a young person advice about entrepreneurship, and the things you've learned so far, what advice would you give them?
Moira: I think probably the most important thing is, and I made this mistake early on too, is don't do it alone, and you're never alone. It's funny, for the mentors, and the role models that I had, and the things that you read online. Even to be sitting here doing this interview. I do this interview here as an individual.
I don't want to send the message that I've never done it alone. I haven't. I've always had wonderful support of my family, and my spouse, and my team, and my mentors. I've never been alone. I think, when you look at those that are running companies, and those that you look up to, you're looking at an individual.
You make this assumption, "Wow, look at what they did, and they did it alone, and they persevered." They're not, they're not doing it alone. They have support, and they have help, and there's a lot of people around them. Don't ever try to do it alone. Bring that support with you.
It's OK to ask for help, and it's OK to make sure that you're surrounded. You really want to have that. Then I think the flip side of that is my favorite word, the one that got me through all this was, relentless. That's just what you have to be is just be relentless.
Larry: I like that too. With all the different things that you've been through, and reflecting back, what characteristics do you have that give you the advantage of being an entrepreneur?
Moira: I probably think I'd have to go back to my parents for that one again. In that when we were growing up, they instilled this great sense of personal responsibility. No matter what was happening. I remember getting in trouble as a little kid. We all did it. I'll admit it. You go to point the finger.
Particularly at my sister, you have a sibling, it was like, "She did it." No matter what happened, they were like, "What did you do? How were you responsible for it, what could you have done to stop the situation from happening?" It was always about personal responsibility, and even if you saw a problem, and whether you chose to act, and it turned out well, or it didn't, or if you chose not to act, that was still your responsibility.
I think the biggest piece about this is really the personal responsibility, so from the responsibility to Galvanize as a company, and the responsibility that I feel towards my team, the responsibility that I feel for the problem that I'm trying to solve. Part of the reason that Galvanize is here is I'm trying to solve a problem, and I feel personally responsible to do that, because I have a skill set that allows me to solve it. That's what brings me here. I think that particular characteristic is what I bring to the table as an entrepreneur, and makes a big difference.
Lucy: It's interesting that you point out this area of personal responsibility when you choose not to act.
Moira: That's a choice too. That's always a big one is choice, and not acting is also a choice. I think most people...I don't know if everybody sees it that way, and again I really felt I had to think how deeply that was instilled in me and ingrained in me is that not acting is also a choice, and you're responsible for that as well.
Lucy: Wow. I think that's so tremendously important, and we don't hear that said very much. There was this one time when I took a leadership course when I was working at AT&T. They were trying to make a point with us, choosing not to act, and not to bring up problems when you see them, and they called it sabotage.
Lucy: I thought for a while "Whoa! That's a strong word!" Obviously, I never forgot it. There is an element of truth to that, when you choose not to act. Maybe not. Moira you have a spouse, and you have other friends and family, and other personal interests, and also a busy professional life. How do you bring balance to all the different things you do?
Moira: You hear the conversations a lot about work‑life balance. I've sat in those seminars too, where we get sent to those when you work for a big company, about work‑life balance. I watched a lot of people struggle with it. I was really confused for a while. I didn't feel it, and I didn't see it. I watched people struggle with it, and I thought something was wrong with me.
Moira: I remember talking to my spouse about it and I said, "Am I missing something?" What dawned on me is, and it almost had to be explained to me, was the greatest part about what I'm able to do, I know I'm so lucky and blessed to have this is, what I do for a living is also who I am for a living.
I bring who I am in my personal life to work every single day. Sure, I don't know if I'd sit through as many conferences as I would, if it was a personal choice. There are some [laughs] professional lines you do draw. As far as my day‑to‑day, and I'll admit there are certainly some hundred‑hour work weeks, and there have been some overnighters. This is a start‑up it's going to happen.
The greatest part about myself and my team is what we all do for our jobs is who we are. We have a ton of fun with that. I couldn't tell you where I laugh more. Do I laugh more in my home or at work? I really don't know, because I laugh a lot at both. There's joking, and there may be a little singing and dancing.
You've got to dance it out. [laughs] We just have a lot of fun with it because it's just who we are. For me, I really haven't had to struggle with that. I know sometimes from the outside it can be tough, again having an incredibly supportive family. Particularly with my spouse, who puts up with my really crazy hours.
I think a lot of the patience comes from...I may be on my laptop, and in virtual meetings at two o'clock in the morning sometimes. She can hear my laughter, and so it's OK.
Larry: That's excellent, wow. You've really shared some very excellent ideas, and I have to ask you this. You've already achieved a great deal. What's next for you?
Moira: As far as what's next? It's simple. We like to solve problems, and there will always be more problems, which means more solutions. That's what's we're looking to do. At Galvanize we have four pillars that really define who we are. We think that combining these four pillars can very effectively solve any problem.
The pillars for us are, the first one is data, so being able to collect data and information to properly analyze a problem. We believe very, very strongly in education. It's not just education as in school, although that's what Taken Charge is very focused the education of kids.
Even whether it's educating someone on a product, or learning about your city in which you live, or learning about the smartphone that you have, knowledge is power, so education is big for us. Game theory, for us, is really what drives everything, and that's our third pillar. Game theory is all about creating internal motivation.
It's not just gamification, it's not just having fun, but creating motivation for your user. Then the fourth pillar being a great user experience, and nobody's going to do anything if they have a lousy experience. We think those four things in combination can solve any problem, and we have a laundry list of problem that we'd love to solve. Once we solve this tech ed things, we've got that covered, we'll move on to the next problem.
Lucy: It gives me great hope, because we're going to have all of these young people learning these really critical 21st Century skills, and they need them.
Larry: Thank you Galvanize.
Lucy: Yeah, [laughs] thank you. Thank you, Moira. We really appreciate your time.
Moira: Well, thanks so much for having me. I really appreciate it.
Lucy: I want to remind listeners that they can find these interviews at the ncwit.org website, as well as the wonderful w3w3.com.
Lucy: All right, well thank you Moira. We really appreciate it.
Moira: [laughs] Thanks a lot.
Larry: Thanks a lot.
Lucy: Have a great week.