Every quarter, the Arizona Technology Council publishes a data report showcasing the performance of the tech industry in the state. We’re now adding an additional layer, with the stories of the people behind the numbers—the people who are the employers and employees, the innovators and investors.
Wes Hummel is vice president of Site Reliability Engineering at PayPal and a recent addition to the Arizona Technology Council board of directors. A longtime Arizonan, he has also held positions at Clarity Communication Systems and Motorola.
Wes joined Molly Castelazo, storyteller-in-chief at Castelazo Content, in a lively conversation that ranged from how software was eating the world well before Marc Andreessen said it, to why everyone should work in the service industry at some point, to what it takes to support 25X growth. The full transcript, edited just for clarity, is here, with timestamps to ease navigation through the video.
[00:58] Take us back to the beginning. Did you grow up in Arizona?
Yeah, I’ve lived here for almost twenty four, twenty five years now, so almost half my life. Which in Arizona I think qualifies you to be a native now. Yes. And so I moved here in ’95 to work for Motorola. I spent about five and a half years at Motorola and then went to a startup, a telecommunications startup. And then from there I went to PayPal. So I’ve been at PayPal for about twelve, a little over twelve years. And I also during that time during my career, got my MBA at ASU specifically W. P. Carey School of Business.
Yes, I was born and raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico, went to New Mexico State in Las Cruces and got my undergraduate degree in electrical engineering and then immediately went into software development. And I really haven’t done a day of electrical engineering in my life since then.
[03:01] You got a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering. What drew you to software?
Yeah, well, I’ve been doing software since sixth grade, which nowadays people go ‘That’s not a big deal.’ But back when I was in sixth grade, I was kind of a big deal. I got my first computer in sixth grade. I started programing almost immediately, fell in love with it. And so even when I was getting my undergraduate degree in electrical engineering, I was taking a lot of software engineering courses. I got a job at Motorola, they knew fully well that I had a degree in electrical engineering, but that I had a lot of software background.
So literally, almost on the first day that I showed up, they had an engineering program when you first get out of college and it was three months. It’s called the Concurrent Engineering Training Program. And essentially, it was for three months you’re with other college graduates and it’s a transition from college to the working world. And you’re working on a project with other engineers and other program managers that have just graduated as well. And that’s a kind of a cohort of 40 people. So when I showed up on the first day they said, you know, we can’t figure you out. We’ve put people either in a software engineering track or a hardware engineering track. Based on my undergraduate degree, I should have gone into hardware engineering or they had a couple mechanical engineer program management kind of roles. And they said, but we don’t know whether to put you in the software track or the hardware track because your degree says hardware track but all of your classes and stuff and kind of what you’ve done, your most recent internship at IBM, shows that you’re software. So they said you have a day to decide what you want to do.
So I basically had to choose the rest of my life in a 24 hour time period. Right. So I really spent some time that night thinking about what do I want to do? Do I want to do digital design, which is really what I was talking about on the hardware side or on the on the electrical engineering side, or do I want to do software? And it was very clear to me that even then, in ’95, that hardware was becoming software and so that I could do either one if I went into the software track. And as the famous quote goes software was eating the world even back then. And so because it was something I was really passionate about, because it was something that I did even in my spare time for fun, I figured it’s probably a good idea to choose software and really it was one of the best decisions that I ever made, because I’ve enjoyed my career in this space and it has led to really exciting things for me just from a learning perspective and from a growth perspective.
And then as far as coming out to Arizona, what a great place to live. Part of it was being close to family. So my family’s in Albuquerque. My wife’s family at the time was in Las Cruces, where my wife and I both went to college, and that’s only about six hours away from here. But more importantly, just the weather, the opportunities here. We love it here. My wife’s dad was in the Army and so she moved around a lot. And so we got here and probably not even a year after we got here, she was like, when are we going to move on? But I grew up in the same house for 17 years. So that was a bit of a difference for me. We’re still here twenty five years later, even though initially she kind of had an itch to move somewhere. We both really love it. We’ve raised three daughters here. We have three teenage girls. Our oldest actually is at Barrett [The Honors College] at ASU. So we’re here for a while. We love it. And it’s just a lot of great opportunities and a great place to live.
[08:38] What’s been your experience as a Dad of three girls who have gone through school in Arizona?
Yeah, well, we moved in ’97, we moved out to Ahwatukee specifically for the schools. We didn’t have kids yet, but we knew that we were going to have kids and we knew we wanted to settle in a neighborhood that had a good school system.
I think the schools do get a bad rap in Arizona. Our experience has been great with the schools that our daughters have gone to. The teachers are very dedicated. They’re very invested in the success of the students. And just like anything else, it’s a two way street. It’s not just about the teachers. It’s about the students and the parents being invested as well. And if the parents and students aren’t invested, then it’s not going to be successful no matter how good the teachers are. So, you know, that’s been our philosophy all along, is this is not just finding great schools. It’s finding great schools and also putting in the work and effort and not just from our kids’ perspective, but as parents as well, like committing to our community and committing to our schools and making them successful.
[10:03] At what point in your career did you decide to get an MBA?
Well, I was at Motorola and I was kind of working my way up into management. I got my first management position there, although at the time as more of a tech lead and not as much of a people manager – I mean, it was people management as I had people reporting to me, but I spent the majority of my time doing software development and a very small amount of my time doing people leadership, which is different than PayPal. But I knew then I wanted to get into leadership. I had ideas on, you know, the way I thought teams could be run and the culture you can create. I was really excited about that aspect of leadership and also just like with any education I was really excited just to learn something different. I had been in engineering classes, you know, all of my undergrad, afterward any of the training that I did at Motorola was all in engineering. And so this was an opportunity to kind of get outside of that.
At the time ASU offered the high technology MBA program, which is what I what I was in. And so I started out when I was at Motorola. Between my first and second year of my MBA that’s when I went to the startup. So I finished when I was at the startup. And it was just a great opportunity to get different visibility into the business and how businesses are run. And as an engineer, I certainly knew how products are created and how software was developed. But this was a really good opportunity to understand, especially being in a startup, to really understand how businesses run and other aspects that are outside of just the engineering, of building products. So you know the legal aspects, the compliance aspects, the H.R. and organizational behavior aspects, that was a really good opportunity to learn.
[12:15] What inspired you to move from a huge company to a startup?
Yeah. At the time I left, it was truly one of the biggest; I believe there were around one hundred and fifty thousand employees worldwide. And it was kind of a jump to go from massive, big, well-recognized name of course, Motorola was huge. It was one of the biggest employers, if not the biggest employer in the Valley at the time and in Arizona. For me, it was just the people that I was going to be working with. Many of them actually worked for Motorola as well, but also from Lucent. And the opportunity to just try something different.
Although I did, you know, we started our family right around that time. So that was a little scary to kind of go to a startup when you’re starting a family. But I just didn’t want to pass up an opportunity to learn some new things, to understand how a startup works. And it gave me a great appreciation for really focusing on the customer, really focusing on their needs, running very lean as a business and treating the company’s money as your own. So there are a lot of really great lessons. Wearing many different hats. And so for me it was really about making sure that, you know, when I got much older, I didn’t look back and have any regrets around trying something different or trying something that was out of the comfort zone – because at the time, the easiest path forward, at least the most comfortable path forward, would have been to stay in my role and to continue to grow at Motorola. But I felt like that was the time to try something different and get out of my comfort zone.
From an education standpoint, it was fantastic. I was there eight years. I still called it the startup after eight years. And when something called a startup after eight years, it hasn’t really started up. We had some great successes. We had some great failures. All of them were just fantastic learning opportunities. In fact, the only reason I left is when I had the opportunity at PayPal, to again try something different. I felt like I had learned all that I wanted to and needed to learn from the startup and it was time to move on to something different.
When I was in college, I was a waiter and I really feel like everybody should be in the service industry once in their lives so that they have an appreciation for what it’s like to serve people. I also believe that everybody should work at a startup once in their lives so that they understand ownership of the company and what it really means and how a laser focus on the customers is so important, because if you’re in a big company, sometimes you just don’t have sight of that. You’re too far removed from the customer. Then you don’t have that visibility into the things that delight them. What are their pain points and how do you serve your customers better? You don’t get to wear many different hats all the time if you’re in a big company. And so you don’t see what it actually takes to totally run a company. And so I think it’s valuable for folks to spend time in a startup because there’s some great lessons that you can’t really learn anywhere else.
Do you feel PayPal has retained the entrepreneurial, startup-like spirit despite being quite large?
I tell people all the time the thing that I love about PayPal is it really combines that big company like that I had a Motorola and that startup that I had at Clarity. It’s a combination of both because in my role at PayPal I’ve been able to really kind of have a lot of autonomy, really kind of carve a path for our team and for our customers and for our business. And it does retain a lot of innovation in that startup feel in that fast pace that you have at a startup. And like any big company, it’s not going to be nearly as fast paced as just a true startup. But for a company as large as PayPal, there’s a lot of speed, too. Things are changing all the time. We’re in a space that has a lot of competition and it’s really important that we’re heavily focused on our customer needs and the value we’re providing to our customers.
And then on top of that, the cherry on top of all that is our purpose and our mission and our vision. And ours is fantastic. It’s something that’s very easy to get behind – the democratizing of financial services. The fact is that it’s very expensive to be poor and we want to level the playing field and we want to make it so that the under-banked and the un-banked have the same access to financial services that people that have money have. People take it for granted that they have a checking account and that they have access to loans and things like that. But not everybody has that. And in fact, when you don’t, it becomes very expensive to access the money that you do. And so we’re really trying to level the playing field for people so that it doesn’t cost them a significant portion of the money that they make to access their money. So getting behind that mission vision is really exciting as well.
[18:36] What do you do as a vice president of Site Reliability Engineering?
Yeah, and it’s if you ask that question of five different VPs of SRE at five different companies you’ll get five different answers. For PayPal our site reliability engineering organization is not just the traditional SRE, which focuses on availability, reliability, performance of the applications, customer issues. At PayPal, it also includes our public and private cloud engineering, our global network services, our enterprise wide monitoring, our corporate infrastructure, our data centers. So it’s pretty inclusive of anything that touches our site and even some things that are related to our corporate systems as well. So it’s a pretty broad area that we have in our organization that’s really focused on, again, the systems that our applications run on, the network that our applications are on. We’re a global company. We’re in 200 markets and we operate in a hundred different currencies. And so you can imagine the complexities of the regulation as well as just the global footprint we have. And doing the transactions, it’s cross-border and things like that are pretty significant. And then the growth we’ve had. We’ve been growing significantly year over year over year over year. And COVID has actually significantly accelerated our business probably three to five years. Our CEO has said that it’s accelerated probably three to five years because people don’t want to touch money anymore. People aren’t face to face as much anymore and can’t hand each other cash. And so digital currency has been accelerated significantly. And us being in that stage has provided us an opportunity to be where our customers need us.
[20:30] What’s your favorite part of your job?
Wow, that’s a tough one. There’s a lot of parts of my job that I really love. I would say my favorite part of my job is working with my team to solve really complex problems. You know, taking an engineering approach to solving business problems is a tremendous amount of satisfaction for me and for my team, because there are a lot of very challenging problems to solve. Again, especially if you look at the scale that we’re at and the scale we aspire to. Our aspiration is to get to a billion daily active users. And that’s, you know, 30X over where we are today. And so to grow 20 to 25X since I’ve started here twelve years ago and then do that all over again it creates a lot of challenging problems to solve. From an engineering perspective, but with a business lens and with a customer focused lens on not just solving technology problems to solve technology problems, but solving technology problems to enable people to make their lives easier, to give them solutions that they know they need or they don’t know they need.
And so we’ve had a lot of things that we’ve done in my organization in solving some of those complex ones, even COVID, we were not expecting – nobody could have predicted, you know, what the coronavirus would bring. And we certainly had no idea that it would significantly increase our transactions and our business. And so, you know, when you’re running all the data centers and all the infrastructure and you’re at this unexpected increase in volume, that’s a great thing. But it’s also something that keeps you up at night. And how are we going to make sure that we can handle that? And so to me, I think that’s the most rewarding part. And just working with really, really smart people who care a lot about our customers, who care a lot about our business, who are also behind the purpose and mission of what we’re doing. I learn a ton every single day from everybody that I work with. And for me, that’s what the journey is about – is the learning and how much more I can understand about our customers, about our company, about how we can live into that mission. And there’s you know, there’s days of surprise learnings that I just thought to be a normal day.
And to me, that’s a ton of fun, because I think when you stop learning, you know, you stop growing. And early in my career, you know, quite honestly, I didn’t understand that. And I had a pretty fixed mindset. I thought I knew everything. And, you know, there were a couple moments of epiphany for me during those early years where I realized growth mindset really kind of helps you grow as an individual and grow as a leader, grow as an engineer and even grow as a parent. Right. I mean, that’s certainly a whole different set of complex problems to solve. That’s been fun as well.
[24:37] What advice would you give a young person considering a career in tech?
My advice would be to not be afraid. You know, I think tech can be an intimidating field, but shouldn’t be. I think people need to realize that it’s all about your passion, your motivation, what you’re willing to learn. Some people don’t get in the field because they’re afraid. They say ‘Well, I’m not good at math or I’m not good at this or I’m not good at that.’ But it’s all about their willingness to learn or their willingness to dig in and solve problems. The tenacity. You know, just like anything else. Like any career. It’s really about ‘Are you willing to learn? Are you willing to put in the time? Are you willing to work with others to grow?’ So I think the biggest advice would be, if tech interests people, excites them, jump in. Just try it. And what they’ll find is that – and I tell my kids this all the time – one, we want to create a world where, because I have three daughters, we want to create a world where people are only limited by their skills, abilities, motivation, passion. Right. And two, just go that extra mile. Work hard. I mean, you have to put in the time.
Work with people; don’t be a pain. It’s much better to be somebody that people want to collaborate with than somebody that people don’t want to, because that actually inhibits your learning as well. If you’re somebody who’s hard to work with you’re not going to learn from people. People aren’t going to open up to you. The advice I give is jump in. Give it a try. See what you want to do. Like, first ask yourself, why do you want to be in tech? Make sure it’s for the right reasons. Just like any other role you go into. And then to just jump in and don’t be afraid. It can be intimidating. Leadership roles can be intimidating. But just like with leadership roles in tech, I’m sure there’s imposter syndrome all over the place. So people feel like ‘What if people find out that I don’t know this.’ And so get comfortable being uncomfortable because that’s where I think you’re going to learn the most.
I would even say that if you find yourself in a place where you do know everything, then you’re clearly kind of past your shelf life at the role that you’re in and that you haven’t challenged yourself enough. Everybody should always kind of operate on that edge of being uncomfortable and being beyond uncomfortable. It’s not healthy to be beyond uncomfortable because then you’ll be in over your head. But if you’re not pushing yourself and putting yourself in uncomfortable situations, you’re not going to grow and you’re not going to learn. And, you know, even in taking the role of running infrastructure, I had never run an infrastructure team. It’s that, you know, like you said, I got my undergraduate degree in electrical engineering, I spent my career doing software engineering, and so that was, of course, a little scary and uncomfortable. But I knew I could do it if I spent the time to learn. And I knew I was going to be surrounded by very smart people who like you said those subject matter experts who run the different parts of my organization, they know. And so spending time and learning from them, I knew that I could do it. But if you’re not willing to, you know, if you do know everything, if you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room.
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