Matt Idema doesn’t work in a corner office, or even have his own office; his work station is one among many at WhatsApp, located inside the amusement park-like campus of Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, California. It’s fitting considering the qualities that are immediately obvious about the chief operating officer of the messaging app used by 1.5 billion people around the world every month (and acquired by Facebook in 2014): unassuming, accessible, efficient.
An engineering school grad, he is one of several alum who welcomed 12 LSA students during their flash internship in tech this week, talking with them about opportunities in the industry.
Here, we learn more about which internship set him on the path to tech and what he finds most fulfilling about his job.
Why did you choose Michigan?
I grew up in Grand Rapids a Michigan fan. Both my parents went there, both my dad’s brothers went there, so it was kind of in my blood from day one.
What experience led you away from making a career out of engineering?
My first summer internship. It was in mechanical engineering, and the gentleman I worked with had been doing the same thing for decades. I knew I needed more variety and change.
What other moments were pivotal?
I had an opportunity to go into consulting out of undergrad and I was traveling a lot. That’s when I got exposed to software, because a lot of that work was software development. I thought, why am I just helping companies do this? If software is really the thing that businesses need, then why don’t I just do that?
So you headed out to Silicon Valley. What was the opportunity that drew you there?
The very first company I worked for was a venture capital-backed startup. I was the first employee. There were two people from Microsoft, the CEO, and me. That was 1999.
What quality do you think allowed you to do well in tech?
I think the thing that gave me an edge is that I wanted it more. You can show it in so many ways. You should be inquisitive and humble. When you’re interviewing show up with ideas, think about it ahead of time, show passion for it.
What have been the most fulfilling things about working in tech, and the most challenging?
Fulfillment comes from the impact that these technologies have. I think Facebook and WhatsApp, they’re not the only examples, but they’re rare in that your work is impacting a billion-plus people. And I think in terms of challenges, that comes in stages; trying to start a family and build a career, that was a challenging thing. At other stages, it’s how much of it you can’t anticipate. Technology changes so fast, and information spreads so quickly. You have to expect change and be comfortable being uncomfortable. You definitely have to be an optimist.
What advantages do you think liberal arts students have in the tech world?
In tech, it doesn’t matter if you’re an expert in history or in Java. Talent is talent. You just need to find a way to use it for something you care about. Even now, engineering is a special skillset, it’s very highly valued, but half this company is engineers and the other half is not. One doesn’t work well without the other.