Don’t fear failure. Customer complaints are just opportunities to improve. Keep moving forward.
These are words to live by in the tech world, at least when it comes to business. But how many of us apply these same values to our personal lives?
Eric Pierni, who stepped away from a high-flying role at Kijiji in 2011 to pursue a career in mental health, brings a unique perspective to the question – and to an issue too seldom discussed in what is still a male-dominated tech sector.
“I don’t have data in terms of how prevalent or how pervasive the mental-health issues are (in tech),” Pierni told me this week. “What I do know is that the environment is set up in a way that it would, essentially, help foster them.”
These days, Pierni is a therapist with a private practice focused on men's mental health in Toronto, and Executive Director of the Delton Glebe Counselling Centre in Waterloo. The two-year-old centre, which operates out of an old house on Albert Street near Wilfrid Laurier University, is a community service provided through the Waterloo Lutheran Seminary, Laurier’s founding institution, which remains federated with the university.
Needless to say, it’s a world away from his old life, in which Pierni and two fellow eBay Canada executives, led by Janet Bannister (now a venture capitalist with Real Ventures), took on an anything-but-certain project in 2005: to combat the company’s stagnating Canadian performance by building Kijiji, eBay’s classified-ad platform.
On Feb. 28 of that year, Pierni posted Kijiji’s first ad, a moment he can recall in vivid detail 10 years later. Today, Kijiji is Canada’s biggest classified-ad site, and by the time Pierni left the company in 2011, it had 120 employees, 17 of whom reported to him.
His first hire was Kijiji’s fourth employee, Craig Miller, who would go on to become Chief Marketing Officer at Shopify.
The late nights and weekends that it took to build the company were not unique to Kijiji, nor even to the broader tech sector, Pierni told me when we sat down at the counselling centre this week. But in his view, the predominance of males in tech plays a role in how the industry deals with – or doesn’t deal with – the issues that these conditions can precipitate.
“Generally, in my opinion from a male point of view, the solution to mental-health pain is success,” he said, “which doesn’t work, because it’s not a solution.
“I had a lot of that in my surroundings, including in myself, where the feeling was, ‘If I can be great at this and this becomes a success, all my pains are going to go away.’”
Kijiji was in the kind of flat-out sprint typical among high-growth tech firms, but it wasn’t until Pierni stopped running that he realized he wasn’t where he wanted to be.
“At the end, I was managing 17 people, and we were talking about moving our percentages; you know, ‘We did this much in money; let’s do this much,’ and it didn’t have that same kind of creative dynamic behind it,” he said.
As the job increasingly focused on managing dashboards and crunching data, Pierni had become more interested in the people he was managing.
“I always had that affinity for people; it was always a part of who I was,” he said. “I was never your prototypical business guy. But eBay and Kijiji were uber-data, so you had a certain type of person who came in there . . . and I didn’t necessarily fit that mould, even though I can speak that language.”
With money no longer a concern due to the company’s success, Pierni decided in 2011 to take a year off. He spent the first six months with his parents back in his native Montreal, then travelled.
Somewhere along the way, he decided his long-standing interests in psychology and theology – though he is not religious – were strong enough that he wanted to pursue them.
Of the three post-secondary institutions in Canada that combine both disciplines, the Waterloo Lutheran Seminary was one of them, with its program in spiritual care and psychotherapy.
“And so I said, ‘Well, that’s interesting.’”
Pierni didn’t know his studies would lead him into the counselling field. But, as he reflected on his own personal struggles – particularly with the meaning of manhood – and on how his guy friends would respond with openness whenever he shared his feelings with them, he realized that it takes a lot of courage to make oneself vulnerable in the search for meaning.
In the male-dominated culture of the tech world, that courage – to really be yourself and be seen to be yourself – can get lost behind the more socially acceptable courage to fail fast, to change the world, to “move fast and break things,” as they used to say at Facebook.
When Pierni talks about his former life in tech, whether it’s the early creativity that earned Kijiji its traction or the first-class flights to Europe once things were really rolling, he does so with fondness.
“I love tech, and the key thing is, have a good time and do it if you’re good at it,” he said.
His advice for those who are struggling while working in the industry – particularly those men prone to bottling things up – is to summon the courage to see their mental-health issues as opportunities, as they so often do in tackling work-related challenges.
That’s what Pierni did when he decided to change careers, and as a result, he now feels poised to impact more lives than he would have in his old job.
“Whatever is ailing you is a gateway, not a hurdle, and you have to decide whether you want to go through the gateway – because it won’t be easy – or whether you just want to settle for your small life,” he said.
“Your greatness is on the other side of it,” he said. “Your mental-health issue is not a hurdle; it is a gateway to something spectacular.”
Anthony Reinhart is Communitech’s Director of Editorial Strategy and senior staff writer. View from the ‘Loo looks at the issues, people and events that shape Waterloo Region’s technology sector.