An Unpredictable Road to Success at LinkedIn
Issue   |   Fri, 10/23/2015 - 15:34
Techstars
Gamson has always valued leadership and communication, and these skills have been useful in his career at LinkedIn.

Mike Gamson ’96, senior vice president of global solutions for LinkedIn, is a man of versatility and vision, and he holds an impressive role at one of the world’s leading social networks. But because of his personal intellectual curiosity and penchant for risk-taking, his road to this role has been anything but predictable.

“It Felt Right”

Gamson described his path to Amherst as the result of “a little chance, a little luck.”

Gamson grew up in the northern suburbs of Chicago. In high school, he embarked on a tour to visit colleges, and Amherst made a decent impression. However, what really got him fixated on Amherst was the admissions speaker who visited his high school for an information session.

“She just spoke about it so glowingly that something about it felt right,” Gamson said. “I think I liked the idea of only choosing classes that you wanted to attend. I think the idea of surrounding yourself with people, who by their choice are engaging in some subject matter, was a really powerful idea.”

When he arrived at Amherst in 1992 as a first-year student, Gamson soon realized the full power of that idea.

A Deeper Bond

Gamson majored in religion and fine arts at Amherst, and he enjoyed the college’s close-knit community.

“I really valued that one-on-one investment,” he said. “That’s the reason I love Amherst’s small classes, and the ability to really have a meaningful relationship with fellow students, with the professors, et cetera.”

One of his defining experiences at Amherst was playing on the rugby team for several years, which also constituted a large part of his social life.

Gamson said he feels connected to all Amherst students, not just his close friends and classmates. He owes this affinity to the overall sense of community that he had while in school.

“If there’s a random person out in the world and they went to Amherst, I am incredibly positively predisposed to them,” Gamson said, “knowing nothing else about them except that they made a choice like my choice and they shared an experience that was not exactly my experience, but was probably similar enough in its component parts that I know there’s something there that I would enjoy learning more about.”

Off the Beaten Path

After graduation, Gamson’s desire to learn more about the world took him to South and Central America for over a year.

“I narrowly avoided life on Wall Street,” Gamson said. He had received and accepted an offer at a bank, but ultimately decided go to Argentina with a friend instead.

The pair headed north from Argentina by bus for several months. Gamson, who had learned Spanish and loved the Spanish-speaking culture while at Amherst, found it an adventurous and “mind-opening” experience.

Beyond immersing themselves in the language and culture, Gamson and his friend had the goal of learning to surf in Costa Rica. But upon their arrival, they realized that they had a pressing problem: They were running low on money.

Gamson found it difficult to seek legal employment in Costa Rica, but fairly easy to start a business. He found inspiration in his college experiences, especially those shared with friends over late-night food like burritos from Bueno Y Sano, which opened a year before he left Amherst. “I loved those burritos,” he said.

Gamson and his friend opened a burrito restaurant with plans to operate in the evening until 1 a.m., return to their rented house by 2 a.m. and then wake up and surf all day. They did exactly that until some American tourists asked to rent their surfboards, and they discovered that renting and selling surfboards was a much more lucrative business than selling burritos. The duo converted the late-night restaurant into a daytime restaurant that also rented out surfboards. Eventually, in response to demand, they rented a second apartment, threw in some bunk beds and turned it into a youth hostel.

“We had this really nice little cross-sell, where people would stay at our youth hostel for the week, they would eat mostly our food, rent our boards and we would be kind of those guys you meet on your vacation sometimes when you spend the week in a place and yet you end up as being close friends,” Gamson said.

He and his friend had always been committed to returning home only when they felt that their purpose, whatever it was, had been fulfilled in Costa Rica. The burrito-surfboard-hostel business stayed open for a while, and he said that not having to stick to a timeline was a luxury after years of tight schedules at school.

“About a year later, I was actually in the youth hostel and cleaning up some horrific mess that can only happen when you’re in a Central American youth hostel,” Gamson said. “And as I was mopping up, it occurred to me, ‘I think this is done. I think it’s time to go home.’”

The Power of Mentorship

Gamson returned to Chicago, where he landed a job as a financial analyst at a bank. A year and a half later, he moved to California during the dot-com boom in an attempt to discover where he wanted to work among the many job positions that had opened during the time.

“I didn’t really care so much about the company that I worked for, but I really cared a lot about the person for whom I worked,” he said.

Gamson wanted to work for a person who could be his mentor, one with whom he could have a personal relationship like the ones he had had with professors at Amherst. He found a mentor at Advent Software, and he worked there as first a sales representative and later a sales manager until 2002, when a new person joined the company.

“His name was Dan Nye,” Gamson said. “He spoke about leadership in a way that I never heard before. He talked about making multigenerational impact and leading from a place of your authentic personal values, and really bringing your personal values into work.”

Gamson switched into Nye’s group at Advent Software, where he learned about product management and marketing. More broadly, he learned the critical aspects of being a leader, such as integrating his own values into his leadership platform. He worked for Nye until 2006, when he took a sabbatical and moved back to Chicago to develop a start-up company with his former roommates at Amherst.

Later that year, it was Nye — who had just taken over as CEO of LinkedIn — who called Gamson shortly after he returned to Chicago and persuaded him to consider working for LinkedIn. Gamson traveled back to California and took a position at LinkedIn, but he decided he did not want to leave Chicago.

However, Gamson soon found he could not work as an effective LinkedIn executive from Chicago; the Mountain View, California-based company was not ready for a remote executive. As a result, Gamson joined LinkedIn as an individual contributor, working from home on the company’s monetization strategies and travelling frequently to and from California.

A Liberal Arts Education

As LinkedIn continued to grow, surpassing then-giant MySpace in 2011, Gamson went from working on company-based research to working for Talent Solutions before becoming senior vice president of global solutions, the position he holds today.

LinkedIn’s global solutions team aims to solve problems and to improve experiences for customers around the world. As the leader of this team, Gamson does a variety of different things to oversee operations, with no particular daily or weekly schedules. For example, he spent time with executives and clients at a conference in Anaheim, California during the week of Oct. 12. On Friday, Oct. 16, he caught a plane to Europe to visit LinkedIn’s office in Amsterdam, and he had plans to spend a few days in London as well.

In his current role, Gamson said that skills such as critical thinking, communication and leadership are very useful skills that he developed through his liberal arts education.

“The more senior that one is in the company, the more the relationship between that executive and their employees depends on the ability to communicate,” Gamson said.

He has learned how to communicate effectively in a range of situations, from one-on-one conversations to speaking onstage at conferences.

“The way that Amherst focuses on writing, and on discussion, and on debate­ ­— I think those are incredibly valuable skills in a modern collaborative workplace,” Gamson said.

Lives of Consequence

Nye’s message about prizing personal values was not wasted on Gamson over the years. Throughout the advancements in his career, he has not lost touch with what he considers most important.

“Personally, I think I’m very fortunate, and I’m incredibly grateful to be happy with what’s happening right now in my life,” Gamson said. “We have a wonderful family that is healthy and happy together.”

Gamson met his wife, Alyse, in Chicago in the year after he returned from Costa Rica. They married in 2003 and have three children today, aged 8, 6 and one-and-a-half years old. Because frequent travel is an integral part of Gamson’s work, he and his wife have decided to travel as a family and set aside time in every place to do family activities.

“I’ve been in my job now between eight and nine years, and I love it every day,” Gamson said. “I re-choose to work here every day … Against the total set of all the things I could be doing right now with my life, I’d choose to be doing what I’m doing.”

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