Collecting Experiences

Cloudflare’s President Michelle Zatlyn reflects on the journey that brought her from prairie town to publicly traded company

In September 2019, Michelle Zatlyn stood on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE), preparing to ring the opening bell. Cloudflare, the company she co-founded with Matthew Prince and Lee Holloway ten years earlier, was about to be only the 210th tech company to go public on that exchange. Surrounded by her family, friends, board members, and a group of 150 early and global employees, it was a surreal moment for Zatlyn.

“There are so many founders who want to get to that point and never do,” Zatlyn recalls. “It’s so rare and I am so proud. That moment really made me realize what a group of people can accomplish when they have a shared goal.”

Opening the NYSE may not have been the exact experience Zatlyn envisioned was possible when she left her hometown of Prince Albert, Saskatchewan for McGill University in Montreal, Quebec. But McGill is where she started to see the possibilities and collect experiences.

“When I arrived in Montreal, my world got a lot bigger and I was aware of so many more opportunities,” Zatlyn recalls. “The stakes were higher, a lot more was expected of me, and I loved it. I was like a sponge, constantly taking it all in, staying curious, and wondering, ‘what can I learn, and what else is there?’ I started to see my life, and my career, as a collection of experiences.”

After spending a few years working for tech companies in Toronto, Zatlyn moved to Boston, Massachusetts for her next experience–the MBA program at Harvard Business School. There, she met her future business partners and developed the idea for Cloudflare for a business plan competition.

“While thinking about what I wanted to do after business school, after yet another collection of experience, I thought about how I could have an impact in the world,” Zatlyn says. “I realized I wanted to do something that matters. There was this big shift happening in the tech ecosystem, and we created a service that helped make the internet faster, safer, and more reliable. Our mission with Cloudflare is to help build a better internet. I was not an expert in these areas, but I knew that if we were successful in this endeavor, it would be something I’d be really proud to be a part of.”

After graduation, Zatlyn moved out to Silicon Valley with Prince and Holloway in 2009 to turn the idea for Cloudflare into a business. None of them had any experience in the Valley, but they needed to raise venture capital to back their ambitious idea and, at the time, the Bay Area was undoubtedly the place to be.

“It’s hard to show up somewhere with no existing connections, but we worked really hard and we had a good team. We all banded together, kind of like back in Saskatchewan” Zatlyn says. “Growing up in Saskatchewan really shaped my values. I come from a really tight-knit farming community where there is an emphasis on hard work and community, like you’re in it together.”

Today, Cloudflare helps more than 25 million internet properties around the world prevent cyber attacks and remain reliable for their customers. “Whether you are a Canadian entrepreneur trying to spin up your next idea, a government trying to arrange vaccine distribution, or a global company like Shopify, all of those services need to be fast, online, and available to everybody around the world,” Zatlyn says. “Every day we stop more than 70 billion cyber attacks on behalf of our customers. We just make those problems go away so entrepreneurs and business owners can get back to building their great ideas. For me, driving change has been so important from day one, and everything we do at Cloudflare is about delivering value for our customers and having an impact. I hope more people in their career get to find a job where they feel like they’re really driving change, because it is so satisfying. You feel like your work really matters.”

Now, Zatlyn is returning to her roots as Cloudflare prepares to open their first Canadian office in Toronto.

“Canada plays an important role in the global economy, Canada’s workforce is well trained–Canadian post-secondaries have a really high percentage of graduates coming out of STEM, and the population is very internet-savvy,” Zatlyn says about the expansion. “We have thousands of Canadian customers today, and we want to have thousands more. We know that being able to service our customers locally is important. The next wave of entrepreneurs needs a service like Cloudflare to help enable digital-first services. Canada also has an incredible group of talented people that we hope will come work at Cloudflare. We have a lot of Canadians already working abroad for Cloudflare, but it’s great to be able to create jobs where people are building their life.”

Zatlyn’s journey is a unique and impressive one.” For those starting out who are looking for a linear path in the tech industry, Zatlyn recommends “collecting experiences” and embracing whatever career journey they end up on. “It’s hard not to be swayed by all these people who seem like they know exactly what they want from day one, but a windy career path can be a big asset.”

She’s especially supportive of women choosing to get started in the tech industry. “We need more women in technology! There are way more men than women in technology, but there are many amazing women in technology. It is a great place to start or transition your career because it’s a growing industry, and it’s going to transform many industries and verticals. We need smart people and diverse points of views–coming from a small town in Canada is a diverse point of view! Diversity is how the industry will come up with better solutions and build better products, and diverse teams are a better place to work. If you’re interested in joining the tech industry, reach out to other women in the industry–they’ll be helpful. I really hope women read this issue [of Disruption] and say, ‘wow, I want to learn more,’ and then reach out to me or some of the other folks in the issue and in the Canadian Women’s Network, or anyone they see online, and start to learn more and get involved.”

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