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10/12/2016

MyNewsCenterNavigator & PoissySmartCity, Max Levchin of Affirm: Seeking the Endurance Athletes of Business, I always tell people go to a start-up while you’re young.

Max Levchin of Affirm: Seeking the Endurance Athletes of Business

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Max Levchin, chief executive of Affirm

I had a fairly happy childhood. I grew up in a very cool family — pretty much every person was a scientist. My entire family lived together. My grandmother, my grandfather, my mom and dad, my brother and I all lived in the same apartment, so I got this exposure to two generations of scientists.

My grandmother had a double Ph.D. in astrophysics. She ran the Kiev observatory for many years. So I had this kind of extremely sheltered but very fun childhood where I would sometimes get to play with this giant telescope at the observatory.

My mom was told by the Soviet state, her employer, that she had to learn how to program computers. I was 10, and her job was a couple of doors down from our house. So I would go to see her after school, and she would say, “Try and understand this programming thing and help me out,” which is how I got into software. Within three months, it was very clear that I was progressing faster than she was.

But my childhood was disrupted somewhat bizarrely by the Chernobyl accident. I was 11 at the time, and I had to spend the next year and a half living with relatives in an extremely rural community in Crimea. That was kind of a “grow up now” moment.

How so?

Suddenly I was in a place where outhouses were the norm in plumbing. We would walk in snow for four or five miles to get to school every day. I went from a sheltered upbringing among scientists and ideas to be told that when I was done shoveling snow, I could do my homework.

And how did you react to that?

I adapted fairly quickly. I was exceedingly bored because I came from a very high-quality school, and it was as if the work we were doing was rolled back two years. I didn’t have to do any homework, because I became the best student in the school in a heartbeat.

The thing I remember vividly is that I missed having access to a computer very much. So I got in the habit of programming on paper, which actually served me really well. So I would just write it out in longhand. I had stacks and stacks of notebooks filled with programs for games and data-processing software.

One of the most gratifying things, when I went back to Kiev and could use a computer again, is that I would type in all the source code for all these games that I had designed on paper, and they would just work.

How do you think your parents and grandparents influenced your leadership style today?

My grandmother was exceptionally formative. She basically was willpower personified. If she wanted something to happen, it would happen. She had this walk-through-walls style where you did not ask for permission or forgiveness; you just did what you needed to get it done. I still judge some of my decisions based on: What would Grandma decide? Was I sufficiently tenacious or not enough?

And one thing I have found over the years is that in hiring, the dominant characteristic I select for is this sense of perseverance in really tough situations. It’s like the difference between endurance athletes and sprinters. I think it is a really good predictor for how people behave under severe stress.

Working in a start-up means there is a baseline of stress with occasional spikes. There are people who are really good at handling spikes. In fact, most people are really good at handling spikes. But normal isn’t normal. There is constant stress. And so I look for endurance athletes, in the business sense.

And how do you test for that?

I ask about the longest stressful episode in your professional career. A lot of people talk about some all-nighter. Then I’ll say, “No, that may have been the highest stress moment, but what’s the longest period of stress you faced?”

Another good question for managers when I hire them is: “Have you ever done a layoff? How’d you do it? How did it feel?” I once had to do a layoff, which I very much hope I never have to do again. But then I want to know how you handled the period once you’ve told everyone.

And there’s only one right thing to do. You help people pack, and that is the hardest thing anyone can do. Your stress level is high, and you just want to hang out in your office and wait for everyone to leave.

But the right thing to do is to go be there with the people you just laid off and help them cope, help them pack and tell them that you’re going to do your best to hire them back once the company’s on good footing. It’s about having compassion even when you feel you may not have the strength for it in the moment.

The other thing I ask when I’m hiring managers is: “What is your internal measure of success and how do you demonstrate that behavior to your troops?” My favorite answer is: “The personal journey of everybody who works for me is my responsibility.” I think that’s a sign of a great manager.

What career and life advice do you give to new college grads?

I tell them to take big risks, because this is the one point in your life when you have nothing to lose. You amass barnacles of good living as you get older, which makes it that much harder to make a big bet.

So I always tell people go to a start-up while you’re young. You might believe that going to a more established company to build up $100,000 in savings is your ticket to go take a big risk. It really isn’t. It just slows you down and makes you feel like you need to get to $200,000.

CreditEarl Wilson/The New York Times

This interview with Max Levchin, the chief executive and a founder of Affirm, an online financial services firm, has been edited for space and clarity.

Q. Tell me about your early years.

A. I was born in Kiev, Ukraine. I spent my formative years under the Soviet state, which wasn’t all that bad, actually. Ukraine is kind of a backwater, so we didn’t really have any of the tension from those days.

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