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Fitbit co-founder Eric Friedman (Fitbit)
Fitbit co-founder Eric Friedman (Fitbit)

The Ladder

Eric Friedman: ‘I’ve always had trouble disconnecting from my work’ Add to ...

Eric Friedman, 39, is co-founder and chief technology officer of Fitbit Inc., a maker of wearable fitness monitors that can track and share user data.

I’ve always fancied myself as CTO of a small company. At some point, I wanted to do that and become a lawyer. I’m not quite sure how those two meshed, but at least within my computer interest, running a small company seemed like fun. Fitbit has gotten to be a little bit bigger than a small company, which has been an amazing experience. But the technology side is really what excites me, so I’m doing what I dreamed of and I’m very lucky in that regard.

I was always into building stuff, and that was always my hobby, and I’m still doing my hobby full-time now. Whenever I was building something, the entire world would disappear and I would be focused on what I was building. There’s just a euphoria in saying ‘Oh, how do I solve this problem?’ And then it comes together. I was born in a lucky age where, for me, in software and engineering, I could build stuff at a fast enough rate where I see the results fast, so I get that euphoria.

The best career advice I’ve ever received is to do what you love. If you do that, then you’re not working at all. I’ve managed to do that. From a very young age, building something has just been a lot of fun.

My deep-thinking time – when great ideas come to me – is when I’m washing my hair. I think everyone has their time, whether it be when they’re playing with their cat or talking to their kids or going for a walk. I’m not fixated on Fitbit 24/7, but I think it is really important that it always be in the back of the mind. Whenever we’re doing that deep thinking, having those true ideation moments, that Fitbit is always part of that. That’s how great ideas are going to come out.

I’ve always had trouble disconnecting from my work and my hobbies, whether it be building with Legos when I was a kid to this now. In some ways, I actually feel that, as an entrepreneur, it’s easier for me to have a work-life balance because, unlike a lot of other industries, I’ve got the flexibility to just take an hour off during the day and go do something, but I’m going to work all night.

I’m really proud of the culture we have developed at Fitbit. I’m really proud of the team, and the fact that we are so collaborative. The fact that we do slightly nerdy activities. And the fact that we’ve been able to do this now, at scale with 1,300 people, is cool.

Whether hiring a leader or a contributor, I want their eyes to light up when they’re talking about technology. Even at the VP level, one of the things I always like to ask is ‘So, tell me, when you were an individual contributor, what did you work on?’ The people who are a great cultural fit are the ones who get so excited about one of the projects that they did in their first three or four years of engineering work, and that passion still burns bright.

I love the work of climbing up the hill. I don’t know if that’s a nursery song known only to people who grew up in the U.S., but I’ve always identified with the bear who went over the mountain to see what he could see. I get to the top of the mountain, and I see another mountain and say, ‘I want to climb that mountain; how do I get to the top of it?’

I must sheepishly admit that I mainly keep in shape by chasing after a 3 1/2-year-old. Back in prechild days, I used to like doing really long hikes – I’ve always been a hiker or a cyclist – but now I’m doing much shorter hikes, only now I have 50 pounds of weight on my back, following me along saying, ‘Faster, daddy! Faster! Let’s run up this hill!’ I am looking forward to him beating me in a few years.

As told to Karl Moore, associate professor at the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University. This interview has been edited and condensed.

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