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Management Cloudflare co-founder Michelle Zatlyn on why she left med school and fell in love with tech

Michelle Zatlyn, 39, is a co-founder and the chief operating officer of Cloudflare, Inc.

Sarah Deragon/Handout

Michelle Zatlyn, 39, recently named by Forbes as one of the world’s top 50 women in technology, is a co-founder and the chief operating officer of Cloudflare Inc., one of the world’s largest cloud network platforms.

I started working in my father’s law office in summers during high school, administration. I realized that details and accuracy matters as something noted incorrectly could have a big ripple effect. There was a lot of personal interaction in Prince Albert, Sask., where I was born and grew up; it reminds me the world is connected and relationships matter, you have to treat people well.

Most people stayed in Saskatchewan, or maybe Alberta. My parents showed my sisters and I parts of the world and signed us up for different national programs. To their credit, they said, “You have to see what else is out there. You can come back after.” I’m a huge science enthusiast and curious, love getting to the real answer; I wanted to be a doctor. To me, medicine was about helping people. I went to McGill University on a scholarship doing a BSc in Chemistry with a Business minor.

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I started to question whether to be a doctor. I needed to try something else. I joined Investor Economics, at some point realizing, “I’m not going to go back to med school” because I loved business. When I went to university, I didn’t realize you could help people through technology, that’s why I fell in love with tech. We’re helping customers and users around the world, I get that feeling I wanted in being a doctor. Then I did an MBA as I felt I was missing that academic foundation.

In Harvard’s business school two-year program, you work summer internships. I was at Google, doing a mix of things I’d done connecting small businesses and what I’d done at Toshiba on the channel side. After internships, students would get jobs with the companies; the whole point. Whether you take it or not is another matter. Then in October, 2008, stock markets collapsed. My boss said they couldn’t give me an offer, they weren’t offering to anyone. I was so upset you’d think the world collapsed. It was soul crushing.

Sometimes I think back: what if Google had offered a job, but I can’t live a Sliding Doors life [a 1998 movie about the differing results of different actions]. Fast forward, who knows. We [she and her two Cloudfare co-founders] weren’t trying to start a company; [discussing ideas] was a fun social thing. We were seeking a simple application to find the source of e-mail spam. Momentum is powerful in both positive and negative ways. Sometimes you start a project and, as it gains momentum, people jump on without asking; “Is this the best way to approach it?” Ask basic questions first, “What is this for? Should we be doing this?” That sounds so easy and it’s so hard.

When we came up with Cloudflare, I knew nothing about internet security but I care a lot about liking what I’m doing. I knew if I could help create internet security, that’s something I could work hard for and be proud; 10 years later, we have 165 data centres, 12 million domains and more than 800 employees.

Reverse proxy was important from the start. For big companies, there were good solutions but not if you were a small business or freelancer. We came up with the initial architecture, still what it looks like today – that’s very rare. We believed in democratizing resources in making the internet faster, safer and more reliable, especially for the big part of the world without it. You can be anywhere and sign up in five minutes.

For consumers, our 1.1.1.1 app is fast, there’s no tracking, we don’t sell data or target ads. And our team is very proud of Project Galileo [and Athenian for elections], providing enterprise-level services, free, to protect at-risk organizations – arts, human rights, civil society, democracy – from malicious attacks.

I don’t like to be a centre of attention or talk about myself. People in Saskatchewan are humble, resilient and care about their communities. My husband’s from Oakville, Ont., and we live in San Francisco: I think about where I started, appreciative every day, that I get to do what I do with the people I get to work with.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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