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Behind the W: Get to know Don Whitt


behind the w don whitt
March 21, 2017

I recently sat down with Don Whitt, Vice President of Product Marketing, to learn more about his extensive experience in the tech industry, discuss his current role, and discover some of his passions. Keep reading to get to know Don Whitt. 

Q: When it comes to software as a service, or SaaS, you’re somewhat of a pioneer. How did you get your start, and what initially caused you to be interested in this industry?

A: I was originally a high school math teacher making about $18K a year and barely surviving financially in San Francisco. I had 5 roommates and no healthcare. I was studying architecture and drafting on the side and working with computers. I had an Apple IIE, and I was studying programming and graphics at night.

Everything changed when I got an ear infection and a bad case of the flu. I was feeling sorry for myself and wishing I had health benefits when a friend called and told me a software company he worked for was looking for someone with a math background and computer experience to test CAD software. I asked what it paid, and he said they’d start me at $26K a year. I didn’t have to think twice—I told him I could start the next day. That was 1986, and I never looked back. I’ve been in high tech ever since, even though I loved teaching.

Fast forward to 1993 when I went to work at a friend’s start-up that was developing HTML browser/server software called Navisoft. The web was new, and people were just beginning to use it as a publishing platform. Our software was fairly revolutionary at the time—we were developing a WYSIWYG HTML editor/browser and web server. America Online purchased us 6 months after I started, and I was swept up into AOL’s M&A chaos on the West Coast. AOL was buying up several web, tech, and content production companies in California to facilitate its migration from a proprietary online /dial-up-based system to a web-based service.

After AOL made these acquisitions, many of the acquired employees scattered to go work for web start-ups and that left a bunch of websites to be hosted and maintained. I volunteered to manage those and became Director of Technical Services, managing public-facing hosting on the West Coast.

That’s the point that I went from being a software dude to a hosting operations dude.

I was lucky. Popular websites got half a million hits per week back then. That’s nothing by today’s standards, where popular sites get millions of hits per day. It was the wild west. We were all learning about the internet, web-based services, and operations management the hard way, but having fun while doing it. No one was making any money on the web yet, so fault tolerance wasn’t a huge concern. There was room to experiment and make mistakes. It was an incredibly fertile time for new business models and technical innovation.

Q: What are some of the biggest surprises in the way the software and technology industries have developed over the years?

A: Software development has had a steady evolution with respect to languages and methodology. However, there are so many more tools for rapid prototyping and code development now, and anyone with an inclination to create an application can do so. That has really accelerated innovation.

There once were concerns about the viability of making money on the web. Lots of sites like Yahoo! were betting on advertising to make money, but the eyeballs and advertisers didn’t really get to a critical mass to make that a reality until the early 2000s. It was about that time when services other than search and yellow pages took off. And Google happened. Today, there are kids in high school making a million dollars a year through advertising on their websites.

Q: You used to work at eBay. What is the most interesting item you ever bought or sold on the site?

A: I’ve purchased quite a few things off of eBay, and I wish I could say that I bought something interesting, like a shrunken head or a Picasso painting, but the most interesting was a car. I bought a beautiful blue 1968 Porsche 912 from a person in Washington, D.C. on eBay.

She shipped it to me in California, and I took it to a mechanic to make sure it was solid. It had a brand new paint job and appeared to be mechanically sound, but the entire undercarriage, which had obviously rusted out, had been repaired with swatches of cardboard that had been painted black and made to look like a real metal undercarriage. I convinced the seller to take it back—she claimed she’d been defrauded by the shop that repaired it.

Q: As VP of Product Marketing at Workiva, how would you describe the role of the department within Workiva?

A: Let me oversimplify. Product Marketing focuses on 3 primary objectives:

  1. Filling the sales pipeline with the highest quality leads
  2. Creating or contracting product-related content and event talent
  3. Providing sales with content that resonates with people in specific industries and markets

Everything we do in Product Marketing should contribute to winning new deals and expanding the usage of Wdesk at existing customer companies. That’s our purpose.

Q: You share the same name with an American professional golfer, an evangelist, and a special agent at the FBI. Have you ever been mistaken for any of these men?

A: My branch of the family came from Scotland to America in the 1640s, and there are at least 60 “Donald R. Whitts” in the United States today, as well as a bunch of “Whytts,” which is an alternate spelling. At least twice, I’ve checked into a hotel when there was another one of us also staying there, including last year at The Exchange Community in San Diego. No one would ever mistake me for a professional golfer or an evangelical preacher.

Q: What's your favorite thing about working at Workiva?

A: I like the products, people, culture, and energy, as well as the company’s willingness to let people try different things. I’ve worked for a LOT of executives, but Matt and Marty are so much more down-to-earth than any of them, yet just as capable.

Q: What organizations and causes do you support?

A: I haven’t volunteered much the past decade, I’m sorry to say. I give to three charitable organizations: MAP Int’l, KIND, and

MAP International may be the best-run charitable organization on the planet. Over 90% of their donations go directly to the needy. KIND builds and supplies desks to girls’ schools in Africa. Without these desks, the girls are sitting on a dirt floor. Their one hope of escaping poverty is education, and being able to sit at a desk helps.

We have Alzheimer’s sufferers in my family. My wife has a very rare form of Alzheimer’s called PCA or Benson’s Syndrome that initially affects vision—not eyesight, but the mental processing of what’s seen. Her mother has the more common form that primarily affects memory and speech.

There are at least 5 million Alzheimer’s sufferers in the United States, and that will double in the next 20 years. If you live to 80 years old, you have a 45% chance of having some sort of dementia. As much as you hear about possible cures, there are none, and nothing in the labs looks very promising. Even the link between the disease and amyloid plaque that accompanies it is being rethought. And the disease is expensive. Care for mid-to-late stage dementia patients can bankrupt a family. It is a horrible, horrible disease.

Q: You have a lot of experience leading teams. How do you motivate people?

A: Respect people. Encourage their curiosity. Ask employees about their work, and listen to them. Understand their aspirations and talents, and help them apply them in a fashion that supports both their career growth and the company’s success. Clearly communicate how that works.

Educate people about the realities of business. Not all of us went to business school. Show a sense of humor and perspective. No one’s going to die because of a scheduling or content decision.

Remove people who are hindering progress, bringing others down, and who show no likelihood of changing. That makes a big difference with regards to personal and team performance. No one wants to work with someone who refuses to invest in the team’s success.

Lastly, understand that employees are free to be and go anywhere they want at any time. They are like our customers. If you don’t care about them, they’ll find a company that does.

Mitz Banarjee
Executive Vice President and Chief Customer Officer

About the Author

Mitz Banarjee is the Executive Vice President and Chief Customer Officer. Over the past 10 years, he has been heavily involved with technology companies of all sizes at an operational level driving customer satisfaction and customer loyalty.

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