“My military career transferred easily to this world”
Position: Sales Operations/Enablement Manager at Slack
Home: San Francisco
Family: Wife, RaeAnne. She is a Client Solution Manager at Facebook and previously served seven years as an Army intelligence officer. They met in the Army and both were deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, although at different times. They are expecting their first child.
Education: Bachelor’s degree from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and MBA from the Columbia Business School
Honors: Recipient of two Bronze Stars — the fourth-highest individual military award. (RaeAnne also has two Bronze Stars.)
Career: Served more than seven years as an armor and military intelligence officer. He left the military with the rank of captain. Also previously worked at Linkedin, where he rose to Senior Learning Technologist Strategist.
Favorite book: “The Kite Runner” by Khaled Hosseini. “It was really relevant to me because it talks about Fremont, Calif., which was the city right next to where I grew up, and about the Afghan people,” he said. “I actually read it prior to going to Afghanistan for a perspective of an Afghan who grew up in the U.S. It’s still my favorite.”
Fun Fact: Speaks Korean
Advice: “I tell veterans to never assume that everyone knows what you want to do. Sometimes people believe the right job, right role, right company, right anything, will just miraculously appear in front of them. But if your 10 closest friends don’t know what you want to do, how do you expect people to help you network?”
Helping close business deals is not the same thing as life-and-death situations in a war zone. But, yes, Tom Pae does see some similarities between his service as an Army officer and what he does now. And in hindsight, Pae is not surprised that he found his way to a career in sales enablement.
The roles, he said, have much in common. Both are about making everyone around you better.
“The goal is improving people in your organization,” said Pae, 34, of his position as a sales operations/enablement manager at messaging app Slack. “I look at it very much like a veteran. I’m not the one who is figuratively charging that hill or kicking down that door. But I want to make sure my team is trained, equipped and prepared to do it right. So my military career transferred easily to this world.”
He served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan as an armor and intelligence officer — rising to the rank of captain. Today, Pae is focused on helping give the Slack sales team everything it needs to succeed.
“Tom is the perfect story of America,” said David A. Roller, who has known Pae since they attended the U.S. Military Academy together. “He was born in Korea. His parents came to America and worked hard. He went to West Point and later Columbia. It’s a purely American story. It couldn’t happen anywhere else. He has that immigrant work ethic, and now he’s reaping the rewards.”
The son of Korean artists, Pae came to the U.S. at age 2. The family settled in the San Francisco Bay Area where his father worked as a graphic designer and his mother taught piano.
Pae pursued a West Point appointment because of the service academy’s reputation as a premier institution for leadership and engineering. But there was also a powerful bond between the Army and the Pae family. His father, Hyongchol Pae, once told a reporter that when he was a young boy in bombed-out Seoul during the Korean War, American G.I.s gave him their rations. U.S. servicemen would teach him English and help him immigrate to America.
Decades later, his son would bring that story full circle. And he stepped foot on the academy campus just weeks before Sept. 11, 2001. The sleep-deprived, first-year cadet was walking to a morning physics class when he noticed all of the building’s TVs were tuned to the unfolding tragedy that would claim nearly 3,000 lives.
“We didn’t quite understand the magnitude of what was going on at first,” Pae recalled of the terrorist attacks. “But by that afternoon, we all realized that our worlds were probably going to change forever.”
Four years later, as he was graduating at the top of his class, Pae was featured on the cover of Time with two other cadets as the magazine designated them part of “The Class of 9/11.”
Roller, by the way, pointed out the Time article. Pae never mentioned it during a lengthy interview.
“That’s classic Tom,” added Roller, now a corporate attorney in Miami. “Most people who attend West Point see themselves as servant-leaders – people who live to help everyone else. They don’t talk about themselves. I certainly think that describes Tom. He just stays humble and takes care of business.”
Pae and Roller were stationed in Germany before heading to the dangerous, rugged mountains of Afghanistan along the Pakistan border. His camp constantly took mortar and rocket fire from an unseen enemy that always seemed to be lurking nearby. Pae’s role was to earn the Afghan people’s support, in part by hiring them to work for the U.S. military. He also oversaw infrastructure projects such as the construction of roads and buildings.
“I spent a lot of time meeting with villagers,” Pae added. “The idea was if I could convince them to grab a shovel and work for pay, it would prevent them from grabbing an AK-47 and shooting at us.”
He later spent a second tour in Iraq as an intelligence officer analyzing operational battlefields around Baghdad and Fallujah.
Anyone who has ever served will say they are not fighting for some geopolitical strategy, Pae said. Rather, they fight for the man or woman next to them. That camaraderie is not found in any other walk of life, other than perhaps for police and first-responders, he added.
Roller also believes that another aspect of Pae’s military experience left him especially well-prepared for Silicon Valley.
“Maybe a byproduct of fighting in these ambiguous situations is that you’re constantly recreating the process,” said Roller, whose own harrowing combat experiences were highlighted in the book “The Outpost.” “When you’re living at 10,000 feet in the mountains of Afghanistan, fighting an undefined enemy who hides among the populace, you’re always trying to redefine the problem and address it in unique ways. It’s probably similar in tech where you’re constantly breaking new ground.”
After leaving the Army, Pae earned his MBA at the Columbia Business School. When he became interested in tech as a possible career, Pae began reading publications like Recode, VentureBeat and TechCrunch — just to learn.
He also looked for an internship with a unique offer. He would work for free on Fridays. That’s how he started in sales operations with Signpost, a CRM and marketing automation software company.
“It was there I began to see how data could drive decisions,” he said.
So when LinkedIn was looking for someone in sales ops, Pae had the experience on his resume that got him noticed.
At Linkedin, Neil Luu worked for a time on a team led by Pae. What impressed Luu was how Pae urged everyone think about problems differently, and not be afraid to propose novel solutions.
“He’s not authoritative in his leadership style,” said Luu, who now is studying to become a doctor. “He’s very much a guy who listens to the opinions of others. Tom would say, ‘All right, Neil, what do you think? How can we do this better?’ Of all the managers I’ve ever had, Tom is the one who pushed me to be the best me I can possibly be. I know that’s a little cliche, but it’s true.”
Pae made the move to Slack in May, 2016 to work in sales enablement. He focuses on making the lives of the salespeople easier through tools and training — which in turn makes them more productive. For instance, he spoke at the Ops-Stars at Dreamforce event about best practices for onboarding new employees efficiently.
In many ways, he sees the role as an extension of being an intelligence officer. He analyzes challenges and develops strategies to solve them.
Meanwhile, Tom and RaeAnne take time to share their stories about working in tech so other veterans can see what’s possible. And Pae likes to talk about his military experience with people who don’t have service backgrounds.
“It’s really OK to ask veterans questions,” Pae added. “I want people to understand it’s totally OK to bring it up. I want to talk about my time in the military. I really enjoyed it, and it made me who I am today.”
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