×

How Talend's Mike Tuchen applies lessons learned as a near-dropout, and the runt on a rowing team

  • The CEO of Talend explains how he had a close brush with dropping out of high-school, before he focused on science.
  • At Brown University, he overcame being the smallest man on his rowing team.

CNBC

Mike Tuchen is best when he's feeling down.

Halfway through a project he kicks his efforts into overdrive, just when others might start to relax.

Tuchen is the CEO of Talend, a company with a billion-dollar market value. It helps customers take advantage of their data, and apply it effectively.

Yet before kicking off a career that includes an executive stint at Microsoft and a turn as CEO of Rapid7, he was nearly kicked out of boarding school. At Brown University, he had to figure out how to make a contribution as the runt of his rowing team.

Tuchen joined Fortt Knox to share a story that's not your typical wunderkind-makes-good tale. However, he showed that when the pressure is on, winning can mean making surprising choices.

Own Your Choices

High school was a time of self-discovery for Tuchen, who had just entered an elite boarding school filled with talented students. At his old school, he was the class brain. With so much competition at this new place, he soon became more of the life of the party.

When he got shipped home on a three-day suspension, his parents didn't yell at him. They challenged him. Decide what you want to do: Go back and get serious, or quit the school.

"I realized what I was doing right there clearly didn't lead me to anywhere I wanted to go," Tuchen said. "I was this close to being not the successful guy I wanted to be – but a high school drop-out."

He went back to school, reset his goals, then focused on physics. "I ended up winning the physics prize and in my last few years of school [and] winning some awards, being one of the top kids for that."

Strategy is Strength

If you were to envision what a Brown University rower might look like it would not be Tuchen as a teenager. Yet, despite standing 5'11 and weighing just 155 pounds at the time, he was a key player in their races.

Tuchen took lessons from his time on this team, and carried them over into his career. Sitting in the rear, he was responsible for steering the team, building a strategy.

"You can go for very short bursts of maybe 30 seconds or a minute" rowing your hardest, Tuchen said. "The question is when and how do you use those bursts?"

Eventually, the team started winning races by choosing their moment. At the halfway mark, the team would give it their best push. They often pushed to the front, gaining a boat length or more and demoralizing other teams in the process.

Tuchen applied these skills to his first management opportunity. He used the chance to create belief and excitement, motivating people around a goal.

Risk is a Privilege

Tuchen's father immigrated to America from Germany, with just a few dollars in his pocket. His scholarship held some constraints but ultimately led him to a job at AT&T—a company where he spent his entire career.

"That completely changed his life, and created the opportunity that I had," Tuchen said.

Whereas his father could not afford to take many risks, Tuchen took plenty, knowing he had a stable family to support him. Now he appreciates what his father sacrificed so that he could have more options.

Fortt Knox is a weekly podcast from CNBC anchor Jon Fortt. Previous episodes of the program can be found here.