Before my current role as vice president of engineering at Eventbrite, I spent five years as a full-time professional poker player. My World Series of Poker bracelets are fun to show to friends—and the money was nice, too. But it’s what I learned at the tables that helped me become a better engineer.
Here’s one story that taught me an expensive lesson. At the end of the second day of the 2004 World Series of Poker’s main event, I held a pair of 10s and had raised. A European kid in his early 20s called the raise. Another pro player moved all-in for $29,000. I had about $150,000 in chips, and so did the kid. I called the pro’s $29,000, but the kid went all in, too.
My analysis and instinct told me I could beat the kid, but I folded. It turned out the kid held an Ace-Queen and the pro had an Ace-King. I would have beaten them both and pulled in $300,000. Instead I dropped $29,000 and my bankroll fell to $121,000. I never really recovered from that confidence crisis during that tournament, and not long after that decision, I was forced out.
I didn’t trust my process and it cost me—but I didn’t dwell on it. I learned from it, moved on, and never let myself lose faith in my process of analysis when making decisions.
After five good years, my poker career had run its course and it was time to get back into tech. I love my work and I’ve never had second thoughts about leaving the tables. Maybe that’s because the best and most interesting aspects of playing poker still come into play every day at Eventbrite.
Here are some thoughts on how you can leverage lessons from the poker table to run a better engineering team.
Poker is really about reading people, not cards. What is a player’s body language and eye contact telling you?
At interviews, I might probe a little or push candidates out of their comfort zone to see how they respond. If they pass that test and join our team, then I’m always keeping an eye out for what their poker faces are telling me. Use your eyes—not just your ears—to pick up on problems.
Poker is a continual exercise in risk analysis.
- What’s been played?
- What’s in the pot?
- What’s in your hand?
- What’s on the board?
Having a disciplined approach to risk analysis helps you understand when to invest more resources, or when to walk away. In poker and business alike, the question comes down to: is the juice worth the squeeze?
I couldn’t resist adding a classic Kenny Rogers line. The other side of risk analysis is knowing when to walk away from a bad hand, even when you’re already heavy in the pot. You can’t afford to let ego or sunk costs keep you in a situation when the expected value no longer justifies it.
No one can really hide stress. Instead, managing stress genuinely is the secret to hiding it. If there’s a problem, then focus on solving it. Getting stressed never wins a hand on the poker table, or in the office.
The most helpful lesson I learned from poker is the importance of effective decision-making. You can’t look at your cards, your chips, and the pot—and then get back to the dealer in a week.
The ability to make decisions quickly will give you a leg up on the competition. Sometimes you’ll be right; sometimes you’ll be wrong. But if you focus on continually making your process better, you’ve got the best chance of winning the next hand your dealt.
—Pat Poels is the vice president of engineering at Eventbrite. Previously the vice president of software development at Ticketmaster, Pat was responsible for host system development, and he wrote much of the reserved seating inventory system that's still in use today.