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Out Of Office: Skydiving With Yahoo’s Jeff Bonforte

Risk, focus, planning, systems: It’s all part of this extreme sport—which Bonforte says has supercharged his professional life.

Jeff Bonforte is the senior vice president of communication products and engineering at Yahoo. A few decades ago, he was working in startups, and when the dotcom bubble burst in 2000, Bonforte moved to Switzerland, where his sister was living. It turned out she had developed a new hobby.

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“You’ve got to skydive!” she said.

Bonforte recalls: “My reaction, like everyone else’s, was . . . ‘I really don’t need to skydive!’”

Jeff BonfortePhoto: Robyn Twomey

Her argument somehow won out, and not long after, Bonforte found himself crammed in a small ascending airplane. Bonforte remembers feeling confused, and thinking something along the lines of, “Why am I doing this?” At 11,000 feet, the door opened.

Time had run out to protest. Just seven seconds separate jumpers above a drop zone. In less than a minute, Bonforte’s Swiss-Italian tandem instructor—a wild man named Tazio—had leapt with Bonforte out of the plane.

“It takes a couple of seconds for you to realize what’s going on,” recalls Bonforte. “Your brain is so overwhelmed, it really almost blacks out.” He recalls Tazio shaking him, trying to get him to awaken to the experience and process it as it was happening. He remembers the opening of the canopy–violent and sudden in a tandem dive–and then a sweeping, fluttery quiet. And then they landed.

His sister was waiting with snacks of all kinds, knowing that his senses would be piqued. “This is the most unbelievable yogurt ever!” he gushed. “Try this cheese!” she said. He recalls the greens being more green, the reds being more red. “It was an amazing reintroduction to the world.”

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It was an experience he has since repeated more than 450 times. Bonforte has jumped out of helicopters, airplanes, and hot air balloons. He’s dived onto glaciers and into deep valleys. A skydiving festival in Switzerland is named for him. Years later, he would name his own son Tazio.

A Focus On Process

If Bonforte ever thought that first dive would be his last, he was soon proven wrong. There was something as neurochemically compelling about it as addiction. On rooftops or patios of high buildings, he would find himself near the edge. “My body was like, ‘Go jump off!’” he recalls. “I was like: ‘Stop doing that!’”

Again, rational thoughts lost out. Soon he was in Austria, taking a weeklong course to get his license (which would allow him to solo dive). He learned, quickly, that skydiving is an inclusive sport, “a very sweet little society.” Skydivers were all types: mechanics, nurses, bankers. Often someone would prove him or herself to be “a god in the sky,” says Bonforte, who would then learn the man was a plumber on earth. Most were loners; almost all were a little odd. “Whenever I’d meet someone highly normal skydiving,” he recalls, “I’d think, ‘That’s strange. You’re very normal.’”

It was at this stage that Bonforte strengthened a habit that would serve him in business: a system-wide interest in technical detail. “I remember my sister remarking I was a strange skydiving student,” he recalls. “I was obsessed with reading materials.” He read about the physics of parachutes: Why was the canopy set up a certain way? Why did it have this many lines? Where other learners preferred to jump out of as many planes as soon as possible, Bonforte found himself spending a lot of time in wind tunnels, probing, testing, figuring out how things worked.

He carries the same approach to his job to this day: “I’m super interested in the whole process,” he says, saying he’s probably one of the few people on product at Yahoo who has insisted on visiting its data center. “I’m interested in the whole cycle. If I can make sure the whole system works in my head, I can be more innovative. Understanding how the system works makes me feel more of a sense of control and creativity in the process.”

Risk And Resources

As Bonforte racked up more sky dives, he honed two other skills that would serve him in business: an ability to manage human resources, and a particular approach to risk.

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Bonforte noted that people attracted to skydiving were capable of extraordinary things–but they often needed help to get there. “A lot of skydivers are dirt poor, and the sport’s expensive, so every discretionary dollar would go to it,” he recalls. Many lived in tents, scrounging up a few bucks for a six-pack of beer after a dive.

Bonforte, on the other hand, was a dynamo of organization and efficiency (he used to skydive during his lunch break, timing it to an hour). During the years he was passionate about skydiving, he learned how to help people who were bad at managing their resources achieve what they were capable of. “I’m a good enabler,” he says, noting that in many ways his job at Yahoo is the same: “That’s basically my job: to get something funded and resourced, and to get the best people to do that work.”

Bonforte also learned a ton about risk. “As an entrepreneur, you have to have a distorted sense of risk,” he says. “The risk/reward equation is incredibly imbalanced.” Bonforte learned that extreme sports–much like being an executive–is essentially about “managing risk down. You can’t get around the fact that skydiving is risky. But you minimize risk.” There’s also a difference between one’s sense of a risk, and the risk’s actual magnitude. He reckons that the risk of a skydive is roughly equal to the risk of 1,800 miles of driving.

Still, that’s not to say the risks of skydiving are not real. Bonforte says he’s known seven people who have died doing the sport. “Only two of them were dumb,” he says. A skydiver, like an entrepreneur, has to have a real appetite for true risk.

Free Your Mind

Ultimately, says Bonforte, the most helpful thing about skydiving is that it “cleans your brain.” Some people get their insights in the shower; Bonforte is more likely to get them in the hours after a dive. “The adrenaline rush chemically sweeps your brain.

“It’s very focusing,” he says. “You really can’t afford to have your brain somewhere else.” In an age of constant distractions, of needless worries, of the collection of mental browser tabs proliferating in our brains, there is something primal about the focus skydiving demands. Bonforte calls it a “forcing function,” adding that “when you get to the edge of an airplane and look out, the next few minutes, you are perfectly focused.”

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He sighs. “And then you hit the ground, and in the next few minutes your brain clutters up again.”

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About the author

David Zax is a contributing writer for Fast Company. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian, Slate, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal

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