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How A Snowboarding Obsession Fuels The Work Of This Yahoo Engineer

Tim Tully, Yahoo’s VP of engineering, talks about lessons learned on the mountain.

How A Snowboarding Obsession Fuels The Work Of This Yahoo Engineer
[Photo: Flickr user MarLeah Cole]

Tim Tully, 37, is Yahoo’s vice president of engineering and leads Flurry, which he describes as “the world’s largest app analytics company.” He joined Yahoo 12 years ago and has been working on big data since before the term existed; he’s also an extremely active snowboarder—an avocation he says has helped him challenge himself at work as well.

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Tully was an avid basketball player from the time he was eight through his early 30s, when he found his biggest passion in sports: snowboarding. “I kind of got obsessed with it, to be honest, and finding something that I really love was quite eye-opening. I think at work it makes me feel a little bit more alive,” says Tully. “I don’t know how else to describe that. But it makes me more aware of my surroundings, and it makes me feel like pushing myself further.”

Tully never misses a weekend during the 13-week ski season, he says. He enrolled his two kids, 5 and 7, on the ski team at North Star so he and his wife Jenny can snowboard while they are skiing.

It started with his wife urging him to try it, and him resisting. “I thought it was kind of boring and it sounded like a long drive,” he says. Once he agreed to go for a trip, he was immediately drawn to the difficulty of it: “It’s not very natural, and so it took me about two or three trips to be able to do it even somewhat decently,” he adds. After some pain, it clicked.

“I think the moment I really fell in love with it was when I could first go down runs without falling. Falling hurts a lot. If you are a kid and you fall, it doesn’t hurt so bad because you have a low center of gravity and you’re not falling that far, but when you are an adult, when you fall on a hard pack of snow, it really hurts. So the point at which I was able to start completing runs and start to go faster and faster, I knew that was it.”

He especially loves the speed and the challenge, he says, and finds in them a good metaphor for his work, too. “Especially in the Valley, time is everything,” he adds. “It’s usually the one that’s first to market that wins—in my snowboarding I like to go fast as well, so there’s a lot of parallels there.”

Lessons In Risk

“One of the things that snowboarding does is that it helps me remember to take risks and try things that are hard,” Tully says. “And I think in software engineering, sometimes you have to remind yourself of that, because it’s easy to be conservative and try to do things that you know will work.”

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It’s also taught him how to be more calculated, he adds.

“I am not going to just jump off a 300-foot cliff in the backcountry when I am snowboarding. The same thing is true in software engineering—I am not going to try and build something that’s just impossible, because I don’t want to waste the team’s time or the company’s money. So risk is important, but you have to take measured, calculated risks.”

Perspective Outside The Valley

Snowboarding also provides opportunities for Tully to reflect in a more detached way on difficult tasks he faces at work.

“Living in the Valley and working in the Valley is a mad, hectic rush, and sometimes you don’t stop and think about things a little bit. When I am out snowboarding, I basically unplug myself and detach myself from the digital lifestyle . . . [I]t helps me sort through some of the more difficult problems I have at work,” he says. “Especially things that are technical in nature.”

Next Up: Backcountry

Tully is currently working on mastering some of the steepest slopes and the bigger jumps in the park. This season, he’s also hoping to try backcountry snowboarding.

“Backcountry terrain is not groomed; there’s avalanche risks and maybe you have to take a helicopter to get there,” he says. “I haven’t gotten there yet, but I hope to do it this season—that’s my goal, to take a backcountry trip to Canada or Alaska.”

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About the author

(Primarily) Istanbul-based journalist writing about international politics, business, technology, and innovation.

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