Ken Krings, '85
Ken Krings patiently answers these predictable questions about working for one of the world's most identifiable companies. Taylor Swift and Taylor Hicks did perform in the Yahoo! courtyard. Employees did get to watch a personal interview with Tom Cruise in their cafeteria. The company founders did sumo wrestling on the lawn.
But his career is not about perks. This is Silicon Valley, home to Google, Apple, and about 6,600 other technology companies. The coffee is free because the workday at a global company can sometimes be around the clock.
In the technology sector, the pace is fast; stakes are high. So they yodel. (It says so in the employee manual: ...We applaud irreverence and don't take ourselves too seriously...We yodel.) It takes the pressure off daily tasks like reinvention and striving to be the future. While we're buzzing about Bing, Ken and other Yahoo! employees are thinking about how many people come online every day around the world.
Five and a half years ago, Yahoo! hired Ken, a 1985 graduate of Doane's Lincoln campus, to recruit employees in a fiercely competitive job environment. He told job candidates: "If you want to work for a company that's innovative, with some of the most brilliant people you've ever met from all walks of life, this is the place for you."
The first day Ken walked past the purple cow in Yahoo!'s front lobby, he brought his own walk of life: the ideals and beliefs learned in small town Nebraska. Glance around his cubicle and the eye lands on a black-and-white photo among the sea of Yahoo! purple products. It's a historical shot of main street Creston, Neb., population 170. Not exactly a pipeline to Silicon Valley. But Creston did help him get to Yahoo!. It taught him to work, hard-hard enough to drive two hours a day to night classes on Doane's Lincoln campus, working full time and carrying up to 18 credits. "I knew Doane was my ticket."
YES. HE WAS THE KIND OF KID WHO MAKES ASSISTANT MANAGER AT BONANZA AT 17.
Ken came second-to-last in a family of seven kids. It was probably hard for an outsider to tell how many people actually lived at his house—people flowed in and out, pals and prom dates and neighbors enticed by his mom’s cinnamon rolls. There were more kids in this noisy, animated home than at his two-room grade school.
He never knew his dad to hold only one job and most involved Ken. His dad was a school custodian. Ken spent a few summers waxing floors. His dad sold seed corn, so Ken threw a lot of 50 lb. bags onto pickup tailgates. His dad had his own sewer pumping business, so Ken hated pumping septic tanks, but did it anyway. His family also owned Krings’ Tavern, the center point where the town connected. Through bands and card games, beer gardens and fish fries, Ken bussed tables and cleaned floors—and most importantly—talked. “That’s really where I learned customer service,” Ken said.
After his freshman year at Leigh High School, he transferred to Lakeview High outside of Columbus for its fine arts classes and cross country running program. He made the management team at Bonanza only a year after earning his driver’s license. When Ken graduated he didn’t know exactly what he wanted to do, but he was pretty sure it wasn’t in Nebraska.
YES. IT CAME DOWN TO RUSSIA OR A MUSTANG.
Rural Nebraska made Ken restless. When he climbed the water tower he wasn’t supposed to climb, corn and beans filled the horizon. If anyone local headed to Omaha, he asked to ride along, if only to the airport.
He earned an associate’s degree from Lincoln School of Commerce, and a job at Control Data Corporation in Lincoln, a job he hoped would lead him to the coasts. In his role as order analyst, he asked callers to tell him about their city. “I’d always ask them ‘What’s the best thing about where you live?’”
He realized a bachelor’s degree could help him get to the places he heard about on the phone. When Doane launched a new campus in Lincoln, he took advantage of his company’s tuition reimbursement and enrolled in Doane’s business administration program.
Doane College in Crete was more than 100 years old, but in 1982, the Lincoln campus was just one year old and had started with seven students, recalled Angie Klasek ’81, Lincoln undergraduate program services coordinator. The new campus combined the philosophical foundations of the liberal arts college with programs designed for adult learners. “Ken was willing to take a risk with us by working full time and earning his degree in the evening... He quickly became part of a college community that embraced a change in the way degree programs were delivered,” Klasek said.
“The campus in general was just terrific,” Ken said. Staff encouraged him those difficult days when he drove from Omaha (where his job had transferred) to Lincoln. “At Doane, everything caused me to want to learn more. I realized how much there is out there to see.”
The liberal arts emphasis on critical thinking and leadership was a natural fit for Ken’s communication skills and inquisitive nature. Asking questions, adapting to change and leading gracefully would become pillars of his career. The liberal arts emphasis on travel, though, had the biggest impact.
One night, a professor announced an interterm trip to Russia. Participants would spend three January weeks traveling and studying with Doane's iconic history professor, Dr. William Gleason. Ken sold his 1965 Mustang to go.
It was not just any car he decided to part with. Red paint. Red interior. 289 engine. "I wish I had that car back," he says, laughing. "But that trip was pivotal. I thought: This is what I want to do in life. Make a good enough salary and see the world."
YES. KRINGS COMMUNITY IS NOT A SUBDIVISION.
Ken crosses the Yahoo! lobby in two long strides to welcome a visitor to the Sunnyvale, Calif., campus.
He gives a mini tour, winding past Yahoo! film studios, the fitness center, coffeehouses, the mammoth cafeteria. "Does it look like you expected?" he asks.
Only if one expects a cross between high-tech, college campus and wacky insurance company. Seven multi-story buildings look down to a large inner yard. In spring, purple flowers, lush and linear, line the sidewalk. Most buildings are filled with rows of low cubicles, decorated to Yahoo!s' (that's what employees call themselves) personal style: Zen spaces, beach spaces, even a putting green.
Growth is so explosive, even these physical workspaces are endlessly reassembled to accommodate changing departments. Furniture is fluid. Meetings are not as much about conference tables as rolling whiteboards.
Ken came to Yahoo! as director of talent acquisition, managing a team of 60 recruiters and support team members. He moved from recruiting into a human resources role supporting the finance organization, a job that included managing employee reviews and salary increases. He spent the last 18 months in a learning development group, creating manager and employee tool kits and other training products to drive employee engagement. Each year, Ken also runs the company's Super Star program, a recognition program that culminates with 28 global winners and a blowout celebration.
Of all his roles, the best, he said, is "making a job marriage between someone's skills and the job that can best leverage their talent." On those days, the job fits the HR mold. The days spent designing a foosball table to honor 15-year employees are less black-and-white.
"He does a lot of invisible work, especially with company leaders, and he does them very artfully," said Elaine Fortier, director of talent acquisition. About 4,500 of 13,000 global employees work at this site. Ken seems to know almost all, perhaps because he preaches networking. Twenty-thee years ago, Control Data and his Doane degree did take him to the coast, but networking took him everywhere else, from Silicon Graphics Computer Systems, to human resource positions with Loudcloud, Intuit and then Yahoo! in 2004.
At Yahoo!, he is famous for networking and for his "genuine and generous nature" that draws people into the circle. "He has a zillion connections. We call it "Krings Community," Fortier said. He's also known for working hard until the job is done, in a manner that matches the value the company places on how things get done. "If you stepped on 10 people to get your outcome, that's not O.K.," Ken said.
"Words to describe Ken?" co-worker Grant Bassett, VP of Talent Acquisition, asks, pausing to find the right words. "Execution. With humor...If you want to get 15 things done, give him the list and he'll get it done...and occasionally you'll hear a gasp from coworkers as he does it."
YES. IT'S GOOD TO THINK INSIDE THE (SINGING) BOX.
Gasps are good in a place that values non-linear thinking. Ken suggested both job candidates and company executives exchange avatars in the interview process. When Ken needed a "wow factor" to woo potential employees, he developed a purple box. As job candidates opened the lid, they heard the famous yodel of Yahoo! commercials.
Like any career, some days are more rewarding than others. The days he has to tell someone his or her future is not with Yahoo! are his least favorite side of the job. And he's glad the days of a 2008 takeover attempt by Microsoft are behind them now.
He keeps his focus on the magnitude of Yahoo!'s role, and how many lives it touches each day. Yahoo! is a central place where hundreds of millions of consumers connect with the people and things that matter to them most.
"Think about how we connect people. People meet and find their life partners because of Yahoo!. Parents who have a sick child with a rare disease can reach out to 600,000,000 people to save their child and network with doctors."
Yes. That's worth a yodel.