Running Towards the Light

Running Towards the Light
Image credit: Tom Lounibos
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It started 10 years ago today. It was a typical foggy day in San Francisco. I was very excited about a new venture (SOASTA) that my old friend Ken Gardner and I were starting. We were getting the band from Sagent, which we took public in 1999, back together again to change the world of digital performance analytics. But on this particular day in March, I was giving a speech to a group of lawyers on behalf of the San Francisco Olympic Committee in an attempt to bring the Olympic Games to the Bay Area in 2016. I was mid-sentence when I began to tear up. Given the subject matter and my passion for the subject, to this audience my tears seemed very natural. But then, suddenly, the darkness came.

My right retina had suddenly detached, and the darkness I was experiencing was caused by blood filling my retina. A "boxer’s injury” is the name often used to describe a detached retina, as this is typically caused by blunt force to the forehead. In my case, my detachment (as I later learned) was actually caused by genetics. Oddly, at the time I was in the best shape of my life, having run two marathons within the previous 10 months. The genetics that had served me so very well for the first 50 years of my life had apparently held a secret that would only reveal itself in the second half of my life. To be honest, I remember thinking at the time, "Well, that has to be a pretty fair trade." Yep, I said it -- blindness is a fair trade. That’s just how good the first half of my life had been.

Within the week, the first long surgery to repair my detached retina was already underway. Retinal surgery is pretty weird -- when doctors are done fixing the detachment, a synthetic bubble is placed behind the eye to hold the retina in place for several months. The worst part is that you have to lie face down for nearly two weeks as the retina heals. Looking back, I was more annoyed than concerned. In my mind, I had one good eye, I could get a lot done with one eye, and I had a lot of work to do. At the time, I was in the middle of selling one tech company (Kenamea), starting a new tech company (SOASTA) and, of course, dealing with the Olympics.

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I was off to New York to see the top retinal surgeon in the country when my left retina detached. Before I knew it, I was free-falling into darkness again. Even after the six surgeries to follow, I had already lost between 60 percent and 70 percent of my vision. Fear set in. Would I ever be able to look into my wife's eyes again? Could I work? Drive? Run? This was my personal tipping point. Would I continue to fall into the darkness or be able to run towards the light? While my view of the outside world had greatly diminished, there was still some light left. It just seemed as if this light was at the other end of the tunnel from where I currently stood.

One day, after a two-month period of near total blindness, I was able to read the time off the clock on the dashboard of our car for the first time. I could see -- not very well, but I could still see. My wife and I cried for about 15 minutes. While I had lost a lot, I was still able to see.

That’s when I started thinking about all my friends who had overcome so much adversity in their lives -- from cancer to paralysis to the struggles of life itself. I recalled how much the optimism and courage these individuals had shown had inspired me. Here I was, only 50 years old, and I still had so much work to do. One night my wife was asking me to describe what I was able to see. I explained that it was like being in a tunnel but only being able to see the light at the far end. She quietly whispered, “You’re a runner, Tom. Run towards the light…run towards the light!”

I haven’t stopped running since. We successfully launched SOASTA, and, given our current leadership position in the Digital Performance Management space, I’d say that the business impact of my vision issues has been negligible.

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But has my vision loss affected how I run the company? A popular notion is that blind people sharpen their remaining senses to compensate for lost vision. I’m not sure how true that is for me, but I do believe that I became a better listener.  With full vision I was easily distracted by a text, an email or by someone just walking by and this sometimes led to my misunderstanding what someone was saying to me. As I began to lose my span of sight, those visual distractions eventually faded away, and I became much more focused on the person in front of me. I have had several employees and customers tell me, “Tom, you see and hear things that others miss." So, in some ways I feel my loss of sight has actually made me a better manager and entrepreneur. I “see” things differently.

I have had a lot of help along the way. At first, I never wanted my vision loss to be a distraction, so I tried to hide it from everyone. That strategy didn’t last very long, as it led to some pretty funny encounters -- like the day I walked into our conference room to introduce myself to a guest and I introduced myself to my own VP of engineering. Or the day I walked into the women’s bathroom at a customer site thinking it was men’s room. That’s when my core team started to "circle the wagons” around me. They get me from place to place so that I can do my thing. They also identify themselves as they walk up to me.

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Ten years later, I could not be prouder of the women and men who make up SOASTA. Together, we have forever changed how websites and mobile apps are tested and measured. Our innovation in the area of analytics, cloud computing and testing automation has caused the likes of HP, IBM and other Silicon Valley giants to follow our lead. We have given our customers enormous insights into their digital performance and customer user experiences. In doing so, SOASTA has become a trusted name in Digital Performance Management, a category that we’ve helped to define and now lead.

So, with great pleasure I am happy to announce that this month will mark SOASTA’s 10th anniversary. Over the past 10 years, SOASTA has become one of the Silicon Valley’s great success stories and a company known for its foresight and vision.

And, as for me, I’m still running away from the darkness -- and towards the light.