Running away from home taught Atlassian exec Jay Simons a valuable skill

Tracey Lien, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Business News

Jay Simons, 45, is the president of Atlassian, the enterprise software company that went public in 2015 and has since doubled its market value to more than $12 billion. In his 10 years at the company, he has risen from vice president of sales and marketing to overseeing all revenue-generating activities such as operations, marketing and customer retention. Australia-based Atlassian has offices in five countries. Simons runs the San Francisco office.

Never quit

Growing up in Aberdeen, Wash., Simons said his parents never pressured him to pursue any particular career. But his mom, an aquatic director at the local YMCA, had one rule: If he opted into something, he wasn't allowed to quit.

He started piano lessons at age 4, and when his mom wouldn't let him quit at around age 10, he decided to run away from home. "I got picked up by the local sheriff and he called my mom, and I asked my mom to come get me. She said, 'Do you promise that you're going to practice?' And I was like, 'No, I don't want to play piano.' So she said, 'Then you can stay there,' and then she hung up. I remember the sheriff asking, 'What did she say?' and I was like, 'She hung up.'"

Decades later, Simons admits his mom was on to something.

Music abroad

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As someone who cares deeply about the environment, Simons aspired to be an environmental lawyer. He studied political science and environmental science at the University of Washington in Seattle while working at a law firm. On the side, he played piano at bars and restaurants for beer money. Before heading to law school, though, a partner at the law firm advised him to take a year off. At 22, Simons had only known Washington, and it was as good a time as any to travel.

After hearing Simons play at a bar, an agent who books musicians for cruise ships gave Simons his business card.

"So I called him and he said, 'I've got this opportunity in Yangon, Myanmar, that starts in three weeks. Can you do it?'" Simons said.

Simons didn't know anything about Myanmar. He went to the library to look it up (this was before the days of Google). He learned that the State Department cautioned against travel there. Still, he decided to go. Three weeks later, he was playing piano in a hotel lobby on the other side of the world.


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