Mike Gamson, 46, is CEO of Relativity, a maker of legal and compliance software and one of the city’s largest tech employers. He also is on the board of P33, a Chicago organization aimed at making the city a tech magnet. He and his wife live in the northern suburbs with their three children.
How did you prepare for a career in tech?
I was an art and comparative religions major.
Ha! Then what?
A close friend was in computer science. The dot-com boom was happening when I graduated from college, and there were an extraordinary number of jobs available in tech. I also heard that tech was founded on meritocracy. Just work hard, and there was no limit to what you could achieve.
How did you become successful?
Because the world is unfair. As a white man who grew up in the suburbs with a great school system and parents who loved each other, I was raised in privilege. I had no experience for the jobs I got, but people reacted to what they saw in me and said, “I bet he can do it,” versus, “I need proof that she can do it, or that a person of color can do it.”
You applied for jobs without the right experience?
My parents believed in promoting high self-esteem and independent decision-making in their children. That worked. I grew up feeling I could do anything.
What is your current favorite piece of tech?
An electric hydrofoil surfboard called a Fliteboard. I took it out on the lake last summer. When it’s going fast enough, the hydrofoil lifts it out of the water. Crazy.
A piece of tech you dream about?
I can’t wait until we can project our memories on the wall for someone to experience as we recall them. It’s doable in our lifetime.
Most embarrassing career moment?
I was in Beijing, emailing back and forth from my phone, trying to close a really important candidate for a job. I tried to forward the candidate’s salary request to the head of HR but forwarded their current salary and compensation history to the whole company. Not my best work.
An unexpected talent?
When I was living in Spain my junior year in college, some street performers taught me how to juggle for money. Since then I always have juggling balls within arm’s reach. I bought 100 for our employees at Relativity when I first joined as CEO.
Juggling is a great metaphor for something you feel is beyond your ability to do. It can be broken down into steps, and with a little help from someone who’s been there, it can be acquired as a new skill. I have taught hundreds of people to juggle.