Todd Fulton on Finding Satisfaction, Loving What You Do, and Leaving a Lasting Legacy
Todd Fulton grew up in Stockton, Calif. in an ethnically mixed family. Coming from modest means, educational opportunities and hard work afforded him the chance to better his life and to work in the progressive field of computer science. Fulton is an example of how rewarding diligence can be.
Never one to let socio-economic constraints keep him from success, Fulton’s life’s work has been implementing the use of computer code within modern business. He has evolved along with the industry, from the dot-com boom to the present-day world of mega-corporations and startups. He now finds himself indispensable to PayPal, working to create international business solutions and holding his own with giants of the industry. His is a fine example of how education and hard work can be a path to success.
With 25 years of experience in a field many students are currently pursuing, The BCC Voice sat down with Fulton to ask what he enjoys about his career and whether a life in tech is all it’s cracked up to be.
How did you become interested in computer science, and what is your background?
I first became interested in computer science when I was in high school in Stockton. I had mastered C, Pascal and Basic by my senior year. Computer science was a new and unknown industry back then. I think I ended up writing code better than my instructor. There was no advanced curriculum. The school had to invent new classes to keep me busy. I was able to get accepted into the University of California, Los Angeles, in part because of my Hispanic heritage and the affirmative action programs at that time. I took a bachelor’s in economics from UCLA in 1991 and I was accepted to the University of Southern California where I obtained an MBA in 1995.
How did an MBA lead to a career in programming?
It was sort of a fluke. I had always had an interest in programming. I was applying for internships the year before I finished at USC. I ended up with a job doing marketing for an internet radio promoter. We were working with Mosaic, an early web browser, and I found the experience fascinating. I had a feeling that I was in a place that could be pivotal as technology was developing. It was a brand-new thing, it fit well with my background in computer science. I had been doing side jobs all through school. I was looking for a marketing position and this worked.
Do you enjoy working with computers?
Sure — they don’t talk back. It’s kept me busy and paid the bills. I saw that it could go somewhere, and it felt good to be accomplishing something tangible.
Where did it go from there?
I found myself in the middle of the dot-com boom.
Do you see yourself staying in this career for the rest of your life? Do you enjoy it?
It is not my life’s passion, no. It is, however, something I am very good at that I can tolerate doing. It is a thing that I do well, I excel at code and I know I have found a comfortable niche. My job allows me to afford my family and a decent lifestyle. It is honest work, and at the end of the day, I am satisfied most of the time, and I feel that I am in a position of importance, where I can accomplish things and affect the global marketplace. I am a part of something greater than myself.
Do you recommend computer science as a path for today’s students?
If you do it well, the tech industry offers a comfortable living. But most important of all is that you should do something you like. If you love your work and can make a living at it, this job won’t be all bad. You must love it or [you will] be miserable. Don’t pursue this career choice if you don’t enjoy it. That goes for any career.
Does computer science work for you?
It’s what I am good at and it is what I have done the most. I am very good at what I do. I write code as well as anyone. It is the thing that I have the most skill at. There is a book called “Good to Great” by Jim Collins, in which he explains how some professors at Stanford did an in-depth analysis of successful public companies that managed to maintain sustained growth over 10 years. There was a pattern to the success of those companies, the executives, they all loved what they did. This was called the “Hedgehog Concept.” It changed the way I thought about approaching success. It is about loving your job, rather than seeking success. It comes down to love, skill and dedication.
What do you think about outsourcing within the computer science industry?
People see it as the ultimate cost saving solution, but in truth it is difficult to manage remote labor and there are questions of accountability. The remote workers are difficult to organize and the lower wages can result in poor work quality. The most important tasks should be kept close, where they can be held under scrutiny. Ideally, you keep your family jewels close to home. Your family jewels in this industry are the product and the people who are fundamental to maintaining that product and its production. You can outsource the mundane tasks, but not the essential ones. It is like with car companies. You keep your specs and engineering close to home, as well as your product design. Once the blueprints are done, remote production is viable. Keep the people who design the product at home. The key design people and the management need to be close to headquarters. When you outsource, you can have problems. I have seen companies who try to outsource the entire project, it tends to have problems. I have seen projects go south because the control is not effective.
What duties do you perform for PayPal? Or is it eBay?
I now work only for PayPal. The two were once one company, but have since reorganized. PayPal has moved off on its own. I work in integration architecture, with PayPal’s largest merchants. We develop systems for maximizing efficiency.
Would you want your son to go into computer science?
I would like to see him go into something like making movies. Something where he is actually making something rather than providing a service. If I could do it again, I think that is where I would go with it. I am able to make the money I need and that is one of the aspects of this business that fueled my inspiration. When a project comes to fruition, there are gratifying aspects. The rewards are there. That adds to the driving force that keeps you on task. It can be exciting. The hope of making money is a big part of it.
You have also worked in startups. How did that go?
I spent much of the last two years in startups. It is a tough business, I learned a lot. There is more latitude, but you tend to have to wear more hats. There is a lot of turnover, and the resulting culture is problematic and fraught with challenges. I was happy to come back to PayPal. There is comfort and security in a larger company. There is also a sense of power and satisfaction as you work within the global economy. When you accomplish something, it makes a worldwide impact. Your work is a powerful force. You change the world. That is rewarding. That tends to happen in large companies much more often than startups. The scale of our impact is immense. That just doesn’t happen with small companies.
Any predictions for the industry?
Using tech as a tool for advancing society is like burning the candle at both ends. I am worried that we may be wearing ourselves and the planet out as we become driven by technology. How will the average person work to have the latest iPhone? Contrast that to how much benefit we get from the new tech. We must ask if this kind of growth is really worth the opportunity cost. Will we use social media, or will social media use us? My mother texts me rather than calling. What does it mean to society when people no longer talk on the phone or sit down to dinner? Is social media really very social?
What about Mark Zuckerberg?
He is a smart guy who runs his company well. He is professional and well-groomed in all aspects of business. That is what put him where he is.
What about the security breaches?
People need to be realistic. They share personal information on a platform where they know others have access to it. How can you expect that data to remain private? The user puts that information out there. If they expect it to remain private, think again. It is not a data breach, it is part of the design. Maybe people need to actually read their end-user license agreements. These breaches are not even talked about in tech circles. Industry people are not concerned.
Is there anything else that you think you would like to add?
Tech is like any other industry, except that it moves faster. It is like boiling water, the particles are accelerated. The fervor that the industry paces itself at is of a level greater than most other industries. There are options and opportunities that go along with the increased pace — you can rise faster, but you can also fall. There are also some dark aspects of the industry and the lifestyle that are often less than wholesome. These I would prefer not to talk about because I believe the good our industry can offer outweighs the negative.
If you could do it all over —?
I think I would try to be in the film industry. There is so much gratification to be had and one can make profound statements and influence people’s lives. For now, I am comfortable at my job. I enjoy flying drones with my son in my spare time. We find it rewarding and it makes us happy. I have been able to find satisfaction and happiness. When I reflect on my life, I am pleased. I love my kids, I have a great wife and we enjoy our freedom. In the end, it is the thing that you make [of it]. It is like the end of the movie “Wall Street,” they made all their money by non-production means. I find more satisfaction by actually producing something. That is why I want my son to make films. Though if he is happy in computer science, I am alright with that. You can become an internet billionaire, but at what cost? People need to find the middle path. A happy medium that allows them to be satisfied with what life gives us.
At the top: San Francisco’s Financial District. Photo Credit: Ken Lund