I attended the memorial last Saturday of a former employee, a young woman named Maya Machnicova. Memorials are always a reminder of basic truths we tend to ignore, or simply forget, and Maya’s passing in particular has made me think a lot about the subtle ways people impact my life. The push and pull of primary relationships is obvious—parents, spouses, children, business partners—they’re like heavy planets that shift our trajectory whenever they come into orbit. But what about the coworkers we spend a few hours with each day? There are hundreds of people in my life that come and go over the years, and maybe they leave a lasting impression because of some big drama, or maybe they just fade away. Maya reminded me of the subtle impact some people have that isn’t obvious until you have perspective to think about it, and then you realize they shifted your outlook in some important way. Maya was like that.
Maya was remarkable in a lot of ways. Her family escaped communist Czechoslovakia in the early eighties when Maya was 10 and eventually fled to the US. When she walked into our studio to apply for a job as an Account Executive, maybe 15 years later, Maya was thoroughly American. She didn’t have a lot of experience, but she was smart, enthusiastic and confident, and we didn’t hesitate to hire her. Over the years she worked at Cymbic, Maya was an incredible asset. She was ambitious, self-directed and determined. She went after big accounts, she thought creatively and strategically about how to run them, and she never hesitated to put in the long hours required to deliver to the highest standard.
I remember one project she wanted to reel in from a big software company called Manugistics. It was an assignment to produce some online product marketing materials that she thought would be a perfect use for Flash, which wasn’t in wide use at the time for much more than web site splash pages. The budgets were tight, and there were only a couple of days before the proposals were due. Maya came up with the idea of delivering the proposal in Flash, and scripted a “build-your-own-project” proposal, where you could drag and drop components of the project and the price and timeline would automatically adjust. She assembled a team and worked through the weekend to get it built and delivered. It was an all-or-nothing risk—not only in terms of delivering something so far out of the box to a large client, but just getting it built in such a short time. What impressed me when she pulled it off wasn’t just that she delivered, but that it was such a substantive way to address the opportunity—it wasn’t creative for the sake of show, but demonstrated directly to the client what was possible.
I don’t remember how many years I worked with Maya, two or three years I think, right at the end of the dotcom bubble and into a recession that devastated our industry. I was a very green agency principal trying to figure out how to survive and manage through a challenging market. There was a lot of stress and some drama as we went through layoffs and lost a lot of business. At some point, Maya moved on—I remember she took me out to lunch some months after she left to tell me what she had learned at Cymbic—and eventually we wound down our agency.
Thinking back on it now, I realize that Maya modeled many of the qualities I now look for in new employees. She was a true entrepreneur, combining incredible ambition with the creativity and determination to achieve whatever she set out to do. Often that comes with a big ego that can cause conflict on a team, but Maya was adept at keeping the focus on the project more than her own agenda. She was incredibly smart, articulate and creative, and she never failed to find a way to get up when she was knocked down. Many of these qualities are celebrated in management books, but Maya lived them naturally, and though I didn’t realize it at the time, she helped set the bar in my mind of what the best colleagues, co-workers and employees are like.
Something else I remember about Maya that never made sense at the time, but now seems symbolic. Maya liked to wear this big, masculine watch that always looked a little out of place to me. Maya was slight and pretty, and the watch just looked incongruous, swimming on her small wrist. I imagine there was some story behind the watch that I didn’t know. But it’s funny. When I think about all the qualities Maya embodied, her strength, ambition and determination stand out. And now the watch seems really to fit after all.
Thank you, Maya, for everything I learned from you. Let’s aim higher than what a standardized test bustling over here might ask of our students, ensuring that they’re not only ready for the test, but more than ready for college, career and life