Kara Sprague’s dad was an attorney and her first choice for college was Harvard University, leading to a career in law. But when that offer didn’t come through and a spot at MIT did, the legal sector’s loss became the tech world’s gain.
Fast forward two decades and Sprague is now in her “dream job” at Seattle-based F5 Networks where she is the senior vice president and general manager for Application Services.
But she did at one time take a shot at merging her tech passion with lawmaking. After earning a bachelor’s and then a master’s degree in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT, she tacked on a second master’s in Technology and Public Policy. A few years later, she volunteered with the Obama administration’s transition team to work on tech issues.
However, the government quagmire created by entrenched hierarchies and dysfunctional politics turned out to be “less than appealing.” And despite a desperate need for public policy that tracks with the rapid-fire changes being driven by technology, Sprague couldn’t see a way to bring the two together. Recent hearings on Capitol Hill revealed many lawmakers’ continued ignorance of 21st Century technology.
“I get more and more disillusioned with it every day,” Sprague said. “It’s sad because you see so much opportunity to have an impact, but the path isn’t clear.”
Luckily, the private sector has delivered the influence that Sprague craved.
At F5, “my team is responsible for innovating and growing the company’s core capability — application services — through product management and product and solutions marketing,” Sprague said. “In short, my group sets the strategic direction for how our application services are developed and brought to market.”
She is also one of F5’s evangelists around the idea of “application capital,” which ties into the company’s mantra that apps “are the most valuable assets of the modern enterprise.”
Before coming to F5, Sprague was at McKinsey and Co., most recently overseeing the Technology, Media and Telecom Practice for the West Coast. She has also worked for Oracle, Agilent Technologies and Hewlett-Packard. Sprague is on the board of the nonprofit Girls Who Code, whose mission is to achieve gender parity in tech.
And she still believes in technology’s essential role in solving daunting public problems — namely the climate change crisis. Sprague is anxious for climate solutions to become the No. 1 investment for research dollars as soon as possible.
“I believe,” she said, “technology will have to be the thing that saves the human civilization.”
We caught up with Sprague for this Working Geek, a regular GeekWire feature. Continue reading for her answers to our questionnaire.
Current location: Presently in Half Moon Bay, California for F5’s Partner Leadership Summit. Everyday office in Seattle.
Computer types: Dell laptop at work. Dell laptop at home.
Mobile devices: Apple iPhone 8s and Apple iPad.
Favorite apps, cloud services and software tools: Apps: Lyft, YouTube, FaceTime
Cloud Services: Netflix, HBO Now
Software tools: OneNote, Excel
Describe your workspace. Why does it work for you? I am an external processor. I think things through while standing and sketching ideas on a whiteboard. My office needs to give me room to think, draw and pace a bit. I have an elevated desk, a Herman-Miller Aeron chair, an oversized monitor and a port for my laptop. One especially useful accessory is a Plantronics headset that links to my computer, phone and mobile to route all calls to one place. There’s a window with a view of Elliott Bay and the Olympic Mountains. As a native of Colorado, the mountain terrain is centering. The space works well and has everything I need, and when my whiteboard fails me an occasional bottle of wine or fidget spinner make an appearance.
At home, I work from my couch — my 20-year old, worn, admittedly dated, yet perfect (for me) couch that has been with me since grad school. It’s a bit of an outlier in the southern corner of my 23rd floor condo. Pairing it with the gorgeous Seattle skyline makes for my favorite workspace in the world.
Your best advice for managing everyday work and life? Short answer: both are critical to happiness. Practically speaking: Even if you hate it at first, get on a workout schedule in the morning, and get it done. An early accomplishment can set the tone for the whole day. Similarly, remember to leave time throughout the day for nourishment. No one can be their best when too many brain cycles are being diverted to their stomach. Lastly, batching similar types of tasks together is something that’s always helped me — whether it’s meetings or reviewing content (I’m a machine at getting through content reviews and emails on flights). You can lose a lot of time switching gears or angsting over when you’re going to get to the things on a list.
And finally, small rewards make life way (way) more fun. I set big goals and allow myself little moments to reflect and experience the joy of reaching them. I might gather up the “framily” for drinks, go somewhere fun for the weekend, or just call my mom and give her a rundown like I’ve been doing since I was 16.
Your preferred social network? How do you use it for business/work? LinkedIn for professional networking and checking in with people. That’s about it.
Current number of unanswered emails in your inbox? I try to run Inbox 50 and have a pretty good success rate. It’s about 5:30 p.m. and I’m at 67.
Number of appointments/meetings on your calendar this week? I’d probably need to schedule one more before I could give you an accurate count.
How do you run meetings? I use them sparingly and run them like the experience I’d want to have — clear expectations, on-time and with an empathic approach. Every meeting must advance an agenda, allow for uncertainty to surface and be a safe space for productive debate. Practically speaking, my literal nature requires that all participants have a clear idea of where we need to land leaving the meeting, and also understand how they should engage in helping us get to that outcome.
Everyday work uniform? Mix-and-match jeans, boots and a blazer, typically, with a leather jacket rotated in from time to time. My MIT class ring is a constant because it reminds me of my engineering roots and represents my optimism that, given the right resources and focus, humans are capable of solving any problem.
How do you make time for family? I make that a priority. I go home to visit my parents, sisters and nephews in Denver 6 to 8 times a year. We have family dinners, reminisce about fond memories and try to keep the kids from wreaking havoc. FaceTime fills in the gaps when I’ve been away too long.
Best stress reliever? How do you unplug? Taekwondo and kickboxing used to be big ones, but I haven’t done those as much since moving to Seattle. For something a little lower impact, working out with a Netflix series or horror movie on in the background has become a go-to. (Recent titles include “Daredevil” and “Hannibal.”)
What are you listening to? Music-wise, I run pretty mainstream. Beyoncé, Camila Cabello, Daya, Ed Sheeran, Tiësto, Rihanna. That kind of thing.
Daily reads? Favorite sites and newsletters? New York Times Daily Digest and Apple News.
Book on your nightstand (or e-reader)? At the moment, I have about eight semi-read books on my Kindle, including “Technology-as-a-Service Playbook” by J. B. Wood and Thomas Lah and “The 48 Laws of Power” by Robert Greene. “Why We Sleep” by Matthew Walker is another, and it’s done wonders for my sleep, which explains why I’m only a few pages in several months after I started reading it.
Night owl or early riser? Night owls, unite! I try to minimize late-night emails, but I truly can’t help it. I generally get about six hours of sleep a night during the weekdays and then catch up on the weekends.
Where do you get your best ideas? I’m a polymath, so I tend to get my best ideas from analogies or parallel situations that can be applied in a creative or novel way. Thirteen years as a management consulting shaped me that way. Breadth of experience is important — otherwise you end up addressing challenges in the same old ways and running into repeat obstacles. When all else fails, I walk down the hall and try to drum up a brainstorm. Great ideas often come from casual conversation. I’m surrounded by curious, brilliant, wonderfully-maddening colleagues always up for a challenge.
Whose work style would you want to learn more about or emulate? They are lofty comparisons, but as I understand it, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Barack Obama seem to have similar work styles. They go back to work late and keep going until the work is done. That’s a model that I practice as well, and one that works with my nocturnal energy levels and how I manage stress around getting sh*t done.