On June 1, Tomer Cohen officially began his first day as the global head of product at LinkedIn, the world's biggest social media platform for professional networking. In practice, he is No. 2 in the company, reporting directly to new CEO Ryan Roslansky and in charge of several thousand employees.
Cohen made the complex transition into his new role without leaving his home in Palo Alto and with three young children underfoot. Like the rest of the employees in Silicon Valley, and much of the global high-tech industry, Cohen has not been to the office since March. "Yes, it was a special experience," he recalls. LinkedIn, says Cohen in an telephone interview, was one of the first companies in Silicon Valley to send its employees to work from home.
"At first you work from the living room with the kids hanging off your shoulder, and you slowly find an arrangement that works," he says. "There's research showing that working from home is more productive but causes us to be at work more. That is, if it used to be called 'working from home,' today there's a sense that you are living at work. People feel it."
Cohen, 40, was born and raised in the southern Israeli city of Be'er Sheva. His parents immigrated from Tunisia and lived in ma'abarot, or transit camps, in the 1950s. "My parents' path in life was a great inspiration for me and my siblings. As with many families, they came as refugees, and as children they had to work to support their families. They believed that education and a love of learning were the way to break out and flourish." His father went back and finished high school later, earned an undergraduate degree and became a career officer in the Israel Air Force. His mother was a kindergarten teacher for several decades.
"I dreamed of being a tech entrepreneur from a very young age, and as a boy I was always looking to create and to build solutions for people's needs, from esoteric inventions I dreamed up with my big brother to the computer programs that I wrote in BASIC at age 10. As I grew older, I realized that technological revolutions are an inseparable part of social and cultural evolutions."
Cohen wanted to do his compulsory military service in a combat unit, but due to a low medical profile he ended up serving in an intelligence unit "with significant exposure to advanced technological capabilities." He earned a bachelor's degree in communication system engineering from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. During and after his studies, he worked as a developer at tech companies.
Three years after completing his undergraduate studies, he continued on to the master's in business administration program at Stanford University. "To be admitted to Stanford was a kind of dream: a combination of academia and industry in the heart of Silicon Valley. It wasn't a rare sight to see Steve Jobs and Larry Page walking around the campus." After a prolonged series of applications, exams and interviews, he was accepted into the MBA program. "Since the studies are very expensive, it still was not an easy decision. But my wife and I took out an enormous loan and set out on an adventure."
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During his graduate studies he founded his first startup, meant for small businesses that use social media. "My student visa didn't allow me to continue without a significant source of income, and I decided to leave the company." Later, he worked at the venture capital fund Greylock.
His first connection to LinkedIn took place at Stanford, when he attended a lecture by the co-founder of the social network, Reid Hoffman. "He talked about his idea of creating an online social community that would help people to advance professionally and personally," Cohen recalls. "I really identified with that." Nine years ago, he had a long conversation with the head of product at LinkedIn, shortly after it went public. He wanted to know how Cohen would remake the social network into a leading product. "At the end of our talk he said, 'Instead of talking about it, how about coming in and building it?' And the rest is history."
In 2012, Cohen began working at LinkedIn as the head of mobile product. "Mobile wasn't yet mainstream, as crazy as that sounds today," Cohen says. "Mobile accounted for less than 10 percent of user traffic on LinkedIn. I came from the startup community, so it was clear to me that it would become the main user experience. One of my jobs was to make the company mobile-first," in other words, focused on the user experience on cellphones rather than laptop or desktop computers.
Cohen climbed his way up the product-management corporate ladder in LinkedIn. He was promoted to vice president, where his duties included responsibility for consumer-facing products such as news feed, notifications and the application. He stayed on at the company after it was acquired by Microsoft in 2016 for $26.2 billion. After that, he was put in charge of the company's digital marketing, which in 2019 delivered $2 billion in revenue.
Like a gym membership
In February, LinkedIn announced the most significant change in management since its purchase. The company said that Jeff Weiner would be stepping down as CEO after 11 years, to be replaced by the chief head of product, Ryan Roslansky. Cohen stepped into Roslansky's job. As VP of product, he is in the top rung of LinkedIn leadership and one of the most senior Israeli executives in Silicon Valley. He is in charge of all of the company's product lines and the manager of all of the teams that are responsible for them, including the heads of product, design, content creation, customer operations and business development.
Did the promotion surprise you? There must have been other strong candidates for the position.
Cohen: "It was joyful and amazing news, and it's a position with great responsibility. It must be said that I served in other important positions in the company. I was responsible for the company's consumer products and after that I was in charge of the business sides."
LinkedIn has 706 million users in 200 countries, including over a million in Israel. These are the total registered members, but the company won't say how many of them are active users of the platform.
It must be said that for a fair number of them, a LinkedIn profile is a little like having a gym membership. You have one, it's good for your reputation, it's good to know that it's there, but you hardly ever actually use it. Maybe you get a notification from the app occasionally, and you sign in to see who checked out your profile but not much more than that.
The main experience of the social network, Cohen explains, is the mobile app or the website. That's where the social-business community operates, the contacts known as Connections. Basic use is free, and there are various premium upgrades involving a monthly payment, LinkIn currently controls the largest database of the global workforce, including extensive business information about job seekers and business officials. Put simply, its business model is based on sales, marketing and human resources organization paying for access to this information. LinkedIn currently has a number of revenue streams. The first, and probably best-known, is Talent Solutions, which allows companies and other employers to publish openings, search for candidates and recruit them. For engineers in high-tech, for example, it's quite common to receive tempting job offers on LinkedIn.
Activity on LinkedIn increased significantly during the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic. Worldwide, the number of user visits, or sessions, increased 27 percent compared to the same quarter last year. In Israel the upturn was even greater, at 40 percent. People also share and create content and posts on LinkedIn, and Cohen attributes this to the coronavirus crisis. "Due to the shift to working from home, we see that the habit of hallway chats with colleagues moved online. So we also see a 60 percent rise year-on-year in the number of people who are sharing and creating content on LinkedIn. Virtual communities are always important, but at this time they take on a critical role."
In many ways, LinkedIn acts as a mirror, reflecting the dramatic change in the global labor market during the coronavirus crisis. "There was an accelerated transition to digital, which brings with it important changes that had been expected to take five or six years and are happening within under one year," he says. In hiring, for example. "In the world in general and in Silicon Valley in particular, most work is done remotely today. We see a 50 percent rise in job offerings that offer a work from home option, and job seekers are increasingly looking for this possibility. It allows companies to reach candidates they didn't have access to previously, because now you can reach candidates living anywhere in the world. The entire recruiting process has changed. It used to be that you'd bring someone to the campus for interviews. Now you can hire someone and it will be a year or two before you see them in the office."
What advice would you give to entrepreneurs and employees at the start of their professional careers?
"To me, the key to personal, leadership and professional growth was a growth mindset, an understanding of thought patterns as something that develops, as opposed to a fixed mindset. It's a way of life for my family at home. It taught me the ability to focus on growth instead of accomplishments and how to learn from challenging moments and turn them into strengths. Another key is to learn from everyone and not to think that you know everything. The moment you think that you know enough, you stop growing. I think that's one of the main reasons that people stop at a certain point in their career."