Facebook’s engineering director on 8 ways to think like an entrepreneur

Tom Occhino.

by Grace Gerass

Published October 15, 2019

After graduating from the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences with a degree in computer engineering and spending a few years freelancing in Western New York, Tom Occhino, BS '07, was recruited to Silicon Valley to work as a software engineer at Facebook.

Flash forward 10 years, and today, Tom is one of Facebook's engineering directors. When he's not rewriting the platform's website or getting face time with Mark Zuckerberg, he's engaging in thoughtful conversations with some of the smartest people in the world. 

If Tom has learned one thing from working at one of the world's most successful startups, it's to think like an entrepreneur, no matter your job or where you work.   

We sat down with Tom to hear the eight things he recommends for thinking like an entrepreneur.

1. Figure out what problem you want to solve.

"I'm excited that we're reinvesting in Buffalo because we're now able to attract people from all over the world who are bringing their cultures, passions and ideas. It's also great to see places like UB investing in entrepreneurial centers and resources."
Tom Occhino (BS '07 computer engineering), software engineer

In Tom's opinion, there's no set list of characteristics that all entrepreneurs share. Sure, many of these individuals have commonalities—such as ambition and confidence, but that's where the trait similarities end. Successful entrepreneurs do have one thing in common, though: they've identified a problem that they're passionate about solving. 

"As kids, adults are always asking us what we want to be when we grow up—which is absolutely wrong because it limits us to the 15 or so careers you've been exposed to up until that point," Tom says. "A far better question we should ask our children is what problems we want to solve. That's where you'll find your passion, and in return, solve problems." 

Too often, people get caught up in the logistics of a business. To avoid this pitfall, he recommends finding a problem first, and then the company will follow. 

"There's no such thing as a solution in life. There's just trading one set of problems from another set of problems," he explains. "It's all about identifying the next set of problems you want to go after."

2. Get comfortable being uncomfortable.

"One of the best pieces of advice I ever received was that growth feels like pain while it's happening," he says. "That still resonates with me." 

Tom emphasized that you have to be comfortable with a little bit of uncertainty. You're not always going to have all the answers, but that's okay—in fact, that's how you grow. 

"It's not always easy to step outside of your comfort zone, but the first step is to recognize that discomfort and realize you need to acquire a new skill instead of reactively trying to make your way through and hitting it head-on. Never let yourself get too comfortable." 

3. Learn how to communicate.

"The ability to have a good conversation and communicate your ideas is huge," Tom emphasizes. "In order to make it, you have to be able to ask the right questions and share opinions in a thoughtful way. 

Not a natural communicator? Tom's advice is to practice. Next time you're talking to a stranger, try to keep eye contact, maintain appropriate body language and see if you can uphold a conversation. 

"Learning how to communicate doesn't have to be complicated. Take time to practice communicating with strangers at your go-to places such as restaurants, at work or virtually anywhere you go." 

And it's not enough to be able to communicate—you have to be able to put the negativity aside and avoid arrogance. 

"It's all about staying humble and giving credit where credit is due. You learn things because of someone who came before you."

Tom Occhino (BS 2007) presenting at a conference.

4. Align yourself with the right people.

Not the best communicator? Know your technical skills could use a little work? Those things shouldn't keep you from pursing your passion. The trick is to surround yourself with people who can do what you can't do. 

"At Facebook, I was on a team with a coworker who was very skilled on the technical side but who couldn't communicate," he says. "I, on the other hand, wasn't as skilled in technology but was better on the communication side. We worked well, though, because the whole is more than the sum of its parts.” 

If you're not sure how to meet new people, Tom suggests checking out groups with a narrow focus that provide some common thread (meetup.com is a great tool). You can then use that network to get even more introductions.  

"It's about knowing the right people and having access to new opportunities," he says. "Don't build superficial connections just to have them. It's better to build intentional, meaningful networks."

5. Think beyond your job description.

"Your job description is only relevant up until you start your job," he jokes. "I probably only did what my job description said for the first few months at Facebook." 

Through that explorative way of thinking, Tom was able to transition his role from a software engineer to engineering management. He admitted that while there were many people at Facebook who were stronger in terms of the tech skills, he excelled at big-picture thinking and team support. 

"Don't get stuck in the notion that there's only one path for you," he says. "The only way you'll learn a new role is if you accept that you don't have all the answers, but you're willing to learn. Companies want to invest in good workers because it makes a lot more sense to pay to train a great employee than it is to take a chance on an outsider."

6. Don’t be afraid to reinvent the wheel.

"I was surprised at how much was left to solve—and how open-ended the culture was when it came to exploring those solutions," Tom says. 

For those of us who don't work at equally trailblazing companies, Tom suggests having a conversation with your manager and asking if the company invites new ideas.  

"You don't have to be a member of the leadership team to suggest new ideas and ways of doing things," he says. "That's a pretty standard way of thinking nowadays. And if you're at a company that discourages that type of thinking—you probably want to find another place to work."

7. Read more.

What do all of the smartest people in the world have in common? They're always reading. 

"Read more," he says. "Seriously, I didn't really start reading until I was almost 30. I didn’t like reading early on because I didn't know that I needed glasses, and I always got headaches or fell asleep, but I later discovered audio books. Those enabled me to stay focused while doing mundane tasks like driving or house chores." 

And it doesn't have to be professional self-help books or historical nonfiction, he urges. While those are certainly valuable, something as simple as a science fiction novel can have the power to change your perspective on a problem. Plus, you'll always be ready to tell someone what you're reading if they ask you.

8. Believe in Buffalo.

"As a kid growing up in Orchard Park, I realized people either stayed in Buffalo or left—but there wasn't an influx of people coming to the city. That was a problem because you can't solve world problems if you're solely looking through the lenses of Western New Yorkers." 

Tom is optimistic about Buffalo's future and the impact it will have on our startup economy. 

"I'm excited that we're reinvesting in Buffalo because we're now able to attract people from all over the world who are bringing their cultures, passions and ideas. It's also great to see places like UB investing in entrepreneurial centers and resources. That's where change happens."

Beyond the entrepreneur.

Tom, who got married last year, wants to spend more time traveling and embracing his outside ambitions. He also wants to keep having important conversations with the right people. And find time to travel back to visit his alma mater, of course.