Tom Coull, CEO of Penguin Computing, takes time to empower employees

Tom Coull uses a team-building approach. (Penguin Computing)

Tom Coull, CEO of Penguin Computing, believes that the more complex the company, the better top leadership should be at making employees feel in-the-know and valued.

In his four years as CEO of Penguin Computing, Coull has put together several precepts that he feels not only engage workers, but empower them.

He did this because “They were top of mind in thinking back on what’s been successful and what’s made us grow,” Coull told FierceCEO.

The following encapsulate his approach to running a business:

  • Model trustworthiness – Encourage and model transparency. Socialize change and do not allow fault finding and blame. 
  • Encourage responsiveness – Promote a mindset of “fail fast and learn from it.” Reacting quickly is critical to fast-growth.
  • Expect authenticity/open-mindedness – Create an environment where people feel free to voice opinions and participate in decision making. Support open-mindedness about the chosen path, as it was developed with thoughtfulness and wide-ranging input. 
  • Help build competence – Clearly define roles and trust that people are competent to perform well. As the needs of a fast-growing company change, competencies may need to evolve too. Foster growth and support a willingness to gently change behavior if it’s hampering success.
  • Keep the Quirkiness – Despite rapid change, retain originality and highlight uniqueness because it attracts employees who feel no need to conform. That sort of out-of-the-box thinking encourages the innovation of the industry to be mirrored in employees.

Penguin Computing designs end-to-end "solutions for the scientific, analytical and engineering challenges that customers face, including emerging AI and big data challenges,” Coull said.

The company also help customers anticipate and solve new challenges presented by evolving markets and emerging technology, Coull said.

In addition to offering proprietary products, Penguin Computing helps build solutions with partners like NVIDIA and Red Hat, Coull said. The company also offers support capabilities from a team of engineers and Ph.D.s, and managed services, such as storage-as-a-service and sysadmin-as-a-service.

It’s a diverse roster of products and services for Coull, who joined the company in December 2008 as senior VP and worked his way up. He has 22 years of CEO and GM experience in startup through midstage technology companies.

At Penguin Computing, Coull has been responsible for engineering, product development, services, support and the growth of the company’s HPC Cloud business.

In positions at other companies he has participated in the sale of two computing enterprises to leading public companies in the CAD and 3D graphics markets. The companies were Sense 8, which was sold to Engineering Animation; and Modviz, which was sold to NVIDIA. Prices were not disclosed.

Penguin Computing was founded in 1999, with a handful of workers. It now has 180 employees and over 2,500 customers in 40 countries.

Fast Five with Tom Coull

When did you know you wanted to be a CEO?

In 1990, when I was a VP at Bechtel. I wanted to be in control of my own destiny.

What is your favorite question to ask in a job interview?

What are your questions about our company?

What's the single most important trait for a leader?


What keeps you up at night?


What's the key to finding new opportunities for revenue?

Putting feet on the street.