As Vice President of Product Development for Extra Space Storage, James Hafen leads a newly-created department, which was built to help the self storage company execute on digital transformation and curate innovation the same way a software or tech company would. Though Hafen only recently joined the Extra Space Storage team last summer, he’s been working with the company on software projects for over two decades.
Read about Hafen’s work with Extra Space Storage and learn more about his career, the challenges he’s encountered, and the lessons he’s picked up along the way in the Q&A below.
Q: How did your career path lead you to Extra Space Storage?
A: I started my career as a software developer working for a company that Spencer Kirk founded in the early ’90s. I took some time following to work for a couple of high tech companies doing large scale ERP implementations until I had the chance to come back to work for Spencer at Extra Space Storage in 1999 when the company owned under 50 properties but had big plans for growth. Technologies we built at Extra Space Storage back then turned into a commercial software venture in the self storage space, but my ties to Extra Space Storage did not lessen, as we worked with Extra Space Storage as a client until 2013. After selling the company (Centershift) to Yardi and spending a few years working for Yardi after the sale, I was thrilled to have a chance to come back here in my current role.
Q: What is the best advice you’ve received in your career?
A: Never stop learning and adapting. To have a career in a technical field means you better be flexible, pliable, and willing to pivot. I have had a few humbling moments in my career when I thought I was right, but could not have been more wrong, and being able to learn from mistakes is maybe the most valuable piece of advice for all of us.
Q: Which experience(s) in your career influenced who you are today?
A: There are so many, but one extended experience happened after moving back from Minnesota to work for a company here in Salt Lake. This company was a pioneer in the world of computer graphics with some of the founders and employees going on to found Pixar, Silicon Graphics, and Adobe. I had wanted to work for them for years. Even when younger growing up, I was enamored and wanted to walk those hallowed halls and learn from them. But what I found was a company that operated as if they could remain in flight on past achievements, a group of very smart people that behaved like tenured college professors. The company was stale, dead or dying, out of ideas, full of egos and hubris, and a complete lack of innovation or energy. It was sorely disappointing and highlighted that fact that it’s hard to survive at the top in the world of tech and that you can never rest, never stop innovating and transforming.
Q: What has been the most challenging aspect of your career?
A: Realizing that, despite my arrogance and ambition, especially early in my career, there were going to be failures and obstacles. I reacted poorly to being told “No” or to having something we created not find commercial success. Learning from those failures, learning to trust others and to delegate, learning to listen to customers—really listen and not assume you know the answers—those are all challenges that I’m still working to overcome.
Q: What has been the most fulfilling aspect of your career?
A: Many of the things we built along the way have certainly had measurable impact that I’m proud of, but it really has been the relationships that mean the most. Some remarkable people have offered me a huge amount of trust, and in the self storage world, I’ve met a lot of great people that I have learned from—many that I call friends and have known for over two decades now.
Q: Describe your most successful endeavor with Extra Space Storage.
A: I’m very proud of what we accomplished back in 1999-2000. It was not bleeding-edge technology, but it was a monumental step forward for the industry and helped the company grow. We learned a lot along the way and made a lot of mistakes, but I hope and believe it netted a big positive when all was said and done. However, the big successes, I believe and hope, are in the years to come. We really are just getting started.
Q: What advice would you give to future Extra Space Storage leaders?
A: Be a decent person that cares and value the relationships, the people in your team, in the company. Be confident but humble and always willing to listen and learn. We are all here to service the customer and to be complementary parts of a much bigger machine. Karl Haws (former COO) gave me a painful but needed lesson years ago when I was still with Centershift and in a meeting with the executives at Extra Space Storage. I’ll spare you the details, but in essence he reminded me that the only way I could be successful, that our company could be successful, was if our clients were successful.
This article is part of an ongoing series of interviews with Extra Space Storage (NYSE: EXR) team members. James Hafen is the Vice President of Product Development at Extra Space Storage.