Alumni Q&A: From Xbox to Pandora, John Donaldson '95 Thrives in an Outside-the-Box Legal Career

In California, Donaldson has worked for Microsoft, Xbox and now Pandora, the free streaming-music service.

June 9, 2016

University of Virginia School of Law alumnus John Donaldson '95 began his career like many graduates — at a big law firm. But he later progressed through a series of high-profile in-house counsel and business roles at Time Warner, Microsoft and now free streaming-music service Pandora, where he is vice president of corporate development and strategy.

Donaldson, who lives in the San Francisco Bay area, recently discussed his current job and explained why soft skills are still the most important abilities he developed at UVA Law.

What does your role with Pandora entail?

I joined Pandora two years ago to build a new strategy and corporate development team from scratch. My team is comprised of former bankers, consultants and lawyers, and we concentrate on evaluating new growth opportunities for the company. Our charter is effectively to figure out what Pandora's 2.0 and 3.0 versions look like and our primary efforts involve M&A, strategic partnerships, international expansion, and new product strategy.  Acquisitions have been a key focus for us recently — the company had not done any acquisitions until last year and we've closed and integrated four companies in the last nine months.

What is a typical day like for you?

One of the great things about my role at Pandora is that no two days are ever the same. On any given day, I could be negotiating transaction documents, reviewing international expansion plans, or helping frame up a new product initiative. I love the variety and the mix between the transactional and strategic.

Pandora is really at the intersection of the media and technology worlds, so we get to engage with a fascinating blend of businesses and people — from old school record executives to D.C. politicians to emerging pop stars, even the occasional Silicon Valley unicorn. Last week, I had one meeting in the morning with former U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor and another in the afternoon with rapper Lil Jon — this tends to be the norm rather than the exception!

What was your career path?

I've certainly had a less linear career path relative to many of my law school classmates. After UVA, I practiced with Alston & Bird in Atlanta for three years and then went in-house and moved to the business side within Time Warner. After living through the AOL Time Warner merger, I left and did a startup in Atlanta that we sold in 2005. 

Microsoft came calling not long after, and I had couple of fantastic roles there, first with their consumer health business and later running the corporate development and strategy team for Xbox.  

My kids took my leaving Xbox the hardest — I may be the only dad at Pandora whose kids think he left a "cooler" job to come to work for a digital music company.

What do you like to do outside of work?

My wife, Caroline, and I have four kids (ages 6 to 16) so their activities consume most of our waking time and attention. When not driving carpool or coaching sports teams, we love to travel, ski, sail and see live music. Not surprisingly, we also spend a lot of time listening to Pandora — current favorite stations are Jason Isbell, Wyclef Jean and "The War on Drugs."

In what ways did your UVA Law experience help prepare you for your career?

The Law School delivers on developing both hard and soft skills, but I think it's the soft skills that have stuck with me the longest. For law and most professions, you learn the hard skills on the job over a period of many years. The soft skills — how to collaborate with colleagues, how to communicate ideas effectively, and how to lead and inspire others — are the tools that allow you to be productive at each stage of your career. These are the skills that the Law School is unparalleled at fostering and that I've used in every role — legal and business — since graduating.

Any other words of wisdom for UVA Law students interested in similar career experiences?

First, and this is hard given the nature of legal education and private practice: Get comfortable being uncomfortable. Law firms can be comfortable places and young lawyers get very skilled at identifying and mitigating business risks. It's easy to fall into the trap of focusing on all the reasons that an opportunity — whether it's a career move, a business partnership or a new product feature — shouldn't be pursued.  You have to consciously reject this mindset — use the analytical talents you've developed for taking smarter risks vs. taking no risks.   

Second, continue to invest in the friendships and relationships you've built up at the Law School.  It's a phenomenal collection of alumni and there are law grads doing cool things in media and technology companies around the world. I've been fortunate to have fellow UVA alums open doors for me at critical points during my career. As AC/DC deftly put it, "It's a long way to the top if you wanna rock 'n' roll," so lean on the UVA Law network to help you get there. 

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