What I learned from the Etsy CTO-turned-CEO

I’ll be the first to tell you that my background isn’t at all in engineering or software development. I’ve spent much of the last eight years in business advisory, communications consulting and operations roles. Still, one of the best things about working at Bazaarvoice has been working with and learning from highly-talented technology leaders. Mike Svatek, our chief product officer, Scott Bonneau, our VP of Engineering, and Jon Loyens, who leads BV Labs, are just a few of the people I’ve had the opportunity to work with in my first four months here.

But it’s not just the management team here at Bazaarvoice that has taught me plenty about the R&D functions of a tech company; last month I attended an event in New York (hosted by First Round Capital) where the CTO-turned-CEO of Etsy, Chad Dickerson, spoke about building a world-class dev organization. Going from CTO to CEO is not a traditional route even in today’s technology startup environment, but Chad stands out for making the transition amidst Etsy’s rapid growth. Under his watch, the company’s dev team grew from 20 to 80 engineers in around a year’s time and has seen page views go from 200 million to one billion per month. Talk about hyper-growth!

And what exactly did I learn from Chad’s talk? Well, for starters, he’s a big-time fan of Peter Drucker, one of the top business minds of the last century, who is credited with having shaped much of today’s common management theory and executive MBA programs. On several occasions, Chad quoted Drucker, including one of his most famous lines: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

The culture Chad spoke of began with continuous deployment. He was very much in opposition of traditional “releases”, QA, lengthy and multi-layered “sign off” processes and having a single individual tasked with being the official release engineer. He cited each as reasons for delays in innovation and improvements to features that customers want more and more as the company grows, stating, “as you get bigger, the demands for new features goes up.” He shared that one of the job duties for every new engineer is to release code on their very first day on the job and agrees with Clay Shirky that, “process is an embedded reaction to prior stupidity.”

However, whether or not Etsy’s development policies and practices are directly related to the systems we have in place at Bazaarvoice wasn’t as important to me as the way Chad spoke about promoting an engineer-friendly, technology-driven culture. After all, our business models are very different. The culture piece, though, was of particular interest because here at Bazaarvoice we very much embrace many of the same concepts Chad spoke of when referring to Etsy.

At one point, Chad was asked a question about recruiting and he said, flat out, “Do what it takes to hire super stars.” Well, funny he should say that because every week it seems, we’re bringing on first-rate talent for our dev team, from proven technology business leaders to kick-ass coders. The culture here, the culture that enables us to be the perennial “Best Place to Work in Austin”, starts with people and top-notch talent. It also involves optimizing for developer happiness, something Chad mentioned, by finding ways to give our people the satisfaction of finishing a job. Drucker is the originator of that last statement, too.

As a self-described risk-taker, I loved what Chad had to say about this quality, again quoting Drucker:

“People who don’t take risks generally make about two big mistakes a year. People who do take risks generally make about two big mistakes a year.”

Chad said, “It’s better to be aggressive and make mistakes than be tentative and make mistakes.” Blameless post mortems, Chad said, was the key to creating an environment where small production changes are made daily will certainly lead to minor mistakes, but that small corrections typically address these issues. The tendency to pull back and slow things down was not their M.O., but rather to “roll forward” to progress. I’m a big fan of that mindset.

One of the last things Chad spoke about was doing things to make engineers heroes within the business, which is something customarily reserved for sales guys who bring in the revenue. He said that one of his 2011 goals as CEO is to have every engineer to blog for Etsy, significantly contribute to an open source project or speak at a conference to continue the company’s generosity-filled culture.

After having the privilege of hearing from Chad for two hours, I became doubly enamored with the technology leaders and the team they’re managing here at Bazaarvoice because many of these principles, even if not pulled directly from a Peter Drucker book, are applied in our business.

  • Faith in humanity
  • Sleepless nights
  • Informed risk taking
  • Incremental change

These were the four keys to dev team success listed by Chad. I haven’t had many sleepless nights since joining Bazaarvoice four months ago, and I’m comfortable saying the main reason is because the other three keys are top of mind every day.