Lessons Learned in Engineering & Management

Posted November 11th, 2013 in Observations, Pulse by Greg Bayer
                     

This post is also available on LinkedIn’s new Professional Publishing Platform.

In September 2010, I joined Pulse as the 2nd engineer with the goal of building a backend for what was a small but already very successful mobile app. As Pulse grew, regularly doubling in both user base and team size, we were repeatedly presented with new challenges.

Pulse Team

The challenges that arose in this environment were extremely varied. We tackled scalable distributed systems architecture from the beginning, without allowing ourselves time to slow down. Having launched out of the Stanford d.school, Pulse’s culture was built around an unusual approach. Every team member was encouraged to take part in user experience research and product design. Both our engineering and our management techniques were constantly tested as we grew, and we were forced to improvise and iterate regularly.

Having had this amazing opportunity to learn from many mistakes, as well as from a extraordinary set of peers and mentors, it’s interesting to look back at some of the lessons.

Engineering

Don’t over-engineer. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned at Pulse is to keep it simple. The simpler, the better. This doesn’t mean skipping system architecture/design and diving directly into the code. It’s always worth putting some thought into the architecture of whatever system you are building. Sometimes it can take quite a bit of thought to find a simple solution. But it does mean that if it seems too complicated, it probably is.

When building any system, even a backend platform, start with the minimum viable product and then test (with users) to see if you need more. Repeat this process as many time as necessary, but you’ll be surprised how often the simplest solution is actually what you want. Next steps often take a new direction that couldn’t have been anticipated without testing with users. At Pulse, we never built a system that was too simple. But there were definitely a few that were over-engineered.

Focus on building the core product. In the early days at Pulse we outsourced as much as we could out of necessity (infrastructure, ops, secondary features, frameworks). In the long run, we benefited greatly from this approach, especially outsourcing most of our infrastructure to Google App Engine and Amazon Web Services. With very little infrastructure ops work and the almost no related emergencies to worry about, the team was able to stay focused on the product, even as our systems were required to scale much faster than expected.

Pulse 2011

Similarly, using open source frameworks and libraries was essential to staying focused on the value provided to users. Some of our biggest engineering opportunities came from leveraging recent, freely available engineering advancements to make it possible to build something that used to be hard in a simple way.

For more detail on Pulse’s architecture and engineering approach, see Scaling with the Kindle FireScaling to 10M on AWS and the Pulse Engineering Blog.

Product

Create something unique. Pulse was created by Akshay and Ankit as a Stanford class project. It was simple and solved a very personal pain. It was also well-timed with the release of the first iPad. From the beginning, Pulse tried to differentiate itself by making mobile content reading a delightful experience.

Pulse-on-Kindle-Fire

Competing with slow mobile web pages with tons of distracting chrome around the content, Pulse put the content first. It provided a fast, native experience that worked seamlessly even if the device was disconnected from the internet. It also allowed users to access content very efficiently, without the stressful, inbox-like experience common to RSS readers at the time. Each of these features was relatively simple, but together they created a product that stood out in the market.

Set big goals. Since speed is critical in startups (and in most tech companies), it’s important to focus on approaches that have a chance of getting you to your long term goals and skip ones that don’t. As Pulse grew, we set our sights on building a content platform, not just an app. We wanted users to be able to access the Pulse experience on any device and to connect users with the best content available anywhere.

To that end, we built critical features like user accounts, cross-device syncing, and a rich, personalized catalog where user’s could discover thousands of vetted content sources. We built a platform that allowed users to share and discuss content with each other. We worked hard to build a brand that people recognized for quality and that both business partners and users loved being associated with. We also said no to many small features that would have distracted us from our vision and to other potentially promising directions like building a shopping app on top of the Pulse experience.

Team / Project Management

Balance quality / speed / features. From the beginning, Pulse had an extremely high quality bar. At the same time, we prided ourselves on a very short release cycle. Since those two goals are often at odds, testing features early and “failing fast” was critical. Together with minimizing features, we worked hard to maximize both quality and speed by building an amazing team and keeping them happy and efficient.

Pulse Team

Pulse’s approach was to maximize team member ownership and build a positive, open culture, where communication was rarely an issue. Traditions like Show & Tell and I like / I wish / I wonder, along with the right office space design played a critical role in maintaining this culture.

Collaboration / Mentoring

Make sure team members feel ownership. This was a central tenet of our management style at Pulse. We tried to ensure that each team member felt ownership for their tasks, all the way from technical implementation to user experience. The team was encouraged to take ownership in the product direction, system architecture, and the team’s overall success.

We hired new team members who appreciated this approach and regularly communicated ownership by assigning a Directly Responsible Individual (DRI) for every feature. The team was always intimately involved with the product direction through user testing, ideation and prototyping. We encouraged everyone to learn the Stanford d.school’s design thinking process. If someone didn’t feel ownership of the team’s goals, it was very important to find a way to restore this feeling through open communication.

Not everyone is the same. At Pulse we always made time for 1-on-1s and learning more about each other. One of the first painful lessons I learned in my early pre-Pulse years leading engineering teams was to stop assuming everyone was like me. I had to learn to be aware of my own and other people’s social styles. This may sound easy, but there’s a lot to learn. A good social styles class was well worth the investment. Recognizing other social styles is just the beginning. The real challenge is being able to communicate effectively with all types of people and learning how to help others do the same.

Really listen when talking with someone. Beyond awareness of different social styles, it’s important to really listen and to try to see things from the other person’s point of view. If you can’t, ask more questions. Stop thinking about what you’re going to say next. It seems so simple, but it took me a long time to realize that I wasn’t always doing this.

When you clear your mind, listen fully, and ask questions instead of ‘telling’, that’s when people open up. Only after really hearing someone can you know how to help and guide them. Walking or eating during a 1-on-1 can also help people open up and feel more comfortable.

Give more than you take. As a young team, outside relationships with mentors and allies were critical to our success. One of the things I like most about Silicon Valley is the culture of helping others without asking for anything in return. Every time I reached out for help, I found an overwhelmingly positive response.

I still reach out regularly, but I also make time to help others. It’s a virtuous cycle. Help someone and you will start to build a relationship. Care about them and their challenges. Build a team of allies.

Full Pulse Team

As those on the Pulse team know, we’re all still working on these lessons. We continue to make mistakes and hopefully learn from them. As someone who loves learning and growing, I’m thankful for opportunity to be faced with such a steady stream of challenges.

Have you faced similar challenges? Do you have a lesson that could help others in your position? I invite you to share and discuss in the comments below.

 

Share

Scaling Pulse to 11M Users

Posted February 16th, 2012 in Pulse by Greg Bayer
                     

As part of Pulse’s recent announcement of crossing the 11M user mark (up 10x since last year!), we’ve written a set of blog posts to share how we’ve scaled our backend infrastructure to keep up with our new users and support some powerful new features. Here’s a quick recap of our systems on both Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Google App Engine (GAE), along with links to the detailed posts describing each.

Continue Reading »

Share

Scaling with the Kindle Fire

Posted December 1st, 2011 in Pulse by Greg Bayer
                     

Earlier this week I wrote a guest post for the Google App Engine Blog on how Pulse has scaled-up our backend infrastructure to prepare for the recent Kindle Fire launch.

The Kindle Fire includes Pulse as one of the only preloaded apps and is projected to sell over five million units this quarter alone. This meant we had to prepare for nearly doubling our user-base in a very short period. We also needed to be ready for spikes in load due to press events and the holiday season.

Continue Reading »

Share

Pulse Wins Apple Design Award and Raises $9 Million Series A

Posted June 16th, 2011 in Pulse by Greg Bayer
                     

I’m very excited to share that Pulse has announced it’s series A funding round! All of us are still fired up about last week’s Apple Design Award at WWDC and our recent 4 million user milestone, not to mention that today is our co-founder Ankit’s birthday. Thanks to the team for their tireless work and to everyone who has helped us get here!

Check out some of today’s press:

Pulse Blog – Announcing Our Series A Financing
TechCrunch – 4 Million Users Strong And Apple Design Award In Hand, Pulse Grabs $9 Million Series A
WSJ – Pulse Taps $9M To Win Battle For Mobile-News Consumers
Forbes – News Reader Pulse Raises $9 Million
Mashable – Pulse Passes 4 Million Users, Raises $9 Million for Visual News Reader

Share

New Eng Blog / Using Data Analysis to Discover Top Stories

Posted May 26th, 2011 in Big Data, Development, Pulse by Greg Bayer
                     

In addition to the regular Pulse Blog where we regularly share updates about our latest features and new content, Pulse now has an Engineering Blog!  The goal is to share some of the exciting engineering work that goes into bringing users the Pulse experience they’ve come to expect. To kick things off I added a post about Using Data Analysis to Discover Top Stories.  In the post I share a bit about how we use AWS to collect and analyse our data, along with how we serve up the feeds we build via AppEngine.  Check it out!

Share

Pulse News is Hiring!

Posted December 10th, 2010 in Pulse by Greg Bayer
                     

A few months ago I mentioned that I left the government/research world (Sandia Labs) and joined an exciting new startup.   I’d like to share a bit more about my experience so far and announce that we are hiring!

Those who have worked at a large company and then moved to startup can probably relate to my experience.  First, without a doubt, the most motivating and fun part about working at Pulse is seeing the impact of my work. And I don’t mean just having someone say “Good Job” or receiving a strong performance review, I mean seeing thousands of people USE the results of your work and submit feedback about how it benefitted their lives.  At Pulse, this experience is magnified by the fact that we release new product features every two weeks, and not ever quarter, or every year!

Continue Reading »

Share

Recently Joined Pulse!

Posted October 10th, 2010 in Pulse by Greg Bayer
                     

Pulse by Alphonso LabsAfter a year and half of big data research for the government and quite a bit of fun with Hadoop, I’ve decided to join some good friends at an early-stage startup called Alphonso Labs.

Pulse is currently the #1 news reader on the iPad, iPhone, Andriod app stores.  I’ll be leading the development of our backend data platform and working with a great team.

As we start to build out Pulse’s backend, I’ll be continuing to experiment with Google App engine.  Stay tuned for more posts in that regard.

Pulse on the iPad

Continue Reading »

Share