As ONTRAPORT celebrates turning ten, it gives us opportunity to reflect on how far we’ve come and lessons we’ve learned along the way. I sat down for Q&A with Pin Chen, CTO for ONTRAPORT, to find out just that and more.
How did it all start? What’s different now?
Pin: A lot has changed in 10 years. When we first started, Landon [Ray] and I were working on a completely separate project — not ONTRAPORT software as we know it today. The first version was actually something we built to service our own small business needs. At some point Landon realized what we had built was a great opportunity and, along with Steven Schneider, our principal architect, we set out to make it a marketable software solution. When we started, it was just the three of us sitting out in the yurt trying to make the first public version of the product.
The concerns way back then do not even resemble the concerns we have now. It started as three people in a tent and is now a team of 25+ engineers focusing on all sorts of varying projects.
Back then we were, “Let’s get this into the market. Let’s make something people might like and use.” Now, since we have a product, our priorities have completely pivoted.
Security, stability and usability are now our top concerns. Through the years we have so much more information provided by our Sales and Customer Support teams on what’s working and not working for our clients so those concerns can be dealt with quickly. Now we find ourselves dealing with these three things instead.
When you first started, what equipment did you use?
Pin: We didn’t even have laptops. We had to lug around some old Dell computer. I remember that we would have a meeting, without computers or a projector, then go back to where our computers were and start coding and trying to remember what we just talked about. We didn’t have a testing area so when we had new changes we would push that directly to the clients.
Contrast it with now. All engineers get their own laptop, and we have many layers of extraction between the programer and our servers/code which results in a much stabler system.
What happened when we had our first customer?
Pin: Landon handled all the sales, and Steven and I took care of the coding. So whenever a sale happened, and in the beginning it wasn’t the most frequent thing, Landon would say, “Hey we got a sale, BUT we need to add this feature or make this change to make it happen,” and we’d respond, “Yay, let’s get back to work to make it happen.” So, with the first few customers and features everything was a step forward. Each new client presented their own unique challenges, and as we continued to improve the product the whole experience became more and more real.
It was very exciting, those first few customers. With each new one we had the feeling of forward traction along with a renewed challenge of, “How do we get the next one?” There was some point, I want to say two or three years in, where something big clicked. We came out with Sendpepper, and we were able to land a few really big contracts. It was an exciting day when we got 100 or 150 sales all in one afternoon. Definitely a day of celebration.
Tell me about how you learned through trial and error.
Pin: That approach really speaks volumes to the Engineering team over the years. Steven and I jumped into this project directly after college. We didn’t have experience building and developing software for the web much less as a service….or with scaling it out to thousands of clients. Everything for this project was learn-as-you-go.
Also when we first started, there weren’t quite the resources out there on the web. Nowadays there are so many solutions floating around for the challenges we once faced. You have your pick of solutions. Back then, it was a lot of banging your head against the wall until something worked.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. With each client and challenge we faced, we became more and more battle-hardened to be able to quickly and effectively solve problems.
How has the profession of being an engineer changed in 10 years?
Pin: I can’t speak for the industry, but now at ONTRAPORT we have fewer generalists on our Engineering team. Most engineers on our team are no longer the jack (or jill) of all trades. Back in the day Steven and I were considered full stack developers. We did everything….from changing the design, to sending out email, to making the application faster or tuning the servers. Now we actually have built teams for specific verticals: Steven and I now work exclusively on the back-end, which primarily deals with scaling and business logic; Jesse and Lorenzo, a couple of our senior front-end engineers, work on UI and what people see and interact with. We have systems admins who make sure our servers are fine in the dead of the night, and we even have a dedicated QA team making sure our new changes don’t break old stuff.
If you were to look at the Engineering team today versus even last year, two or three years ago, it has dramatically changed in the way we do our processes, the way we handle code and QA code. We feel that’s a good thing. Every quarter we make 5-10 changes to our processes from the things we’ve learned over the course of that quarter.
What else has changed in the past 10 years?
Pin: There are many things. I mentioned how the makeup of the Engineering team is so fundamentally different today than it was even a year ago. Along with that, the tools we use to write good code, the way we assess new hiring candidates, or troubleshoot bugs….all this has evolved.
In terms of fundamental shifts, with technology everything changes so fast, and you have to continually adapt to make sure the solutions you’ve created previously continue to service the market in the way you want it to and also the way that the consumers want to use it.
Every year you’re presented with new hurdles and challenges, but and the tough part is really understanding the flaw and trying to solve it, not just for now but enough to be viable for a few years.
Fast forward to 2016. What is the most important thing you are now working on for customers?
Pin: Now that we have most of the feature sets small businesses need, the most important things my team is working on is usability, stability, and security.
Usability is an obvious one. We have some of the most powerful tools for small businesses, but if you need outside help to figure out how to use the thing, then we’re missing the ball. This year we have exciting changes to address this.
Stability is next. I’d say we’re in line with the industry in terms of app up-time, but this isn’t enough. Our mantra is, “We can never go down,” because if we do, our clients suffer because of it.
Finally security. It’s not often talked about but is as important as the other two. Clients need to know that their data is protected, secure, and backed up.
In ten years, what lessons have you learned?
Pin: Lesson 1: Writing software takes longer than you think, especially in engineering where you have new team members and a growing crew. Things always seem so easy from the mile high view. You finish the first 99% easily but spend a bazillion hours on that last 1%. So spend the time trying to think through the details.
Lesson 2: Project management is something that should not be discounted. As your team gets bigger, having someone run the processes you have in place makes a more effective team. Having the engineers manage their time does work, but it’s not the best utilization of their talents.
Lesson 3: Flexibility is very important for a team. I would say one of the strong points in our history is the ability to be able to switch between different needs…to have the freedom to expand a new feature or get input on the product design, to do what it takes to crank out an amazing feature and product. That is part of our DNA.
Pin: Technology is evolving so fast that most of the things you dreamt about doing five years ago can be done. I feel like the next big shift is making things easier to use.
Usability is going to be the key to everything. Customers are less willing to put up with hard-to-use software and are looking for the easiest way to accomplish their goals.
They want to be on the go with their phone, on their tablet. They want to solve tasks and have automation triggers — all built out and easily understood.
Along with that, our user base is getting way more sophisticated. Back then, you needed a consultant to hand-hold and teach you all the things, but now… even my younger cousins can almost build a online business in no time at all.
They understand the tools, the mechanisms, how it all works. So I think the industry will have to change to accommodate that.
Pin: 10 years… it really doesn’t seem like 10 years when you have an inspirational project like this. Over this time, I haven’t had a moment to sit down and reflect on all the changes and progress we’ve made.
So during this interview I’m thinking, “Wow, that was pretty amazing to go from three people to what we have now! How cool was it to put in this system or change this team or even hire this critical person at this time?”
I’m pretty proud of the overall body of work, and I’m excited with the people here and how we share ideas and challenge each other to do quality work.