Today on Change Wave:
Mikey Butler is the Senior Vice President of Engineering at New Relic. He’s responsible for Product Engineering, Platform Engineering, and Site Engineering Operations. He brings more than 30 years of experience in the software industry. The first half focused on system coding at Digital Equipment, Bank of America, Data General, Rolm and Sun. The latter half on engineering management for Cisco Systems, Sybase, BEA Systems, Intuit and, most recently, Seagate. And named one of the 50 Most Important African Americans in Technology at the 2009 Soul of Technology Innovation and Equity Symposium.
Mikey on LinkedIn
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Transcript, edited for clarity:
Ryan Carson: Welcome to Change Wave, an exclusive look at the real, first-hand stories of how cutting edge leaders rose to the top, smashed through barriers and created real change. I’m your host Ryan Carson, the founder of Treehouse, the company that’s taught 850,000 people to code. We also help companies like Adobe, Nike, MailChimp, Airbnb and more hit their hiring plans and create diverse teams. If you’d like to know more, head to teamtreehouse.com/go/talent.
Today I’m joined by Mikey Butler from New Relic — thanks so much for joining us.
Mikey Butler: It’s my pleasure, thank you.
Ryan Carson: It’s great to have you. We’re doing an in-person episode today, so it’s really exciting, so we’re probably going to go a little bit long which is great, so thanks for coming in. So before we get started let’s just learn a little bit more about you for everyone listening, what is your job title?
Mikey Butler: I’m Senior Vice President of Engineering at New Relic.
Ryan Carson: Perfect.
Mikey Butler: I focus on what we call digital operations. So our business in engineering is divided into two realms, one is creation of content, and then one is actually putting it on the website and serving up to our customers, and I’m largely focused on the latter.
Ryan Carson: Got it, great. And what does New Relic do for folks that don’t know?
Mikey Butler: Oh, that’s easily stated, our software tells you whether your software is any good. It’s kind of that simple.
How to scale up to a new hire every other day
Ryan Carson: Wow, that’s perfect, awesome. Yeah, we use New Relic at Treehouse, and I was saying to Jim I remember the early days when I directly managed a lot more of engineering and I would get the reports and it was always very helpful. So how many people roughly are in the engineering org at New Relic?
Mikey Butler: We’re 300 plus, growing to 400 plus this year.
Ryan Carson: Wow.
Mikey Butler: Yeah, so we’re adding about 100 people-
Ryan Carson: That’s crazy.
Mikey Butler: … over the period of the fiscal year which actually will start April 1st.
Ryan Carson: Okay, got it, that’s a lot of hiring going on.
Mikey Butler: Yeah, when you think about it we’re putting someone … If there’s 200 business days in the year we’re adding 100 people, so every other day someone’s showing up in engineering.
Ryan Carson: That sounds stressful, stressful but fun.
Mikey Butler: Yeah, if you’re a manager it means that you’re going to grow by leaps and bounds and have to deal with that, yeah.
Ryan Carson: Totally. So what is your primary responsibility, you talked a little about it but why don’t we dig in.
Mikey Butler: Yeah, so sure, digital operations is a bit of a grab bag. So one of them is traditional DevOps and site engineering. So when you look at the statistics around New Relic site, given our architecture, which basically has a lot of agents worldwide phoning back a lot of data, we do rough guesses and we think our site is somewhere between the fifth and sixth busiest website in the world.
Ryan Carson: Really?
Mikey Butler: Something on the order of approaching 50 billion incoming HTTP requests in a day.
Ryan Carson: Wow, okay so there’s a little bit of operations doing that.
Mikey Butler: Right, there’s scale, there’s performance, there’s failover, there’s all these different things that come with 24 by seven, at that scale, and that for me is probably the biggest part of my responsibility and among the most exciting. Other parts of the remit include, I have a research team that’s looking at what we can do nine to 12 months out as interesting new things to bring to the table. I have a back-end team that’s working on business systems, and that’s a new part of my remit. Traditionally that was a separate organization, we’ve blended that old organization in engineering in order to get more velocity with respect to business systems-
Ryan Carson: And business systems being what you use internally too?
Mikey Butler: Yes, billing, quoting, invoicing. The kind of back-office operations that are quite familiar.
Ryan Carson: That often get overlooked and get left behind.
Mikey Butler: Well, they tend to be the province of third-party, old-school approaches, so they’ll hire a PwC, et cetera to do the work for you, and often that leads to solutions that are one or two generations behind, which you could do if you did it with modern technologies and a modern engineering approach.
Ryan Carson: Right, got it. So you said you’re hiring at least 100 developers in the next 12 months, where can people go to apply?
Mikey Butler: Well newrelic.com is the place to start.
Ryan Carson: Cool.
Mikey Butler: We’re very good about putting what we are looking for on that website. We understand that when you’re growing at the rate that we are that the outbound clear message that we are hiring and where and why, needs to be pretty crisp and so I would start there.
Commuting from San Francisco to Portland
Ryan Carson: Got it, and which locations are people able to work in?
Mikey Butler: Our engineering location is primarily Portland —it’s not exclusively so, but primarily, a good 80% of our staff would be there. There’s a smaller team, much smaller, in San Francisco. There’s I think our second largest location now is in Barcelona, Spain.
Ryan Carson: Oh interesting.
Mikey Butler: So if you have any of your-
Ryan Carson: Wow, Barcelona is a beautiful city.
Mikey Butler: Yeah, I know, it’s among my favorite. It’s one of the few places where when people come from Barcelona to San Francisco they feel like they’re slumming.
Ryan Carson: Right, wow.
Mikey Butler: Yeah, it’s pretty nice.
Ryan Carson: That’ll tell you something. So I thought your kind of commuting was interesting because when we arranged this interview your team said, “Hey, Mikey can do it in person.” I’m like, “Wait, what, I thought he was in San Francisco.”
Mikey Butler: Yeah.
Ryan Carson: So tell the audience how that works for you.
Mikey Butler: Part of it is because of how we’ve set up organizationally. Our headquarters is in San Francisco and I live in the Bay Area and I was hired into that location. But again, the engineering center of mass is here and so I made the choice, it’s not required of me but I made the choice to actually commute. I literally split half week — so half of the week, two and a half days is in San Francisco and then two and a half days is in Portland, and I do that throughout the year on a quarterly basis, once a quarter I’ll spend two weeks in Portland to set up for the next quarter.
Ryan Carson: Got it, so that either sounds glamorous or terrible, which one is it?
Mikey Butler: For me, it’s glamorous.
Ryan Carson: Okay, nice.
Mikey Butler: And a lot of it has to do with the Portland commute, in San Francisco it probably takes me an hour to get from my door to the office door using mass transit, and it takes me two hours to get from my door to the door in Portland. So it’s a little more time but not that much more effort.
Ryan Carson: And you can sit on the plane and do some email as well.
Mikey Butler: Exactly, it’s productive work time so I don’t notice the down time.
Why you don’t want “the special”
Ryan Carson: That’s interesting, okay so let’s dig in. The first question I had for you was what was your most interesting early job before the tech industry?
Mikey Butler: It’s interesting because it was so disgusting, so let me start with that as the intro. So my first job was to sweep the floor at a Jack in the Box.
Ryan Carson: Wow.
Mikey Butler: Which doesn’t sound like a traumatic experience but here you go, so it was a Jack in the Box, it was a drive-through. I’ve learned a lesson: You don’t piss off the drive-through Jack in the Box guy, you just don’t do it, because what happens is there was a customer that was basically giving the person on the other side of the microphone some heat. This is my first day there. I’m there all of a couple hours. I’m sweeping the floors. I’ve got dust bunnies in all the corners of the floors, I’m about to pick them up, and the guy turns, after getting the heat from the customer, turns and mutes the mic and says he wants a special, at which point the guy takes the hamburger, skates it across the floor through the dust bunnies, and then puts it on the plate.
Mikey Butler: I lasted all of one day, I was still grossed out and realized, “Oh my god, I learned more about the food industry than I ever want to know in that one day,” and I quit.
Ryan Carson: “He wants the special.”
Mikey Butler: “He wants the special!”
Ryan Carson: That is hilarious. That sort of verifies my worst fears,
Mikey Butler: Yeah at drive-throughs, be really polite. It has a good upside, and a really bad downside.
Ryan Carson: That’s probably a good life lesson, just be polite.
Mikey Butler: Yeah, when I go to a restaurant now, believe me, I am on my best behavior.
Ryan Carson: All right, gosh that’s a good first job, I’m impressed. And I mean probably like most good, terrible first jobs, it taught you to appreciate this amazing career you’ve had. I think my earlier first job was cleaning out beakers with acid in a chemical lab, and I really love my job now because of that — so wow, thanks for sharing that.
Mikey Butler: Yeah, it was a crazy moment, and it taught me a lot about human psychology in one day.
The fallacy of meritocracy and how it narrows long-term innovation
Ryan Carson: Oh my gosh, that’s great. So one of the things that we talked about before we started recording was a paradigm shift that you were going through, and that you were trying to drive, and it came about because I asked you, “Do you hire junior developers?”
Mikey Butler: Yes.
Ryan Carson: So I’d love for you just to go into that.
Mikey Butler: Sure, it’s a long explanation so be warned. About five years ago I started a journey with respect to diversity hiring in the tech industry. And it started with a one-year research phase. I just dug into the data, largely using Bureau of Labor Statistics and Forbes data to try and get an understanding of what was going on. I’d learned a couple of very interesting things, one was that essentially there’s a correlation between how economically active an industry is and how much risk they take with respect to hiring.
Think of the Gold Rush back in the 1840s — because people were being driven by short-term gain and making quick money, they would hire people who had … well, first they would hire people that were age appropriate and were skills appropriate. The same thing is happening in what is the Gold Rush of our time. It used to be aerospace, prior to that it was biochem, but at the point we are now it’s IT as the Gold Rush industry. What’s happening is that there’s a competition that’s very feverish, especially in a place like Silicon Valley, where because we’re focused on one quarter short gain, what we do is hire to give the highest probability of a one quarter short gain.
Ryan Carson: Interesting, There’s no time to invest in anybody.
Mikey Butler: There’s no one time to invest in anybody, but it’s a fallacy, because you look at the research data behind diversity and why you would want it, and it turns out that the short term gain you get with respect to just outright productivity inside of the current paradigm is offset by the long-term gain if you have a diverse workforce of different thinking styles bringing more innovation to the table. So there’s this conscious trade-off you have to make between short-term and long-term if you’re in the tech industry. Most of the tech industry has not pivoted to making that longer-term, wiser choice, but it is shifting.
It turns out that when you look at the delta between US population demographics and the high-tech industry, it’s one of the worst deltas in all of the industries, and that’s actually forcing the government as well as the industry to ask some tough questions, “Why is that?” And again it’s back to, “Hey, it’s a Gold Rush, we’re hiring people that based on what we think is a meritocracy and we’re not really worried about fairness.” Well, the flip side of that is that implicitly they’re not actually really worried about long-term innovation — and you’ve actually seen that in the last 10 years or so, there really haven’t been any big paradigm shifts in high-tech.
Ryan Carson: Interesting, you’re right. They do the same thing over and over again.
Mikey Butler: Exactly, there’s been a lot of implementalism and nothing that’s been revolutionary. So partially because of things like #metoo, partially because of, quite frankly, just so many people knocking at the door and asking the tough question, the industry is starting to take a good, hard look at what is our driver. And we’re seeing slow shift, looking at New Relic in particular, just as obviously a current example for me, we’re asking the tough question because we were too also biased toward engineers that had three to five years of experience at the entry level. That if you were out of a coding school, etc. we were probably less interested, maybe to the point of actually not interested — and we’re seeing the outcome of that, which is a lot of very stereotypical thinking on problems.
Ryan Carson: It’s the same people.
Mikey Butler: It’s the same people — and there’s another kind of subtler attribute, which is if you hire a more senior workforce a lot of the work that senior people want to do shifts toward the more difficult tasks and not the tasks that are more mundane, but to an entry-level person those mundane tasks are a rich opportunity, and so by skewing the workforce toward the senior you suddenly have a subset of the work that is viewed as drudgery and no one that actually sees that as an opportunity. So by achieving more of a bell distribution rather than having the curve shift to the right, with respect to seniority, we’re actually seeing that there’s more of a likelihood that some of the work that at this point we have to overly incent senior people to do, or put a gun to their head frankly, would actually be joyful work for others. We’re pivoting to asking that question of “Well how do we get more junior people? How do we get gender diversity? How do we get cultural diversity? And what trade-offs are we willing to make? Are we willing, for example, to have longer search times? Are we willing to have longer times with respect to ramp up on skills?” which are implied if we make that outreach, and we’re coming to the answer that it’s yes.
Ryan Carson: Interesting, and why?
Mikey Butler: Why would we say yes?
Ryan Carson: Yeah.
Mikey Butler: Because we see the upside on the innovation side of it. We’re going to have different thinking styles. In an odd way, I represent that, when I show up at the table with my peers and I think differently, they will acknowledge that. It’s like, “Yeah, he’s bringing something that we wouldn’t have thought of.” And given my background, given how I got to that table, it’s a very different journey and it brings with it a different understanding and gestalt, and so that’s additive.
Pizza-box teams and bundled hiring
Ryan Carson: Got it, so for everyone listening that wants to hire more diverse talent but they’re getting pushback from their executive team, can you help them battle that a little bit?
Mikey Butler: We have the same issue. Those pressures to hire quickly, and get the work done didn’t go away just because we decided to embrace diversity. You’ve got to thread this: You’ve added a layer of difficulty. You didn’t trade off difficulty. Yeah, so what we’re doing is taking a look at why we ended up with a non-diverse workforce. What was the goal of that? And much of that has to do with, “Since we were in a hurry we went to traditional sources to put names, people in the funnel.”
When you look at the demographics of the funnel, they were so out of whack that you’d actually almost have to have an unfair process in order to get gender and cultural diversity because the funnel itself was not. So we’re looking at changing the funnel demographics. Let’s get that looking like the US population, then the next step is tackling blindness with respect to the hiring process. We’ve done some very interesting things there. One of them is a concept we call “bundled hiring,” If you look at our organization, we’re made up of 50, now 51 autonomous teams of about six people.
Ryan Carson: Wow, right, all engineering?
Mikey Butler: All in engineering, and they’re all basically what we call pizza-box teams. They’re largely capable of doing all the work they need within that team, so we’ve tried to minimize dependencies.
Ryan Carson: Pizza box, I like that.
Mikey Butler: Yeah, it’s good that a pizza will feed them, and so what we discovered is that if the hiring decision is pushed all the way to those individual teams, two things happen — one was intended, one was unintended. The intentional thing that happened was that, because each team is focused on a particular thing, the hire that we did was very narrow with respect to skill set.
Ryan Carson: Got it, they want this exact skill-
Mikey Butler: Exactly.
Ryan Carson: … this exact experience.
Mikey Butler: They look at what skills are in the team, and they want to complete the puzzle. The problem with that model is that, A, there’s a long search time and B, once they complete the piece of the puzzle that person isn’t fungible someplace else in the organization. So what we went to is a concept of bundled hiring.
Let’s say we’re hiring five engineers of a given technology type, let’s say five Java engineers. Each one of the five teams instead of making an individual choice, puts one member of their team as a representative into a bundle pool of hiring candidates, interviewers, and the decision of whether someone belongs in New Relic is made by that bundled team. So no one team essentially overrules the search criteria; they have to agree on what is the common, the then overlap. And so the hiring decision gets made at the bundle and then of the five teams, where that person goes is decided later. And what we found is when we put that process in place, we suddenly saw a 50/50 split on gender diversity almost overnight. It clearly made a huge difference in becoming far more gender-blind because the unintended consequence of that specialization was that it ruled out a lot of people who were in the minority category. That specialization tended to bias toward seniority, and tended to bias toward such a specific set of skills that only people that had been in industry a long time, and it focused on that, and since the industry has been biased, the more you narrow the criteria the more likely a minority doesn’t fit.
The benefits of slowing searches for talent and lengthening onboarding for junior developers
Ryan Carson: Interesting. Gosh, that makes so much sense because that actually speaks to why, what we’re trying … We’re doing a pilot program and I just realized it’s actually a similar concept, I didn’t think of it as bundling. As I said to you before, I went through this 18-month journey here at Treehouse where I looked around and realized I had built a monoculture, and morally wasn’t okay with that and also for business reasons wasn’t okay with that. And so booted up this program that’s now called TalentPath, but the way it works is pretty simple, you actually do bundled hiring, in a way. So we go to the Boys & Girls Club and say, “Hey, there’s an apprenticeship for you, because the company wants to invest in you.”
They are able to communicate that message and have be heard, because as a white CEO guy I have no credibility to walk in and say, “Work at my tech company.” Anyway, so that class comes in but they’re hired as a bundle. And actually all the specialization and all the exact requirements are stripped out because we basically say we’re going to deliver you a generalized developer — and we actually say you’re not even allowed to interview them, because we’re worried that because they’re going to be under-represented, people of color and women that all the hidden biases will immediately say, “That person can’t be on a team because they don’t-”
Mikey Butler: X, Y and Z.
Ryan Carson: “… do X, Y, Z.” Wow, so bundled hiring.
Mikey Butler: The bundled hiring is first step, gender anonymization of incoming CVs is another approach we’re doing, reaching out to disparate sources in order to get the right demographics in the funnel, rather than traditional ones which are non-demographically aligned. There’s a bunch of things we’re putting on the table.
Ryan Carson: Got it. Wow, so the answer to, “Do you hire junior developers?” Is absolutely yes then, because you must be … Or is it? Or is it just your bundling hires?
Mikey Butler: Well bundled hires helped with blindness with respect to unconscious bias. It didn’t shift the desire to have more junior people — that’s a conscious choice we’re making going forward to essentially have more of a bell distribution within teams. Just being honest about the fact that if we want diversity, what came with it is selecting more junior people statistically, and that we’re okay with what might be a longer learning curve in the short term for the long term. An example of a team that actually did something wonderful in this regard, I was approached by one of the managers saying, “Look, I’m getting a lot of pressure from the hiring team to fill this seat. I’m running-”
Ryan Carson: Oh interesting. “We need somebody.”
Mikey Butler: We have an SLA which says, get somebody in seat by 90 days, and it was approaching 90 days. And he says, “They’re trying to flip me, and have me give up on the diversity hire.” I said, “I’ll take care of it.” So I walk in and I said, “First of all, first thing I’d like to say is that you’re forgiven on the SLA. I don’t care about the SLA, just set it back to zero.” Right?
Ryan Carson: That’s awesome.
Mikey Butler: Second choice, I went back to the team with him saying, “Okay, you got a tough choice here. It’s going to take longer to hire someone, and they’re going to take longer to ramp up.” That happened to be a larger team, it was a 10-person team. “Are you okay with each one of you having 10% more work?” Which essentially synthesizes the work that this other person would do. “Will you do 10% more work for a period of whatever time it takes to hire, plus six months so that we have the headroom to look for the person and let them come up to speed? More headroom than we’re used to giving anyone. Are you willing to make that trade-off?” And they said, “Yes.”
Ryan Carson: Really?
Mikey Butler: So negotiating with the team on what it will take on their part to allow the headroom, to be okay with it, and to essentially buy into bringing that person up the learning curve was also part of the puzzle.
Ryan Carson: Got it, that’s interesting that you were very direct about the ask.
Mikey Butler: Yeah.
Ryan Carson: “I’m going to ask you to do a little more work for a period of time, are you okay with it?”
Mikey Butler: It was more the question of, “Are you okay?” This is what looks like the mathematics of the situation, just bringing it to your attention, “Are you okay with it?” They were happy as a-
Ryan Carson: Why do you think they said yes?
Mikey Butler: They said yes because they wanted diversity, and they didn’t realize that, unintentionally the system was moving away from the goal.
Ryan Carson: Right, yeah. See this is the crazy thing, and this is the sad thing: As a white guy, I was blind to some of this things and I used to think it was a meritocracy and that there was equal opportunity —now I realize there’s not. I had a conversation with a client that’s thinking about installing this kind of program, and they said, “But why would diverse folks get pushed out of the organization once they get in? We have a meritocracy. Surely if they’re great, they’ll succeed.”
Mikey Butler: Let’s talk about that.
Ryan Carson: Let’s talk about that.
Mikey Butler: We model it, and I think the industry models it as D&I, diversity and inclusion. So diversity is getting demographics right coming in the door, and inclusion is once they’re there, keeping them. Inclusion is the harder of the two, and the reason for that is that much of what is merit in the meritocracy happens to be culturally specific.
The Cisco E-ALF story
Ryan Carson: It’s white culture basically, isn’t it?
Mikey Butler: It’s not necessarily white, but they call it “majority business” culture — but yes, in general that is certainly where its roots would be defined, and little things. I’ll give you an illustration: So I was at Cisco, and I got drafted into a program they call E-ALF which was an Executive Learning Forum. What it is is they take their best and brightest and create seven teams of ten people and they give them the opportunity to pitch to the board on what investments the board should make, Cisco is cash-rich.
Ryan Carson: Oh interesting.
Mikey Butler: They take you off of your job for six months. You don’t do your job anymore, you just do this.
Ryan Carson: How interesting.
Mikey Butler: It’s a full-time job for six months. We work for six months to define what the business plan is, what we would put in front of the company, and present to the board. And it’s a competition, and it’s a very prestigious thing to win the thing. So there’s a random lottery at the beginning, literally drawing things out of the hat, the topics. So Cisco is an avowed hardware company, and we drew the short straw which was, “What would Cisco do if it were a software?”
Ryan Carson: Oh gosh.
Mikey Butler: It was completely … Literally the other teams laughed when we got that.
Ryan Carson: You’re going to fail.
Mikey Butler: Yeah, it’s like, “Well they’re toast.” During the process of discovery, I as well as a couple of other architects at the time came up with something that was actually really good, it had real good traction. Now I had to present this and I was presenting in the style that I thought I should present, which was basically much more of what I’d call a white pedagogical presentation strategy, and it was failing miserably in all the practice sessions.
Ryan Carson: Interesting.
Mikey Butler: Horrible at it.
Ryan Carson: Really?
Mikey Butler: And so finally out of frustration, the coach says, “Forget the presentation, how would you explain this?” So I grab a marker and I whip through this one report and everybody’s jaws open and it’s like, “That’s what we want.”
Ryan Carson: That’s great.
Mikey Butler: It taught me a lesson, and he pulled me aside he says, “Look, there really is no alternative to your authentic self. Yes, your style is different, and you were probably thinking that you had to ape what was the style of others who came from other cultures, but that isn’t authentic for you, that won’t work for you. You present the way you present.” So we won the competition.
Ryan Carson: No way.
Mikey Butler: Everyone was just completely shocked — and in fact that’s actually part of Cisco’s business plan today.
Ryan Carson: Oh really?
Mikey Butler: Yeah.
Ryan Carson: Oh wow.
Mikey Butler: That’s an example of what I mean about inclusion. I was on the page that I had to behave like the majority culture, and I had to speak like it and be like that, that that was the definition of success, and the system reinforces that.
Ryan Carson: Yes, absolutely.
Mikey Butler: Since we’re pivoting to inclusion — and innovation being on the other side of having different thinking styles — you have to broaden the definition of what is merit, and that’s where we have a current lag. The definition of merit is culturally specific, so non-majority-culture people show up and don’t line up with the traditional definition of merit. So the broadening of the definition, understanding that it needs to be modified as a result of you going down the path of inclusion becomes part of the journey your company has to make.
Ryan Carson: Right, and it’s hard, isn’t it? Because as a white person it’s hard to even see that you’re in a white culture because it is everywhere. You just think, “This is normal, and actually this isn’t just normal, this is good business.”
Mikey Butler: And it is.
Ryan Carson: It is, yeah.
Mikey Butler: In the context of what is known, it is. What’s being put on the table is a different context that, in theory, given what studies suggest diversity will bring to innovation, it looks like the next generation, the next evolution — but we’re at this tipping point where we’re trying something new but evaluating it in the context of something old. We haven’t tipped the evaluative model to where we want to take the journey.
Ryan Carson: So what’s one thing an engineering team and an engineering leader can do to make their team more inclusive?
Mikey Butler: Well, I think reverse engineering some of the things that we’re trying might be a helpful start. One of them is understanding there really is a trade-off between hiring more diversely and probably having a longer search times and longer learning curves, and finding ways and places in the organization, teams in the organization where that causes the least friction.
Career path and how a new test harness led to management
Ryan Carson: Got it. I really appreciate you discussing that topic with me. It’s really close to my heart, and thank you for that. Let’s transition to focus more on your career. We’ve got about 10 more minutes. You’ve had a very amazing career, number one, so why don’t you quickly tell people about your career path and what were some of the biggest obstacles that you encountered during that? So hopefully the listeners can learn from your obstacles and how you tackle them.
Mikey Butler: Okay, so let’s just see, the high-level summary is basically been doing this full-time since ’77, so this year just over 40 years. It’s evenly split between 20 years as an Individual Contributor, before I started as a maintenance coder and worked up to architect, rebooted approximately 20 years ago to management, and there went from first level manager to now senior vice-president. Most of that time was spent in Silicon Valley. Lots of tours of duties and famous names, like I was part of the founding team at Sun, and was at Grid Systems, which is a name most people don’t know until they realize that the current format that we have for laptops was invented at Grid.
Ryan Carson: Really?
Mikey Butler: The clamshell, yeah.
Ryan Carson: No way.
Mikey Butler: So my name is on the patent for the clamshell laptop.
Ryan Carson: Wow, okay.
Mikey Butler: Yeah, so it’s time at Cisco, time at SAP, time at Intuit, a lot of the bigger names and a lot of startups that ended up being either acquired or IPO. One of the things that actually I smile, I haven’t been with a company that didn’t either was wildly successful on the other side of an IPO or was either acquired or did IPO, so I’ve had kind of a 100% track record on picking good companies.
Ryan Carson: So let’s talk about a couple transition points. So when you transition from the individual contributor to a manager, how did you make that transition successful and then make your first managerial experience successful?
Mikey Butler: Sure, it wasn’t even intentional. So I was an architect that was working in Sybase, and one of the things that drives me is a blend of curiosity and passion that I’ve always had. It was a long story, when I was a kid I had polio and there was a bunch of other stuff in my life that I think contributed positively to me being driven.
I was an architect and we had a test harness that would test code before it went out the door — but what I was noticing is that there was a certain set of family or a class of defects that was showing up regardless of which team put the code out, and I said, “Well that means the test harness is not testing something,” so I created a second test harness that worked behind the first one that plugged the holes. It’s like a little Dutch boy with his finger in the dike. I plugged the holes and then my code never broke and so the VP of engineering pulls me and he says, “What’s up with your code? Why doesn’t it break?” I said, “Oh, well, I realized the test harness was faulty so I created a sort of a coenzyme equivalent — so that was the enzyme, I matched it with this coenzyme, I did a histogram of where it fails and I created something that plugs those holes.” He said, “I love it. I want you to manage the QA team.” I said, “I don’t want to manage a team, what are you talking about? I love what I do.”
Ryan Carson: Right, “I like coding.”
Mikey Butler: I code, yeah. He says, “No, you’d be great at it,” I said, “You are completely twisted.” So he says, “No, really, you would be really good at it,” I said, “Okay, six months I’ll try it because I’m taking one for the team — but six months and one day I want out.” He says, “You got it.” About three months in, I realized he was absolutely right, because as it turns out he saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself, which is that profoundly I love people. This was the thing I hadn’t noticed, but it was in fact true.
Now, on the other side of the management choice, it’s not about my fingers doing something, it’s leveraging all the fingers that work with me. If you get the management task right, there is such a force multiplier. The goodness that I could have created as an individual can be force multiplied so that anyone that reports to me is now more productive. That’s the upside. The complication is, of course, now you’re dealing with human beings and non-deterministic algorithms, and there’s where things really shift away from something that might be a science, might be a skill, to something that’s completely in the realms of psychology and intuition.
Ryan Carson: Yeah, gosh. So you basically realized, I love empowering and helping and serving people, I love that and now there’s all the hard parts of that. Wow, fascinating. Okay, so let’s talk about then your transition into a more senior role in technology, because I think a lot of people listening will be looking to-
Mikey Butler: Make that journey.
Ryan Carson: … to do that, yeah. What was an obstacle you overcame or an interesting thing you learned?
Mikey Butler: If I summarized it at the meta level, it’s that you have to develop not only a tolerance for it but eventually a love for ambiguity.
Ryan Carson: Ah, that’s interesting.
Mikey Butler: The more you have altitude in the company, the more the choices you make become line decisions as opposed to point decisions — so they span more time, and anything that spans more time if you look at information theory, it tends to suggest that at the point you make the decision you’re going to have less data about that end point, whatever that timeline is. So you therefore are less well informed about the decisions, and you have to be more okay with making decisions that are in realms of gray.
Ryan Carson: Right, interesting.
Mikey Butler: Yeah, since we grow up in a world, on the technical side, where we learn that to reduce the number of variables and to increase the probability of certainty, the more you get altitude on the management side that goes away, and you have to be okay with making the gutsy call in the absence of a lot of data. That’s a really challenging psychological journey.
Ryan Carson: How do you learn that or can you or is it just something you have?
Mikey Butler: A lot of it is mentoring. You find people who seem good at it and you ask them. Let’s see if I can summarize it — it’s usually about a half an hour talk I give, but there’s an interesting model to deal with it. It turns out that 80/20 rule, where 20% of the analysis, you can likely be 80% correct. It turns out if you string together two of those separated by a period of time where you test the first theory, so you take 20% of your time, you make a decision, you see if the decision is right, spend 10% of the time doing that and then if it’s wrong you make a second choice, which is also an 80/20 choice. It turns out the math says that you can be 96% correct with 50% of the evaluation time. It’s a long story about what happened, but basically what the flip side of it is almost every choice you make can be corrected, that’s what is really the fact. It’s a flaw of human perception that every decision is life and death, but it in fact is not.
Ryan Carson: It’s not.
Mikey Butler: No, in fact it is not, and it is correctable. And once you realize that you can correct it, making a choice in the minimum amount of time, sampling whether it’s correct and then making another choice in the minimum amount of time is the best approximation to getting to the truth.
Ryan Carson: Oh, that’s fascinating.
Mikey Butler: Using an analogy, so imagine us being in a teepee, one of those leather clad, Native American teepees, you can punch all the holes you want above the borderline, but not below. And it turns out the probability of punching above is four times greater than the probability of punching below, so based on that you can actually wing it quite a bit of the time.
Ryan Carson: Gosh, that’s fascinating. So you have to get comfortable with ambiguity, but the truth is that you can correct a lot of mistakes you make.
Mikey Butler: Correct, yes.
Ryan Carson: And so it’s okay to do that.
Mikey Butler: Yes, it turns out that ambiguity isn’t the curse it appears to be, and that’s what you have to learn.
Ryan Carson: Right, wow that’s fascinating, gosh. Okay, well I really appreciate your time today.
Mikey Butler: It was my honor, believe me.
Ryan Carson: It’s been fascinating to hear your story and what you’ve learned, all the way from sweeping dust bunnies at Jack in the Box and learning about “the special.”
Mikey Butler: Yes, don’t get upset at the guy at Jack, that is not a good thing.
Ryan Carson: And then all the way to really high level theoretical learnings about making an organization successful, and it’s been great to meet you.
Mikey Butler: It was my pleasure, thank you so much Ryan. I really appreciate it.
Ryan Carson: Before we finish, if people do want to find you online, where should they go?
Mikey Butler: Actually, I tend to be a pretty open communicator. My email is Mikey, M-I-K-E-Y@newrelic.com, use it.
Ryan Carson: Wow, you are the first one that has done that! I love it. Okay, great, so email is perfect, and obviously if anyone’s listening and they want to work at New Relic and fill one of those 100 roles, just go to newrelic.com. So thanks Mikey, it’s really been fun.
Mikey Butler: It’s my pleasure, thank you so much it was an honor to be here.
Ryan Carson: Cool, take care.
Mikey Butler: Thank you.