The Engineering People Show, Episode 29: Andy Markham
“We want to make sure that we’re staffing our business in a way that reflects the people that we work with.”
Today on Engineering People:
Andy Markham is responsible for leading the technology development and innovation efforts for Healthline. Andy brings over 20 years of experience with technical operations, software engineering and product development for companies across a variety of industries. Prior to joining the Healthline, Andy led engineering for several divisions/acquisitions for the Monster.com team. He holds an M.S. in Computer Science from Georgia Tech and a B.S. in Math from UNC-Chapel Hill. His hobbies include volleyball, biking and enjoying the Marin outdoors with his two boys, Drew and James!
(Original episode released on September 24, 2018)
Andy on LinkedIn
Andy on Twitter
Open job positions at healthline.com/careers
Transcript, edited for clarity:
Ryan Carson: Welcome to Engineering People, the show where we interview the world’s leading engineering managers so we can learn from their experience and ideas. I’m Ryan Carson, the founder of Treehouse, and I’m your host.
At Treehouse, we have experience creating over 850,000 new developers and designers, so if your company is struggling to hire enough developers or product designers, we can help. Just head to teamtreehouse.com/go/talent.
Let’s get to the show. Today I’m joined by Andy Markham from Healthline Media. Thanks so much for hanging out.
Andy Markham: My pleasure Ryan, I appreciate you having me on your show.
Ryan Carson: We’ve already had fun before we even started recording, finding out we have kids the same age, like weird parallel lives, it’s great. Let’s get started though. First, what is your job title?
Andy Markham: I’m SVP of Technology at healthline.com.
Ryan Carson: Great, and what do ya’ll do?
Andy Markham: We are a health information website. We create what we think is best — and what Google thinks is best — in class content around health. It’s been a large, growing business since I’ve joined. I’ve been there two and a half years. It’s been around for 10 years before that. We were ranked maybe in the 30s in the top health information sites. If you look at us maybe six years ago when I joined, we were sixth. We are now a very clear number two, and our expectation is we want to be the next health brand on the web.
Healthline’s org chart
Ryan Carson: It’s always interesting, as I interview different engineering managers, how people’s org charts differ. You’re SVP — other times they’re just VPs, sometimes there’s CTOs. How does your org chart work in general?
Andy Markham: We have a single person in the C Suite, and that is our CPO. And then we have a set of SVPs so there is no COO, there’s no CMO, those sort of things. We have a head of marketing, head of engineering, head of marketplace. Basically, we cut it more vertically.
Ryan Carson: Interesting. So all SVPs?
Andy Markham: All SVPs, that’s correct.
Ryan Carson: Is there a big reason for that? Because that’s actually not super-normal. Usually you end up having chief, et cetera, et cetera.
Andy Markham: Yeah. You’d have to ask our CEO. [laughter] I found it interesting when I was going through the interviewing process but it feels very natural right now. There’s a team, eight or nine of us I think, of SVPs. Some of them have been around quite some time. The company was started 10 years ago. It’s gone through a couple different incarnations, and then we are actually a part of the business that was sold off to a private equity firm, Summit Partners. There was a core group that have been running this business and the content side for a while. We’ve probably doubled in size in the executive team since I’ve joined, and it’s been a nice, gradual growth, but it feels like a very cohesive team and works very well. It would almost seem weird to add more structure to it, to be honest.
Ryan Carson: That’s kind of refreshing, because title escalation can be bad. If there is potential for later expansion or some sort of room later, then actually that’s probably a great thing.
Andy Markham: Yeah, and I would even say one of the reasons I took the job there is because that group felt a lot like I felt with regards to that sort of thing, which is it’s more about where your ownership is and what you’re focused on, and it’s less about your title. Now, it’s easy to say that when you have an SVP title.
I’ve had a lot of VP titles in the past, and easy to say that, but it never really has been about turf or any of that sort of title or anything like that. It’s just been about, “We have a goal, let’s accomplish it.” If it made sense to bring a CTO into this organization, I wouldn’t think twice about it. If it made sense that there be another person other than me in that role, fine — because my assumption is that’s going to move us into position to be able to have more success, and I support that. And wish there were more people doing that. You have a lot of people focus on it, but I also get when you’re trying to move up that ladder, that it is, you need to pay attention to it, so I do that.
Ryan Carson: You probably built a healthy culture then, if people are feeling like a team in that way, so that’s awesome here. So just for the audience’s sake, how many people do you manage?
Andy Markham: About 25, 28 I think right now.
Ryan Carson: Are those all directs? Or is that a couple levels?
Andy Markham: It’s a couple levels. For the most part, there are leads with small teams, and there’s basically four or five of those.
Influences on Andy’s leadership
Ryan Carson: I want to get into things like your favorite book, more personal questions, because they’re fun for the audience to hear. What is your favorite book, course or person that’s influenced you as an engineering manager?
Andy Markham: He’d be surprised to hear me say it, but it actually was a former lead of mind named Nadeem Bitar. I recommend people follow him on Twitter. I worked at Monster for like eight years. One of the roles I needed was a new lead, and I was fortunate to have Nadeem on that team. I had fallen into a place, as an engineering manager, where I was going with the flow pretty easily and had adopted probably what most would argue is a bit of an older culture or starting to be a bit of a dated culture. In working with Nadeem, he totally turned me into being very passionate about process, about flow, about looking at more into the Lean style of software development. He really renewed my passion for it.
It may or may not have been as apparent externally, but internally it was a total change point in my career. I really enjoyed and appreciated both his intellect, and his commitment and devotion to it. It was really at that point when I started to value the craft side software development. I think before that I treated it probably more as an engineer and like a job — where you plan, you build software, maybe you learn some new things. But to see him come in and see how focused he was on developing himself, it was … and this wasn’t like time in the chair at the office. It was outside of that. That was a total game changer. I hire completely different people than I used to at this point, and I feel like it’s been a big catalyst to my success. So thanks, Nadeem.
Ryan Carson: Gosh, that is awesome. All right, I have to go on Twitter and thank him for being inspiring. I’m going to go do that. And it’s cool to hear what a large affect a manager or a colleague at work can have on you. I think that’s encouraging to hear, because everyone listening obviously cares about managing people. And for you as an SVP saying that, it’s awesome.
Andy Markham: I think it comes back to hiring well, to some extent. I mentioned earlier about how I don’t have this title concern. People always say, “Hire people smarter than you.” Well, that was one thing I did. When I did that, I realized, “This makes me so much more effective. It makes our organization so much more effective,” — not that I was not trying to do that before, but you see it in a completely different light. Now I am really focused, when I hire, on making sure that we bring in the right people. This isn’t about 10Xers or anything like that, but the right people with the right culture and the right focus on craft. I think they influence the team around them, and they make a huge difference. I’ve seen that happen. He was, of course, a very, very shiny version of that. There have been plenty of those as well since then.
Ryan Carson: Thanks for bringing that up. You’re actually one of the first people to say a person’s name that hasn’t written a book or isn’t famous. So, that’s cool.
Andy Markham: Yeah, I almost said Martin Powell which I really do, am a big fan. But honestly, the biggest impact would be Nadeem for sure.
“How is it transferring sound from this arm?”
Ryan Carson: I’d love to know your funniest, worst or most interesting job you’ve had outside of tech.
Andy Markham: My favorite job outside of tech was working at the record store in high school. I’m a bit older than maybe, I don’t know that most of you are SVP, or your other engineering leads?
Ryan Carson: You don’t look it.
Andy Markham: I was in the record stores in the middle of Thriller.
Ryan Carson: Nice.
Andy Markham: Thriller came out. Prince, Purple Rain. I was there when there were some of the greatest — or largest selling albums, put it that way. Greatest is always a debate — but certainly largest selling albums of all time. Working the record shop in high school. So it was like-
Ryan Carson: It’s a dream come true.
Andy Markham: Kind of a dream come true.
Ryan Carson: Wow, that sounds fun. We actually bought a record player like two days ago. My kids had never even seen records. My wife was a big fan of the Smiths. She’s British. I’m not a fan of the Smiths. I find them depressing. Anyways, it’s fun to play records and then think about the technology behind them. My kids are like, “How is that happening?”
Andy Markham: How does it work, yeah.
Ryan Carson: Yeah, like “How is it transferring sound from this arm?” It was fun to hear that.
Andy Markham: No, it’s amazing. I’m actually debating buying some turntables.
I have a good friend of mine, Biri Singh, whose last job was CTO at Cisco. While he’s not doing that, one of his hobbies is deejaying. He was deejaying at a birthday party a few weeks back and I told him I love music. I would love an excuse to do what he does, so he’s going to send me some of his gear.
The big lessons
Ryan Carson: If you could go back in time to a younger Andy and grab him by the shoulders and say, “These are two big lessons you need to know,” what would be those two big lessons that you would tell yourself?
Andy Markham: One is you need to take full responsibility of your skills in this craft. I think a lot of engineers — I think this was before the resurgence I talked about with Nadeem earlier — you think, “I go to school. I get my degree. I start doing this work. It’s what I do during the day and then outside of those hours, I don’t do that thing.” Right? I think the reality is if you want to be really good at it, if you want to be successful, then you’ve got to be passionate about it — and being passionate about it means you’ve got to care about how you do it and the quality of your work and the breadth of your knowledge. I think that would be one piece.
Probably a sub-component of that would be to get involved in open source. There obviously wasn’t as much of that when I first got going, but it would have certainly been something I would have focused on —seen more code, modified to get more feedback. Start getting into this loop where you expose yourself to new things and learning new things and putting yourself out there more.
Ryan Carson: Those are two great lessons. So take ownership of your skills as a tradesperson, as a craftsperson. Then the second one is commit to open source code because of all the attached benefits of that.
Andy Markham: Yeah, exactly, in support of the first one, for sure.
Ryan Carson: Wow. That’s so true. Gosh, owning your own skills is interesting because I’ve been recently learning sales. I was a developer for a long time and then became a CEO and didn’t do the sales function then. Learning the craft outside of hours, reading books and talking to people, getting mentored — you’re right. It’s actually where all of the value tends to come.
Andy Markham: Yeah, and you mentioned sales. I was on the executive technology team at Monster. We were in the middle of doing different acquisitions. There was another gentleman, Pete Kazanjy, who headed up the sales for a company called TalentBin, a company that we ended up acquiring. To watch him and how he played his role allowed me to see sales in a completely different light. He definitely played at a different level. Shame on me for not being able to remember the name of his book that he’s in the middle of writing but yeah, to see people do it really well is something you know that they are doing the 10,000 hours thing. They’re putting in that time and it does make a difference.
Ryan Carson: Yes. Oh, my gosh. I know our kids are the same age and it’s funny. I don’t know if you say this to your kids all the time, but they’re always saying, “I’m bad at this.” I’ll say, “No one is good at that. The only way anyone gets good is by practicing.” They’re like, “I know, Dad.” [laughter]
Andy Markham: It’s completely true. I do say that to my children and I definitely fully believe it. You can do most anything that you want. If you want to be really good at that, you’re going to have to keep working at it. They see other people do things and they think it’s just natural. The reality is it isn’t. That’s true for software development. Those people that stand up at a whiteboard and can talk at length about architecture, they didn’t just suck it up in meetings in their previous job. They did it by studying lots of examples, reading lots of books, listening to podcasts. That’s what they did. I believe that, too.
How to hire and retain diverse talent
Ryan Carson: We talked about diversity before we started recording. Is there anything that you’re doing that is helping you to hire and retain diverse talent? Any strategies that are working?
Andy Markham: Yeah, a few. First of all is we talk about it regularly, both within engineering and as an entire executive team. We had an executive offsite — in the fall, I believe it was — and one of the topics was diversity in the engineering team.
Our company is, I think, 60% female, 40% male but the engineering organization isn’t. If you look at other diversity factors, we feel like we need to improve. Talking about it is certainly one thing, and making sure that it’s a thing that you realize you need to keep on top of it and keep thinking about it. The other thing is we’ve started advertising on different sites that support diversity, like the Society of Women Engineers, National Society of Black Engineers, Women Who Code, and I’ve been to a Lesbians Who Tech Conference. There are things like that we think are going to improve our odds of increasing diversity, primarily because we believe diverse teams are more successful. There’s been a lot of research around that that says that’s true. I believe it and we’re trying to do our part to attain that.
Ryan Carson: Awesome. Yeah, they’ve really pulled the research recently on that and it says diverse teams create 30% more profit. The research and the facts prove it now, which we obviously all understand from an intuitive level. We’re not building products for white men solely. Take media. A lot of people are Googling health content that you’re making from every color, every gender.
Andy Markham: Absolutely. I mentioned the gender component in part because the audience that we primarily target are women, I think, 25-44. They are the primary decision makers around health for a household. They make the choice of what doctors they see, their children see. A lot of times they help their spouses with those decisions as well. That, generally speaking, is not always the way it should be, but why is it? It’s a different topic for everyone that engages, but the reality is women tend to make those decisions. We want to make sure that we’re staffing our business in a way that reflects the people that we work with.
Ryan Carson: Gosh, that’s great. That’s smart. It’s encouraging because you are interview number 56 in this season and there hasn’t been a single guest that … Obviously, they’re not going to say publicly on the show, “I don’t think diversity is important” but I can tell when there is meaning behind the words because I speak to all executives. I think we’re going to a better place, so that’s good.
Andy Markham: I agree with you and I haven’t had anyone who would say that it’s not worth doing, but I would say it’s hard. It’s hard but it’s worth it. I think as long as you’re prepared to do the work, then you’ll reap the benefits.
Breakdancing and bringing your full self to work
Ryan Carson: I mentioned before this show started and I was just curious if you could share something interesting that no one knows about you.
Andy Markham: [laughter] That is an entirely loaded question. The word has gotten out in different groups in different ways, but: When I was in high school, I played on the soccer team, and one of my best friends and I were … It was soccer practice on any given Sunday. He was putting his foot in my hand so I could flip him on the field. He would do a full backflip. Some guys spotted us and they came over and said, “Hey, we are trying to get together a group for the talent show and we want to know if you guys might be interested.” We said, “Sure, whatever.” It turned out to be a breakdancing show. I did it for that talent show and then I fell in love with it and I spent the next two and a half years in high school entering contests and talent shows. I joined a crew. We would go do shows in the summer. We would do shows at different places, so it was strange facts but a huge part of my life. I’ll give you a little back story here, because my oldest son is now getting into breakdancing. He found another friend that was doing it that he loved and then he found another friend that was doing it that he loved, and it’s just been really cool.
Ryan Carson: That’s awesome, yeah. I wish we could all bring our full selves to work. You said people at work know that you breakdance, but I think we all have these kind of hilarious, interesting things about our lives and we think “well, it’s not professional.”
Andy Markham: Yeah, I agree. It’s funny, I’ve often found, you know, you talk to someone at the water cooler. There’s some thread about who they are and their background that kind of overlaps yours, and you’re like, “Oh my gosh, let’s talk about” whatever this is. It creates these interesting relationships. Sports do this in cities. I often used to argue that cigarettes do it too. People go have a cigarette and they talk, and that cigarette creates a connection, not that I could smoke a cigarette. But I’ve even thought it would be great to try and figure out how you put either little icons on your cube or right by your desk that are these things that sort of represent your hobbies and who you are in some way. It could be a volleyball, maybe a breakdancer — although I don’t do it anymore, to be transparent — or the Steelers or the North Carolina Tar Heels, something like a set of those things. As people walk through the office they’d be like, “Hey, I didn’t know this about you.” Otherwise, it’s hard to find these things.
Ryan Carson: You know, actually one thing that we’re doing that I just realized is helping with that. So, we have a channel on Slack for teambuilding. We have an engineering manager that’s really passionate about this and so she just does it. Every week, she says, “Okay, here is the topic,” and people just get in there and share. This week was something like, “Share something that you’ve owned for 15 years or more and why,” and you end up learning hilariously bizarre things about people, and that’s been kind of fun. I actually don’t participate; I read it.
Andy Markham: I like that idea. We actually do something similar. The building that we’re in — there’s actually four different buildings — we’re one floor in this building, but used to be four different buildings. They’ve sort of been joined — don’t know how you glue four buildings together but they did — and inbetween two of the office spaces, there’s a big white board right near the restrooms. They started doing this a year or two ago: They write like an interesting question at the top and have a bunch of markers that people just go answer it. Someone’s like, “I’m driving from Philadelphia to New York in two weeks, where should I go?” I like it, but the problem is everyone doesn’t sign it. You want to know who it is, like a lot of times you’re like, “Oh, I wonder who answered that way.” I’d love to see that opened up more publicly.
Ryan Carson: Yeah, I think there’s something to this, about letting people bring their full selves to work — but it actually goes back to the diversity and inclusion question, because what I’ve learned through working hard at making Treehouse diverse is that we have a primarily white culture. Because I’m White, you know, and I kind of built that as a company. I didn’t intentionally do that, but it’s pretty White here. What’s interesting about that is I’ve realized, “oh okay, so if you’re Black or Brown or if you’re a woman or if you’re Native American, this isn’t going to feel like your home culture. You’re going to have to codeswitch a lot,” so we’ve been working hard at how do you change that, without making people feel tokenized.
Andy Markham: Yeah, it’s a tough one. We have a women’s group that meets together, talking about the concerns of women-
Ryan Carson: Like a resource group type thing?
Andy Markham: Yeah, internally, and we have one of color as well so we can get those conversations going and allow them to express themselves and help us learn more. So, we’re doing a bit of that as well. You know, you can’t do enough of that. It would be great if there was a great playbook, but the reality is it’s hard work, but it’s just a thing you have to do and be focused on.
Remote teams and how to find new product design and development talent
Ryan Carson: We talked about building remote teams before we got on the call. How do you currently find new product design and development talent? You are starting to build a remote team now a little bit. I’d love to hear any thoughts you want to share about all that.
Andy Markham: Sure. We do a few things, we mentioned it earlier, with Society of Women Engineers, National Society of Black Engineers, Women Who Code, and we do that with a remote focus on the engineering side.
Second, we focus in our recruiting a bit outside of the immediate Bay area. When I first joined Healthline, everyone worked onsite. They had acquired a company, we actually have an engineering team in Taiwan, but everyone else was onsite, and one of the decisions I made in the first six months was to break away from that mode and start hiring remote — in part because it was just so hard to compete for talent in the Bay area, both for non-diverse and diverse talent. The really good talent’s getting sucked up by all the really big brands, as you can imagine. So we focus on hiring externally.
I’m a big proponent of referred talent. I don’t know the percentage, but higher since I’ve arrived, quite a number of hires have been referrals. I think that’s been a large part of our success, because you know what you’re getting. You got a proven track record with someone who’s worked with them before, so, big advocate of that as well.
Then frankly, the other thing I’ve done is I treat — people use social networks for different things, but Twitter has always been, for me, the place where I go to focus on my craft.
Ryan Carson: Yes, Twitter is good for that.
Andy Markham: I curate down the people that I follow, by focusing largely on that. Either through my own tripping over someone saying, “Hey, this person that I know is available,” or through other people that I know on Twitter sharing that with me, I have found some amazing talent.
I think Healthline has a great story. We obviously have a great vision and mission. Anybody who wants to go to work everyday and go home and feel like you did something to help a lot of people, we’re a place you can do that, so we’ve got a great story from that perspective.
Ryan Carson: I’m actually trying to find you on Twitter right now. What’s your profile name?
Andy Markham: It’s andyexmachina.
Ryan Carson: Oh yeah, there you are, I’m going to follow you real quick. That’s great. So, were you a fan of the movie that came out recently?
Andy Markham: Yeah, I picked it way before that. It completely seems like you’re trying to figure out what is your handle going to be on sites, whatever. It’s funny, you pick these things, you try to think, did I do this right? It was really just deus ex machina is like a ghost from the machine, and mine was like, now I’m not trying to say I’m God, but I’m trying to say I’m Andy from the machine. I’m like, oh wait a minute, some people might interpret a different way. I just left it.
Healthline’s expansion plans
Ryan Carson: If people are listening and happen to be developers, how many people are you hiring and I guess they can be remote, so how many people you’re hiring and how they find out about the jobs.
Andy Markham: You can go to Healthline.com/careers. We have three or four open roles. We need talent, we need full stack engineering talent, probably with a Node/React leaning — not required but leaning. We’re looking to hire an infrastructure engineer right now, so we’ve got a fantastic small dev ops team where we’re sort of building fully automated infrastructure using terraform on AWS. And on data as well; we’re just starting to grow our data team and need data engineers is another place we’d love to get some more talent.
Ryan Carson: Awesome. Gosh, we have had a wide ranging conversation. [laughter] It’s been really fun. We already talked about where you are on Twitter, so people know that. Is there anywhere else you want to point people to find you online?
Andy Markham: No. I’d suggest keep your eye open when you’re searching for health conditions, and you’ll see how often this brand that today, a lot of people don’t know it yet, but once you start paying attention to it, you’ll see it is constantly in your feed for health. We’re working on the brand side but we have full success on the search side. Keep an eye out for us, you’ll hear our name and you’ll start hearing it more and more every month.
Ryan Carson: Awesome. Well, listen Andy, thanks so much for your time. It’s been really fun to chat and I respect what you’ve accomplished in your career and I appreciate your time, so thanks for joining us.
Andy Markham: Thank you, Ryan. I appreciate having the opportunity to speak about my experience and what’s going on in health.
Ryan Carson: All right, take care.
Andy Markham: Okay, you too.
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