Mikey Butler, New Relic’s senior vice president of engineering, enjoyed a long and varied career before joining the company last year. We talk to him about making the transition from engineer to engineering leader, and why he chose to come to New Relic. (Be sure to read part 2 of our Q&A, in which Mikey shares his thoughts on the challenges of running a cloud company at scale, and part 3, in which he talks about New Relic’s Next Generation Engineering Process.)
New Relic: What were you doing before you joined New Relic?
Mikey Butler: I hate to admit it’s been that long, but it’s been almost a 40-year ride. It started in 1977 when I left Harvard. (I was in the same class as Bill Gates.)
For the first 18-20 years of my career, I was an individual contributor at companies such as Bank of America, Sun Microsystems, and Sybase. I went through the typical maturation process, starting as a maintenance coder and working my way up to becoming a software architect.
Then about 20 years ago, I rebooted as an engineering manager, which is a completely different thing.
New Relic: How did that come about?
Mikey: When I was an architect at Sybase, I was working to solve the problem that I saw. We had a test harness that was incomplete—it allowed certain problems to get through. So I wrote a second test harness to plug the holes. The team noticed afterwards that my code wasn’t breaking in the field, so they asked, “What’s the secret? Why do you seem to have so many fewer problems?” What I didn’t realize is that this was a general problem that my engineering VP was worried about. Based on that, he asked me to manage the QA team.
I said, “Manage? QA? What are you talking about?” I wasn’t interested in either one of them!
Somehow he talked me into trying it for six months. And I discovered that I loved people. The thrill of leveraging other people’s success meant more to me than actually doing it myself.
And that for me is the goal of engineering management: the glorious opportunity to serve others and leverage their ability to contribute, by getting things out of their way, giving them the things they need, and building the cultural environment that lets them be happy at what they do.
Creating large organizational ecosystems where people can thrive is a skill, a blend of art and science. I find it fascinating because it is non-deterministic; it’s like solving a maze that requires every bit of your wits.
New Relic: So how is life different as an engineering manager?
Mikey: Before I was a technologist, now I’m a psychologist. It’s much more about dealing with the psychology of the human beings in the organization rather than the technology. I ask myself “What do people need? What’s really motivating them? What do they fear? What are the things that would increase their inspiration and their aspiration?”
New Relic: Is there anything of use from your former life as an engineer?
Mikey: Absolutely. Part of it is the legitimacy that comes from understanding the technology. There’s a certain gravitas that comes from having been in the seat that engineers are in and knowing what they’re struggling with. Having done the work gives you insights into what you need to do to clear their path.
Experience is very important. It’s necessary but not sufficient. The ecosystem that you’re in at your current job is just one manifestation of an engineering organization. Over the years I’ve experienced quite a few companies and quite a few ecosystems. Each one has a lesson that can be applied to where you are now.
Mark Twain once said that history doesn’t repeat itself, it merely rhymes. I find that to be true, that certain problems that other people have experienced because they were a little further down the maturation path, and how they solved them or didn’t solve them, tend to be predictive of what might be successful or not successful in your current environment.
New Relic: Why were you so eager to join New Relic?
Mikey: First off, the culture at New Relic was very much aligned with my own values.
And, quite frankly, I love the technology. The idea that we make software that makes sure your software works well is fascinating. The problem that New Relic is designed to solve is the toughest challenge in the industry right now.
If you look at a large company with a global Web presence, that infrastructure is spread all the way around the world, in regional data centers, and multiple software stacks. Some of it is in the cloud. How do you look at it as a whole and understand how this complexity is actually operating? And whether your customers are happy with it?
That’s the huge problem that we are tackling. This isn’t about a single data center. It’s not even about any one company’s data centers. It’s spread all over.
You’ve got to help companies collect all their data and look across all these different dimensions. Integrating all that implies a SaaS-based solution, and it’s a huge scaling and performance challenge. That still fascinates me.
New Relic: You’ve been here for about nine months now. Are we meeting your expectations?
Mikey: I’m nuts about the place. The culture, when you’re around it, is sublime. There’s just enough predictability that you feel good about coming into work every day. And there’s just enough that’s different that it keeps you constantly on your toes with challenges. It’s a wonderful balance.
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