Yes, we actually named it that. There was a lot of research that went into this choice; brainstorming sessions, branding consultants, A/B testing, and market positioning studies.
OK, we didn’t do any of that. We asked the internet:
Hopefully welcome good news, I am once again gainfully employed at @newrelic helping them build out a developer relations team.
In related news I’m looking for help naming our new observability podcast. The dev team narrowed it down to two options for you:
— Jonan Scheffler (@thejonanshow) July 16, 2020
Wise? No. Fun? YUP.
In the spirit of New Relic’s renewed focus on the communities we serve (see projects like opensource.newrelic.com), we decided to leave it up to the people, and the people rewarded us with regret. There are probably worse names we could have chosen than a reference to a four-year-old internet joke, but we couldn’t think of any at the moment, and we stand by our commitment to giving the people what they want.
In that vein, we’ve created this podcast to share some thoughts on observability and how it’s starting to shape the software industry. We’ll be talking to developers and leaders to catalog the progress of the shifting observability landscape and encourage them to make some predictions, so we can have them back in a couple years to discuss the wild inaccuracy of their claims.
For our inaugural episode, we’ve selected one of our very own, New Relic’s Chief Product Officer Bill Staples. Bill has plenty of experience following trends in the industry, he’s been working in software for more than 20 years, and he shares his thoughts about keeping your product’s focus squarely on the communities you serve.
Have a listen or read the transcript below and let us know what you think. We want to continue giving the people what they want throughout the series, so chime in and share your thoughts on where you’d like us to take the next few episodes.
Enjoy the podcast! Sorry not sorry about the name.
Jonan Scheffler: Hello and welcome to Observy McObservface, the podcast about observability that we let the internet name and got exactly what we deserved. I am here today, joined by my guest, Bill Staples. Bill, how are you doing?
Bill Staples: Doing great.
Jonan: Bill works here at New Relic with me. My name is Jonan. I am a developer advocate here at New Relic. And Bill, what is it that you do here?
Bill: I’m still trying to figure that out, actually. Officially, I guess the title is chief product officer.
Bill: But I’ve been here about four months. I guess that’s four months longer than you. Although this is your second round from what I gather.
Jonan: I’m jealous actually to have four whole months to figure out how to do your job before you were recording audio for the internet’s consumption. Sounds lovely. You have a long background in tech before coming here. Well, just tell me about you. What are you up to as a human being aside from tech and work?
Bill: Oh, I’m such a boring person. I hate talking about myself.
Jonan: I somehow doubt that very much that you are boring.
Bill: Oh, no, trust me. I can turn it off right now if this is the topic. My whole life has been centered around building technology, primarily for developers as an audience. So I feel right at home with New Relic.
Jonan: I feel like New Relic has always had that focus on developers. It’s one of the reasons that I try to work for developer product companies, is that I am good at talking to developers because I am myself a developer. And I just want to have fun and talk about things that are interesting to me. I did say just now that I was good at it; I think that might’ve been an overstatement. I don’t claim to be an expert at anything, but I will say that I am certainly happiest working at developer product companies. Building products for developers is a joy.
Bill: I was one of those kids in third grade who, when all the other kids would go out and play soccer, basketball, or something, I would be stuck in the… what was called the media center back then. I don’t know what they call them, libraries, or whatever today, where we had Commodore 64s with the old cassette tape drives. And I would buy the Scholastic tutorial books on how to program, and sit there and code games.
Jonan: That’s amazing. It was a tape drive. It would come in a little cassette.
Bill: Oh, yeah. That was the solid-state storage of the day—a little audio cassette. And you’d pop that in, and that’s how you store things in a persistent way, including all of my fancy code.
Jonan: I started in the five-inch floppy days. I didn’t actually get in on the cassette tape game, but I had a robot when I was a kid. A Robie, it was made by RadioShack—the now-extinct electronics supplier. And you could put a cassette tape into Robie and program it to drive around and stuff. I had a lot of fun taunting my siblings with the creepy robot and the audiotape.
Bill: That’s awesome.
Jonan: You are a leader here in our organization and have been a leader in many organizations in the past. And leadership style is, I think, very unique to the individual, but also very important as to how they’re going to take an organization forward. Obviously, leadership style covers everything that you do. So I would like to hear about yours. In your own words, how would you describe your leadership style?
Bill: Again, you’re asking me to talk about myself. I don’t know. You should ask the people that I’ve worked with what they would say about my leadership style.
Jonan: Oh, we will. We’re having the exposé episode next. I’m going to get all of your friends on here.
Bill: The next session is like what people say about Bill. I just try to be myself like any other person in any role, in any title. I’m a human being, and I have certain strengths and other weaknesses, and I have emotions and ups and downs. So I just try to be myself every day. The kind of leaders I like to work for are people that I can be honest with, direct with, trust. And I just try to do that with other people. I have a different blend of interests. I definitely have loved software and loved being a developer and serving developers my whole career, as I said, but I don’t know if you remember, if you were in high school, if they ever did those left brain, right brain tests? To tell you…
Jonan: Oh, that was definitely a thing. I mean, we’ve had, I think, about like Myers-Briggs in all of the different categories they put us in. So tell us about your right brain, left brain.
Bill: So when I did those tests, for example, I came back, I remember the result, they would plot you on this quadrant where are you strongest, abstract reasoning or creative, where are your strengths. And mine came out perfectly square. That might explain a lot.
Jonan: You are a square?
Bill: I’m a square person. I love art. I love literature. I’ve been in a band. I love writing. I have a creative flair for photography and other things, but then-
Jonan: It sounds to me like you are someone who just is generally excited about life.
Bill: Look, I’m interested in lots of different things. And so, as a leader, in my All Hands [meetings], I’ll often bring in philosophy or quotes from literature, or people that I follow or listen to; I’m maybe different in that way.
Jonan: You are the kind of person that I would like to get to know better. It makes me a little bit sad that we only have a short appointment this morning. The life of a C-level executive at a software company is extraordinarily busy. I took a peek at a calendar the other day, Bill, you just do this all day, just nonstop meetings.
Bill: Yeah. I am on the BlueJeans, Zoom calls pretty much all day, every day, especially in the world of COVID that we all find ourselves in.
Jonan: That level of authenticity that you were talking about, I think is what’s really important to me, is in a leader, I want to talk like a human to other humans. I think it’s very easy to forget in software, that software is made by humans for humans to consume, but hopefully not of humans, that those software companies that eat people up. I’m not a huge fan of that approach to life. I always appreciated about New Relic that we take our work seriously, we take our customers seriously, but we take ourselves a little bit less seriously. I think that’s an important part of being in software. And part of that means just being your authentic self at work. And I’ve always had the opportunity to do that here as well. So we’re excited to have you. I am excited to have you join us, although you joined before me. So I don’t know, as a boomerang, it’s very strange to talk about, and I just got here.
Bill: I think once you’re a Relic, you’re always a Relic. There’s always a home here.
Jonan: I feel the same. So let’s talk about where you were before this. You were at Microsoft in 2014, and that was a period of time that was really interesting, I would imagine. So when I got out of high school, that was the thing. I graduated in 1997, and everyone at the time was really excited about Microsoft. That was the premier employer. We aspired to go off and write software with Bill Gates at Microsoft. And then somewhere between then and the time I got out of college, they completely lost the thread. And they were really proactive about their commercial software licensing and anti-open source and all of this. I mean, people know the story of Microsoft, I think.
Bill: [inaudible 00:08:20], don’t you know?
Jonan: Yes. I think most people know the story of how that went down. But then in 2014 they changed, they pivoted in a big way, and they open sourced the .NET Framework. So I wanted to hear from you, since you were there, what motivation went into that, you think?
Bill: Oh, I was there every step of the way. In fact, I’ll take you back, maybe if you don’t mind, a few years before. I graduated in ’90. That’ll date me, and I joined Microsoft in ’99. I actually dropped, a longer story, maybe another time, I thought I wanted to be a doctor. So I actually got my degree in medical laboratory science. I told you I was-
Jonan: This is what I like, though. I mean, you have depth. So we could also put you in a laboratory if we need to, if we were trying to develop a vaccine quickly, for example.
Bill: Well, I spent my last year in that program, essentially doing a residency where you worked full time in the hospitals with doctors and nurses and lab staff, and you pay tuition to have the right to do that, you don’t get paid for it. And you take tests at the end of every week. And that experience actually taught me, I am not made to be a doctor. And so, I ended up saying, “I’m going to follow my passion,” Which has always been computers. And this was right in the middle of the ‘90s when the internet was booming. And so, I started a computer science degree, met a few people. I ended up dropping out of school. I finished the medical program, but I didn’t finish the computer science one. And I did a startup, and I was part of three smaller companies before Microsoft.
And for the same reason, you said, at the end of the ‘90s there, it was like the heyday of Microsoft. This was before the consent decree and all the crazy stuff that happened. And I joined Microsoft because it was the number one software company in the world that had done such amazing stuff. And I was like, “There’s only once in a lifetime opportunity to learn from that.” And I’ll always come back and do my own thing, having been an entrepreneur.
Of course, those early days at Microsoft, that first decade, was a combination of unfathomable opportunity for me. They kept throwing new challenges my way. And it was so exciting. I was growing and learning. I never thought about leaving because it was just so much going on that was exciting. And specifically, I was involved in the web platform space. So .NET Framework. It was actually a bit early days of .NET. I was part of getting .NET off the ground. I was in this space where we were essentially reinventing the web platform. This was pre-cloud days.
Bill: If you remember early 2000s, there was the first-broad-scale internet virus called Code Red. It was a root exploits on the web server, IIS (Internet Information Services), which was my product at the time. And it would infect the web server, get root access and then spread across all the Windows servers inside your company, and then launch attacks to all other Windows customers around the world. It was a horrible experience. But I learned so much from it about the power of software and how it can be used for good and bad, and the importance of security and defense-in-depth, and code quality, and good architecture. So many important lessons I learned through LN customer empathy. I had to stand up in front of CIOs and CTOs and apologize on behalf of Microsoft for causing them so much damage.
Jonan: Oh, this is the frustrating thing about situations like that. Developers know this, I think, that no matter how secure you make it, there are going to be human beings using it and around it, and those people are fallible. I mean, yesterday we had a very big hack with Twitter. And it wasn’t, in my opinion, strictly a hack, it was someone got someone on the customer service team, who had impersonation credentials. They bribed that person to give them access, I think, and then they used that to impersonate famous people on Twitter and start getting Bitcoin from people. They would say, “Hey, I’ve decided to give back. If you send me Bitcoin first, I will send it back.” Which is the most ridiculous scheme. Every child who’s ever played an online video game knows, you don’t give them something because they’re promising to give you more back. It never works out. So this situation you find yourself in, where you have to go and present to an executive about how your company screwed up, the era that you were there then was from 1999 to-
Bill: 2016. I was there 17 years.
Jonan : Were you in that meeting when Steve Ballmer was on stage yelling, “Developers, developers,” you know that video?
Bill: I was.
Jonan: That’s amazing.
Bill: This period of time was actually super fascinating, because when that happened, that Code Red event, all of the analysts and our customer said, “We’re moving to open source.” Like Apache on Linux was so much more secure.
Jonan: There’s something about open source that can lead to security that way, in that more people have their eyes on the code and can help, right? And, at the time, popular thinking was like, “If we show them the code, then they’re going to know where all the holes are.” But if you keep it private, you’re myopic. As a human being, you can only see so much; your perspective is broadened by having additional eyeballs in the room. That’s just the facts of it. And I’m glad to see Microsoft has finally realized. But please, continue your story.
Bill: This is what taught me the value of open source. I faced that head-on, and we had to have an answer for Windows and for iOS customers, “What are we going to do both to shore up the platform, but also to take advantage and learn from open source and embrace it?” And so, the middle of those 2000s is when obviously Microsoft took some pretty hard positions against open source for a variety of reasons. But internally, I can tell you, Microsoft is a fascinating company. I don’t need to do an exposé on Microsoft, but I’ll just tell you, it’s often misunderstood, a lot of smart people focus on, “What’s the right thing to do for developers?” It’s fundamentally a technology company, a platform company, and making life better for developers in many ways. And sometimes they succeed in that, and sometimes they don’t.
But the lesson for me in all of that was I was adamant that embracing open source and making it a part of our platform story was essential. In fact, you can go search Google for “Bill Staples” and “Microsoft CodePlex Foundation.” I actually helped start the first open source foundation that Microsoft sponsored.
Jonan: It was called CodePlex.
Bill: CodePlex. I don’t know if you remember-
Jonan: That was a much better name than Observy McObservface.
Bill: It was cool for its day. I was on the board of that and helped get it off the ground. And then when we transitioned from building on-premises software, as part of windows server to Azure—this is getting closer to the timeframe you talked about, 2011 is when I got involved in that. We made it the first principle of embrace open source software everywhere. Because the value is not in the software we build, the value is in the service we deliver. And you see that now all the time with commercial open source vendors who take the commercial open source, but then offer it as a service to customers. And we took the same approach, Microsoft is going to offer Linux VMs as a service, Redis caching was one of the services I helped stand up in Azure and scale all kinds of open source systems.
Jonan: This commercial open source software is primarily built by people who are going home after work and doing some more free work. There are a lot of companies that are paying their fair share by hiring people and contributing back to open source. I was very proud to see the recent release of opensource.newrelic.com, and that we’re starting to talk about our open source efforts externally. I am often frustrated to think about what percentage of wealth comes at the hands of all of those developers typing nights and weekends, who are often, and I know many of them, left out of the cold at the end of the day, as far as money goes. But I think that the more companies we can get on board with this plan, where open source is not free in the way you are thinking it is free, that you need to be a good steward of the community and out there contributing back at every opportunity.
Jonan: And I’m excited to see Microsoft join into that party. I also agree with you that it is difficult to get an accurate perception of a company and that company’s culture from the outside sometimes. With Microsoft and many others of that same era, people were still trying to figure out how to represent themselves. They were there to write software, and they were there to move quickly. And it was a very exciting time. And they weren’t, I think, necessarily all that concerned about how that appeared in the public eye, and the broader messaging is much more difficult than that. Often, a company is hamstrung by all sorts of legal concerns and other constraints that just are not visible from the outside. It ends up being a one-sided conversation, where I, as a kid, could get on some BBS somewhere and post all of the diatribes I wanted about Microsoft, but Microsoft didn’t have that same opportunity. They couldn’t come back at me; it was a little bit of a one-sided fight. So the open source revolution is here, and has been here for a while.
Bill: Like I said, I have been embracing open source since the early 2000s. And just for all the reasons you started mentioning, I love the fact that it’s crowdsourced. Any developer in any part of the world, and any business, can go solve problems that they’re genuinely interested in and collaborate in the community to solve those problems.
Contrast that with sometimes what happens inside commercial companies, which is, you have really smart people building proprietary systems to solve a customer problem, but often get caught up in the technology itself as opposed to the customer problem. One of the things I love about open source is that it’s often so pragmatic. It actually solves real problems sometimes much more effectively than what commercial software can do when we get caught up in the coolness of the technology.
In fact, if there’s one lesson I learned from Microsoft, I built tons of really fascinating and cool technology. Not all was on point to solve a customer problem. And I committed to myself going through that journey of Microsoft several times, seeing teams of hundreds, sometimes even 1,000 people working on a project for years, and have it then canceled and never see the light of day. Why? Because we realized it doesn’t actually solve any real customer problem that people would pay money for, and it was just a waste of energy and effort. Whereas open source tends to either, if someone does start off a project that doesn’t solve a problem, it doesn’t tend to go very far. And the great open source software solves really important problems.
Jonan: It starts generally because some developer has a problem, and they are their own consumers. Developer product companies start out the same way, but it’s very easy to get to a place where you are moving so quickly and making product decisions that compound themselves and take your product in a direction that ultimately loses sight of the original customer’s needs. And then you end up in this situation where you’re trapped by a sunk cost fallacy. A lot of times, they’re still trying to find a way to make this work. And you end up with bloated software that doesn’t really serve anyone well, or certainly not simply.
So in the context of that open source ecosystem then, we have a lot of people out there writing open source right now under the CNCF, the Cloud Native Computing Foundation, a lot of open source projects over there that are in the observability space. People are able to move to container architectures, and they have a much better chance of achieving scale if they can scale horizontally. It’s much more important for us to see inside of them in a more complicated world. And a lot of the software products that are popping up in the CNCF and elsewhere are designed to address that problem. So I guess I’m asking, do you feel like New Relic is in competition with open source projects like the CNCF projects?
Bill: No, no, not at all. I think they’re a great complement to what we do at New Relic. And I think if I have any say with this fancy title of mine, you’ll see much more clarity on that in our future, in terms of how we embrace open source for our own projects, as well as how we support open source communities and contribute to them.
Jonan: I’m excited to hear that. Thumbs up, correct answer. Well done.
Bill: Let my actions speak louder. I think the proof will be in the pudding, but I think some pretty exciting things are coming.
Jonan: I am not particularly shy as a person, Bill, you can trust me to hold you accountable for your commitment to open source. I also very much hope that someone with the title of chief product officer will be having some say in where the product goes. So then, given that we have this new, more complex ecosystem, it changes things for New Relic a little bit. I think change is a constant in software obviously, but how are we differentiating ourselves then? How do we stand out in a sea of platforms and tools that achieve this thing?
Bill: It’s a good question, and it’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about. I’ll try and give you a simple answer, but maybe a little bit of context first in terms of how I see observability evolving before I talk about how I think we’re trying to solve it. You mentioned we’ve got these systems with public cloud that are unlocking all kinds of really amazing use cases for companies and consumers alike. The complexity of those definitely drives the need for observability, so you can understand what’s going on in these very complex distributed systems.
I think there’s also something else going on, which is much more personal to the developer. And I liken it a little bit to the shift left to test-driven development mindset that sprung up a number of years ago, in that I don’t know for you if it was similar, but prior to that, I remember testing was thought of as something you do just enough of to make sure you don’t screw up too badly. Or if you’re lucky enough to be writing code in the context of a company, it’s something that the QA engineer did for you. You wrote the feature code, and then somebody else tested it and wrote whatever automation needed to get themselves out of having to manually test it.
And we made this evolution, I think, a lot of developers have of realizing writing code upfront as part of planning and building the feature is really a good way to make sure that feature works well and doesn’t regress over time. And I think the same thing, we’re on the cusp of that when it comes to instrumenting things. By default, I think, both the software systems we consume as developers like Kubernetes, or data stores, or other public cloud services that we might consume, telemetry, they’ll be instrumented by default.
And our own code that we write, we should be taking an instrument-everything approach to it. Because what’s evolved on the other side, both because the complexity of the systems hasn’t demanded it. And the fact that collecting that telemetry, analyzing it, and actioning it has not really been possible at scale. I mean, we’re talking about billions and billions of events and metrics and gigabytes that need to be collected and stored and analyzed and reasoned on. It just hasn’t been feasible, either technically or financially to do that.
So, now I’m getting to the part where New Relic is interesting in terms of how we solve it. We think we’re on the cusp of solving that problem. We think we’ve got the technology to allow developers and engineers to instrument everything, every layer of the stack, infrastructure, distributed services, and applications to mobile devices and wearable computing and everything in between. You can now instrument everything, and we’ll collect that data, metrics, dimensional metrics, events, log data, tracing data across services. You can now collect all of that in one place at extremely low cost. And we provide the intelligence services, the analytics, and the capabilities you need to reason on that data and take action on it.
Jonan: That’s, I think, the piece that is important is that we can collect all of this data all day long. I love the idea of being able to instrument my AirPods, and my phone, and my apps everywhere, and get all of this data, but it is a huge volume of data. And I think what the industry is feeling right now is, “We have all of this data, but we’re unable to take action on it because we ultimately don’t see the bigger picture.” I spend a lot of time standing in booths and talking to people. I had a gentleman come up to me at re:Invent recently and said, “I think what we need as an organization is a data lake, so we can just get everything in one place.” And they continue to make it there, and then someone talked to me about a data ocean. There are going to be data galaxies, I’m sure, someday. We keep talking about this problem, but no one’s really solved it.
Bill: Observability, I believe, is a big data problem. And technically speaking, you look at all of the vendors out there today, the big commercial vendors, they’re all using variants of open source and proprietary technology that creates data silos, like their store is optimized for logs that are different than stores optimized for dimensional metrics, and the ability to correlate across those data types and reason on them is limited. You end up having these tool fragmentation on top of siloed data sets. And not to mention, it’s extremely expensive to collect petabytes of the kinds of data. The scale of data we’re talking about for a large company is in the petabytes per month. It’s just extremely expensive. It’s been extremely expensive and complex to manage and reason on that data. And I think we’re on the cusp of solving it here at New Relic. That’s the thing that brought me here, and I’m so excited to help evolve.
Jonan: I feel similarly. The real motivation for me, personally, coming to the company was generally just to be loud on the internet. But I agree with you that New Relic seems to be well-positioned certainly, and I hope that we are on the cusp of solving that piece. So, given that this new world where people are able to inexpensively get all their data in one place and then take action on it easily, then what’s next? Where do you see New Relic going after that succeeds? Let’s imagine a scenario where New Relic ends up being that exact place for everyone, then where are we positioned in five years?
Bill: Oh, five years is a long, long time in technology. I mean, just think about the state of the art five years ago in terms of your phone, or in terms of cloud. It’s hard to say. I would say, for sure, I think what I just alluded to in terms of instrumenting everything, I think it will be just as much a reality as a test-driven development or CI/CD is for companies who take advantage of agile practices and have code flow into production. I think the same thing will be true in terms of observability. We’ll see real-time actioning and insights on the health and the state of your production systems.
And you think about operational data that flows into observability stores; it’s not only telling you the health of your infrastructure, it’s telling you the health of your customer experiences on the other side and how customers are engaging with your business. It’s also telling you the efficiency of your processes that are running those systems. Because you can see when things break down, how long it takes to engage, and ultimately what their effectiveness is in responding and bringing things back online, or avoiding the issue in the first place. And so, there’s a wealth of use cases on top of that operational data that I think we’re going to be unlocking over the next five years that’s really, really exciting.
Jonan: It is an exciting future indeed. I have one last question for you, Bill, and it’s a much simpler one. And I’m going to knock you off your product messaging a little bit because I want to hear from you what you might tell yourself back in those early days of your career. There are many people out there in the world aspiring to be in your position someday. And I wonder if you have any parting words for aspiring product leaders?
Bill: No, maybe two things. One, customers first. Like I said, it’s easy to build cool technology; it’s hard to solve real customer problems with technology. And I’ve done both, and it’s always more rewarding, at least for me, to solve real customer problems. The second one would be just enjoy the ride. I’ve been in my career for a few decades now, and there’s a lot I’m proud of, and some I’m not proud of, but I sometimes take myself and the work too seriously. And as I look back, there’s just so many amazing people and so much amazing technology that I wish I would have enjoyed it more in the moment, trying to remind myself of that right now, actually.
Jonan: Well, with that, I am certain that you have another meeting to get off to. It has been an absolute pleasure talking to you, Bill. Thank you so much for joining me today, and thank you to all of our listeners as well.
Bill: Thank you, Jonan.
Jonan: That’s all for our inaugural episode of Observy McObservface, the observability podcast that we let the internet name, and immediately regretted. I’m so, so sorry about the name. Please remember to like, follow, and subscribe. You can find this podcast and many other lovely nerdy things at developer.newrelic.com. I look forward to seeing you there. Take care.