In episode 2 of Swimm Upstream, Host Tom Ahi Dror speaks with Patrick Poels about his experiences running over potholes, and learning from those experiences to clear roadblocks for engineers and product managers. Patrick is the Senior VP of Engineering at Synk.
Hello, everyone, and thanks for joining us on this episode of Swimm Upstream, a podcast devoted to engineering team leads and dev tool enthusiasts. I'm Tom, co-founder of Swimm. And today, we're talking with Patrick Poels. In two quite different fields, Mr. Poels has achieved significant success. He's been in software development since the mid 1980s, reaching the highest levels of management in three well known companies. Ticketmaster, where he worked for more than 15 years, reaching the role of VP Engineering. Eventbrite, where he worked for almost nine years, reaching the role of CTO, and these days at Snyk, where he's the Senior VP of Engineering. But if you look up Pat Poels on Wikipedia, you'll find that he's a two-time winner of World Series poker bracelets in 2005 and 2006. Hi, Pat. We're excited to have you on. Thanks for coming to speak with me today.
Hey, Tom, super excited to be here. Thank you.
So we have an interesting set of questions for you today. So let's jump right in. Pat, at Swimm, we take coffee way too seriously. So to start things off, if you could have coffee anywhere or with anyone, where or who would it be this morning?
Yeah, so it's kind of a fantasy question. I'm gonna give you a fantasy answer. So I'm sure people think about like, you know, Bill Gates type person or someone really smart they want to meet or whatever. I'd kind of - I'd go back in time, a little way. So the person I learned the most from over the course of my lifetime was my grandfather. He's been passed now for, you know, for several years, about about ten years since he's passed. But he always seemed to have, you know, a way to teach me new things. And so if I could find a person to have coffee with this morning, it would be him.
Wow, I can relate to that. Completely. Thank you for that. This past year and a half, have been mostly focused on adjusting to the new realities of COVID-19, right? And I wonder, what's one thing you learn to live without that surprised you since this all started?
Yeah, it was a forced thing. I think everyone's had to go through this. But it was the lack of travel, and specifically to travel to offices, and, you know, kind of being around teammates. That's a thing that I've always done and spent a lot of time in the offices that were, you know, I wouldn't say necessarily remote but distributed around the... around the world. And just not having the opportunity to do that getting Started at Snyk. I moved here to London to be close to where really the base of our operations from an R&D standpoint exists. But I couldn't go to the Tel Aviv office and visit the team there. I couldn't go to talk to teams that we were going through acquisitions with, and that was really challenging. And I wouldn't say that I've learned to live without it necessarily. But, you know, we're all forced to, to kind of deal with this and operate anyways. And so I think I've - we've learned to get at least a little better. Now that things are starting to open up a little bit more, I can travel a little bit. And it's, it's a bit better.
So basically, you also started a new, very senior management role during this pandemic, right?
Which I'm assuming was also challenging. Am I right?
Oh, yeah, I took the role, you know, I started in the West Coast of the US, and most of the team members, like 98% of our R&D team was either in London or Tel Aviv. At that time, company leadership was in Boston. And so my first, my first maybe three months while I was working to achieve my work permit to move was getting up at 2:30 in the morning, trying to start my day at 3 am. And it was still 1 pm in Tel Aviv by that time. So the timezone challenges were really, really significant. And I didn't meet anyone at all from Snyk until I was making that move over to London. I stopped in Boston and met my boss and a few other members of the exec team for dinner on the way, but it was from July to October where I hadn't met anyone in person.
Wow. Okay. I'm sure that was challenging for everyone else as well. Okay, could you describe what you do at Snyk now without using your title?
Hopefully, I'm clearing a lot of roadblocks for some incredible engineers and product managers to be able to build, you know, really the future of developer security. And I think that, you know, title or not, that's kind of what I'm supposed to be doing all the time is to help them move as fast as they can - help make sure we're doing things in a sustainable way so that it's not just building features for right now that we need today. But also, we're gonna be here for a while and making sure that this is still something we can do two, three, five years from now, and balancing those things together - dealing with an awful lot of growth. It doesn't matter what the title is. Those are all parts of what we have to do in our job right now.
Yeah, so you mentioned, you know, decreasing roadblocks or and I imagine a lot of times with new management, like mid-level management are worried that the new management will create more roadblocks. Am I right? And is that something... Is that like the kind of fear that you see when you get into new roles?
Yeah, so always there are things you bring with you that you've learned. You know, you had your - you encountered your experiences over the course of time, and you ran over some potholes in the road, and you see, you think, well, I don't want to run over that one again. So let's make sure we don't do that. And you bring those things with you, and at times those things are, they can be challenging because people have their ideas of this is what should happen, and this is, this is the way things are going. I think in our company, it's still a relatively, you know we're only six years old. We’ll be six years old, actually on Friday. So it's not a company that's been around for a tremendously long time. There aren't a lot of habits and things that have been just so ingrained in what we do that you can't - you know you can't impact those things. And because we've been growing so fast, I think that change muscle is something that exists pretty well in this company already. But also, at the same time, I don't think I have it figured out. I think that I mean, I hope everyone who's listening to this has that kind of growth mindset and doesn't ever feel like they've got it all figured out. I'm learning a tremendous amount from this company from the people I'm working with. And so you always just try to like, bring the things that you can to help make things better, but also understand the current situation and understand what people know, and just try to get the best answers together. And not my answers; they’re our answers.
Okay, so you mentioned speedy growth in Snyk. Also, during your time at Eventbrite - if I calculated correctly, you saw it grow from less than 200 employees to around five times that number? And was there anything you found particularly effective in getting new developers to reach their full potential as quickly as possible? Anything that you've been implementing at Snyk now as well?
That's I mean, that's a constant journey, learning, trying, how to get better at that. They think that's kind of the - that's one of the secrets to being a really effective team is how do you, you know, you learn all these things, and you build all these, whether they're processes or the things that you know, or your documentation or all the things that... But a lot of it's walking around in people's heads. It’s how do you get that from the people who've been around for a while and their heads into the brains of the people, you know, who are coming into the team. And I think there's - there's processes for doing this at pretty much every level. You know, onboarding processes, and you know, things to kind of write down as much as you can to make that onboarding easier. One of the things - this is not, this is not necessarily germane to everyone across the team. But one of the things I did for my direct reports was I wrote down basically like, a document that was a user manual for me because I felt like I learned this from someone over the course of time that when you are hiring very quickly, and you're bringing people into the team, wouldn't it be nice if all those things that the people you've worked with for a very long time have learned about you, that you can just give that to someone and say, "You don't have to do it exactly like this, but here are the things I'm strong at, here are the things I'm weak at, here's where I need your help, here's where I really want to help you." And not make them figure it out over the course of six months, or a year or five years, or whatever. So I did, I did spend some time - I wrote a first draft that my leaders took it, tore it apart, and said, this is true, but not really. This one, you need to really push on some more. And so it was kind of a collaborative effort of putting it together. But it was a thing that I could share, you know, with those leaders who are coming into the company. And I need to update this. I've shared it with a few people here in the company at Snyk. But I need to update it to make sure that it's more current. There were things that were specific to Eventbrite in that document. So I want to change those before I really share it out too widely. But I think it was helpful.
Okay, that's a tip we haven't heard yet. And it sounds great. So it - does it - like include when to ask you for things, you know, and to know when you're in the best mood?
Yeah, yeah, it really does. It talks about, you know, it talks about what it looks like when I'm at my most collaborative, what it looks like when I'm starting to, you know kind of, if it feels like I'm starting to micromanage at all, it's because there's just I want to have more information on things. And I don't ever want to be doing that - it's not my intent. It's sort of a - it's a reflexive thing that happens when and it's a signal to people that they just need to give a little bit more, a little bit more information, a little bit more visibility on how things are going. And then you'll find that I’m a really good partner to work with. But helping, you know, hopefully trying to show people that’s what it looks like when I'm at my best - what it looks like when I'm at my worst and then a little bit of the playbook of how to you know how to work around that. And as I said, I really don't ever want it to be prescriptive - my way or the highway or anything like that, just helpful. Just something, because we're trying to do everything we're learning. We're trying to learn as fast as we can. We're trying to do it at speed. So the more you can do to give people a little bit of - you know - helpful addition to their speed or acceleration, the better.
Okay, so talking about onboarding, one of the biggest challenges is with people that are coming with very little or no experience, no previous experience at all. And this, in our view, is one of the biggest structural challenges in the software industry. Helping developers get their first experience, right? At Eventbrite, you had an initiative called Developer Academy to meet this challenge. Could you tell us about this program and what you learn from it?
Yeah, absolutely. I'm surprised you're able to dig in and find anything about Eventbrite Developer Academy. We call the EDA internally because it was a, it's a pretty niche thing to this company. But really, it started as a lot of things like this do - it started with one person who had a belief that, hey, we can do this, this thing that we're doing a bit better. It grew out of - we made an acquisition in Argentina in 2013. It was 15 people in the company, five engineers. And that grew over the course of time that while I was in the company to 150 engineers, so it was
...a tremendous growth story. It ended up being about, you know, just slightly less than 50% of the engineering team for Eventbrite. And a part of that, in the last couple of years, there's quite a bit of growth coming from people coming out of universities just getting started in their careers. And that all was born from basically one person who was looking at our onboarding process and saying that we can do this better, and I have a feeling that if we lean into it a bit and create some process around this, we can do it better. Gabi Flores, if you happen to be listening to this, I'm talking about you. So effectively, what he did was just sort of formalize a training program, something that was a bit like a, you know, like he said, an academy, like a university that some people had done in other companies. But something that was very geared towards college new grads, because we were starting to get some real traction in college new grads coming into the company, building a name for Eventbrite being a place that new engineers want to come to work. And so he created this, basically, syllabus. He asked for a couple of volunteers in the team to help him, and then we open up, you know, for, for new grads, we opened up an application process, and we went through a process of trying to determine who we would like to, to have in the team.
And I think in the first class of applicants, we had something like 20. And we chose ten of those twenty to send through this developer Academy - [a] twelve-week thing, where we were teaching them, basically, you know, how to be a really strong engineer at Eventbrite. And very hands-on working on things that were, you know, challenges that we were in the middle of working on and helping them to kind of see a lot about our development systems and our pipeline, and all the rest of the things that we did. So they were learning a lot about how to be productive on day one through that Academy. And then the really interesting part was those ten people who I think nine of the ten ended up graduating and becoming employees of the company. Those nine were placed into different teams and made a huge impact. And it was a surprising impact to the different engineering leaders - just how much they were able to do as quickly as they were able.
So six months later, we had our second class. And, as you might expect, the engineering leaders from all the different teams in Argentina lined up at the door to say, hey, I want people out of this next class. And I think pretty smartly, Gabby said, okay, but you didn't volunteer to help us with the last class. We need you to be participating as a teacher and instructor if you want to have any chance to get any of the grads from the next Academy. And so that created a much more of like everyone participating on the engineering team and being a part of that - by the time my, the last class that I was there at Eventbrite, our fourth class. So it was like the end of the second year - we had, I think the number was 165 applicants for ten spots. So it had become something that had grown a name inside the university programs in Mendoza. And this Mendoza, Argentina, it's a city of about a million and a half. So we're able to get 165 applicants in one graduating class from a city that's not all that large. Really huge driver for kind of growth in that company and really proud of the work that Gabby - wasn't just Gabby, a lot of people had something to do with it, but he started it. It's a testament to, you know, kind of what can be achieved when one person has an idea and decides they're going to drive and push on this and make something happen.
So I... First of all, this is a beautiful story. It's sounds like an internal positive flywheel. You know, it's like the best thing you can hope for. And I'm wondering what people in similar positions, positions to yours could be learning from this story. But it sounds like it's very, you know, you're doing great job giving credit. Is it the situation that you would need a champion- the right kind of champion, and without it, there's not a lot of chance that this would work?
I mean, Tom, I think there are other - there may be other ways to get there, but that's the way that I've seen successful so far. I watched a person, you know. And there were, there were some things that helped us to get started just based on some of the people we had in the company and starting to build a good reputation around engineering in Mendoza before we got that kicked off. But really, I would say yes, like, I would say that the right answer is you need someone who's a champion, who's going to drive something. Almost all the things need an owner of some sort, who's just going to be waking up every day thinking, okay, I'm going to make this thing happen. Otherwise, they can just be really good ideas that sort of stall and die and whatever. He wouldn't let that like he was not going to let this die. And it was pretty easy to get behind him. When you could see how much passion he had for it and that he was willing to really kind of pick it up and drive it. So yeah, he did an incredible job.
So I'm guessing at the very least - that there's a thing to learn here that if you see someone with passion for a particular idea, give them a chance.
This was the first part of our talk with Pat Poels. Please stay tuned for the second part, where we will be talking with him about dealing with knowledge silos and grooming people for leadership roles in software organizations. To find additional episodes and full transcripts, or if you'd like to be a guest on our show. Find us on our community page at Swimm with a double m dot io.
Bye for now.