In this episode, we talk to Justin Gehtland about 2015 accomplishments and 2016 plans.
Trade-offs - co-location vs. distributed teams
Datomic Conf videos
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EPISODE COVER ART
Our theme music for this episode is Thumbs Up (for Rock N' Roll) by killthenoise with Feed Me which was used under a Creative Commons License.
In this episode, we talk to Justin Gehtland about 2015 accomplishments and 2016 plans.
The Cognicast 2015 4th Anniversary Edition
CRAIG: Hello, and welcome to Episode 94 of The Cognicast, a podcast by Cognitect, Inc. about software and the people who create it. I'm your host, Craig Andera.
Well, Happy New Year. Here we are right at the beginning of 2016.
I've got a short announcement for you today just about ClojureBridge. There's a ClojureBridge Berlin workshop happening. That's January 22nd and 23rd, and you can find out more about that at www.ClojureBridge.org.
I will remind you, as well, that ClojureBridge now sports a relatively new Donate button, which you can click and find out more about how to donate to that worthy organization. Would definitely encourage you to do so.
Like I said, that's really about it for today. Not much to mention. I'm going to go ahead and get right on to the episode, so we will move right on, now Episode 94 of the Cognicast.
[Music: "Thumbs Up (for Rock N' Roll)" by Kill the Noise and Feed Me]
CRAIG: Okay, so this is experience of art, so if you need a second to get something….
JUSTIN: Nope. I got this one.
CRAIG: Okay, cool.
All right, everyone. Hello and welcome to the Cognicast. Today is Monday, December 21st, in the year 2015. Our guest today is, once again, although we do not have him on frequently enough–we do have him on at least once a year–I'm talking of course about our CEO, Justin Gehtland. Welcome to the show, Justin.
JUSTIN: Thank you very much for having me back, Craig.
CRAIG: Well, we have to, not only because it's a tradition, but because you're always such an entertaining guest.
JUSTIN: And because I'm your boss.
CRAIG: Well, there's that, too. Technically, my grand-boss, but, hey.
JUSTIN: That's right.
CRAIG: Yeah. But, no, we are really thrilled to have you. I always enjoy our discussions. But, before we start that, we ask you a question. That question for us at the beginning of the show is: We ask our guests to share with us some experience relating to art.
You've had this question before, so I'm sure you're familiar. But, just briefly, this can be an experience relating to art in any way that you see fit, on any topic you see fit, whether it's books, movies, or any other thing that you decide it should be. So, what do you got for us?
JUSTIN: I have a lot that I would pick from, but this one stands out to me as meaningful in terms of how I experience art and why. My wife and I, on our honeymoon in 2000, went to Italy. Among the places we went was the Vatican Museum. I don't know if you have been. Have you been, Craig?
CRAIG: I have not.
JUSTIN: I'm sure several people listening to this might have been. The cool thing about the Vatican Museum is that it's largely self-guided tours. You can pick the short, the medium, the long, or the extra long–at least you could back in 2000–where short meant the three-hour tour.
CRAIG: Wait. Gilligan's Island theme music, cue.
JUSTIN: They could be progressively longer. Basically they were just cut off hallways, right? Turn left here instead of go straight, and you cut off an hour and a half of the Vatican. At the end of any of those tours is the Sistine Chapel. Of course, we've all heard about the Sistine Chapel all of our lives as this incredible piece of artwork.
We set out on the shortest of the many tours, the three-hour version, and wound our way through an unconscionable collection of art that spanned thousands of years, as you might guess, right? The Catholic Church has been around for a long time and is–well, I was going to say–richer than God.
CRAIG: Extremely wealthy.
JUSTIN: Extremely wealthy, and they have quite a collection. It becomes exhausting. Any museum becomes exhausting if you spend too much time in it. The overwhelming sensation of beautiful art and beautiful art and beautiful art, and the tapestry rooms there in particular were unbelievable.
At the end of every hallway is a sign that says, "Cappella Sistina," and then with an arrow. And so, at the end of every hallway filled with as much art as your brain can take in, there's a sign promising that the Sistine Chapel is just around the corner, and it's never true.
And so, after three hours of progressively becoming inured to beauty, you are finally dumped into the Sistine Chapel rather suddenly, actually, given all the foreshadowing in the travels. When you go in, there's a giant sign right before you walk in that says absolute quiet demanded, right? It's a holy place, and please respect everybody else.
When you go through the doors into it, you find yourself in what is essentially a mall food court at high feast hour with a bunch of tourists yelling and screaming and stamping and doing all manner of ill behavior. Plus, it's poorly ventilated, and so you have all of these sweaty tourists crammed into this one poorly ventilated place, so you can imagine what it smells like.
After three hours of traipsing through the Vatican and paying minute detail to Etruscan pottery and everything else we passed, we spent about 30 seconds in the Sistine Chapel looking up, listening to crowds yelling around us, smelling them, and said, "All right, we're out of here."
To me, that's always been how the sort of experience of art is, whatever they're building me up to I know is going to be a let down, so I'm going to go focus on the other details. It's taught me a very valuable lesson that's kept me sane to this day.
CRAIG: I'm sure. I am sure there's a metaphor for software development in there, if not four or five.
JUSTIN: That's right.
CRAIG: Somehow. I think I felt one hovering beneath the surface when you were talking about the signs that say you're nearly there.
JUSTIN: Oh, yeah. Every hallway was an iteration.
CRAIG: Yeah. There you go. There you go. I like it.
JUSTIN: The solution is around the corner.
CRAIG: That's very cool. That's very cool. I love that story. Excellent. Thanks for that.
JUSTIN: No problem.
CRAIG: All right, well, here we are. People can probably guess what our main topic of conversation is today. This is the episode that either ends our fourth season or begins our fifth season, or both, depending on how you want to look at it.
Of course, as we always do every year, you were our very first guest on the podcast, as many people might know and, every year, we've had you back on. You and I have talked about the year that's gone by. Then, to the extent that we're able to, talked about what we think might be coming up in 2016.
I just love doing that, and I'm glad that we're going to be doing it again today. We may as well go ahead and jump right in. Justin, 2015, what's up with that?
JUSTIN: 2015. Well, I think, for me, 2015, I always have these sorts of buckets that I like to talk about. I know that a lot of our listeners are fans of or members of the Clojure community and the Clojure community is one of the sort of pieces of our world that we feel quite strongly about and we take our stewardship of our part of it very seriously. Our goal always is to enable that community to grow in the ways that it needs to.
2015 was great in that respect. I think some of the things that, personally, I took a lot of benefit from: One was, we got involved this year with the EuroClojure and sort of added that under the Cognitect banner. Now we have Clojure/conj, Clojure/west, and EuroClojure.
This was my first trip to EuroClojure, even though it's its fourth year, its first year under our banner. Going to Barcelona this year and meeting the European Clojure community face-to-face in a way that I hadn't really been able to before–I'd met parts of it on business trips before, but never really en masse–was awesome. It was awesome for me. I hope it was at least mildly useful for the people who attended the conference.
I think the conference went very well and the people were excited to be there. I think the talks were great. More than anything, it was just really nice for me and for Cognitect to get over there and be more involved.
I'm very excited to see the growth of the community in Europe. It's certainly leaps and bounds. I think Luke VanderHart went over to speak at–and I'm going to mash this pronunciation, I'm sure, but–clojuTRE in Finland.
CRAIG: I'm laughing because I've butchered the pronunciation of that show to Twitter gentle ridicule myself several times now.
JUSTIN: Right. It is clō-dōō-chǝr? I don't know.
CRAIG: I have absolutely no idea. We're going to go with whatever comes out of your mouth.
JUSTIN: But I know that there were 200-and-some people at that show, and the feedback that we got from that has been great. That's a huge thing for me, personally, and it's something that I'm really enjoying gearing up for this coming year.
On the theme of the conferences, Clojure/west, this last year, was in Portland. The Conj, we had moved to Philadelphia for the first time this year. In every one of those shows, the trend over the last couple of years has maintained, which is that more than 50% of the attendees at these shows are first time attendees at a Clojure conference. With the addition of the fact that attendance at each shown has grown each year, that just means that the community is growing and that we're attracting more people to come over and experience the language, the community, the conferences, and the material. And, it continues to be a really thrilling experience to go to each of those.
Obviously, now we're planning an upcoming Clojure/west, which, by the time this show has aired, we will have publicly announced its date and location, which is in Seattle, April 15th and 16th, which will be fun to take Clojure/west off to a new city. It's been in Portland and San Francisco in its previous runs.
Then, obviously, we're looking ahead to where EuroClojure and where Conj will be in 2016, and trying to pick new venues that will accommodate the growth of each of these shows. It's pretty steady growth, so we kind of know what to expect, but it means we have to cast around for different venues than the ones we've had in the past, which is all fun.
Alex Miller, Lynn Grogan, and Kim Foster, who are our prime team working the shows, continue to do a fantastic job in lining things up and making great experiences. We continue to love everybody's feedback, and we hope to see everybody at those shows again this coming year.
I don't know about you, Craig, because you were there, but I thought Philadelphia was a great location to try for Conj. I really felt like the part of the city we were in was really accommodating to the show, and I felt there was a pretty good vibe at the event.
CRAIG: Yeah, I totally agree. It was definitely a good place. I know it's a venue that has that experience with conferences and other conferences of similar size that have been held there, so I think it was a good choice. Although, as you observed, the conferences keep growing and, at some point, we outgrow each of the venues we've been at. You mentioned Seattle for Clojure/west. Of course, we were jokingly observing that, the Conj, and now I guess you could also say Clojure/west have been sort of, overall, drifting north, and so one wonders where in Canada we'll be able to hold it in ten years.
JUSTIN: We're going to do Greenland.
CRAIG: There you go.
JUSTIN: We're just going to combine everything in Greenland.
CRAIG: There you go - lots of space.
JUSTIN: It's east from somewhere, west from somewhere else, and the Europeans can get there.
CRAIG: There you go. WorldClojure, Clojure/world.
JUSTIN: Clojure/world, there you go.
CRAIG: Clojure/one, something - something, yeah.
JUSTIN: Yeah, I think that, I won't say it's the prime thing that happened this year, but it sticks out because getting across the Atlantic and putting toes in the water was a high point for me.
CRAIG: Yeah. Actually, could we visit that a little bit?
CRAIG: I think I have the same impression that you do, which is, although I'm not in Europe, I'm not working on Clojure in Europe, it's always hard to quantify these things, but it feels like the year where the level of Clojure in Europe rose to the point where it was palpable, even from this side of the pond - if that makes any sense.
JUSTIN: Yeah. I would say that it was certainly the year where we felt the connection, where it felt like one large community that spanned both continents and more. It's really global now in a way that it was a little murkier, I would say, in previous years. I'm sure that the experience of different people in the community is different.
Cognitect is a business, so I can talk about both sides of this. In the one sense, we have the pure community side where we started to have more conversations with people about Clojure and do things like join the conference movement over there. But then, from a business perspective, it's also the year where the number of phone calls we got on a business side of the house rose dramatically.
We have–it's not unique, but–a somewhat privileged position to see sort of both ends of that conversational spectrum, and it's just absolutely true that we are seeing a global uptake and uptick across that whole spectrum. 2015 is clearly the year where that became obvious and palpable. Now, I think the European Clojure community has been doing incredible work ever since Clojure came out, and it just feels now suddenly like we're all talking.
CRAIG: Yeah. Yeah. Like I said, that was my impression as well. Sorry. Please continue. Yes, go ahead.
JUSTIN: What else in 2015? From a Cognitect specific side, I think 2015 was a year of growth of the organization. We've added quite a large number of people for our own pace of growth. I think we've added six or seven people over the course of the year: some new engineers, some people in the sales team, people on the marketing team, operations folks.
What has been fascinating about that is I think most of our listeners know that, about four years ago, we made a conscientious decision to stop focusing on local growth in Durham, North Carolina, which is our headquarters. It's where we founded the company. But, after the first seven years of the company, we figured out that we couldn't keep growing by making everybody either start from or move to Durham. After having made that decision, we spent the last four years growing in a distributed manner.
CRAIG: For which, by they way, I am quite grateful.
JUSTIN: It certainly is the only way we could have the team we've actually amassed. I can talk about my philosophy on that if it's interesting, but what's been fascinating this year is, as we've grown this year, about half of those new additions are here in Durham. It's the first time in four years we've added new people here at what is HQ, but only in name because, still, less than a third of the company is here in North Carolina.
While I felt that 2015 was the first year where we had finally banished the word "remoter" from our lexicon, it's not that we have a home office and everybody is remote. It's that we're a distributed team.
CRAIG: That's funny. I never even noticed that happening, but now that you say that, that absolutely is the case that we don't really – it was never a class distinction before, but it was definitely a word that came up way more than it does now.
JUSTIN: It is absolutely a conscious effort to try to not use that kind of terminology. That being said, suddenly now we've added some more people here in Durham, and it obviously has an effect on the density in the office and the number of people you see on a regular basis. Today is a dramatic exception given that it's just before Christmas, so I'm nearly alone in the office. I think I've seen two other faces go by, maybe three.
That's been really interesting, but it's also great. We're growing all kinds of new skill sets within the business and gearing up for what we hope is a great 2016, and so that's been fun.
On the Clojure front, we've spent the year trying to do a couple of things. The biggest thing for us has been being good stewards of the parts of the community that we need to be stewards of, and one of those things has been trying to keep the pace of innovation and releases going well. We've seen the advent of 1.7 over the course of the year and, of course, 1.8 is in RC4 as of last week. Trying to keep that pace going has been good work and hard work, and I think it's been well received so far. Those have all been fun.
What other parts of the year do you want to discuss?
CRAIG: Actually, well, I think there are quite a few things left to talk about. The one thing you mentioned was…. Of course, I'm personally invested in the topic of being remote, being distributed. You mentioned that you had a couple words you could share about your philosophy on the shift. I'd love to hear those.
JUSTIN: Sure. Obviously, at Cognitect, we have a very specific skill set on the engineering side that we need to hire for. When we were first becoming the company we are now, so think back to 2008, we started to try to hire Clojure people. In 2008, which was a long time ago, there weren't that many of them.
It wasn't the only factor, but it was one of the prime factors that made us say we've really got to rethink - we're a largely Durham-based company with a few people who work from afar. I think that that ability to attract people with the skill set that we were trying to bring on was the precipitating thing. But, as we started to attempt it and started to explore what that could look like, we also built some pretty serious skill in pairing remotely, which was the big fear was, we had a very strong culture of pair programming at the time and could we pull that off. Would people be willing to pair that way?
The team poured a lot of effort into trying to set those skills up and set up that ability. It turned out that we were pretty good at it, and people enjoyed it almost as much or even sometimes more than sitting next to somebody at a keyboard. That gave us a huge sort of lift in trying to pursue that.
I can honestly say that there is a zero percent chance that we would have the team that we have today if we had mandated that everybody be in one place, no matter where that place was. We wouldn't be able to do this, certainly here in North Carolina. We wouldn't be able to do it in New York or San Francisco - pick your spot. It just wouldn't be possible.
That being said, I can also say, without fear of contradiction and certainly without any shadow of doubt in my mind, that if everybody was co-located in one place, it would be a more effective team. Co-location has advantages that can't be replicated by chat rooms, pair programming, video chats, and everything else. The energy is different.
The serendipity, the number of interesting conversations that happen and ideas that gel out of those because of random conversations–I don't want to say at the water cooler because nobody does that anymore, but–over lunch, in the hallways, and around tables, it is different, and I notice it every time we get everybody together for our Cognation meetings. It's palpably different, but those two things don't have to be mutually destructive.
Yes, if I had this team all in one place, it would be a more effective team than it is. However, I wouldn't be able to have the awesome team that I have if I made them all come here, so it would be a different group of people who might be less effective than the group that we have. When I examine those trade-offs, I'm perfectly thrilled with the trade-off that we've chosen.
Trade-offs is a big theme of us. We try to analyze the trade-offs of everything that we go about doing, and it's clear that this is the only way that we would proceed as Cognitect. Heck, Rich lives in New York, and there's no way he's moving to North Carolina. Right there, this would not be the same company if we had chosen the other direction. But, you can just go down the list of everybody in the company, even some people who live here in North Carolina. They don't come to the office because it's 45 minutes away or whatever. You can say, well, if we didn't have this policy, they wouldn't be here. Boy, that would be a sad world.
People have asked me many times, if I could start over, if I had an ideal world. Well, if I had an ideal world, everybody could wake up in the morning, teleport to an office, hang out together, and then teleport home to wherever they wanted to be. That would be an ideal world. Given that I don't live in an ideal world, I'd rather be able to be colleagues with the people that I can be colleagues with, whatever else that means.
CRAIG: Yeah, I totally agree with you, and if we can stay on this theme slightly longer.
CRAIG: I think it's something that's quite common. It's something that people run into a lot. I won't say universal, but it definitely is something people run into a lot.
It's really interesting to hear you say that there are advantages to not being distributed, because I absolutely agree. I think it's something that sometimes people are loath to admit, so it's great to hear you bring it up. It raises a couple questions for me, and they're complementary. The two are:
If someone was to come to you and say, "Hey, Justin. I need your advice. I'm trying to take and become more effective or become a distributed company at all," what would you say to them in terms of what practice they should adopt? What single practice, if there's just one or maybe a couple?
Then, kind of the complementary question is: What types of organizations shouldn't try to do that?
I'll pick on somebody obvious. When I was at Microsoft, there were contexts at Microsoft, not necessarily the people I was working for because I was working with Tim Ewald, actually, while I was there.
CRAIG: He was very effective remote. When I was working with and for him, he was great at it. But, other teams, not so much. And so I'm wondering if you could say, both, you should do this and maybe also, if your company is like this, don't even try. I wonder if that's advice you could give.
JUSTIN: Certainly on the former, yeah. I'll have to think, while I talk, about the latter. The biggest piece of advice that I can give, and it harkens back to something I said a minute ago: We had gotten really good at pair programming so that we would be an effective distributed company. It turns out that was so not the case, and it was so not the issue.
It turns out that programmers, they will find a level that makes it. Even if we hadn't spent that effort, individual pairs would have figured out how to make that work. It turns out that, in fact, every individual pair ended up specializing the setup anyway. What we had failed to spend the time doing was analyzing and putting in practices that would allow for the non-technical communication of the company to happen at a level that would be acceptable. Craig, you were one of the early, back then, remoters.
JUSTIN: You remember that we tried all manner of different things to increase the bandwidth of communication, one of which was your favorite thing, and it might have even been your invention, which was Remoter Week of having the then 10% or 15% of the company, who wasn't in the office, come into town for a week, just to work, not to do anything special, just to work around other people.
We used to have a policy of weekly retros (indiscernible, 00: 26:22) for the whole company. When you're all around one table, that's easy to do. The more people become distributed, the harder that is to do until you get to a certain balance. This is the other thing that I offer as advice to people. I talk to startups here in town and things like that.
If they're just starting out, there's only the one founder or three founders, or whatever the team is that they've assembled, usually they're all co-located. If they're not, that's great. I say, "Look. Keep that up. If you're already distributed, don't become localized somewhere and then try to become distributed again. Start from that base point." You'll do better because your processes will be entirely targeted at that.
If you are already localized somewhere and are trying to become distributed, two things are important. The first is, focus entirely on corporate communication. I don't mean like a message from the CEO. I mean how do you talk about things that aren't actually getting some individual piece of work done. How do you keep people in the know about what's going on in the organization?
Then, secondly, there is a shift. When you're at more than half of the people localized in one place, you will have separate classes of employees. It won't be explicit, and it won't always feel that way, but it will very often feel that way. It takes getting more than half of your company not in one place until you can sort of flip the switch.
Now, when we have all company meetings, at most there are three or four people in one room, and so there's not this, well, most of the company is talking around a table and people are on a microphone trying to listen and hear snippets. That's what's wrong in that world before you get a decent density pushed out into the wider world. Now, HQ is just one of the things that dials into a company meeting, and I haven't felt, in at least two years, like that group of people dominates a meeting in any meaningful way.
CRAIG: Oh, yeah. It used to be my job to be on a call, and I took up this job on myself. It wasn't like I was appointed it. I self-appointed myself as the boss saying, "Please do not talk at the same time," because it was often the case that if you were in the room, because of just the reality of acoustics and the way it transmits over a network and all that stuff, if you're in the same room and two people are talking, you can choose to listen to one, or maybe even hear both. But, if you're "one the phone," if you're listening in remotely, it was impossible. You just literally couldn't hear anything.
We would have meetings where fully half of the content was multiple people talking, so I would just make it my job to, every once in a while, shout out, "Please, one at a time. Please, one at a time." That just never happens anymore.
JUSTIN: What kind of company shouldn't attempt to become a distributed company? I'm going to pick on my wife's company. My wife works for a large research organization in the medical sciences, and they have a 4,500 person worldwide workforce. That workforce is spread out amongst multiple campuses worldwide, several thousand here in North Carolina, and then 1,000 somewhere else, in that sort of density.
They also encourage and allow remote work, but they encourage and allow remote work in the sense of, if you work at one of these offices, you don't have to be in the office every day. But, they very much want you to be in the office as often as you can be. When she first took that job, I was worried that their ability to work around a distributed workforce or remote workforce was whitewashing. They were not really going to be good at it.
It turns out that they are pretty good at it. I think that that's a distinct minority that, when you have companies that have a 15- or 20-year history of being in one place with thousands of people that most of the time any corporate-wide move towards distributed workforce will tend to be less than enthusiastically supported. And that the only way that that can usually work is if you have some localized team or department who makes a really concerted effort because that team or department can benefit from remote work, that they will put the effort into making it palatable for everybody.
I don't want to caution giant companies to not try, but if you're going to try, you have to really try. You can't just make a statement at the CEO level of a multi-thousand-person company that says, "Remote work is now acceptable." That's not enough energy and certainly not enough positivity to convince middle management to put their neck on the line by supporting their employees being distributed remote. You really have to make it a concerted effort, and then you have to pour the effort in.
This is, by the way, one of those "do as I say, not as I do" moments because this is something I struggled with here at Cognitect. You have to say what you need to say, and then say it again, and then say it again, and then find another channel to say it again. Communication is just hard. It's hard face-to-face. It is exponentially harder when you're not face-to-face. Repetition, multichannel broadcast, and then repetition again is the only way to make sure that people continue to hear what they need to hear. It's hard and you have to work at it.
JUSTIN: If you're not willing to do it, don't do it. Take the other end of the trade-off. Having people together in an office is more effective than not. If you can't put the effort into dealing with the remote side of it, the distributed side of it, don't bother. It's just going to hurt you to try.
CRAIG: Yeah. I think your advice is spot on, from what I've seen. Also, more general than just remote, I think you're talking about any kind of culture change. If you're not really willing to get behind it and push and keep on pushing until it's really rooted, then you will probably fail.
JUSTIN: Yeah. I read a lot about company culture. Obviously it's part of my job. There are great descriptions of what makes up your company culture. Mike Nygard likes to quote that your culture is what you can't say.
JUSTIN: Which is a great lens of which to view your company culture. I can't remember the book. I'll see if I can grab it for the show notes later. I read a book about company culture where the primary premise was that company culture is explicitly that part of the Venn diagram that does not include management.
You draw a Venn diagram of areas of affect. As soon as you subtract out anybody who has "manager" in their title in any way, shape, or form, what you're left with is the actual culture of the organization and that everybody, both inside that area of affect and outside of it, needs to understand and respect that. What it means is that you can't really change the culture. You can change the circumstances of the culture and hope that the culture then adapts, if you're trying to make a change, but that the energy required to do anything like that is 10x more than you expect it will be.
Yeah, like you said. It doesn't matter if I'm trying to go from mostly local to mostly distributed, or if I'm trying to become an agile company when I used to be a waterfall company. Pick any of these kinds of measures. A manager cannot demand the change. He can only set up the expectations and the circumstances and then has to keep pouring effort into those areas until the change takes effect. It takes a lot longer than you expect, and it's certainly harder than you expect - every time, even when you account for those rules.
CRAIG: Yes, the classic.
JUSTIN: Yes. Again, all of that is to say I wouldn't change a thing. I like having people join here where I can see them just because I like to be around people, but Cognitect is not going to suddenly reverse course and go and stop being the majority distributed. Distributed is where the people are.
CRAIG: Yeah. At the same time, dipping into our look forward to 2016, one of the things that we have realized that we need to do and that you have started to effect is for us to get together more often than we have been over the last couple years.
JUSTIN: Yeah, I think we got a little lackadaisical in how often we would drag the whole company into one place. And so, yes, we've made some very deliberate choices over the course of 2015 to set up 2016 to have more of that. We have meetings where we get the whole company together, either here in North Carolina, and sometimes in other places, memorably, in the past, Snowshoe, West Virginia, once, and Williamsburg, Virginia, once. But, that plus being together at other events in smaller segments, but still making more of a push for that because being together allows for, like I said, a lot of that serendipitous communication, great ideas.
But, way more than that, if the only experience you have with a colleague is electronic, you can forget that they're a person. And so, the little problems that arise in day-to-day work become big problems. The more often you're face-to-face with somebody, the more you can go, "Oh, right. You're just a person just like I am. You have just the same exact pressures on you that I have," and it stops some of the politics that tend to creep in.
This is the thing. Any business faces internal politics and internal strife. It doesn't matter who you are or what you're trying to build. But, those things tend to be exacerbated when all you have is an online avatar and a chat handle. Even voice communication doesn't really stop that. But, being face-to-face and doing things that aren't business related really help that.
I'll give a good example of that from 2015. This year, last week, we had our holiday party. Our holiday party was a video party where most of the organization dialed in on Thursday afternoon, and we had the Brady Bunch screen of everybody's individual picture. Everybody wore a silly hat. We sat around, and we talked about anything, but work, for however long we were all there.
It was awesome. It was great. It was a lot of fun, and it's still not as good for reminding everybody how human everybody is as sitting around a table would have been because you get to go off and talk in smaller groups. That's what we're trying to accomplish.
Our corporate meetings are only so much about an agenda of getting some actual stuff done and mostly about reminding each other, "Oh, right. This is our awesome teammate, and we're all going to go off and do awesome things together as people."
JUSTIN: I think a lot of distributed organizations that I have been exposed to in the past don't actually encourage that way of thinking. I don't know if your previous experience at Microsoft fell into that category.
JUSTIN: The larger an organization is, the less likely they are to think, "Oh, I should build or allow to flourish a sense of camaraderie because that's actually important to my business goals." Instead of planning every collaborative event to be 100% work, you've got to give time and space for people to just go and hang out.
CRAIG: To be fair to Microsoft, I was a contractor, so that wasn't quite the same thing.
JUSTIN: Oh, so you were subhuman anyway.
CRAIG: Well, I don't want to be unnecessarily derogatory because I think there were a lot of ways in which it was a really great place to work. But, remote culture was problematic at times there, and I think many other people would say the same thing. Let's not go into that.
I think we have our own company to focus on, and I want to turn back for a moment to 2015 because one of the things, I think, that is special about 2015 for us is that it was a really great year from a business perspective. I've heard this. We have an episode coming up with Jenn Hillner.
CRAIG: She was an important part of that picture. Overall, I think a rising tide lifts all boats. As you said, we enjoy a relatively privileged position. As the market for Clojure has grown stronger, we have seen our business go stronger. At least that's my impression, and I'm not the head of the company. Maybe you have something else to say about that, but I suspect you'd say the same.
JUSTIN: No, absolutely. It's been a fantastic year. We effected a change years ago. We set down on a path to say everybody who has been around long enough knows that Relevance started its life.
Actually, people may not know the whole story, but Relevance started its life as a Java and .NET focused consulting organization. Then, in 2005, shortly after Stuart and I finished off liquidating his earlier startup, changed the focus to be Rails and agile. We spent four or five years maximizing the potential of that for us.
We made a very specific choice in 2008 and 2009 to start adopting Clojure. Then, in 2011, we made a very explicit choice to effect a much more thorough transition. Instead of just trying to have it be another piece of the puzzle, we set out to make it the major piece of the puzzle. When you go through a transition like that where we're changing the technology focus of the consulting organization, away from the two things that really had been our drivers in the market, Rails and agile. And, agile, by the way, now we practice with a lower case "a," and we don't do a lot of – it's the way we work, but we don't train people in it like we used to do, for example.
That transition was a transition, and so there are ups and downs along with it. The market for Clojure consulting, at the time, was nascent, and we had to nurture it and see it grow. In 2015, we are thrilled in that 100% of every project we've done this year has been Clojure based. At its core, most of those projects are also using ClojureScript for front-end development. The majority of these projects also have Datomic somewhere in them. Just on those measures, even if it wasn't for the growth of the overall business, just knowing that all of those things were true makes 2015 the culmination of a multiyear plan for transition, and we're just seeing tremendous movement, and it's great.
CRAIG: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, for sure.
JUSTIN: The other interesting thing, you were asking about the business, is that the holidays are usually a fairly slow time for any consulting organization. Historically, that's been true for us. But, this is the strongest, busiest holiday season in memory for us, which is always great, right? People like to have some time to kick back and put their feet up at the holidays, but, as a company, it's always nice to just keep on trucking and have a lot of demand that needs to be filled. It's a fascinating holiday for me because there's a lot to do, which is not always the case.
CRAIG: Yeah. Yeah, I mean I've been doing consulting for 15 years, and an inevitable part of consulting is bench time for consultants. Justin, what's our bench percentage going through the end of the year?
JUSTIN: Minus 5%.
CRAIG: Yeah, it's ridiculous. It's really crazy.
JUSTIN: We've been overbooked for a while now and, hence, growth. I can only really speak for the companies I've been involved in, but my understanding, based on that experience and talking to other people, was that very rarely do you feel upward growth pressure through the holiday season, and we're still feeling it, which just means that the uptake of the things that we do continues to be strong. I hope that the people out there who have been doing Clojure for a while, or people who are thinking about joining, et cetera, all feel that same upward pressure. It's certainly one of our primary goals to make sure that that remains true and outside of just our four walls. We want to see that rising tide float a lot of boats.
CRAIG: Absolutely. This has been a fascinating discussion, but I want to move on to a couple more things that, unfortunately, I don't think we're going to be able to get to absolutely everything. We might have to get you back on. I think I would be remiss if I did not ask you about Datomic in 2015.
JUSTIN: Yeah, so Datomic has had a really fun year, strong growth on the adoption side. For me, sort of a bellwether moment for Datomic was this year at Clojure/conj. We held a one-day Datomic Conf event the day before Conj. It being the first time we tried to do such a thing, we had no real idea or expectation for what the attendance would look like. We were incredibly gratified, and it was a real thrill for us when well more than 100 people showed up for the one-day event, which we recorded and put the videos out a few days after it had gone down.
That opportunity to be in a room with, I think it was, 120 folks all really interested in Datomic, was awesome. We had a lot of great conversations as a result. I got a lot of great feedback. We were able to help a lot of people overcome whatever challenge they were having.
Looking ahead to 2016, we're evaluating how and when to try something like that again. But, for sticking our toe in the water and trying something, it was just wonderful. Thanks to everybody who showed up and everybody else who has been able to watch the videos online. I think it was cool.
Yeah, I mean, other than that, this was a good year for us really cementing the way we support our customers. I think Ben Kamphaus, who is sort of the public face of Datomic support, has really done a tremendous job in making sure that our customers not only are well supported, but feel well supported. Lots of other folks in the company have jumped in and pushed hard on that as well. That's been a lot of fun to see.
Of course, the pace of releases has maintained fairly steadily throughout the whole year. The focus this year was really responding to customer need, and I think that the team working on the product has been really focused there and done a really good job of keeping up with that kind of the demand the requests that have gone through. It's great, and I'm really pleased with its growth in the market. I'm looking forward to an equally awesome 2016 on that front. Datomic Conf, man, it was a good day.
CRAIG: Yeah, that's always exciting. Unfortunately, I was in the next room.
CRAIG: I couldn't go. I was teaching the Clojure, intro Clojure class, which was actually super fun. We had a really, really great group. We were there until 8:00 p.m. on the last night. They had asked so many questions that there were a few things that we didn't have time for. We never have time for everything in that class. We bring more material than there is time available.
People were like, "Oh, we didn't get to do X." I'm like, "Well, tell you what. I will stay here until they kick us out of the room." We literally stayed until they kicked us out of the room.
Datomic Conf was going on right next door, but we were having a great time. It was really interesting to me because that class had people in it who had been doing Clojure in production and wanted to come back and, I think, get kind of a grounding to get a broad view and say, "Okay. I really know how to put all the pieces together."
We had one student who had been programming at all for a month, like ever. From no programming whatsoever one month ago to, she was sitting in this Clojure class. She did very well, I thought. It was just a fascinating cross-section to see that people are still, as you say, coming to this language. We had 35 students in the class, which is actually a pretty big class for an intro course located at a conference devoted to the language. It's really quite impressive.
JUSTIN: I want to pluck a line that you just said out of there and expound from it. One of the other great things about 2015, which I think I mentioned at the end of 2014, but has remained true this year that I'm really excited about is the ongoing growth of the ClojureBridge organization and the movement there.
We hosted the first one here in North Carolina. Then we hosted another one here in North Carolina in October. ClojureBridges have now happened in – I don't even know how many countries. It's in the double digits, and I think it's more than 20 countries, now.
Every time I'm exposed to the students who come to a ClojureBridge, I'm incredibly blown away. These are people who come from all walks of life, some of whom have been programming for years, some of whom who are trying programming for the first time, some of whom who have been around the technical industry for a long time, some of whom have never been. Watching this group of women get exposure to Clojure, get exposure to the Clojure community, and tackle this intense, multi-day course remains very powerful.
I really, strongly encourage people who are listening to find a ClojureBridge happening near you and volunteer to help out if you're a person who has a background or a skill where volunteering could be useful, or even just to come and help with the catering, et cetera. If you're listening because you want to learn more about the community and you've never seen it before, it's a great entry point. That's just been a great part of 2015, and 2014 before that. We love seeing new people. We love seeing women in the community. And, we love seeing the effort that goes into running events like ClojureBridge.
CRAIG: Totally agree. I just want to add two points on ClojureBridge. One is that I'm always careful to point out, and I think you would agree with this policy, that ClojureBridge is not a Cognitect organization.
CRAIG: We would be proud if it were. It's an amazing thing. Credit where credit is due. Because we talk about it so much, it would be easy for somebody to make the mistake and think this comes from us. It doesn't. It comes from a different group of people that we happily, happily support.
Then the other thing is, they are now accepting donations. In addition to all the other ways that you can help, they would happily accept your financial assistance.
JUSTIN: Yes, ClojureBridge.org.
CRAIG: Yep, ClojureBridge.org. Cool.
Justin, I think maybe it's time for us to go to the part every year where I potentially make you eat your words. This is the point where we play back. Every year, I kind of make you say, "Hey, what does 2016 look like?" I think I often put it like, "When we get to the end of 2016," and we're here, which, by the way, will be after the 100th episode of this show, which is insane to me. In other words, in 2016, we are going to hit Episode #100.
Here we are at the end of 2016. It's episode–I don't know–115 or something like that. You and I are back together, and I'm going to say to you, "Hey, Justin. What made 2016 a success?" Now, we did that last year.
CRAIG: What will have made 2015 a success? I'm going to ask Russ to splice in that segment. Let's see. What do I want this year? Last year he did sort of a tape rewinding sound. I know what I want. I want the Wayne's World - [flashback sound]. He's got to go and find that for me. Or maybe he'll make me sound like a chicken or something. I don't know. It's up to him. He is my boss.
JUSTIN: That's right.
CRAIG: So, I really can't say. Anyway, let me go. Let's go have him do that.
[Harp music sound effect]
CRAIG: Okay. Well, that might be my cue to put you on the spot and ask you to give me some words that I will–
JUSTIN: Throw back at me.
CRAIG: –play back in your face. That's right; throw back in your face at the end of 2015 when we do this again. Justin, let's see how should I phrase this. What do you think will be true at the end of 2015? What will be looking back over 2015 and saying this was what happened or the properties of 2015?
JUSTIN: That's a fascinating question, more so now than it ever has been, because I would say that the central problem facing a company in our position is defining for itself what it means by growth because, what I mean by the word growth is, in the sense of personal growth, but for a company. We are about to embark on a growth phase for Cognitect, as we mature. This was our birth year. Now we're going to start growing and becoming the company we're going to be in the future.
A lot of companies define growth to mean headcount. I always have viewed and will continue to view, forever, headcount as a side effect of the actual growth that a company needs to do. And so, I would say that we've grown a lot as a company in 2014, but we're largely the same size and shape of company that we were at the beginning of the year. It's hard for me to say what 2015 will bring, but I would be shocked if we got to the end of 2015, like I said, and felt like we weren't radically altered in some significant ways.
Certainly, we have a roadmap that will add some new things into the world over the course of 2015, and we expect to be different enough from where we are now that we can't help but be a different organization once they're out there. I think every company has that same sort of roadmap. But, like we said at the end of 2013, 2014 for us was about cementing this new identity. 2015 is about launching things into the world under this new identity, and that's reacting to what happens then. That's what I think will be true and hard to make a better prediction than that.
CRAIG: Mm-hmm. I like your characterization. I'm reminded. I have a six-year-old and, to her, getting older, or maybe I should say getting more mature, is essentially equivalent with getting taller.
CRAIG: We'll have conversations where she'll be like, "Well, when you get older, will you be taller?"
CRAIG: Maybe less now that she's a little older, but certainly at the earlier points in her life. I'm like, "No. That's not really how that works," but I'm still maturing, still developing. I really like that way you've separated those out. It's kind of a Cognitect thing, right? Let's keep separate things separate.
JUSTIN: Well, let's keep separate things separate, and let's keep the focus on exactly what it is, which is, as people. Companies are just collections of people. The real driving force of everything we do is growth and keeping the people front and center. That's growth in the human sense, not growth in the number of humans sense.
Let the forces of that growth drive us where they will. There have been years where that has meant a dramatic increase in headcount. There's been years where it's been dramatic diversification of offerings. There's been years where it meant hunkering down.
We're an 11-year-old company, which is remarkable for me to say. Cognitect is a year old, but this organization is 11 years old. We've seen a lot, and I feel truly, truly, truly lucky, blessed–pick your adjective of choice–to have been around for 11 years already. Most companies don't make it past two. I feel like we have a lot to be thankful for. Then, frankly, I'm also a person who views gratitude as a sense of obligation, so we have a lot to be thankful for, but that means we're obligated to do great stuff as a result of that. I'd like to see 2015 be us achieving some great things.
[Harp music sound effect]
CRAIG: Okay, Justin. We got to hear your prediction for 2015. Here we are sitting at the end of it. What do you think? How did you do?
JUSTIN: Well, I was predictably vague, so I think I did a spot on job. We certainly spent 2015 launching some new things into the world, and we spent 2015 internalizing what, as an organization, we needed to do to change. As I said, that did in fact, this year, result in some growth of headcount. But, that growth of headcount was based on the kind of growth we were doing.
As I said earlier in the episode, 2015 saw us really recognize the growth of the market for Clojure technology in production, of Datomic in production. As a result, we've had to add to our staff: more consulting engineers to staff those projects, new members of the sales and marketing team to continue to promote that growth and handle the phone calls that we get, and new members of our internal staff who manage the results of that growth and its impacts on our own efforts.
I still don't count headcount growth as a measure of success, just as a measure of where we've been driven by the opportunities that we've created and that have been created around us. That's been great. Definitely those pushes into the European market and the introduction of things like Datomic Conf have been very fun for us, and certainly some new technologies that have come into being on the Clojure side.
CRAIG: And ClojureScript.
JUSTIN: And ClojureScript. Tons and tons and tons and tons of interesting work going on. I know that the next question is going to be to say the same thing about 2016.
CRAIG: Yes, please do.
JUSTIN: So I'll just jump there.
CRAIG: Yeah, go for it.
JUSTIN: In 2016, I have a much stronger sense than at the end of 2015 of the kind of company that we are and need to be in order to continue to tackle the opportunity here. I think that the biggest thing that we see in front of us are some technical trends that we absolutely want to continue to be at the forefront of and push hard on, but what we're seeing is – I hate to use the word "hockey stick," so I'm going to stop using it, but there's an inflection in the adoption of Clojure and Datomic, and the things that we focus on that will be the driving force, coupled with these technical waves that we're trying to ride for 2016. I see a successful 2016 as us making good on the sort of technical predictions that we're making, but also in enabling more people who don't work at Cognitect to take advantage of this rising tide. All of that remains high on my list. If I get to the end of 2016 and can say those things, then I will be happy. Yeah, I think that's it.
CRAIG: Okay. Awesome. I'm right there with you. I think 2016 looks like an exciting – and maybe we say this every year. I think I'm careful, as an engineer, to preface these types of conversations with, well, look. You understand that where I sit, all of us here at Cognitect have a vested interest.
I think, when I apply my objectivity glasses, to the extent that that's possible, I think there really are some objective measures that you can look at and say there really is growth. There really is a solid basis for believing that 2016 will be another year showing the advance of these ideas, because that's really, I think, the important thing. I think everybody in the company, yeah, we're out to make money for sure.
JUSTIN: It's a company.
CRAIG: It's a company. But, at the same time, maybe more than a lot of other places, I think a lot of us would be satisfied in some sense by the success of ideas like the attitudes toward state that are embodied in these technologies. Things like that, the philosophical side. If that succeeded, and for whatever reason the business side was not successful, then I think all of us would be, in some sense, satisfied by that.
Again, not that we're not pursuing the goals of succeeding as a business; we absolutely are. We think that Clojure, Datomic, and all these things are a good realization of those ideas. But, you look around. People are really picking up on these things, and it's a good thing for the world. It's making programming better, which is a bigger and bigger part of everything that everybody does, like software touches everything.
JUSTIN: Right. This is a great place for me to probably end the show on a one-minute rant, if you will.
JUSTIN: We have a philosophy of how we think software development could look. Everything that we've brought into the world has been a manifestation of that philosophy. That's Clojure and ClojureScript, Datomic, Transit, and pick your library, language, product, et cetera. We don't think it's the only way that software should work or could work, but it's a way that allows us to pursue solutions to big problems in a way that we find to be effective. We think that that could be true for a lot of other people.
That philosophy is what is the heart of what we bring out. But, nobody pays for philosophy. People just don't buy your philosophy.
CRAIG: I don't know if that's true, actually. Right? No, but I mean, seriously. As a person on the consulting side of the business, I feel like we have customers that come to us and say that they've seen Rich's talks about how software should be built. Yeah, in a sense they're paying for technology. But I think if we suddenly said, "Oh, hey. Clojure 2.0 is out, and you should switch to that. By the way, it's not a Lisp," that there would be people that would go along for the ride because they believe in the ideas.
JUSTIN: Oh, absolutely.
CRAIG: Right. I think there is a sense. I know what you're saying. They still pay for a particular, you know, build software using this thing. But, in a sense, I almost feel like we are selling a philosophy, rather, that we truly, deeply belief in.
JUSTIN: That is exactly the point.
JUSTIN: The heart of the company and what we bring to the market is a philosophy of software development, but there are manifestations that people can even download for free because it's Clojure open source.
CRAIG: Gotcha. Gotcha.
JUSTIN: Or they can buy because it's Datomic, or they can pay for because it's engineers spending hours building stuff.
CRAIG: Gotcha. Sorry. I missed your point, but now I see it. Okay.
JUSTIN: Yeah. If it were true that you could just package philosophy and sell it directly, without intermediaries–
CRAIG: Right, right, right.
JUSTIN: –I'm sure we would have examined that opportunity. It's great, and it remains great to be an organization that, for its entire history, and especially now, can really be about pursuing the manifestation of this philosophy and see where that takes us. That's what everything that we do is about.
Our philosophy is more than just how software can work. We also have a deep and abiding philosophy of how you treat customers. There are lots of other things that sort of line up behind that. But, at the heart, believing in something and then manifesting it, and hopefully there are people who believe the same thing. So far that's been true, and it seems more true in 2015 than ever before.
It points to great things in 2016, so we hope that it continues to resonate. It doesn't have to resonate with everybody, but it certainly seems to be resonating with enough people that there's a real opportunity for not only us, but for a lot of other folks too. That's been exciting, and that's what's exciting me about 2016.
CRAIG: Awesome. Yeah. Right there with you, literally. Right?
JUSTIN: Yeah. You're along.
CRAIG: I am. I sure am, by choice too. That's the thing. Anyway, Justin, like I said, I feel like there's a bunch more we could talk about, but we made a really fascinating detour into a couple of interesting areas. I loved hearing your thoughts about remote work. It's such a critical part of what we do, and I think more and more people are finding it to be the same, so I think it was worthwhile.
JUSTIN: Distributed work.
CRAIG: Thank you. Distributed work. Yep. See, like I said, you made – and I'm really not kissing your butt here. I think the company really did make that transition very smoothly. I didn't even notice it. We just stopped saying "remoter." Anyway, the point is that was a really interesting conversation.
We do, of course, have one more thing that we need to talk about, which is the closer at the end of the show where I ask you to share a piece of advice. You've already given us many good pieces of advice, but I suspect that you, as a listener of the show, have something in mind for here at the end. What kind of advice would you like to share with our listeners, Justin?
JUSTIN: For me, this year, the thing that I was able to do for myself that was inordinately valuable was to carve ten minutes out of my day, every day, in some way, shape or form, you can say, to mediate, to sit in silence, to pray, or to whatever, but finding a chance to do that, which of course is driven by me. My kids go to a school where they start every morning in a practice called "settling in."
When they're in preschool and kindergarten, they sit in silence, group silence for one minute. When they get into elementary school, it's five minutes. In middle school, it's 15 minutes. In high school, it's 25 minutes. None of my kids are in high school yet, but that's coming.
It was this year where I finally said I need to do that for myself on a regular basis. It hasn't been 100% successful, but most days I can find ten minutes to go sit quietly. Craig, you know the atrium here at the office. That's where I go when it's warm enough and sunny enough.
It's been the thing for me that has allowed a lot of – it's my hammock time. Go and sit by yourself in silence every day for five minutes, if you can. It's a gift that pays itself off really quickly, and everybody deserves it. Even if you don't feel like you have it, make yourself have it.
CRAIG: I love it.
JUSTIN: That's my advice.
CRAIG: That's fantastic. It's one I've been meaning to do, but I haven't, so I love it.
JUSTIN: A lot of people feel themselves in the same place. Give it a whirl for a week.
CRAIG: Okay, I will. I absolutely will. I promise you right now I will try that. Maybe that's a good New Years thing for me. I'm on vacation right now. It might not be the best time to institute a new practice.
JUSTIN: It actually might be the best time.
CRAIG: It might be. It might be. It's true. That's a good point. Anyway, I'll have to think about that, but I want to try it in some way at some point in the very, very near future. Anyway, fantastic advice, as always. I always get good advice from you, Justin, in all things, and today was no exception. I look forward to this episode all year. Like I said, we should have you back on more often than once a year, but I'm glad that we, at a minimum, do that. I think it's been great to talk to you, and I really enjoy the conversation, so thanks a ton for taking time out of your schedule to talk to us today.
JUSTIN: It's awesome, as always. Yeah, let's plan something in the summer.
CRAIG: Sounds good. We'll do that. Fantastic.
JUSTIN: All right, thanks, Craig.
CRAIG: All right, well, thank you.
JUSTIN: Thanks, everybody, for listening.
CRAIG: I will echo that. Thanks for listening. This has been the Cognicast.
[Music: "Thumbs Up (for Rock N' Roll)" by Kill the Noise and Feed Me]
CRAIG: You have been listening to the Cognicast. The Cognicast is a production of Cognitect Inc., whom you can find on the web at Cognitect.com and on Twitter, @Cognitect. You can subscribe to the Cognicast, listen to past episodes, and view cover art and show notes at our home on the web, cognitect.com/podcast. You can contact us by tweeting @cognicast or by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Our guest today was Justin Gehtland, on Twitter @jgehtland. Episode cover art is by Michael Parenteau. Audio production by Russ Olsen. The Cognicast is produced by Kim Foster. Our theme music is Thumbs Up (for Rock N' Roll) by Kill the Noise with Feed Me. I'm your host, Craig Andera. Thanks for listening.