RW: You described how the platform was built and how you could build your own proprietary software or use tools that were already available. How did you choose what to build and what to buy?
RA: There are certain things that we may not consider our key strand—that other people are amazing at—that we decide to buy. But there are many elements of this platform that we built. Stitching it all together is a huge building job.
For example, our dashboard. We could have gotten some standard off-the-shelf dashboard and thrown our data into it, but that wasn’t going to work. Our customers have very unique needs, and mobile was new and nobody built analytics for smartphone apps, so we needed to build our own dashboard and elements of that and interactions. But then for simple charts, other people have built simple charting libraries, so we don’t need to build our own charting libraries. So we’ll buy again on that.
It’s a process of understanding what’s out there that’s already good enough that you aren’t going to do better at. If that’s the case, why waste valuable engineering resources? Engineers are your most valuable resource as a startup. You have limited money to keep that focus, but then there are things (features and products) that are your differentiator. If it’s been done before, if you’re just repackaging the stuff, there’s not much differentiation there.
There are things that you’re doing that are unique and highly differentiated. You need to own those so that you can control them. You need to evolve those quickly and likely they haven’t been built before. It’s a process of selectively figuring out what you should build or what you should buy.
RW: As the platform grows and evolves, how often do you make that decision: buy and integrate or build yourselves?
RA: Very regularly. Sometimes small things, sometimes bigger things. Sometimes it’s not even a “buy,” per se, but there is an open source library that does this and there’s a trade off. We can get it done, we can integrate in a day if we do this, or we can take three days building something that will be a little more flexible for what we need to do. It’s just a trade off.
RW: I wrote a piece earlier this year that kind of pissed off the developer community that said, basically, developers are cheap bastards. They don’t like buying software, they don’t like buying tools. They’ll take a week to build their own tools as opposed to buying something they can integrate. Do you find that to be true?
RA: Engineers build. If they can build something and own it, then why pay for it?
So yes, regardless of the reasons, developers tend to look at the world a little differently. Not in a negative way, they are more focused on cost. They’re just conscious of that, that might make them seem like cheap bastards in some scenarios and it might encourage them to build in some scenarios. Part of that is cost, part of that is desire to control.
I know if that if I build this, I build it the way I want it. Given that leeway to choose, they’ll do it. I probably encourage our development team to look at ways to buy, because these people are a valuable resource and if someone else has done the work, we don’t want to be reinventing the wheel.
Apps Are Everywhere
RW: You were on the cusp of the app explosion. We are five years into that. What‘s next in the mobile world?
RA: So the world is becoming more “appified.” The user experience is so much greater in an app that the percent of people using apps is massively higher than people who access their service through the mobile Web.
Modern websites are built in that fashion more like an app. With Windows 8 apps, and OS X apps, there’s the return to apps. Apps are taking over another much bigger realm of things beyond what you typically think of your computer and your phone and tablet—any other devices that have any digital interface.