Everyone talks about knowing real customer needs, but every customer will tell you something different. I want to know what people actually want and build that, rather than build stuff that nobody wants.
In 2014, Edith Harbaugh and her partner John Kodumal founded LaunchDarkly, a continuous delivery platform to help software teams move faster with less risk. Soon, she became intimately familiar with the long hours, high stress, and exhaustion that go along with building a startup.
But any physical and emotional demands of the startup life pale in comparison with the grueling challenges that Harbaugh regularly does for, as she calls it, fun.
In 2007, Harbaugh cycled — solo, of course — across the continental US. (You can read an online journal of her journey, aptly titled “Never a Bad Day to Ride.”) She’s also an avid runner. It’s common to find Harbaugh running 100-mile trail races. In fact, not only has she finished dozens of marathons, she’s finished over 30 ultramarathons, including Comrades in South Africa, Miwok 100K, and Western States 100.
Why submit to that kind of physical punishment?
“It helps clear your mind,” says Harbaugh, adding that she can do “a lot of my best thinking while running because my mind has time and space to think — I’m not distracted by meetings or emails or phone calls.”
The ability to take on big challenges is a common trait that has defined Harbaugh’s career since graduating from high school as valedictorian at age 16. She received an engineering degree from Harvey Mudd College and an economics degree from Pomona College before she was 21. Out of college, she acquired her first patent for systems she designed when she was 23. We caught up with Harbaugh to talk about her latest quest to help organizations build better software, faster.
Q: Where did you grow up?
Arlington, VA, right across the Potomac River from Washington DC.
Q: Was that a good place to be from?
Yes, though now I think that I took it for granted. There was so much going on. It was such a diverse place with people coming there from all over the world.
Q: How did your passion for cycling come about?
My parents let me bike to school back when I was a teenager. That expanded to letting me go to other places, and pretty soon I was taking longer and longer trips. I’d bike into DC to see movies — then I was riding 18 miles out to the Washington Beltway and the miles just kept adding up.
Q: What kindled your interest in technology?
In elementary school, I was kind of a smart kid and would quickly finish all my assignments. I’d just be sitting there in the classroom, so the teachers would kick me out and send me to the library where I would play on the computer. As a 10-year-old I played to the top level of “Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?,” which gave me travel lust. But with all that free time I also taught myself how to program BASIC.
One of my favorite high school teachers, Mark Dodge, taught physics and computer science, and I remember loading up boot disks onto our Mac. When I was a camp counselor I taught kids LOGO, and it was so much fun to see what they created.
Q: Talk about your parents. What did they do for a living?
My mom was an engineering manager at Lockheed Martin. She was also president of the Society for Technical Communication, and is still on multiple IEEE standards boards on software development. My stepfather was a writer and editor for a legislative publication. My dad worked on one of the first minicomputers, and still programs in Haskell.
Q: Out of college, you took a job at an enterprise startup. How long did it take before you realized that there might be a better way to do software?
About a decade.
Q: When did you think you could make a mark by doing your own thing with a startup?
I actually worked at a couple of failed dotcom companies in the 1990s and early 2000s, and I think I was pretty scarred by that experience for a long time. Then I went to work for a couple of big enterprise companies. But the funny thing was that even though I wanted to start my own company, I didn’t think that I had any good ideas. All I knew was how to make software.
Q: Did you become a product person because you grew frustrated with the six-to-nine-month release cycles in software?
No, I think it was more that I got frustrated with us building things that nobody wanted. If you’re on a project with some really talented people and you see how hard everyone is working and the product works technically — but in practice, nobody cares, it’s really painful. When I became a product manager, I wanted to know what people actually want and build that, rather than build stuff that nobody wants.
Q: Why do you think that’s the case? Are product designers and developers not listening carefully enough to their customers?
No. It’s just that it’s really hard. Everyone talks about knowing real customer needs, but every customer will tell you something different.
Q: What was the crystallizing moment for you to take the leap to start your own company?
My friend John Kodumal and I went to college together and had been talking with each other about starting a company for many years. We had ideas, but they never felt really compelling enough for us to quit our day jobs. We eventually started LaunchDarkly together because we wanted to fix everything about the problems that we saw in software development — from concept to launch and beyond.
Q: When you first brought the idea for a continuous delivery platform to investors, what was the initial reaction?
Extreme skepticism to outright derision. Nobody had done something like this before. If people did do this style of development, it was something that would usually get built in-house and there were doubts it was something a vendor could build. I compare the reaction to when Salesforce came out with the idea of the cloud. I remember that because the company I worked for back then literally scoffed, ‘’Nobody is going to use a browser for complicated stuff.’ That company is now out of business and Salesforce occupies the building in San Francisco where they used to scoff.
Q: You guys modified the company’s original tagline of “Launch, Measure, Control.” Why?
We change our tagline every month. We are constantly iterating on it, and whatever it is this week, we’ll probably have something better that comes along the next week. We’re still very developer focused. But the real value is that once developers get comfortable with us, then they see that they can allow the rest of the organization to do the things that traditionally were a huge hassle. Still, it has to come from the developers.
Q: In the past, you’ve referenced your time on your bicycle trip with a philosophy of product development. That was very philosophical. You also rowed crew in high school. Did that also impact your thinking about teamwork when you graduated into the work world?
Yes, I rowed crew in high school. There is so much time that’s not in the boat that it makes the time in the boat special. You literally spend six to twenty hours a week in training for a five-minute race. It taught me a lot of good lessons about hard work, teamwork, and collaboration. Your boat needs to trust you and you need to trust your boat. You don’t get to row at different times because if you do, you’ll mess up the rhythm of the boat and might even get knocked out of it very violently if you catch a blade wrong.
I remember what our coach said: “Your priorities are family, school, and crew.” With startups, I think it’s somewhat similar. Family obviously comes first. But if you want to put something into that second spot that might get between you and the startup, it’s not going to work.
Q: Is there anything about you that might come as a surprise to other people?
People see me as a geek — which I am — but I’m also a closet jock. I was nationally ranked at crew. And I still do ultramarathons. This year I’m too busy at work to do 50-mile races, so I only do 50Ks. I have the most female finishes (nine, between 50 miles and 50ks) at my favorite Marin race.
Q: You’ve finished trail races up to 100 miles. What’s the attraction? Is it the challenge?
Yeah. Just like a startup, in ultramarathons there’s a lot of work that’s involved and it’s something that a lot of people might find odd. But the secret is that I actually enjoy it. Running is really enjoyable to me. Doing a startup is a lot of work, but fun as well.
Q: Is there one individual you most admire?
Ann Trason. She is a trailblazer. She broke 20 world records for distances from 50K to 100 miles, was a teenager before Title IX (Title IX requires that federally funded educational institutions give women athletes equal opportunity in sports), and won Western States fourteen times. She is an amazing and inspiring woman and I was truly honored that she was my running coach, and that she was there to see me finish Western States 100.
Q: Do you have a favorite book?
I have many but they’re all so geeky. “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!” taught me that being nerdy could be fun.