James Everingham. Source: Instagram

Instagram’s head of engineering on solving problems without killing Schrödinger’s cat

Derrick Harris
Published in
4 min readJan 26, 2017

Instagram Head of Engineering James Everingham has seen a lot of changes in his three decades as a software engineer, from the way that products are architected to the way that engineers think about code. As he moved up the ranks into management and even starting companies, he has learned a lot about how to manage people, too.

In this episode of the ArchiTECHt Show, Everingham talks about all of that. He discusses his journey, which includes stops at Borland, Netscape and Yahoo; shares insights into how Instagram operates and thinks about new technologies; and explains his theory on how quantum physics can inspire managers to get more from their engineers. (Keep reading for highlights from the interview, and scroll to the bottom for links to listen to the podcast pretty much everywhere else you might want to.)

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In this episode, co-host Barb Darrow and I also discuss Cisco’s big $3.7 billion acquisition of AppDynamics; Oracle’s mega hardware layoffs; Microsoft appointing former LinkedIn SVP Kevin Scott to CTO; and the trend of NBA teams putting advertising on their jerseys (yes, there’s a tech hook).

Here are some highlights from the interview with Everingham, but I cannot stress enough how insightful the whole thing is. So do yourself a favor and listen to the whole thing.

On the biggest change in engineering since the 1980s

“The big change, I would say, that is predictable and that you can see, is that as technology gets more complicated, we end up getting more specialized and getting more focused. We just can’t keep the entire industry in one person’s brain like you could 35 years ago. It’s just too big and complicated. I believe that this is thing that’s really led to a lot of the things like micro services and cloud computing, and a lot of the technology abstractions that you see today.”

On keeping up with ever-changing technologies

“It’s impossible to keep up with everything. The only saving grace to all of it is that the basic underlying computer science principles are still the same. Once you peel back the layers, it’s still all of the same basic underlying principles that power a lot of this. As long as you can have confidence in that, it’s easy to understand the new things [and believe that by] peeling away the layers, when something seems pretty complicated, that you’re going to find familiar components underneath.”

On his decision to join Instagram (and the importance of being happy)

“I was doing a little bit of soul-searching and finding what gives me good days and what I want to do, and I just made the decision that I want to work on a product that I am a user of and that I am passionate about. I hadn’t really done that since Netscape; even though I had started my own companies and I had built technologies, I wasn’t a user of those technologies.”

On whether to adopt the next big thing

“As far as being buzzword-compliant or looking at new technologies that might be up and coming, I wouldn’t say we’re early adopters there. We do like to experiment — we encourage the team to go out and experiment and bring some of these new technologies or concepts back — but there’s always risk with with new technology. … Part of my job is to help reduce risk to the user, so there’s a little bit of tension between leaning into new emerging technologies and going with what is well known. …

“… We do this more on the developer velocity side.”

On thinking about Schrödinger’s cat as you manage your team

“I thought this was a really good analogy for managing from the bottom up, in a servant-based model, because what you want to do is get people’s ideas. We hire people to think, we don’t hire people so we can think for them. And the way to get an idea out of someone’s head is not to give them an idea; you want to tell them what the outcome could be.

“Everybody’s brain has so many possible solutions already in the head [and] they all exist at the same time. But as a manager, when you go in and you start saying, ‘Here’s an idea’ — and especially when there’s a hierarchy involved — you sort of limited all of those down and you’ve killed the cat.”



Derrick Harris

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