11 Impressions as a (New) Sailor

I joined Sailthru in September 2015, and I’m happy to have the opportunity to share my ongoing impressions of the company and its people. I am probably not the typical new-hire at a software start-up — I had a long career working in Corporate America before I got here, and the contrast between working in the tech department of a giant corporation, versus joining a young and rapidly-growing start-up, has been eye-opening.

These are my 10 impressions:

1. “I want to work here”

I arrived early, so I had time to walk to my interview through the beautiful Soho / West Village area where the office is located. This was always my favorite part of New York City, which means, one of my favorite places anywhere.

I rode the elevator to the 12th floor, stepped through the Sailthru entrance door, and thought, “I want to work here” before I’d even taken off my jacket.

View of the Freedom Tower, Hudson River, and New Jersey — out of the 12th floor window.

The place has a vibe. I’m not sure I can explain it. The physical space is an older, loft-style space, which means it is built on a human scale, and there is ample daylight.

Everyone sits in an open-plan floorspace (yes, everyone) and there are a hundred conversations going on at once. These people are engaged. There’s music playing — might be classic rock or Motown, might be 80's pop or reggae— that adds to the sense of energy. A gong sounds when we sign a new customer, and everyone applauds.

The place hums.

2. Agile: we walk the walk

The Agile Manifesto was published in 2001, and practically every place I’ve worked since then has claimed to be “doing agile”. None of them are. Sorry, former colleagues: there’s more to agile software development than having a Daily Standup.

Sailthru as a company is committed to Scrum software development, from the CEO on down. (If you’ve ever tried to implement Scrum without upper-management support, you know how huge this is.) The whole company lives and breathes the two-week sprint cadence. Product managers attend Standups every day. There’s no throw-it-over-the-wall. No 200-page specs.

Sprint teams are self-organizing, selecting our work from the top of the prioritized product backlog for each sprint, and committing to getting it done. We update our JIRA tickets and look at the burndown chart every day, and cheer or groan. We get daily feedback from our Product Owners and respond to it immediately, so we always know that the product increments we’re building match spec, functional expectations, and ultimately deliver value for our customers.

Oh, and we ship (get it?) code every day. Usually, several times a day.

Burndown chart for our Kingsguard sprint team — consistent downward slope means progress and productivity.

3. Egalitarian by design

No one has an office here. We basically have a huge open floor area with rows and rows of identical flat desks with Macs on them. The CEO? He sits at a desk exactly like mine, three desks down. I could hit him with a spitball from here (not that I would, of course).

One more thing: Meetings start on time and end on time. We are respectful of everyone’s time because we all want to just Get Things Done — one of our core values — so we’ll discuss, decide, and do.

4. TDD (Test-Driven Development)

The 30-minute take-home coding test for new candidates here is of the form: “Here are some unit tests that fail. Write code so they pass”.

The three-hour on-site coding test (which you only get to take if you do well with the take-home test) is also of the form: “Here are some unit tests that fail. Write code so they pass”.

If you love test-driven development as I do, this should put a smile on your face.

Are we as test-driven as I’d like? Not yet, but here are a few things to get us closer to the goal:

  • Test coverage metrics — percentage of lines of code that are covered by tests
  • Linking those metrics to the build, so that the build fails if the metrics drop
  • Incorporating test-coverage as a standard part of our process so that every ticket has an associated subtask to write tests

5. Radical transparency

At most of my past jobs, we would hear about glowing reports on KPIs, but never actually heard anything about hard dollar figures.

At Sailthru we talk about money all the time: How we earn it, how we spend it, where we need to invest, where we need to conserve, whether and when we’ll need to raise more capital. As though we were partners and colleagues in the business; as though we were grown-ups who could be trusted with the information we need to do our jobs effectively, within the broader context of our company’s financial performance and health.

6. The perks of embracing start-up life and culture

All my working life I had shied away from joining a start-up, even though, in tech, that’s where the action is. I feared the lack of job security, and the frantic pace. So I spent decades working in Corporate America — where I still didn’t have job security, and I got the frantic pace anyway!

The benefits and perks at Sailthru are so much better than anyplace I’ve ever worked that it amounts to a qualitative difference. Now, I’ve come to understand that this is fairly common in the start-up world. But still: full health benefits for myself and my family, paid in full by my employer. A fully stocked kitchen (including adult beverages). Weekly free lunches. Biweekly chair massages. Stock options. Unlimited vacations.

There’s even a generously funded “Personal Growth Program,” to be used in any way that helps you grow as a person. So far, I’ve used mine to take a drum lesson with a famous drummer; other people have taken flying lessons, and even cooked with the NY Jets.

Don’t underestimate the importance of that shared, stocked kitchen. It encourages conviviality and the sense of being on a team together — like eating in the dining hall with your classmates when you were in college. It was one of the things that made me say “I want to work here” when I first walked through the door.

7. Not just a department, but a whole company around tech

The contrast between working in a tech company, versus working in a tech department of a non-tech company, is stark. Here, everyone “gets it,” because the technology is the product. You don’t have to explain why developing software takes time and resources, because the founders and the CEO are all technologists themselves. You don’t have to fight for tools, or argue for best practices. You’re not asked to cut corners, or pressured to trim an estimate to fit someone’s predetermined schedule.

All that time and energy I used to spend fighting to be allowed to develop code “the right way”? Now I just spend that time and energy developing code.

8. Non-stop fun

So far in my three months here we’ve had: a rafting outing; a Halloween costume party; a holiday party (dinner and open bar, plus-ones invited); Team Trivia Night (which I crushed); a movie screening; and two release parties. Not to mention numerous team lunches, the weekly Thursday evening “Sail-Ale” after-work drinks, and frequent impromptu Game Of Thrones board-game sessions.

Halloween shenanigans + annual “sailing” trip down the Delaware River
BubbleBall with people across all departments
Board games during our bi-annual Dev Lodge + “Where’s Waldo?” + first Halloween at Sailthru

These people seem to genuinely like each other. Weird.

9. Teamwork, making the dream work

The mentality and attitude here is that we work together as a team, and we succeed or fail together as a team. It’s a blame-free culture: we don’t point a finger and say “you got it wrong” — we’re self-organizing, so we keep each other accountable for the work we commit to doing, and help each other whenever we can in order to just get the job done.

We do still recognize and celebrate individual successes, calling them out at All Hands meetings and also handing out the coveted Admiral Award to those who consistently go above and beyond their daily roles and expectations.

10. Hiring interesting, smart, and different kinds of people

The founders of Sailthru are some of the coolest, smartest people you’re likely to meet, and that has worked its way into the DNA of the entire organization. Five months in and I have yet to meet anyone I need to avoid; there’s no one I dread running into, no one I’m hoping will quit. It’s refreshing.

On the flip side, I have met: the systems engineer by day, bass guitarist by night. The data scientist who made his own 3D printing robot from scratch — and then 3D printed his engagement rings. The team lead who’s made more than 300 skydives. The IT manager who makes gorgeous pottery and shoots photography. The Deliverability Specialist who had a former life as a gymnast.

We all learn from each other’s backgrounds, experiences, and even hobbies, creating an environment of dynamic discussions and creative problem solving.

Everyone brings something unique to the table.

11. There’s real diversity here

Sometimes I think we look like one of those “United Colors of Benetton” ads; it’s almost a cliché, how multicultural and diverse we are. I’m not aware that it’s part of any master plan, or a mandate from the People team; it’s just what happens naturally when cool, smart people hire cool, smart people in the most diverse city in the world.

United Colors of Sailthru?

It seems so normal to me — my whole life in tech I have worked with people from all over the world — but I realize we’re in a rarefied bubble. When I hear about racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. happening in the world outside our bubble, I feel like — huh? what? In the 21st century, this is still happening?

We are a model of how the future will look. I hope.

Mike is a backend engineer on the Personalization Manager sprint team. When he’s not coding, he’s playing drums or taking his kids on adventures.