Getting to know Zendesk!
Anyone who has worked for a rapidly expanding IT company in Dublin knows the feeling of being on first-name terms with the entire staff one day, and then not recognising half the Christmas party the next. This is, at least partly, why I love working at Zendesk. There are certainly similarities to be seen in working for new-age software companies. Stock in the company is becoming the norm and seeing co-workers sitting on beanbags instead of office chairs is commonplace now. However, there’s something about Zendesk that I can’t really put my finger on. It’s not small enough to call a start-up anymore — not since we IPO’d in May of 2014 — but it’s not big enough to be a household name, or give off that scary corporate sense of intimidation. It’s the middle-child, going through puberty, struggling to find its place while still enjoying all the excitement that comes with adolescence.
In my previous company we grew, and we grew FAST. With that expansion came the growing pains that anyone who has worked for a seed-funded IT company will recognise. I would routinely look up from my desk to find that I didn’t know the names of half the office. The Christmas party was less about celebrating an amazing year together, and more about showing your face, then leaving before anyone noticed how drunk you were. The sense of togetherness that I had loved in the beginning had evaporated.
This is why I love Zendesk, as cringe-worthy as that sounds. We’ve grown in Dublin, but it’s been natural. Organic. We still have just the one football team, which I play on every Tuesday. I still know, pretty much, everyone in the office. Most importantly, I still feel like I’m making a difference in the company.
This is why I’ve decided to start this blog, to give people an idea of what it’s like to work here. Every few weeks I’m going to be interviewing one of our tech leaders from EMEA with the hope of giving you an idea of what it’s like to work at Zendesk, both from a cultural standpoint but also to make you aware of the technical challenges we’re tackling on a day-to-day basis. I want to make it clear also that this isn’t just another corporate guy trying to flog his company through a blog, but my attempt to stay present and aware of the changing personalities at Zendesk even as we grow.
First up is none other than our VP of Engineering and office GM, Colum Twomey. Colum was the very first hire for Zendesk in Dublin so naturally has the best insight into how the office culture has taken shape along with the challenges we will face in 2017!
Tell us about your road to Zendesk?
I met with our President of Products, Adrian McDermott, back in September 2012, and he was very enthusiastic about Ireland being a good location for setting up an engineering centre. I liked him but to be honest I hadn’t heard of Zendesk, which is a little bit embarrassing, but I liked the sound of the role and I liked the fact they were trying to set up a product centre here which would have complete ownership of products from start to finish.
When I got the offer for the job, I thought it was pretty cool — a green field site setting up something from scratch, I love doing that kind of stuff. I was a bit worried about the requirement to hire a whole bunch of Ruby-on-Rails engineers as I had no background myself in that technology. I had no idea where these folks were or even if they existed in Dublin! So, prior to taking the job I did a bit of research to make sure those folks were available in Dublin. I went to a couple of meet-ups…
Hiding in the background?
Yes! I wasn’t sitting down listening to the presentations, I was at the back with the smokers and drinkers just chatting with those guys to see what was going on. I reassured myself that there really was a small, but a strong core of folks here. When I later started reaching out to the market and interviewing I found some great initial hires, and before we knew it we had 20 people within a year, and it just grew from there.
Was the prospect of being the first person on the ground in Dublin nerve-wracking at all?
It was super attractive for me because I had been in the industry a long time and I had built a lot of development organisations. The best ones — the most fun ones — are the ones where you basically do it from scratch and you have full control over the whole process and can build the culture you want, so that was really attractive for me.
So what does a typical day for you look like? Is there a typical day? Is every day different?
I have dealings with various organisations that are helping us and that we are helping, so a typical day? No such thing! Many meetings and conversations, but I tend to kind of roam the floors a bit as well just to keep up with what is going on: management by walking about, I suppose you could call it? Just keeping your finger on the pulse. There is a lot of effort spent keeping up with what is going on in the other offices so I like to be up pretty early in the morning and checking what has gone on the previous night and touching base with the folks in Asia, and in the evenings it’s the same thing with San Francisco. It’s not 24–7. I think I have a very good work/life balance, it’s not a particularly stressful role but you do need to keep on top of what is going on in our other offices, but I think that’s fine.
You’ve seen the Dublin office grow from a few developers to a bustling development centre, which must have been pretty crazy! So what do you think are the biggest differences to those early days to where we are now as a company?
In the early days you look after everything, you’re kind doing everything: from ordering chairs and stationery. A lot of my first year was …..
Ha! A bit. A lot of my first year was spent recruiting because it is really, really critical that the first hires you get are the right hires and you spend a lot of time with those folks mentoring and overseeing how they do things. After a while that takes on its own momentum, you can step back a little bit from that and look at the bigger picture. So the role has changed relatively gradually I guess from where we were to now.
A lot of companies in Dublin will put a few beanbags in the corner, paint the office walls a weird colour, and they’ll call that their culture. What do you see as the culture of Zendesk in Dublin?
Beanbags certainly! We do have a couple of beanbags which I bought in the early days but no: the word I use most is “respect”.
I think Zendesk has a pretty unique culture. It’s an intersection between the Scandinavian ethos of respect and tolerance with the hipster San Francisco, laid back way of life. So it is an interesting combination.
But for us I’d say number one is respect and everyone here treats everybody else with respect.
We’re very careful with our hiring — we have a ‘no assholes’ policy which we are pretty serious about. We give people space to make mistakes if necessary and hopefully learn from those mistakes. We give our employees the best hygiene factors — they all have nice big screens, their desks go up and down electronically so they can stretch the legs. We have food for breakfast and lunches as well as all snacks in between and so forth, but what it really is all about is giving them interesting work and making sure they are on a good career progression plan.
Our office environment has a kind of subdued peaceful look and feel. Yes, we have the foosball and table tennis, but really it’s more about a calm environment where people can have space to think and plenty of room to go work and collaborate in. But it’s not high pressure, high volume, high powered kind of environment. It’s quite calm and measured, quite grown-up I think.
So tell us more about some of the problems that you are solving and how they differ from those you faced in previous companies?
So central to what we do at Zendesk is ensuring the products that we build are useable. People want to use our products so I would say that has been one of our unique selling points from very early on — if you go right back to the early days and talk to our CEO, that is what he talks about. How we made the world of customer support something that is an attractive place for people to work within because they are using products that are friendly, easy to use and an enjoyable experience. That is quite a change from the kind of horrible experience that used to be there before Zendesk. So that is something that we need to perpetuate in all our products. So, we are very much a design focused organisation: any products that we are building we need to ensure from very early on that we are creating and designing it well enough so it is easy to use, it works well, it’s intuitive and you don’t have to pick up a big manual to figure out how it works.
What advice would you give to anyone that is applying to Zendesk?
I would say the number one thing is to be yourself throughout the whole process.
We are very much looking for authenticity among the people we work with, we want to find people that will fit into our organisation while being themselves, and who will progress well with us.
So, leave the suit at home?
Leave the suit at home definitely! I mean, be yourself — come as you are, be prepared but be truthful through the process. We have a very good bullshit radar detector and we want people who are comfortable with themselves.