It has been 5 awesome, fun and enriching weeks at Madison Reed. Madison Reed is a startup like no other I have worked with/visited before and I love it all — the quirkiness, the casualness as well as the technically heavy tasks assigned to me.
When Christiaan first pitched the company to me, I immediately navigated to their website to find myself a little surprised and slightly disappointed, yet determined. The disappointment did not arise because the website was poorly designed (the design was great) or that I had ended up at the wrong webpage but due to the fact that this company was the opposite of what I was expecting – a hair-care/hair product startup. Much different from my expectation of being paired with a typical technical startup.
However, my initial viewpoint of this unconventional startup quickly changed as I spoke to Matt & Dave in an interview shortly after Christiaan’s introduction. They broke my misconceptions about the company being a pure hair-care startup and navigated me to the core of what the entire company relies heavily on – Engineering. The engineering team at Madison Reed is an impressive team comprised of engineers from all backgrounds – front-end development to back-end development as well as infrastructure engineering. At that point, I knew I wanted to challenge myself by stepping into an industry I had never even thought about working in and working with this extremely qualified team to make my Summer a challenging yet enjoyable one.
I got to spend a decent amount of time working directly with Dave & Matt at Madison Reed after starting work there on June 8th. They have been amazing mentors so far and I am truly impressed by their prowess as engineers as well as leaders of the Engineering Team at Madison Reed. This made me want to find out more about what their journey has been like and the different major decisions they have had to make along their career paths as engineers as well as founders. Before I dive into the details of the brief discussion I had with Matt & Dave, below is short introduction of Matt and Dave:
Matt Darling, VP Engineering, Madison Reed
Matt Darling is currently the VP of Engineering at Madison Reed and is an established veteran of startups. He, along with Dave, built Rhapsody together. They joined before it was acquired by Real Networks and had been involved with the company since its inception and were involved in it’s acquisition of other companies (WiredPlanet.com & TuneTo.com) to help build the Rhapsody music service. Matt moved to the Bay Area right after college at University of Minnesota-Twin Cities and immersed himself in multiple tech startups after his exit from Real Networks, serving as Director of Engineering at Meez and then Principal Architect at Outspark and Lab Zero Innovations.
Dave King, CTO, Madison Reed
Dave King is currently the CTO at Madison Reed and grew up in Berkeley and Chicago before going to UC Santa Cruz for college and after a few years working for established network companies joined Matt at Listen.com (before it was acquired by Real Networks) to build the Rhapsody digital music service. Dave then left the startup realm to work at GAP Inc. (Yup – that clothing store everyone knows about) as their Senior Director of Enterprise Infrastructure for ~8 years before returning to the startup hub when he joined Madison Reed in 2014.
Q: So I know that you are both established engineers in your respective areas of expertise. But tell me more about your story.
When and how did you get into technology, computer science and engineering?
Matt: Well, the first class I took fairly relevant to technology was a Pascal class in ’91 back in Junior year of high school in Wisconsin. I then moved on to college and did a few Computer Science electives there to expand my interest and depth of understanding in the subject and immediately fell in love with it. I knew from that point on that after college, I’m moving out of the Midwest and going to San Francisco to work for tech companies there. I spent some time working contracts with a few tech companies and then starting work at TuneTo.com and building Rhapsody. I stayed there all the way till ’98 before I jumped into multiple startups.
Dave: I was an avid gamer back in high school and that was my first introduction to technology. I have always appreciated it and always wanted to contribute to it one day. I actually went to college at UC Santa Cruz as part of their Pre-Law program and hated it. After doing a few CS electives, I knew that Computer Science was what I wanted to do and transferred into the program as my major. I then quit college and consulted for multiple startups funded by KPCB (Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield and Byers). During this time I worked for Marc Andreessen as his personal tech guru during his last few months at Netscape and his residency at KPCB. I was also introduced to Tsutomu Shimomura as he was launching his first startup, Geocast. Tsutomu asked me build a secure network for his new company to prevent hackers from retaliating after the recent publishing of his book on catching legendary hacker Kevin Mitnick. Being in the heart of the first dot-com boom was where i really started to love working in technology, and I built my career from there. I actually come from a more traditional infrastructure engineering background where I have built multiple infrastructures at companies before I joined at Madison Reed.
Q: Wow, looks like neither of you started with a strong ambition for computer science until much later in college. I know you [Matt] started off at startups and Dave, you moved from a startup out to GAP and then returned to Madison Reed. What was the move like? Why the shift back to a startup? I’m sure there was a risk involved in all of this.
Matt: I have a strong passion for building things and what I really appreciated at startups was the whole concept of product ownership. By being so close to the product and working on it from ground up forms an attachment to the product. I believe I truly enjoy that and that is why I always stuck with startups and small companies driving technology focused product. There was surely a risk but what really mattered during the move [to Madison Reed] was that I was joining the company with my trusted and long time partner and friend, Dave. This proved to be an effective factor in joining Madison Reed.
Dave: I spent many years at GAP, initially running Infrastructure for the rapidly growing eCommerce business, then eventually running Infrastructure for the entire company. This meant taking on a huge amount of legacy technology from the mainframe to the store network. As I took on more responsibility for these older technologies, I quickly noticed the lack of innovation amongst those teams. But the real change happened when I started spending 90% of my time in meetings and and the rest of my time in email. I hadn’t built a single piece of technology with my own hands in years. I realized I needed to get back to building things, not just to stay relevant in my career, but to thoroughly enjoy my life in the office. There was definitely risk involved in moving back to a startup after working with such an established company, but like Matt said, I was joining Madison Reed with trusted friends. In the end, that was the most decisive factor for me to move to Madison Reed.
Q: What was the biggest change when you moved to Madison Reed?
Dave: There was hardly any software development or dev-ops processes present (compared to today) at Madison Reed, and being from an infrastructure background I knew there was much to be done at the company. The engineering team was still rather small and not as technically strong as it is today. This task seemed daunting but at the same time seemed like something I really wanted to work on and fix.
Matt: Yeah, Dave’s right. There was no process of automation as you see today. There was no concept of deployment and production with local systems being able to test code individually before adding to the main codebase. Dave and I went on to implement this system of setting up the environments for engineers to test and deploy code locally which improved efficiency greatly. This meant that the engineering team could work on different tasks simultaneously. We set up the main databases in 2014, from which we developed a solid system of migrations. Node.js was chosen before I joined, and I had some hesitation initially. However, having worked in multiple languages over the years, I’ve really come to enjoy what Node.js has to offer – the academic/pattern driven nature of Java combined with the rapid development of Ruby on Rails.
Q: That sounds like a lot of work. Madison Reed Engineering has definitely come a long way. With all these new startups coming up in the world, what do you think would be the future of startups in say 20 or 30 years?
Dave: I think now we are seeing the shift from software back to hardware and this enters the realm of the Internet of Things. Every device now has a connection to the internet, first phones and tablets, now to watches, thermostats, even custom Arduino devices. I can easily see how this can disrupt many traditional industries.
Q: That is a very interesting insight. I agree with you about things moving to the hardware realm and then entering the era of distributed systems – FitBit and Pebble are good examples of this phenomenon.
Matt: Yeah totally. It’s really funny to see how open-source software, for example, has gone from a hack to the bread and butter of how we deploy and get stuff done now. I look back and wonder what type of competitive advantage the company, that moved me out to the Bay area, would have had if they built their product on Linux and Tessels/Arduinos.