The New Stack Podcast

Curating for the SRE Through Lessons Learned at Google News

Episode Summary

In the early 1990s, many kids got into programming video games. Tina Huang enjoyed developing her GeoCities site but not making games. Huang loved automating her website. Huang is like many of the founders we interview. Her job can be what she wants it to be. But Huang also has to take care of everything that needs to get done. All the work comes down to what the Transposit site says on the home page: Bring calm to the chaos. Through connected workflows, give TechOps and SREs visibi

Episode Notes

In the early 1990s, many kids got into programming video games. Tina Huang enjoyed developing her GeoCities site but not making games. Huang loved automating her website.


"It is not a lie to say that what got me excited about coding was automation," said Huang, co-founder of Transposit, in this week's episode of The New Stack Makers as part of our Tech Founder Series. "Now, you're probably going to think to yourself: 'what middle school kid likes automation?' "


Huang loved the idea of automating mundane tasks with a bit of code, so she did not have to hand type – just like the Jetsons and Rosie the Robot -- the robot people want. There to fold your laundry but not take the joy away from what people like to do.


Huang is like many of the founders we interview. Her job can be what she wants it to be. But Huang also has to take care of everything that needs to get done. All the work comes down to what the Transposit site says on the home page: Bring calm to the chaos. Through connected workflows, give TechOps and SREs visibility, context, and actionability across people, processes, and APIs.


The statements reflect on her own experience in using automation to provide high-quality information.


"I've always been swimming upstream against the tide when I worked at companies like Google and Twitter, where, you know, the tagline for Google News back then was "News by Robots," Huang said. "The ideal in their mind was how do you get robots to do all the news reporting. And that is funny because now I think we have a different opinion. But at the time, it was popular to think news by robots would be more factual, more Democratic."


Huang worked on a project at Google exploring how to use algorithms to curate the first pass of curation for human editors to go in and then add that human touch to the news. The work reflected her love for long-form journalism and that human touch to information.


Transport offers a similar next level of integration. Any RSS fans out there? Huang has a love/hate relationship with RSS. She loves it for what it can feed, but if the feed is not filtered, then it becomes overwhelming. Getting inundated with information happens when multiple integrations start to layer from Slack, for example, and other sources.


"And suddenly, you're inundated with information because it was information designed for the consumption by machines, not at the human scale," Huang said. "You need that next layer of curation on top of it. Like how do you allow people to annotate that information? "


Providing a choice in subscriptions can help. But at what level? And that's one of the areas that Huang hopes to tackle with Transposit."

Episode Transcription

Alex Williams  0:00  

Hey everyone, Alex here. Hey, listen, we have a new series starting on the new stack. Baker's is called the tech founder Odyssey. It's about technical founders. So as people who are engineers who are starting their own companies, we've had the best feedback from people already on Twitter. The questions are awesome. And it's really going to be guiding us. As we develop this series. We want to know about these people why they got started, what motivated them? What were the lessons that they learned along the way? What is it that they've learned about themselves, about their backgrounds, about the people who they've hired to work with them? How have they grown this venture into something that will last it's a big deal for these people. And I think it's a big deal for a lot of us who thought about doing these kinds of things, and are part of the companies that these engineers have started, we hope you enjoy it. Again, it's the tech founder Odyssey on the new stack bankers.


Alex Williams  0:59  

You're listening to the new stack makers, a podcast made for people who develop, deploy and manage at scale software. For more conversations, and articles, go to the new stack dot I O. All right now on with the show.


Alex Williams  1:25  

Everyone here for another episode of the new stack makers, we are doing a series on founders, technical founders in particular. And Tina Huang is our guest today. Tina is founder and CTO of trans posit. Tina, thank you so much for joining us.


Tina Huang  1:44  

Thanks for having me, Alex.


Alex Williams  1:46  

In these interviews, we like to try to get a sense of, you know, how you got into programming how you got into this world of just being a developer. Maybe you could take us back to when you started writing code. What were those early days, where were you? What were you doing?


Tina Huang  2:03  

Yeah, I mean, like many people who started coding around when I did, which must have been in the early 90s, I was at home just playing around with a computer in high school or middle school, I forget when, but I often talk about how various people have their pals into coding for a lot of people I talked to it was through video games and entertainment, which was not the case. For me, it is not a lie to say that what got me excited about coding was automation. Now, you're probably gonna think to yourself, What middle school kid likes automation. For me, at the time, I was just coding my geo City's website. And the website was no purpose at all. It was just, you know, my own fun, but the ability to tell a computer to do something, even if it was just write a few lines of code that I didn't want to have to hand tight. That felt to me the way that I imagine why everyone loves Jetsons and Rosie the robots, you know, that take something that everyone hates to do. And everyone thinks is, you know, just mundane, like doing your laundry. I mean, I think that's why Rosie still continues to be the dream robot everyone wants is just make me a robot that will fold my laundry for me. Because that delight we can get were something that feels so inhuman to have to do that you have this automation, but it doesn't take away from all of the joys of everything that you'd like to do.


Alex Williams  3:36  

So have you roboticized your house at all?


Tina Huang  3:39  

No, barely at all. That's the I enjoy things like my nest, I like being able to turn on my heat before I show up at home, being able to turn on my lights on the side of my house. But other than that I don't do the Alexa or Siri and all of those devices.


Alex Williams  3:59  

Computers of a different kind these days are getting automated, I guess we'll see more of that. Tell us about chance posit, and what is your role there now that you're a founder,


Tina Huang  4:12  

I feel very fortunate that as a founder, you basically get to make your job, what you want it to be. The flip side of it is you also end up picking up and dealing with whatever needs to happen at all times. But you get some of both of those. And so for me, I spend a lot of time still coding and doing technical architecture. What we're building at trans posit really resonates with, say two things in my life and my career that are really valuable. One is the love of automation, the love of building things for developers, and the other is finding ways of making technology enhance the human experience and not detract from it. And so I I've always been swimming upstream against the tide when I worked at companies like Google and Twitter, where the tagline for Google News back then was news by robots. The ideal in their mind was how do you get robots to do all news reporting. And that is funny, because now I think we have a different opinion of this. But at the time, it was popular to think news by robots would be more factual, be more democratic. That was the initial viewpoint of it. I worked on a project that was looking at how you can use algorithms to do the first pass of curation for human editors to go in and then add that human touch to news. I've always liked long form journalism, and that human touch to information.


Alex Williams  5:52  

That's really neat to hear. And I know that you were pretty active in Google News, you also were pretty active on Blogger, as I understand. And I totally got an RSS around 2003 2004. And I was just obsessed with it, because I could look at so many different posts so quickly through a newsreader. That newsreader I believe serve as catalysts for blogging. And that's really a form of really expression more than anything else. I mean, we use a CMS platform from WordPress, which is was originally I believe, intended to be a blogging platform. But I don't really consider what we do as blogging, I think we do more reporting. And so I'm just curious about, did you really love RSS? Did you find it fascinating? Did it influence you at all in your thinking and stuff, because it shorted me but I'm curious about your perspective. For me,


Tina Huang  6:53  

I've always had a love and hate relationship with RSS, there's a natural ebb and flow with humans and information streams. So you have products like RSS that allow you to consume massive, massive amounts of information, you have new platforms that generate tons of new user generated content, but then very quickly, you become overwhelmed. And that that actually was the history of blogging, blogging started as a way to allow humans to curate links on the web, so that you knew what to look at. You know, in the early days of the web, there weren't that many options, but then suddenly, it became too much. But then at some point, there's too many blogs, you don't know who to follow, and you recreated that problem. And now you're needing that curation again. And so there's actually an interesting synergy or analogy with what we see at times posit with the role of operators, people actually use Slack in many ways, almost as an RSS reader for all kinds of system information. And so the first time you plug in an integration, and you maybe have GitHub posting commits into Slack, that seems very exciting. You have exactly that experience that you described Alex, where, look how fast I can consume this information in the background of slack, someone adds the second integration. Third, before you know it, you have alerts coming in left and right on Slack. And suddenly, you're inundated with information, because it was information designed for the consumption by machines, not at the human scale. And so at that point, similar to the role of blogs, you need that next layer of curation on top of it, right? Like how do you allow people to annotate that information and allow people to choose what to subscribe to? and at what level? And that's one of the areas that we are hoping to tackle with trans posit?


Alex Williams  8:59  

This is the issue of the day, that overwhelming amount of information, and how do you curate it? No, as a reporter, I mean, I worked in newspapers in my early career, and I remember going to buy a full time job at the Augusta Chronicle. And over the first week, they said, We would just like you to read the wires for a few days. And so I just spent hours and hours reading stories from Knight Ritter and the Associated Press. And even that was a lot of information because there were just so many stories that she could read. And now the stories are different, aren't they for engineers, their data streams, there's so many notifications that they get, and that makes sense from what I hear from you talking about that overwhelming amount of information that you're trying to help people with EMI wrong and that I see the influence of curation and your own service that you have. I mean, there's aspects of it when I look at your graphics and design And then you're looking at almost a bit from our perspective of taking lots of different sources, and then creating something finely tuned for that individual. Yeah,


Tina Huang  10:10  

that's definitely one aspect of our product, we draw a lot of inspiration from my experiences at Twitter, where you have this notification and subscription model. Similarly, we see there's not really that kind of experience in the enterprise, there's no way for you to say, I don't belong to this team. I don't belong to the payments team. But I'm interested in receiving alerts when they do a new deploy, or when they release a new feature. And I want to see release notes where there's not really a way for either the team to emit that information, and for people to opt in and subscribe. And I think that that is causing a lot of communication gaps in large enterprises today.


Alex Williams  11:02  

We'll talk about that a little bit more. One thing I'm curious about too, though, is how you became a founder. And I'm curious about that story, like, how did you get to this place where trans posit came to be?


Tina Huang  11:16  

I feel like it's very much part of my personality that I've always wanted to be an entrepreneur. And part of that was the fact that I've always been interdisciplinary. When I went to college, I was torn between doing a management degree and doing a computer science degree. I actually left development after three years at Apple to go study humanities at the University of Chicago. And when I came back, I went to work at Google. And I did my 20% work under user research and getting to leverage some of the ethnographic field methods I learned while I was at University of Chicago, doing my masters. And so entrepreneurship always felt like the natural place to be because that's the only thing you can do. That doesn't put you in a box. But I'm a very methodical and despite being an entrepreneur and a founder, risk averse. And so I jokingly say, every company I've worked at starting from Apple was an order of magnitude smaller. So believe it or not, when I was at Apple, they were in 10s, of 1000s of employees in at Google was 1000s. at Twitter, I was around 100. When I joined there, I went to sigma computing where I was a founding engineer, and then to become an entrepreneur in residence at Sutter Hill ventures, and then founding trends posit. So I both always had this vision that that's where I wanted to be. But I took strategic steps. And I think different people have different approaches to landing and entrepreneurship. But I took a very technical route, I understood that as an entrepreneur, the best thing I could do for myself is create a toolbox of different skills. So I spent a lot of time making sure I was up to date on AWS and cloud. I left Apple after a few years, because I didn't want to know just client development and operating systems. But I wanted to learn the web, I left Google to go to Twitter, because I knew that that would give me much more operational hands on experience, being at an early startup. And I look at that time at Twitter, where we had no operations people, or we had very, very few operations people. So as a developer, you sometimes just had to ssh onto your nginx box, and you know, debug what the proxy was doing. And that was part of part of life. But that gave me both the skill set, but also helped me understand the problem space that ultimately trans posits tackling.


Alex Williams  13:55  

Tell me about those early technical leadership roles that you had at Apple or at Google, how did you come into those roles? And how does it affect how you work today?


Tina Huang  14:08  

I actually didn't have what anyone would describe as a traditional leadership role at any of my previous jobs. So I was never in management. And I led my individual team, sort of informally. But I think that the biggest thing that that taught me and having that be my pathway to being a founder is I very much had to learn how to lead by technical influence. I think had I been in a different position and then an official tech lead manager or some leader in that sense with any real authority. I might have been able to lean on that to push forward my technical initiatives, but instead If I had to learn how to help people align on the higher order goals and see the pros and cons of specific technical approach that I was trying to champion,


Alex Williams  15:11  

so you didn't have that management background, but you did get asked to be in those roles, though, didn't you? I mean, not necessarily as a manager, but, you know, working with a team and leading a team.


Tina Huang  15:27  

Well, there was a Twitter, I joined the user growth team and identified a problem space, which was email was an underserved part of Twitter's infrastructure. And I went out and built the notifications infrastructure for Twitter, which ended up serving email, push notifications, SMS, etc. As a result of having started that service internally, I then built a team around it. And part of I think, the best experience of having done that was not just doing the technical architecture of the service, but having to operationalize that service with a small team. And I feel like that experience really helped me understand a lot of the pain points that I think a lot of operations people are facing today.


Alex Williams  16:18  

Tell me about those teams who were the people on those teams.


Tina Huang  16:21  

On my immediate team, it was engineers. But we worked closely, for instance, with the operations team that ran our MTAA, which delivered email, and the operations and SRE teams that ran our services. And so we worked with all those different resources. We also worked with the user growth team, which is more product Feature Driven team.


Alex Williams  16:45  

And how many people are you talking about here in total, or per team are such


Tina Huang  16:50  

as teams are really small back then. So our service team had at the largest size five or six people? And so, you know, I'd say the majority of my leadership experience has honestly been something that I've learned and grown through building trans posit self,


Alex Williams  17:07  

do you maintain small teams to transpose it? We actually


Tina Huang  17:10  

do. We have, I think, maybe around 15 engineers. And so we try to keep it lean. I'm a strong believer that the mythical man month is not a thing. And so keeping a small agile team that really understands the domain, and everyone is on the same page, working towards the same goals understands a vision, that that honestly builds better products, especially in the early days of a company as you're trying to navigate the product market fit spectrum.


Alex Williams  17:47  

How has that affected your thinking about past roles that you play, for instance, at Google, or Apple or Twitter, where you might have had conflicts as any organization does? I'm curious about how you're trying to resolve conflicts, maybe it's trade offs in you know, your architecture, or engineering issues that you're facing? What did you see it those other jobs that you've had before? That you remember that take you back and help you think about where you are today?


Tina Huang  18:21  

Yeah, I think that the biggest thing that I've learned from both my experiences at Google and Twitter, and now building trance pause, is the need to have a pragmatic lens, and to understand what is the actual end goal that you're trying to accomplish? And how does the technology apply into technical decisions applied to that? I think when I was at some of these other companies, technical architecture decisions often became questions around is this language better? Or worse than that? It was about the technology itself. And I've come to learn that there really is no right or wrong answer. It honestly, is a little bit of a philosophical debate in that sense. Now, if you talk about a very specific goal you're trying to accomplish with the technology that changes the discussion. And so you're able to route those technical decisions. Take even something as simple as what language do I want to use to build this product. You can have certain parts about the language itself, like I like statically typed languages, and these are the reasons right, it gives you type safety, but you can also start factoring in things like, Okay, does our operations staff service that language? Is there an additional operations load? What does hiring for that skill set for that language look like? And I think all of those factors matter just as much as is this language actually better or worse than some other language?


Alex Williams  19:57  

Did you learn that? Did you have mentors You taught you that this is something you've learned through your Humanities pursuits? Is this just accumulated knowledge? That's a pretty sophisticated way of looking at how you approach it, because you're almost looking at it one topic from multiple kinds of points of view, right? You're saying, yeah, the technology doesn't matter as much. I mean, I don't want to belittle it, but also, it just depends on what you're trying to accomplish. It just seems like there's some there's some nuance there.


Tina Huang  20:27  

Yeah. I mean, it's something that has evolved over time based off my experiences. But I, I honestly think some of it stems from my humanities background. So University of Chicago is a school of postmodern philosophy. And one of the critical lessons that I learned while I was there was how in the early days of anthropology, they looked at photographs, and they said, photographs are objective truths. And then they learned from that, that actually, you know, modern day we realize a photograph is a choice of a point of time and a choice of framing, right? The context matters. And so the same lens, or the same thinking has to apply to technical decisions. I think it's really easy. When I think about things like analyzing an engineers performance reviews, and how they're doing. People often look at someone's code in a silo. And they say, this code is good code, or bad code or high quality. And in practice, this almost a meaningless statement, right? There's always the context in the picture. If there was a deadline, I had a friend who worked on the Google Doodles project. So the code literally has to last a day for that doodle. So high quality is the code that gets the job done and gets it done in time, because one day late is worth zero. That's the right quality of code. And that is high quality code for that context. And that's not true. If you are building something that's part of the operating system that only ships once a year, and it's hard to patch and hard to fix.


Alex Williams  22:13  

That's so cool. So it goes back to the robot almost right, like the anthropological view of the perfect, objective way to look at something might have been through a photograph. But it was learned that actually, the photograph is actually quite subjective. And when you look at the news from a robots perspective, I'll actually it's there's lots of ways to look at the news. And the robot is actually being developed with a point of view as well, you know, so there's some interesting kind of similarity there.


Tina Huang  22:39  

Yeah, that's exactly right, I find this entire line of work super fascinating is actually what initially drove me to go get the humanities degree.


Alex Williams  22:49  

You know, speaking as a founder, you know, one of the things that I found is that going from places like TechCrunch, and then starting the new stack, that it was the context that was hard to get across, when you're just reporting news, right? You couldn't really spend much time on explaining something or trying to help people understand something, because it was more about Sutter Hill Ventures has just funded a company or this company has just received X million dollars in funding. And often those companies were actually really pretty interesting. I mean, I remember one of the companies that I wrote about at TechCrunch, disrupt was foundation dB. And this was long before they got acquired, you know, they just had a much more flexible way of looking at what they're doing. So that context is it seems to be a theme here for you and your career. So what differentiates for you the role of the technical founder, versus a founder who might be from a background in sales or marketing? I love the developing leadership podcast, and they talk about this. I don't know if you've ever listened to it. But for everyone out there, I would suggest it. But they talk about this a lot. I'm curious to know how you think technical founders, you know, really are differentiated from others.


Tina Huang  24:01  

So I think that the role of the technical founder differs, depending on one of two classes of companies that you have. So there's a class of company that at the core isn't innovating on the technology, right? It's like technology is servicing, say a new product idea, a new business model, a new approach. I think the role of the technical founder there is a little different than how I see it with companies in the category that Trump's policy it isn't, which is really about how can I use technology in a unique and innovative way to solve an existing business problem that I've identified in that class of problems? Where you are fundamentally at core technology, innovation, a different way of applying technology? The role of the technical founder is to really understand the pain points and really understand the market that you're going after having a vision for how you plan to attack and approach that market. And all the way down to what is your technical architecture and your differentiator, and why you are going to be able to solve this problem 10 times better than anyone else.


Alex Williams  25:21  

10 times. That's how. So engineers love to build things. So what do you look for in your engineers that you have part of your team? What are you thinking about? You know, do you want people who just love to build things? What are you looking for, and their characters and their approaches? Are these people you've already known for years, I know engineering, circles, especially in open source communities can be pretty tight, pretty close, I was just curious on where you are with that, and who you're looking for, and who you found and what you're trying to build.


Tina Huang  25:53  

I think that first and foremost, I look for people who are excited about how technology can solve real world problems. So I think that there's a category of engineers who are happy to build and play with technology, even if no person ever uses it. On the other end. I know countless engineers that I've worked with in the past at big companies that actually didn't seem to mind if they were building a project and got to play on a new language and learn some new technology. And if the product got canned before it shipped, they weren't emotionally torn up about that. I was never that engineer. For me. I really want my code to have impact on other people. And I think that this is a really important piece. Because this means especially for an early stage company, you have engineers who are willing to do the appropriate amount of engineering to test a new proof of concept to validate the market and not over engineer for a product that may not be heading in the right direction.


Alex Williams  27:09  

So it's that balance that you're looking for, because you don't want it to be over engineered, for example.


Tina Huang  27:16  

Yeah, I mean, I talked to an engineer early on and trans posit, and I explained to him that trans posit is this culture of pragmatism, we want people who will make that balanced choice on this is the right technical approach, given what we're trying to accomplish right now. And this engineer had just left Apple and shade up said to me, You know what, I just think I'm not that pragmatic of a guy, I am happy to just play around and build something in a new language, even if it means 10x more operations costs, because we don't have monitoring systems that support it. Because for me, I just like getting to play around with new technologies. And to me, that's also a sign of a perfect interview process. There's no trick question. I literally can just lay out this is what I value in engineering and what we as an engineering culture wants, and people can self select in or out of that criteria.


Alex Williams  28:16  

Do you bring that approach into the rest of the organization, that culture pragmatism when you're thinking about not just being founder and CTO, but building the rest of the organization that goes with it?


Tina Huang  28:27  

Absolutely. We have core values and culture pragmatism for our engineering values is basically our number one value,


Alex Williams  28:36  

culture pragmatism. So how would you describe the culture of pragmatism is that solving those real world problems and doing it in a manner where you're not over engineering, but you're solving the problem effectively?


Tina Huang  28:47  

Yeah, I mean, we actually have a framework for how we think about it, where we ask our engineers to first be able to stay in a sentence or two, what is the business problem that you're trying to solve? What's the pain or the customer challenge that you're trying to accomplish here? And as a result of that list, what are your solution requirements? From there, you can talk about your technical approach. And in that framework, people can often identify that, oh, I lumped in this feature or this additional piece. And it's honestly not necessary for any of the solution requirements that I've listed. And so even though that would be fun to build, probably something that we don't need to include right now.


Alex Williams  29:32  

Tina, thank you very much for your time, I've really enjoyed kind of hearing your story. I really enjoy talking about blogging and Google News and that and so I will remember this conversation for that but also for your culture of pragmatism, that approach I find it interesting to always hear founders talk about their core values, something that we believe in deeply hear from us to act. So thank you very much. Thank you very much. Thanks for listening. If you liked the show, please rate Add a review us on Apple podcast Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts. That's one of the best ways you can help us grow this community and we really appreciate your feedback. You can find the full video version of this episode on YouTube. Search for the new stack and don't forget to subscribe so you never miss any new videos. Thanks for joining us and see you soon.


Transcribed by