Building Unprecedented Data Platform

The Prime View had the privilege to speak with Aaron Erickson, Vice President of Engineering at New Relic, a top SaaS company that builds complex data platforms to deliver perfect insights to companies around the globe.

Aaron, tell us about yourself, your career path, and what you are up to now?

I am Vice President of Engineering at New Relic, working on the core data platform. For about 17 years, I was a software engineer and spent most of my time thinking about how to create good designs and good software that will accomplish business goals. 

I got into agile software development in the 2000s, right around the time the Agile manifesto came out. At that time, I joined a company called ThoughtWorks, intending to work with the pioneers of agile software development, people like Martin Fowler, Neil Ford, who are the industry leaders, and that helped to jump-start and took my career to another level.

My first project at ThoughtWorks was three months in China. There I learned more about software development than in the prior ten years. Also, at ThoughtWorks, I took over one of the company’s biggest engagements at that time, a company called Rackspace Technology. It turned out to be a sales role, which I was unaware of. But then, in 2013, I was said, “Hey, your revenue goal is X.” That came out as a complete surprise.

Aaron Erickson

VP of Engineering at New Relic

Later I took on a GM role for the West Coast, for ThoughtWorks, where I was responsible for P&L of that particular region and division. At that time, one of the company’s customers who I would work with all the way back to Rackspace had joined Salesforce and recruited me into their company to help on their product side for internal developer productivity side.

Every good engineering leader should work in product management for at least a little while, so they gain a stronger perspective on customer needs and prioritization.

From there, I was working at Salesforce for a couple of years and now got this opportunity to work at New Relic. And while I enjoy doing product, which is ultimately about the “why” of the software development – why this work matters and is relevant for customers. 

My colleague who brought me into Salesforce once said, “Every good engineering leader should work in product management for at least a little while, so they gain a stronger perspective on customer needs and prioritization.” I feel that attitude did well for my career. Even here at New Relic, where we have a great product management organization, and I do not need to put my hands into their job, I can certainly be empathetic towards their perspective in terms of what customers want or don’t want.

You have a long and successful career in a variety of technology companies in leadership positions. I assume you have to hire lots of people in different roles. What’s your secret to building high-performance teams?

I look to hire curious people, generalists that have a high intellectual capacity to learn new things and then expect that they will be curious learners.

For any role in engineering, I am looking for people that care about the “why,” people that care about what the impact is going to be on the customer.

Without a doubt, they have to have the core engineering skills because you cannot make somebody an engineer who is not an engineer. Of course, you can have boot camps, hackathons, and whatnot, but once you meet that bar, you are good at your craft, which I think most people can get to in their first five years of career; I am deeply interested in people that care about how to bring value for a customer. 

The reason I care about that is the intrinsic motivation that makes people more engaged in the customer’s problem and bring satisfaction from the fact that your work makes somebody’s life better. That radically differs from purely extrinsic motivation – a lot of people go into engineering to make money, and that’s fine too.

Aaron, I saw several LinkedIn posts where you are looking for new people to join your team. How do you solve the problem of scarce tech resources on the market? 

The challenge is finding the right people who are excited about the mission and are ready to leave their current role right now, which a lot of people are not so excited about. They have a lot of anxiety about moving between companies because it is hard to start a new role when you cannot meet people directly.

The tricky thing is to find people that have inherent curiosity. It is just a tough market where, even now, during a pandemic, great engineers are rare. To find the engineers that have a background in the things that we are doing is even rarer.

Personally, I’m less worried about whether they know exactly the version Kubernetes we may be running or do they know the version of language X, Y, and Z. I am more concerned if they have the engineering chops to understand what we’re doing and do they have the personality to work in this culture. 

You have been in a leadership role at ThoughtWorks, a leading tech consultancy firm. How does ThoughtWorks differentiate from other big tech consultancies like Accenture or Deloitte? 

I used to call ThoughtWorks “the Switzerland of tech companies” as it was and still is an amazing company that would be neutral in terms of technology it would recommend. Most of the time, those would be open-source technologies. ThoughtWorks was very principled and, through those principles, could give better advice. They had and still have a three-pillar model. The first pillar – you need to run a profitable business. The second pillar was about being leading technologists, creating thought leadership for the world – those were continuous delivery, continuous integration, lean enterprise, where we were groundbreaking things that now have become normalized in the industry. The third thing is the social justice pillar, which is when you are working for a company that is working not just for shareholders but also for combining that with creating a good social outcome. ThoughtWorks is like this, Salesforce is like this, and I believe New Relic is like this. When you are working for a company that cares about that deeply, you engage people.

People will do their work better when they’re intrinsically motivated rather than just extrinsically motivated. 

So, when I was at ThoughtWorks, we would build Open MRS, open-source projects for hospitals in Africa or rural India to enable them more easily set up medical record systems when they couldn’t pay a million dollars to a commercial vendor. I learned many lessons from that time, but the biggest one is “be about what you’re doing in the world” otherwise, everybody’s going to be transactional, just looking for the next promotion.

Just as you said, you have recently joined New Relic. What are your professional goals and challenges there?

At New Relic, we are going through a change. Unfortunately, I cannot give away many details about it, but we have a new Chief Product Officer, and we are engaged in new strategy development. My big challenge is to make our core data platform as rock-solid as we can, as performant as we can to build other parts of the organization on top of that. We have an incredible growth story that we are going to be continuing to execute on it, and my job is to make sure that happens smoothly.

New Relic collects a vast amount of data. What kind of Big Data tools do you use internally? 

We have a great asset in New Relic called the NRDB. If you ever get our CEO, Lew Cirne, in a room, he will probably say that is one of the proudest things about our platform – having our telemetry technologies under the hood. That is crucial because the amount of data that we ingest, consume, order, and set up is unprecedented. It is probably the biggest scale database on the planet, and building something like this is monumentally challenging. So, it’s one of the company’s crown jewels, across the industry where a company that’s a data company like us will often have to build their own stuff to enable the system’s viable performance.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, people are forced to work remotely. What are your plans as an engineering leader to keep remote teams motivated, productive, and focused?

That is a hard question because it is going to depend on many individual teams, so the approach will vary by team and the situation they are in. Though one of the things I fully believe we have to do, and even if you ask people who have been primarily remote companies before the pandemic, companies like Basecamp still have an in-person element. You still have to have some level of “let’s get together as a team.” We are not going to do that until it is safe. But you know, we have a lot of engineers in Barcelona, and the minute that we have vaccines, I’m going to be on a plane going to Barcelona to do in-person meetings to get to know each other as colleagues and friends, and trusted peers.

I am not going to lie about my position on this – I think remote is great, flexibility is great. At the same time, you might want to have a get-together time where you build bonds of trust. You do that in the interim. Of course, there are things that we can do working remotely: lots of zoom meetings or happy-hour activities. But it is still a challenge. I am looking forward to getting back to talking with other technologists and having informal hallway conversations. 

Aaron, thanks so much for sharing your fascinating journey from engineering to innovation.

Stay tuned for the next great interviews coming your way!