Developer Tea

Building Products w/ Keith Pitt (part 2)

Episode Summary

Keith Pitt, co-founder and CTO of Buildkite joins the show this week to talk about his journey into building Buildkite.

Episode Notes

Have you ever thought about building something because you assumed the product already existed? 

In this part two of our interview with Keith,  we dig into the difference between being a CTO vs. CEO and why Keith chose to be the CTO at Buildkite


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Episode Transcription

I've worked for some people that I wouldn't consider good bosses. But all of that time that I spent with them really helped me hone in what not to do when I started a business. When we started hiring people, I learned very quickly what I shouldn't be doing based off my experience in the past of having bad bosses. If you've got a bad boss now, one day you will use those learnings when you start managing people. I remember that time that my boss did that thing and I won't do that again. That was the voice of Keith Pitt. Keith is the CTO and co-founder of BuildKite. Keith, in this episode, the second part of my interview with Keith talks about a lot of things, including the difference in being a CTO and a CEO and how he is both a co-founder and a CTO at the same time, rather than choosing the path of becoming the CEO and why he did that as well as some of the ways that you might find time to build your next idea. Your listening to Developer Tea, my name is Jonathan Cutrell, and my goal in the show is to help different developers like you find clarity, perspective, and purpose in their careers. If you didn't listen to the first part of the interview, I encourage you to go back and listen to that first, and now let's get straight into the second part of my interview with Keith Pitt. Can you look back on a time or a moment in time that you didn't really know the way forward, that you maybe it's a low point or a turning point in your career, and share with us the epiphany or the process of getting out of that low point? That's a good question. The one that's coming to mind is, I am the CTO at Bullcat. I am the original founder, but I am not the CEO. For some people, that's a bit odd. People often think that if you invented something, you started something you should be the CEO. But for me, that's not the case. I remember there was a low point during maybe this was the year, year 304 of Bullcat, where I was very unhappy. I was very unhappy at my job, and I had the title of CEO and the role of CEO. I felt a lot of pressure on me because the industry puts CEOs on a pedestal. When you think of the new Apple release, people don't think about the Chief Technology Officer at Apple. They think of Tim Cook, right? Tim Cook invented the iPhone. Steve Jobs invented the iPhone. I was not happy in that role. I was not happy being the CEO because I couldn't do the things that I wanted to do. I wanted to be building product. I wanted to be talking with customers. I wanted to be getting in the needy-gritty of the engineering side of things. I couldn't do that as the CEO. Because the CEO has a particular job and they have a set of things that they need to get done. I was fighting it big time and I was very unhappy. I think I got to be the CEO. I wanted to be the Tim Cook. I wanted to be the Steve Jobs of the CICD world. I didn't want to be the CEO of the company that I built. What do I want to be doing? What's going to make BuildKite successful? What am I missing in my life? I was this honest realization that I didn't want to be the CEO of the company that I built. I didn't want to do that anymore. I wanted to do something else. I did a role switch with my business partner. He became the CEO and I stepped into the CTO position. That was such a freeing thing for me. I felt so much better after making that decision that I could focus on what I wanted to focus on. I think that for your listeners, I would ask them to have a real hard look at what they want to do. I see this a lot with engineers that want to climb the engineering ladder. They want to climb the ladder and progress in their career. They think they have to go into management positions. I know a lot of engineering managers that probably shouldn't be managers, but they feel compelled to move in that direction because that's where the money is. I think it's totally okay to still be interested by the craft of programming and still be passionate about that. I don't think you need to move into engineering to progress your career. I think that's what realized of me is I was way more interested in the craft of building and product building and less about management. I know there are way better engineering managers than me. I'm not a good engineer and manager. I get behind, but there are far more better people than me. I think knowing what you're good at and knowing what you are not good at, that's kind of important because that helps you hone the path that you want to go. I think it's good for organizations to really think about the different engineering paths for engineers. At Bill Kite, we have, there are two paths that you can choose after becoming a senior engineer. You can either move down like a craftsmanship type path or a management type path. They both are sort of the same in terms of accountability in the company. After a senior, you can either become a lead engineer or a director engineer. The other path is a staff engineer or a principal engineer. They both have the same salary packages. I think that's kind of important because it's okay for people to be able to progress in their career and not feel like they're being told which direction to go in based off where the money is. I think you should follow your heart and what you want to do and the money. I think you'll be way happier in life. That was the turning point for me is I followed my heart and not the title. This is some incredibly important advice that will hit home for every engineer at some point. At some point, you will likely come to a crossroads where whether it's your organization or the zeitgeist around you. I've seen this happen with engineers that were fairly early in their careers. They felt the pressure. They felt the pressure to go out of engineering because that's individual contributor work. To go towards something abstract like management or to go into the business side of things. There are some very natural pathways to do that. There are some people who actually gain an interest in business over the course of their work as an engineer. Some engineers start out hardcore engineers. They don't want to think about sales. They don't want to think about anything other than engineering. That's completely arguably that's totally fine to not want to be bothered with that stuff. But there are some people who will stay that way. They want to stay interested in the product. Maybe the product cycle with the consumer of that product. They don't want to think about the marketing for example. They don't want to think about the psychology of selling. They want purely to think about people who have already bought into this. How can I make it better for them? It's interesting because you'll start to get this pressure to move. This can come from a bunch of different places. It could even come from your local community or your own self perception that it's time to quote grow up. I feel like people often use the term, well I'm post technical now. When people tell me that they're post technical, it makes me feel bad because I feel like I'm still technical. I don't want to feel bad. I like what I do. Don't make fun of me because I'm still technical. That's really an okay thing. That brings me joy. I think people should just find what brings them joy and stick with that. It's interesting because I spent a good portion of my career being an engineer. I truly find the people management side to be quite fulfilling. I have enough insight to the engineering process that I'm not totally disconnected from it. I think if you are feeling the pressure to become a manager or to in your case become a CEO. You should question, what are my intrinsic motivations? Do some mental gymnastics? Your thoughts are safe space. Imagine that you had all the money in the world. Imagine that money was no object. You got paid exactly the same amount in both jobs. Then how does the decision pan out? People will say sometimes you have to change that game a little bit and say, oh, your job security stays the same with both roles. Now, how does that change the decision? What you'll find is that people are actually making the decision based on money or job security or some other metric other than, oh, this is what I want to do. If you can find out what that other metric is, now you can ask a different question, how can I as an engineer keep my job as an engineer because I love engineering but increase my job security? What is the pathway to do that rather than saying, oh, it's a foregone conclusion that I have to become a manager in order to have job security? Yeah, exactly. What I did is I wrote down on a bit of paper the things that brought me joy. When I wrote them down, it was like talking with customers, building solutions, chatting with engineers, playing with technology, being creative with technology. When I wrote them down, it was very clear the direction that I wanted to take my career and my position at Bill Cuyte. That's when I started making the moves and changes. After I made the changes that I wanted to make, I felt way better and I was way more happy in my career. That shows in the product as well. If you're building something, I think that your emotions come out in the things that you want to build. If you're unhappy, then you're not going to have for your happy products. When I started, I mean, I'm happy myself. That came across in the things that I was building. I think that really helped Bill Cuyte move to the next stage of its journey. It's so interesting to hear all of these stories that you followed through your career. The idea that somebody who had a bad breakup and dropped out of high school and went on to become the CTO of this incredibly successful company that a lot of people would say, this is the kind of company that if I were to put on a list of companies that are highly technically capable, Bill Cuyte is way up there on that list. Partially because the technical empowerment that you provide to other people is through the roof. It's amazing and hopefully encouraging and inspiring to the people who are listening right now. Regardless of your background, your education level, all of those other metrics that you might correlate in your mind with success or whatever that picture is, there is still so much opportunity right on the table as an engineer, as a founder, even just if you were to follow some crazy idea you have that's birthed, you know, born out of your current job, right? Like you did, Keith. You had this problem that you wanted to solve in your job and you really followed that that opened up so many opportunities for you and that's not to say that everybody is going to turn around and become a CTO of an incredibly successful company like you did, right? But the opportunities are out there, the opportunities to do that kind of thing, they're just on the table. Yeah, and I think that, like I was saying before, there's nothing particularly special about me. I just sort of followed the idea and I had the skills at the time to build the idea. I think that lots of people have some really excellent ideas and if they saw them through, they will build a cool thing. And if that thing isn't the cool thing that they build, the thing afterwards will be the cool thing. I think that people don't realize how much time that they have in their life when they start, when they stop watching a TV show at nighttime or maybe they'll, they won't play that game as much or, you know, I was, I was lucky the way that I built the kite was at nighttime. My wife, she was studying university full-time and so that meant that she was working full-time as well. So when she got home from her nine to five jobs, she would sort of go hide in a room and go study social work for five hours, which meant that in the evenings I had a big chunk of time free. I started off playing video games and then I thought maybe this would go, so I could be doing it with my time. And then the idea sort of came around at work about this, this sea I think that I was wanting to build. And that's what I started doing in the evenings and and. Bill Codd was my creative outlet at the, you know, at the time my job wasn't creatively fulfilling me creatively. I felt like I was a bit of a cognitive machine of just building these things that I didn't have any real sort of staking, but Bill Codd was my out. This was my creative outlet and this idea that I had and I just got so obsessed with the idea. I'm talking a bit more about sort of skills that you have that bleed into other parts of your life. I used to be a magician. I used to do a lot of magic coming out of school and I won a few magic awards in my past. And one thing I learned about magic is sort of the illusion of things. Things look like they work, but they don't really work, but they look like they work. And that sort of blood into building Bill Codd. I would build things that sort of on the surface, I would spend very little time building, but looked like they were very, very complicated things. Here's an example of one. People spend a lot of time building live applications. They might, you know, spend hours and hours of building a single page app. A single page app investing thousands of lines of JavaScript to make a page automatically update itself. For me, I was thinking, how can I make this a magic trick? How can I make it look like the page is automatically updating itself, but not really invest all that time and actually making it work? I read like four or five lines of JavaScript that automatically refresh the page every few seconds. I went to a like an age X request and get the current HTML of the page and just sort of replace the HTML on the page, you know, in like only a few lines of code. And that lasted for about two years. And so I didn't spend a lot of time on that, but I was able to demonstrate the idea of Bill Codd. You know, I was able to do lots of small magic tricks in code to make it look like this application that was way more advanced than it actually was. And that really helped me sort of showcase the idea to potential customers. And the other thing that I did that made Bill Codd really successful that I just remembered was that I charged from day one. I think that was really important actually. The moment that we came out of beta, which was very, very, it was beta was only like maybe two or three weeks. We started charging from day one. So there was a way to give me money. And that was a very motivating factor as well. Having someone pay for something that you built was was was incredibly motivating. And at the time it wasn't I wasn't setting out to create this successful business. I was just trying to get somebody to pay for the service because I was you know, I was on Heroku and her who was known for being a little bit expensive. So I would charge people it was actually very, very cheap to use build kite. And that was that meant that I real stake in the game. You know, there were people relying on build kite for their work and pay me for that. So that sort of snowball into me wanting to work on build kite more and more and more. And I would encourage people if they want to build a thing, put a price tag on it. Just put a price tag on it. If no one buys it, that's okay. But if someone does, you know that the idea is there. You know that someone's wanting to someone else wants to sing to exist and the money to pay for it. I think that's the best compliment someone can give you is that they will buy the thing that you've made. Today's episode is sponsored by New Relic. New Relic is observability made simple monitoring a complex digital architecture. Usually is a complex process. It takes a lot of different tools all meant for their various purposes, you know, purpose built tools, lots of troubleshooting, lots of jumping between those different tools and dashboards. Maybe even having to download the data dump and evaluate it yourself, download the logs, try to cross reference all these things. This is a nightmare, but New Relic wants to fix that. And they've designed everything that you need in three products. First is a telemetry data platform, which creates a fully manageable, schemalist time series database of all of your data from any source. The second is full stack observability for analyzing, visualizing and troubleshooting your whole stack. And third, applied intelligence that seamlessly automates anomaly detection and incident intelligence correlation using AI and ML. Best of all, you can get it for free. There's no host base pricing and no constant upsell, just 100 gigabytes a month to one full access user, totally for free. Check it out at new New Relic is observability made simple. You're reminding me of this moment in my childhood for some reason. And it was it was a moment where I took, I believe it was a bunch of candles from our church, believe it or not, when I was, I was young, we would have these candle lights, kind of Christmas services or something. And in any case, there was a bunch of candles left over and my sister and I, we took these candles home and we walked around our neighborhood trying to sell the candles. It wasn't because we wanted money. It was because we had this idea that we could sell them and other people would buy them and we could convert this free thing into something valuable for ourselves. And there's something kind of, I don't know, I won't go so far to say is that it's intoxicating, but the idea that there's someone out there that would want the thing that I have that I can trade to them and we're both happy. That is kind of this entrepreneurial spirit that we have in mind when we're talking about, you know, what drives us to do this thing. But here's what's so, what's so important about this is that the reach that you have is no longer just the people that you can walk around your block and sell candles to. It's the entire connected world, right? Anybody who can get on the internet, right? Yeah. And that's what's amazing about ideas like this is the simplest thing that you needed almost definitely someone else needs it almost definitely someone else wants it. And there's these niche communities even that will want very specific things and they're willing to pay for them. That's that's kind of the, I mean, that's one of, you know, internet business 101 is recognizing that this scale that we're working on here is so much different. And so, you know, maybe there's no customers wherever you are geographically located and that's actually probably true if you're niche enough, right? Maybe one or two certainly not enough to sustain a business. But if you were to widen that scope and actually, you know, recognize that even though it seems very niche to you, right? Maybe it's a very specific thing that you need and you kind of trick yourself into believing there's nobody else in the world who could possibly need this. It's very likely that there are thousands, if not tens of thousands of people who are just like you and need exactly the thing that you were saying you need. Yeah, exactly. And I would put money on that fact that the thing that the idea that you have someone will probably want to pay for it. And the cost of starting something is very cheap these days. You know, you can have how much is a domain name cost like $20 a year, $10 a year. That's very, very cheap. Often hosting you can get very cheap. Now I think there's still a free Heroku plan if you want to sort of push something up that you want to build to get started for free. And so the cost of starting is so low that the only thing you have to really worry about is your time. And that's where the hardest bit is figuring out how to buy more of your own time. That's probably the hardest thing. And the each person that's going to be different for me. That was playing this video games. Yeah, yeah. And so yeah, the cost of buying more time might be inconvenience or changing your habits. Honestly, it's not even that inconvenient. It's more just difficult psychologically. A lot of people I think they they trick themselves into believing that they have to give up sleep, for example, which I don't think is true. I think most of us have more time than we recognize and often our habits are actually what bind us more than a true restriction on our time. Yeah, totally. Keith, this has been an incredible conversation and certainly inspiring. I have one more question that I'd like to ask you before we close out. The question is if you could give every developer of any background, 30 seconds of advice, what would you tell them? 30 seconds of advice. If I was to sum up sort of the thing that we've been talking about for the past hour or so, I would say just go build the thing and don't let anyone tell you otherwise. Don't let anyone tell you that, oh, that exists. You should just go do this or I don't see the value in that. I think you should just go build it just because who knows? Like whether or not it's successful or not doesn't matter. The journey is what counts. And that's kind of what I did and I'm going to keep doing that. I'm going to go keep building things, whether or not people want them or not. Because I find incredible value in building the thing. And so that's what I would say is just go build stuff. Just go be creative. Go do something. I get joy out of building things and showing them off to people. And I think a lot of people would do that. But they're a little bit scared to try out for fear of, you know, there might be rejected or the people may not like it. But that's totally okay. That all of those things are learning points. And so I would just go to people, go build the thing. Go build the thing that you want to build and use what you know. And just have fun doing it. Because if you have fun doing it, people will see that. People will, you know how you can hear a smile. The same thing happens with building a product as well. People can tell that you had fun building it. And so I would just go, I would say that. Just go have fun. Go build something. And yeah, bring joy in your life through doing things. And this is kind of what I would say. That's fantastic advice. Thank you so much, Keith, for joining me on today's episode. And of course, people can find the work that you do by just googling build guide. I'm sure. But where else would you like to direct folks to learn more about you and what you're doing with build guide? Sure. If people want to learn more about build guide, they can go to If they want to learn a little bit more about me. And sort of I sometimes make silly videos and post them on the internet. You can follow me on Twitter and my handle is Keith pit. Yeah. Excellent. Thank you so much, Keith. I appreciate it. Alright, Jon, thanks so much for having me. And thanks everyone for listening. Thank you so much for listening to this second part of my interview with Keith pit. If you didn't hear the first part, then the second part may have been a little bit confusing. But go back and listen to the first part as well. Keith was an excellent guest on the show. And of course, build guide is an excellent product. Again, disclaimer, build guide did not sponsor or in any way compensate us for this interview. Or they they've never been a sponsor of the show in the past either. So thank you to build kite and to Keith for joining me on this show. Thanks so much for listening to this episode. Today's episode was sponsored by New Relic. Head over to new to learn about observability made simple. This episode and every other episode of Developer Teacan be found at If you want to help keep this show alive and it is staying alive for the foreseeable future, please share this episode with someone that you believe will be particularly impacted by it. Share sharing specific episodes of Developer Tea is really important because we have so many episodes. And if you share the just to show in general, then it can be kind of overwhelming. But if you find a specific episode that you think is going to apply to somebody, then that is a really good way to get somebody to check out the show. Thank you so much for listening. Thank you so much for sharing the show for talking about it on Twitter. This episode was produced by Sarah Jackson. My name is Jonathan Cutrell and until next time, enjoy your tea.