Chris Slowe, CTO @Reddit. The story of Reddit and its founding engineer-turned-CTO.A-Players - The top startups' recipes to build teams of top performers
- 1,031 views
- 19 Jan 2021
Chris' story is intertwined with Reddit's. From its early days in 2005 to its sale to Condé Nast Publications in 2006 to the come back of the founding team in 2016. Listen to how the early website operated by a 4-person shop turned into one of the most-visited websites in the world with 52M+ Daily active users (and growing!). His story is one of rapid scale in the engineering team, of building skills as an engineering manager and of becoming a better CTO.
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I think at every milestone, it just feels like increasingly humbling. No, like really early on when, you know, the first time we hit like forty thousand dailies and Steve just had this moment where it's like you realize there's an entire college football stadium of people showed up today and we were like, you know, extra three zeros on top of that.
It's kind of it's kind of insane. I am Robin shows you at Higher Suites and we are sourcing automation software that helps the tech companies hire the best talent at me. And follow me now on LinkedIn. You want to keep an eye on this?
Hi, everyone. Today we're having Chris Q Reddit. So Reddit needs no introduction, I guess. Welcome, Chris. My first question will be, can you tell us more about your own story? So I heard the story before, but can you tell us about Reddit story, your own story as a funding engineer, and then we'll talk about players and the performance? Sure.
I think my story is kind of intertwined with Reddit. So we're going to start kind of at the beginning. So my original career path wasn't science.
I was an academic for most of my early adulthood, originally wanted to get an experimental physics. I wanted to be a professor, got a little disenchanted later in grad school and ended up getting roped into a what ended up being a startup, the friend. And the side effect of that was by summer of 2005, I had a field company to free rooms in my apartment and became the first employee at Reddit. So it was kind of a whirlwind adventure.
Definitely wouldn't have predicted this this particular career path. And that's kind of at that is to say, is history. So, yes, by October. So it wasn't the first to Y Combinator batch summer 05 five. I think at the time there were 10 companies. And if I remember right, the first company imploded one or two weeks into I see like maybe the first dinner. It was like they had an initial, like, blowup over IP assignment, which is also like totally enlightening for me, being in academics like, oh, assignment type what what a novel concept.
And then proceeded to get into it and then get into get into Reddit. And then the rest of this is history. So at the company for the first five years, sort through the our initial acquisition by Condé Nast in late 06, stuck around for four, five years, then went to otherwise. The company also founded by Steve Huffman Monk in 2010 and then five years there and now five years back at it, ever since mid twenty fifteen.
Right. So I heard about that one before you sold the company you sold. Right. It's created a new company with the same people and then join Reddit again, right.
Pretty much, yeah. I think it was, it was a little, it was a little bit different with my time. It read, it was a bit staggered relative to Steve's, for example, in that so Steve originally left to read it kind of end of 09 and went off and just took an extended vacation and thought about startups. I stick around through ten and then by about midway through ten, Steve, it kind of kicked off Monk and they'd gotten into to the summer of ten Bisi batch.
And he's like, Hey Chris, want a new job? Like, sure was a bit of a it was initially a bit of a subcommittee was required, but not not a heck of a lot. And so that was actually a heck of a lot of lot of fun. If anything, I think that the theme for the earlier years of Reddit is we actually never really got much into building the company we got acquired so early. We were basically a four man shop at the end of 06 and we never really grew much past that point.
So we never had more than about five engineers the first five years, which is a crazy thing to think about in retrospect. You know, at the end of at the end of 2010, we were just we're still measuring. We're still measuring in units of page views, but we're doing like a billion pages a month, which is just crazy to do with a team of five. I'd scale up at that point. Right. And so I checked your curse page, actually, so that today's release is fifty two million daily active users, right?
Yeah. Yep, yep, yep. Nice and congrats. Yeah, no, it's great. It's I think at every milestone it just feels like increasingly humbling. Like I remember really, really early on when you know the first time we hit like forty thousand dailies and Steve just had this moment where it's like you realize there's an entire like college football stadium of people showed up today. We we're like, you know, extra three zeros on top of that.
It's kind of it's kind of country. Right. It's a decently sized country.
And can you give us a few numbers about how that user base grew over the years just to for us to have the milestones and how the company grew? And then we'll talk about how you grew the team at the same time.
Yeah, so I think in terms of like red, its growth has always been very steady. We're kind of different from most most of the other players in the social space. And so far as we've never seen Explo. So gross, and we've never seen not growth, it's always been kind of a slow, continuous increase. So, you know, at this point we have more than one hundred thousand communities, which is something like forty nine billion comments in twenty twenty.
And we've got something like three hundred million posts last year. So and those numbers are always bigger than the year before. It by a decent fraction, something something like a 30 percent roughly year over year growth at this point. I remember the early years, we were kind of more like doubling every three months. And so you can kind of extrapolate the line in between of how it's how the growth has been. Very quick little logistic regression to figure out what the curve looks like.
But it's been it's pretty consistent. You know, the nice thing about that, of course, is that because we've always seen steady growth, it also means we've never seen like the kind of viral implosion that you see in some places where it's like, you know, you take off really fast, that suddenly it crashes when somebody when that when the target was on. Which also is meant, though, that we've kind of had this constant, sustained pressure to kind of keep the tech stack working and improve it and iterate it, make sure that we can actually deal with tomorrow's traffic, which is always going to be greater.
Right. That can be a huge challenge. And so when you were back at Reddit in 20, what is twenty fifteen. Twenty, sixteen, twenty sixteen.
Yes, like twenty fifteen. It started doubling and then twenty sixteen was kind of full speed ahead.
Back on full time. OK, and how big was the company at this stage?
At that point we were at around 70 people and so that was mostly, mostly based out here in San Francisco with a small but mighty contingent in New York doing sales and also another even tinier contingent in L.A. also doing sales. And so at that point, the engineering was probably all of 30 people. Now, that said, for me, that was like the biggest I'd ever seen. Read it by far because prior to 2010, there was never more than about five engineers.
And so the idea of like, oh, my. Oh, my goodness, of luxury of 30 people, just fantastic. And from that point on, it's been just kind of rapid growth. So we're currently at about 750 globally. We've since opened offices in Chicago, in Dublin. And we just actually kicked off in London just just a couple of months ago from a bright and you know, engineering is a good half of that across all of our teams.
Our engineering product design probably is about three fifty, give or take. So it's a very, very different skill. Well, OK, so you hired close to 300 people. Three hundred engineers in three years, right? Yeah.
Give or take three to four years. We'll probably more than that when you take into account the fact that people move on in the meantime. But yeah, it's been a couple of I got a bunch of lots of directors. It's been a it's been it's been a fun challenge. Cool.
And if we look at recruiting, though, and building the team, so you could probably give a lot of career advice yourself and you reach that position and it will be interesting as well. But now let's think of other funders, other skills of engineering, listening to us. So what's the main advice that you give to someone hiring engineers today?
You know, I think my advice is going to depend a little bit on scale of company. And I think that when you're not to suggest that every hire isn't to some extent essential to the business, because they are, in fact, one of the nice things about our current positioning of being, you know, we're talking about seven, eight people, which does sounds large even to me. But honestly, like given our reach and our size, we still have a fair amount of every person has a huge impact.
Right. That our size when you're smaller, you know, every employee can almost be sink or swim. You really need to have that initial group of people kind of be very focused on the mission, very focused on the growth of the business. And the trick is to keep that alive as long as you can. You know, at some point, if you have the luxury of being a big company and you can worry about things like management structure and organization and organizational design, then you kind of made it, at least as your first passes as a as a technology leader, but that those early days where you have to make sure that everything is covered and you have to basically decide like what's essential, it's really sink or swim with your hires.
One bad apple. Suppose the bunch is the is the aphorism that fits here. It's like one if you have a bad hire in your first ten, at least 10 percent of your is in trouble. That's not a good spot to be in.
OK, and how do you avoid those bad hires then? How do you find that the performance you have a secret source here in the assessment, in the interviews, you know, I wish I had a secret source.
I would say that I think that one thing that is actually really critical is the cultural component. Like, I think that we put a lot of emphasis on technology leaders into kind of like looking for looking for the next kind of badass hire, looking for the person who's going to, like, really scale the team up and push hard on something. And those people are decidedly essential. But you also have to make sure that they don't operate by demotivate the rest of your team.
You know, I remember when I got early into this, there used to be this whole mythos around the 10x engineer as people who basically I believe they write code by directly imprinting on the DRAM. There actually is a keyboard because that would solve the perfect vision that they have for how they write. And those people do exist. And I've met a bunch over my times and the overlap between those people and people who are also kind of like experts is not as big as you would like.
And again, it's it's a it's a question of like stage of company. I think early on when everyone's operating autonomously and kind of lone soldier and, like, able to pay. An area and an excel there, that's when you really do need to have the kind of heavy hitters in place, like people who know what they're doing and who are going to not be distracted as you grow, you've got to start getting people who actually are going to have an impact to the entire team, not just to their own, you know, their own output.
And that's when things start to shift around. That's when you start seeing things like the old guard, new guard splits that appear in older companies where it's like, you know, those first 50 employees have a slightly different ethos than the next hundred and fifty. And you have to kind of like account for that as you start hiring. That's why little things like management appear as being a critical component as other people need to be told what to do. It's that humans are messy.
Humans are the worst Turing machines imaginable, from my experience as an engineer to say it's like give them clear instructions somehow to follow, like the tape doesn't move what happened. Right.
So humans are messy. There's a lot of biases in the recording. There's a lot of human errors and not everything can be automated in recruiting. So that's probably one of the biggest challenge, especially when you're hiring engineers, when you're an engineer yourself. So what's your biggest surprise when you had to scale the team from 30 engineers to three hundred engineers, what did you expect and what was the biggest surprise us to you?
I mean, this is a little a little trite, but honestly, I think I mentioned a little bit to the value of management. Like there is actually a skill, you know, speaking as somebody who spent the first half my career as kind of like a more of an architect. And I think there was a shift when I kind of came back to read it in 15, 16, where I kind of got dragged into being a full time manager, someone kicking and screaming.
I've just got my career path as being almost like whatever the inverse of a landgrab is, or it's like Karakus, you're doing great with those teams. So we have another. It's a great cool. I'll figure this out then. You know, measurements. The skill is not the same kind of step in your career ladder as a technologist as, as I think you know, cranking up in your ability to code or like architecture or building out and so like any skill it must be invested in.
And also it can be skill you have to kind of learn by doing so. I think the value in you know, in the same way that when we kind of alluded to one bad apple, both bunch early on, the impact of a back manager is just outmoded to compare it to their their composition of the team because, you know, you're talking about like they've not only messed up their own career, they've messed up an entire team and the process.
And, of course, that just kind of kind of goes up not to entirely emphasize the downside here. I think I think the inverse is that I really should say this as like hiring a fantastic manager or a fantastic director. It's one of those things. It just it just it pays dividends. You get a team that you thought was effective and you find out that actually they were barely operating on all cylinders. And they just you know, you get those moments of almost you know, I think what I miss being and I see is I don't get those moments of kind of like beautiful code or that kind of like you built this thing and it kind of works the first time because first of all, it never works the first time, but.
Well, it does, but it works first time. You do see that with works as well, where you hire somebody you can just be doing or you kind of get it in a setup and like you just see people operating at full capacity. It's great. Yeah.
And so you can learn by doing obviously and you also mentioned that you can invest in the skill. How did you do that? Do you have any Goodreads to recommend or tricks or frameworks or how would you recommend.
Definitely reading some part of it. I mean, I think like one of the good and bad parts about management is that everybody thinks that they're an expert and writes a book on it. And so separating out the good from the bad is difficult. This is a case where honestly getting mentorship is really important, like making sure to actually seek out mentors who've done it before. It's critical because these are things where you can't at least a software engineer and you can mostly kind of like figure it out, live alone at your computer.
When you're talking about management, you're talking about people in their lives and their complicated stories. And so you need a framework to be able to think in and you need to actually be able to do it. Can I do it as you learn it as you go? And so find somebody is actually I already done it or having a having a senior leader. You can actually kind of tough questions is very essential, particularly like especially as I was growing up as a director, is a book by Ben Horowitz.
The hard thing about hard things. And it's just fantastic. And I think it's fantastic. It's more fantastic after you've already been in the deep end of the pool, because it's like a reminder that no matter how bad it is, it could be much, much worse, because there's a there's there's you know, it's always hard to make tough decisions and there's always going to be more tough decisions. So you have to figure it out.
I love that book as well. And among all these Oshin of management books, is there another one that you recommend? I don't know if there are specific things for engineering or, you know, I am a fan of also the conscientious leadership approach.
It's kind of growing. I mean, over time, I think that it's also one of those things where, you know, I also had the Astros hero like the first time reading some of the books that I think I've kind of taken and internalized. I don't think they had the same impact as the second read. And that's just also a sign of, like, you do have to kind of mature in your craft to kind of really get where the tricks are.
So I think for country just leadership, you know, the main focus on kind of curiosity being the cornerstone of kind of how you think about the world and like asking questions from a place of genuine curiosity as a as an essential component that. Really resonate until I think much later in my career when when you start seeing that like, oh, hey, cool, I actually do have biases and I have personal experience and I have things that are going to cloud my judgment.
And so, you know what?
Let's go into this, assuming that the good intent on the part of the person I'm talking to and kind of going to they're like, OK, and there's two of the books that we hear people recommend a lot. The first one is Radical Candor by Kim Scutt. I don't know if you heard about this one. Radical candor.
I've had many people tell me I should read that book. It's actually been I think it's one of those books that's been on my reading list for a little bit too long. So consider that's another another like fuel for the fire and it further up on the on the reading list.
The problem of having all my books being digital these days is that I realize how big my pile is because so you should switch to podcasts and actually have Kim Scott on this podcast in a few weeks.
So very looking forward to it as well. I wasn't so consciously leadership, radical candor, the whole thing about how things. Do you read any blogs already? Do you have while you are there any other recommendation that on a podcast or things that you'd recommend for?
You know, it's funny. I think that this is one of those things that's also changed for me in the last year, is that having lost a commute and the process of being in a shelter in place, initially, it was kind of nice because it meant that I lost my commute. It means I can actually just kind of go to work and we work. The flipside of that is I realized after about a month that my commute was the time when I would do all those things that were kind of like I read the book and listen to the podcast.
And because, you know, I would commute, then I'd walk in. So I have this time to kind of like sit and listen and think that's kind of fallen to the wayside, which I try to figure out a good way to recover, I think. I mean, the other thing, it's stuff on the wayside, to be totally frank, is like exercise.
Jeez, it's a lot harder these days having that problem. I'm I'm happy to say that I have not gain any weight during covid. I am unhappy to say that I have not lost an either. So I think I've just become like a wacky steak, well marbled. But yeah, I know. I think the podcast's I haven't been listened to as many recently as I used to is the problem. I used to start my day actually honestly listening to the BBC getting there like, you know, the radio broadcast used to be a big fan of down the list, like I was the Freakonomics just for like this, the little the little vignettes, little bits of useful information that kind of like turned into like, oh, this is a book I should read Radiolab, same category for me for the development of, like, you know, personal skills.
I think what I was just listening to, those are the top contenders for, like, you know, just supposedly broadening horizons, I think was the approach.
I took a podcast, you know, and so the last thing that you mention is getting mentors. How would you do this? So it's probably no much easier to talk to people. But when you were at the beginning, when it was unknown, how did you find your first mentors? How do you engage with them, what you tell them? How did you find those people?
I know this is unsatisfying for your listeners, probably, but just for just good old fashioned, like fortuitously like just kind of you know, this is kind of like the value to me of just getting out and going to conferences as well, just like meeting people. You know, I think I think that not every not every interaction has to be transactional. And sometimes you meet somebody who you end up encountering years later that you find out that all of a sudden, like you struck up a friendship or a professional relationship where that might not have happened before.
I think that you can't really underplay the amount of value and serendipity to be totally honest. Opportunities and fortuitous connections happen out of nowhere. I think the more scaled approach honestly is like, you know, things that I currently do. There is an a club that I joined a couple of years ago. This has been fantastic. And in part, it's because, like the organization of it is, it's a it's a it's a lovely combination of like a good talking series, a good breakfast club, a good dinner club back in the before times where we went out to breakfast and dinner.
And it's a great chance to kind of like kvetch and chat with people of similar experience, because I think that the CTO job is one that is always a little bit undefined. I think I think most C-level jobs fall into that category of you're kind of doing what needs to be done at any given time. And so finding out, finding a good support group is a good way to also find group connections. A mentor is for people who are further along than you are and therefore be able to tap their expertise because, you know, you can solve a lot of things just by brute force doing it yourself.
But honestly, it's better to find somebody who's actually done it before. It's going to get some advice. You can at least get a shortcut or you can find some of the pitfalls you fall into. And I'm always surprised to see the extent to which people are happy to help. If you just ask them, just send them an email. And people who were by surprise about this time and time again, I think that's actually the underpinnings of why I read it as a platform works.
Yeah. I mean, I think, you know, what I've learned over the years from being on Reddit for fifteen years on Reddit, that's kind of crazy to say, is that, hey, on average, people are actually kind of interesting and funny and curious and or at the very least just want to be left alone to do their thing and like read and enjoy. And a lot of the work that goes into a platform of our size is just kind of making sure that the those one percent of bad apples don't spoil it for everyone else.
And to actually use Reddit itself for recruiting. Do you post your jobs on the. It or is it any good for sourcing, especially engineers, not as much as I'd like to. I think that actually we did that a lot in the early years. In fact, if anything, it was a lot easier in the early years where we had precious few jobs posted. I remember at one point, you know, we didn't have very many job openings in the early years and we hired an employee who's now been at the company for for more than a decade.
And I have this great picture that I love, just like us, like trying to sort through the stack of like five minute resumes we got for this one job. I'm just looking laying around the for the flip side is the inverse of that is the one place we have actually sourced pretty aggressively. The platform is interns. So we started doing internships three years ago. I want to say at that first batch of interns, oh my God. Like, I, I was so speaking as somebody who did actually.
So I went to Harvard. Harvard has notoriously tight interviewing and like the pool is always huge and the number of sites is always small. I think it's like six thousand resumes for like six slots. So is this like the initial winnowing past was just the hardest of all these fantastic people applying for the small number of internships? And it's a good start. But ultimately, the launch was just a blog post by me on Reddit.
So you had to hire three intelligent engineers and three years in San Francisco. So probably one of the most competitive place in the world for tech talent. How did you do it? Did you have to write a live blog post? You have an engineering blog. How would you create these engineering employ, Brian? Because the employer brand for Reddit is already here, right? That's already already something that's done. Don't have to work on this. But then there's the engineering employed brand, right?
Yeah. So in our case, we've had kind of a low key blog for a while, a tech blog that actually I kind of constantly want to want to see more fuel at the fire. You know, it's like the hard part with it, with the tech blog for us right now is like we've got so much that we're doing and we're building so much that it's always it's kind of hard to find time to write right about it. I remember one of one of those lessons I learned early in school was like the ones that are writing the books aren't the ones that are doing the active research you have to like.
Do you have to kind of like you're in the middle of the thing, you're not writing up how to do the thing. You know, that doesn't mean we can actually spend some time to be deliberate and actually write up, bring up more of our wordings whenever possible. But I will say that honestly, the inverse of that is like because we run a social platform, we can kind of show what we're doing. And also, the third thing that is a still a very big strategic advantage for us is the fact that we are relatively small.
So, you know, for us, we opened a brand new office in in Dublin last year and that office is up to up to thirty five people, which is for us is fantastic. That's a drop in the bucket for the tech talent in Dublin. Right. And so we kind of have the luxury of being able to be kind of picky and like have people kind of come to us in these situations where we were opening something new. That's that's certainly not the case anymore.
In software. It's a tight hiring market. We have to actually, you know, I don't want to it, by the way, underplay this like. Oh, yeah, we just kind of like Erwinaze just come to us like, no, we have, like, a really good recruiting team that also spends a lot of time, like sourcing and looking for things, looking for good people, looking for talent. And it takes a fair amount of active work to hire at the rate that we're looking to hire.
Right. So it's proactive sourcing, engaging with with passive candidates, proactive sourcing, reaching out as much as possible. I think that, you know, I find the best way honestly, again, to me, talent is like I do miss the days where it could actually go to a conference and kind of meet people in person is great. It's a great way to get people giving talks. I do enjoy that talking on platform, just kind of like, you know, talking about technology.
And actually, Joy, like I said, that's the part of the career that I love the most, doing technology, being technologist. And so, you know, kind of showing by example that what we're doing and being able to to rep for all the work that my team is doing is really what of gets me going. And then, you know, at the moment, it's also like word of mouth referring as as we kind of grow, we have a broader base of people that we're connected to, that we kind of use this as a means to also get a team.
And again, can't say enough nice things about a recruiting team, just just a fantastic people, very talented. And, of course, our hiring managers who put a lot of flood of time and effort into growing our team. How big is the recruiting team today? I have to double check.
We actually just grew it really fast to kind of ramp up for the year. So I want to say that if you kind of go all in saucers, sources, recruiters and the like, we're about twenty people, which is a good chunk. And of course, you know, the tricky part is we're talking about our target for this year. It's probably a good fifty percent growth. And so it's just a lot of time it's going to be spent by everybody in recruiting.
Interesting to see multiples of twenty people for a team of 750 while congrats last fifteen years then a great looking forward to the next year. Let's keep that growth and let's keep that 50 percent growth in the team. Thanks a lot for sharing your tips. Is there anything else you'd like to say. Any final word.
No. Other than you know it's been a fun ride. And like I said, I think the best thing about being a CTO has been that every day is a little different because the job is intrinsically what you make it. Yeah, people become citizens.
Thanks, Chris. Thanks a lot. You bet. Thanks for listening. The podcast till the end. If you're still with us, it's probably that you enjoy the players pay players is brought to you by myself and higher suites. We are building a sourcing automation software and we already have 900 tech companies hired, the best science to know more about us. Go to W-W, the hires tweets, dot com, or you can add me on LinkedIn. I'm pretty responsive and always happy to check the more subscribers the best.
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