The Engineering Hangout with Lyal Avery: From developer to CEO
The Engineering Hangout is a new podcast where engineers hangout and talk shop. Hosted by Chris Reeves, the show is brought to you by Templarbit. You can subscribe on iTunes, Breaker or anywhere podcasts are found.
In this episode our CEO and Co-Founder, Bjoern Zinssmeister interviews Lyal Avery, CEO and Co-Founder of PullRequest.com. During Lyal’s 18 years in the industry he saw firsthand that code review is one of the largest expenses of running a development team. PullRequest was born as a way to bring the gig economy into engineering as means of decreasing the cost of running a development team.
PullRequest does this by offering code review as a service. Code review is the process of one engineer reviewing another engineer’s code to check for bugs. Using the PullRequest platform, on-demand experts will review code before it gets pushed to production so customers can focus on other aspects of their business.
The on-demand experts in the PullRequest platform are thoroughly tested against quality benchmarks to ensure customers always receive the highest level of expertise in their code review.
The application and testing process for engineers is all done through PullRequest.com. There are currently two payment models for engineers in the platform, by the minute or per bounty. Payments are sent weekly.
PullRequest launched in May 2017 and participated in the Summer 2017 class of Y Combinator, along with Templarbit. PullRequest is based in Austin, TX as well as the San Francisco area.
Lyal’s career in the technology industry as an engineer and entrepreneur spans almost 20 years with multiple exits and acquisitions across Vancouver BC, San Francisco CA, and Austin TX. Previous to PullRequest, Lyal was the CEO and Co-Founder of SuperRewards. SuperRewards was acquired by Perk.com in 2015. Lyal also spent time as the CTO of Strutta.com, CTO of OverInteractive and founded Outcome3.
During the episode you’ll hear:
- What is PullRequest?
- Y Combinator memories
- Why PullRequest chose Austin, TX as it’s homebase
- Lessons for new entrepreneurs
- Tips to transition from engineer to CEO
- Lyal’s favorite development tools
Full episode transcription below:
[electronic keyboard music fades in]
00:00:04:02 - 00:00:28:21 | Chris
Welcome to Episode One of the Engineering Hangout presented by Templarbit. I’m Chris and I’m part of the team here at Templarbit and I am really excited to be here introducing Episode 1. On today’s episode, we have our CEO and co-founder Bjoern Zinssmeister talking to the CEO and co-founder of PullRequest.com, Lyal Avery. Bjoern and Lyal met while going through Y Combinator in the summer of 2017.
00:00:30:00 - 00:00:45:16 | Chris
They talked through their shared experience of going through the program as well as a number of other topics. Here is Episode 1 The Engineering Hangout featuring our guest Lyal Avery. Take it away Bjoern.
[electronic keyboard music fades out]
00:00:45:28 - 00:00:50:07 | Bjoern
Tell me a little bit about PullRequest. Why did you start it and what are you guys up to?
00:00:51:10 - 00:01:06:08 | Lyal
So PullRequest is a platform for code review as a service. We combine the automation of code review with on-demand experts that provide general code review to teams of all compositions.
00:01:06:13 - 00:01:58:08 | Lyal
Code review is the process where one engineer reviews another engineers work for security issues, framework adherence, technical debt, that kind of thing. Why I created the company - fundamentally when we’re doing software startups for 18 years and in that time code review is a massive part of the cost of running a development team in terms of the software lifecycle 80% of bugs are caught in the code review portion of the waterfall. That being said a lot of engineers don’t enjoy doing it. So over the years I’ve been trying to find a better way to make it happen. Kind of by accident discovered there are people like me that really enjoy doing code review. So I wanted to create a platform for them to offer their services from wherever.
00:01:59:18 - 00:02:26:07 | Bjoern
Really cool. You just mentioned these on-demand people that will help me and my team get code review done. Can you describe a little bit like what the profile of a typical coder viewer is like or is it all over the map.? What are you seeing? Who is the person that says you know I’m going to go on PullRequest.com and I’m going to do some work on helping other people’s codebase get to a more bug free state
00:02:26:20 - 00:03:03:15 | Lyal
So there’s there’s there have been some real surprises. What we were expecting and focusing on were folks that worked at in Bay Area either startups or large companies that wanted to earn side income. We find a lot of those. So our first 500 reviewers that signed up really fell into that pattern of working at Google Facebook Amazon either for a few years or perhaps even retired and within that there are some interesting patterns like there’s lots of folks that develop for a long time end up managers that really miss coding or actually getting their hands dirty.
00:03:03:16 - 00:03:27:23 | Lyal
So those are some of our best reviewers. They are quite talented folks but they’re doing more people management these days. Other categories we found that were more of a surprise open source maintainers. We’ve had quite a few of those that have signed up as well as college instructors or other instructors from coding schools. They’re looking to round out you know we’ll say schedules that aren’t uniform.
00:03:28:14 - 00:03:43:09 | Bjoern
Great. And so if I was interested in working on the PullRequest platform as a as a mentor or a code reviewer like how does the payment work? Do I get paid based on a pull request? Is it hourly?
00:03:43:15 - 00:04:20:25 | Lyal
So we do… We have two models. We pay per minute for the most part. The other part we do is a bounty. So where that comes into play more is around really big projects or projects that are specifically challenging. For instance we’re just reviewing one of the largest crypto products that requires a lot of expertise and that becomes a bounty right. We pay out weekly through ACH or wire so that’s fairly fast turnover. Yeah that’s how payments work. And typically speaking we’re looking between 100 and 200 dollars an hour as a target rate for our viewers.
00:04:21:21 - 00:04:27:15 | Bjoern
Nice, really great. The bounty model is especially interesting. I didn’t know that you guys offer that.
00:04:27:22 - 00:04:43:02 | Bjoern
It’s kind of funny because you know I used to work at Synack which has this Bounty model for security research. If you find a security flaw that you then you receive a bounty and you know the bounty size is very flexible depending on the severity. Is it similar for the PullRequest?
00:04:43:20 - 00:05:12:20 | Lyal
So it’s a mixture. So what we do is we have goals and then we also have just a project completion target. So the goals are whether something infrequent like say a security issue although we focus more on these early bounties around things like adherence or in the case of crypto you know best practices around the code as opposed to just the code itself.
00:05:13:12 - 00:05:27:24 | Bjoern
And you know with all this data at your fingertips what is one of the most common issues that that you know you see across many different code bases? Like what does a one advice you could give young engineers like don’t do x?
00:05:28:01 - 00:05:51:07 | Lyal
What’s really funny is it’s actually more of a team thing. And what we’ve found is we drive a lot of value almost instantly because almost you know i’d say 60% of the teams that we deal with they fall into the pattern of doing what they do. So that means people get on-boarded, they look at how the code works they are adding to it and there isn’t a lot of opportunity for external questioning.
00:05:51:07 - 00:06:15:26 | Lyal
So as an example during that time we’ll find routes that aren’t actually being controlled by the middleware they should be put but because someone’s already done this old pattern and then a new route gets added. That we see very very frequently. It’s just really simple bug that it almost feels terrible to catch it but obviously there’s a pretty big implication if it isn’t wrapped in the right middleware.
00:06:16:21 - 00:06:36:19 | Bjoern
Yeah got it. Yeah that’s really interesting actually. Great. So actually you and I both got to know each other during Y Combinator right. We both did the program last summer and I was going to ask you like what was one of your favorite things about doing YC and would you do it again?
00:06:38:00 - 00:07:09:08 | Lyal
I mean honestly probably the most interesting part is looking at that velocity that you can get by doing absolutely nothing But the start up to three months. At the time and afterward I joked that it was kind of a waking dream the whole time and that all that I was thinking about was code review. I go I was staying in an apartment with some of our some of our early employees and we just worked on code review, ate dinner and slept. That’s it.
00:07:09:28 - 00:07:10:17 | Bjoern
00:07:11:11 - 00:07:15:16 | Lyal
That kind of focus is unparalleled. Would I do it again? Absolutely.
00:07:15:18 - 00:07:23:22 | Lyal
I’ve sold four companies before this one so it’s a little bit of an unusual story to go through YC. Well that being said it was absolutely worth it.
00:07:24:11 - 00:07:44:21 | Bjoern
Yeah. Yeah I feel the same way but after doing YC in the Bay Area you are one of the few that actually decided you know what I’m going to take my company to Austin. And besides of course the ridiculous rent in the Bay Area, what made you want to build a company out in Austin?
00:07:45:26 - 00:07:49:23 | Lyal
You know it’s it’s it’s a combination of things.
00:07:49:24 - 00:08:49:02 | Lyal
The biggest being one of the things that I learned years ago is that if you aren’t doing something that’s contrary within your business model you’ll get similar results. But Austin is a hotbed for development. There are a ton of great companies here as well as some great funds. At the same time, the obvious economic benefits of being here, no taxes, while still having you know hundreds of people from the bay moving here a week made me think why don’t we do it here? Start the company and then move people from the bay if there is that confluence of talent and so far over half of our company has moved out from the bay to Austin. Which I think is great because we’re able to give them you know Bay Area salaries but they can afford to buy a house and do all those fun things that you know a lot of people like to do in the course of their life cycle.
00:08:50:04 - 00:09:05:13 | Bjoern
Got it. Yeah I’m I’m actually personally also a fan of you know in investing and in more so already solidified tech hubs like Austin. Southern California is also another one where we invest in as well.
00:09:05:13 - 00:09:20:11 | Bjoern
We have a we have a second office there but yet actually also I’ve spent some time in Texas in my early career. And I also know firsthand like the communities are really strong and you see like big figures like Tim Ferriss moving to Austin and…
00:09:21:01 - 00:09:36:18 | Lyal
You’d be amazed at the folks here right now. I mean there’s Patrick Blaskowitz, Tim Ferriss… You know in terms of that marketer side. The true influencers there’s a ton a big hotbed here in Austin it’s actually really interesting
00:09:37:11 - 00:09:52:27 | Bjoern
Yeah and it feels like a really really young dynamic city right. Like something that you’re used to in the Bay Area and it just feels like stuff is always happening. A little bit of a smaller scale compared to like San Francisco but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad thing right.
00:09:52:27 - 00:09:59:06 | Lyal
Right well I mean you have a massive university here and then there are several other feeder universities as well with comp site programs.
00:09:59:06 - 00:10:11:20 | Lyal
So in terms of hiring around my last trip out of the bay really hard to find engineers because you’re competing with a core group. Here you know we have people out bounding from the University looking for internships. This is a much different dynamic
00:10:12:18 - 00:10:24:03 | Bjoern
Interesting cool. Yeah. I got another question. So you have been at it for a year now with PullRequest and …
00:10:24:06 - 00:10:24:25 | Lyal
11 months. [laughs]
00:10:24:25 - 00:10:44:02 | Bjoern
Yeah. Let’s just round up to a year. [laughs] And if you could travel back in time like what are some of the lessons that you learned in a year where you would if you could go back you would make slight adjustments? Doesn’t have any big problems. But what are some of the learnings that you could share with entrepreneurs that start today?
00:10:44:02 - 00:11:16:10 | Lyal
You know at the core I hate being reflective backwards. I think I was too slow to hire post YC. We went to the program we came back and there is there is this this phenomenon called the glut of after three months of concentrated effort you have a hard time readjusting back to quote unquote normal life. That lull was hard to overcome. So I should have hired more aggressively in that window which would have turned it around.
00:11:18:05 - 00:11:27:00 | Lyal
Let’s see… as always be more bold is always a good thing. I’m Canadian so we tend to be fairly cautious.
00:11:27:11 - 00:11:27:29 | Bjoern
00:11:28:05 - 00:11:34:18 | Lyal
The thing that I told all my investors is to push me into a state of aggressiveness
00:11:35:14 - 00:11:41:27 | Bjoern
I see. You have a co-founder as well right? Is he also Canadian or is he American?
00:11:41:28 - 00:11:47:27 | Lyal
So I have two co-founders. One’s… They’re both American.
00:11:49:26 - 00:11:53:06 | Bjoern
So will they make up for your cautiousness?
00:11:53:10 - 00:11:58:23 | Lyal
So this one I started the company and then brought them in. So…. no. [laughs]
00:12:04:29 - 00:12:50:20 | Bjoern
I actually have one other really good question that I’ve written down that I wanted to ask you because not often do I meet other engineers like myself that have traded the engineering role up for a CEO title. I was wondering what your experience was transitioning from being an engineer, maybe having had a one or two CTO roles and then making the decision to become a CEO and actually living through that experience. And you know discovering that the role is quite a little bit different and can be challenging at least from my point of view. To leave some things to the team in terms of product development so you can focus on other parts of your of your job. How has that been for you?
00:12:50:24 - 00:13:23:11 | Lyal
Outside of my timidity probably being an engineer is a problem long term and I hate giving up that responsibility. So one of the things I learned years ago is that you just can’t be in the kitchen. You have to hand it over and the discipline required for that is tough but it’s necessary. Because you can’t be a little bit pregnant. You can’t be making the product direction and the technical direction and you know hiring and, and, and. Delegation is the most important job… hiring is…
00:13:23:13 - 00:14:07:14 | Lyal
So hiring is the most important job delegating afterwards is equally important. So yeah it’s a real, it’s a real challenge. I think there are benefits to it certainly in terms of thinking in processes and algorithms as opposed to you know softer approaches to management comes more naturally to an engineer. I’ve noticed through my investments and through myself. Yeah I think that’s a very valuable thing but it’s absolutely a challenge and I’ve seen more people go the other way if I’m being honest I think plenty of great non engineering CEOs learn more about tech. Anecdotally I don’t know if that’s actually the case or not empirically but it’s an interesting observation I’ve made over the years.
00:14:08:09 - 00:14:25:24 | Bjoern
Yeah I can mirror your experience for me as well it was a little bit challenging in early days to to delegate out some of the some of the actual engineering work and. But you know you can find your groove and then sorta you know get to terms with it.
00:14:26:04 - 00:14:38:24 | Lyal
Yeah. I think that it’s great at the end of the day for business like ours and yours where we’re talking to technical leads for the most part. I can’t imagine being a CEO and being passionate about code review if I wasn’t a developer
00:14:39:13 - 00:14:39:21 | Bjoern
00:14:41:12 - 00:14:58:25 | Lyal
And that’s the only way to sell this product is to be passionate. The whole team it’s their most important thing that we have to care about so deeply. Yeah… Every day I stare at my editor and weep a little bit.
00:14:59:17 - 00:15:22:22 | Bjoern
Yeah I actually I actually have found a way to basically Saturday mornings from 8 to 11 and I sit in a very quiet corner and in my apartment and I work on some very small features that don’t have necessarily any huge impact but just be you know in the code base a little bit. It’s almost like a hobby. That’s how I developed these days
00:15:24:00 - 00:15:25:26 | Lyal
What’s been nice for me is actually dog fitting our product.
00:15:26:25 - 00:15:37:07 | Bjoern
Yeah I’ve actually noticed that myself. Yeah that’s like the one key thing. So how do you do this? Do you set up like open source repo that you work with like how…
00:15:37:13 - 00:15:45:20 | Lyal
No, so I’m one of the available reviewers. I limit my hours per week. I review both our code base and other people’s code bases
00:15:46:11 - 00:15:49:25 | Bjoern
That makes so much sense stuff. So yeah that’s cool.
00:15:49:27 - 00:16:09:16 | Lyal
So it’s kind of fun because you know having done this for this long it’s easy to have an opinion. It’s great to work with some of the teams that we’ve on boarded and providing value. I love doing it particularly for the YC companies that were in our batch. So there are a handful of those that I help out as much as I can with the limited hours that I have to be a reviewer.
00:16:09:22 - 00:16:22:10 | Bjoern
Yeah that’s great. That’s awesome. Lyal what are some of your favorite developer tools that you use either for PullRequest and building that service or used in the past for other products that you’ve built?
00:16:23:06 - 00:16:24:14 | Lyal
Well of course Templarbit.
00:16:25:19 - 00:16:26:07 | Bjoern
[laughs] Thank you.
00:16:26:13 - 00:16:38:04 | Lyal
Yeah it’s lovely sir. Ya know. So in terms of direct developer tools, that’s fairly religious.
00:16:39:26 - 00:17:15:20 | Lyal
Endrock is one that if you’re doing meaningful development a lot of people don’t know about. It’s great. Pay for it. Support that individual community side. There are dozens and dozens of lynchers and security open source packages that I can recommend wholeheartedly. You know from ES Flint all the way down to the more esoteric. What I love.. How I start a product every time thinking about it is to go and find the lynchers first. He has made a good beginning framework books to learn new tech and to build a product out.
00:17:16:18 - 00:17:30:15 | Lyal
In terms of our stack, we use the usual suspects of support so we’ve got Circle CI. What else do we use for deployment?. We’re primarily ADDBS that we use a bunch of GCP as well.
00:17:31:05 - 00:18:02:14 | Lyal
You know both those ecosystems are absolutely fascinating these days. The amount of tooling available from.. I was telling my team earlier today I remember my first start up in 98, It took me two weeks to get bind configured to do round robining on DNS and I did a cloud confirmation a couple of weeks ago for a customer. Was reviewing it and you’re deploying an entire infra in 25 minutes so that stuff is absolutely fascinating to me.
[electronic keyboard music fades in]
00:18:02:14 - 00:18:15:09 | Bjoern
Yeah those are some good some good tools. Awesome. Lyal, thanks. I think these are all my questions I had. Thanks for taking the time to speak with me and success onward!
00:18:15:24 - 00:18:17:20 | Lyal
Onward! Onward and upward.
00:18:23:04 - 00:18:46:17 | Chris
That’s a wrap on episode 1. I want to thank Lyal Avery for joining us. You can find out more about Lyal at PullRequest.com. You can find out more about us at Templarbit.com. If you like what you heard you can subscribe to the Engineering Hangout on Apple podcast, the Breaker app or anywhere else podcasts are found. On behalf of the Templarbit team, thanks for the listening.
[electronic keyboard music fades out]