Our global incubator program Hatch turned one year this past September. Since 2016, we’ve partnered with over 170 incubators, venture capital firms, and accelerators globally to provide infrastructure credit and technical support to startups in over 61 countries, and we’ve moved Hatch out of the beta phase to make the program more widely available across the world.
Hatch startup participants include companies like:
In addition to providing infrastructure support, we’ve hosted forums, called Hatch Founders’ Circles, in New York, Berlin, and Bangalore that facilitate thought partnership between our Hatch startups and other successful tech entrepreneurs, and are launching an invite-only Slack community for our Hatch startup founders.
To celebrate this milestone, DigitalOcean co-founder Mitch Wainer recently interviewed DO CEO Ben Uretsky for an episode of The Deep End podcast. They discussed DO’s humble beginnings and what’s changed for the company over the past six years.
The following excerpts were edited and adapted from the podcast, which you can listen to in full here:
Mitch Wainer: So Ben, why don’t you just quickly introduce yourself. You’re the CEO of DigitalOcean, but give a little background on your history.
Ben Uretsky: I was born in Russia, immigrated here when I was five years old with my family, my brother, my mom and my dad, and one of our grandmas as well. I went to school in New York City, graduated from Pace University. I actually managed to start my first company while attending college, so that was great. I built that business over a number of years, and had the pleasure of starting DigitalOcean in the summer of 2011 with four other co-founders, you being one of them. That was definitely a fun journey. We rented a three-bedroom ranch out in Boulder, Colorado.
That was for the Techstars program. What was the most exciting or the most interesting memory that you can share from Techstars? Which memory stands out in your mind?
I’d say demo day. A lot of practice and months of preparation went into getting ready…and there were about a thousand people in the audience. I think it was a high pressure situation because it’s investors and people from the community; it’s not just a general crowd.
The other event that came to mind the year prior to that, or actually just a few months earlier—the New York Tech Meetup. That was 800 people, but it felt much more supportive because it’s the tech community coming out to see a few companies demo and showcase their work, whereas the Techstars demo day, you feel like you’re being judged by a thousand people. So that was definitely an intense experience. I remember doing practice sessions with you in the backyard; getting ready for demo day, and you did the Karate Kid on me: “Wax on, wax off.”
DigitalOcean has grown, not only on the people side, but also on the tech side. We’ve gone through a lot of different technology challenges and struggles, so I would love for you to talk about some of those struggles and how we overcame those challenges.
Initially, most of the software was actually written by a single person, Jeff Carr, our co-founder. And in those days, the way that we would reference cloud health could be measured in hours. Essentially, how many hours can Jeff stay away from the console before something would break and he would need to get back in there and fix it? The good news is that we applied simplicity to our architecture as well. So we ensured that, no matter what happens, customer Droplets and customer environments wouldn’t be affected by most of the outages and most of the service interruptions.
It allowed us to maintain a really high level of uptime and build the performance and reliability that our customers expect, but at the same time, if you’re a single person building the system, a lot of difficulties, [and] challenges come up that you may not have foreseen. [And] the product really scaled. Jeff more or less single-handedly got it to nearly 100,000 customers. What you start building day one looks radically different when you have 100,000 users on the service. I’d say that was one challenge.
The second is really as we started to grow: building and engineering team morale into the service and getting people familiar [with] the ins and outs of the systems. And what was really exciting is that first team, one of their main driving objectives was to refactor a lot of the code that Jeff wrote. Turning it from a proof-of-concept into a much more stable and reliable environment, with documentation, with a more modular understanding, and so that kind of speaks to the shift that we’re still going through today. Moving away from the monolithic app that was originally built into a more distributed, micro-service enabled architecture. We’re making good progress, but with a more scalable service environment comes more complexity. We have to invest a lot more engineers into building new features and capabilities. And so there are trade-offs in each of those scenarios.
How has the engineering team structure changed throughout the years to support that evolution of our back-end code base and stack?
There are a few interesting mutations along the way: Going from one engineer to 30; bringing in our first set of engineering managers. We really promoted from within our first six. And I think what was really inspiring is a few years ago, we sat down and came up with a mission document, and said, “Okay, if we’re gonna scale this to a million customers, and even more revenue, how do we see ourselves getting there?” And everyone contributed towards what their team’s mission and objective was.
[For a while] it was more or less a few frontend teams and quite a few backend teams, but nonetheless, that structure held for a couple of years. And prior to that, I feel like we were reworking maybe every other quarter. So that stability allowed us to grow the team, from 30 or 40 people to a little bit over a hundred. Just a few months ago, engineering management along with [the] Product [team] had the opportunity to re-envision a different way to organize the teams, and today, we’ve moved to a much more vertical structure, building a team around each of the products. We [now] have a team for Droplet, a team for our Storage services, and a team for the Network services. And that’s full stack from the frontend, the API, all the way to the backend services. We’re in a much more verticalized structure today.
As CEO of the company, what are some of your challenges and what really keeps you up at night?
The interesting thing is that the role has changed year by year, and different challenges come up and are top of mind. I would say the two that I feel are most recurrent [are] related to the people. Whether it’s employees or even the senior leadership team, and making sure that you have that right, that everyone’s engaged, they’re motivated, that you’re making the right hiring decisions. That’s all pretty complex stuff when we only hired 20 people [at first]. Today, DigitalOcean is roughly 350 people. And as a result, the amount of decisions that you have to make multiplies, and also the effects within the company become that much more complicated. That’s always an interesting aspect of the work.
The second challenge that ties very close to that is making sure you paint the right vision for the business, so that people feel like when they come to work, they know what needs to be done. They’re in alignment with where the company is headed. And that they’re motivated and inspired by what we’re trying to build.
So it all comes down to people?
Companies are collections of people first and foremost. They’re not the service, they’re not the product, it’s really people, and once you comprehend that, I think it allows you to take your leadership to the next level.
Hollie Haggans heads up Global Partnerships for DigitalOcean’s Hatch program. She is passionate about startups and cold brew coffee. Get in touch with questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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