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Pirates with Keyboards ~ (Dev)eloping Hoot Company Culture

Pirates with Keyboards ~ (Dev)eloping Hoot Company Culture by Dave Olson

As published in Vancouver is Awesome’s 2013 print issue on 22 April 2013

Company Culture at HootSuite

Originally published in Vancouver is Awesome’s yearly print edition, this article is now shared in original form for posterity and your enjoyment.

Inside of HootSuite, we often hear about what people think our internal company culture is like. From typing cats, to crazy rumours, all we can say is that it’s different and possibly weirder than you might expect. 

My point of view is a bit unique as I joined HootSuite as the first non-technical employee from the outside. At that time it was me, the CEO, and a core group of developers (devs). From my time here in the nest, I have a few observations to share about what makes our largest department unique.

A Culture of Camaraderie

Dev culture is dev culture. Throughout the company, we have programs and activities to connect different departments together in social settings. This is critically important when companies scale by bringing in different disciplines like sales teams, partner and affiliate programs, and marketing. These all have their own distinct cultures and the devs consistently show off their pieces of flair. 

Dev camaraderie is forged during late night coding sessions and time sensitive problem solving, leading to a mutual professional respect. Of course this respect also manifests itself in foosball duels, nerf gun battles, stacks of pizza boxes on release night, and even arts and crafts. 

We don’t have to manufacture culture… it grows organically.

#FunFact: One of our front-end devs, Eric, routinely sketches pictures of his colleagues on the back of cardboard or notebook paper… he’s even been known to make shrines to colleagues who are celebrating a birthday.

No Dev left behind

Developing HootSuite Culture at Crab Park in Vancouver
Devs helping devs!

Devs want to produce code which gets used. In some big companies, programmers will digitally write poetic code which never sees light of day due to company direction changes, internal bickering, or lack of coordinated execution. 

At HootSuite, my dev colleagues seem to thrive on developing code which is both deployed quickly and will be used widely. This isn’t just for senior devs, the egalitarian approach means all worthy code is used no matter who wrote it. 

Devs own their projects and are thus responsible for figuring them out. It’s a collaborative atmosphere where small task forces develop to address specific problems, and they’re given an opportunity to choose their tools in order to fulfill their mandate. This stands in opposition to being pushed into a dogmatic technical solution from someone outside the team.

Front Row View of Rapid Growth

There’s a big difference between managing services and writing code to serve a 100,000 user market, compared to a 5 or 50 million user market. At HootSuite, we have a unique view of the challenges around scaling rapidly – and globally.

Faced the challenges of ensuring services are up around the clock, everywhere, in many languages, while also coexisting with major social network service providers, our devs flourish. This situation offers incredibly valuable skills and experience which can only be gained in this kind of rare  environment.

Keep in mind, HootSuite isn’t just for helping people sell more widgets or sharing what they had for lunch… HootSuite plays a role in major world events including theEgyptian Revolution, where Twitter and Facebook were blocked by the Egyptian Government, but HootSuite remained functional. So for 36 hours, we facilitated the voice for the revolution, the counter-revolution, major media, and even the U.S. Embassy in Cairo.

Fortunately, one dev added right-to-left scripting for the iPhone, which allowed people to use HootSuite in Arabic in the midst of the struggle. Luckily for us, the systems were able to sustain 7000% growth overnight from Egypt.

Nimble & Agile

HootSuite company culture
Ryan and Simon in their whites gearing up for the HootSuite summer retreat.

Each morning, the devs gather around a cardboard sign that reads “what i’m doing.” While circled around a screen with columns of cryptic tickets, much like medieval monks contemplating the gospels, they massage every idea and distil each into a domino-like line of micro tasks. These tasks are then dutifully moved from column to column until released into the wild. 

Keep in mind, projects will go from idea to completion and release in a matter of days. As was the case in the Secure Profiles Tool which came on the heels of noteworthy social media PR conundrums from Red Cross and Chrysler.

From idea on Thursday, to product release and announcement on Tuesday, this is more than just agile – this is yoga-like flexibility!

Oldschool is still school

When I first arrived with small group of devs, I noticed how they relentlessly worked to ensure quality. Three years later, the core founding devs still work hardest and continually lead by example.

They’re doing it because they love doing it, and the passion and tenacity is contagious to the juniors. While HootSuite enjoys attention from the outside, at our core, the devs are guardians of their culture and work to bring the newbs to rarefied air rapidly. No room for b-lists skills in this tribe.

#FunFact: Our “QA Dude” has documented HootSuite’s good times with a seemingly endless stream of wigglies. These fun snaps capture the bits of our growth and culture that the major media will never see including our semi-secret shotgun ritual at each million milestone.

Passion Fueled

Epic melon slingshot in the back alley of HootSuite HQ
Melon slingshot in the back alley of HootSuite HQ during the dev olympics!

While some companies can get away with displaying ‘fail whales’ and stock outage messages when things go awry, we take a different approach at HootSuite. With a global audience doing remarkable things from managing social at heavy hitting brands or sharing mom’s clam chowder recipe, we take our system seriously.

I recall the morning when the Amazon Web Services Cloud went offline, and i noticed our normally serene CTO’s brow slightly furrowed(!) This let me know that we were in for the long haul on this problem. I headed for a large coffee.

Without missing a beat, our systems admin (who is constantly on the ready for the zombie apocalypse with a CB/HAM enabled transformer jeep) headed out the door to Army and Navy saying: “i’m gonna need a toothbrush, a towel, and two packs of smokes.”

Fifteen hours later, we were back online (the first such company of the downed companies), and through some resourceful and ingenious solutions, we had data in store back up and running. We also managed to spin the Amazon outage chaos into apositive story and a case study.

Hero-worthy

While HootSuite’s brand is often manifested via our Owly mascot, lists of the notable brands using the tool, and our noble CEO’s face seemingly *everywhere*, within the company we all know that without the devs rocking the keyboards with precision and dedication, we’d be nowhere. Further, what they are doing is far from vanilla – there’s some heavy duty, wild tech going on under the hood and a crew which is encouraged to actually innovate, not just talk about it.

Whether through arduous nights of coding, wearing pirates outfits, or staging their very own watermelon Olympics, the devs at HootSuite have forged a contagious culture of innovation and perfection, delicately balanced with skullduggery.

To them, i say, “Thanks for letting this liberal arts community guy hang out with ya.”

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Meet our Board of Advisors for 2012-2013! via VIAwesome

They are, from left to right:
Katie Jeanes – Founder, ALittleMoreGood.com
Mark Brand – CEO, Save On Meats / Mark Brand Inc
Maggie Langrick – Arts and Life Editor, Vancouver Sun
Michael Christie – 2011 Vancouver Book Award-winning author, MichaelChristie.net
Lesli Boldt – President, Boldt Communications
Peter Ladner – Author / Former Vancouver City Councillor, PeterLadner.ca
Jason Donaldson – Director, Gulf Islands School of Performing Arts
Amanda Gibbs – Principal, Public Assembly
Justin Young – Creative Director, Village & Company
Rebecca Bollwitt – Owner, Miss604.com and sixty4media
Michael Eckford – TV and Radio personality, Urban Rush and Rock 101
Roberta LaQuaglia – Operations Manager, Vancouver Farmers Markets
Margot White – Former Vice President, Weber Shandwick
Steven Cox – Principal, Cause and Affect
Meriko Kubota – Grants/Community Initiatives Manager, Vancouver Foundation
Graeme Berglund – Founder/Creative Director, The Cheaper Show
Rachel Thexton – Partner, Dunn PR
Josh Dunford – Founder, Burnkit Creative
Michael Green – Principal, Michael Green Architecture
Anthony Nicalo – President, Foodtree
Dave Olson – VP Community, Hootsuite
Jesse Keefer – Owner, Bodega Ridge Resort
Steve Rio – President, Briteweb
Erin Ireland – Founder, To Die For Banana Bread
Todd Falkowsky – Founder, The Canadian Design Resource
Leanna Crawford – Co-creative Director, Company Policy
Mark Busse – Partner, Industrial Brand
Yuriko Iga – Founder, Blim
Brian Riddell – CEO, Pacific Salmon Foundation
Michael Tippett – CEO & Co-Founder, Ayoudo.com
Karen Pinchin – Co-founder, Rain City Chronicles
Scott Hawthorn – Co-owner, Salt Tasting Room & Native Shoes
Lana Gay – Host and Journalist, CBC Music
Gregory Hegger – Director of Communications and Partnerships, brandLIVE
Amanda McCuaig – Marketing Officer, Museum Of Vancouver
Steve Pratt – Director of Digital Music & CBC Radio 3, CBC Music

BCITMA presents Think/Share with Darren Yada, Christ Walts and Dave Olson via VIAwesome

Think/Share is Vancouver’s newest speaker series and it’s dedicated to the city’s advertising and marketing industry, with the aim of bringing together professionals and students alike to listen to some folks talk on a subject and then have engage in dialogue. The subject of this inaugural evening is “Brand Management through Social Media” and I’ll be moderating an expert panel made up of Darren Yada of Rethink, Chris Walts of TribalDDB and Dave Olson of Hootsuite.

If you work in marketing and advertising I can promise an interesting night of conversation followed by a musical set by the Junebugs. HERE is all of the info and below is Dave from Hootsuite’s recent TEDxCAPU talk to give you an idea of what you’re in for, just in case you’ve never met him or seen/heard him speak…


Source: BCITMA presents Think/Share with Darren Yada, Christ Walts and Dave Olson | VIAwesome

Fave books list from “Read all Over” in Vancouver is Awesome

Book shelf

Background: They say, “Read All Over (as in read all over town or the literary pun joke, what’s black and white and re(a)d all over… ) is about celebrating the booknerd in all of us, highlighting book lovers in Vancouver and is published in Vancouver is Awesome.” Indeed, my contributions were included in the series and archived here for convenience.

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Read All Over celebrates the bookworm in all of us, showcasing readers in Vancouver and the books they love most.

Poet, podcaster, pundit and chronic documentarian from his earliest days, Dave Thorvald Olson spends his time writing, painting and listening to vinyl albums on the back porch while gazing at Lynn Valley’s mountains and trees. He’s traveled to 25+ countries working very odd jobs including mushroom farmer, grape picker, college librarian, submarine tour guide, beach club host and now, dot-com community wrangler. He enjoys hot springs, counter-culture, collecting ephemera and swilling microbrews. You many have caught his stories at SXSW, Northern Voice, TEDx, or Pecha Kucha.  Literature fans will enjoy his spoken word podcast series calledPostcards from Gravelly Beach.

Photo courtesy of Dave Thorvald Olson

How do you like your books served up best – audio books, graphic novels, used paperbacks, library loaner, e-reader…

I especially like tracking down hardback vintage editions of my favourites and set them on the top shelf of my case alongside dog-eared paperback versions. Example: a rare Catcher in the Rye with photo of Salinger; an unedited version of Kerouac’s On the Road scroll; andDr. Zhivago in Russian (just for fun). While I usually travel with paperbacks, I hauled a massive edition of War and Peace to Belize just to enjoy it more on the porch. I also buy lots of library cast-offs. Never tried an audio book, or an e-book for that matter.

The one book you always recommend is…

Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke – elegant soliloquies, devoid of pretension, about pulling the best out of oneself – particularly when writing.

What books have changed your life?

Walden/Civil Disobedience – Thoreau showed me that words are the source of public and private revolutions rather than violence.

The Catcher in the Rye – Salinger’s renegade first-person, colloquial narrative is nuanced & powerful and still underestimated in ability to transform.

Dharma Bums – Kerouac’s chops & sincerity shine through in this earnest story which coaxed millions to put their boots on!

The Backcountry – Following Gary Snyder’s steps in a Kyoto train station shaped my journey and trueself while heading into the Japanese hills.

Desert Solitaire – Crusty Ed Abbey’s seasonal treatise is both elegant and bombastic plus ecologically important for the past & future.

War and Peace – Satisfyingly critical life lessons tangled within Tolstoy’s epic cast of thousands in a revolutionary soap opera of class & honesty.

Bonus: Siddaharta by Herman Hesse; Rommel Drives Deep into Egypt by Richard Brautigan; Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce; Post Office by Charles Bukowski; Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis; and, Walking Up and Down in the Worldby Smoke Blanchard.

Where is your favorite place to crack open a good book in Vancouver?

On a Crab Park bench – glancing up at tugs and freighters – continued on the Seabus as needed.

What book makes you feel like a kid again?

The Adventures of Tintin. I have a complete collection of the stories (including the previously banned “Soviets” and “Congo” escapades) about this renegade Belgian reporter and his eclectic band of co-conspirators.

The story about the creator Hergé is equally compelling as he started the series for a Catholic newspaper and carried on during Nazi occupation.

Your life story is published tomorrow. What’s the title?

Trips to Elsewhere: A Shoebox of Anecdotes and Incidents


Photo courtesy of Dave Thorvald Olson

Own the podium. Actually, really… via VIAwesome

Own the podium. Actually, really, for reals own it for $39.99. | VIAwesome By Bob Kronbauer – February 14, 2011

Chris Walts, myself and Dave Olson. Photo by Kris Krug on Flickr

This past weekend the streets of downtown Vancouver were blocked off to celebrate the one year anniversary of the 2010 Olympics. Later today I’m going to tell you all about the street hockey game that I played in on Granville Street but first I’ll skip to the end of it and how I ended up standing on the very podium that Alexandre Bilodeau accepted his gold medal on. I’m pretty sure our team lost but still somehow I ended up standing atop this thing. Whaaaat?

Even a rainfall warning couldn’t dampen the #ReliveIt spirit | VIAwesome

The title of this post might be a little cliche but it’s so true that I couldn’t not run with it. Despite a rainfall warning that resulted in a river flowing down Granville Street, Saturday’s street hockey games during the Relive It celebrations downtown brought out some impressive crowds, great times and plenty of smiles.

I had a blast playing in the “celebrity” game which was more like a “media” game with a few local celebs sprinkled in amongst us for good measure. Benefitting Five Hole For Food, teams were picked traditionally with all of our sticks going into a pile and then being separated randomly forming two motley crews. The streets were blocked off for the day so thankfully we didn’t have to participate in that other Canadian tradition of calling out “CAR!” and moving the nets every 5 minutes!

Photo courtesy of JeremyLim.ca

I was fortunate to have Kris Krug (left) and Mike Klassen (right) on my team. As it was a friendly game nobody was keeping score but if one thing is certain it’s that we kept Meena Mann (centre) and her goons including Olympic bobsledder, Justin Kripps (background), at bay! Of course I use the term “goons” in the friendliest possible way as the good-natured smack talk preceded this game on Twitter and extended offline throughout the rain-soaked 45 minutes.

Below are all the folks that played in our game along with their Twitter handles if you care to follow them and see all the smack they talk!


Photo courtesy of JeremyLim.ca

Back row (L to R):
– Brendan Moran (@bybrendan)
– Kris Krug (Photographer, @kk)
– Bob Kronbauer (Vancouver is Awesome, @VIAwesome)
– Dave Olson (Hootsuite, @uncleweed)
– Dan Mangan (Musician, @danmanganmusic)
– Justin Kripps (Olympian Bobsledder, @justinkripps)
– Mike Klassen (City Caucus.com, @MikeKlassen)
– Kelcey Brade (CTV, @ctv_kelcey)
– Jesse Bowness (Mortgage Specialist, @jessebowness)
– Sonia Stirling (VanSavvyGirls, @SoniaStirling)
– Chris Walts, DDB Canada, @chriswalts)
– Matt Kieltyka (Metro News Vancouver, @MKieltyka)
– Adam Forsythe (News 1130, @adamforsythe)
– Ryan Sullivan (News 1130, @sullivancouver)
– Hosea Cheung (24 Hours Vancouver, @hosea24hours)
– Jack the Vancouver Giants’ mascot (@WHLGiants)

Front row (L to R):
– Riaz Meghji (Breakfast Television, @riazmeghji)
– Richard Loat (FHFF Founder, @mozy19)
– Andrew Fleming (Burnaby Now, @flematic)
– Claudia Kwan (Global, @thatclaudiakwan)
– Dawn Chubai (Breakfast Television, @dawn_chubai)
– Sam Plumb
– Dean Broughton (Vancouver Sun, @DeanVanSun)
– Meena Mann (FMA, @MeenaMann)

And lastly, for good measure, if you look up “mean mugging” in an online dictionary this photo of Dan Mangan and I comes up. Pre-game scare tactics!


Photo by Kris Krug on Flickr

Thanks to Five Hole For Food for bringing together all of these personalities for a friendly game of street hockey. I would love to see this become a regular thing where the local media (and a few actual celebrities) get together for friendly competition!

Source: Even a rainfall warning couldn’t dampen the #ReliveIt spirit | VIAwesome