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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

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

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

For Goodtimes, Point Southward: A Train Trip to Microbrews

Originally published in Uncle Weed’s Dossier at Vancouver Observer on Jan. 7, 2010. Republished here intact for posterity.

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Amtrak Cascades Mud Bay Surrey BC, photo by Stephen Rees
First thing you learn is you always gotta wait
— Lou Reed, Waiting for my Man, Velvet Underground

Usually when mentioning train travel in Canada you have to cue Gordon Lightfoot but as Canada has apparently forgotten that the iron road made the country and relegated train travel to a slim segment, I move my gaze to the south. While the rest of the civilized world may chuckle at the hype around the USA’s long overdue plan for high speed rail, I am just happy you can take a trip southwards on a train at all I don’t mind the slow rolling, but as Lou Reed explains, the waiting is a drag.With the impending Olympix invasion, February might be a good time to hop the rails and meet your Cascadian neighbours to the south. You may likely find you have more cultural similarities than our compatriots spread across 5-1/2 time zones. Get your passport ready cause I’ve got your route planned out for a proper visit – and each stop involves beer from Bellingham to Portand (or even Eugene).

Dual Train Action

The problem with the train isn’t speed – it’s timeliness and reliability – both of which hinder your ability for a successful and efficient diplomatic mission. Customs delays, mudslides derailments, waiting at sidings, labourious boarding check in, and a secondary immigration clearing mean you can’t rely on traveling by train for anything *important* but there is reason to hope and rejoice. The reason is there are now twotrains a day. Used to be one train with a bunch of “train buses” – which is Amtrak way of saying a fckin Trailways bus. I rode it many times with baffled tourists who dreamed of rolling the coast starlight gazing at the brilliant Puget Sound on, you know, a train – not a bus. Quite different indeed.

The second train was hard fought as the Canadian Customs held out for $10k for clearing each train. Seems at odds with encouraging a sustainable, tourism-based economy but I digress … Since about half of you are probably charting course to get outta town during this arts, sports culture consumer jamboree imminently approaching so I’ve plotted some ideas to where to go, and how to do it – you just hafta figure out how to get to Main St. station by 6 am, (which is of course, basically impossible if you live across a bridge or tunnel) so set your alarm for 5am and talk someone into driving you ~ a great way to start a trip indeed.

There are two trains and each has a different name and route, the Cascade goes from Vancouver to Eugene, Oregon but only once a day but twice if from Seattle (confusing i know) while the Coast Starlight ventures all the way to LA but starts in Seattle and offers sleeping compartments to help you feel like a Euro-rail backpacker.

Since you aren’t driving, and will be waiting a lot (and likely be annoyed that the thrill peace and magic of riding rails is replaced by unfounded paranoia and obtuse security), let’s get your pints lined up.

Micro Mission

Used to be we Canadians could brag without hindrance about our superior brews … until the mostly west-coast microbrew revolution. Now the Cascadia region is dotted with excellent breweries laden with culture and tasty pints – and i’ve found the finest.

Beers at Boundary Bay BrewpubBellingham is no longer Smelligham as we called it on trips southwards in the glory days of toxic pulp mills. Now there are ample opportunities to spend a few hours well away from Bellis Fair mall starting at Boundary Bay Brewery. With a handy location in the Fairhaven area (the old town), this popular hangout is close to the train station and the Alaska ferry if you wanna head into the wild. The pub is top shelf with outdoor beer gardens, award winning brews, guest taps and hearty grub.

A wee stretch further south on your train roll is the valley village of Mt Vernon and Skagit River Brewery. Stop in for a variety platter including 2 stouts (one on nitro) and a barleywine. Last visit, I left with a pint glass decorated with their award winning Skuller’s IPA insignia.


Enjoying some sample beers with Kris and Francis at Skajit River Brew Pub in Mt. Vernon, Washington en route to Gnomedex. We riff about various styles of beers (barleywine, stouts, porters, IPAs etc) and try to be pleasant.

Everett is worth stopping in to catch a hockey game at their new rink (home of the WHL Silvertips) but not oozing with culture (that i’ve found anyhow – please correct me as needed). Of course, Seattle is next but you’ve already visited there right? If you find yourself stranded in the Emerald city – step away from the train station and go to the crazy Experience Music Project – the weird looking building next door to the Space Needle for rock n’ roll history adventure (and a beer inside). It’s easy to find a solid pint but some maximum pleasure, head to the neighbourhood of Ballard, find a bar, tell them you are from Canada and let the wild rumpus begin as they treat you like a foreigner from somewhere exotic. (Hint: Find a Hale’s Cream Ale).

If you happen into Tacoma, avoid the industrial aroma and instead visit the stellar glass art museum (Dale Chihuly is a local hero) and find a bar called The Swiss – from which you might never leave.

Washington’s capitol city (the town Time Magazine called the hippest in the west + High Times bestowed additional dubious accolades) is Olympia. The station is located way out of town (in Lacey) and not handy to get into downtown but worth the trip if you can hang for a while. With artesian acquifers wells producing perfect brew water, Oly is famous for beer. Now the tradition has migrated from mass production of swillable stubbies to organic Fishtale Ale. In their intrepid Fish Bowl pub, you’ll spot grey ponytails plotting Cascadian secession or just eating fish tacos or a ploughman’s platter.

Wander a couple blocks down to 4th and find the Eastside Club Tavern – a real life Mos Eisely cantina with 30+ micro handles and a sweet jukebox (say hi from Uncle Weed). Then step next door for frog leg lunch from Cajun chef Billy at A2 and wander down the street to browse the eclectic Last Word Books. Finish with live music at a handful of bars or an art house flick at Capitol theater for a perfect day out. Can’t stop? See the Go with the Flow movie instead.

The next wide spot south is Chehalis and Centralia, but which i can never figure out which is which – just check your map and make sure to stop at the new Dick’s Brewery. Sadly, Dick “Danger” Young rode his Harley to the big party in the sky in 2009 but leaves legacy of 20+ brews. My faves in order: 1) Belgain Double; 2) Danger Ale; 3) Irish Ale; 3) Cream Stout; 4) Workingman’s Brown. If you are feeling dangerous (which you are since you are riding the train), try ’em all to find your fave.

This old logging town is a fine place to end up your trip as there is a McMenamin’s old-timey hotel called the Olympic Club (wait! isn’t that name illegal somehow ;-)) where a bank robber holed up and you can too.

Continuing on? Good, just roll right past the older, but less shiny, (Fort) Vancouver as you’ll get confused and think you are home. Instead, cross the mighty Columbia and embark into fantasy land for beer aficionados (and enthusiasts of no sales tax), Portland.

Beside the neatest bar you’ve ever seen on every block, Portand has stellar street markets, great dim sum, more cool McMenamin’s retro-hotels (try the Kennedy School) and theaters (like the Baghdad). In fact, with great transit (light rail hurrah!), “exotic show lounges” and cannabis clubs, PDX feels more like Canada than Canada sometimes.

Not enough? The end of this line is Eugene – the spiritual home of hippies and athletes alike. I can’t talk about Eugene without a Grateful Dead concert flashback so I’ll spare us both before i begin rambling about that show with Little Feat and the blotter paper…

That’ll do ya – you’ve gone far enough. If not, repeat the visits on the way back up. Of course, you can’t get all of these into one trip so pick a few stations and make a long weekend (or play hooky while you “work from home”) to make the circuit count.

Load em up

While Amtrak soldiers on – buoyed by Obama’s fresh visions – Canada keeps doing it like they’ve done since the trains were new. I’ve rolled the fine style and liesurely pace of the Queen’s own VIA Rail in fancy “Silver and Blue” style with my sweetie through the Rocky Mountains – the views were stellar but my indoor observations do not bode well for the future as we musta been the only ones under 65 on the train (aside from a few young families).

VIA in McBride BC en route to Jasper
All good though, there was a bar serving Caesars on-board (and we ended up partying with the train staff in a Jasper bar) – but for the cost of the ticket, seems like you could drive an RV to Newfoundland. How VIA ended up this expensive when most the trains were made in 1950s I don’t know. How do other countries manage? And not just Japan and Germany, Russia has trains too – I’ve seen them in Dr. Zhivago.

What’s missing from rail service on this continent isn’t speed, it’s the ability for spontaneous travel encouraging relaxation, reflection and conversation. Further, there is a public desire to reduce carbon emissions and contribute in some way to the greater good with a greener-ish footprint – but we all need a way to travel to see Grandma on the holidays without causing air-travel-like pollution (especially since we humans must self-regulate after Copenhagen’s implosion). I think more trains are part of the answer, but for now… I’m rolling on with what we got – even if the rest of the world chuckles. Are you coming along? Good, you can buy me a pint of Danger.

Bonus

PS If Amtrak or VIA feel I’ve missed something about their service, i’d be pleased to be their guest and document my journey comprehensively – get me via dave (at) uncleweed (dot) net