After close to 5 years with Silver Chalice/SportsLabs, today, Friday August 7th 2015, will be my last day with the company. On Monday, I join SnapLogic, an enterprise integration platform-as-a-service (iPaaS) provider that I believe has an amazing future.
It has been a tremendous, life-changing journey.
I joined Silver Chalice shortly after marrying my wife and moving to America from Ireland. I had completed a small social app for the 2010 Breeders’ Cup and was finishing up my responsibilities as a server-side engineer for IBM, when I started looking for startups in the Denver/Boulder area that I could be a part of. I knew Boulder, with its Techstars incubator, would be a great place to find fast-growing companies.
Towards the end of 2010, I stumbled across a job posting for a web developer position at new media company that was being spun off from the Chicago White Sox.
Ignoring the fact my baseball knowledge at that point in time amounted to “it’s kind of like Rounders”, and that I wasn’t a web developer, I was intrigued by a major sports franchise looking to invest in opportunities in the digital and new media space. So I applied. And heard nothing back.
I followed up a while later and got their attention this time. Silver Chalice was really only a handful of people at that point, split between Chicago and Boulder. They had outsourced any previous client work and had no engineers on staff. I met the hiring manager and, over a burger, he described the need for a system that could power market-leading news, weather and sports apps. How it did that, he had no idea. We fleshed out, in detail, all the ways we didn’t know what to build, but we did realize that it definitely wasn’t a web developer they were looking for. So I took a leap of faith, joined and set to work on building a Platform and rapidly hiring a team - neither of which I’d ever done before but had always wanted to do.
Within a couple of weeks I was on a plane to the headquarters of a major media company with a slide deck and somewhat vague idea of how we (the engineering department of 1) were, in the next 4 months, going to build apps and mobile websites for 31 TV stations, and a platform to power them all, for the 1-million-plus active users they had with their legacy provider’s systems. I was grilled pretty hard by their CIO but I discovered I had a knack for spinning a good tale and making a sale - we won the deal.
What followed in the next few months was a madcap scramble to hire great engineers, build a cloud-hosted, scalable content delivery architecture, an integration engine to ingest the myriad of content needed for a modern news/weather/sports app, and to build the apps and websites themselves. As a fan of Eric Ries, I was a proponent of API-driven development and continuous deployment, and we quickly built a system that, driven by auto-scaling, workers scheduled and consumed jobs from AWS SQS queues, used the Apache Camel integration framework to source and combine the information from dozens of data sources across many protocols, and wrote “API response” data to AWS S3 and Cloudfront for durable, reliable content delivery, even under bursty, high-traffic scenarios like major breaking news. We got the job done and the apps and sites launched on time and the client experienced a significant increase in active users, and being #1 in many of their markets.
It wasn’t all plain sailing. My very first paycheck bounced - you can imagine how that made me feel about joining a startup! Luckily it turned out to be the bank’s error. I was working very long hours at this stage, trying to keep up with building the platform, interviewing for all new employees, identifying market opportunities and pitching new business, and setting out a strategic vision for our technology. And we were still working by the skin of our teeth - on launch weekend, a not-insignificant portion of the platform was running on my laptop.
We took this platform into sports by powering CBS Interactive’s college sports apps. That’s when the company saw a major opportunity to do what Major League Baseball had done with MLB Advanced Media (BAM) but for college sports - create a “roll-up” platform that could serve the digital needs of top-tier collegiate athletic institutions and organizations, as well as independent sports media companies, sports media rights holders, and global media powerhouses. The Boulder arm of Silver Chalice was rebranded as SportsLabs and we said goodbye to our news media friends and focused exclusively on the college sports vertical.
Today, SportsLabs is a major player in the space, streaming live video of the ACC Basketball Championships, building Notre Dame’s WatchND media properties, powering the location-based services, social streams and live stats for 30+ IMG Gameday iOS and Android native apps, winning premium clients like the University of Kentucky and Kansas State University, and signing one of the largest sports audio streaming deals with Samsung.
From the 5-person Boulder office I joined in 2011, SportsLabs has now 50+ employees in Boulder and Silver Chalice must have 150+ in Chicago. We moved into new, much larger offices right on beautiful Pearl St. and have built market-leading products.
As with any fast-paced environment, it was difficult to just keep up. We naturally had to rewrite the platform for the API to be flexible enough to support all these products - so we brought in the Spring stack including Spring MVC, Spring Data etc., plus MongoDB, Postgres, and an RoR/AngularJS stack to power our CMS and websites. After working seemingly non-stop I definitely experienced burn-out a few times. Sports, like most live entertainment experiences, is skewed to take place at nights or weekends - especially the highest profile events. The stress of a busy November Saturday evening with hundreds of events being live scored and streamed to the general public on a national stage meant that I rarely got a break from even thinking about the platform and our products.
We added more and more data providers and the integration challenge began to be significant. Trying to balance developing and coding the platform, plus managing the platform team, was tricky. Plus, as my future CEO Gaurav Dhillon so wisely put it, the importance of timing is “vital”. While we have definitely seen the market move to “cutting the cord” and consuming content online (OTT solutions like HBO Now and SlingTV are super promising), sports on TV is still a great experience and, in many ways, the reason why TV, especially cable, has been able to fight off these challenges from far more flexible online properties. ESPN especially shapes the college football broadcast world, both in terms of distribution and money. And the broadcast rights for the big games are everything. Yahoo live streaming an NFL game this year is a gamechanger - with the worst part of it being it’s a Bills-Jaguars game.
It really does feel that sports broadcasting online is going to go through some major shifts in the next few years - it’s just a little behind where I’d thought it would be now back in 2011. Either way, SportsLabs has marvelous opportunities ahead of it, working with world-famous clients in one of the most interesting media/technology spaces out there. They’ll do great things.
In my time with Silver Chalice/SportsLabs I experienced a few themes that I think are going to be incredibly commonplace for businesses in the near future.
Firstly, Silver Chalice was a new company and to get up and running quickly, we used SaaS heavily - both to build our products and to simply operate ourselves. From the usual suspects like Google Apps, Dropbox, Paylocity, and Concur, to the plethora of services we use in Engineering including Splunk, New Relic, PagerDuty, GitHub, Google Analytics, DFP, Atlassian JIRA Studio, and of course Amazon Web Services. While some of these services talk to one or two of the others, there wasn’t a way to easily move information between all of them.
So much communication was lost between wiki pages defining product requirements, ticket systems detailing bugs, email and chat messages clarifying queries, continuous integration systems outlining test failures, logs, monitoring systems highlighting anomalies etc.! In fact, in my opinion, this largely technical limitation of sharing basic information across systems was costing us millions in time and effort wasted. And we as platform engineers were exacerbating the problem by trying to make data sources talk to each other in non-consistent ways.
Secondly, with Camel we started with an ESB-like solution for integrating data and, while it worked quite well, we got sucked into a fairly tightly coupled architecture, even though it supported using a variety of ways to decouple parts of the architecture. We eventually moved to a JSON-based REST API solution that offered increased flexibility, but we strongly typed far too many of the contracts and integration boundaries. As the number of data sources increased, the complexity of trying to integrate them quickly into the platform, and scale them appropriately, increased also. Not having a GUI like the SnapLogic Designer that described the integrations, meant that a significant portion of developers’ time was spent just understanding how the data would flow through the system. The code-only solution also limited the number of people that were able to help understand and document the flows too. Maintaining the flow descriptions in wikis etc. was both too time consuming for the (expensive) developers and too static to be relied upon.
Thirdly, we were only scratching the surface with the amount of data becoming available to us. In the past, live sports might have been described as having “a lot of data”, but it pales in comparison to the volume of information now accessible through app analytics of user actions, streaming metadata from live broadcasts, social engagement with players and teams, location-based services at stadiums, and so on. Designing our platform to incorporate social, mobile, analytical, cloud and Internet of Things (IoT) data to further customize, operate, and gain insights into our products would require a major engineering effort.
So when I joined our neighborhood website recently, I was amazed that the first post I saw was from a neighbor, Kevin Hahn, who lived just a couple of doors down, describing opportunities with a company named SnapLogic, who had just opened an office in Boulder. A quick perusal of snaplogic.com piqued my interest further. Watching fascinating interviews with SnapLogic CEO and Informatica co-founder Gaurav Dhillon and reading Darren Cunningham’s excellent blog posts whetted my appetite even more.
After speaking with Kevin, I made it my business to become part of SnapLogic. I can’t wait to start. It’s wonderfully exciting being part of a something that I believe is going to be huge - both in its success and its impact.
I read an article where Gaurav said “Leaving [Informatica] was the hardest and best thing I ever did”. I have similar feelings leaving SportsLabs and joining SnapLogic. Naturally, the team I’m leaving behind weighs on me the most.
I can’t thank John Burris enough for the opportunity he gave me, how he looked out for me and my family, and the introduction to this startup world that I don’t want to ever leave. I’m very proud to be part of your team that built this company.
I have a deep gratitude in having worked beside Nancy Beaton and Chris Jackson. Chris has an amazing talent for making a connection with clients. Nancy is one of the most impressive people I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. I’ll never forget the time we travelled to what we thought was a small, getting-to-know-you meeting with Samsung and instead entered a conference room with about 25 people, and standing room only, to listen to our pitch. I was amazed with the technical acumen displayed as she deftly took the audience through the finer points of streaming live audio, while also being responsible for securing one of the most lucrative contracts our space has ever had - a superstar.
As for other terrific Silver Chalice/SportsLabs employees, both former and present, there are simply too many to for me to remember them all, but I do want to thank Jason Gall, Trey Hicks, Eric Foote, Colin Holm, Tim Gray, Kevin Gorham, Jonathan Kreuger, Arlie Sisson, Peter Laird, Nick Cassidy, Mike Olson, Colin Pilloud, Rebecca Cameron, Ryan Pensy, Dave Wiedenheft, Brian Grayless, Sean Ortiz, and Ryan Karlin for the help and support they gave me over the years. I’m sure I’ve left plenty out that deserve individual recognition too.
I joined Silver Chalice/SportsLabs fresh off the boat (so to speak). I was newly married, living a new country where I didn’t know anyone, and not really sure what the future held. My experience completely opened up a new world for me - professionally and personally. My home is Boulder now, where my children are growing up. I gained confidence to pursue ambitious opportunities and engineer things that were worth something and made an impact in the market. I gained friendships that I hope will last a lifetime.
I’ve enjoyed every moment.