10 IT management tips from Etsy CTO Chad Dickerson

Chad Dickerson has been on a hiring tear as he has quadrupled his engineering staff. How does a much larger IT team stay nimble? He offers the following tips as the 5-year-old Etsy scales.

Etsy CTO Chad Dickerson, speaking at the Supernova conference at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of business last week, has seen a little bit of everything in his career, which has featured stops at newspapers, Salon.com, and Yahoo. He outlined the following IT management tips.

Note: This article originally appeared as an entry in ZDNet's Between the Lines blog. It's also available as a PDF download.

1: Keep the speed as you scale

Dickerson has grown his engineering team from 18 people to 55 in eight months. The trick when you do that level of hiring is to be more like a startup, not less. That means putting speed at the forefront of your corporate culture.

2: Put processes in their place

Not every process is a good one. Dickerson notes that processes often become barriers to innovation. Just because one guy made a mistake five years ago doesn't mean you need an enduring process to prevent it. "Process has to be flexible," he said.

3: Use IRC (or some equivalent)

Dickerson said that everyone at Etsy uses Internet Relay Chat, one of the oldest Internet technologies. The entire company, ranging from the CEO to the engineers and everyone in the middle, is on IRC collaborating.

4: Deploy often

"An engineer deploying code to the live site is easier than filling out health care forms," said Dickerson. "It's hard to get to that point." He added that Etsy uses a continuous deployment strategy and engineers deployed production code 190 times, 30 percent higher than June. "Granted, some of these were bug fixes, but to deploy quickly is important," he said.

5: Encourage experiments

At Etsy, Dickerson tries to encourage engineer experiments. "An engineer at Etsy with minimal review -- 10 to 15 minutes with the CEO or CTO -- can launch a live experiment," he said.

6: Be transparent

Etsy maintains an engineering blog called Code as Craft. At the blog, the public can read about Etsy's deployments and the technologies it uses. The benefits? Outsiders have provided tips to Etsy on managing the MongoDB as well as helping with other chores, such as resizing 135 million images in one pop.

7: Embrace failure

"Everyone says this, but hardly anyone does it," Dickerson said. To embrace failure, Etsy gives an annual award to the engineer who broke the site in the most spectacular way. Dickerson said the award was inspired by Flickr engineers. Not surprisingly, Etsy employs a lot of folks who used to work at Flickr.

8: Use social media as a customer support channel

"Twitter is our phone number," he said. Although he added that Etsy is also evaluating phone support options.

9: Get dirty

At one of his former employers, Dickerson needed to have a meeting and wait six weeks to get new hardware. At Etsy, he puts servers on his Amex, and if FedEx screws up the shipment, he rents a ZipCar to pick the systems up and drops them into the racks with an admin at the data center.

10: Manage your capacity wherever it resides

Dickerson said if Etsy started today, it would probably start in the cloud. Instead, Etsy has its own infrastructure and is beginning to supplement it with Amazon Web Services. The big point is that you still have to manage your capacity. "Even if you're in the cloud you still have a lot to do," Dickerson said. "If you're spinning up 2,000 virtual machines, you're still looking at a lot of UNIX prompts to make it happen."

Larry Dignan is editorial director of TechRepublic, as well as editor in chief of ZDNet and SmartPlanet.

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