Every day when I pick up my kids from school, I ask them what they’ve learned that day. They proceed to tell me what they did—in class, after school, what they had for lunch, who they played with at recess. But getting them to articulate what they learned is a lot harder. So in the spirit of setting an example, I thought I’d report on what I learned this year as a product manager for SparkPost.
First, let me back up: it’s been a year of remarkable change and growth for our company. We made the leap from our origins as an established, packaged software vendor to a software-as-a-service operation. We architected an entirely virtualized, cloud-based infrastructure. We built and launched our core SparkPost offering. We expanded upon that foundation to introduce the SparkPost Elite service with dedicated instances and service level agreements to suit the world’s most demanding senders. We built out a world-class operations, deliverability, and customer success team. And, we changed our brand from Message Systems to SparkPost to better reflect all of these changes.
But those are things that we did. What did we learn? Here are four lessons about doing business in the cloud that really hit home for me this year.
- Offering a cloud service means more than engineering a technology stack. It requires a deep understanding of how customers actually integrate technology into their business processes. It also means publicly staking a claim with the right product/market fit and countering a new group of competitors. All in the open.
- Another key lesson for us at SparkPost has been just how critically important it is to reduce friction throughout the customer lifecycle, from selling to onboarding to daily ease-of-use and support. In plain language: the cloud means we need, more than ever, to make it easy for customers do business with us. In our market of high-volume, high-value email, we want to make it drop-dead easy for legitimate senders, while freezing out spammers and phishers. Ultimately, dealing with the bad guys in the email world is where our rock-star compliance and deliverability teams give us a real competitive advantage. But as a product manager, I can assure you that it takes a lot attention to detail to get that balance just right.
- The cloud changes everything, including the business model. If you’ve spent any time in the traditional software industry, you know how big, perpetual license deals are the name of the game. But there’s a reason why the business model for cloud businesses is called “software-as-a-service.” Services aren’t a one-and-done deal; instead, our accountants report recurring revenue as the primary metric for our shareholders. For customers, that’s good news: less up-front capital expenditures, more bite-sized spending, and a real incentive for the company—that’s us—to keep customers happy and earn that recurring revenue.
- And this brings me to the thing I think about every day of the year. Of course I want to develop a product that has the most compelling features in the industry. Of course I want to see my product beat out competitors on the biggest deals. But the discipline that the recurring revenue model enforces on us means that customer retention (and that really means customer satisfaction) is simply crucial. To be frank, the same simplicity that makes the cloud so compelling also makes it pretty easy for a customer to switch to a new service provider. So, that means that I am always working to make SparkPost better-performing, easier to use, cost-effective, and a step ahead of my competitors in all the ways that matter to our customers, including email deliverability.
That last lesson is the most important thing any company needs to remember, and doing business in the cloud simply makes it all the more obvious. So, what I learned in 2015 (and will keep focused on for 2016) really is a reminder of what I and my colleagues have always believed: keeping our customers happy is the key to our success. It’s not the technology, and it’s not the marketing, or anything else except you. So a heart-felt thank you from all of us at SparkPost and from me personally. I’m looking forward to an awesome 2016.
—Irina, Cloud Queen 👸
Hi there! I’m Mary (@mary_grace), and as you may have heard, I’m the new developer community manager at SparkPost. Things are finally starting to slow down after three weeks of onboarding, training, and lots of fantastic conversations, so I thought I’d take some time to introduce myself.
I’m based in San Francisco, and am a (Northern) California girl, but also spend a fair amount of time in NYC with my boyfriend, Jeremy. I’m a connector of people at heart, both personally and professionally, and love digging into the strategy of how to build and foster communities.
I’ve been a part of the developer community for a while now, but have taken a bit of an unconventional path to get here. My background is in communications and journalism, but after 5 years of talking at my community via press releases and social media, I wanted to have conversations with the community. I wanted to know if they were actually interested in our content, what excited them, what new projects they were digging into, why our resources were (or, more importantly, weren’t) helpful. So I transitioned into a community manager, builder, advocate, architect, and developer, and I’ve never regretted it!
I’m also often known as “the one with the dog.” My dog Ember (like the coal, not the JS library ;)) travels with me everywhere and serves as my super-nose, smelling when my blood sugars are starting to run too low and warning me before I can feel the symptoms myself. Bonus: He also serves as a quick and easy reference point when people are trying to track me down at an event.
Given my busy personal and professional life, I’m often on the road, but in my spare time I love to explore new cities, fly in the wind tunnel, listen to music, read books, and occasionally dig into crafting, sewing, and making projects. You can also often find me running local trails or at the beach with Ember.
I hope to meet all of you on the road soon. In the meantime, introduce yourselves here! Where are you based? What are you excited about working on? Is working with email & APIs a hobby or a career choice (or both)?!
Lastly, if you’ve been keeping an eye on our developer hub, I, along with the rest of my team, want to help you build something awesome! So if there’s something missing, something we could be doing better, or something we could do to help you build more awesome things, drop us a line. Want to reach out to me directly? You can find me on Twitter, GitHub, and as always, via email.
Twice a year, SparkPost hosts an employee hackathon. The idea is to give our hard-working technical staff a chance to step outside their usual areas of focus and to have free rein to explore their creative ideas that push our technology in all sorts of cool directions. These demonstrations, and the exercise itself, are fun and really inspiring to us all and an important part of our culture of innovation.
During the hackathon, our engineering and technical operations teams spend a day and a half playing with code and turning ideas into working proof of concepts. Though exploration is the main goal, many of the ideas end up being refined and incorporated into our products or to our internal toolsets.
As usual, the Fall hackathon teams impressed us with their orthogonal thinking and technical chops. The group produced a crop of innovative ideas that show the depth and breadth of our capabilities. Let’s take a look at some of the great hacks that came out of the event this time around.
Each hackathon event has a theme with several areas of focus. Our Fall event featured the following categories:
- Product: a new or improved product or feature, including end-user tools and add-ons
- Tools: an internal tool or infrastructure that can improve how we design, build, test, ship, or support our products
- Partner Integrations: a value added integration of our products and services with a third party
- Fun with Data: making more of the data we have in our cloud environments
- We Deliver: innovations in abuse detection, compliance, and deliverability
The rules are simple: use whatever tech you want, research as much or as little as you want, and don’t write any code ahead of time. The hackathon starts at 10 AM on day one and ends with presentations starting at 1 PM the following day. A panel of judges reviews the entries and picks a winning team for each category.
Best in Show
Our judges award best in show to the project that stands out to them the most. In this hackathon, it was a proof of concept for a new iteration of our Adaptive Delivery functionality, which auto-tunes outbound email delivery parameters and traffic shaping in real-time to avoid blocks, safeguard reputation and optimize delivery.
This functionality is currently a part of the core technology that powers SparkPost—the Momentum platform. The project used a combination of Vertica, Redis, and Node.js to power the rules system for Adaptive Delivery, allowing us to offload some of the work to more efficient services. The main benefits here are scalability, performance, and abstraction. Another potential benefit could be sharing Adaptive Delivery data to improve deliverability for all of our customers.
For our product category, two projects shared top honors: an in-application API explorer for SparkPost, and a hot backup for our PowerMTA product. The interactive discoverability made possible by in-application API explorer was so awesome that we’ve added it to the SparkPost UI! This interactive tool complements our traditional API documentation.
The PowerMTA project did a proof-of-concept system that enables one instance of PowerMTA to be the hot backup for another instance. Also addressed was a potential solution for recovery from failures when using hot backups. The team relied on their knowledge of database replication and SMTP to build the replication protocol and used TCP socket programming to implement the details.
The tools category produced a project allowing us to automate testing against our SparkPost Elite environments. Our tech ops team routinely spins up new SparkPost Elite customer environments with the requisite architecture and needs to test that everything is set up correctly and ready to send. To aid in automation of this process, one of the teams created autoscott, a command line utility that allows teams to run commands to perform actions like sending a single transmission, sending multiple transmissions, creating recipient lists, creating templates, and more.
Fun With Data
In the fun with data category, we had a team create a prototype for a weekly report card. This report would be delivered to our customers and contain a summary of their sending including number of emails sent, open rate, and click rate. It would also deliver helpful tips on how to improve your mailings based on trends in data. For example, if your open rate went down week-over-week, we’d let you know how to potentially correct this issue. Additionally the email contains a breakdown of volume by day for the past few weeks and some information about your sending habits as they relate to other senders on SparkPost.
Signing up for and signing in to SparkPost is simple. The winning entry in our partner integrations category wanted to take this a step further, so they built the ability to sign up and sign in via Github, Twitter, or Google. The project made use of the Node.js library passport and the adapters for Github, Twitter, and Google. As an added bonus, there is also a passport adapter for SAML, which we’re using to power our upcoming SSO functionality for our SparkPost Elite customers.
Deliverability is a big deal at SparkPost. We pride ourselves on keeping the bad actors out and the good actors sending reliably. In our we deliver category, the winning team worked on refining our ability to scan outgoing email for spam. One particular enhancement was a performance optimization to make scanning of large transmissions more efficient. This group worked using the fine CSDMC2010 spam corpus, which includes a training collection of labeled spam and ham emails, as well as an additional unlabeled test set. The group also worked to visualize the resulting data using SumoLogic, a commercial product which we use in our data analysis.
Another Successful Hackathon
Hosting employee hackathons has become a great tradition here at SparkPost. Our hackathons support our culture of innovation…and ultimately help our customers succeed. As you can see, our teams are constantly striving to improve our product and our tools. The Fall hackathon was no exception.
We’re always looking for bright people to join our team. If solving complex problems, using awesome tech, and participating in Hackathons sounds fun to you, check out our open positions.