CTO Sessions: Andy Kish, TenantBase

Which emerging technology are you most excited about? “Modern data analytics and business intelligence are going through a revolution right now.”

Headshot of Andy Kish, Co-founder & CTO at TenantBase
TenantBase

Name: Andy Kish

Company: TenantBase

Job title: Chief Technology Officer & Co-Founder

Date started current role: June 2013

Location: Santa Monica, CA

Andy Kish, Co-Founder and Chief Technology Officer, brought his extensive software and computer engineering experience to build the technology platform that enables TenantBase to connect businesses to available space in local markets. Along with his two co-founders, Kish helped to realise a vision to revolutionise the office search and lease negotiation process. Prior to co-founding TenantBase in 2013, Kish was a software engineer for Google for two years, working on internal analytics tools and on Google+. Previously, he worked as a software engineer at multiple early-stage start-ups, including Real Time Farms and CrowdClarity. He also has experience doing freelance software development, most notably for W.K. Kellogg Foundation's New Options Initiative.

What was your first job?  In middle school, I did the typical lawn mowing as well as some data entry. I didn’t have a job in high school, as my parents wanted me to focus on school. My first internship in college was with a small engineering consultancy that focused on computer vision work for defense applications. One of their projects was an autonomous robot, and they originally developed it on Windows using Windows-specific APIs. I helped convert the robot to run on Linux.

Did you always want to work in IT? Not IT specifically, but I’ve always enjoyed making things and learning how they work. I’ve always been fascinated by computers. Technology is currently the greatest force for change in our world — extraordinarily high leverage, and I feel blessed to have an aptitude for working with it.

In terms of entrepreneurial drive, my friends and I were all interested in and working on start-ups during the Cambrian explosion of start-ups between about 2008 and 2012. It’s really cool to see how much impact companies started in that era like Airbnb, Coinbase, Stripe, and Uber have had on our daily lives and expectations as consumers.

What was your education? Do you hold any certifications? What are they? I think of my education as typical or “classically trained” for a career software developer. One of the highlights of high school for me was going to a summer math camp that focused on cryptography! I received my Bachelor of Science in Computer Engineering from the University of Michigan, focusing on computers at a low level: building computer hardware and how computer chips are architected.

Explain your career path. Did you take any detours? If so, discuss. I worked in two start-ups while I was in college, and their failures taught me potent lessons. One was software for predictive sales and the other was a company, called Real Time Farms, connecting people with locally sourced food at farmer’s markets and restaurants. I was exposed to everything that goes into developing a product. I learned you must make a product that’s not just something people want, but something they desperately need. The sales prediction software product had really cool features, but every company who needed good sales predictions already had something better in place. At Real Time Farms, I learned the importance of revenue models. People raved about the site, but the monetisation we had in place wasn’t enough to support an entire team and company. With already slim margins, it was difficult to ask restaurants advertising with us to pay even more. The necessity of real product market fit, and a strong revenue model were two huge lessons I learned early on about start-up success.

After studying computer engineering, designing computer chips, I ultimately accepted a software engineering job at Google instead of working for a chip company like Intel or AMD. The pay difference is just too large. I still very much love hardware. Consider the iPhone. It’s magic compared to mobile phones 20 years ago. Though there’s a lot of software involved in that magic, it’s carried on the back of profound progress in the capability and power of our computing hardware.

Working at Google was everything it’s cracked up to be, but it’s hard to be meaningful in a big company which led me back to start-ups. Google culture was engineering-led, and the amenities are unbeatable. Many people I worked with there are talented in a truly humbling way. I learned about what a truly great software operation looks like. Ultimately, I moved on because as an individual contributor it was hard to make an impact. I worked on Google+ initially and later an internal advertising analytics system. Most code I wrote would end up being replaced within three to six months with something better. It was frustrating to see my work have so little lasting impact, even if it was the right choice from a business perspective.

Several months after leaving Google, I had a mutual friend reconnect me with one of my co-founders, who I’d gone to middle school with! My co-founders, Bennett Washabaugh and Mike Zei, pitched me on starting TenantBase. I thought the idea addressed real suffering that tenants have looking for space and had a great revenue model, and the rest is history!

What type of CTO are you? I care about making quality products that do their job for customers and do it well. Beneath a simple user experience, there is often great complexity, and many people need to work together to make a great product. I think it’s my job to get the right people together, help my team communicate in an effective and high bandwidth way, and to hold a strong standard for the quality of what we build.

To do that, I also think it’s important to be conversant in all aspects of user interface design, market research, front-end and back-end engineering, machine learning, data science and systems evolution. I am conversant in all of these, and I use my knowledge and skills to make things work and solve problems.

Which emerging technology are you most excited about? Modern data analytics and business intelligence are going through a revolution right now - the leverage we can get from some of these technologies is absolutely insane. A team of two can do what a team of six to 10 did in the past. I would say that there are probably three components to this.

First, modern data warehouses became fast and have tons of space for what people want to achieve, and they are far cheaper than people’s time is worth. Second, there are a number of products that load data from operating systems into your data warehouse with extract, transform, load (ETL) programming. You used to have to hire a data engineering team to make everything custom. ETL has also had a high impact in the business process behind business analytics. ETL systems can generate data in one hour or even 15 minutes. Previous systems took anywhere from one day to one month. Third, the ecosystem of doing things with that data has evolved. There’s a tool named DBT (data building tool) that is good for building structured analyses of data and letting small teams get a lot of leverage to build consistent reusable analyses.

Are there any technologies which you think are overhyped? Why? In my opinion, microservices are overhyped. Microservices are perceived by many tech people as a solution to a technology problem. In reality, they’re often adopted prematurely as a solution to an organisational or people problem. As a result, microservices may commit you to an architectural decision that may not hold up as your applications and problems evolve. In the absence of a clear application, I recommend sticking with a monolithic design and then implementing additional services as needed.

What is one unique initiative that you’ve employed over the last 12 months that you’re really proud of? We have deployed TypeScript and GraphQL within our application much more widely, and it has made front end development much faster, especially for data-driven products. These implementations have also made our static type checking safer by solving issues and improving the code base.

Are you leading a digital transformation? If so, does it emphasise customer experience and revenue growth or operational efficiency? If both, how do you balance the two? We are absolutely leading digital transformation. The pandemic has really prompted the most major strides I’ve seen over the past seven years in terms of trade-offs between customer experiences and efficiency. I don’t think it’s a question of balance; I think both are aligned - the modern customer experience is deeply rooted in customer efficiency. I don’t want to talk to a person to order something; I want to do it on the app. There are specific situations when customers want to talk to a person, but overall, the modern customer experience is about empowering the customer to do things themselves.

What is the biggest issue that you’re helping customers with at the moment? On TenantBase’s platform, we have three different customer groups - tenants, landlords and brokers. With all these groups, we are helping people gain a holistic understanding of what’s going on in the commercial real estate industry. Business tenants are interested in learning what a good deal looks like that they can afford, while brokers and landlords are much more interested in learning about the competitive space. The traditional tools don’t really give a good picture of what other people are out there doing. People previously relied on gossip on the ground and knowledge from other brokers and landlords. We are now seeing more data-driven approaches to how much space should cost.

How do you align your technology use to meet business goals? There are two specific technological solutions that I have formed. First is that our technology solves a problem that exists. Before TenantBase, the commercial real estate industry lacked a tenant-focused platform that streamlined the search and lease negotiation process. The other is time budgeting. We spend roughly 20-30% of development labor on refactoring and code improvement, but often that is where we explore new technologies. These technologies help establish a set amount of time for employees to work on projects they care about and as a result, employees make better-informed decisions and budget time correctly.

Do you have any trouble matching product/service strategy with tech strategy? No, I think it’s a bad sign if service strategy and tech strategy are not aligned. That is usually indicative of organisational structural issues created when technology and engineering are separated from product development. The way to solve this problem is to integrate the two so that those groups are constantly in communication.

What makes an effective tech strategy? I recommend leveraging technology with the business because technology is dependent on the business. For example, TenantBase deals with listing data because the landlords we work with want to find tenants to occupy their spaces. We also have the TenantBoard platform which allows people to update space in our system and to reach out to tenants with proposals and offers. Long term, we know that this isn’t just for mom-and-pop businesses, there are many companies that have hundreds of listings they promote through various application programming interfaces (APIs). Because of this, we have leveraged technology to get scale with the underlying economics of the business. For more information about effective and ineffective strategies, I recommend reading “Stratechery”, a blog created by Ben Thompson that does high-level analyses of the strategies employed by different companies.

What predictions do you have for the role of the CTO in the future? CTOs in the future will need to be experts in managing and coordinating. What has already changed are the strategic expectations of CTOs. If a CTO is just going and completing what the business side of the company asks for, they are not going to be successful. CTOs need to be leaders who are constantly thinking about how technology can grow and change the business.

 What has been your greatest career achievement? My greatest achievement is that I work with a bunch of smart people with great personalities. There have never been more qualified tech professionals than there are now, so I’m glad I’m able to work with them. I’m proud of the fact I’ve been able to sell them on the vision we’re working on and I’m also proud that we have been diligent in our approach to technology. We’ve had seven years with no major periods where we’ve had to scrap everything and go back to the drawing board, which is unusual for the tech industry. It’s been a continual evolution process, and as a tech leader, I’m proud of that.

Looking back with 20:20 hindsight, what would you have done differently? Looking back on the past year, I wish I would have relaxed more and trusted my own judgment. It’s important to work hard every day but also to relax and feel confident in my abilities. I also would have revamped our hiring process. Hiring in the tech industry is difficult because there are many strong candidates with broad skill sets, but sometimes there’s a strong candidate who just might not be a good fit for your company.

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