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2020: The Year Bee-hind Us

 

Hey, observability friends. I’m Shelby. I joined Honeycomb back in March. This year I’m carrying the torch of our annual tradition, looking back at the Year Bee-hind Us. Cue up the Auld Lang Syne.

This wasn’t easy to write. Everyone at Honeycomb has been affected by the events of this year: the pandemic plus lockdown, school closures, complete life upheaval. We’ve witnessed or directly experienced racist injustice, social unrest, and state violence. Wildfires and hurricanes didn’t take a vacation in 2020, and our distributed team managed to get hit with both simultaneously, multiple times. And the entire world has been watching as the 2020 US presidential election stretched on in uncertainty and violence, even into January.

We experienced an unprecedented use of the word “unprecedented,” which I still have trouble typing. (Good riddance.)

The world is recovering from emotional whiplash. We haven’t had the chance to mourn those who have died from COVID-19–over 300,000 people in the US alone, and many of those deaths were preventable. On New Year’s Eve, there were only 23 free ICU beds in Los Angeles County where I’m writing this.

While injustice and violence and illness and hardship affected many of us long before March 2020, I think it’s important to acknowledge the unique pain that people have been experiencing this year. It’s also critical to celebrate our wins, lest we burn out. I’m really proud of my coworkers, proud of what we’ve done for our customers, and proud of what we’re doing for the ecosystem in the midst of what 2020 put all of us through.

In March I wrote the following:

Observability is a paradigm on which we can build a safe, healthy, sustainable future for the tech industry. A better tech industry is better for supporting this complex, interdependent society we live in.

My purpose as a Developer Advocate is to help software teams with their work, and that work can have positive ripple effects. That’s not something I can do alone; I rely on everyone at Honeycomb to help me do that. Allow me to share some of our accomplishments and lessons from 2020.

Honeycomb, the company

One thing that stood out to me this year was how much our leadership team went out of their way to make sure folks felt taken care of. At the start of lockdown, many companies doubled down on their butts-in-seats culture with Zoom surveillance and other creeptastic endeavors. In light of that, I appreciate how much Honeycomb leadership worked with us to support flexible work schedules, changing financial burdens, and reduced workloads. We’d previously done remote weeks, and those practice runs made the transition much easier.

Soon after lockdown started, Honeybees started including their status (parenting, sick, PTO) in their Slack handles. This hack had a brilliant side effect: a person’s status is front and center when you tag them, versus the regular Slack status feature that’s hidden behind a tooltip. It allowed people with family and life obligations to clearly communicate their schedules while still maintaining healthy work/life boundaries (i.e., no oversharing or prying). This normalized parenting in a way I’ve never experienced in a job before:

This trend also helped normalize communicating when we’re overwhelmed and need help. Folks started including status emojis like :slowpoke: or :exploding_head:, which subtly lets coworkers know that they’re having a rough day and might not be equipped to handle additional tasks.

Slack message from Shelby with a Slowpoke emoji next to her name. The message reads ‘oof, need more coffee’

Seeing other people’s status allows coworkers to make informed decisions before interrupting someone who’s struggling. If it can wait, it waits, and if it’s critical then the struggling person is relieved of making decisions about priority. A small change with ripple effects.

It turns out that authoritarianism isn’t a great way to run a business. We’re trying to build something sustainable here, and the people who make up Honeycomb are more than just “resources.” Helping Honeybees feel both supported and good about their work has played a crucial role in our success so far, and it’ll continue to do so.

I believe this human-centered approach is a big part of what’s helped us attract so many amazing new hires. We’ve doubled the size of the company this year, with growth on all fronts: engineering, product, design, marketing, sales. We’ve surpassed 50 employees, which means you can no longer see everyone in the gallery view in Zoom! But we’re still small and mighty, punching way above our weight class.

Engineering

So many wins in 2020. I have never been on a team with this kind of feature velocity, it blows my mind. Every Friday we have demo day and it’s the highlight of my week. Each new engineering hire has had an impressive demo within weeks of starting, with their changes merged into our main branch and deployed to dogfood or prod. Folks outside of core engineering regularly share awesome contributions–like Pierre‘s work on our new Kubernetes agent.

I remember noticing a while back that we didn’t experience a significant drop in the number of releases back in the spring, when everyone transitioned to remote work. Despite many people shifting schedules to manage family responsibilities, we continued to ship about a dozen times every weekday.

Graph visualizing the number of new build IDs per day from December 1, 2019 to the end of December 2020. There are regular drops on weekends and a drop at the end of December 2019, but otherwise the number of unique build IDs hovers between 8 and 14 per day.

As Charity has repeated so frequently, shipping is the heartbeat of your organization. 

Our existing deploy tooling and engineering culture made the transition to remote work go much more smoothly. No Q4 code freezes for us.

Though our deploy velocity remained the same, the engineering org has been far from stagnant. In Q1 we promoted Emily Nakashima to VP of Engineering, and we hired two more engineering managers in Q4. Our engineering org is now three teams with three engineering managers reporting to Emily: Amy Woodward managing product engineering, longtime Honeybee Ben Harthshorne managing platform engineering, and Ben Darfler managing integrations/instrumentation engineering (or the portmanteau version: “instrumegrations,” coined by recent hire Robb Kidd).

A series of incidents over the summer presented an opportunity for learning and investments in reliability, and we decided that it’s time to grow our platform team and hire our first dedicated SRE. In DevRel we’ve talked about our fast and simple deploy pipeline that’s remained nearly unchanged since Charity first built it in 2016. I love being able to point to our engineering org as a positive example, and you can look forward to more technical write-ups from our engineers in 2021 as we modify our tooling and systems to support our growing team.

Our instrumegrations team pulled out all the stops in Q4, releasing the Lambda Logs API extension, Beeline-OTel trace header interoperability, and native OTLP ingest. All this within a year of our first Integrations Engineer Paul Osman joining the team! Now the team is seven members strong, so stay tuned for more exciting news to come.

Our culture of engineering excellence allows us to be strategic about where we spend our energy, which allows us to respond quickly to customer needs and exciting opportunities. (The number of times I’ve seen a customer find a small bug and one of our engineers has a fix in prod within a couple hours! 🤯)

Yes, firefighting happens. But it’s the exception, and we plan to keep it that way.

Product and Design

How do we make sure our engineers are delivering value? That their work actually is strategic? We need a world-class product team.

Our Head of Product Megan Gleason only joined Honeycomb about a year ago, but from my perspective she’s as core to the team as Christine or Charity. I wrote this tweet while Megan was presenting at our most recent all-hands:

You could say I’m a fan.

One of our biggest wins this year has been our new pricing. It was a huge, cross-functional endeavor, and Megan played no small part in its successful delivery.

The core change in our pricing is that we charge per-event now, and your event volume is generally a function of your traffic levels. We’ve never charged per-user, per-service, or (godforbid) per-query. It’s the same whether you’re running a monolith or hundreds of microservices, on a team of two or two hundred.

Part of the reason why we care so much about the economics of Honeycomb is because we’re the biggest users of Honeycomb. While gathering internal and external feedback as part of their roadmap planning for 2021, the product team found that Honeybees and Honeycomb’s customers are “highly aligned on desired features”–we want the same things in Honeycomb. It turns out that when you’re a daily user of the product you’re building, you understand customer needs better. Dogfooding: it works.

This feedback loop is why I’m so excited about investing in design going into 2021. In one year we grew our design team from one (our Principal Design Researcher Danyel Fisher, whose title and job description are completely unique) to five. We now have a 1:2 ratio of product managers to designers, which is super unusual.

While we’re here, I want to give a special shout out to our visual designer Haley Chapman, who joined back in July. Haley created some absolutely delightful art for the o11ydays, and she’s been sprucing up our team, careers, and about pages. 

graphic of a snowman

This work is the beginning of Honeycomb’s new design language, which is one of the ways we want to help make production a welcoming place.

Marketing and DevRel

Since our director of product marketing George Miranda already posted a great recap of our blog content, so let me focus on the rest of the team’s work.

Marketing is another team that grew significantly in 2020. Our new VP of Marketing Jo Ann Sanders joined in November, just in time to plug the idea for our fun o11ydays project. Director of Demand Generation Jo McDougald joined back in April along with George, and it’s been a pleasure to learn from their experience and benefit from their guidance. We also have a couple folks who will be starting in January, plus we just opened a position for a Product Marketing Manager. Come work with us!d

For DevRel, 2020 was the year of the virtual event. Liz and Charity were booked nonstop, and our events coordinator Rick Abruzzo pivoted beautifully into managing all that complexity. While we miss the hallway track at in-person conferences, we’ve been able to replicate many of those interactions thanks to DevRel office hours. DevRel is also active in our Pollinators community Slack, which is the best place to ask technical (e.g. instrumegrations) questions. 

We increased our recording cadence for o11ycast in 2020, and it’s been wonderful getting to speak to so many great people in the observability community. (Email me if you want to be a guest! shelby@honeycomb.io.)

Another big effort from the DevRel team is Observability Engineering (a.k.a. “the o11y book”). You can check out the early-release chapters on the O’Reilly website.

In the early days of Honeycomb, it was a rocky journey trying to figure out how to talk about Honeycomb the product and observability as a capability, but we’ve come a long way. In 2020 we were thrilled to see so many people and organizations talking about the impact of observability, including Gartner and Google Cloud. It validates that we’re on to something here, and I’m excited to keep engaging that conversation within the community and the industry as a whole.

Sales and Customer Success

The combination of technical expertise and raw enthusiasm in our Sales and Customer Success (CS) teams keeps me inspired. One of the best compliments I’ve gotten from a coworker was “You sound like a sales engineer!” because to me it meant that not only did I know my stuff but I could also explain it well. I’m constantly learning from these folks.

When 2020’s virtual events proved a challenge for engaging with prospective Honeycomb users, folks on the Sales team came together to start hosting our weekly live demos and man, are they a hit. Themed outfits and backgrounds, walk-on music, and learning from our sales engineers Nathan and Pierre.

In DevRel we get to hear feedback about people’s experience with Honeycomb’s sales team, and what we hear is overwhelmingly positive.

It’s been a delight talking to Honeycomb, you really get us and the problems we’re facing.

For teams who can benefit from Honeycomb, we want to help! We’re not here to sell you a tool you won’t use, we’re here to solve a problem for you. We want you getting value and having a good experience.

We like to say that everyone at the company is DevRel, but at a recent all-hands our VP of Sales Chad Malchow (who also joined Honeycomb in 2020) said that everyone at Honeycomb is part of the sales team. As a devrel I love talking to prospective customers, and I’m not alone. Product and platform engineers have dropped into conversations with customers and prospects to answer detailed technical questions, and we all participate in the Pollinators community Slack.

Customer success is another team that’s grown! Director of Customer Success Irving Popovetsky joined as our first CS team member in December 2019, and in less than a year we grew the team to five awesome people. From triaging the support desk to holding enterprise training sessions, customer success is about building long-term relationships. These relationships become especially rich when we’re mutual customers–they use Honeycomb and we use their product–like with LaunchDarkly, Intercom, and Outreach. Every question, every conversation teaches us something, and we strive to capture those lessons and share them back to the product organization to help make Honeycomb better.

Looking to the future

I feel cautiously optimistic going into 2021. I have all the confidence in my fellow Honeybees, but the things that made 2020 so uniquely painful haven’t gone away. Still, we’re applying our organizational lessons learned and being strategic about where we invest our energy. And the things we’re planning to do are so. cool.

In 2020 we saw new entrants in the observability space and we welcome them! Congrats to Observe Inc. and observIQ. We’re all working toward the same goal: providing tools to help software practitioners do their jobs more easily.

We’re tired of fighting over the table stakes of observability. As incumbents work to support the basic capabilities that are required for observability–near-real-time querying of arbitrarily-wide, schemaless structured events–we’re thinking about what our next big differentiators will be. This is why we’re putting the chips down big on design going into 2021.

Honeycomb’s goal is to make production a friendlier place, because production should be for everyone. It’s how high-performing teams work together–and the “together” part is what differentiates high-performing teams. We want to bring everyone to the level of your best debugger.

Design is especially relevant right now because our cognitive function is overtaxed. In the US we’ve been in a state of emergency for a solid nine months. We’re not meant to work this way for an extended period of time. Every team is functioning at reduced capacity. So especially now, we need tools that serve us rather than getting in our way. That’s long been Honeycomb’s goal, and I’m looking forward to delivering more ways to serve our users.

Thank you for being so great in 2020, and I hope you stay safe and well in this new year.