npm Blog (Archive)

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npm has a new CTO

I don’t want to bury the lede, so here it is: npm has a new CTO, and her name is CJ Silverio. My title is changing from CTO to COO, and I will be taking over a range of new responsibilities, including modeling our business, defining and tracking our metrics, and bringing that data to bear on our daily operations, sales, and marketing. This will allow Isaac to concentrate more on defining the product and strategy of npm as we continue to grow.

CJ will be following this post with a post of her own, giving her thoughts about her new role. I could write a long post about how awesome CJ is — and she is awesome — but that wouldn’t achieve much more than make her embarrassed. Instead I thought I’d take this chance to answer a question I get a lot, before I forget the answer:

What does a CTO do, anyway?

The answer is that it depends on the needs of the company. npm has grown from 3 people to 25 in the past 2.5 years, and in that time my job changed radically from quarter to quarter. Every time I got the hang of the job, the needs of the company would shift and I found myself doing something new. So this is my list of some of the things a CTO might do. Not all of them are a good idea, as you’ll see. The chronological order is an over-simplification: I was doing a small piece of all of these tasks all the time, but each quarter definitely had a focus, so I’ve talked about it then.

Q1 2014: just another ops engineer.

Started this quarter: CJ, Raquel.

npm Inc had a bumpy launch: the registry was extremely unstable, because it was running on insufficient hardware and had not been architected for high uptime. Our priority was to get the registry to stay up. I was spinning up hardware by hand, without the benefit of automation. By April we had found the hot spots and mostly met the load, but CJ was the first person to stridently make the case that we had to automate our way out of this. I handed operations to her.

Q2 2014: architect.

Started: Ben, Forrest, Maciej.

Once the fires were out, we could finally think about building products, and we had a choice: do we build a paid product on top of the current (highly technically indebted) architecture, or build a new product and architecture? We decided on a new, modular architecture that we could use to build npm Enterprise first, and then extend later to become “Registry 2.0”. Between recruitment, management, and other duties, I discovered by the end of the quarter that it was already impossible to find time to write code.

Q3 2014: manager

This was the quarter we dug in and built npm Enterprise. My job became primarily that of an engineering manager: keeping everybody informed about what everybody else was up to, assigning tasks, deciding priorities of new work vs. sustaining and operational work, and handling the kind of interpersonal issues which every growing company experiences. I found I was relying on CJ a lot when solving these kinds of problems.

Q4 2014: sales and evangelism

Started: Rebecca

With npm Enterprise delivered to its first customer, we started learning how to sell it. I went to conferences, gave talks, went to meetings and sales calls, wrote documentation and blog posts, and generally tried to make noise. I was never particularly good at any of this, so I was grateful when Ben took over npm Enterprise as a product, which started around this time.

Q1 2015: data scientist

In February 2014 I had written the system that to this day serves our download counts, but we were starting a process of raising our series A, and that data wasn’t good enough. I dredged up my Hadoop knowledge from a previous job and started crunching numbers, getting new numbers we hadn’t seen before, like unique IP counts and other trends. This is one job I’m keeping as I move to COO, since measuring these metrics and optimizing them is a big part of my new role.

Q2 2015: recruiter

Started: Ernie, Ryan

We’d been hiring all the time, of course, but we closed our series A in Q1 2015, so there was a sudden burst of recruitment at this time, most of whom didn’t actually start until the next quarter. By the end of this process we’d hired so many people that I never had to do recruitment again: the teams were now big enough to interview and hire their own people.

Q3 2015: strategic planner

Started: Kat, Stephanie, Emily, Jeff, Chris, Jonathan, Aria, Angela

With so many new people, we had a sudden burst of momentum, and it became necessary for the first time to devote substantial effort to planning “what do we do next?” Until this point the next move had been obvious: put out the fire, all hands on deck. Now we had enough people that some of them could work on longer-term projects, which was good news, but meant we had to pull our heads up and think about the longer term. To accomplish this, I handed management of nearly all the engineering team to CJ, who became VP of engineering.

Q4 2015: project manager

Started: Ashley, Andrea, Andrew (yes, it was confusing)

We had already launched npm Private Modules, a single-user product, but it hadn’t really taken off. We were sure we knew why: npm Organizations, a product for teams, was demanded by nearly everybody. It was a lot more complicated, and with more people there was a lot more coordination to do, so I started doing the kind of time, tasks, and dependency management of a project manager. I will be the first to admit that I was not particularly good at it, and nobody was upset when I mostly gave this task to Nicole the following quarter. We launched Orgs in November, and it was an instant hit, becoming half of npm’s revenue by the end of the year.

Q1 2016: head of product

Started: Nicole, Jerry

Now with two product lines and a bunch of engineers, fully defining what the product should do (or not do), and what the next priority was, became critical. Isaac was too busy CEO’ing to do this, so he gave it to most available person: me. This was not a huge success, partly because I was still stuck in project management mode, which is a very different thing, and partly because I’m just not as creative as Isaac when it comes to product. Everybody learned something, even if it was “Laurie isn’t very good at this”.

Q2 2016: interim CEO

Started: Kiera

Isaac’s baby was born on April 1st (a fact that, combined with his not having mentioned they were even expecting a baby, led many people to assume at first that his announcement of parenthood was a joke). He went on parental leave for most of Q2, so I took over as interim CEO. CJ, already VP of eng, effectively started being CTO at this time.

Today: COO

When Isaac came back from parental leave, we’d learned some things: I had, of necessity, handled the administrative and executive functions of a CEO for a quarter. CJ had handled those of a CTO. We now had two people who could be CTO, and one overloaded CEO with a talent for product. The course of action was obvious: Isaac handed over everything he could that was not-product to me, to focus on product development, while I handed over CTO duties to CJ. We needed a title for “CEO stuff that isn’t product” and picked COO mostly because it’s a title people recognize.

All hail CJ

You’ll notice a common thread, which is that as I moved to new tasks I was mostly handing them to CJ. Honestly, it was pretty clear to me from day 1 that CJ was just as qualified to be CTO as I was, if not more — she has an extra decade’s worth of experience on me and is a better engineer to boot. The only thing she lacked was the belief that she could, and over the last two and a half years it has been a pleasure watching her confidence grow as she’s mastered every new challenge I put in front of her, and more than a little funny watching her repeatedly express surprise at her ability to do all these things. It’s been like slowly persuading an amnesiac Clark Kent that he is, in fact, Superman.

I’ve often referred to CJ as npm’s secret weapon. Well, now the secret is out. npm has the best CTO I could possibly imagine, and I can’t wait to see what she does next.