Originally aired on January 28 @ 5:00 AM - 5:30 AM EDT
From Head of Product to SVP of Emerging Technology and Incubation at Cloudflare, Dane Knecht is celebrating 10 years at Cloudflare and he continues to say: “just getting started”. Join us in this conversation about Dane’s path in life, technology and at Cloudflare.
and we're live. Welcome to We Are Cloudflare everyone and also welcome Dane. Thanks, I'm glad to be here. First, congratulations on your 10-year anniversary at Cloudflare. You are our second guest celebrating remarkable achievement in the tech company. The first one was Tom Pacecka actually. Yeah, Tom joined I think a couple months before me but there's only a couple of us still here but it was a great group of people. I think when I joined there were about 30 employees at Cloudflare and I think about 10 or 15 of us are still here. Yeah, that's I think for a tech company that's amazing. The tech company that started 12 years ago or so, that's amazing being for so long in a tech company, right? Yeah, and I never expected to be here this long. I thought I was going to come for a couple years and probably go start my own thing. So, one year turned into three, turned into five and pretty quickly we were at 10 years. Of course, yeah. It's a long time but the company changed so much. But before we go into that, let's dig in a little bit to who is Dan Knecht? Where do you grew up? When were your first hobbies? When were you interested in tech in a sense? Yeah, I grew up in Houston, Texas and I was very curious early on about everything. So, I'd love to learn new things. I was introduced to computers fairly young. My aunt and uncle had gone out to California from Texas and started a company and every time they came in town they showed us the new things on early Macs. Actually, the first Mac that I have, the first two Macs that I had are still sitting up there today, a 512k and a plus. I have some envy on those two Macs actually. Yeah, they're amazing. Yeah, I turned them on recently. They still turn on, they still work. It's pretty amazing that everything you could boot off a floppy disk and today I don't even think a single photo fits on a floppy disk anymore. True, true. Yeah. Go ahead, sorry. Okay, curious about tech, curious about pretty much anything around very entrepreneurial. I'm always trying to like start a business and which is kind of, you know, as the years went on kind of drew me into the startup role. And you were interested in tech, you then went to build your own company, tried to go to a city that you can expand knowledge there. How was that process? Yeah, and so I mean I did a lot of internships before that and, you know, the final company I interned with in college that I then joined early on and I was lucky enough to have an exit there. After that, I took some time off and decided to start a company and in the kind of the daily deal space when that kind of daily deals were the kind of the hot thing. And, you know, my take was empowering, building a platform to empower, you know, radio stations, TVs, stations to kind of build their own local platforms. And actually three months in that company was acquired and spent about a year with the acquired company and then took some time off again and wanted to do something that was just kind of at, you know, true kind of Internet scale. And so I initially kind of thought that, you know, I wanted to spend a year or two going to a company like Facebook or Google. So, you know, went out to San Francisco, met a bunch of people and I quickly realized that, you know, I didn't like those large companies and really was kind of gravitated towards more of the early stage. I had seen Cloudflare when they launched initially and actually sent a friend a text message that day saying this is a cool company. Actually, I totally forgot about that but then another friend saw an article about Matthew Michelle and Emily and I think Forbes in 2012 or into 2011 and said, hey, have you chatted with these guys? And I was like, oh, and I haven't circled back there and emailed Matthew. I think he was on his way to Davos. And he said, let's chat when he gets back and came into the office and met Matthew Michelle. And then over the course of six weeks, I think I interviewed with 23 out of the 30 people. That's a proper interview, yeah. Yeah. And so, you know, I met almost every engineer. There were no other product managers at the time and, you know, eventually got an offer and joined the team. So, it was an email. With an email, you explained to Matthew what you were doing, why you thought Cloudflare was a good company for you at the time. So, in a sense, it started with that email and then the amazing review process with almost all the company that was not that big, of course, at that time. It was this, right? Yeah, exactly, yeah. But in terms of those initial times, there wasn't a product manager at the company that was putting out a lot of products. So, your role at the start, and I read an article, actually, on the HBS College faculty, where you are mentioned, actually. It's an article about Cloudflare and the growth of Cloudflare. And you are mentioned because you had like a hat that was called product engineer. And this was because I think Matthew didn't like the product manager part, the manager part, actually, of the word. So, it was product. But you were all around the products of all the Cloudflare. Putting a lot of hats. Yeah, when I got here, I mean, there were, I mean, just had some of the smartest engineers that I've ever worked with and still have ever worked with on the team then. And everyone was just building stuff. And we just had such great product market fit, where the flywheel was going, there was tens of thousands of people signing up every day. So, instead of having to worry about how to get users and all that, I was more worried about how to make the team as most effective as possible as we scaled. So, I spent a lot of those early days. There was no bug tracking or feature tracking system. So, at Ajira, there was no place to put code reviews and put things like that. So, I listened to the engineers and kind of listened to what was hard about their jobs and tried to kind of help unblock those things. Worked with Michelle on the planning process. We had an awesome, everyone was in the office in one building. So, it was great where we, each week, had a big bulletin board where literally everyone's name of the company was on it. And it was split over four weeks. And each four weeks, we put up stickies with the different things that everybody wanted to get done. And each week on Friday, everyone at the company came up and took down the stickies that they had done or talked about why they couldn't take them down. But then, obviously, those processes didn't scale. So, a lot of it was trying to figure out when to add process and when to add things at the right time to make sure that we weren't adding process too early or weren't adding process too late. Process too early will slow you down. Process too late will slow you down as well. So, it's a lot of those early days just trying to help figure out how we could go faster when we kind of hit the next phase of the company. But you're a company that size, you kind of wear all hats and just kind of do whatever's needed to help make everyone successful. Of course, when the company is that small, you have to look into all the roles, all the pictures, all the products because there's not that many people, of course, going around. Do you have any memories of the first product where you thought, hey, this is really a breakthrough product that we're building here? I mean, I think when I joined, I thought that. But the first time that I saw the flywheel just going was one of the early things I launched was the business plan, the $200 business plan. Really wasn't sure if anyone was going to use it. And I think we launched it and the first person to sign up was in Australia. And I was just kind of shocked to see someone just went through the signup process and paid $200 when people just been paying $20 for everything. We had done a good job of adding more value to that package, adding Railgun, which was just an awesome early product and a lot of the SSL management to that business plan. But it was just, and then it was just kind of like watching the next day, then all of a sudden, it was one subscription, then 10, then 100. And it was just fascinating to just kind of watch and see that existing flywheel of users signing up and going through the process. Now that we added a little more value and a way for them to pay for it, to see them just kind of adopting it. It was a pretty awesome experience. But I mentioned Railgun on the technical side, Railgun was kind of the first kind of probably major product, the biggest product, early product kind of ship that was beyond just adding kind of features. And it was a learning experience for everyone. It was first client ship software that Koffer did. It was built on an early technology on Golang. And when it worked, it was magical and got to work with a lot of customers directly through that process. And actually, it's still a lot of the early customers that I go to and get feedback on the customers that I met 10 years ago during that process of rolling out Railgun that still give feedback today on things. It made a difference. In a sense, it made a difference at the time, of course, an impact, which is great. I have a story that Michelle shared with me, that you lived across the alley from the office. And there was a bunch of people from Koffer that lived at that area, that zone. It was very small company with 30 people, and they were living nearby each other. So it was like a small community, not only job place at the office, but outside the office at those first times, right? Yeah, actually my roommate, she worked at Koffler at the time. She was an even earlier employee. When we threw parties, probably 90% of the office came. Every week we would go to restaurants after work. It was a great environment. And some of my closest friends are still people that worked there during those days. And it was a really special time. Even though a lot of them are not here anymore, I still see them on a regular basis, just because of the impact that we had for such a large part of the Internet with such a few people. I mean, there were times where we would hear that our competitors just didn't believe that we were giving out the real metrics for the number of users we had, because we had so few people that were able to accomplish so much at the time. And we were always very driven to push things forward. I think one of the earliest things I remember was we had six data centers when I started. And then we said, we want to add 12 more, I think it was. And we wanted to do one a week. And just creating those dates, those forcing functions has been something that's driven us forward. And we've evolved what those forcing functions are. And today we do these innovation weeks. I think we do seven innovation weeks this year. It started with SSL week and birthday week, and just evolved into this great mechanism for us to ship a ton of things in a short period of time and really place emphasis on what's possible as part of that. Of course. And it was all built at that time. Now it's features that we use in the company. All the time, everyone knows birthday week, security week, our innovation weeks. But at that time, it was building blocks, building the DNA of the company in a sense, right? Yeah, absolutely. One that just popped by here, do you consider a most compelling reason to continue to push and invent new things in tech? I mean, I think just by nature, I love creating things. I love seeing things go from an idea into people's hands. I love seeing people say, wow, that's awesome. That's amazing. So that whole life cycle, I think there's great parts throughout the entire thing, whether it's during the ideation process or whether it's during the shipping it to initial users and go to market and then kind of going back and iterating on it. Creating something new, innovating that no one's ever done before is an awesome experience. And it's even more awesome because at Cloudflare, we can launch anything and then you will have tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of users using it pretty instantly, which is something that a lot of other startups, they have to spend so much time just building things and then trying to hope that they can get a few users to use it. And just as a product person, the playground that we have here to experiment and get feedback on things is just another level. And it helps to improve the product, right? Because it's pretty much used by a lot of users. Because of that, it helps to improve the product in real time almost because we're having more feedback from the user, right? Yeah, absolutely. There was here a question regarding a glitch on the video. They didn't catch the point of the conversation at the beginning. Matthew didn't like product manager, he preferred product engineer. That was the comment there back in 2013, actually. Regarding another question that popped here, and I think it is interesting. Do you have a favorite product or feature at Cloudflare since this 10 years started? No, I mean, I think that's, it's kind of like asking, which one of your kids do you like most? True. It kind of jumps around, I kind of jump into different areas and spend a lot of time going deep. And so, at any given point, I'm very focused on one area, one product and passionate about making sure that it grows. But at the end of the day, I think Cloudflare is a single product. I think it's our network and everything are just features. And so- Add-ons. Add-ons, yeah, yeah, yeah. So, I mean, I really think, and that's what makes Cloudflare special, is that it is a single platform, which makes it so easy to push out features constantly. One product that I was like, oh, wow, I'm working with a lot of smart people, like very early on, we had an early opportunity to go meet the JP Morgan team in New York. And after they, I forget, they had some type of attack where that was attacking their login page. And we were a very young company, early company then. And we, I think, through an introduction, got the opportunity to go to New York and meet with them. And the feedback we got was, that's great, we like you guys, but there's no way we're going to trust our SSL to a smaller startup. And I think we came back from New York and we were all sitting around a couch in a room and saying, there has to be a technical solution to this. And we know over time we'll build trust and gain those things, but is there a technical way around this? And that's where we came up with the Keyless SSL, or it's not really Keyless, it's just separating out where the key material lives, where we don't have to have the key material locally, we can have it still kept and managed by the customers or in other locations of ours. And we can just geographically separate out the parts of the handshake in TLS termination. And we were talking about it one night, I think an engineer, Sebastian, went home that night and he wrote up a prototype, built the prototype out. And by our Friday meeting, we had a demo. And so it was just, it was a very hard technical problem that we were able to simplify and really just take a different approach, a different lens to it that no one had ever gone through before. It's something that we've patented since then, and we've been able to use it in a variety of different ways that help us build, continue to build the strong secure network that we have today. But that was kind of an early moment when I was like, wow, this is, it's a special team because it wasn't just obviously smart engineers, it was that we could sit around a whiteboard and we could just kind of brainstorm and take that feedback from a customer and turn it into something amazing. Of course, and a patent solution. So it's something that is important for the future in a sense. It's a solution to a problem, a very specific problem, that's a solution for the future with a patent. And you have a number of patents on your name, right? Yeah, I mean, Cloudflare, we've had to set an early culture of making sure that we try to patent our ideas, not for, just to, yeah. Of course, it's important to do patents. One question I have here is what's changed in terms of the company since this 10 years? Of course, the number of people that's evident, the number of products or tools that we have, it's always increasing. But for your sense, what changed the most in the company and what didn't change? What's changed? I mean, obviously, as you said, the number of people have changed. As a company grows, you hit these different inflection points, 50 people at 100 people at a thousand people and going public is a different inflection point. There's a lot more specialization, so where we had a lot more journalists early on, now we have people that are top of their field in very specific areas. And it's been fascinating to learn about people that just go deep into their field and and we have the scale to keep them busy as we've grown. I think what hasn't changed is the type of people that we hire. I think we still hire very curious people, driven people that believe in the mission, that we're helping to build a better Internet. I've actually always worried that we would start hiring, I guess, more mercenaries and that would just kind of change. We would never have that conversation about Keyless as a Cell if it was people that just really were passionate about the space and what we're doing. But I think we've managed to keep on doing that. That was one of the skills early on that I realized that I was gonna have to get very good at was recruiting, because pretty much anytime I came to Matthew with a problem, Matthew's response was, well, go find the right person, go find the right person and hire them. And so I think today everyone at the company, everyone that's very successful has learned that hiring is pretty much one of the largest parts of their job, is making sure that we can continue that culture, continue the scale and bring in the best people. Actually, regarding recruiting, I have a compliment for you from Michelle Zaitlin, actually. She said, Dane is a great recruiter, always has been and still is. And she has a question that is, what lessons or insights can you share in terms of how easy it is to get engineers to join an early stage company? And right now, a very competitive area, getting engineers for a tech company, how easy it is? I wouldn't say it's easy, it's work, it's not easy. It's about just talking and telling the story to as many people as possible, so like lots of outreach and know that it's a long game. I recently did an interview with someone that I emailed in 2016, where he said it wasn't the right time then. And now six years later, it's the right time, but that email chain started six years ago. And I have lots of people like that, so it's going out and reaching out to as many people as possible and telling them the story, telling them why I'm passionate about it and telling them about how we work. And if it's not the right time now, it will be the right time in the future. There are definitely people that would be very successful early on, but they thrive in early stage companies. And there's people that love more of the structure that has to be put in place in different aspects of our company that thrive today. I think we've tried to, with my role in emerging tech incubation, tried to make sure there's a place for people that do thrive in that early stage environment. And so we make sure that we can bring in people that are looking for all different types of ability to contribute and call for it. Of course, of course, it makes sense. I know that you started the Austin office and it was an office of one when you started, and now it's the largest office from Walflare. How was that process of building such a large office in a sense? Well, so I mean, early on, we actually were very much a work from work company and no remote employees. And so when I asked Mathieu-Michel to come back to Austin after in San Francisco for four years, the idea was always to go create a small office to make sure that we were sticking with the rules. And so Mathieu said, go hire a couple of engineers and go kind of work on new things. And got down here and just started telling the Cloudflare story to people. And it was in Austin at the time, a lot of companies were coming to Austin, but they're bringing just kind of ops and GNA and sales roles. And they weren't doing a lot of the critical R&D or they're moving to sustaining engineering. And the idea that we were coming down here and we were going to build new things and work on some of the hard problems here was just the time there was a kind of void in Austin for companies that were looking for engineers that wanted to stay in Austin. And we were able to just hire some great people really, really early on. A lot of people that I worked with in my past companies came and joined. And it just kind of through referrals and just kind of kept on growing and more and more teams and roles were brought down here. And then obviously COVID kind of accelerated that where lots of people moved to Austin across our company, but across all over. Now, Austin is a big center, tech center in a sense for engineers, for companies, but when you started, it wasn't the case, right? Oh, no. I mean, Austin's had a great tech culture for a very long time. And Dell and Trilogy, AMD, Motorola, IBM all had kind of huge campuses here. And there were a lot of startups during the kind of the first startup boom with Austin Ventures funding a lot of them, but there was not as much, it's definitely exploded in the past couple of years. Of course, COVID had a role there too, like you were saying. We're almost at out of time. Do you have a last tip for anyone who wants to join Cloudflare, what they should do? Read the blog, play with the product. The people that are the most successful are the ones that really love the product, love what we do. And I think that comes through in the interviews as well that you're familiar with us. And I think, yeah. Makes sense. And it's a really good way for people to get to know the company. The blog has very technical details, have a lot of use cases actually. So it's a good case. And you're with an old T-shirt from Cloudflare, right? Yeah. I wore one of the original ones with the original logo. It's been washed quite a few times. And we're out. Thank you. Thank you so much.