Intro: Hey everybody and welcome to another episode of How I Built It! In today’s episode, I get to talk to Josh Koenig, founder of Pantheon. Josh is energetic, passionate, and knowledgable in his field that’s a killer combination you love to see in company leaders. We talk all about the technologically cool stuff Pantheon is doing, so if you’re a developer, you don’t want to miss this one. But first, a word from our sponsors.
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And now…on with the show!
Joe: Hey everybody, welcome to another episode of How I Built It, the podcast that asks, “How did you build that?” Today, my guest is Josh Koenig of Pantheon. Josh, how are you today?
Josh: I’m doing great, how are you Joe?
Joe: I am fantastic. Thank you so much for joining me, I’m really excited to talk to you about your new global CDN tool that you rolled out, I guess a couple of months ago at this point, or at least at the point where it’s being released, this episode is being released.
So, why don’t we start at the beginning though. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about who you are, a little bit about Pantheon, for those of you who don’t know but Pantheon was a sponsor in season two, and then the global CDN tool?
Josh: Sure. So, my background is I’ve been working on the web in one way shape or form for now 20 years, which makes me feel old, maybe I am getting a little old. I was lucky enough to get turned on to this technology in the very early and even though I have a background in fine arts from an education standpoint I always was sort of put myself through school and then made my living with my internet skills.
Over the years that sort of developed more and more into a real career. I worked in the Drupal community for a number of years in the aughts as that technology was becoming more and more popular and taking off, and started a consultancy based in San Francisco that’s still around and still doing great work for clients serving their needs to move their cause, or their business, or their brand forward on the internet.
And then started Pantheon with a couple of my co-founders from the consultancy and a friend of ours we had made through the community, and it was really based on our observation that in our consulting work we were doing some things that were totally different from project to project. You know, design, content strategy, user flows, business logic in your website or in your application. Those are all very different depending on what your website is, what it’s trying to accomplish in the world, who you are as an organization or a business.
But we were also doing this infrastructure work. Setting up development workflows, especially as we would on larger and larger projects there would often be developers who worked for the client, or they would have hired multiple agencies, or they’d want to accelerate things by adding contractors. So, having infrastructure for doing website development that really supported a larger team using version control, and merging workflows, and so forth. And then actually launching some of these sites that are on the bigger side that maybe are going to get a lot more traffic in such a way that they don’t fall over when you put them online.
And although the projects we were doing were super different from like nonprofits, to businesses, to even some government work, and media stuff, these infrastructure components of how we built the site collaboratively and then how we launched it successfully were kind of the same. We were kind of learning as we went, but it wasn’t like they were different based on the requirements of the project.
So, we thought to ourselves “Hey, this stuff is potentially could be turned from pretty high end consulting work into a service since it’s repeatable, and we could deliver it to everybody so that we have more successful projects in the open source web community.” Because we could see some of our peers in this space, you hear sort of stories in the hallway track at a conference or something about less successful projects, and often times the thing that fell apart was either “We couldn’t work together as a team. We were under pressure to meet our deadlines. We tried to add more developers and it made everything worse.” Like that’s a common story.
Josh: And some of that’s just Mythical Man-Month thinking and you can’t just add more people to solve something, but you really can’t add people if you don’t have a structured way to collaborate because you just start stepping on each others toes and it makes things worse. Or “We managed to hit our deadline for our client but then we launched the site and it crashed, and we spent the next two weeks in a really uncomfortable fire fighting mode just to get the website stable and online.” And those are experiences that don’t leave clients happy, and lead to burnout on the teams that work on them.
And so we really felt there was this need if you could just solve both of those problems with snapping your fingers to turn on the service and that would help so many more people successfully develop web projects, ambitious web projects using this open source technology.
So, that’s where Pantheon came from, and its been a wild ride since then. We started out, you know, very much anchored in our roots in the Drupal community but started immediately seeing interest from the WordPress world and added WordPress support after a couple of years, and we’ve just been kind of going and going since then. Its been awesome.
Joe: Man, that’s fantastic. And using Pantheon I can tell that there’s a lot of developer focused stuff right? When I got set up with an account I didn’t really have to do anything to get push, or get deployed to work, it just kind of worked, which is not my experience on any other hosting platform so I really enjoyed that. And you’re absolutely, from a large teams perspective I’ve done agency work for Fortune 100 companies, big teams need to scale well in order for a project to be successful and any tools that could help that really, really help that. Like it’s very noticeable. So, that sounds fantastic. I’m really glad that Pantheon exists in the space for that reason.
Josh: Thanks. And I mean, there’s always more for us to do. We’re always looking at other aspects of this world, the operations aspects of websites. So, whether that’s how you manage your collaboration, manage access, how you think about reusable components across multiple websites, how you think about things like the data about how the website is performing, including my background as a server side engineer I think about performance tuning a lot and I look at new relic graphs. I enjoy doing that sort of thing, but also there’s the aspect of performance like “Is it actually working? Are you getting the results in the real world you want from your website?”
And so I kind of conceive of this world of hosting as a critical component of this bigger world of website operations right? Like if you don’t have a website online nothing else really matters, but once you have that core infrastructure problem solved all these other challenges emerge almost immediately. Like, “Okay, so your websites online but can you actually make changes to it? Do you feel like you have a development workflow that lets you try out new things? Do you have metrics on your website that tell you whether the things you’re changing are making it better or worse?”
It’s interesting because I think a lot of people in this world are still … I think there’s a lot of people for whom they just want to have a simple website online that represents them so they can be found there, and that’s great and we’re getting better and better tools for achieving that high quality but base level web presence, but then you have a lot of people who are actually trying to make something happen with their website. They want have an effect, they want to have impact, but a lot of the thinking in the industry is still stuck in the world of, I guess like on the agency side there’s still the waterfall patterns of like Mad Men style agency sales, and on the engineering side you still have patterns that are from the era shrink wrap development.
So, it’s kind of like everyone thinks “We’re going to do a big redesign and we’re going to spend two years redesigning and reimplementing our website and it’ll be this huge project, and at the end we’ll launch it and then everything will be solved.” And actually it’s problematic because I’ve been on the implementation side of those sorts of projects. And yes, there are times when you need to re-platform, there are times you need to redesign, there are times when you need to just take a fresh look at everything. That is absolutely true, but the notion that you should burn through 90% of your budget just to get that first iteration live is setting yourself up for failure.
If you don’t have a way to actually continue to make changes to the site, whether that’s content changes, which people should, you know, with WordPress and so forth you can make content, that’s the beauty of it, you can make content changes at the snap of a finger. You can respond within an hour.
But also changes to your functionality, to your layouts, to your design. All those sorts of things that aren’t just tweaking the words in a post, you want to be able to iterate on those things too, and then measure the results, and that’s how really great websites get really great because people do this.
But I think that’s still something that a lot of people, they feel like it’s out of reach for them and it’s often because they don’t have ability to do this kind of collaborative work. And that’s like to me the bigger picture problem we’re trying to solve isn’t just this core infrastructure kind of problem, although I’m going to talk about our CDN, which is very much a core infrastructure kind of capability with the How We Built It because it’s a really interesting story.
But that core infrastructure problem is just the base problem. The next level up is “Okay, how do we work on this thing and continually make it better and learn while we’re doing it?” Because that’s what you have to do to make a really great product.
Joe: Yeah absolutely, and we certainly do have the tools today to do things like that. I mean, you guys are at the forefront of kind of adding some of those tools, and as well as some of the other bigger hosting companies too, and like the developers who are creating things like Vue.js and stuff like that.
You mentioned that you started on the web 20 years ago, I’m not that much behind you. I started about 15 years ago. So, around the time we both started making a website was pretty simple. We had HTML, we had CSS. CSS was probably in line. We had maybe some graphics, everything was table based layout, and we would just FTP stuff up to a server right?
Josh: Well honestly our business has an overt focus on the agency world in a developer focus, as you called out initially, and then on a business level we have an agency sort of focus because that’s where developers, the rubber meets the road, and agencies are generally pushing things forward a little bit ahead of where an in house developer or an IT person might just because the demands on them are to constantly be innovative. That’s how they differentiate.
So, I’m really lucky in that we have this big network of great agencies who we’re targeting our collaboration tools towards and we get to talk to them. There’s a little bit of interesting observational work that we can do just by seeing what’s launching on Pantheon. We have a wall board in the office that’s just the sites that went live in the past 24 hours and it’s awesome because it’s just this stream of the beautiful randomness that is the internet, and so you can kind of see some trends there.
Especially just literally from a design standpoint I remember when we started to see the move towards not just mobile response design but really mobile first design and the just big center hero kind of presentation on a homepage became the norm rather than the exception.
But really in terms of the question you’re asking it’s all about keeping up with the agencies and just actually having conversations with them. I’m a huge fan of the method that is generally known as customer development. And customer development if you’re not familiar with it is basically just a widely structured process of finding your ideal type customer, and that means someone who is actually using your product successfully, so you have to have a minimally viable product to get there, but hopefully your intuition can take you to that point, and then you just get in their head of while they use your product. The best interviews are almost like “Narrate for me the documentary of you using my product and tell me how it makes you feel, and where you run into trouble, and where you wish it did something that it didn’t currently do.”
And it’s interesting because you’re not just … It’s a little different than doing observational user experience research where you’re just watching people and intentionally not engaging them because you don’t want to influence the data you’re collecting, because what you get from customer development is that you actually get, if you do it well, you get into the thought processes of the people who are using your product, and that can provide really amazing insights.
So, a really pat example is we always wanted to have this ability in the core of Pantheon for there to be a hand off right? Like “I built the site but it’s for a client and we’re getting close to the launch so I need to bring the client in and I want to hand off ownership to them because I feel like the right thing to do is for the client to own the infrastructure for the website, not for me to own it and then have to build them in some other way.”
And so, in talking through that with some people who were using a very early version of Pantheon we came about this notion of invite to pay, and the process of being able to input someone’s email address, have that send them to, generate a link for them that brings them to a simple page where it’s saying “So and so is inviting you to pay for this site, they recommend this package.” You can change that package if you want because ultimately you’re the one who’s paying and “Here’s where you put in your credit card information.”
And that, frankly right now we’re working on redesigning a bunch of that stuff because it hasn’t changed very much since the four and a half years ago when we implemented it, and now it looks actually out of date. It’s not up even to our style guide, but that insight of it’s actually this invitation to pay and you want to have this exchange with your client was very much a customer development driven insight.
Joe: Nice. That’s fantastic, and it totally reinforces another interview that I had for season four with Anthony Katz of Hyperice. It’s so funny, I always find the theme of the season emerges in the first couple of episodes, and he talks about this same concept of customer development right?
So, they made this sort of restorative ice pack that you can strap to your body, and he worked with professional athletes to really get it up to snuff. Like he gave it to them and just got their feedback. These are the people who always have like ice packs or ice buckets on them.
So, it’s really great to hear you reinforce that because I think a lot of developers, myself included, will build something to our perception and then be a little resistive to feedback. You get maybe a little bit attached to the thing you’re building, you built it in a way that you think is good, but everybody works differently and you need to have that target, that perfect customer as you said, in mind to really build something great that they’re going to use.
So, I really love that and I love that it’s coming again in two episodes. So, very cool.
Josh: I can’t say enough about that, and the one thing that’s interesting to me, you mentioned you get attached to the things you build, and I am definitely guilty of that as I think any honest developer would say they can empathize with being in that situation, and it’s a tough line to work because the great products are not just the result of having people tell you what they want and then doing that. It’s the Henry Ford, like “If I just listened to my customers they would have built a faster horse.” Right?
Josh: So, the great products are a combination of your own expertise, or some kind of, whether that’s a technology expertise or something else, and then the ability to have an insight into the needs of the customer that they might not necessarily directly vocalize themselves.
And that’s what customer development can give you because you’re figuring out how to put yourself enough in their shoes that you could have a light bulb moment, and then you have to obviously market test it to make sure you’re not just off on a wild goose chase, but it’s that ability to have an insight into the world of your customer in addition to also listening to what pleases them or what displeases them.
Joe: Nice. That’s fantastic. So, as we’re talking about this sort of stuff, and you work with a lot of developers, and we’re a little more through half way through the show right now, but there’s been a big focus on performance and so why don’t we talk about this interesting story that you have about how you’ve built this global CDN tool. So, maybe you can start with exactly what that is, and for anybody listening who don’t know what a CDN is if you could define it, and then talk about how you built it.
Josh: Sure, so CDN is an acronym that stands for content distribution network, and basically the core concept of a CDN since the earliest days of the internet has been get the stuff required for a user to see a website closer to the user. So, the idea is that we have our phones, or our desktops, or our laptops connected to the internet, I type in a URL, I hit enter, that actually begins this very complex dance of TCP, IP, and HDP protocol transactions that require the device that I’m on to talk to a server somewhere right? Usually some internet end point and that could be halfway across the country, or internationally halfway around the world.
And while packets move at almost the speed of light, not quite because actually in fiber optic cables you’re not really moving at light speed because stuff’s bouncing around. While packets almost at the speed of light, the number of back and forth pings that have to happen just to establish a connection, to then negotiate HTTPS is you’re working securely, which everyone should be going forward, that’s now the norm, and then to start to request the assets and receive the assets that could actually be as many as five or six round trips between your device and whatever the end point that its talking to is before the first bit of real data begins to flow.
And so if you can say, “Hey, let’s move the assets, or let’s move that endpoint from halfway across the globe to maybe halfway across the State that I live in, or perhaps halfway across town.” Then that’s going to result in a much, much faster and more pleasant experience for customers.
So, CDN’s have been around since the beginning of the web and they were originally very much about just distributing the images, because they’re static assets, they don’t change that often if at all, and it is a little bit like that FTPing mindset. We’re just going to bulk load this information off to all of these different points of presence around the world and then websites, people who are loading websites will be able to access the data from those locations and stuff will load faster. That’s a core concept.
In a modern, and actually just to go back to your “When we first started in this business the web was real simple.” You had some HTML, you had some images, you had some CSS, you would FTP them up to a thing. If that’s how you built your website then CDNing is pretty straight forward because you just distribute the HTML file to all of the different points of presence as well. That’s another acronym in CDN land is point of presence, or PoP.
So, in the modern world where we don’t just have static content, where we’re actually using dynamic publishing systems it becomes a lot more interesting because in order to get the experience that really, really will knock peoples socks off, that will really delight your end users, your customers, you have to figure out how to get the full response … You want to get the end point connection to be close to the customer, you want to be able to negotiate your HTTPS close to the customer, and you want to be able to deliver the full page response, if possible, from a location that is as close to the customer as can be.
And we, for our background as a technology we had this interesting capability in Pantheon. We’ve always been kind of associated with high performance and speed, and that really matters because pick your metric, any business metric that you could care to apply to your website will be positively by a faster website, or negatively influenced by a slower website. There’s a great website speed tester that Google uses called Think with Google, and it’s particularly focused on the mobile use case, but it will actually give you an estimate of how much traffic you’re losing because people don’t even wait for your site to load. In some cases it could be 30 to 40% of your traffic is never even seeing your page because they’re not waiting for it to load.
Likewise HubSpot has a ton of metrics around conversion rates and so forth, and how significantly those can be influenced by how fast the web experience is for the customer. You know, how much more likely people are to abandon a shopping cart, how much more likely people are to disengage with the content if they’re having to wait.
So, everybody recognizes that the website being fast is a real business value, but when you’re not just shoving HTML files out onto a CDN how do you do that? So, Pantheon has originally had a varnish layer as part of the platform, and that’s a technology that’s used, again, to accelerate website delivery. It’s kind of like from a WordPress perspective it’s kind of analogous to pick your favorite page caching system, just like much faster and much more scalable because it’s a technology that was built from the ground up just to do that rather than being a WordPress plugin.
So, it’s orders of magnitude faster at delivering cached pages and can deliver thousands of them a second without breaking a sweat. So, it’s a really cool technology that we have learned how to use and it’s one of the ways that when we were doing our consulting work we would launch websites and never have to worry about a big PR hit crashing the site. So, we just built that into the platform, but it was built into the platform in the primary data center where we had.
So, what we did when we started to think about the global CDN and kind of the next generation of our infrastructure was we thought “What if we could take this varnish layer that does super fast page responses and actually push it out so that it was distributed world wide?” And we worked with a partner, a technology partner, a company called Fastly that is sort of a CDN/edge computing platform, and we used their network and their points of presence to essentially reimplement what had been built into Pantheon from the beginning with our varnish cache layer on top of Fastly’s network.
So, instead of having one point of presence with a super fast cache in Chicago, we have 40 points of presence around the world that all have their fast cache’s. And that’s actually, I did some benchmarks of us against us, like old us versus new us, and it like cuts down page response times by sometimes as much as 40 or 50%. It’s awesome.
Josh: Yeah. That’s the idea. I don’t want to discount the virtue of frontend development – because you actually really do need both because even the fastest infrastructure in the world with a poorly optimized site will still probably not deliver. Like you might get the first parts of the page to load and maybe the user will see them depending on how the page is structured, but you can totally screw it up right? It’s still possible. You know, if you’ve got like weird slow loading ad blocks that are causing all of the content to wait to render and so forth. So, it’s only half the battle in my mind, but the great part about it is that you just get it. You don’t have to configure anything. You don’t have to worry about setting stuff up. You don’t have to worry about weird domain names. You don’t have to worry, and you get and you get it with HTTPS by default out of the box from the beginning, it’s not like a thing that you have to worry about including later. It’s just built into the platform for every site.
And so it just becomes this new standard of “Well, now that have like a plus, plus infrastructure that can deliver this type of 100 millisecond, or sometimes even faster page response time. That’s the engine that I’ve got, now the site is kind of like, okay I’ve got to make sure that I have really, really well defined, a really aerodynamically streamed body chassis, and I need really good steering, and I’ve got to have the best tires, and get high octane guys.” You’ve got to have all of those things to win a race, but what we do is we just give you a world class engine basically without having to do any work.
Joe: Nice. Well that’s a perfect analogy and I love that. So, you guys rolled this out over the Summer, is that right?
Josh: That’s right.
Joe: Cool. So, what are your plans for this? Is it out now? Is it kind of just doing its own thing or do you have more plans for it in the coming months?
Josh: Oh yeah. We have big plans. So, we rolled it out, and we rolled it out first by saying “Okay, all new sites will be on this by default.” Because that’s the goal is to make it this kind of built in experience, and we identified a good 40% of our existing sites that we could just switch over because they were using a CNAME for their DNS and that’s something we could actually redirect, and we did that, but we’re still in the long tail of encouraging customers to upgrade. You know, it gives them HTTPS for free, which used to cost extra on Pantheon, and they get faster page performance, but they do have to make a DNS change and sometimes people want to test things very thoroughly before they go live.
So, it’s not much work, but it’s not zero work for existing customers and so we’ve been spending the past couple of months really working with customers who had questions, or concerns, a few people who had use cases where they had very, very legacy systems that were integrating with their website. One of the things that we did to deliver the HTTPS for free was we’re using Let’s Encrypt, and we’re using a really modern version of the TLS protocol, that’s the successor protocol to SSL, and that lets us do HTTPS really economically and with the highest possible performance, but if you have really, really old Java apps, I mean very, very few people have these, but if you’ve got a Windows XP user base, or an old school Blackberry user base some of those devices aren’t able to speak those new protocols so we’re having a customers who have concerns around that.
So, we’re working around all of these edge cases right now, but looking forward there’s a number of things that I’m super stoked about.
One is that we’re going to have an ability to offer some really amazing benefits for websites that are super sensitive around their uptime. Like, nobody wants their website to be down, but then there’s some websites where they want to measure their potential downtime in single digit minutes per month with like a three nine’s type SLA, and we’ll be able to use the global CDN to meet some of those use cases, which is going to be super cool. I mean, I think we’ll be able to bring some benefits to all customers, but we’ll be able to really, for customers who demand that super high level of service we’ll be able to offer that.
We’ll also be able to offer a bunch of neat features around potentially doing some stuff with auto-optimizing images. Kind of similar and maybe a little bit better than what Photon does where you can have images be auto-cropped, auto-scaled, et cetera by the CDN and not by WordPress, which can be advantageous in a number of cases.
And then also being able to add some of the cool developer features for doing things like detecting mobile traffic, serving alternate pages based on geography automatically, being able to get in this notion of personalization as a part of your website strategy. That is the marriage of really good content strategy with really good frontend development, but if you don’t have the infrastructure to support it it can be very kludgy to put together. So, well have some stuff to offer there.
And then some really neat features for people who run like large portfolio’s of websites. So, the ability to share some assets across all of those sites, to be able to do what we call domain masking where you might have like “Mybigcompany.com/blog” is a specific WordPress instance, and then “Mybigcompany.com/community” is actually a Drupal instance, and “Mybigcompany.com/store” is a Woo Commerce instance, and actually run those as separate applications so they can all have their own development pipelines and their own deployment pipelines, but actually mask them all under the main domain without having to just manage a janky server somewhere with like three subdirectories with three instances of the app in them.
So, being able to support that type of architecture on Pantheon.
Joe: Wow, that’s really cool. So, there’s a lot of really neat things coming down the pike. I’ve talked to a couple of people recently about the custom content kind of experience. It sounds like a lot of people are thinking through this problem and solving on as low level as possible. It’s, like you said, advantageous to the users and the developers as well.
So now we are, well we’re slightly over time but I really enjoyed this conversation, and always I can’t end the show without asking my favorite question which is do you have any trade secrets for us?
Josh: Any trade secret? So, a trade secret of Pantheon is the company runs specifically on the Monster Rehab energy drink. It’s a lighter weight energy drink, which is low calorie and comes in these various tea based flavors, and going back to the very beginning of “Okay, we’ve got to hunker down and build this crazy infrastructure” to the day to day now of people having four engineering squads cranking away on different aspects of the product, that is by far and away the most popular beverage of the energy drink section in the office.
Joe: Nice. Very nice. I love that. I lived on Full Throttle in grad school and I don’t recommend that for a million reasons. One is just you’re getting all of the sugar that you need for an entire week in one can.
Josh: Yeah, totally.
Joe: So, awesome. Well I’ll have to check out this Monster Rehab. I’m sure it’ll come in handy for me since I have a young baby at home who is teething and so she keeps me up at night.
Josh: Woo. Yeah. Good luck with that.
Joe: Yeah. Thank you. It’s very sad from the parent point of view because she’s in pain and there’s literally nothing you can do about it except give her Tylenol.
Joe: Now I do want to ask you one more question, and this is purely for me, have you ever been told … First of all have you ever seen Scrubs? The TV show scrubs?
Josh: I have seen it, but I am not a watcher of it.
Joe: Gotcha. There is this one character, he’s a recurring character, his name is Sam, and you look and sound like Sam. So, I just wanted to put that in front of you and ask if you’ve ever been told that before?
Josh: So, that is … No, that’s a new one for me, but I’m going to have to check that out. I used to get one of the guys from The Office, people would say that I looked like him, and then when I was younger and in a little bit better shape and had short hair people said that I look like Brendan Frasier.
Josh: But yeah, I’ll check that out. Sam from Scrubs?
Joe: Yeah. Now, I don’t want you to take this wrong way because in the show he’s kind of like a drug addict, and I’m not saying that about you, you just look and sound like him. Fun fact, here’s how we’ll end the show, Brendan Frasier was also a recurring character on Scrubs. So, with that Josh thank you so much for joining me today.
Josh: Hey man, thanks Joe. I really enjoyed it.
Outro: What a great conversation – thanks again to Josh for taking the time out of his busy day to talk to us. And seriously. Check out Sam from Scrubs. It’s uncanny!
And Thanks again to our sponsors – make sure to check out Liquid Web for managed WordPress hosting. I use them on all of my important sites – they are that good! They are at buildpodcast.net/liquid. They’ll give you 50% off your first 2 months just for being a listener! If you want to save your clients (or yourself) money through recovering abandoned carts, check out jilt. They are over at buildpodcast.net/jilt. And finally, if you want to build incredible websites at a fraction of the time and cost, check out Beaver Builder. I use it and I love it. They are over at buildpodcast.net/builder/
For all of the show notes, head over to howibuilt.it/66/. If you like the show, head over to Apple Podcasts and leaving us a rating and review. It helps people discover us! Finally, last week I published my brand-new Patreon page. It offers a lot better rewards, and great goals, and I’m really doubling down on it. So if you like the show and what to support it directly, head over to patreon.com/howibuiltit/. You can support the show for as little as $1/month.
One more note before we close out the show: next week we’re starting a little miniseries on building your own business. It will be 6 episodes and we’ll cover niching down, marketing and content strategy, legal info, and more. We’re kicking it off with Dr. Sherry Walling and self-assessment. How do you know you’re ready to start your own business? Find out next week!
So until then, get out there and build something!