The Pivot Interview: Dennis Rohm, CTO
It’s not easy to pinpoint which experiences in Dennis Rohm’s career best suited him for the CTO role at Carrot. After all, he came to the company with more than 15 years of experience in software and IT across a number of different industries, including a background in consumer-focused mobile apps. But prowess in team-building may be the handiest tool in Dennis’s quiver. It’s the fourth time he’s built and managed a software team. “We started small and had to build quickly,” he says.
Scaling up quickly has become a bit of a specialty for Dennis. Before Carrot, he was CTO at Indochino, the fast-growing custom-clothing company. But front-line product management has also been key. Dennis has a way of also harnessing engineering talent to deliver engaging customer experiences. At Carrot, the payoff has been Pivot’s proven success in helping users achieve their ultimate goal: quitting smoking.
How do you explain what you do to people who don’t understand what you do?
Dennis Rohm: I run engineering, IT, and security for Carrot (Pivot’s parent company). Engineering builds the product—that is, the Pivot app. Our team writes the code and makes sure everything works. IT, as anywhere, is a support function for the company. We make sure the engineers always have what they need to keep us up and running. We run the help desk. Security entails network security, as well as the badging system at our headquarters.
How big is your team?
DR: We have about 20 folks.
The Pivot app already exists. People are successfully using it. What’s left for your team to do?
DR: Software isn’t static. It’s a dynamic process. Technology is always changing, new tools are always available, and there’s always a better way to do things. No one would want to use the same apps as five years ago. When Apple launches a new iPhone, we can change the app to make it a lot more appealing. Phones, resolution, and software are always changing. Also, as we learn more about our users, we get more data. We learn what works and what doesn’t. So we’ll remove some functions, revise others, or add new features.
How does feedback from users reach you?
DR: We work closely with Pivot’s product team, and they use Mixpanel, a common tool for software teams. It’s an analytics tool that allows them to track how our product is being used. It tells us how users are interacting with the app—like whether they stay on a feature for a few seconds or for X number of minutes. The product team uses that data to tell us, the software team, that a particular screen works well, that it helps people start the program, or helps them quit smoking. On another screen, maybe people don’t move on from there, don’t continue with the app. Based on that information, we build what the product team tells us. They make the business decisions.
How do you organize your teams?
DR: By platform. Our mobile team has an iOS platform team and an Android team. Then we have a full-stack team responsible for internal tools, such as our coaching portal and other services that support the mobile offerings.
We use the Agile process, which means we work in sprints, two-week sprints. Every two weeks brings an opportunity to reprioritize what we’re working on. If a new challenge comes in, we can start working on it within two weeks or less.
How do you prioritize and manage your teams’ time?
DR: It’s somewhat collaborative. The product team gives us a list of requests and general sense of the value of each request. They prioritize. Our teams look at the requests and take them until they feel they’ve filled up two weeks’ worth of work. A tracking tool follows that.
For example, the product team might say, “We have a business objective to measure quitters.” The engineers might say, “We can do that in an easy way in two weeks. Or a richer way to do it might take three months.” We collaborate to decide how much is accomplishable with reasonable effort. This applies to refinement of features or new features, big or small.
As for new features, who generates the ideas that your team implements?
DR: We work closely with the product team, and they work with the various stakeholders who have needs including, of course, our customers. Product gets that information, and I work with them to scope what a request will take.
Does that ever put you in the position of being a naysayer?
DR: As an engineering team, we can do anything, given enough time. So, we prioritize. Scoping is super useful. We take wish lists from the product team and estimate how long things will take. We look at the list and determine which items are high-value, low-scope, that might only take a few weeks. Items like that move up the priority list. It’s all about how to deliver the most value for the business.
What’s an example of a high-value, low-scope item?
DR: Obviously, quit rate is very important to us. Efficacy—we want to build a product that helps people quit smoking. Well, early in the product we had a cohort of users who didn’t need to go through the entire product in order to quit. But we didn’t have a way to measure that. Those people might spend just 30 days in Pivot and disappear. They’d be classified as nonusers (of Pivot), not people who had quit smoking. The fix was simple: We developed a feature, a really intuitive feature, that allowed people to tell us that they had stopped smoking. From an engineering point of view, it was pretty low scope. But for the users, we could start supporting them as ex-smokers, and for the company, we could better gauge the performance of the product.
And what’s a high-value, high-scope feature?
DR: One of the big new ones is Community, a feature in Pivot that will allow people who smoke and ex-smokers to support each other. It will help us utilize our coaching resources better—some of the help you might get from a coach could be available from a peer. And it will be a great platform for us to learn, to see what the conversation is. We’re a couple of months away from beta on that.
How do you make sure your teams’ working environment is as stress-free as possible?
DR: Our teams are pretty tight. We hang out together, go out together after work. We learn a lot about people’s stressors in a relaxed environment.
Also, we managers work a lot with the rest of folks in the organization so that the engineers can focus on coding. We try to be aware of requests coming in and consolidate so that engineers always know what they need to work on. We try to anticipate fires and remove as many of those as possible.
We also have an open-feedback style. We hold retrospects, where we look at a month of sprints and go over what went well and what didn’t. We measure all that and establish how to make improvements.
One of the things we do as a team is address “technical debt,” which can happen in a fast-moving company. We acknowledge that a certain amount of debt amasses unless we maintain upkeep in the product. So, we allocate a certain amount of sprint time to technical debt—fixing things that are broken, doing some R&D. It’s all toward improving the working time of our engineers.
What are some of your hidden challenges—things you deal with that even some of your colleagues may not know about or understand?
DR: We’re fully HIPAA-compliant, and that requires a lot of upkeep on the part of our small IT team. They’re awesome. There are always a lot of security compliance changes; things can be outdated within a few months. So there’s constant maintenance going on across hundreds of machines. Someone has to make sure everything is up to date.
Speaking of keeping things up to date, how do you deal with the fact that a lot of Pivot users are using older devices?
DR: We have a QA team responsible for backward compatibility. They have to make sure everything works with older software and older devices. This is more pronounced on Android because there are so many more devices. The QA team makes sure those older devices never fall behind.
Tell me about the Co-op Program.
DR: It’s a very formalized internship program through a great school in Canada, the University of Waterloo. Students spend four months in school, four months working, so by the end of four years, they have two years of paid work experience. We get three batches of Co-op students a year, and they’re great. A lot of our recruiting pipeline comes through that way. The students who work for us can also spend time at Google or Facebook, Uber or Lyft. Some love working for a big company, and others are more suited to startups like ours.
You worked at Indochino. Does that mean you’re the best-dressed guy at Carrot?
DR: Well, I have maybe 20 custom suits in my closet, but these days I only wear them at holiday parties.