Cliff Crocker (SOASTA)
Joshua Bixby: Hello. It’s Joshua again. President of Strangeloop Networks. Welcome back to the next installment in the Web Performance Today podcast series. When I was at Velocity in London in October, I had a chance to sit down with Cliff Crocker. Cliff, who is a friend, has a really neat perspective on performance because he has worked on both sides of the wall. He has spent time as a consultant and worked at Keynote, then crossed the wall and started to work at Walmart where he was the senior engineering manager, which is where I met him selling front-end optimization into Walmart. We became friends. We were both driving towards the same goal, which was trying to show Walmart that performance mattered. It was friendship that struck up there and has continued through his new role where he is VP Product at SOASTA, which is a cool company and I’m going to spend a bit of time talking on the podcast about them in one of the podcasts coming up. I got a chance to talk to Cliff about his experience at all three companies, the emergence of big data, among other things. I hope you enjoy.
Joshua Bixby: Here at Velocity Europe with my friend, Cliff Crocker, formerly of Walmart fame, currently of more famous SOASTA fame. Hey, buddy, how are you doing?
Cliff Crocker: Doing well, doing well. How are you?
Joshua Bixby: I’m great. Thanks for joining me. Tell me about Velocity Europe. How is it going for you?
Cliff Crocker: It’s my first time to Europe period and to come here for a web performance conference I think just really makes it kind of the best trip that I’ve been on for a while. It is going great. I think that Velocity Europe seems to be raising the bar from what I have seen in terms of the talks and the presentation and slides that came out of Berlin last year and then the quality of the talks and the people here speaking today, just, it’s amazing. It’s going really well.
Joshua Bixby: Nice. See, they’re loving us in the background too. We’re actually, like, right in the middle here, you can hear the applause from the crowd.
Cliff Crocker: Yeah.
Joshua Bixby: That wasn’t for us, but…
Cliff Crocker: I think it was.
Joshua Bixby: You think we can take credit for that? People are filing past us as we’re chatting here. We’re sort of tucked into corner. I want to rewind to Keynote days.
Cliff Crocker: Yeah, absolutely.
Joshua Bixby: How long were you in Keynote?
Cliff Crocker: I was at Keynote for six years, I believe.
Joshua Bixby: And you started as?
Cliff Crocker: I started as actually doing load testing, as a load-testing consultant. I was coming in to do web performance consulting, but interestingly enough that team wasn’t growing and wasn’t big enough at the time, although a really good friend of mine there, Ben Rushlo was doing a great job, kind of, early days doing evangelism, so I jumped onto the load testing team and worked there and did load testing for several e-commerce sites for a few years then switching over and switching into web performance consulting.
Joshua Bixby: So, tell me about the early days of web performance consulting. This would have been, what, 2008?
Cliff Crocker: Yeah, I guess it would’ve been 2008-2007 potentially.
Joshua Bixby: How was the world different back then than it is now?
Cliff Crocker: Well, it is interesting. I think, this industry moves so fast; however, I think, honestly, we still have so many of the same things that we’re still talking about today that we were talking back then. So, it was interesting. I think people kind of were not as attuned to the fact that performance had an impact on the bottom line, so it was a bigger challenge back then than it is today, but I still find myself having the same conversations that I had, you know, six year ago.
Joshua Bixby: So, fundamentally, the similar dialogue?
Cliff Crocker: Absolutely.
Joshua Bixby: Hey, speed’s important, why, maybe you didn’t have the artillery before to tell people, now there seems to be a lot of artillery out there, but…
Cliff Crocker: Yeah, and I think that the performance of browsers back then made it a lot easier to be a consultant, because there were so many best practices that you could take into account and things you could do and now that the browsers are getting better and faster, there is obviously still a lot of optimizations that hold true, but at the time it was a lot easier to kind of go through your checklist prior to or right around the YSlow days and things as they were coming out and right around, you know, the book, when the book was published.
Joshua Bixby: The book. I like that. Steve would like that. What were your lessons from those web consulting days, like, what do you take into SOASTA now that you guys are doing, you know, also in the performance business, what from that time, when that new kid comes into SOASTA and works in your division and you’re saying, listen man, over a beer, let me tell you about the good old days, there were some key lessons I learned, what would you share, grandfather like?
Joshua Bixby: Yeah, and it doesn’t mean they’re idiots.
Cliff Crocker: Yes, exactly, right cos they’re not, I mean, they’re really smart guys, I mean…
Joshua Bixby: So, you evolved out of Keynote. How did you get the Walmart gig?
Cliff Crocker: Actually it was a guy that I had been doing consulting with on the Walmart side that finally said, man, why don’t you just come over, just come over here and do this for us, so a lot of that was because they wanted to focus a lot of load testing as well and sort of build up a center of excellence, but, Subir, my boss at the time, Subir Sengupta, brought me in and was just great and kind of gave me a bunch leash and just let me run and build a team and really work on sort of bringing performance in as a culture more than anything at Walmart.
Joshua Bixby: And you guys did some amazing stuff. You were there for two years, three years?
Cliff Crocker: Yep, two years.
Joshua Bixby: I mean, you guys, as far as I can tell were one of the leading, if not the leading organization looking at this stuff.
Cliff Crocker: Well, thanks. I think definitely we tried to raise the level of awareness and we tried to, again, change the culture and I think that we got some sponsorship, executive sponsorship really, interestingly enough, not in the engineering side, but more on the business side that said, you know what, this is important, you guys run with it. It’s okay if you go and talk about it. It’s okay if you go and talk about the fact that Walmart isn’t the fastest site on the Internet and the things that we’re trying to do to fix that, so I think it was about community, it was about awareness. A big huge thing for me was actually the web perf meetups that are happening and specifically the San Francisco web perf meetup that Aaron Kulick founded, so I got to meet Aaron very early on when I was actually looking for performance engineers and then started really getting tied into that community that’s where I met Buddy who you’ll talk about from LogNormal, you know, the company that SOASTA has just acquired, as well as Philip Tellis and then, you know, Aaron Kulick who is, you know, a very dear friend and still fighting the fight with Walmart.
Joshua Bixby: Brilliant, brilliant man.
Cliff Crocker: Yes, he is. Yes, he is.
Joshua Bixby: Where did vendors go wrong at Walmart, I mean, as you cross the bridge and were on the Walmart side, you were attacked by vendors, of course, you were a target. What did they do wrong? What were the flaws that you saw continuously from enterprise sales guys trying to sell to Walmart?
Cliff Crocker: You know, I guess, there was a lot assumption, there was a lot of fear tactics that were tried, right? I mean, the vendors coming in and saying, you know, are you just gonna let your site crash or you just gonna this, the other guys are, you know, are better than you, they’re faster than you. I think that that there was just not as much empathy and there wasn’t as much trying to really understand the positioning and understand that, you know, Walmart is a large organization, they’re not gonna move extremely fast on the sell side, but that shouldn’t discourage them from actually coming in and trying to work with them and I think patience was probably the biggest thing.
Joshua Bixby: Just didn’t last…
Cliff Crocker: It’s a long sales cycle and I hate it on this side, I hated it on the Keynote side, but I understand where it comes from.
Joshua Bixby: I know what it is like to sell into Walmart. You know that.
Cliff Crocker: Absolutely. Absolutely, you do. You do. But, you know, you guys kept smiling and there definitely was a lot of patience.
Joshua Bixby: I think it’s the Canadian side of us.
Cliff Crocker: I think it is.
Joshua Bixby: Because there is a side of that. Coming back to Walmart side cos I am always fascinated by the business model that Walmart has, forget the technical side, which is using some of this data, working with vendors very closely to optimize the shopping experience and the price for the shopping experience, I mean, everything that I hear about how they treat vendors, whether you like it or not is they’re close relationships, there’s strong direction, was part of the culture being brought over on the technical side? I mean, was part of the idea that we figured out data for warehousing and shipping to stores and we should figure out how data can be used on the website, was there any crossover there, was there anything you pulled from that culture?
Cliff Crocker: I would say, well, we definitely pulled a lot of things from the vendor management perspective and some of the people there actually really care about on the vendor management side today made it very clear that, you know, our success is depending on the shoulders of all these vendors that we work with, so that culture was definitely there. However, I think that some of the separation between Bentonville and, you know, e-commerce side at Walmart and the website itself, there was a pretty big disconnect. It wasn’t until the formation of Walmart labs that I started to see some that come on and actually teams that were dedicated to data and dedicated to big data, so, that’s where we got to start playing with people and playing with the cool toys and, you know, the very large hadoop clusters and obviously we got Boomerang up and running at Walmart, started collecting all this rich data and now that is actually driving a lot of what’s going on on that side. It is just about better understanding the customer, being closer to the customer, who is this customer that is shopping at a Walmart versus an Asda in the UK versus, you know, Sam’s Club and that type of a thing, so and then the mobile store gets extremely interesting and, you know, you saw, I don’t know if you saw Dion and Ben talking this morning, but they’re always great to watch and great to talk to.
Joshua Bixby: They are. They have a great interplay between the two of them, like, it’s a good, sort of, on stage gig they have.
Cliff Crocker: We were chatting last night in the lobby and they were finishing each other’s sentences every other word. Obviously those guys have been doing some cool stuff for years, but the things they’re doing and the opportunities they have there in mobile, if you think about the number of people that are in a Walmart store or in some type of a property all across the US at any time with a smart phone in their pocket, you start to connect the dots and see what a huge opportunity that is and innovation that goes on there between those gentlemen as well as the great team that they have there, the mobile team at Walmart labs, you know, it’s fun stuff. It’s pretty cool.
Joshua Bixby: I don’t know if you read that article in New York Times about Target and how they use data…
Cliff Crocker: Yeah, the whole thing about the dad finding out that his daughter is pregnant, yeah.
Joshua Bixby: How did that type of thing resonate in how you guys were using data and thinking about data, you know, and I ask this also from a perspective of SOASTA, I mean, there are things we can find out about people, what they’re looking at, how much they’re spending, when you think of that whole challenge of privacy around this, how do you think about that?
Cliff Crocker: I think, you know, there is a creepiness factor, right? There is always a creepiness factor and a big brother factor thinking about, oh my gosh, you know, just me as a consumer thinking about I don’t know that I want everyone knowing all this stuff about me and, you know, predicting, you know, what I’m doing. I just joined a CrossFit last week and I need to, you know, be buying these products or, you know, longer socks or whatever it might be, but to be honest I think that it’s actually, it’s not an intention of trying to, you know, invade privacy or, you know, predict, you know, all types of things to really maximize revenue, it’s more of a competitive advantage and something that, you know, all companies are having to do if they want to serve the customer better, right? So, I love it. I think that it’s great. I think big data is amazing. I think that what we’re doing at SOASTA or beginning to kind of embark on with Buddy and Philip from LogNormal and me coming in and having the RUM experience from Walmart and really delivering that product line, I think it’s not always gonna be about that performance, it’s gonna really be about human behavior and how can we sort of predict what that user is going to do next or what their behavior might be on a site, so we can think more about what should we actually be testing, on which we actually should be spending our time, what should we be optimizing and, you know, what kind of things and behaviors are driving people away. Buddy introduced something yesterday that he has talked about before called the LD50. The lethal dose basically where you guys have the performance poverty line at Strangeloop, our shtick may be the LD50 where you’re looking at what point the user starts bouncing or exiting a site when performance gets to that level and sort of understanding that in a broad spectrum, but in a multifaceted way where you’re looking at multiple dimensions, whether it is browser, device type, geography, whatever it might be, it’s just really about creating better quality and also providing more input into that whole development life cycle where functional requirements come in from the business and marketing and all the way through to where we’re supporting production.
Joshua Bixby: Yeah. I saw an interesting startup today on the New York Times, New York based. Its goal is to allow people to sell their information, so, you know, I could track all of my browsing history and then sell it back to either a conglomerate of vendors or vendors who might want to buy that information.
Cliff Crocker: Wow.
Joshua Bixby: Yeah. I don’t know where it’s gonna go, but I thought, you know, this whole world of privacy and tracking and what we do and how we interact with it, how we time it, it’s interesting and I thought that, you know, it definitely caught my interest. I was like wow, that’s interesting.
Cliff Crocker: Yeah. Crowdsourcing is very powerful and I think what we wanna do is, well, start to feed all that data back into the industry whether it’s in a way that’s free, that we can all kind of consume it and understand how different industries perform, different verticals perform so we can kind of provide more contextual intelligence and get more contextual intelligence to our own data. It’s extremely powerful and really why I’m doing it cos the questions always change and more things you can do with the data.
Joshua Bixby: So, you have this great gig at Walmart, you’re collecting information, you’re analyzing it, you’re in big data heaven and SOASTA obviously had something pretty attractive. What attracted you, I mean, I don’t think SOASTA is a household name for most people yet, so I guess, give us, what was attractive about it and why, like, you’re a high-value asset, why did you go there?
Cliff Crocker: You know, I think that I had given myself a timeline and said, hey, I wanna do this for a while, but I don’t wanna stay here, I wanna move, I wanna actually, you know, do something that’s gonna have more impact at a global level as opposed to use within one organization, so it was parting on great terms first of all with Walmart, but really the reason that I thought SOASTA was so attractive was back to your point about vendors and partnerships. Before I even get into the technology and the things they’re good at, they were a company with a lot of integrity, you know, when I was dealing with a sales rep it wasn’t dealing with a sales rep, it was dealing with an account manager and a guy that I could call and talk to and, you know…
Joshua Bixby: Who knew something about the product.
Cliff Crocker: Exactly, yeah.
Joshua Bixby: Not just what the discounts were this quarter.
Cliff Crocker: Exactly. Exactly. You know, not how much he was gonna let me beat him up on price or whatever, it was more about getting the work done and just the innovative people there and how much the people really loved working there and really loved the direction of the company. But all that aside and that’s all nice and warm and fuzzy, these are guys are really smart, these guys have done this, you know, the two founders, Ken Gardner, who I report to, the executive chairman, and Tom Lounibos, have been doing this for a while and have had several other successful startups and the thing that Ken, really attracting about Ken and the reason that we work well together was really his history with real-time analytics and data and that was something that they started doing years ago and had perfected with one of their previous companies and we started putting the dots together and realizing, hey, we can start to deal with this data in a real-time way and also do it with some real-time visualizations and the visualization part of it kind of had me sold in terms of, you know, playing with the data, making it beautiful, breaking the mold, you know, not just developing yet another monitoring product, but doing something where could be different and really kind of change the way people look at real user measurement.
Joshua Bixby: And then you guys obviously bought a real user measurement company two days, yesterday. Tell me about that.
Cliff Crocker: Yeah. I might’ve had a little something to do with that. So, Buddy was actually the guy who I brought on to help me to get up and running with Boomerang at Walmart and I, again, met him through the web perf meetup through Aaron’s meetup there and I always loved working with Buddy, but he wasn’t a guy that I was ever gonna be able to hire and he and Philip started this great thing with LogNormal. I loved the way that they were actually, the approach that they were taking with the data, very statistical and analytical approach to measuring data and a sensible way of doing it, so, you know, rather than kind of strike out and, you know, try and find and build a team of people that could adapt and learn about performance and really sort of build that up again, which will take some time and is hard to do, I thought what a great idea to actually go out and talk to these guys and see if your interests are in line enough for them to actually come join us and do this together. So, it was a process of several months. Taking about partnership, looking, you know, do we do this ourselves, do we, you know, how do we actually win in this space and it just ended up making sense and I, you know, couldn’t be happier about the decision. I’m very excited to work with those guys, very humbled and, you know, when I sit down and talk with Philip or Buddy about their ideas and their thoughts, it’s just exciting and it’s fun again, so.
Joshua Bixby: And, I mean, I’ve met Buddy a number of occasions and I echo your sentiments, smart dude, we’re actually gonna have him on the podcast here, so, people will get to hear for themselves. Tell me about where measurements goes, I mean, as you said, and I’ve always thought this, the market hasn’t changed that much over the last 10 years, I mean, the browsers have changed, but not much else has. We have more simulation of real end users, we’re getting closer to, you know, people are understanding that you have to use a real browser and it’s important to have a location that mimics a real end user and a bandwidth that mirrors a real end user, what’s changing?
Cliff Crocker: Well, I think what’s changing is the fact that simulations, you know, while they have served us well and they have done a good job to this point, there are absolutely no replacement for human behavior and I think that’s really what’s driving this, is that instead of a world where we base everything on synthetic and live and die by our Gomez Keynote web page test numbers, I’d rather live in a world that we’re actually basing it on what we’re measuring from the end user. So, I think leading with that as opposed to leading with synthetic is really what’s changing and how it is going to be different and also, you know, setting some new metrics or coming up with some new metrics that just make more sense. I think what we’re big on is the fact that, you know, whether you’re at Walmart or, you know, Target or whatever sites you might be Asda or Tesco, what’s important to that company is their number and what their goal is and really looking at their own data instead of trying to base their, you know, their studies on something that Google did or Amazon did or Shopzilla did or Walmart did, when I take that same model and really see, you know, what makes sense for our customers and our users, where is the LD50 or performance poverty line for our businesses as opposed, you know, the rest of the industry.
Joshua Bixby: And do you think it’s varied? I mean, do you think Walmart is different than Target?
Cliff Crocker: Well, I think that everyone and every company that I’ve ever talked to or consulted with thinks they’re different and I think that’s…
Joshua Bixby: Are they?
Cliff Crocker: I think that there are different types of customers. I think that, you know, whether you’re…if you’re selling something at Walmart that someone could easily pop over to Amazon and buy because the page is slower and it’s not loading, it’s different than if you’re a specialty store and selling something that someone absolutely has to have from that store, like a cheese shop or something, right? So, I think that they are different. I think that what’s not different is really the fact that we do see some level of drop off, we do see some level of engagement where people are just getting more and more and more impatient or more expecting, you know, to be delighted as Philip would put it, you know, by providers like, you know, Walmart and everyone else, so I think that expectations are growing at the same rate, but I think that behaviors might vary enough and not even just between industries, but, you know, one of the study that we did that you guys have posted on your blog as well and talked about was basically where performance changes is depending on the type of product you’re looking at, that patience or that tolerance for someone who is buying something like an iPad is going to be, you know, much greater than someone who is buying PowerBait or, you know, something else off the site, right?
Joshua Bixby: Yeah and that’s very interesting, almost within segments of the product line one has different tolerance, right?
Cliff Crocker: Exactly.
Joshua Bixby: I know that for myself. I’m buying a car right now and I’ll spend a good 20 minutes on a page, you know, and I’ll wait for it because I want to see what capabilities and…
Cliff Crocker: A very Flash-heavy page.
Joshua Bixby: Yeah, I mean, I don’t like it, but I definitely wait because, you know, it’s a big purchase and I’m gonna take some time, so I get that, I mean, as somebody who preaches that every second counts, I must admit, in my own behavior sometimes I definitely will spend more time on one thing than I will on the other. That makes a lot of sense to me.
Cliff Crocker: And I think, you know, back to sort of your original point, that it hasn’t really changed that much. I think that it has and it hasn’t, but also this whole mobile thing that, you know, isn’t just a fad anymore, has really changed the game as well because it has made it harder again for developers to get give a fast user experience that people are expecting, you know, same speeds over carrier lines that they are over, you know, DSL or whatever.
Joshua Bixby: Yeah. No, I know, that’s something I’ve been spending my time thinking about the presenting on, which is how do cell phones work and why are they slow and, you know, that’s definitely a real area of interest.
Cliff Crocker: Right.
Joshua Bixby: What have you learnt at Velocity that’s new, net new, like, you’re gonna take back to the shop and say, holy smokes! Everyone needs to download this slide, anything?
Cliff Crocker: Well, actually, I, embarrassingly, wasn’t able to attend your talk.
Joshua Bixby: So, there you go. That was like six of the slides I was thinking, that was like a soft ball for you. Other than the genius that I presented, any other one or two slides that stick out?
Cliff Crocker: And it was only because Steve organized the track in a way that LogNormal presenting at the same time as you were, otherwise I would’ve been there.
Joshua Bixby: That’s true. That’s true. You’re one of the only ones that has an excuse, although someone else had to do an intro so I figured they had an excuse too, I can’t remember who it was.
Cliff Crocker: I think aside from that, which I’m sure to be inspired by and motivated by…
Joshua Bixby: I love it. This is good. Keep going. I can hear this forever.
Cliff Crocker: I think, actually, one session I just came out of with Pat Meenan who I’m a huge fan of, he’s my hero. He was doing his whole presentation that had nothing to do with Webpagetest, but had everything to do with single point of failure and SPOF-O-Matic and I think that’s been introduced, you know, for a while and then it sort of died off and now it’s getting really hot again at Velocity in US and here and something that I can talk to customers about from a performance perspective, in terms of being ready for holiday or something. It is not just about load testing, but look for these things and so I think SPOF-O-Matic is great. I’m excited about that.
Joshua Bixby: That’s cool. I was beta testing that early on and loved it, like, I was so excited using it, so I’m a big fan of that stuff too.
Cliff Crocker: Yeah. Absolutely. So, if I had to say there’s obviously something I learn with every talk even if it’s someone who has recycled their slides 12 times and I’m not gonna call out any names or anything, but I think that every single one of those talks…
Joshua Bixby: We all recycle a bit, but there should be some, you know, especially a conference of this magnitude, you should put some original thought into I think.
Cliff Crocker: Yeah. I was actually, you know, sort of silently referring to Steve’s slides that aren’t so great, but…
Joshua Bixby: Of all the guys, he is kind of known for the same shtick.
Cliff Crocker: Absolutely.
Joshua Bixby: It’s like when you go McDonalds, you expect a burger to be the same every time, you know.
Cliff Crocker: But you get something new every single time. I take something new from it every time I hear it or I hear something in a different way or I think of a new question to ask and what I love about Velocity is the fact that it’s the hallway track…
Joshua Bixby: Yeah, we can hear it in the background here, you can hear the hallway track, we’re in the hallway track.
Cliff Crocker: Absolutely. It’s the networking, it’s the talking, it’s the ideas and the community and the companies that get started and then companies that have successful exits and all circle around Velocity that I think is just amazing. So, it’s an amazing community. It’s been amazing to me, I mean, I have a lot to be thankful for this whole movement or whatever you wanna call it because it certainly has created endless opportunities for me.
Joshua Bixby: No, it’s a good tribe. Cliff, thank you.
Cliff Crocker: Yeah.
Joshua Bixby: Take care. I want you to get out, I’m gonna stop this so you can get out. I see some clouds over there…
Cliff Crocker: That’s right.
Joshua Bixby: …kind of in the background.
Cliff Crocker: That’s right, yeah.
Joshua Bixby: So, get out there and enjoy London.
Cliff Crocker: And what was the name of the place again, one more time?
Joshua Bixby: Borough Market.
Cliff Crocker: Borough Market, got it, got it.
Joshua Bixby: Right near London Bridge.
Cliff Crocker: Thanks.
Joshua Bixby: That’s my current…I don’t know when it’s open till, but it’s definitely a lunch place. It’s fantastic.
Cliff Crocker: Okay. Excellent. Thanks for having me.
Joshua Bixby: Okay. Take care. Well, that was great. Thanks for listening and thanks again to Cliff for taking the time out of what was a very, very busy schedule to chat at Velocity. All the links and slides that Cliff and I spoke about are available on the blog, webperformancetoday.com/podcast. If you have a suggestion for a future podcast, topic or guest, please drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. Any and all suggestions are welcome. I’ve had some crazy ones and I’m trying to book some of those crazy chats and I look forward to more. Have a wonderful day. Thanks for listening.