Episode 039: Drew Gorton
Today, it is our privilege to be talking with Drew Gorton, Director of Developer Relations at Pantheon and long time web veteran.
Here's what we're discussing in this podcast:
- Drew's history
- Cherishing our kids
- What is Prairie High School
- Going to St. Olaf College
- How to choose a college major or not
- Teaching English in Japan
- Learning to swim and function in an unknown culture
- Starting a tech career in Japan of all places
- Building world cultural exchange with websites
- Building Gorton Studios
- Access a database? We don't need no stinkin' ticket!
- Contributing Backup and Migrate Drupal modules
- Becoming a part of the Pantheon family
- The joy of leading wonderful teams
- The joy of cooking
- The nerd and his love of science fiction
IVAN STEGIC: Hey Everyone! You’re listening to the TEN7 Podcast, where we get together every fortnight, and sometimes more often, to talk about technology, business and the humans in it. I am your host Ivan Stegic. In this episode of the Podcast, Drew Gorton, Director of Developer Relations at Pantheon. Drew’s been involved with the web in some capacity, going back to 1996, while teaching English in Japan. He started Gorton Studios here in Minneapolis in 2001, and then in 2015 their product NodeSquirrel was acquired by Pantheon, where he now leads their Developer Relations team. I’m so glad to be able to call him a colleague, a fellow Drupaler and a friend. Drew, it’s my pleasure to welcome you to the Podcast.
DREW GORTON: Wow! It’s my honor as well. You dug into the history vault for that one. I don’t think I have a Wikipedia with me today. How did you come up with all of that? (laughing) All true?
IVAN: (laughing). It’s all true. Well, I kind of looked at your LinkedIn profile, to be honest.
DREW: Oh right! I suppose I probably have some information on there. Alright. (laughing)
IVAN: (laughing) Well, let’s start at the beginning. The beginning of Drew Gorton. So, where did you grow up?
DREW: I grew up in Southeast Wisconsin. So, between Milwaukee and Chicago. It’s a town called Racine and it’s about 80-90-100,000, somewhere in there. My parents still live in the house I grew up in. I was there through high school and that’s kind of poignant for me, because we’ve talked about this before, but, I now have two high school aged children. One of whom is a senior this year, and I’m very aware of the fact that after I left for college, I never went back home again to live. This is one of the things, as a parent who enjoys his adult sons, realizing like “whoa, wait, I might have limited amount of time with them.” But, yea, I came up here, into the Minneapolis area for school, and then after graduating, lived abroad for a while, and did some other things, but then came back and settled down. I’ve basically been in Minneapolis for twentyish years and doing web and Drupalee things for much of it.
IVAN: I know how you feel with the adult kids and leaving home. Interesting to think that once you leave, it’s still in your brain somehow, but you never really think about going back, and now the opposite is happening. It really teaches you to cherish those moments with those adults and kids.
IVAN: Now on your LinkedIn profile, it said you went to the Prairie School. What is the Prairie School? (laughing)
DREW: Wow! You did dig. Yea, that was the high school I graduated from, Racine. So, Racine is big enough to have a few high schools, so they have three of them. Prairie is a college prep school. It was actually a really good change for me. I went to where I grew up, actually was kind of on a boundary that kept changing. So, I never went to a school for more than two years before transferring over to Prairie. As a kid I was actually not terribly well adjusted to social niceties. I didn’t get other kids. So, basically that means that and the frequent switching of schools, meant I was a pretty isolated kid, and I was doing really badly in school. Despite having all sorts of potential and doing well on standardized tests and things like that, I was kind of feeling output and a bit of a discipline problem. So my parents decided a change was needed, and they packed me off to the college prep school, and it was a pretty fantastic change. I really was glad they did that. I don’t know what bridge I’d be living under if I hadn’t had that big change there. (laughing) Probably not a bridge, but, yea, it was a good change. So, Prairie’s a small college prep school in Racine. So, I graduate glass of thirtyish kids.
IVAN: You’re a liberal arts graduate. You started a web company. You sold a product company. Now you lead a group of engineers. So, tell me about your time at St. Olaf. What did you come out thinking you would actually be doing?
DREW: So, I went to college thinking I was going to become an architect. I was intent on studying math and physics as an undergrad, and then going and doing architecture essentially post-grad. By the end of my freshman year I was convinced that physics sucked. Looking back, I’m aware now that that was just really a couple of bad profs, basically. The teaching was not great, and at the time, what I knew was, this is not interesting, I don’t know why I used to like this, it’s just really boring. And, these other classes that I’m taking are pretty exciting and interesting, and I’m really getting into them. That was enough to push me out of physics, and then that started a slow evolution that, actually in my senior year ended with me totally flipping my majors around to Spanish and religion with effectively a minor in math. I needed like two more classes to have a triple major, but I decided not to kill myself. That was part of what I was actually up to. I kept a math major all the way through because I thought, basically, well, math is employable somehow, probably. Right? I don’t think I can pull that off with a philosophy degree. In my senior year I just decided, “No, it’s fine.” I was in a seminar about fractal and chaos theory, which I really enjoyed, but it didn’t have a lot to do with bookkeeping, and I just decided if I’m really holding onto this with majors in an attempt to be employable, I’ll move up four semesters past the point where any business is going to care about this, and so, I’ll just go do the things I’m having fun with. So, I ended up with the philosophy and religion degree, and Spanish. The love of Spanish happened actually also from my time at Prairie, is when it started. My senior year at Prairie I had a friend who was an exchange student, and I actually got to be good friend with him. And at the end of my senior year, I actually went to visit him in Spain for about a month, and it was really an impactful visit, and it really turned Spanish from being a class that I would joke around in and not really do very well in, in high school, to something that I really, really enjoyed, because I was happy to get to interact with people in this hitherto, you just be like kind of purposeless thing in my mind, but all of a sudden it opened up the ability to communicate with the family and the friends and all of the people. When I started college, I knew I actually wanted to continue doing Spanish and maybe study abroad. And, I did all those things. And, I did it enough that my major was right there, as I was contemplating “what do I want to do? I need to graduate soon. What are the majors I want to do?” And, Spanish was one of the choices.
IVAN: So, are you bilingual or trilingual? Because I know you taught English in Japan, and we’ve talked about Japan in the past, you and I. But, I don’t recall.
DREW: Yea. So, those are tricky things to claim. My English is better than both of them. My Spanish is pretty good. At one point in time I would’ve been able to have a conversation like this at the natural speed in Spanish, and I possibly could still do that. Although, I’m sure there’d be words I’d search for, and every so often I get into a new situation where I do speak Spanish, and that happens, but I can usually just explain around it and be like, “What’s the word for forehead? You know, the thing that’s above your eyes and below your hair? What’s that thing called?” You know, I can say those kinds of things. (laughing) My Japanese used to be quite good as well. I went from no Japanese on arrival in Japan, to being able to do things like lease a car and sign an agreement, and certainly, obviously, live there. We were there for three years and just lived in a professional society and do all of the things that you need to do to survive and thrive in a different environment. But, my written and reading of Japanese, is not nearly as good. Japanese is a hard language to truly master. There’s a ranking system, like an official Japanese government, like your level of proficiency in Japanese, and it’s got four levels and wow, I think I’m a three. One is like, University Professor, can really be incredibly articulate and read and write, and a lot of the focus is on reading and writing. And, basically, my level of Japanese is conversational, like, this person can live in Japan and read a newspaper article and converse, but they’re not going to write a paper. A research paper in Japanese would’ve been out of my grip at the time and like nowadays I look back. I got notes I would take in Japanese, every so often actually we moved houses two or three years ago, and I had occasion to look back and discover a notebook that I had written, and seeing your own handwriting and being like “what in God’s name?” (laughing) I was like “oh, man”. I mean I obviously knew this at one point in time, but I really have to struggle to figure out what I wrote down. Like recipes for example, like talking with friends, got recipes, like, wow, ok, is that chicken or is that pork? (laughing) Yea
IVAN: It must’ve been fascinating to immerse yourself in a completely unknown culture and society, and then have to learn how to swim and function?
DREW: Yea. It was an awesome opportunity, and it definitely shaped a lot of who I am today. I know that for a fact. It’s hard to know exactly how that happened. You know, like to isolate the specific things, but I know that at the point in which I left for Japan, I had, at that point in time, lived in Spain. I spent basically a year in Spain, and so had some level of familiarity with “Ok, it’s different, but, it’s also kind of the same. We’re all just people, we like to eat food, some people are nice, some people aren’t. Going to Japan was an additional level of that. Between Spain and Europe in general, and the United States, there’s a lot of shared, cultural, kinds of influences. So, historically, Europe is dominated by Christianity for example. A lot of that is here present in the United States, and so there are just cultural touchpoints and understandings and such that are Judeo Christian in background. Whereas, you go to Japan, and it’s very different. You don’t have that. That’s just a completely different world view. At the same time, we all like to eat, some people are nice, some people are less nice, some people are welcome with strangers, some people aren’t, so. There are a lot of commonalities again, but, there was enough differences that it also just gave me a cleaner understanding of what it is to be human, in a way that you can see through a few more layers and realize just how much each of us is a product of the stories we tell and the civilizations we celebrate and the histories that we remember and share.
IVAN: And you taught English there, and you weren’t there alone, were you?
DREW: That’s right. Yes. I was there for three years. I taught English in a high school. I was fortunate enough to be in a high school that was considered one of the better high schools in the area. So, I had kids who were motivated to learn and engage in the classroom, and that’s a great situation to be in as a teacher. But, then I was there with my wife as well. We had both lived individually, separately, in different countries. I got married soon after college. I lived in Spain, she lived, at the time, in Czechoslovakia, but currently Czech Republic. We had these amazing experiences, and we felt, ”I learned a lot while I was there, you learned a lot when you were there. You have all these stories. I have all these stories. What if we did something together?” About a year after being married, both of us were in jobs, that we're, paying the rent, but not terribly interesting and we decided, well, now is the time to do it. We actually looked to Latin America, primarily, as the place to go. She has four brothers and sisters, five total, who had all been born in either Venezuela or Mexico, because her parents had lived there for, I think, 17 years or 20 years -- a long time, in combination of those two countries, as American ex-pats. So, she grew up with all the stories of Mexico and Venezuela and some light Spanish being spoken in the house and used for household terms. So, there was again, with both of us, there was a touchstone to Spanish. However, Latin America was not a place either of us had lived before, and we decided “well, let’s go try and figure out what we can do. Latin America will be new for both of us, but also, it feels like it’s also something nearby to both of us.” And, we ended up looking around to these things and applied to something called the JET Program (Japanese Exchange Teaching Program), on a fluke basically. Someone said “Oh, well hey, while you’re looking at things international, there’s this one thing, you could fill out the paperwork.” We were like “Japan, that’s weird. Ok. Alright, it’ll be good for the experience, right?” So, we filled out the paperwork, wrote the essays – whatever the things were – and then kind of forgot about it. And like two or three months later they followed up with us. We got a letter. It was like “Hey, I really loved your applications. You should come to Chicago to interview at the Consulate.” We’re like “Japan? Chicago? I don’t want to go to Chicago.” (laughing) “Wait”. And I’m like “Your sister is in Chicago. She’s kind of fun, we can go hang out with her and like we’ll spend the weekend, we’ll do that, and then maybe we’ll do this thing, and then we’ll just come back and whatever.” We’re like “it’ll be a good experience.” So, then we went, we went to the Consulate, we had this fun weekend, and then again, like two or three months later, we kind of forgot about it, and then they wrote, and they said, “we would like to send you to Japan.” We’re like “Um, really!” (laughing) Then we just, again, kind of went with it. Like “Well, okay. It can’t be that bad, right? It should be fun. We can do anything for a year, right?” So, we went for a one-year contract and then it was renewable after three years and we did that. Went through for three years. Three years turned out to be a natural breakpoint, just because of the way the Visa system works. We could have stayed longer, but it was just getting to a natural endpoint, and we looked around and saw other ex-patriots there, and we saw that it was basically three years, another cut off at seven years and you know, then you’re there for life. We were kind of thinking maybe we’d start a family and things like that. So, it was a hard decision at the time, but it was also a good decision. So, we came back, in Minneapolis, basically ever since.
IVAN: While you were in Japan, were you thinking about, or were you involved in the tech scene in any way? Or, did that come after you got back to the United States?
DREW: It started in Japan, actually. I graduated from college in 1994, and, one of the guys I lived with at the time in 1994, got really excited about the web, and he told me, he took me aside and said, “Hey Drew, I think you’d really like this.” His name was Ted, a successful electrical engineer. He helps design chips these days. He took me aside and he was like, “Drew I think you’d really like this.” I remember he showed me the screen and he said, “hey, look at this, you could find things all around the world.” I remember being totally not impressed. I was like “Ted, that’s super nerdy. Let’s go have a beer.” (laughing) And like, thinking like, “whatever, we’re playing cards. Come on. Join us.” I think I talked him into it. He was like “no, you’ll really like this.” I was like “Ted, I’m sure I would. Have a beer.” Then I went and lived in Japan and that was an isolating experience. That was 1995 to 1998. At the same time, the web was starting to grow, and actually, probably in 1996, I realized I’m using email to keep in touch with my family. These things are emergent and real and new patterns. I started wanting to give those same opportunities to my kids, the kids I was teaching, and so I started studying email exchanges with students who were also learning English in different countries. So, Scandinavia, and then also we ended up with kids in Northern Ireland we were communicating with, who, obviously spoke English quite well. Then the next extension of that was, “Hey, what if we could create little pages about ourselves, and post a picture, and put something together, and use that and just get a little bit more of a sense of who these other people are.” So, we started doing that back and forth, again, with the students in these different countries. It was just transformational. It was like, I could see the same exchange happen for my students that happened for me when I lived in Spain. I thought “this is real. I’m talking to someone who’s actually very real.” I see their face. I see that person. They’re really huge. I want to communicate with that person and put a little extra effort into it. Now, English was not a subject you needed to take to pass a test in order to get into a good university. It was those things, yes, but also actually this really cool thing -- you could learn in order to communicate with somebody impossibly far away. The world has really shrunk a lot in the last twenty years. Talking about this now it sounds incredibly old timery, in like, my kids don’t have a sense of this at all. But at the time it was just really eye opening to me, and I knew that I wanted to be involved with this technology, basically, right away. I was like “well, I’m teaching here, this is good.” When I came back, I knew I wanted to be involved with web stuff. What that meant. How you do that – I didn’t know. But, I saw it as a technology that was fundamentally transformable, and it was powerful, and there are philosophically a number of things that were really attractive to me. The freedom to interact with people around the world regardless of what you look like; what language you might speak, although you need at least a common one; what your belief structure is; your gender. All of those things can be stripped away, and you could interact with folks everywhere. That’s transformative. And, still, we’re not done yet. We’re still in the early days of the web, but it is a fundamental building block in building a world culture, basically. Like this is still transforming the way that we think and identify ourselves, and, while there are all sorts of instances of people doing not so great things with these tools, fundamentally, I think it continues to be a transformative power for the good.
IVAN: I agree with that, and I hope it continues to do that. It’s always been an ideal. I remember when the web started. I was in high school and in South Africa and we were completely isolated, and we just started becoming reintegrated into the world, and at the same time the internet was starting to connect us. I remember being overjoyed with the idea that I could connect on this level playing field, with everybody else. I still believe, and I think you do too, that this is something that will transform our world and our culture. It’s had a little bit of bad press lately, the last few years (laughing), but I think we both still believe in the ideal that maybe this is just a bump in the road.
DREW: Well, I do believe that. I think it was perhaps a naïve, sort of, my own like “Wow, I’m connecting with people.” But, there are many people who grow up and are in environments that push them towards extremism and have situations that are way less privileged than mine. So, it is changing the world. We are becoming a worldwide civilization. It turns out there are a lot of people with strikingly different ideas for what good is, and what should we be doing. And so, there are some pretty horrendous activities that happen in the name of what presumably people think are the right things to do. But, still fundamentally, we are so much more connected today, and we’re starting to learn more about each other, and that’s not without friction for sure. I guess, overall, fundamentally, I believe that that friction is probably a necessary part of learning about each other.
IVAN: And, I think as it matures, and as we learn about those frictions, we can learn to adapt to them. And my hope is that ultimately, we evolve past all of the trouble and past all of the issues that we have. So, you landed in Minneapolis. You chose Minneapolis, and you immediately founded Gorton Studios. Or, was there an interim period?
DREW: There was an interim period there, yes. What we immediately did was, we both earned a pretty nice salary while we were in Japan, we were able to use that to pay off student debts, which was great, came back and had some money saved, And then had actually paid into the equivalent of social security in Japan. When you leave Japan, and say like, thank you I’ve paid in social security, can I have that money back? They say “Yes”. That’s very kind of them. I don’t know that other countries do that. So, you file some paperwork, and then you get a nice big, lump sum. Anyway, we went back. My wife’s parents live in Minneapolis. We lived in their basement. Low rent. Would do things like make meals together and play cards every night. After six months, all of a sudden, we realized money is running short, and we didn’t have jobs. We knew we would take awhile to let our heads clear, after being abroad for so long. And, then, came back and again, like six months later, realized “Oh, we can’t stay retired forever. We should do something.” (laughing) Which was really a bummer. Retirement was great! I liked it. So, both of us actually went back to jobs we had been doing before. At the time for me, that meant going back to the insurance company I had been working for, where I did tech support. I told them “look, I’ll do tech support. This is fine. I don’t want to do this long-term. What I really want to do is this web stuff. However, all of the docs are web documents. So, I ended up taking over internal websites and then did that for about a year, to the point where I could legitimately call myself, “Alright, I’m actually pretty good with this stuff.” I was troubleshooting it for other people and, again, maintaining a pretty large site, without the advantages of things like PHP and maintaining a site by hand that had 5,000 pages of it. It was just like our internal help documentation.
IVAN: Service (inaudible) are your friends at that point.
DREW: It couldn’t have been there, but I don’t think we used them at all. It was like the header, and you got 100 docs that have 5 links to the top and somewhere along the way you copy/pasted the wrong header, and now you’ve got like 600 docs that have a (laughing) slightly different version, footer, and everything else. Oh yea, it was a beautiful way to learn that you don’t manage this by hand. So, then I went from there to a web development job at a dotcom startup, and that lasted about a year. I really enjoyed some of the people I worked with and the work we were doing. We were doing, what we were calling it at the time, webcasting, which was taking television feeds and putting them online using RealPlayer.
IVAN: RealPlayer. Wow!
DREW: We were using RealPlayer, and I think the Windows Media was maybe out in some format at that point. But we used RealPlayer and at least one other one. We also had some custom stuff that allowed us to basically advance slides for recorded versions. So, at the time it was like a ways ahead of things. But, we never had a repeat customer. It was very clear, to me, that it was not worth what we were selling it for. I went independent. I’d been moonlighting at the time, and then that just really took off. I went independent in 2001, I remember incorporating January 2001, and essentially it worked out, despite the fact that the dotcom crash and other things happened in short succession there, but I had enough clients lined up and enough savings, and other things. There were some dark years in there, where I worked many, many, many, many, long hours and, but made it. The lean years were probably done within three or four, and then I was able to start growing a team; had an awesome team, with folks such as Lynn Winter on it. Lynn was probably with us for eight, maybe even longer, years. Before that she was a client. I was really blessed to have an awesome team of people who incredibly stuck around for a long time, and just really great quality people.
IVAN: Yea, Gorton Studios existed for about 14 years, and I think you guys made some significant contributions to Drupal and to the Drupal community. Most notably, I think, Backup in Migrate. Right? Like, that’s one of the top 10 modules of all time that Drupal uses, and that was something you and Ronin created. I’m going to go out on the limb here and say you wrote some of the initial code with Ronin? Or, Ronin wrote some of the initial code with you? Basically, this was your baby?
DREW: Yea. It was much more Ronin’s baby than mine. I contributed small bits, and like any open source thing, it started out as a scratch, you have an itch. We were dealing with a host at the time, there was no access to the database, unless you filed a support ticket, and if they weren’t prompt about getting back to you, you were like, “Hey, I guess I can’t work with the production data, which I kind of need in order to duplicate this thing, so I can build the next thing, whatever it is.” And, like one day while noodling this over and being really frustrated, I think Ronin and I were kind of maybe batting this around out loud, and essentially realized, “You know actually does have read and write access to this database? Drupal. Drupal itself. We don’t need no stinkin' file system, filing some stinkin' ticket. We’ll just write a thing that allows us to actually just grab all the stuff.” So, the first version of Backup and Migrate was an internal tool only, and we called it DB Dump. It was really straightforward, and then we used to grab all the things and then we added like, “Oh, actually what we don’t want is like cache, and stuff like that, so we had to exclude these things, and then over time we realized, actually we even got some clients, we got like all the zip codes in the United States. So rather than just defaulting to exclude cache, how about we interface to be able to exclude other tables like that. If you don’t need 50 megs of zip codes, or whatever it was, on every single DB dump that you want, go ahead and exclude those. So, that was absolutely it. Then, we realized over time, actually I wonder, this could be a tool, a better thought was this could be a tool to move back and forth between environments. Then we decided, “You know, we should contribute this back. I don’t’ know if anybody else wanted this thing, but maybe somebody else has a crappy situation and then contributed it back. It was early enough, and enough other people had this particular pain point for ease of moving things back and forth, that it really took off. Then, once it’s popular…
IVAN: …then you have to maintain it.
DREW: Yea, you have to maintain it, absolutely have to maintain it. But, we also saw it as a way to give back. We, at the time, were working a lot with Drupal and felt like it was providing just a tremendous amount of value to us, and it was like just trying to be an open source citizen basically. There’s so much that we’re getting from this platform from this community, we’re just going to toss them this one little tiny thing. We tried to toss it more than one little tiny thing. There were other things that we contributed in time, and money & other things. It was definitely a concrete example of “Let’s try and give something back,” which is probably 5% of the value if you were to somehow quantify everything that we got out of Drupal. It would be fractional, but we were devoted to giving back, not nothing, but again, it just felt like a good citizenships kind of thing initially. Then, people say appreciative things and that becomes its own, sort of, reason to continue. People say, “this is an awesome module.” You’re like “really? You’ve heard of my module? That’s crazy.” Then you hear that a bunch of times and you’re like “oh, well, that’s pretty cool. I like it when people like me. Maybe I’ll keep working on it.”
IVAN: I remember using Backup and Migrate for the first time and being so thankful that it existed and then I was curious like, “who made this? Where did this come from?” I went to the page and was like, Ronin and Drew? Hold on a second (laughing), I love these guys. It was awesome. So NodeSquirrel was like an actual extension of Backup and Migrate right? It was another itch that you wanted to scratch, right?
DREW: Yea. Totally. Again, that had been a light discussion for many years, like “oh, we should think about a product.” Because when you’re a services company…I don’t know…we certainly did it, and I hear others do it a lot, like “I wonder if we could build a product. It’s great that we can go ahead and bill clients, but we always have to find a new client.” You know, if it gets tiresome you feel like you’re like a hamster on a wheel, sort of thing, like “we should build product.” I think that’s a common, sort of, thought process and I have strong opinions about that as well, and absolutely something we can talk about. I gave a session at DrupalCon about this a few years ago. I think DrupalCon Barcelona, something about bridging the gap, doing products as a service to this company. And, at one point in time, Ronin just actually said, “You know what? I can just do this. I’m just going to do this in my spare time. I’m just going to do it to like, goof around, and see if I can build it. I’m going to challenge myself with something to build, to see if I can build a hosted version, basically a host destination for databases, that would be secure, and off site, and something you can just rely on.” And, he knocked it together using Drupal, so obviously a Drupal module feeds it – Backup and Migrate. The site where you would go to find out more about it, well, actually there was no marketing site to start off with. But, then he built the receiver on the other end, which was a Drupal site, with a bunch of Drupal modules in it, including quite a bit of stuff for the storing of the databases and stuff, which was custom of a lot of the functionality, it was just standard stuff. It was views for admins being able to see things listed, etc. And, then, he basically brought it in and said, “You know what? I’ve been having a lot of fun with this, and it’s cool, but I don’t know what to do next, and it’s just basically been a pet project, but I think it might have legs. I think it might go somewhere. Would Gorton Studios like in on this?” That started off a lot of conversations like, “Well, that’s cool. I don’t want to take your baby.” Like there was a lot of dance back and forth, like “you built this thing. Are you sure?” His feedback was basically “Yea, I am sure, because I’ve done all the programing, that’s fun, now it needs like marketing and branding, and stuff. Like nobody’s ever going to do this, I don’t think.” And, I don’t know, like, those next gaps were totally opaque to him, and actually, frankly, to all of us, but we knew maybe how to take a crack at it. So, he brought in Gorton Studios, we had a little charter we formed at the time, and we ran it as an independent company. Underneath Gorton Studios it said obviously, by Gorton Studios and managed to learn our way and sort of, block our way, into a modest amount of success. It was going well, like graphs off to the right, making the money, etc., which was cool as a product, essentially to the point where it became a problem. So, for me as the CEO, again, it was in 2015, so probably in 2014 I realized that it was growing enough to merit real attention and time. And that was a problem. Like, “Ok, now we’ve been just doing this kind of round the edges in our spare time, but hadn’t really made it a huge push.” We would show up to Drupalcon, have a booth, do other things, but then we’d go home from Drupalcon, go back to our billable work and then maybe remember to tweet once a month, or something like that. Again, it continued growing through all of that, but we realized that…or I realized…I did a lot of thinking…either I need to hire someone to be devoted to this full-time or, we need to sell this to someone who will do that same thing, or well I suppose the other one would have been shut down. But basically, I was looking between those first two more. Like, do we need a full-time, staff this, dedicate actual money, what does it look like, we’re going to break off and again, give it the attention it deserves for the potential that I see in it, or, I can go for the quick win and sell it to somebody and just make gazillions of dollars. (laughing).
IVAN: So, you went for that option.
DREW: Yea. Actually, I did both simultaneously. I spent a lot of time planning those things, and then at the same time, actively talking to folks. Amongst the people I had an early conversation with was Zack Rosen, he’s the CEO of Pantheon, and just wanted to pick his brains. Because Pantheon came out of an agency that had built a product, a platform, and then went on to great success. I kind of wanted to, just the balance and how to do things, we just really started getting into it and had an awesome conversation. It was at a Pantheon partner dinner in the 2014 range, I happened to crash that dinner to hang out with some friends from Think Shout, who are a great agency based in Portland, than I just sat at their booth, and Zack was kind of doing the rounds, like “Hey, I’m Zack Rosen, I’m the President.” Going around and being sociable, and doing all those…like working the room, in a really great way actually…I mean, it was just a very authentic way, but sat down and I was like “hey Zack, I just want to talk to you for a little bit,” and we ended up talking for like three hours. I kind of killed his circuit over the room. And, then we saw each other again and it was like “Wow, we’re just talking, this is really cool.” We talked a few more times at different events over the next two or three months, where we just ended up being together, and we would actually, we just said, alright we’re going to take a couple hours, I’d really like to pick your brains and get a feel for this,” and, at the same time I was really developing a sense of “Aha, I also think Pantheon might be a potential customer for this.” So, I started in the back of my head thinking, “Alright, I’m going to be able to sell this to these guys. That’d be pretty cool. Problem solved. Get some money and good, I’ll go back to continuing this cool agency I’m running.” I think what Zack was doing is like, “Mm hmm, this is an interesting guy. This product could be cool, but I’d like to have him on my team.” So, I think I was selling his notes, and he was selling me Pantheon. It worked out. I’m happy with where we landed. But, yea, that process went through, and actually, when it first was broached actually, I have to give credit to my wife as well. Because, Zack was like, “You know what? We’re kind of interested in buying NodeSquirrel, but I really want you to come with it. You and Ronin as well.” I actually just laughed. I was like, “I can’t speak for Ronin. You talk to Ronin. If Ronin wants to, that’s cool, but I already have a…it’s got my name on it. It’s called Gorton Studios. It’s actually my name. I do a thing already.” And I just kind of laughed. I thought is this like a negotiating technique. That conversation happened to happen in San Francisco. So, when I came home and told my wife, “Hey, honey, the funniest thing happened. I was talking to Zack, and he thought they’d like to hire me too.” I was like, “Can you believe it? That’s just ridiculous.” She had one of those moments of clarity that I remember, she just looked me deep in the eyes and was just like, “Drew, you have been looking for a change.” This is like slap, slap, slap, across the face. “This would be a pretty cool change, wouldn’t it?” Then I just remember thinking “Oh! yea! That would be pretty cool, huh!” (laughing) “How obvious does that have to be before I see it, my goodness. Thank you. Thank you love. I’m so glad I know someone who knows me better than myself.” At least in some ways. So, yea, so I went into it, the next time we had that conversation, with an open mind. And, that’s how it checked out. It’s been great.
IVAN: What’s it like going from being in charge of all the things as a CEO, to being a part of something that’s not yours. It’s not your baby. What’s that like?
DREW: It’s awesome. (laughing) I can say that, because I have a lot. I have just very high confidence in the people I work with, and that was really important to me going in. I wanted to make sure there was a clear roll for me, that I could see myself making a difference, and also, I could see myself having a lot of comfort knowing that other good people were making good decisions that I would agree with. Maybe not every decision, but I would agree with the decision-making process. And, having been a CEO, I’m very aware of the fact that a lot of the decisions that you need to make, are based on imperfect information and that don’t have a clear, “Well, duh, the obvious answer is this.” I mean, if you only got those questions as a CEO, there would be something terribly wrong. That would mean the people who are doing the work didn’t have the power to make decisions. Basically, the only decisions I would derive that I needed to make were always the messy ones, like, all the easy ones were taken care of. And, even many of the hard ones were taken care of. It’s really only the particularly snarly ones. And, so, one of the things I really enjoy now, is a hand over situation, like “hey, I’m going to weigh in. Here’s what I think is going on. Here’s the things I’m able to see. Here are my recommendations. Enjoy.” (laughing) And, I think it’s fantastic. I’ll leave it there.
IVAN: Ok. (laughing) I was actually going to ask you what the best part of your job is right now, but I think you just answered that.
DREW: Well, I enjoy that freedom. I enjoy the ability for me to be able to have less emotion and angst, perhaps tied up in my work. There are pressures with being responsible for the paychecks of others. I’m a manager at Pantheon as well, and I still feel some of those pressures, but it’s far less visceral. At the same time, I’m very aware of the fact, I think one of the things that I learned as a CEO is, all companies are two to three months from going out of business. Every single one. We see that in the companies with massive corporate layoffs. It doesn’t matter what size you are. It’s just possible. As a services business, what you end up doing, is you find a new client. And, of course, you find a new client, because you’ve always been able to find new clients, but you don’t know which client it’s going to be, and there’s always some…that is a real recurring pressure.
DREW: Yea, absolutely. And, so, Pantheon needs to find new clients. It’s a product. But we need to continue doing our work, but not seeing that thing every day is, like I know it’s true, I’m also not, sort of hit with it every moment, and so, I appreciate that. However, coming back to the thing I like the most, I love the fact that I lead yet another great team. So I have this just really cool team with developer relations folks and they’re all experienced, talented, technical people, who have done real work, really interesting stuff elsewhere in the world, Drupal and WordPress and some other systems as well, and they’ve done it well enough to get to a certain level of experience and expertise, and accolade from people around them, but then they’ve also got personalities that are just really warm and open and welcoming. They give talks at different camps and they make friends with lots of people, and they’re just a really warm, wonderful group of people. So, listeners of the Podcast might know, for example, David Needham, who is a Minneapolis ex-resident, who lives in Illinois these days, but he’s a member of the team. Steve Persch also on the Drupal’s team, used to be from Palantir, lived in Chicago, then Milwaukee, now he’s actually in Minneapolis, actually, in the last few months.
IVAN: Hi Steve! We should get Steve on the Podcast.
DREW: You absolutely should get Steve on the Podcast. He’s a great person.
IVAN: I think that would be great.
DREW: Yea. And then Dwayne. Anybody who has ever gone to the Drupal camp has probably met Dwayne. Dwayne is our road warrior. All of us get out on the road. Then we got Tessa here, locally in the community as well. She’s a little bit more active with WordPress, but again, just these fantastic people. And, Andrew Taylor in Portland, these days. Again, more visible in the WordPress space, but again, all of these folks have given sessions at Drupalcon. And again, I love the fact that I work with these great people. What we try to do is cross pollinate best ideas, best practices and help others do their jobs better, and yes, we like it if you use Pantheon as part of that. We hope that we're spreading best practices, like continuous integration and other things like that. People will pick them up and use them however they want, but take the code rebuild, fork it, make it your own thing and use it to make your agency more effective. And it’s really easy, Pantheon, because it’s a pretty great platform. I really wish Gorton Studios had discovered it, it would’ve saved us a lot of freaking hassles. Servers are not fun. I used to end up dealing with servers more often than the rest of the team, and so I felt it perhaps a little bit more acutely, but servers suck. (laughing)
IVAN: I’d rather someone else did them as well.
DREW: Oh man. Yea.
IVAN: I have to say I’m very impressed with and have always appreciated, the amount of contribution and care that Pantheon takes about open sourcing as many of the things that you guys are working on as possible. You mentioned Zack early on, and I remember TEN7 and myself being very interested in Pantheon, very early on. One of the things that struck me was the authenticity that I felt, that Pantheon had, and it felt like you guys were the small fish going up against the bigger fish, and I think you’ve been able to swim upstream, and I see only good things coming forth from Pantheon. I’m glad to see that.
DREW: Thank you. Yea. That’s a great word to describe it. So, Zack is incredibly authenticate, and so is the rest of the leadership too. Just all good people who might disagree on the way to do something, but not the why. We want to make life better for our customers. Like “Ok, good, we all agree, great. Now what are we doing tomorrow?” And, to have a team around, which you could have a great dialogue about things like that. Again, you might not agree with exactly the outcome, but you also agree “Look, there’s a lot of stuff going on here, we need you to make an expedient decision. The decision is made. Let’s do it.” That feels great too. “Right, we’re going to do it, cool.” Now we’ll readdress in six months if we need to, or whatever. It’s great.
IVAN: So, I want to ask you two more questions. Actually, both of them, they could be work related or not, it’s up to you. What’s your favorite thing right now? In the last 24 hours, 48 hours, what’s your favorite thing?
DREW: I like cooking. (laughing) So, one of the things that I’ve really discovered over the last 3-5 years is the simple joy of providing a good meal for others. Last night, my youngest son, who is a freshman in high school, he did his first marching band at the football game. We came home at ten, eleven o’clock and got home, and he hadn’t eaten dinner. I made him, and my other son quesadillas and I had one myself too, because why not? We just had a little time together. Teenage boys that are eating make appreciative noises. (laughing). It’s just a simple joy.
IVAN: It is. Cherish them while they're there. And, my last question before we wrap up. What book should I read next?
DREW: I read a lot of fiction, and I enjoy science fiction and fantasy, because I’m a nerd. The series I have most recently just earned through is called The Expanse, which I also have come to learn is a television show. It is an extraordinarily, well-written series. The author's name is James Comey.
IVAN: James Comey? As in the former FBI director?
DREW: Could be. I think it’s Comey. I’m going to google this up.
IVAN: I mean, is he moonlighting?
DREW: It is not the same guy, I do know that.
IVAN: Well, for a moment I thought he might be moonlighting.
DREW: Corey. You’re right. James Corey. Which happens to be a collaboration of two different authors, but, it’s set in a not terribly far future, in which Mars has been colonized, but is being terra formed, and the asteroid belt is being worked, and it has basically created three distinct civilizations, all humans and historically all over us. But after a few generations living in the outer belt, after a few generations living on Mars, you start to have your own stories and such. So, geopolitical’s not the right word, it’s like solar political, or solo political background upon which they’re just great storytelling. And into that mix is injected some alien technology, and it’s great storytelling, and it's also extraordinarily plausible. It’s not so far ahead that you have imaginary lights, embers, or ray guns or other things like that, that you’re like “well, I don’t want to know exactly how that works, but, whatever, it’s kind of interesting.” It feels very authentic. The thing I enjoy about science fiction and fantasy is it allows you to take, well done science fiction and fantasy, allows you to take real people and put them into a different environment, and then basically look how that environment might shape their behaviors, in a way that is eye opening. And, that’s awesome. It’s an awesome experience.
IVAN: Thank you for the recommendation. We’ll definitely link to it in the transcript.
IVAN: Drew, thank you so much for spending your precious time with me.
DREW: Thank you! I really enjoyed this. I hope I wasn’t too long-winded. I think I might have been. (laughing)
IVAN: I think you’re good. So, you’re @dgorton on Twitter, and on Drupal.org, and you’re Drew Gorton on slideshare.net/drewgorton. You’ve been listening to the TEN7 Podcast. Find us online at ten7.com/podcast. And if you have a second, do send us a message. We love hearing from you. Our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Until next time, this is Ivan Stegic. Thank you for listening.