The Happy Engineer Podcast

122: Engineering Hard Choices with Pete Hunt | The Face of Facebook’s React.js

In this episode, we meet a CEO with an engineering background. A leader who has gone from engineer, to CEO, then back to engineer, and back to CEO again, Pete Hunt.

If you want to make an impact through technology, and can’t decide if Fortune 100 or Inc. 1000 is right for you, or you struggle to make hard choices in engineering your career… then you are going to love learning from Pete.

In his early career, Pete led Instagram’s web team, built Instagram’s business analytics products, and helped to open source Facebook’s React.js (you can find him speaking at conferences around the world on YouTube).

After that, he co-founded and served as CEO of Smyte, an anti-abuse provider that was acquired by Twitter. During these experiences he discovered the keys to building and leading a data engineering team, and making hard choices like selecting an app’s tech stack.

Now, Pete is the CEO of Elementl which builds Dagster, an open-source data orchestration tool.

So press play and let’s chat… if 2 billion users are benefitting from Pete’s hard choices, you can too.

Join us in a live webinar for deeper training, career Q&A, and FREE stuff!  HAPPY HOUR! Live with Zach

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The Happy Engineer Podcast

WATCH EPISODE 122: Engineering Hard Choices with Pete Hunt | The Face of Facebook’s React.js


[00:01:08] Struggled with job search, improved interview skills.

[00:04:08] Master’s degree irrelevant, self-learning and friend’s help pivotal.

[00:07:59] Excitement over bug leads to TechCrunch feature.

[00:11:04] Hans integrating startup into larger company.

[00:13:32] Found success building Instagram using client rendering.

[00:19:26] Overcoming obstacles, achieving success in tech.

[00:22:40] Instagram integrated with Facebook’s trust and safety systems. They acquired technology for combating fake accounts, pornography, and harassment. They later used this experience to start their own company, which they eventually sold to Twitter after three and a half years.

[00:25:31] Meeting Julian helped start successful startup.

[00:28:22] Hate job, but consider potential rewards and risks.

[00:32:55] Strategic happiness: consistency or variability?

[00:38:35] Finding what you want is a challenge, but as an adult, you can ask for answers. Keep asking until you get a productive answer.

[00:42:50] Professional development for engineers, focusing on results.

[00:44:36] Increase burn rate, find right fit engineers.




LISTEN TO EPISODE 122: Engineering Hard Choices with Pete Hunt

Previous Episode 121: Easy Networking Strategy to Use Now – Memorize this Question


The Journey from Engineer to CEO: Lessons Learned, Rejecting Rejection, and Finding Collaborators

In this episode, we delve into various topics, including Pete’s Engineering Career Success the Instagram web app, his experiences integrating a startup into a larger company, and the importance of finding purpose and passion in our careers.

Here are 3 key takeaways from our conversation:

1. Balancing Integration and Identity: When integrating a startup into a larger company, it is crucial to strike a balance between maintaining the startup’s unique identity while embracing the resources and systems of the larger organization.

2. Trust and Safety Systems: We discussed the significance of trust and safety systems in social media platforms. These systems play a crucial role in identifying fake accounts, preventing harassment, and accurately labeling content. They are essential for creating a safe and authentic online environment.

3. Startups and Engineering Career Success: The perception that 90% of startups fail is not entirely accurate. While startups do carry risks, there is immense potential for success for founders, employees, and investors. However, it’s essential to consider financial stability and personal circumstances before taking the leap into startup life.

To listen to the full episode and dive deeper into these topics, check out The Happy Engineer Podcast Episode 122.



Pete joined Elementl in early 2022, initially as the head of engineering, before assuming the role of CEO in November of the same year. Prior to his time at Elementl, Pete co-founded Smyte, an anti-abuse provider that was later acquired by Twitter. Before his involvement with Smyte, Pete led Instagram’s web team, played a pivotal role in developing Instagram’s business analytics products, and contributed to the open-sourcing of Facebook’s React.js framework.



Please note the full transcript is 90-95% accuracy. Reference the podcast audio to confirm exact quotations.

[00:00:00] Zach White: Pete. Welcome to the Happy Engineer Podcast, man. I’m, I’m really excited about this conversation. Thanks for making time today. Of course, 

[00:00:07] Pete Hunt: I’m happy to be  here

Expand to Read Full Transcript

[00:00:07] Zach White: Super fun. So we got a million things we can cover and you and I just met and I’m so excited as I went through all your bio and thinking like, how do we launch into the story of Pete Hunt because there’s.

[00:00:20] A thousand cool places. what I thought would be an interesting place to begin would be to go back to your days at Instagram. if I’m not mistaken, this was like 2013, 14 kind of timeframe. Is that right when you were at Instagram? 

[00:00:35] Pete Hunt: Yeah. Yeah.

[00:00:36] I think, um, whenever the acquisition happened, which was 12 or 13, I was right 

[00:00:40] Zach White: there. Okay. And so that’s what really struck out or stood out to me was. I think at the time, maybe Instagram was just over a hundred million users. Right now we’re 2 billion plus. And you’re there working on this platform and the technology at the beginning of what’s gonna be a meteoric rise in terms of its adoption.

[00:00:58] So tell us like what are you working on at that time? What’s going on in your mind as an engineer? I just gotta set the stage of Pete at Instagram. What’s going on there? 

[00:01:08] Pete Hunt: Yeah, so A couple of years earlier, I had graduated from my master’s program and I was trying to figure out, where I was gonna work.

[00:01:16] what’s kind of, interesting about that was I, I did one of these four plus one master’s programs where you go straight from undergrad, you do an extra, you stay for next extra year, and you kind of do the, the master’s. So I was looking for a job after undergrad and I had gone to the career fair.

[00:01:34] And basically nobody was interested in talking to me, and I had just no idea what I was doing. my resume was terrible, my pitch was terrible. I, I just, I, I literally got like first round interview at Microsoft and then rejected and then nobody else even gave me an interview. Wow. And, that was a little bit of a wake up call.

[00:01:57] I had a year to, do my master’s and really figure out like how these interviews work and how the process works. And I really leveled up and I ended up actually, second time around going seven for seven. So like seven off or seven interviews, seven offers. and felt like, Facebook was the place that I really wanted to work.

[00:02:15] And there were a couple of reasons for that. candidly, one of the reasons why a lot of people didn’t wanna talk to me was I had like, I. Not a horrible G P A, but I was not a four O student. Right. I had a lot of stuff going on. Okay. I loved computers.

[00:02:26] I did not love going to lectures or like, uh, you know, yeah. All that 

[00:02:31] Zach White: stuff. we could have a whole nother episode about what’s broken in the education system and how someone. As successful as you can (Engineering Career Success), not do well in terms of G P A, but, uh, let me real quick, I wanna make sure I got the timeline.

[00:02:43] So, so the, o for however many no offers, nobody wants to talk to you was after your four years had finished That’s right. And you’re at the job fair and then you, you go back and do the masters come back seven for seven. Was the masters part of the plan from the beginning or it’s because you couldn’t land a job, you went back to do the plus one.

[00:03:04] So 

[00:03:04] Pete Hunt: it was part of the plan. you can, basically, the way that it often works is you can get your job, offer your, your full-time job offer after your bachelor’s, and then your new employer will like, let you, will like, let you defer for a year and you can get your master’s. So really, I think the least stress version of this is like, get a good job after your bachelor’s.

[00:03:25] Yes. Get that master’s degree locked in Then go start the job that you had kinda locked down, after your bachelor’s. 

[00:03:30] Zach White: Okay. And so g p A not great. I mean, I wanna sit here for a second because I think a lot of people who are, younger in their careers or still in college who might listen to this, would be curious what changed for you from the first point, the four year degree finished and nobody wants to talk to you, to seven offers.

[00:03:51] At clearly top, top tier companies. Mm-hmm. What was the biggest thing? Because it, it’s not just the master’s degree checkbox on the resume. I know that’s not it. So what else shifted for you that turned you into a top talent, top candidate a year later? 

[00:04:08] Pete Hunt: So the master’s degree had literally nothing to do with it.

[00:04:11] It was the same school, master’s degrees, they’re really good if you’re, Maybe coming from overseas or like a university that nobody’s heard of and you want to, have the biggest bang for your buck and like kinda level that, that up. But, for me, I don’t think it made any difference, like you said.

[00:04:28] Okay. so I did a couple of things. So first of all, every night I spent an hour, watching, actually this was like The first era of lectures, being on YouTube and uc. Berkeley had put their CSS program on YouTube and listen, in software engineering, there are these really high stakes algorithmic interviews where you sit down in front of a whiteboard and you write code for an hour.

[00:04:50] Yeah. And you have to get it right and it’s very objective and that makes them very stressful and difficult. And so I just practiced that. I was like, listen, I’m just gonna spend an hour every day for the next, two semesters and really break through this. I. I did that and then I had, my friend, had gotten a job or, yeah, yeah, he was an intern and then he converted full-time and he was like going to Google and he helped me out, package up my resume, understand how things work, and that really, I think, Put me on in the right head space and help me really focus on doing what it took to, to have the next time around with the career fair and interviews and stuff go the right way.

[00:05:30] Zach White: I love that. Such a simple but important lesson, like it took some grinding an hour a day for two semesters. To master that skillset, but what a huge transformation. I really love that. So, all right. You get the seven offers you wanna be at Facebook. was there a particular reason that Facebook was the place you wanted to be?

[00:05:52] There’s, 

[00:05:53] Pete Hunt: there’s two reasons. The first was, I had graduated, in, 20 10, 20 10, 20 11 ish, whatever semester has been between those is when I graduated. that was right when the social Network movie came out. And so Facebook was like, it was like a product I used every day.

[00:06:08] It was super cool. they were making movies about it, so it was like a very fashionable place to work. I wanted to work at someplace Cool. The second, was they didn’t ask for my G P A until they had already given me the offer letter. They’re like, Hey, we just need you to send your transcript in to prove that you didn’t lie during the application process.

[00:06:28] Yes, and. I was in a hiring process with Google at the time and they were like, I was getting calls from hiring managers. They were like, Hey, like why was your exact grade in your, in this semester? This, like, what happened? They were really like super, super digging in on that. Whereas Facebook was like, Hey, you crushed the interviews, like that’s enough for us.

[00:06:47] Ready, let’s go. And I just felt like it was a much more, At least a 22 year old me at the time, I was like, wow, like, Facebook seems like a place where like they’re gonna respect me more. it’s a place that I still feel like I owe a lot to, for 

[00:06:59] Zach White: that reason. Yeah, that’s an interesting cultural difference one I’ve never heard before, but I’m sure across companies and industries you’re gonna see a different belief system around the importance of individual grades.

[00:07:11] But yeah, I could definitely see how 22 year old Zach would think, anybody who’s willing to just. Take what I am right now as ready and let’s go, is the kind of culture I’d wanna be a part of, rather than digging into my whole past, e Exactly. 

[00:07:26] Pete Hunt: And for me, the, the grades were basically about, one bad semester and there’s stuff going on and, you know, I felt like happens.

[00:07:33] I was held against me for, you know, Okay. 

[00:07:37] Zach White: Two years later, whatever. Okay. super cool. Okay, so here, you’re, you joined Facebook and, and then the Instagram acquisition happens. Mm-hmm. And what are you working on? Just geek out for a second. What’s the tech you were building at the time, what were you learning?

[00:07:50] just to give us a quick inside peek. Of course. Whatever you’re allowed to share. Nothing. Nothing, uh, top secret here, but yeah, it’s about 10 

[00:07:55] Pete Hunt: over 10 

[00:07:56] Zach White: years old at, yeah, I was gonna say probably old news at this point, right? 

[00:07:59] Pete Hunt: Yeah. So I, I came outta my master’s program. I really wanted to work on like complex technical problems and like distributed systems and all that stuff.

[00:08:07] And during orientation they make you work on a bunch of different random things. And so I actually worked on this comments box that was embedded into blogs. Like, if you remember 10, 15 years ago, like. Tech Crunch. The comments were powered by Facebook at the bottom. And I, I was working on a feature for that, and this was in my first three weeks at the company.

[00:08:27] I pushed a bug and it ended up sending the owners of these blogs, like thousands of push notifications, right? it pissed off a lot of people. And so we figured it out pretty quick. We rolled it back within, you know, an hour or two. The point is, is like I got an A writeup in TechCrunch because I screwed up the comments feature.

[00:08:47] and I was like, wow, that’s so cool. like I’d never seen anything I’d worked on before in like a publication I had heard of. So, I ended up working on wanting to work on consumer products actually, because I thought that was much, it was very thrilling to build something that, your friends and family and people actually used.

[00:09:03] Sure. As opposed to some backend infrastructure system. You know, since then I kind of, I moved around a bit, but um, that’s really what I wanted to do at the time. And so I worked on photos and videos. We were actually building an Instagram killer. It was called Facebook Camera. Nobody remembers it. It was 

[00:09:17] Zach White: released.

[00:09:18] Yeah, I do remember that. Barely. Oh, you do. But now that you only, ’cause you mentioned it. If you had quizzed me before you said it, I probably would not have come up with that. But I remember it now that you just, uh, camera. Yeah. Yeah. 

[00:09:28] Pete Hunt: So it’s one of those things where we had, we knew Instagram was out there and they were getting a lot of traction quickly.

[00:09:35] And we were, trying to build something compete with them. And I think what’s really interesting about this story is, that was like two years or something after I joined Facebook, right? And in that two year period, Facebook started transforming from the Rebel Alliance, upstart company, even though it was probably a billion dollar company at that point, like Right.

[00:09:56] Uh, it still felt. You know, we were going after Google Plus. We were the underdogs, and now there’s this 13 person company in San Francisco that, that we’re trying to kill, you know, as as Facebook. And so I like, in a really short period of time, had like gone from, 

[00:10:11] Zach White: cool startup to guy we The killers.

[00:10:12] Yeah. So like corporate drones. Oh, interesting, interesting. Okay. Yeah. Keep going. And so yeah, 

[00:10:19] Pete Hunt: there was, there was a little bit of, uh, of whiplash when. they, they basically gave us a, an eight hour heads up that the Instagram acquisition was happening. And so they called us to the office early. They said, Hey, you know, later today, we’re gonna announce that we acquired Instagram and you’re gonna meet your new coworkers.

[00:10:35] Congratulations. And these were the people that we were like viciously competing with for, for, uh, you know, like a year or something. 

[00:10:42] Zach White: That’s so interesting. Really interesting. And okay, so, so then how did the integration of the teams and the cultures go and maybe relating that to you as a c e O and leader now.

[00:10:55] I’m curious if there were any lessons then in terms of building high performing teams or culture integration that have continued to serve you, Hans. 

[00:11:05] Pete Hunt: I just, the lesson, I didn’t even really realize that I was learning lessons, while we were learning or while I was learning them. Right? Yeah. So, um, there was a couple of things that were, were going on.

[00:11:15] Uh, so first of all, we had to kind of integrate this startup, small startup in, into this larger company, right? And so there’s a certain balance that you have to strike where you bought the company for a reason. You want those people to be successful and to keep doing what they’re doing to a certain extent, right?

[00:11:35] Yeah. So you don’t wanna just take the Instagram team, hire them, throw out all their swag, put Facebook hoodies on, and have ’em go work on the Facebook product like that clearly was not the right call. And I think that Zuck did a really good job of keeping that Instagram identity alive for a really long time.

[00:11:53] I mean, they retained. Kevin and Mike over there for years. Right. you don’t stick around there, especially after selling your company for a billion dollars just for the money. Right. Like, you know, after the first year or two you got plenty of money. Exactly. I don’t know. I would talk to them, get, get their point of view, but it seemed to me like they were pretty happy for a long time there.

[00:12:11] And the team was pretty happy for a long time there. Uh, on the flip side though, you do have to do some degree of like what they call m and a integration. Mm-hmm. Where. You want them to retain their identity, but not so much that they don’t mix with the rest of the company. I was fairly early in my career at that point.

[00:12:28] I was the first engineer to go from Facebook over to Instagram and like kind of integrate and build, basically building web products. They had an iOS app, they had just launched their Android app and we were about to build a web app. And so I was kind of, the leader of that project. So that was one of the first experiments, I think, in actually mixing team members that came from the Facebook side and were not hired into Instagram.

[00:12:51] Mm-hmm. Does that make 

[00:12:51] Zach White: sense at all? Absolutely. Yeah. So did, did you have, I’ll say, original Instagram employees working under you on that project? more 

[00:13:02] Pete Hunt: like peers. Okay. so I had come with. I, I went over there first and I worked, hand in hand with a designer and, one or two of their generalist engineers and we hit it off.

[00:13:14] we’re still good friends to this day. And, um, and then later on we started hiring and growing my team it was just like a general pipeline of people that come out of Facebook 

[00:13:24] Zach White: recruiting. So what was the gnarliest technical challenge in that whole phase of your career?

[00:13:32] Pete Hunt: this was the thing I think that made my career, at least the early part of it, was we, we were, like I said, we were building the Instagram web app Okay. And like you said, hit a hundred million maus scaling really rapidly. And the infrastructure team told me that, you know, we have to deliver this, this web app, but we can’t burn any C P U cycles on the server.

[00:14:00] So there’s, there’s basically, I’ll spare you the deep technical details, but there’s a set of databases that can only handle a certain number of connections. Sure. And if you increase the amount of C P U that you use, you have to spin up more servers that creates more connections to the database and then the databases fall over.

[00:14:17] And so what they told me was, you can’t burn any more C P U cycles on the server. You can basically render your application in one of two places. You can either render it on the server and burn a bunch of C p U cycles, or you can render it on the client and basically, use the processor on your phone or your laptop to do the rendering.

[00:14:36] And so we chose client rendering. Now, if there are web developers that are listening to this,they’ll probably start nitpicking every aspect of this decision. In my, in the intervening years, maybe this wasn’t the most rational decision in the world, but listen, I was early in my career, this is what they told me.

[00:14:53] I was still learning. so that’s what we ended up doing, was doing client rendering. I had been asking around internally like, hey, so, so what are the advantages, by the way, of like selling your company to Facebook is you can go take advantage of all the resources. Sure, totally. So I was able to go to a, a team called UI Engineering and say, Hey, like.

[00:15:12] What’s the best way for us to do client rendering? And so they said, you know, we’ve got these three potential experimental technologies. Pick one and try it. And so I picked this one called React, and we used it and it was already working but like had a lot of rough edges. There was actually a lot of stuff that was broken.

[00:15:29] So, you know, we, built Instagram with it. We fixed a bunch of stuff with it. And, I got really excited about this technology. I was like, this was a. You know, way better than anything else that we would’ve used that would be kind of an open source or, or that we could buy off the shelf. And we ended up open sourcing and it became one of the most successful open source projects of all time, which was incredible 

[00:15:49] Zach White: journey for me.

[00:15:51] So I’ll just shamelessly say, you’ve got amazing content on YouTube, of you presenting at different conferences and places around React and. the mechanical engineers and maybe civil engineers listening might not know what it is, but I’m not sure there’s gonna be a developer on the planet who does not know what React is like.

[00:16:09] It is, to your point, absolutely ubiquitous in terms of its use now. So I. Are youth telling me that what is now one of the most widely adopted open source tools for this function was literally like a one of three, Pete and his team evaluating some internal experimental tools and you just happened. To pick, react.

[00:16:31] Like it’s that fortuitous, I mean, was there any magic behind that decision that made it a clear winner or it, it could have been something else. It just happened to be reactive. I love these little serendipitous kind of moments, but what was that? Take us back to the decision. Why react?

[00:16:48] Yeah. 

[00:16:49] Pete Hunt: So they actually made a documentary about this. so I’ll just like plug it. You can Google. We’ll plug the documentary. Yeah. And you’ll find it. But, uh, it is a very serendipitous thing, and it was, I was one of the first people working on this thing.

[00:17:00] I did not build it, Jordan Walk had built it and there was this, a, a small team of people that had been working on it, but it had really worked only on this really small feature of the Facebook website. They rolled it out on one single tiny little thing to one small experimental group of people.

[00:17:18] it’s Facebook. It’s a zillion dollar company. They have to move a little bit slower and take fewer risks. I was an idiot and I was like, let’s just build a whole site in this experimental technology and hope it works. And guess what? It actually did. It worked. It took a lot of effort to do that.

[00:17:38] and I had to actually, I’m actually not an idiot. I actually had to do a lot of challenging technical stuff to, to fix this and make it work. But, you know, I, I really came at it from a, there’s a certain degree of early career useful ignorance, and willingness to, to try. But uh, one of the reasons why I did end up getting, you know, the job at Facebook was I was scrappy.

[00:17:58] I did work really hard. Yeah, I did. Take a look at the problems and try to figure out what had to get solved and, um, was in an environment that was super supportive too. we basically gave that project the momentum. It, it needed to kind of hit escape velocity within the organization and so Cool.

[00:18:13] And become what it’s today. I’ll take credit for that for 

[00:18:16] Zach White: sure. I’ll tell, I’ll take credit for that all day long. You deserve the credit for that. So, Pete, let’s take this then, and I think it’s a good launch point into where you went next and. Uh, the decision to walk away from the giant that is, Facebook now meta, uh, Instagram, everything involved there and launch your own company.

[00:18:38] And so I’m curious for you, when did that decision come along and just kind of walk through that, that decision process, but also looking back who and, and how would you say like, Uh, are the people who this is for, like, I get this question all the time as a coach, like, Hey, I, I love what I’m doing. I love technology.

[00:19:02] I really wanna be a technical co-founder. I really wanna own my own business. Like that’s my dream thing. I wanna do that. And then the natural f is like, how do I know if I’m ready or what does it take to achieve engineering career success? And so tell us about your decision path and then reflecting back. Who would you recommend, or how would you say, you know, when you’re ready to do something like you did?

[00:19:26] Pete Hunt: Yeah, so I always had a little bit of a chip on my shoulder. I think people, people look back at kind of where I’ve worked and kind of the, the teams have been a part of, and it seems like a, I’ve got a lot of, a lot of good logos on there, but like, yeah, remember I, I started out as somebody that kinda like barely got its first job I still probably would never work at Google over that.

[00:19:49] Them, you know, really dragging me through, through that process. you know, those, wasn’t super fan of where I went to school and, and all that stuff. listen, I had a chip on my shoulder. For, for a while. I don’t have it anymore. but I, I used to, and I think it was actually very useful at certain points in my career.

[00:20:07] I always thought that, you know, why not me, right? So I, you know, I was working at Facebook. I started at Facebook like end of 2010 and this was, there was a lot of silly things that would happen from time to time. So I. One of my coworkers who was an engineer, he had sold his company to Facebook.

[00:20:27] And my first couple weeks on the job, he like went out for lunch and came back with a Tesla Roadster, And I’m like, well, that’s pretty cool. Where do I live? right now? Yeah. Uh, because I, I came from like a, like a small town in northeast, where none of this stuff ever happened, so yeah.

[00:20:42] Wow. and so I was like, why can’t I be one of these people? And so I had done a lot of, of. I, I had a, a good run at, Facebook that React project, it’s used by like tens of millions of developers now. I, they like flew me all over the world to conferences and stuff. It was really, really fun and really rewarding.

[00:21:00] But I did feel like I, I met a lot of people that, the conference circuit was what they did and web development was what they did. And they had their thing and they had been doing it for 10 years and they were traveling a lot and they were making plenty of money. I. But it just felt if I was gonna keep doing this, like this is a great gig, why would I ever leave?

[00:21:23] Oh my God, I’m gonna stagnate. Yeah, it’s, does that 

[00:21:25] Zach White: feeling make any sense? Oh, this okay. A hundred percent Makes sense. Pete. And I know for engineering leaders who listen to this conversation and clients that I’ve worked with, whether you call it golden handcuffs or whatever metaphor makes sense to people, this idea of I’m in a good place.

[00:21:45] On paper, what I’m doing is, is a dream for so many people. Maybe it was a dream for me too at one time, but the idea of this being all that I then ever do is one of the scariest like feelings you can have. It’s completely, yeah. Demotivating and disengaging and it’s like, oh crap. You know? the fear of walking away from it.

[00:22:08] Is also high. The fear of being stuck in it for the rest of your career is high and you just sort of find yourself right where you describe it a hundred percent. Get it. Yeah. So, so you’re in that place and this why not me question is kind of lingering in the back of your mind. When did the idea and the decision then to leave Spark for you?

[00:22:29] So this 

[00:22:30] Pete Hunt: is, Maybe six months before I left, part of the project that we did at Instagram was to plug Instagram into Facebook’s, trust and safety systems. So this is a thing that finds fake accounts identifies, there are people that like wanna see pornography on Instagram and the people that don’t.

[00:22:48] it’s the thing that decides who, that labels it correctly. make sure that any kinda harassment is, is as contained as possible and those sorts of things. 

[00:22:57] Zach White: Yeah. Yeah. Really important function, by the way. 

[00:23:00] Pete Hunt: Yeah. Yeah. And so when we acquired them, like we scrambled, the first thing we did was we like plugged them into this system.

[00:23:08] Uh, remember how I said Zuck left them alone? We did not leave them alone in this department. Okay. that was the first thing is like, we said, listen, you, you gotta use our systems for trust and safety and like they wanted it too. Like that was one of the problems that they struggled with as a brand early on.

[00:23:21] And then after that, we kinda left ’em alone to, to evolve the product separately. And so I was like, wow. If they had to sell their company in order to get access to this type of technology, we should probably go build this for everyone else. And then, the. Guy who was dating my downstairs neighbor at the time, worked in anti-spam at Google, and he came to our Halloween party and we started talking and I was like, oh, you’d be a pretty good co-founder for this business.

[00:23:49] And we ended up, along with him and one of my other coworkers at Instagram. Who he worked at Facebook for a year and he was like, this company’s way too big. I gotta go back into startups. we all kind of got the band together and, and started a company at, it was called Smite. And we basically took, Facebook’s trusted safety technology stack and like built a version for everyone else.

[00:24:11] and so that, ended up going for about three and a half years before we sold it to Twitter. 

[00:24:14] Zach White: That’s so cool. what I love about this is I think sometimes from the outside looking in, when you’re an engineer, you’re a developer, maybe you work in automotive or something. You look at this startup world and it, it seems pretty, uh, you know, sexy and, and really well put together at, at times.

[00:24:32] And then there’s other times there’s like a complete just random. It’s like surface interactions and chaos you could never predict. And this idea of we at a Halloween party just meet a random guy, just so happens to work in a space that’s exactly complimentary and aligned with what I wanna do. And we start a company, you know, it’s like those stories are awesome because in some ways it’s like the best laid plans come together with also the things you could never plan.

[00:24:58] Right? And that’s part of the magic of it. 

[00:25:01] Pete Hunt: it’s not like it was, easy though. I think a lot of people in startups generally are like, oh, I’m so great. Like, it all just happened. Uh, no. Like, no, I had this idea and I talked to a lot of people, it’s like, Hey, do you wanna leave your high paying job and like, come work on our crappy company?

[00:25:17] And everyone said, no. I had talked to like a dozen people and then I eventually kind of started not giving up, but just kind of not trying to force it. And that’s when, I met Julian we had hit it off and it seemed like that was gonna gonna work out.

[00:25:30] one thing that I have found useful on a number of dimensions. uh, when I was trying to start a company and then, you know, I was trying to, to get in really good shape, a couple years ago. And one thing that I would do is I would just listen to podcasts or YouTube videos of just people.

[00:25:45] Talking about it. I would only even be half listening, but there’s a certain amount of osmosis that happens that gets you into the right mind frame. Totally. To be open to these opportunities where it’s like, Hey, this guy that I met who works on spam at Google, like there’s one version of that where you say, oh, well nice to meet you.

[00:26:01] I’ll see around and there’s another version where you follow up and you say, Hey, like would you be interested in starting a company? And I think that getting in the right mindset to be open to those types of, of events is really important. 

[00:26:12] Zach White: Mm-hmm. I agree with that, and I love the idea of just conditioning and priming the mind, well in advance of the moment when you need to be in that right mindset.

[00:26:22] That’s something we coach a lot for engineering leaders is like, why is mindset so important? And it’s because that moment of opportunity will come and one mindset, you walk away from that interaction, you never say hi again. And a a separate mindset says, huh, there’s something there. I’m going to go pull the thread.

[00:26:39] I’m, I wonder if I’m gonna ask the dumb question or the courageous question or whatever and take it further. So if someone is in a place in their own career, Pete, where they’ve wanted this I’d love to hear your perspective on why someone should consider leaving their job and going into startup world, being a co-founder or joining a very early stage startup.

[00:27:04] And specifically around is the money of good enough reason? Because I think sometimes people get caught up in like, I wanna go to lunch and come back with a Tesla. And so I, the only way to do that is to be in a startup that becomes a unicorn and gets purchased and I get a huge payout. So I wanna do it.

[00:27:23] Oh, and by the way, I love technology and I have a few cool ideas. So why not be a founder? What are your thoughts about that? What, what are the reasons why, It would make sense for someone to actually take this risk and do it. 

[00:27:37] Pete Hunt: I think you need to hate your job to some extent. Your current job, I think that is an important prerequisite.

[00:27:47] You need so, so listen, there’s a lot of upside potential for both founders and employees and investors, right? Like otherwise nobody would do this. Yep. There is a, the, the often quoted startup, 90% of startups fail, but failure is a complicated definition. And what sample of startups are you considering?

[00:28:08] So I, I do think it depends a little bit on, the company and, a bunch of factors that we can get into. But what I do like to, encourage people to do is like, joining a startup should be fun. It should be rewarding and you should be able to look back and, and there’s, there are considerations, right?

[00:28:25] You wanna have enough money for your family, you wanna not have, take such a financial risk that you’re really, really stressed out about money. So, you know, if you’re, if you’re gonna buy a house in the next year, or you absolutely need to buy a house in the next year, pretty good reason to not do a, at least a really early stage startup.

[00:28:41] Just totally leveling of people, but, If you’ve already got the mortgage and you’ve got line of sight to like what your finances look like, you’re not anticipating a major change or you’re earlier in your career and you don’t have a lot of financial responsibilities. Yeah. Can take the risk. Yeah. So I think there’s a certain baseline of that After that, you really wanna be able to look back on your startup experience and be like, I learned a lot and I had a lot of fun doing it.

[00:29:06] I think that some startups you do work 80 hour weeks. the company that I’m c e o at right now, which is, elemental, we make Dexter, which is an open source data engineering framework. we don’t ask people to work more than 40 hours. I think people do, but really we try to be a place where, you know, I, like, I have a two year old and a lot of people at the company have families, young families, or they have.

[00:29:31] Parents are taken care of or something. Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. And so I don’t think every startup has to be that 80 hour a week grind. and certainly, there’s variability where, you know, the week before launch Yeah. It’s an 80 hour a week job. Sorry. but that’s like one week a year or every two years or something like that.

[00:29:52] Zach White: there’s so many things I wanna explore, Pete and I know we can talk forever, right? I know. I know. And, and, and maybe there’s a round two in our future we can go deeper, especially with the work you’re doing now at Elemental, to your point. I want to hear about that. But the thing that stands out to me in your answer that’s interesting is that both sides of the coin matter and the coin being on one side, I really don’t find.

[00:30:16] Passion and purpose and pleasure in my current work like. I I hate my job, right? I don’t wanna be at this big company. I wanna do something different. I want to get into that because this is not working for me. And then the other side of the coin being like, and I genuinely do want to do this startup world.

[00:30:33] Like it’s gonna be fun. I have a great idea. I’ve got the great, I. co-founding team, it makes sense. I’ve got my finances in order, et cetera. And it’s interesting, this idea of running toward the prize and running away from a zombie, and, in human nature it’s pretty clear the evidence, you know, the data’s there that we run faster away from zombies than we do towards rewards in most cases.

[00:30:59] That said, running away from zombies, this fear based or negative energy based approach can also have a lot of negative consequences in in our lives in so many ways. You don’t wanna only be driven by fear, you know, it’s good to have purpose and passion as well. I always tell my clients, don’t just run away from something, run towards something.

[00:31:21] both have value to your point. That’s what I appreciate about your story. Sometimes I think coaches especially, were guilty of saying don’t ever talk about the fear or hating your job. Like only focus on the good stuff in front of you. But I think it’s good to hear that perspective.

[00:31:36] Yeah. Go ahead. I, I 

[00:31:37] Pete Hunt: also tend to speak in hyperbole a little bit. I think you say you hate, gotta hate your job. It gets people’s attention. Right. But I, I think that the more accurate description of, of a strategy that I’ve used, to. Find happiness or Engineering Career Success or whatever it is, is you, you think about, are things going well for me?

[00:31:58] am I happy with how things are going? If things are going well for you, you wanna lower the entropy or the variability, right? You wanna get things consistent. You wanna grease the gears. You wanna, you want consistent revenue or whatever it is, and you don’t wanna introduce a lot of risk.

[00:32:16] If you are not happy with how things are going, you want to increase the entropy, you want to just, even if you don’t have a specific strategy, just go do something random to introduce some variability and change into the system. And so, you know, towards the end of my career at Facebook, I was feeling a little stuck.

[00:32:33] like I said, I feel like I owe them so much. and I, I, I will, uh, defend that company till, till I die. but, I was definitely feeling stuck. I was like, I gotta gotta do something, so maybe I’ll just leave. Uh, and I, it wasn’t quite as, as chaotic as that, but thinking in terms of do I wanna add more entropy or take more entropy outta my life, I think is a, is an important, um, and, and more like neutral way 

[00:32:58] Zach White: to look at it then?

[00:32:59] Yes. That, I love that The engineer in me, I’m just, I’m celebrating that model that that is, that’s a really good way to, the way I’ve typically described that is, an optics kind of metaphor. I talk about, you know, widen the aperture. when you don’t feel the sense of happiness or satisfaction and you don’t know what you wanna do with your life, then we need to go get experiences, go do stuff.

[00:33:22] But I, I really like this idea of entropy and introducing variability intentionally. as another way to talk about that, I think, Especially for geeks like me, that resonates really, really deeply. Amazing. Well, Pete, we have so much more to talk about. We’ll do it more next time. But really quick, I don’t wanna miss out on you sharing just quickly what you’re doing today as c e o at Elemental and the product you’re building with your team, Dexter, the huge success of, your series B funding last quarter.

[00:33:50] We talked about that before we hit record today. So just take a minute here, give us a quick snapshot where you are today and where you’re going. 

[00:33:57] Pete Hunt: This guy that I worked at Open Source with at Facebook, he started this company Elemental. He recruited me over, so now I’m c e o and we build an open source, uh, library for data engineers called Dag Stir.

[00:34:09] So if you’ve got a data engineers listening, if you’ve ever used Apache Airflow before, another orchestration tool, uh, better. I would say hope we’re better. Uh, there you go. And uh, you know, again, this is like going back to my, Roots, so to speak, with React. You know, we’re trying to build a developer tool that makes people’s lives better.

[00:34:30] So basically if, if you give developers better tools, they can work faster, they produce higher quality stuff, they finish their projects on time or early. And they can go home, at the end of the day and not stress out as much. Yes. It’s like one of these things that’s like kind of a silver bullet, I would say, like high quality tools just makes everything better with no trade offs.

[00:34:50] And so that’s, that’s what we’re trying to do for data engineers. we launched our, cloud product last year and it’s, Huge growth over the last, 12 months. we raised our series B. We were like one of the only companies that even raised a series B in Q two of 2023.

[00:35:05] And so we’re really happy about that and we’re just, uh, Growing the go-to-market effort right now. So scaling up the sales and marketing teams. That’s awesome. 

[00:35:13] Zach White: I, I think what you just said a moment ago needs to be a t-shirt or a bumper sticker, or both. High quality tools make everything better with no trade-offs.

[00:35:22] that’s what I believe. That’s a great statement. Yeah. I think to your point, that’s one of the only areas where we could pretty confidently say, yeah, like you’ll never regret. Building and having access to a higher quality tool. That’s so even the, the gearheads, if we just take it into a true mechanical sense, it’s still true like that.

[00:35:41] That’s an awesome, awesome way. Yeah. If you need to cut 

[00:35:43] Pete Hunt: something, your knife should be sharp. 

[00:35:45] Zach White: Right? Exactly. Exactly. It’s so good. Well, Pete, where can people get connected to you, to the work that you’re doing? If someone just says, well, I really wanna know more about your story or the work that you’re doing now with Elemental, where’s the best place for people to find out more?

[00:36:00] Pete Hunt: So Elemental builds Dexter, and that’s the open source data engineering, tool that we built. And so you can go to and all my information is linked from there, LinkedIn, Twitter, all that stuff. Perfect. So Dexter io, Dexter io slash community, 

[00:36:14] Zach White: all that stuff. Cool. We’ll make sure everything around you and your work, what’s happening with Dexter is linked up in the show notes and I highly encourage everybody, you know, go check out the documentary of Pete’s, legacy with React.

[00:36:26] Go check out the work they’re doing now at Elemental with building Dexter. It’s some really cool stuff. Pete, just to wrap things up, I always. I tell people great coaching, the work I do now, just like great engineering leadership. The work you do, questions, lead, answers, follow, and we all want better answers in our life, in our careers.

[00:36:48] So what would be the question that you would lead the happy engineer with today? 

[00:36:55] Pete Hunt: I would say that figuring out what you want. It can be a challenge. I accept that. But once you figure that out, one of the great parts about like being an adult is that you can ask for the answers to the test and people will give them to you.

[00:37:12] So, you know, you figure out what you want, figure out who can give it to you, and then ask them what, what has to happen in order for you to, to get that. And if the answer is nothing, keep asking until you get a productive answer outta that person or find a different person. that’s a little bit of a meta question, but I would say that’s, that’s how I would approach the ans answer to that.

[00:37:31] Zach White: It’s not like school anymore. You’re allowed to ask for the answers to the test. 

[00:37:36] Pete Hunt: Yeah. You’re allowed to ask for more money. You’re allowed to ask for that role change. You’re allowed to ask for that flexibility. And if they say no, okay, they said no. But at least you asked and at least you can look back and say, well, you know, I wasn’t too afraid to go ask for the answers to the test.

[00:37:52] Zach White: Pete, what, what holds people back from asking? Why do you think they’re not asking for the answers? 

[00:38:00] Pete Hunt: the metaphor that I use is my dog, and so we have this little basket that sits on the floor with a bunch of her toys in there, every day she wants to get her favorite toy outta that basket.

[00:38:14] But there is some invisible force field that prevents her from just sticking her sout in there and grabbing the toy that she can see and easily get. And so she stares at it for a long time, starts growling and then yaps for me to come up and reach my hand and, give it to her. And I have seen so many engineers in my career that kind of, there’s like a, a similar behavior where that’s the thing you want.

[00:38:39] It’s right there. All you gotta do is go grab it, but you’re just stuck in your, your own head or your own routines, and it prevents you from doing the somewhat obvious thing it takes for you to get what you want. 

[00:38:50] Zach White: The invisible force fields of life that block us from the things we want most.

[00:38:57] That’s a perfect picture. Yeah. Okay. Don’t, don’t be like Pete’s dog. that’s our final concluding wisdom of today’s podcast. Don’t, don’t bark for someone else to get for you, which you could easily stick your snout in. Basket and get it yourself. I, I think that might be the most compelling end point I’ve ever had on this show.

[00:39:17] So, Pete, thank you again for your time. This has been so much fun and, uh, congratulations on all of your Engineering Career Success and I hope just wish you a ton of success going forward with your team at Elemental and the products you’re building. And, um, we’ll see you again sometime, I hope, here on the Happy Engineer Podcast.

[00:39:33] But thanks again, man. Thanks, Zach. This was 

[00:39:35] Pete Hunt: great.