Ampush, Through the Eyes of Co-Founder, Nick Shah
January 20, 2015
This article originally appeared on the MakersSquare blog.
Not only do we at MakerSquare have the privilege of satiating smart, thirsty minds by furthering their software engineering skills, we also get to land them jobs! This allows us to form relationships and partnerships with a ton of cool companies along the way. San Francisco-based Ampush, which develops marketing software, is one such company.
So, we decided to get in touch with one of the founders and chief operating officer of Ampush, Nick Shah, to get the scoop on their company culture, hiring, skills they look for in devs, how they view a bootcamp engineer versus a computer science grad, their prospects of future growth, and plenty more.
Originally launched in 2009, Ampush has since seen its operation expand to 120 people, mostly split between their headquarters in San Francisco, and a large operation in New York City, with remote sales offices peppered around the country.
Ampush builds software that sits on top of native ad ecosystems, such as Facebook and Twitter, allowing marketers to build and manage multi-channel advertising campaigns, track their performance, and learn from the results. Their customers range from eCommerce and travel companies, to financial services and gaming.
“You’re a business and you have a goal to acquire more customers or grow awareness in a particular market, for example, affluent males,” Shah says. “Our team will develop a custom campaign strategy, using all of the powerful and robust targeting options available on these native platforms, and then build, deploy, manage and optimize those ads on our platform, all the while tracking and reporting back the insights having delivered those objectives. It’s a marketing platform for achieving measurable business objectives.”
But as with any successful and growing company, culture plays a pivotal role in attracting, nurturing, and retaining top talent. At Ampush, Shah says the culture starts with the diversity of people.
“We have people with a lot of quirks, backgrounds, and work experiences from the past,” he says. One of the unique things we do is look outside our industry to make hires; we like to get smart-first people who have fresh perspectives on our domain.”
According to Shah, culture is made up of three key common denominators: smarts, humility, and having an entrepreneurial nature. While each denominator is integral, it’s the third one that really sets candidates apart.
“You can get smart and humble people who want to work at a big company with stability and predictability. We lean towards the people who like to see things change quickly, drive impact, and like to see their work manifest into bigger and bigger things, ultimately impacting the larger mission.”
But Ampush like any (developing) company, isn’t immune to setbacks and evolving hurdles. Thus, they need their employees to be innovative and proactive in handling them.
“When we’re moving as fast as we do, things break often. You should expect that everything that currently exists is going to break down and need to be rethought of every three to six months. That mindset is very critical. We don’t look for software engineers, or HR professionals, or account management consultants–we look for problem solvers. That’s what you’re doing here.”
Ampush practices a transparent work environment, one in which everyone has a say.
“There’s not going to be some architect that sits at the top who will prescribe exactly how everything will go. Instead, we’re going to set a direction, bring in smart, humble, and entrepreneurial people, then empower them with all the necessary information, and encourage them to take risks and solve problems.”
Shah explains that having this constant evolutionary process in place on the ground helps solve engineering problems, customer problems, marketing problems–all sorts of stuff.
“The trial and errors result in learning and the successes into institutional knowledge,” he says.
One such success is the Ampush Cloud Manager, which according to Shah, is essentially a self-serve tool for developers to make changes and enhancements to the code-base without having to talk to the dev ops team or worry about screwing up the production environment.
“Devs can come in and within 15 minutes have a developmental machine up and ready so they can be making iterations. It makes it really fun to prototype, and to develop rapidly.”
This investment in scalability has Shah predicting a 100 percent growth across the company over the next 12-18 months, with engineering possibly seeing an even higher increase.
“Since the beginning of 2014, we’ve been in the place where we can just add more people and that would return more velocity to our platform, but with the investments we’ve made, we really think 2015 is going to be a huge year in terms of scaling the team, which will result in better and better products for our customers.”
With the velocity of past and expected future growth of his company, combined with the crazy competitive market of San Francisco, Shah says Ampush typically moves quickly in their hiring. Generally, a candidate will go through a phone screening, followed by an on-site technical interview. If those go well, then the candidate is invited back for another interview involving more people and more coding challenges.
“If all that goes well then hopefully by the end of the day we’d have an offer for you,” he says.
As far as what technical skills Ampush looks for in their engineering hires, Shah explains most of the backend work is done in Python.
“Our business is a data business. So we’re attracted to people who have worked with complex data schemas, NoSQL technologies”
“We leverage MongoDB, [Apache] Cassandra…there’s interesting queueing infrastructures like RabbitMQ or Celery — these are the kinds of technologies we utilize within our platform. If people have experience in it, it’s a major plus, almost a prerequisite,” Shah says.
But the overarching goal remains clear: get problem solvers and smart people who want to drive change. Ampush has found a few solutions itself by tapping into the MakerSquare pipeline.
“We’ve been very happy with the program and the people we’ve recruited from MakerSquare.”
Shah notes that while the bootcamp grads tend to be a little light on the experience side, they more than make up for it by being hungry problem solvers with the right attitude.
Shah offers an anecdote on a few bootcamp grads who stepped into a problem that some highly experienced front-end developers were estimating would take a month or more to fix. However, within a few days the bootcamp hires had investigated the problem, and a week and a half later, had implemented the solution as opposed to experienced developers’ month-long projection.
“Not having the experience but having the hunger and solution orientation goes a really long way.”
Shah says he likes the idea of bringing in and nurturing junior talent.
“Having that as a competency you build, like being able to say ‘our engineering team can actually support up-and-coming devs and grow them into experienced developers’. Imagine a culture that doesn’t have that? It’s kind of asinine.”
Ampush had such a culture a few years back, and Shah believes it can be quite toxic to everyone.
“It’s just not a mentality toward learning, developing, helping, and training others. We used to have a lot of individual contributors who were just expected to come in and do things, and that’s not really where we wanted to be. So it’s been fun to bring in this injection of younger talent and watch it have a positive impact on everybody,” he says.
As far as the ever-popular comparison of a web developer bootcamp education versus a traditional computer science degree, Shah says it can be a tradeoff.
“As you move up the job ranks, the foundation in CS becomes more important and valuable. But what we’ve found in the people coming out of these camps, is even though they don’t have a CS degree, they are extremely sharp. They went to good schools. They know math really well.”
Shah says he’d much rather have someone who’s really smart and passionate, than someone who’s moderately smart and has a computer science degree.
“I think what we’ve found with MakerSquare, is that if you can find those types of people, that’s great. Especially if you can harness and develop them, and then surround them with other people who have those CS backgrounds, they’ll learn very quickly.”
As far as the future of Ampush, Shah points to mobile advertising growth and how it’s reshaping digital advertising entirely.
“When people talk about growth in mobile advertising, typically it’s because there are more eyeballs on mobile devices. It misses the point that industries and commerce are being reinvented around mobile.”
Shah offers Uber or HotelTonight as prime examples of entire industries that have essentially been reinvented or migrated.
“It’s not just that more people are spending more time on mobile, but more commerce is taking place on mobile and that’s going to add a coefficient of value to the mobile advertising ecosystem.”
“Native advertising is really the growth engine. It’s the growth fuel for these new industries, and we’re helping to ignite.”