Software Development: From Servant Leadership to Afghanistan, with Aaron Longwell

By Published On: November 20, 2018Categories: Blog, Podcasts, The CTO Studio

Servant leadership is a term that gets used a lot, but what does it mean in the software development world? Here to tell us is Aaron Longwell. Today Aaron is a consultant who recently wrote a blog post on why software development requires servant leadership. The article was so popular it made it to the top of Hacker News.

Aaron tells us the story behind that event, plus the software project he’s working on for the legal system in Afghanistan. You’ll hear the details on those topics and more on today’s CTO Studio.

In this episode, you’ll hear:

  • What it’s like to watch the Kentucky Derby.
  • Why do companies have to take risks to succeed?
  • What is the law of raspberry jam?
  • How he accidentally got to the top of Hacker News.
  • What are the Palchinsky Principles and how can you use them?
  • And so much more!

Aaron Longwell co-founded a company called Culture Foundry. Culture Foundry would go on to become the premier agency for businesses like Bonnie Raitt and the Kentucky Derby. My first question was how did he start working with such notable names?

He explains it is all about relationships. His two partners had relationships going back a long time with Churchill Downs (where the derby is held) and Jackson Brown’s manager. Jackson Browns’ manager introduced them to Crosby, Stills and Nash and Bonnie Raitt and other artists.

While it was a lot of fun, it was also a tremendous amount of work. For the Kentucky Derby’s web site, the first week of April through the first weekend in May it was Derby 24 hours a day, 7 days a week! They did everything from load tests to ensure the servers are ready to last-minute changes like new launches during the Derby.

He also went on site with his team seven or eight times during the event. They were there to troubleshoot if anything went wrong, and to collect photos from all the photographers and run an editorial/press room to get the content live on the web site as fast as possible.

He shares more about what it’s like to experience the Kentucky Derby in person before we transition into what he is doing now and finally the blog post he wrote on servant leadership that went viral and was at the top of Hacker News.

First we talk about his project in Afghanistan. Although he can’t go into great detail, he tells us a little of what he is up to. He started work on a small team that is working with a division of the US State Department called The Bureau of International Narcotics and Law (The INL).

The project is essentially an IT project, but it is also a humanitarian endeavor. The issues really boil down to typical computer programming stuff: it is a system that has bugs in it. It was built by a somewhat inexperienced team without much direction which has resulted in a lot of issues they need to sort out.

They are not coding from scratch, there is an existing system which they are iterating on. It’s a little scary he says! It’s probably one of the hardest parts of the project: the political dynamic. The system exists and it works so some people are happy with it, but it isn’t serving all the needs it needs to serve so they are trying to make it better for everyone.

We next talk about why software is more like the organic world versus the mechanical world, before we dive into his Hacker News article. Personally I have submitted my article many times and have received a maximum of four points. So what happened for him? How did his article get published by them? Aaron says it is bizarre what happened!

He had made the decision to leave Culture Foundry and he wanted to work on longer term projects (the Afghanistan project being an example) and get out of the marketing cycle and into longer-term product development.

He looked at his blog, saw how old his content was and decided he needed to update it. He wanted to give recruiters something to talk about when they contacted him so he sat down and thought about what he wanted to write. He had a brain dump of sorts and put some thoughts out there.

A few months later, he got a call from an old colleague congratulating him on his article at the top of Hacker News. Aaron was shocked! He hadn’t submitted anything to the site and had no idea how his article got there. It turns out someone he knows came across the article and it resonated so much this person passed it on to Hacker News.

We dig into the details on what the article is actually about and what it is that struck such a chord with people. Join us to hear all of that and more on this edition of CTO Studio.