Strong Relationships Make Strong Products

April 16, 2020
Danny Johnson, Head of Products & Engineering
 min read

When Dave Duffield invited me to lunch a couple years ago, I expected a friendly catch-up. Instead, he asked me to help launch his sixth tech company. Whoa.

I had worked for “Dave companies” for the better part of my career — developing PeopleSoft Financials in the 1990s and leading efforts to build financial and student systems for 11 years at Workday. These were exciting times; I worked with great teams developing amazing products, and I was lucky enough to build many lifelong friendships.

Dave was at the point in his life where he had semi-retired from Workday and had moved to Tahoe. But he wanted to keep working, and he wanted to do something to help indirectly expand Workday’s business. Our original thought was to become a development partner, and Dave had made arrangements for me to leave Workday and lead engineering at his new venture when the time was right.

Dave thought our headquarters would be in Reno, but I thought being in the mountains and closer to Lake Tahoe (and Dave) was a better fit, so I pushed for Incline Village. But so many questions came to mind: Could we actually grow a tech company this far from San Francisco? Would high-caliber talent move there? Do they even have gigabit internet in Incline Village to build a cloud-first company? Could we find sufficient and suitable office space? Would that much snow turn people away? What would we build?

Once we started thinking and talking about it, our questions quickly shifted in perspective: Why not? Why not build a company in one of the most beautiful locations in the world? Why not give people great jobs and the opportunity to ski, hike, bike, climb, fish, paddleboard, and so on in their spare time? Not to mention the walkable commute.

A few things I’ve learned about Dave over the years: When he decides to do something, it happens. He loves to win. And he puts trust in the people he knows can execute his vision.

So how has Ridgeline taken his experience and example and turned it into lessons for building a company and its teams from scratch? (1) start with core values; (2) think long; and (3) invest deeply in relationships. These tenets have guided our decisions and choices from our beginning and have become intrinsic to our company’s DNA and culture.

Start With Core Values

In classic Dave-company fashion, we knew we needed to figure out who we wanted to be before we dove into what we wanted to build.

Shortly after our incorporation, our first six employees and a handful of key candidates gathered in an office for two days for our first company meeting. Our main topic of discussion: core values and building the best possible team. Everyone shared their experiences (ranging from just graduated to decades working in enterprise software) and listened intently. It didn’t matter if you had worked in software for decades or if this was your first meeting, your voice was heard.

After much conversation, we decided on our six core values: Employees, Customer Service, Innovation, Integrity, Fun, and (eventually) Profitability. Dave has guided companies using these same values for 30+ years, and the “Employees” value is always first on the list. As Dave says, core values are an ecosystem that starts with Employees.

These core values guide our corporate behavior. Many of our engineers are early in their careers, so knowing, for example, that integrity is vital to both an individual’s and a group’s actions will help them know which path to take when faced with a moral dilemma. Likewise, our Fun value lets everyone (employees, candidates, business partners, customers) know that we like to let down and not take ourselves too seriously.

Think Long

When it comes to tech startups, people often think about “disruption”, the latest seductive tech paradigm, or what it takes to earn a record-breaking fundraising round.

Our expectation for Ridgeline is to build ground-breaking architecture and business applications. But we are not rushing to market and racing towards profitability or glory. Rather, our goal is to build a durable, global company that solves a big problem and attracts the best people. We don’t want to be just another tech startup; we want to build something significant at an enterprise scale.

We know this is a bold statement, but we’ve made some bets we think will get us there. On the application side, our aspirations evolved into tackling the business needs of an entire industry. On the architecture side, we’re using AWS and serverless technology to build a from-scratch enterprise solution on the public cloud. We don’t have many examples to follow for this ambitious goal, but we do have a plan, a supportive partner in Amazon, and determined engineers who love the challenge.

Invest in Relationships

Valuing employees means going the extra mile to make sure they’re heard, they can get questions answered, they’re mentored, they have the tools to get the job done, and they enjoy their work. This also means that our offices (or Zoom calls) can get a bit boisterous at times, but I love seeing employees laughing and forming friendships. These work relationships get you through crunch time. And strong relationships make strong products.

Walk around our offices and you’ll see collaboration everywhere — engineers at whiteboards or in virtual discussions with designers, PMs huddled around a desk with QA, nearly the whole company debriefing an interview in a conference room. Our office culture is such that anyone can tap anyone else on the shoulder (or on Slack) to ask a question, suggest a feature, or just to say “what’s up?”.

This same investment in relationships applies externally as well. We know we need the knowledge and wisdom of those who’ve built great software companies before us. Luckily, given our leadership team’s history and the professional friendships we’ve built over the years, we have access to such advisors, and we look to these people to help guide us, to push and pull where necessary and make sure we don’t get too aggressive or too complacent. They’ve become valued mentors and stakeholders in Ridgeline.

Particularly for an engineering team, I’ve learned that success lies in connections — of carefully chosen people who complement each other, are high achievers, and who interpret problems in different ways. A diverse team that is eager to share, learn, and rise together to any challenge. A team that is guided by wisdom, patience, and leaders with a long view.

Two Years Later…

As it turns out, this company in Tahoe has attracted top engineering talent and leaders. We were able to find office space and build a collaborative “mountain modern” work environment. We uncovered a very compelling enterprise challenge to solve. And our people are making memories unique to Ridgeline — Powder Days, trekking into the woods to cut the holiday tree, our Earth Day holiday, participating in the local Pet Network’s Halloween House of Horrors, social distancing in a dog park with our pack of four-legged teammates.

As we grow into remote locations, we know that transferring the unique culture of our headquarters to offices in other locations will challenge us. But as an avid student of Dave’s, I’m confident that staying grounded in his big vision and our core values, and hiring for fit will give us an exciting future. He has given Ridgeline an amazing opportunity to develop another world-class organization and enterprise system. And we couldn’t be more grateful, dedicated, and thrilled to write the next chapter in his story.

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