Atolio Conversations

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Episode 9 | August 11, 2021

Andrew Sopko, Twitter Head of IT

Andrew shares his experience translating the artistic process to IT.

  • Andrew’s art (0:40)
  • Translating the creative process to IT (3:10)
  • Adding value in business partnerships (7:00)
  • Why IT departments need to be empathetic (12:45)
  • Hiring the right people (14:29)
“There is a creative aspect to IT work, and I think about the architecture of a system and the landscape of data models and all of those things as part of the creative process.”
Andrew Sopko
Twitter Head of IT

Episode Transcript

Luke [00:00:03] This is Atolio conversations, I’m Luke Alie. Andrew Sopko is the head of it, a Twitter, he and I talk about his background as an artist, how he translated that creative process into it, and we also touch on how he incorporates broad company values into everyday decisions. And so with that, over to my conversation with Andrew. Andrew, thank you so much for talking with me today.

Andrew [00:00:43] Hey, it’s my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

Luke [00:00:45] So I listen to another interview of yours where you talked about your background in art, but yet do you mind if we start by kind of talking a little bit about your work?

Andrew [00:00:56] Yeah, it’s funny. I’ve evolved over time or I had I actually began in art just doing ceramics primarily. I was I was very much into and this is probably not too much of a surprise considering the relative comparison or the similarity with it in in terms of the process being so inherent to the creation aspect. I think that that’s how I draw a relationship or have even if it’s just a justification post fact in my mind. But when I think back to my art career, I began in ceramics because of my just I really got into the that that process, part of it the you know, there are certain and specific steps that you have to go through to begin that work. And so that kind of carried me through in my transition. I went from from doing pottery and clay work and sculpture began. Then when I went into university, focusing on printmaking from a similar perspective for a similar reason, I just really loved the the fact that you had to kind of create the assembly around it, that it was as much a part of the act as it was the result. And that part of that result came from what took place during the act of war, the preparation of. And so there was always this this piece of and what I’ve kind of kept in a critical part of my work over time is the relationship between what the original intention was and then what the outcome is and how the further that you separate yourself from the work or the materials through almost like a creation of process stretches those bounds of do you really know what the outcome is going to be? So for me, it was always this love of the the incorporation of the unknown through the extreme intentionality of a very specific process. And so when I moved to printmaking and then later years moved on to painting, a lot of my work was about creating something that is figurative but abstract. But there you see that sort of push pull between what was the original intent versus what was the result?

Luke [00:03:09] Yeah, I think that’s something that’s actually really underappreciated about art from the outside world. You know, is that is that balance of the really rigorous process and the kind of strict process with the room for discovery. Right. And I used to develop film, which was a very technical process, but I really enjoyed the act of not putting value judgments on things when things didn’t go according to plan. Right. And I think that’s great that you could have found a way to translate that appreciation for that that balanced process in your in your career.

Andrew [00:03:49] Oh, yeah. I think that that was one of the first realizations I had, because candidly speaking, and this is sort of funny little history, the only reason I got into it originally is because I was broke. I ran out of money. I was trying to go to get my MFA. And I had been spending so much time on my portfolio that I realized, wow, I need to make some money here. And so I began then working in I.T. primarily as just a way to stay afloat. While my hope was I would be then going to to get my MFA somewhere that did not work out. I didn’t get accepted to the programs I had wanted to go to. And so the next thing I knew, I was working in I.T. job building and fixing computers and thinking to myself, oh, there’s a similarity here. There’s something like this process in this work. And like kind of how I think about, again, that intentional outcome. There is a creative aspect to it work. And I and I think that that’s where I really kind of got engaged in and from there just kept going in that in that direction and finding new avenues along the way. So in the same way that I started at the desktop support level and really hands on computer fixing and such, then migrated into the application space and found that that relationship again from how do you build applications and how do you think about an architecture of the system and the landscape and data model and all of those things as part of the creative process?

Luke [00:05:19] That’s so interesting. And that’s what it’s all about, right? Is is translating those things that make your brain feel good. Right. You know, and I think it’s funny because nobody, like, sets out or like is asked as a kid while they’re growing up, like, what do you want to be when you grow up? Right. And. The answer is never specifically like in information technology, right? Like, yeah, find it by your own process of discovery, like kind of like the whole creative process, right?

Andrew [00:05:50] Oh, totally. And I think that it’s interesting, too, because you start to realize there are people of a certain kind who we joke sometimes on the team about there. You have to be willing to take criticism. You have to be willing or at least understand that you’re not going to achieve or receive all of the accolades all the time. But it is the it’s the the notion that you’re you’re focused on the quality of the work, on the outcomes that you’re trying to achieve. And, you know, it doesn’t mean that you’re going to necessarily end up in a space where everybody knows and is telling you how great everything is. But it’s the it’s the love of that creation. It’s the love of the work and the pride in what you do. And all of these things kind of come together and converge into that type of personality that can be an IT professional. And you’re absolutely right. I don’t think that it’s possible. You know, I think back to when I was in high school or younger. You know, it’s not necessarily possible that you’re at that point saying I’m going to be an application it enterprise application engineer when I grow up. You know, that’s just it’s not even within your lexicon, let alone, like, conceptually something that you couldn’t even imagine.

Luke [00:07:03] Yeah, a hundred percent. So. So going back to the intersection of the creative process and it you know, I feel like that kind of thing occurs in a very primarily in a very mature IT department, you know, not one that’s seen as just being a department that comes in to put out fires. Right. One that’s seen as being or like a real value add. And one of those kind of value adds that I was interested in talking to about is around employee experience, which is obviously a very broad and in certain ways kind of squishy topic. But, you know, maybe we can just start by talking about how the perception of what role it should play in Twitter’s broader employee experience, like how that has changed over the course of your time there.

Andrew [00:07:57] Yeah, know, one thing I think that is, and this is this is a sort of half answer to your question, but one thing I think that great is that the internal culture at Twitter is a positive place to operate within. And I think that that helps a tremendous amount, because while there is a focus on internally across the board, not just within it focused on things like transparency and collaboration and an openness of dialog that can kind of cut both ways sometimes, obviously, in terms of the the challenge to a decision or a direction for an organization, especially one that is so visible as a network. But I give that backdrop as to as a way to say in the time that I’ve been here before, I was responsible for all of it. And then as I took took full responsibility, there has been some constants. And some of those constants are that we really try to build upon our having a customer focus, trying to make sure that we think about, as you mentioned, creating value wherever possible and then thinking about that sort of navigation of how do we enable, whether it’s a specific function or the broader range of Twitter employees, how do we focus on making sure that we understand what their goals are and what they’re trying to achieve or the type of experiences that they’re trying to create themselves? So whether or not we’re focused on, say, the solving the challenge of of customer support for Twitter users or for closing the books with our finance teams or more broadly, what is collaboration at Twitter? We think about it in a very similar way of almost like trying to navigate vertically where we say at the thirty thousand foot level it is we say things like customer focus and value, and we want to create these experiences. And as you kind of dip down to that next level, we think, OK, well, how do we how do we pass that and pass that in a way where we can actually attack a topic or an issue or a problem. And so that for me, a lot of that is figuring out, well, what are the specific workflows or the specific experiences? And so that might be say what is the new hire experience like? What is the Help Desk experience like? What about the experience of starting or entering into a meeting or a connected system to if I’m in one application or one tool, how does it relate to others and think about it from that workflow or that that specific experience at that mid level? And then would then we’re able to take it down into the nitty gritty details, sort of the on the ground where we look at truly, if I click this button here, what happens? What do I do next? Is it obvious? Is it clear? What’s the interaction and that specific example like and that allows us to do more individual testing? We do a lot of reviews specifically. I ask a ton of questions when we get to that point, as we’re kind of we’ve we’ve worked through a project. We’re at that sort of finish line or at that goal line. And we still do a last check where folks like me, who probably have no business coming in on the top at the last minute and asking a bunch of questions, we still do that as a way to challenge one another and make sure are we thinking about those specific details. And that is something that is probably what has remained the same is the customer focus. What has changed is trying to figure out how do we navigate that vertical and connect both the teams on the ground who are doing the work and the executing. But where does that fit in to the broader experience that we’re trying to create so that the perception of it is more based on value? And that is such a difficult task, because as you probably know, and this is this is a cliche at this point, most people notice when something goes wrong. Most people notice when this didn’t work as expected or why is why is this the way that it is? And so we’ll tolerate that. We can tolerate that as long as it stays to a hushed murmur as opposed to being something that is a larger noise signal of noise. We end up taking solace in the fact we’ve created positive experiences if we’re not hearing too much about them. That kind of comes back to what I was saying about the type of person or personality that can be successful in it is somebody who’s OK with that. But that’s that’s kind of from a philosophical to an actual perspective. That’s that’s how we like to operate.

Luke [00:12:46] Got it so very like partner driven face to face with the internal customer, so to speak.

Andrew [00:12:53] Absolutely, I think that if we don’t have working agreements in place, if we don’t have a shared understanding of know, we don’t we do this, I think has been a very big shift over the last probably 20 years. In it, we are the opposite of an ideology that says just give us the problem and get out of the way. Right. We we can’t operate in that way, though. The world has changed too much. People know too much. Right. They have a better technical understanding. They ask a lot more in-depth and knowledgeable questions. And that allows us to say and and hit that head on and say, OK, cool, we’re going to do this with you. So how let’s establish with the working agreement, at what point does it stop and the business starts? So I’m a big fan of saying each of our business partners, the those teams, they should have their own technical teams as well. They may not be classic engineering teams. They may not be as technical as our groups, but hopefully it’s like we build up to the 80 percent and then that enables them to go the next twenty percent where it’s maybe more intimately connected to the business problems that they’re trying to solve for the way that they need to operate in some way. It gives them that flexibility. They are not necessarily slowed down by our I.T. teams in any way, but we’re supporting them and focused on the governance and the the sort of centrality of systems and the ability to scale and the things that enable them. They don’t have to worry about those things. They don’t they can just operate in their day to day as if it’s not even a care in the world.

Luke [00:14:29] So I guess the last question I have for you is around those relationships you have with your internal customers and how you interpret what they’re asking for versus what you believe that they kind of need. Right.

Andrew [00:14:44] I think that that that comes down to again, it’s another classic problem. And I think the first and foremost, it’s about trying to separate the the proposed solution from the actual problem. First and foremost, I think that oftentimes, again, maybe more so today than 20 or 30 years ago, we have to have a really knowledgeable group of customers who oftentimes are exposed to the same marketing that we are in it. Right. They see the tools and solutions out there. They advertised on public radio. They’re in there and in pop up windows and or ads on the site of your email. And so the first challenge is how do we work with somebody who instead of saying, hey, here’s the problem we’re trying to solve, comes and says, I want you to implement this solution, because I think that first sort of step back and the goal for us is how do we abstract that somewhat so that we can then say, hey, this looks like an awesome solution. However, can we first talk about what are we trying to solve for here? That to me is step one is trying to get out of the mindset of assuming that this is the and only the solution that we want today. So trying to build that trust with the customer or the partner in this case for us is about taking that step back. And a lot of that then begins, in my mind, at least, the the most successful way that we found is creating trust that enables us to ask a bunch of questions. And so having the the opportunity to almost interview in the same way that you and I are talking here to really focus with somebody and ask them, what are you trying to do this is this the type of of process you’re trying to build? Well, what happens here and then just really trying to get that person or the team to open up and talk about what are we what are we shooting for here? What’s the goal that we’re trying to achieve and making sure that they understand we have the same goal. We want to make sure that that we’re helping you solve a problem. But what we don’t want to do is sort of do that, pat them on the head and say, oh, isn’t this cute? Let’s let the professionals step in and start to solve this problem. But really, we want to say totally understand, this is crazy, that you have to work this way today, build that trust with true empathy, and then hopefully enable a dialog that helps us piece it apart. That then will stop us from saying things like that won’t scale or that’s not going to work, because I think that those are those turn off moments where the equivalent of starting with no, this is this is bad as opposed to saying yes, totally. Got you. I understand what you’re saying here. But while we’re we’re talking about this, let me also share with you some of the things that we have to consider while we’re looking at this solution. So it becomes more of a dialog about where where are we trying to go collectively as opposed to just saying like. The like the IT person Skitz that we’ve all seen, where there is just that sort of assumed arrogance about them, like that’s that’s one thing that we really try to focus on as much as possible. And I think that the best way for us to be successful or at least how we’ve been successful so far, is even in some of just the core of how do we construct our teams and how do we make sure that we’re all aligned along the same sort of guidelines or philosophies in some respects. And best articulated, we we had an engineering manager on the team, and this story was just recounted to me recently that when he was hiring folks, he was talking to this person in an interview and the candidate made a comment about how everybody I’ve talked to is really great. They all seem they’re asking great questions that are really collaborative. And the engineering manager, Straight-faced, that I had looked at him and said, hey, Jack, we don’t we don’t hire assholes here. And and to me, that was that was what I heard that story. I was like, it’s so true. That is a focus for us and to me. I connect that to your question of like, how do we sort of piece that apart? That’s the core. We’ve got to start with the type of person who is empathetic, who’s understanding, who really tries to think about what problem are we attacking here? And it’s not the person. It’s the problem that we need to focus on.

Luke [00:19:13] Well, you know, it’s awesome to hear that, you know, there’s still a focus of of kind of these squishier ideas around empathy and everything in a department that doesn’t in it there, which it doesn’t always traditionally have that kind of focus. And, you know, obviously, it seems like the success of someone like yourself with a very nontraditional background really speaks to that that value. And that’s really great to see.

Andrew [00:19:38] That’s great. Well, thank you. I appreciate that.

Luke [00:19:41] Well, Andrew, thank you so much for coming on. Really appreciate it.

Andrew [00:19:44] Hey, happy to.

Luke [00:19:50] Thanks to Andrew for the conversation, thanks to Tom Tierney for the music and thanks to you for listening. Please make sure to follow Atleo on LinkedIn and we’ll see you again in two weeks.

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