Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Melody Meckfessel, ex-Google VP Of Engineering, Aims To Make Data Collaboration Accessible To Everyone

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Melody Meckfessel, ex-VP of Engineering at Google and Co-founder and CEO of Observable, sat down with Advancing Women in Tech (AWIT) to share her perspectives. Observable is a collaborative web-based platform that empowers data scientists, data analysts, developers and decision makers to uncover new insights and make better data-driven decisions.

Melody began her career as a software engineer for OpenOrders, transitioned to working for Sapient as their Director of Technology and then began a 15 year career at Google which would eventually lead her to become the Vice President of Engineering prior to departing to launch Observable. Melody has taken her extensive background working in tech and with data to inform the mission and work of Observable, a cloud-based platform for visualizing and analyzing data that has raised $46M in funding from notable funds including Menlo Ventures, Sequoia Capital, and Acrew Capital (founded by women VC luminaries Theresia Gouw and Lauren Kolodny).

In this founders-focused conversation with Sydney Umeri of Advancing Women in Tech (AWIT), Melody shares what’s on her mind as she builds a business, her experience fundraising during a pandemic, and where she believes the future of data visibility is headed.

Umeri: In doing the research for this interview, I saw a slide you used that said, “more developers and more collaboration, more complexity.” Can you please speak to how Observable solves that problem?

Meckfessel: There are more developers in the world than there were last year and the year before. The current predictions are 70 million developers in the world. It’s one of the top jobs in terms of career paths, meaning the complexity is increasing. Companies are using more open-source software. I saw an estimate that 50% of the world’s software has some connection or dependency on open-source software. Those are more developers working together to collaborate out in the world and then reusing each other’s code. That’s a great thing to be able to have a starting point or to not write something yourself, but that complexity starts to amplify. The same is true for data. Companies have to juggle multiple formats, multiple environments, multiple data infrastructures in their workflow, and you can see how the software and the data complexity start to compound.

How can we help developers work together effectively? How can we help them see where there are dependencies in the applications that they’re writing? How can we help them see those insights in their data faster by doing it together? How can we include them to collaborate in writing code, analyzing data, and using visualizations to help see those surprises and work with each other more effectively?

That’s what we’re trying to do at Observable. We’re trying to create a place where people can come together and reuse code, so you can import an example that you find on the platform, but you can also collaborate, and through that collaboration, we think we’re more powerful together.

Umeri: Many founders come to this idea of wanting to start or launch a business, and sometimes there’s an acute pain point for them, and it was a moment where they’re like, “We cannot move on without what I want to build.” Or sometimes it’s over the course of years. Was there an acute moment for you? Or was it just, “No, I’ve done this long enough, and I just know we need it?”

Meckfessel: That’s a great question because pain is real. When I was at Google, I had a tremendous opportunity to work in multiple areas of the infrastructure. One of the things that I saw was we were really focused on how to help Google engineers, and also engineers using Google Cloud, be productive. This is the advent of DevOps. If you think about the tools, the processes, the culture that brings people together to write software and to maintain it effectively, I really believe in that, but I kind of saw data being left out in the cold a bit. I would work with data analysts, data scientists and developers within Google, but there really wasn’t a way to bring people together. There were individual tools for tasks that a data scientist had to do. Then you had developers that were working with them to build data apps, essentially dashboards and reports to surface data. I just kept seeing them left out of the picture. I wasn’t seeing something come together around how to help them collaborate.

I continue to be inspired by what GitHub did for open-source software development. So for me, I kept seeing that, and then I looked out in the market, and I thought there’s a lot of pain that these analysts, scientists, developers, decision-makers, collaborators, feel from not being able to work together. For example, if you’ve ever been in a meeting where you’ve been looking at data, and someone has a question, typically, you have to write that question down, and someone has to figure out the answer. What if you could do that exploration in real-time together? That’s what we do in Observable.

Umeri: That’s filling a huge need in the market. I want to pivot a little bit and talk about scaling the business. It’s one thing to have an idea. It’s one thing to start building it. But scaling is something completely different. I would love to get your thoughts on what has been the most fun part about scaling. What you’ve really enjoyed.

Meckfessel: I love to be part of a team that’s building things. I use the word “things” in an inclusive general way. Building technology that’s in service of helping people. Building places where people can come together and share what they know, it could be code, it could be a great, interesting, new visualization. Building and growing a team of people that are in service of that mission. This idea of building and creating together is where I have the most fun. We are a data collaboration platform, and we collaborate a lot internally. We pair programs; we collaborate on dashboards using Observable. We’re always working together.

Especially in the pandemic, this idea of how do you have fun in your work, especially working with data, is present. Most people wouldn’t describe working with data as a fun experience. But what if you did bring fun to it? Visualization plays such a critical role because it taps into our human visual system, and the intuitive parts of our brain, to be able to ask questions and see things in a way that we can’t, working with numbers on a screen. That has been the most fun, and I would also share that I am grateful for the community at Observable. The community is creating such expressive work and sharing it with the world. That’s what gets me up every day. Being able to build and create with the team at Observable and in collaboration with the community.

Umeri: Many founders who fundraised during the pandemic have their own stories to share on the process. You recently completed a $35M raise – can you share your experience in fundraising during this time?

Meckfessel: It was an interesting journey to navigate. We closed on our Series A at the end of 2019, and the pandemic hit. We definitely adapted throughout the pandemic. Then, we were looking at growth in the platform and the community, and I was very intentional about the folks we were meeting with that could be new partners. I was looking for what we’re going to need next. I was trying to identify investors and their value systems that matched our mission and where we were going. It is about matching your company’s values and mission with who you will be talking with every other day. Investors are not just members of your board. They’re members of your team. In fact “Menlo Venture’s team-based approach matches with our collaborative culture and is just the help needed as we continue growth in our customer community.”

Our board members mentor leaders within the company, and they’re available to talk through challenging issues. They are in it with us. Having that match in terms of values of really believing in the possibilities of our mission, not just for the next year or two years, but five to 10 years from now, was really important. There were a lot of investors that I talked to that I really wanted to ensure they bought into our company culture and how we were trying to show up in the world, our ethics, our values, the fact that we want the company to represent the world that we’re trying to create, which is data practitioners from all backgrounds, all educational levels, all role definitions, and you need to match that to be successful.

Umeri: Is there anything that stood out to you from a gender perspective regarding fundraising?

Meckfessel: Yes, I was very intentional about finding partners that were going to be supportive. Jim Goetz at Sequoia is an incredible partner, and the network within Sequoia is extremely supportive. I was also looking for a member of the board who was a woman and was in the space that we were in. I met Theresia Gouw, who leads Acrew Capital. She’s incredible. She’s been a tremendous mentor. Her work to diversify cap tables and support diverse founders with her organization is really an inspiration for all of us. I was very intentional about wanting that on the board. I wanted someone who was going to challenge me to go big, and Theresia goes big.

As I was evaluating other investors for the company, it was really important to me that their teams were diverse and that the folks that our team was going to work with were kind of a mirror representing us as much as possible. There were folks I met with that were incredible venture firms, but when I asked very direct questions about how much of your portfolio is led by women or underrepresented founders, I didn’t get an answer. Not a great sign.

Umeri: I want to pivot and talk about how you guys diversified internally early. When people think of startups, it’s kind of like, everyone wears all these hats. But you ended up putting people into silos internally, and it ended up working well for you. Why did you decide to do that early on?

Meckfessel: I learned through my experiences, often just mistakes that I made at Google, of not investing in product education, advocacy, early design, and engineering collaboration; we missed on several really important features, important engagement with the community. When I was looking at what we needed to build and create, a data collaboration platform, it was really important to me to bring that cross-functional, cross-domain perspective in from the beginning. I didn’t go out and hire 25 software engineers. I hired designers, user experience researchers, and product educators. I grew a community team to invest in community programs. You have to think about what humans need. If we’re going to build features that are user-centric, we need to have design and engineering working together from the beginning, and we need research to listen to the community.

Umeri: I’d love to know where you think data visibility will be in the next five to 10 years and the role that Observable will play in championing that.

Meckfessel: I don’t have a crystal ball; I wish I could predict what’s going to happen. I will say that what we see at Observable and in the data community is an ever-present role of interactive, real-time visualizations. When I say real-time, I mean those visualizations are connected to live versus static data.

That means that you can have confidence in it. You have confidence that you’re looking at something, that when you have that insight or that “aha moment,” you can count on it. Interactivity is important. If we’re all different and have different expertise, we want to explore and interact with the data in different ways. The ability to have a slider to explore, a search field, or different filters that you can walk through the data with, that’s supporting our exploration and our collaborative approach, and we can then build on it. Data observability will continue to be a standard across the industry in everything because of the richness of the exploration that we have. It’s just different from a standard static report.

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