How Hollywood Helped Me Be an Agency CTO

My job training to become the CTO at a strategic digital agency really began before “digital” was a thing.

When I started out in the workforce, I was hired to operate generators on motion picture sets. I still think it was one of the most interesting gigs you could have. The work was constant—days, nights, rain, snow, sleet, the whole shmear. You saw everything, in every condition.

My job was to keep a giant diesel engine running efficiently through it all, keeping the load on it safe and balanced. That generator allowed us to provide massive amounts of power (almost a substation’s worth) for city blocks, over a period of twelve or so hours at a time.

Nowadays, my job involves less battling of the elements. (And I don’t smell like #2 diesel when I get home every night, meaning I no longer have to undress in the basement.) But mud aside, running a generator and running the technology operations here at GLG are really very similar. Both roles are about using technology behind the scenes to deliver content seamlessly to the end user.

Recently, I was reminded of the fundamental affinity between being a generator operator and being a CTO. A client was talking to me about redesigning a critical application architecture, stressing that the technology needed to perform flawlessly under high traffic. He asked me, “Can you tell me how much traffic before the lights flicker, then how much until they dim, and then how much until it’s lights out?”

Loosely translated, he wanted to know: How many transactions can the website handle per second? How much traffic can we drive toward the site? And would there be a point at which his site could no longer provide customers with what he’d promised?

Talk about flashback.

“How much more load can we throw on that generator before we have to bring in another one? If something happens to that one, what is our backup plan? How can we provide enough power on this set?”

Making a successful film took planning, forecasting, and a willingness to lean into and strategize for every worst-case scenario. It was a type of problem solving that involved testing and retesting your plans to uncover and fix weak points, so that power wouldn’t fail at a critical moment.

Fast-forward back to that client meeting: by harnessing the same approach to problem solving that I honed during my years on set, we were able to quickly create a site for the client that could handle a large volume of traffic, while still providing an outstanding user experience.

My team worked hard to successfully architect and deploy a technology stack that was able to scale on demand. Using advanced caching techniques, we were able to offset the overhead of repeated database calls by creating a protective cache layer to handle, prioritize, and queue traffic. This allowed the application to process transactions quickly, without sacrificing quality.

Working with our partners at SOASTA, my team members were able to accurately forecast the level of traffic we could handle, and beyond. We tested to determine breakpoints and then made key modifications at the code, data, and infrastructure levels to patch them. By the end, we had a strong site that we knew would hold up, even under enormous pressure.

As a successful generator operator, the big payoff was always when viewers tuned in to a show on their TVs or sat back in their theater seats for a film. My work was what allowed customers to enjoy the beauty of the lighting, the exposure of the film, and the product on the screen. They didn’t have to think about how it got there—they could just enjoy it.

As a CTO at a strategic digital agency, that payoff is the same, even though the screens are different. It’s still all about delivering powerful, seamless experiences to consumers, just through their computers, tablets, and phone screens. When people can enjoy digital content without ever thinking about how it got there, I know I’ve done my job.

GLG

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