In 1965, Bob Dylan took a break from music to try to become a poet cum novelist. He rented a house in Woodstock New York and decided not to write any more songs. In classic Murphy’s Law, as soon as he gave it up he got hit with inspiration, sat down at the piano, and pounded out the lyrics to one of the most influential popular modern songs, “Like a Rolling Stone.”
Moral of the story? Sometimes taking a brain break in Woodstock is the best thing you can do for your imagination.
At least, that’s what Lew Cirne, CEO and founder of New Relic, tells me at his company’s first ever user conference FutureStack. Cirne says he read about Dylan’s story awhile ago and took it to heart.
When I first met him in June at the Developer Roundtable, he proclaimed he was taking the summer off. He was putting his company into the hands of his executives, and devoting himself to coding.
Coding might not sound like a summer off to most people, but for a CEO who is a product man at heart and an engineer in history, programming is play. By giving himself permission to skip out on meetings, stop talking to press, and escape to Cabo to code, Cirne suspected he’d be freeing his imagination to create something great for New Relic’s users.
New Relic is a company that does software analytics for other companies’ browser, server, and mobile applications. Developers can sign into their New Relic account and see preset diagnostic information like how fast their application is. For example: People are taking 15 seconds to log in to the application, because this line of code is calling the database in the wrong way. Said developers can then fix the problem.
But Cirne imagined a different New Relic offering — one where developers could query anything they liked, sort of like a Google Search, and get an answer using the New Relic data about their applications. For example: what are the most popular features in the product and do they correlate with how much people spend?
New Relic used to get those inquiries through customer service all the time, so it knew there was a need.
Cirne had been turning the problem over in his head for years. But a solution didn’t strike him till he traveled with his family to a winter week trip in Lake Tahoe. Then, overlooking the beautiful lake surrounded by greenery blanketed with a thin layer of snow, it hit him.
He’d need to build the New Relic database from the ground up so it could handle any question about customer data. “I was afraid to take that leap before,” Cirne says. “But I took that leap in January and I’m very glad I did.”
“My wife knows when I get hit with an idea I need to run with it so she said, ‘That’s it I’m taking Katelyn [his daughter] home. You stay here, have fun, and remember to eat.'” Cirne says. He spent the next few weeks holed up, heading into town occasionally for a monster sandwich that would last him days at a time.
Once a hacker, always a hacker’s habits, even if you’re a hacker running a company valued at $750 million and approaching IPO with valley badass Peter Currie on the board.
Cirne started the work on the database then in Tahoe, and furthered it half a year later during time alone in Cabo in August. His work view then was palm ferns and blue skies. Tough life.
We might all (alright basically none of us) be able to afford such luxurious inspirational surroundings, but there is something to be said for taking time off from the daily grind in whatever way you can afford. Sometimes the moments of respite are what our brains need to generate genius.
By the time Cirne finished, the database was ready for his engineers to tackle it, and Cirne could return to the slightly less exciting work of running the company.
He announced the database today as the keynote speaker at the New Relic conference, and called it “Rubicon” after the Rubicon trail where his Tahoe cabin is located.
“You know when you’re a reporter, and you work on a story, you feel great about it, hit publish and get positive feedback?” Cirne asked. “As a builder of software that’s what I yearn for too. I got that feeling today. We demoed Rubicon on stage and people gasped. You could feel the excitement in the room.”
I guess all that not-hard work paid off.