Irina Nazarova is CEO of Evil Martians, a product development consultancy that works with startups and established businesses while creating open-source products and services.
Victoria talks to Irina about getting a sense of what people are interested in learning about or what kind of problems they have, how consulting and product development complement each other, and of course, the question on everyone's minds: Is Evil Martians really evil? 😈
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VICTORIA: This is the Giant Robots Smashing Into Other Giant Robots Podcast, where we explore the design, development, and business of great products. I'm your host, Victoria Guido. And with us today is Irina Nazarova, CEO at Evil Martians, a product development consultancy that works with startups and established businesses while also creating open-source-based products and services. Irina, thanks for joining us.
IRINA: Hey, thank you for having me.
VICTORIA: You're welcome. Tell me a little bit about what's going on in your world this week.
IRINA: So I just returned from Rails SaaS in Athens, which was pretty incredible. It's a smaller conference, but it has amazing vibes, amazing people. And, like, I just loved it there in Athens.
IRINA: And, yeah, I wonder how your experience was? Because I know you also went to Japan, right?
VICTORIA: Yeah, I went to RubyKaigi in Matsumoto last month. It was a good community, and to get to travel to a cool place was really fun. So I feel really lucky that I was able to get to go. Did you eat a lot of Greek food while you were there?
IRINA: Not that much. I was a speaker. So I was a bit nervous, and I skipped some meals. [chuckles]
VICTORIA: Oh no. [laughs]
IRINA: Just to prepare. But we did have a super nice dinner with Xavier Noria, and, well, we had some Greek wine. All right, we did that.
VICTORIA: That sounds fabulous. And, you know, I was going to ask you...one of my questions was about the conferences you've been attending because we met at RailsConf in Atlanta. And I saw you went to Rails SaaS and maybe some other ones recently. So, how has that been for you overall?
IRINA: It's amazing. I think, like, all the conferences are suddenly back. And the energy is different than maybe pre-COVID. I didn't really attend many conferences pre-COVID, but I did attend some. Now people are so eager to sort of reconnect. And me, I think, I feel like I'm only starting to make those connections. And it's so emotional to meet people that I only see on Twitter, but meeting them in person is magical for some reason. So this is what's happening. Like, to me, I'm just amazed by all this energy and support coming from the community towards many people, like, towards each other.
VICTORIA: I also feel amazed when I meet someone I've followed on Twitter for a long time but in real life [laughs]. I'm like, wow. That was Aaron Patterson for me. I was like, oh, this is someone I followed on Twitter a long time ago because I thought they were funny. And now they're a speaker at this conference I'm at [laughs], which is really nice. And do the conferences help you connect more to potential clients? Or what's, like, the business reason for attending all of these events?
IRINA: Good question. So I'm not expecting any, you know, direct sales to happen at the conferences. But, for example, I get to understand the clients, maybe better, the potential clients. And I get to connect with the existing clients, again, on a different level. So, if you have a client at the conference and you have a chance to see them in person, which we never do, and you as well, right? thoughtbot, you guys are not meeting the clients, like, the same thing. But if you get to meet even, like, some people from the client team, it's amazing. You can have a different type of connection.
And I met an engineer from our past client at RailsConf, and it was something incredible. I didn't expect him to react like the way he did. You know, the moment he realized that I am from Evil Martians, like, his facial expressions just immediately transformed into a big smile. And he said such warm words about the things we did, something like two or three years ago. I mean, you don't have anything better than that in this industry, right? There's nothing better than this sincere, you know, gratitude from a client. [chuckles] It's just amazing.
VICTORIA: I can relate to that, being from thoughtbot and attending Rails and RubyConfs. It is a nice feeling that people know the company or they know some open-source projects or some training materials we put out. And they're so grateful. [laughs] And I've only been at thoughtbot for a year. So, for me, I'm like, you're welcome. [laughs] I haven't done those things, but I will. And I will build on, you know, I think it also helps you kind of get a sense for what people are interested in learning about or what kind of problems they have. So, tell me more about that with Evil Martians. What is it all about?
IRINA: I think we share this feeling where we want to give back. You and me we both felt something where people were grateful for something the companies did. But now I feel I need to give back somehow, and maybe I'm sure you feel the same. And you're doing this podcast, which is important for the community and other things. You're open-sourcing the tooling. So both of our companies are actually sharing a lot of, like, philosophies, attitude, where it's great to be in the community that we're in.
So we also do something where we have some products like AnyCable. And it's interesting to talk to people using those products because we do have a much larger number of users of our products, you know, compared to our consulting clients, that's for sure. So the chances of meeting the users of AnyCable or, like, other products are pretty high at the conference, at Rails Conference.
VICTORIA: Right. So I find it similar that you have the consultancy side and you have the product development side. Take it a little bit further back to just where it all started with Evil Martians. Are you really evil? It's [laughs] [inaudible 05:47] question.
IRINA: Absolutely. We are. I mean, and we come from Mars.
IRINA: Yeah, that's also true. It's a nice planet. We just make you think that it's a bad planet.
VICTORIA: Yeah, to keep you away. You don't want too many tourists.
VICTORIA: Mm-hmm, that makes sense. [laughs] But I understand you all started as a consultancy from back-end engineers. And then, it grew into what it is today and having several side projects. So, how does the consultancy side and the product development side complement each other?
IRINA: Yeah, so the way it works, it's like a cycle of things where we work for startups like thoughtbot. And then, we work with 20 to 30 product engineering teams every year. And we notice which tools could be helpful for those teams and maybe would be helpful for us in those teams. So we're trying to enhance, improve our own productivity and the productivity of our clients. And that's how, I think, many of our open-source projects started.
Some of the open-source projects, I think, started, you know, for fun, for some other reasons. But many of them actually were useful in the client projects. So then we are passionate about this. So, for example, we have PostCSS. PostCSS was built by our Head of Front End, Andrey Sitnik. And it has something, like, 30,000, you know, GitHub Stars. And Autoprefixer, which is a PostCSS plugin, has, like, 20,000 GitHub Stars. So they are huge. I mean, it's not just about the stars; half of the internet is actually using PostCSS.
But PostCSS is popular, but we didn't turn it into a product. We are not commercializing it at all. But some of the other tools, let's call them tools, that we open-sourced, we could then envision how we could commercialize them. And the way it works is there are actually several strategies. For imgproxy, for example, we sell a paid version. But for AnyCable, which is another tool, we also sell a pro version. But we also earn consulting kind of get consulting clients come in for product development related to AnyCable, let's say. This is how AnyCable also helps us get consulting clients in a major way.
And then we ended up building a lot of tools for engineers. And then because we work with this type of tools, now we also have many developer tools clients. So we started specializing on developer tools. It's about half of the sort of revenue. And now it's getting even more interesting; I think, because we don't just build tools for engineers, you know, ourselves as side projects, like I said. But also, our consultant work is essentially the same thing. It's often commercial open source like Teleport, or HTTPie, tools for engineers.
This is exciting, I think, because now we can use this, you know, sort of connection with a type of audience, with a type of customer base, like the engineers, and we can leverage this experience in our consulting work, which is even better. And then we do open source with the products. They help us get consultant revenue, and then the experience on those projects helps us improve our products, and get product ideas, and get the first users for those products, et cetera. So it's like consulting helps product development, in our case.
VICTORIA: So, to play that back a little bit, it's almost like a cycle where they feed into each other where your engineers as they're working are also kind of, like, the customers who would be using the developer tools that you want to build. So you have some market research there. And then, you know, it all feeds back into each other so that the customers who are using your products are also likely to need your consultant services. [laughs] So that's a nice flow.
I wonder if there's anything surprising that came out during that kind of discovery process for product, for developer tools when you were first starting out, anything that you thought this is a tool maybe we think people are going to use. But then what was the reality, or [chuckles] what surprising things happened?
IRINA: A lot of things. But I think the main one that is sort of important is that there's a difference between open source and product a product. And the differences...okay, the way I'm trying to explain it is, like, between...it's, like, the difference between you and your friend from another industry.
Let's say you have a friend who is a microbiologist or something. And they are smart, right? They are smart in their own field. But if you give them your open source and ask them to take a look and you expect them to learn about it, to want to learn about it, they won't do it. They might use your product based on your open source, though, if it is easy if they know how to benefit from the product.
So what I'm trying to say is, turning open source into a product is like essentially building a new product, a new thing where the customer base is different because you want it to be wider. But you don't want them to learn about your open source and to be passionate about your technology. You want them to be passionate about the value they want to get, you know, about something they're building. So it's a shift in mentality that you got to make to make it work.
And pretty often, the people that collaborate with us in the open source are, you know, super different from the people who become our users. And users are great, but, you know, they don't want to learn too much about the internals and how it's supposed to work. They just want to click a button, and pay some money, and get the result, get the value from this. And, I don't know, it sounds simple. But it's actually a major shift in thinking about your product for you as an author of a tool, of a technology, of something.
VICTORIA: That's a really interesting distinction to make. So, when you're building open-source projects, you want to really invite people in and get people excited about how the whole tool works and how they can use it in their projects. And then, on the product side, you're wanting to make it super easy [chuckles] for people and make sure they're focusing on the value of what they're getting out of this product instead of having to, like, understand all the little details. Is that right?
IRINA: Yeah, exactly, exactly.
VICTORIA: That makes sense. And is there any product in particular that you're really excited about or you see a lot of growth in with Evil Martians?
IRINA: Yeah, I will talk about AnyCable. I will say AnyCable because I am personally involved in its development. So we did it with Vladimir Dementyev, the author. And the exciting part about AnyCable is the types of products and the types of functionality that can be built using AnyCable. So these are all kind of collaboration features, collaboration tools. The simplest are just the chats within your Rails application. And we have a lot of medical and healthcare applications that want to keep the data, the chat, you know, data on their own servers without sending them to some SaaSs. That's why they use AnyCable.
But also, we have other tools that use AnyCable to build collaboration. And we've helped some clients build this at Evil Martians using AnyCable, leveraging AnyCable. But it's exciting when, like, other companies do it themselves sort of without us just by using the product. So I don't like it when I don't have the collaboration within a tool that you're using with someone else together.
So I remember we were using something like a tool to create a service, and me and Vladimir we're using it simultaneously, you know, rewriting our edits all the time. And it was so frustrating because they didn't support collaboration in this tool. So the thing you do when you don't support the collaboration is just that every user, every player, is just rewriting what the other player did without saving. So it's, like, so frustrating, yeah. So I like it that our product is helping people fix this problem.
VICTORIA: Right. And to kind of summarize a little bit about what AnyCable does, is that it allows you to build Ruby on Rails apps and use any WebSocket server in any language as a replacement for the Ruby server. Is that accurate?
IRINA: Not exactly. So AnyCable is a server that stands next to your Ruby on Rails app and handles all the WebSockets. It's written in Go. It's super fast, super efficient, and scales efficiently. That's the most important part. Because you don't have to scale your entire Ruby on Rails app, your, you know, entire logic just to support the real-time load. So you only scale this small, efficient app, and it handles all the load and super quickly. And it also supports HTML over WebSockets updates, I mean, Hotwire and stuff. So it helps you scale your Hotwire updates as well.
So it's much faster than Ruby. It's much more efficient in terms of scaling. And, yeah, it's bidirectional, meaning that the server sends...by the way, it's just a drop-in replacement for ActionCable. So we're using ActionCable protocol. So we have the channels and stuff. So this means that we can send data, you know, from server broadcasts, the data from server, but we can also send the data from any client.
And one of the use cases for Any Cable, by the way, is different devices that send their coordinates or some other data in real-time. Like, we have some kind of cars sending us GPS data. It's cute, I think that you keep your business logic in your Ruby and Rails app, which is the place to write your business logic, which is the best place to write it. But the infrastructure and all the sort of delivery guarantees, order guarantees, all this kind of infrastructure layer is serviced, is handled by AnyCable, so you don't have to worry about it.
VICTORIA: That makes sense. Thank you for expanding on that. The interesting part for you on that is just to have this be able to be more collaborative, right? So we're working on this whole project together and not siloing into our different groups and building bespoke products to solve this problem.
IRINA: Yeah, I mean, I like collaborative UI as a norm, as something that has to be there. So, for any work-related tools...and we do work remotely now over the internet somehow. So I think any tool for any professionals has to have a collaborative regime, right? Support for collaboration because people want to work together. And that's the only way to work, I think.
VICTORIA: Yeah, that makes sense to me.
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VICTORIA: Was there anything that's happened in the last few years maybe, or even that's come up in that discovery process as you're building these products that made you shift your strategic direction for Evil Martians?
IRINA: Yeah. I was initially looking for the right strategy regarding the products at Evil Martians. And what I mean is we were always passionate about building our own products, building our own products for engineers. We were always passionate about this. But, in order to make it work...and I think it works now, in a way, because we just had our other product, imgproxy, incorporate. And they raised a round of external financing, which is a win, I think. I mean, they have a long, long way to go. And we will try to support them. But, for me, it's important that we had an internal project, you know, graduate us and move beyond Evil Martians.
So something that I changed, I think, in the company together with the founders, for sure, is how we structure the incentives related to the internal products. What I'm trying to say is this: many companies that have an internal project will be looking to own those products. That's what I'm trying to say. And we are not looking for that.
What we're looking for is to have a founding team for a product and to make sure they have the majority of shares, that they are the owners of this product. Because we know that building a product is such a long way, and it's a difficult journey. And it takes years and decades to build them into something large, or profitable, or sustainable. So we want the people who are actually doing this to be properly motivated.
So something that I convinced the founders to do was to keep the share of Evil Martian's [inaudible 20:40] in those new products at a low level, which may sound counterintuitive for some businessmen, you know, for some owners of the business. They will say, "Well, this was something that was built internally in this company. So this is fully owned by this company." And I agree. Like, from the legal standpoint, this is correct.
But it doesn't make much sense if you think about it because you don't want to own, you know, 95% or 100% in something that its worth is zero or even, you know, a negative amount when you keep investing, and you're not getting any returns. But rather, you'd have 10%, 15%, 20% in something large and profitable. And that was the change, I think, where we said, look, we'll be investing in products in a certain way to make sure that the founders, you know, the team of authors is properly motivated. So they own this, and Evil Martians is just the first investor.
VICTORIA: That makes a lot of sense because I have been a part of companies where they wanted to reproduce and productize what they'd built for a client and make that something they owned. And I think you use an interesting approach to motivate people to contribute to a project like that by sharing the ownership. [laughs] And that makes a lot of sense to me. I'm curious, based on your response to that last question, how would you describe your leadership style as a CEO?
IRINA: There's no one way to be the CEO, I guess. So every person approaches this differently. And it's not that easy to be the CEO after the founder, [laughs] so, when, you know, the founder who was the CEO before hands you the job. It's not that easy. But I had trust and support. And I still have it, for sure, the trust and support from the founders and from the team because I've been with the company for four years already when I moved into this role.
And I think of my style as, first of all, you know, listen to the team, collect the information first. I imagine that I act like a consultant from a management consulting firm, but I didn't work in a management consulting firm. I didn't know how they actually work. But I imagine this is how they work. They sort of speak with every person on the team, and they try to figure out the blockers, the problems, and the aspirations of the team.
And then they try to find how to improve, you know, the collective utility, the utility of the group, how to improve the situation, maybe not for every single person but for the majority of them. And this was my initial approach and fixing some, maybe, problems in the company. But I would also try to come up with my own ideas as well for sure. But I rely on the team a lot.
So what I also did is I started relying on my leadership team much more than maybe the founder and CEO. So I'm relying on Andrey Sitnik, Head of Front End, on Roman Shamin, on Vladimir Dementyev, and other people, Victoria, Victoria Melnikova, our Head of New Business. And I'm relying on many people heavily, heavily.
And my goal is to make sure they see where we want to go and they each can contribute in a certain way. And I ask them how they can contribute. I'm not telling them how to do this, right? I trust their judgment in their area of expertise. But mostly, I just ask about what they can do. And this is how we work together.
VICTORIA: I like that. I like how you're really connecting with your team and finding out their strengths, and their struggles, and what they think should do. And then it's how do you enable them as a CEO to achieve this greater vision that you all want to work towards? So I really like that. What would you say is maybe your biggest challenge that you're facing right now?
IRINA: I actually challenged myself to become more publicly, sort of effective. [laughs] That's why I'm here, for example. So I realized we do have amazing engineers, amazing designers who are out there, you know, doing podcasts, doing open-source, building technologies, writing on our blog, doing all of this. And I realized that, well, I should do my part as well. And this was one of the goals for this year.
The other goal, the other challenge is so complicated that I'm not sure [laughs] I'm ready to talk about it yet. So some of the things I'm trying to do, to be honest, I'm not sure if I can do them at all, [laughs] and that's the problem.
So thoughtbot has the Incubator Program, right? And this means that thoughtbot presumably gets equity in those new businesses that people build with thoughtbot's help and guidance. And we're not doing this, but we're doing something else, also trying to make sure we have shares in the amazing businesses that we help grow and they become successful. And we're doing everything we can to make sure they are successful. And I want this company to have a share in the success of our clients, our products, all of that together.
VICTORIA: It would probably contribute to motivation, which is another factor you mentioned previously about.
VICTORIA: You know, right? [laughs]
IRINA: Absolutely, yeah.
VICTORIA: Right. We're all going to work a lot harder and collaborate a lot more together. That makes sense.
IRINA: Yeah, it also means, yeah, that it makes sense to have a share at Evil Martians. You know, as a part of the company, as an employee, you're getting a share in the company. But as you know, when you are a consulting company, it's sort of a complicated question, actually. If you're a startup and you are granting equity-like stock options to your team, this makes sense because if the company goes, you know, grows and goes public; those shares become something super valuable, like, super cool.
But we are not looking to grow our consulting company into something huge. That's for sure. It won't be possible, right? We are operating at this small niche, that's for sure. And we don't have that many amazing engineers, consultants, and it's so hard to hire them. So, anyways, we're not looking to grow that much, although we are growing. And this means that shares in our company do not mean the same thing as the shares in our clients. But if we participate in the success of our clients, then it sort of changes the whole motivation on our own team. This is what I'm thinking about.
VICTORIA: Yeah, that's a great question. And I wonder, to build on that, what success really looks like six months from now, or even, like, five years from now for Evil Martians.
IRINA: I want us to be recognized as the best consultancy, consulting company for developer tools, products. I know maybe it sounds ambitious, but this is what we are super passionate about. This is where we are accumulating the expertise. And this means I want people to think Evil Martians when they build a product for engineers. I want them to think about us and reach out to us. But also, I want us to build a number of successful products, commercial products for engineers, which is a huge challenge. Like, doing both it's not easy, that's for sure. But let's see.
VICTORIA: Yeah, it's good to be ambitious. And I love that journey for you. I'm excited to follow along. I wonder what advice you would give yourself if you could travel back in time to maybe when you first joined [chuckles] Evil Martians.
IRINA: I'd say, first of all, be confident in sharing your opinion because, well, especially for females, we do have a lot of, like, impostor syndrome when joining a tech company, for sure. But it's not just females, right? When you dig deeper, you realize that most people have impostor syndrome, regardless of their gender, background, et cetera. No one is this perfect image of a perfect engineer. It's just no one, really. And everyone has that.
And I want everyone who is joining the new company or maybe entering tech as the industry to be confident in sharing their opinions, well, humbly, respectfully but for sure. But don't shy away from asking the questions and from owning your agenda. That's what I want to say.
Like, the first year and maybe two years, I didn't own my own agenda. I didn't try to control the sort of to-do lists, the things I'm doing. And later, when I started thinking, you know, critically about my own priorities, I realized that I could bring more value by doing something else, maybe not, you know, not 100% different things but maybe by adding 20% to the mix and removing something that is actually not urgent, not important, you know, just randomly added to...just randomly asked by someone, [chuckles] you know.
So I think own your own agenda. Be more confident and look forward. Try to imagine the future that you want. And, for some reason, it works. I don't know how, but it does work. So you start imagining the future. You share it with the team; you discuss it with the team. And this is the magic of the teamwork. Maybe you cannot do it alone, but as a team, so much more is possible.
VICTORIA: I love that. And thank you so much for sharing. I'm sure there's maybe a future Irina out there [laughs] who's hearing that advice now and can take it into their work. What if your younger self could travel forward in time, and what advice would they give you now?
IRINA: Oh, this is funny. Maybe my younger self would say that I should spend more time with my friends. [laughs] That's what I should do, yeah.
VICTORIA: That's never bad advice, I think. I love it. Okay. So, is there anything that you would like to promote?
IRINA: This is not tech-related at all. But I want to ask the listeners to donate to the non-profit organizations supporting people in Ukraine because people are suffering in Ukraine. And there was this explosion of the dam, and the floods, everything. And it's never been as important as it is now to support the non-profits. And I can suggest the Nova Ukraine non-profit organization. It's an American organization, but they send all their money to the local initiatives. So it's a great way to support a good cause.
VICTORIA: Yes, wonderful, and we can include that into the show notes. Thank you so much for joining me today, Irina.
You can subscribe to the show and find notes along with a complete transcript for this episode at giantrobots.fm. If you have questions or comments, you could email us at email@example.com. And you can find me on Twitter @victori_ousg.
This podcast is brought to you by thoughtbot and produced and edited by Mandy Moore. Thank you for listening. See you next time.
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