Oftentimes making a decisive decision that ends up being completely wrong is much better overall than being indecisive in the moment.
Travis Kimmel is the CEO, co-founder and product visionary behind GitPrime, a tool that provides visibility and productivity reporting for software teams.
Travis began his tech career at a consulting agency specializing in web apps and e-commerce. After moving to the operations side of engineering, he joined a startup as an engineering manger and later created an early prototype of GitPrime for himself as a tool to address the complexities inherent in scaling engineering teams.
In late 2014, Travis met his co-founder, Ben Thompson, at a co-working space in Colorado where they began informally collaborating on the idea. In 2015, they secured seed funding and began building the alpha version of the product. GitPrime was a part of Y Combinator in the winter 2016 batch.
Travis is experienced in building high-performing teams, and empowering people to do their best work of their careers.
Where did the idea for GitPrime come from?
GitPrime is, first and foremost, a set of reports that I wish I had as a software engineering manager. I’m familiar with types of engineering-specific questions that managers face every day, and there’s never been a good way to answer them with concrete data.
Building software is intangible and the work is often highly conceptual, which means it’s very difficult to have a complete picture of how the project is going. Without visibility, it’s impossible to help each engineer reach their potential and be sure the team is on track. As a manager, you’re constantly wondering if anyone is stuck, but it’s very costly to interrupt an engineer when they’re on a roll.
The bigger the team, the bigger the problem.
Beyond the day to day within the team, the best we’ve had for sharing progress with stakeholders has been mostly narrative.
If you look at any modern organization, you’ll find that Marketing, Sales, Operations, and Finance have all been transformed in recent years by software that allows teams to move faster and measure the effectiveness of their activity.
For all of the improvements developers have brought other industries—in the form of efficiency, visibility, and metrics—very has been done to offer that same level of visibility into software engineering.
When I saw that no one was solving this problem, I decided this was a problem I wanted to solve, and make this visibility available to software teams everywhere. We’re building the tool I always wished for.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
I’m most productive in the morning, so I try to get in early, and triage the critical blockers and time sensitive issues facing the team. Helping everyone dial in their understanding of their role & important deliverables so they can operate autonomously helps free me up to be productive.
For creative work, like developing the product or working on a new strategy, I usually need large blocks of uninterrupted time to be productive. I’m a big believer in what Paul Graham describes as the Maker’s Schedule. I try to batch meetings and high-task switching jobs into 3 days a week, to give about 2 days a week reserved for more creative work, like weighing in on product direction. When I can disappear for a morning or an afternoon in do-not-disturb mode, is when I’m the most productive.
How do you bring ideas to life?
I enjoy thinking about and building things that have never been done before. In our case, we’re building reports with no precedent, so I begin with a few types of tangential research — there’s a lot of great foundational research out there, but the format is usually pretty raw.
We start by researching what’s possible today, and get a good understanding of the raw ingredients. For our product, this is researching what type of data can be found in the codebase that we’ll be able to mine for reporting.
Next, we look at how other people are solving a similar set of problems. Maybe we’ll look to another industry, or the way someone is using a new way to visualize information. Here we’re looking for innovative thinking or angles we hadn’t considered to address a similar class of problems.
From there, we begin working in parallel on technical level and UI level. We double check assumptions against real data, flesh out technical requirements, and then drive at an early visualization of the data.
Once this prototyping phase is complete, we’ll solicit customer feedback and move into a refining phase, which never completely ends. Once it’s built, we focus on amplifying the things our users like most.
What’s one trend that really excites you?
Augmented reality for sure. It’s awesome. Once wearables move beyond being ‘an awkward piece of hardware on your face,’ we’ll be able to walk around with an extra layer of timely, useful information. There are so many applications. I can’t wait until someone cracks that one.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
Decisiveness in decision making. Entrepreneurship moves pretty fast, and every day we face a stream of decisions. Oftentimes making a decisive decision that ends up being completely wrong is much better overall than being indecisive in the moment. If nothing else, having a clear path forward offers the opportunity to make ‘clean’ mistakes and learn from them.
So we strive to make decision with finality and then resist the temptation to look back. The cognitive load is too high if you second guess yourself.
What was the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?
Without naming names, my worst job was characterized by a lot of ambiguity coming from the top. Roles and responsibilities were not clear.
Our team would get conflicting requirements about what we were building. We had a lot of stakeholders that didn’t agree—a lot of people wanting to take us in multiple directions, and no one clear person in charge.
Through that (agonizing) experience, I learned how to soak up the brain damage and turn ambiguity into something actionable for the team. I grew in my ability to run interference for everyone else and leave them free to make forward progress without having to deal with all the politics. People do really amazing things when you give them a lot of autonomy and authority!
If you were to start again, what would you do differently?
I believe every entrepreneur deals, to some degree, with the imposter syndrome. I think most entrepreneurs have something to prove, so by definition we’re out there in the world making a point.
For me, that played out in feeling like we had to make that point by build something innovative before approaching the best people in the world to ask if they’d join the team. Subconsciously feeling like maybe we weren’t far enough along to ask yet.
In hindsight, now that I see our amazing team and what we’ve accomplished, I would approach those people earlier on the merits of the project and fit for the team. If I were to do it again, I would recruit go after a full team of stellar players like we have now on day one.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
One thing I always try to do is treat every single question from anyone on the team with a tremendous amount of respect.
“Why did we build it this way? How did we get here? Why does the vacation policy work like this?”
Culturally, I believe that it’s always the right move to assume good faith. To strip away the energy that questions like this sometimes come packaged with and just address the question at at face value.
Even when they’re heated, questions asked from an emotional place are often the best questions. They help move everyone forward. It’s up to you as a founder to treat any question as if it’s timely, and help bring understanding to the situation for the entire team.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business? Please explain how.
Hiring on character has always worked for us.
Rather than looking for people that already have a set of skills we need, we recruit people we think could be world class because of the way they approach things.
Character can’t be taught. If they have the right approach and aptitude, we invest in them and help them train up in the skills they need.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
Time management — especially around task switching — is a constant challenge. I haven’t overcome it and I don’t think I will.
But that’s okay, because I’m not a fan of trying to work on weaknesses. I subscribe to the viewpoint in the book Now, Discover Your Strengths, which suggests with data that you’re better off developing what you’re already good at.
Instead of ‘overcoming’ my failures directly, I partner with people that are extremely complimentary. That’s why I rely so much on my team. I’ll never be great at scheduling, or lots of task-switching, or frankly a lot of the things required to keep the lights on day-to-day at a business.
I have an aptitude for certain things and try to stick to those. For example, I focus on product development, dealing with the ‘outside world’ on behalf of the team, or thinking about the future. Those come naturally to me.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
It’s not sexy, but I’d go crazy for an elegant spreadsheet software. Something that’s cloud-hosted but also stable and enjoyable to use. I want to love Google Sheets but I can’t. No one thought we needed another text editor—until Dropbox Paper created something truly special for writing and sharing notes. The door is wide open for someone to build something truly great for spreadsheets.
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
A gym membership. I’ve got to take care of myself and a membership forces me to do it.
What software and web services do you use? What do you love about them?
The top 3 pieces of software I have open at all times.
Sketch: for me, it’s the ultimate whiteboard. It’s lightweight and easy to use, and I use it for everything. You name it, I use it for diagrams, product roadmap, QA documentation, random sketches.
Dropbox Paper: I couldn’t live without it. This is where write product specs, draft emails, write blog posts. We even moved our engineering wiki from Jira over to Dropbox Paper recently. It’s a clean, elegant place to write and it’s dead simple to use.
Slack: For obvious reasons. We have a remote-first team and this how we communicate.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
I don’t tend to like ‘management’ books based on one person’s opinions. The Corporate Mystic is a refreshing read and packed with short meditations about being a great leader. It’s one of the books that has impacted my philosophy of management the most.
What people have influenced your thinking and might be of interest to others?
I’m drawn to clear thinkers with a clean aesthetic, who maybe overshare a bit in a classy way.
– Angela Ahrendts The visionary CEO behind Burberry and now Apple retail. Always inspiring to watch her execute.
– Ben Horowitz Insightful VC with an engineering perspective who begins each blog post with relevant rap lyrics.
– Elon Musk His ambition and full commitment to big plays are legendary. I aspire to be this bold.
– Jason Lemkin His Quora posts are very enlightening and timely for founders of SaaS companies.
– Paul Graham I admire his articulate and approachable essays on a variety of interesting topics. And as a Y Combinator alum, I’m grateful for the way he’s helped give startup founders a voice.
Travis Kimmel on Twitter: @traviskimmel