Meet the Herd: Head of DevOps Rob Christensen

Rob demystifies DevOps, explains how he leads a remote team with empathy, and details the mischievous origin of his interest in technology

Meet the Herd: Head of DevOps Rob Christensen
Photo by Matt Solnick

By Bison Trails · Aug 13 2020

Each profile in Bison Trails’ Meet the Herd series is the story of a member’s professional path: how they started their career and made their way to the world of blockchain. Interview by Mark Forscher.

Q: What is DevOps? What does it mean at Bison Trails?

A: To me, DevOps is the intersection of infrastructure and code. It’s a class of software engineering that represents agility, reliability, and security coupled with a strong passion for infrastructure and a deep understanding of the operational needs of a product and platform.

At Bison Trails, infrastructure is our product. When someone from my team works tirelessly to bring a new cloud provider onto our platform, they haven’t just given us another venue for disaster recovery or high availability. They’ve added a feature to our platform, given our customers more choices, and pushed our mission of decentralization forward. It’s an entirely different experience than most software companies.

DevOps at Bison Trails means working on a world class team with one of the highest ratios of infrastructure engineers at an early stage company.

It means empowering protocol engineers to safely and easily upgrade deployments across our fleet and providing guidance on how their workloads can maintain high levels of resiliency and reliability. It means collaborating closely with platform engineers to increase application observability and improve deployment tooling. It means becoming subject matter experts on all things Kubernetes and treading into unknown waters when the answer to a problem isn’t searchable.

Above all, it means feeling energized by solving difficult infrastructure challenges in a unique and evolving space.

Q: Was there a moment when you knew you wanted to pursue engineering or technology professionally? Tell us about it.

A: I didn’t get my hands on a computer until I was 13, and we didn’t have the internet for a few months, but my mom eventually signed us up for AOL. I immediately figured out how to do all the extra nerdy shit, which also meant I gravitated towards more mischievous activities. I learned how to trade software, how to use bots to distribute files via multiple email attachments, and I pumped a lot of data through the parallel port CD burner I picked up from CompUSA.

I ended up violating the AOL terms of service in what I thought were some interesting ways, although my mother did not agree. She was pretty livid at me, but more so at AOL. She couldn’t fathom how we could be denied service for “things I did on the computer.” We eventually moved to AT&T WorldNet and I kept doing my thing. It took me a while to realize, but looking back, the threat of losing my access to this newfound playground was clearly the moment I knew I was going to be deep in this arena forever.

Q: What’s the story of how you started working at Bison Trails?

A: I’ve always understood that cryptocurrency had a huge future. To be honest, my path to Bison Trails started in April of 2013 at the grubby MoneyGram kiosk in my local CVS. I sent around $200 to a company called BitInstant to get myself some bitcoin. It was exciting, difficult to use, and the price was changing daily, but it was real; I had procured digital internet money. For my next transaction, I upgraded to using Dwolla (an ACH payments company) with BitInstant. Luckily, I never used Mt.Gox ;)

Flash forward to February 2019, I had been working at early stage startups for quite a few years and had somewhat found my niche as a utility player who deeply understood infrastructure, product, technical operations, and what it took to get a software business off the ground.

I had been talking to Joe and Aaron about their blockchain industry experimentations for a while, which piqued my interest as a crypto­currency enthusiast. My current company had recently gone through a very tough and emotional time, and I was burned out. When I shared this with Aaron, he immediately wanted me on board, but I was wary if I was still up to the task of helping build a company from the ground up. I amusingly made him write a 90-day plan of what the role at a company just starting out would look like, as if I did not know. After coming in to interview in our first little office room (at what was then Distributed Global), what stuck out to me was Joe’s advice, which still echoes in my head every so often, “Just give it a try.”

Rob Christensen
Photo by Matt Solnick

Q: Any secrets to managing a team?

A: Listen to understand, rather than respond. This can be incredibly difficult, especially when having technical discussions, but is essential. Leaders have to keep an open mind to all of the perspectives and experiences their team members bring to the conversation.

Be vulnerable and share your emotions; it drives empathy in both directions. I think this humanizes me as a leader and as a peer, and it encourages my team to be open.

Lastly, while at early stage companies, you need to constantly remind a team of the balancing act required when it comes to prioritization. It’s crucial to understand the context of the current stage of your company while also continually driving towards the next stage.

Q: How has the shift to remote work changed your approach to managing a team?

A: Honestly, because of how remote-friendly we have been since the beginning, it was not a huge shift for me personally, except for the challenges of trying not to swear while my partner, a high school educator, works with other faculty and students over Zoom! This is especially true for my team, where a core member had been working from another country for almost a year. Although, our office VPN did die within the first two weeks of shelter in place, so that was a fun experience.

What has been difficult is that our underlying communication issues have all been amplified, even if we have set ourselves up with the tools and mindset to work through them. One strategy I have found to be particularly useful, even though it may be a bit of a brute force approach, is over­communication. I will repeat things in multiple meetings, broadcast a communication in written form after having a verbal conversation about it, and message multiple team members the same information. Many people use physical presence and connection as a reminder, so trying to communicate importance via digital means has been an area to problem solve around.

Q: What upcoming protocol launch are you most excited about? Why?

A: I’m excited for almost everything we launch, but I would say of the things in the pipeline, eth2 and Libra are the most exciting right now. eth2 and Libra are simply going to be blockchain networks with the scale and level of adoption we haven't seen before. Both protocols will usher in a new era for the blockchain industry. Bison Trails’ involvement pushes our platform in exciting and challenging ways.

Q: What do you like to do outside of work?

A: Consume media in droves: film, scripted television, video games, books, you name it. I’m a pretty huge Stephen King nerd and I have a pretty robust addiction to buying and framing movie posters to hang all around my apartment (shout out to Mondo and Gallery1988). I am very much looking forward to being able to go to a movie theater again and, ya know, have popcorn and a diet soda while engaging in some escapism, even if it has to happen while I’m masked-up.

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