Michael Natkin is former CTO and current member of the board of directors at ChefSteps. We interviewed him about some of the challenges of managing a large team in technology.
Can you explain your tech career thus far and how your journey has led you to ChefSteps?
I’m 51 years old so it’s a long one, but I’ll try to keep it short. I started in computer graphics way back in 1985 at Brown University. My first career in tech was at George Lucas’s Industrial Light and Magic. I worked on Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park, building a lot of the animation software – helping the dinosaur bones wiggle, making the Terminator melt and that sort of thing. From there, I went to Silicon Graphics and worked some new (and much too early) 3D web technology, then moved on to Adobe where I stayed for 14 years working on Adobe After Effects.
Simultaneously with all that, I had had a huge interest in food and in 2007 I started a food blog called Herbivoracious and I ended up writing a cookbook (of the same name) that was nominated for a James Beard award. I was thinking about leaving tech entirely and opening a restaurant.
In 2012, just as I was really starting to look at that, I heard that Chris Young and Grant Crilly, who had worked work on the Modernist Cuisine cookbook with Nathan Myhrvold, were starting their own company called ChefSteps.
I went to meet them and it turned out that they needed an experienced software engineer, and I really wanted to work with food and learn from great chefs. It was an incredible opportunity to bring those two together. I ended up being CTO there for five years. Towards the end of that time, in the last year or so, I was working on a chatbot. More recently I’ve actually left day-to-day operations and joined the board of directors.
What does the design process look like at ChefSteps? How long does it take something to grow from an idea to a fully implemented feature?
Well, we’ve always prided ourselves on being very quick on our feet in terms of being able to go from an idea to a prototype pretty quickly. Particularly in software because we’re also a hardware company.
In hardware, things don’t happen at that kind of pace whatsoever. We like to be able to iterate on software quickly, and the chatbot in particular really happened fast.
We thought that conversational could be a big part of the future for Chefsteps. Cooking is inherently somewhat a conversational process. You learn by working with other cooks, and it is a space where the kinds of questions and problems that people have aren’t necessarily linear. A chatbot is ideal because it allows you to ask questions during the process and solve culinary problems along the way.
We moved quite rapidly from the idea of a chatbot to building and launching a Facebook messenger bot and iterating on the great feedback that we received.
What are some of the larger challenges you face as a CTO when looking to implement a new innovation or strategy?
There’s just always the constant challenge that as a small company with products in the field that people are really depending on, the first priority has to be making sure that your existing products are delighting your customers and working great for them.
There’s always the question of resources, but we also know that allocating some amount of time to explore the future is critical.
If you’re not looking at the future and you’re only just iterating on your existing products, you’re eventually left behind.
What is something that has surprised you since beginning to work in this space?
I think it has been really cool to see how quickly it’s coming along. I don’t think many people had given much thought to chatbots even two years ago. The tools have come along so quickly. We went from, “Hey if you want to do this you’re basically completely on your own”, using the Facebook API, to all of these wonderful tools for natural language processing, response scripting, analytics, and prototyping (like Botsociety). It has gotten to where a lot of it can be pretty plug and play and you really only have to customize the things that are very specific to your own business.
Which type of conversational interfaces are you working with?
We’ve done both. We’ve built an Alexa skill for controlling our sous vide cooker (Joule) and we also have built a Facebook Messenger bot that does a number of things. It allows the user to control their Joule directly. You can go into Facebook Messenger and say “set Joule to 150 degrees.”
It allows them to ask customer Service type questions like “What does it mean if Joule’s light is flashing red?”, and also culinary questions like “How long do I cook a rib steak for?”
It also provides tip of the day functionality which has actually been one of the biggest hits. It will ask you, “Hey would you like to receive a sous vide tip of the day?”, and then we use Facebook’s subscription functionality to ping them each day with a new tip for how to use Joule to make their cooking life more fun and satisfying.
Do you have any advice for people just making their way into tech?
Well as far as career advice goes, and especially if you want to manage people and lead teams in tech, I think the advice that people really need is that it’s really about the humans.
Process is important and of course we want to work smart, with Scrum or Kanban, or whatever you want to use to track your progress. Those things are extremely important, but none of those are a substitute for hiring diverse groups of great humans and understanding them as individuals. Sometimes that can look like mentoring around technology, but more often it is knowing what they need to be successful and what makes them happy and what stresses them out. A book I can highly recommend is Daring Greatly; it’s about how you can have those sort of brave conversations that involve some degree of emotion.
People are actually often afraid to have these conversations in the workplace but it is the thing that can be most transformative.
How do you handle disputes about a chatbot or app that are both design and opinion-based in nature?
That’s a great question. My first choice for how to handle disputes if at all possible is to use data. If we can in some reasonable way just A/B test the answer, that is ideal. For example, if we’re debating on what tone of voice is best for this bot. What are the metrics we’re looking for? Is it engagement? Retention?
If it’s not reasonable to measure and test, then you have the discussion and make sure that people are feeling respected and know that the decision, whatever decision is made, is not personal. You make sure everyone is heard, and then you make the best decision that you can and move on, with a willingness to revisit it later if you get new information.
To explore some of Michael’s work on your own, be sure to check out his cookbook Herbivoracious. Take your meal preparation into the digital age by visiting ChefSteps and learning more about their Joule hardware.
Degrees: Sc.B.Brown University – Computer Science
If you’ve enjoyed this interview you should check out the interview from last week featuring Elaine Lee who is leading product design for AI-enabled assistants at eBay. Stay tuned each Monday as we continue to explore the evolving world of conversational design.