Brett Kaplan started working at Linode when it was a small operation of 20 people in New Jersey. Nine years later, he’s just returned from a seven-month stint in Mumbai, where he led the operation to set up a new data center for the company.
Kaplan joined Linode, an open source-focused cloud hosting provider, as part of the customer support team, but moved to data center operations two years in. He started out with the manual labor aspect of the job — installing servers and cabling them up correctly. Now he manages a team where each one of his reports is responsible for a different data center.
Linode has 10 data centers around the world, including London, Singapore, Tokyo and Frankfurt. The company guarantees 99.9% uptime, and that means remotely monitoring details like temperature and humidity, and performing regular system checks. Kaplan assists his team with this maintenance, but also forecasts and plans expansions to meet upcoming demand.
— Linode (@linode) July 17, 2019
Kaplan said he needed no convincing to lead the effort to set up a new location in Mumbai, as he had always been interested in the intersection between technology and culture — and he and his wife had been planning for an opportunity like this for years. While his wife didn’t travel with him for the duration of the trip, Linode flew her out to visit multiple times and made sure Kaplan had time off to explore and enjoy the experience with her.
We chatted with the data center operations manager about his work in Mumbai and beyond, as well as the culture of leading a remote team.
Had you done anything like this before?
Definitely not. Unlike our data centers in other countries where we can rent through colocation facilities, the laws in India required we have an office and people on the ground managing the center. So not only did I have to oversee the installation of the hardware, but I had to start a new office. I’m used to negotiating with people for data center space, but hiring the staff, training them and getting them up to speed with how we do things at Linode was a unique challenge.
What was the preparation process?
We did as much as we possibly could before we got there, though there’s by nature a lot of things that we hadn’t considered and that’s just part of the process of setting up an office in a different country. For instance, the way it works in India, most employers require anywhere from 30 to 90 days of notice to quit on good terms. Once we started hiring candidates, we had to wait a few months for them to be able to start. We eat, sleep and breathe data centers and deployments, but there were new cultural and HR practices to consider on this project.
What was a typical day like when you were in India?
Once we organized the HR side of things, a typical day was sorting out exactly what was left to be done with installing the hardware. How many cables are left to be labeled or installed? How many servers are left to verify and test? It’s very conducive to checklists. We have these Excel spreadsheets with check boxes and different colors to show us where we stand. There are so many little things that if you didn’t have a checklist you’d forget.
How often do people at Linode travel generally?
It varies, but typically data center operations engineers travel two to three times a year. We generally send people to visit data centers in pairs. Servers are heavy, and in one sense it’s just practical to have another set of hands. But the other thing is, if you’re flying across the world, you don’t want to be alone in that.
But you were alone in Mumbai?
I went alone because I was hiring a team and I had a lot of support. I had the consultants, and all the vendors we worked with who I met almost daily. And later, there was a time when the team from Philly came out to do the install.
How do you keep the culture going with people spread about or working remotely?
One of the things that we do with the India team is meet with them every other day for an hour. We talk about specific tasks, but then sometimes we just talk for a bit and inevitably something comes out they had a question about. I think it’s important to have communication as much as you can so that there’s a forum for people to ask questions.
What would you say to a friend who was interested in working at Linode?
I’ve seen this company grow from about 20 people to over 200, and I have a lot of respect for the leadership team. Before I joined this company, all my previous bosses had been buttoned-up types who wore suits every day. But here, not only were they some of the most intelligent people I’ve ever met, but on a personal level they liked interesting music, played video games and they had a compelling vision.
I think a good example of how that passion comes through is this building. It was a labor of love of our owner. It took a long time and a lot of money to get it to the way it is today, but it was important to get it right. I think that shows through in a lot of our culture: the importance of getting it right over getting it done quickly. If you like that sort of mentality, you would fit in here.