5 Chicago CTOs You Should Know, Part 2: Aaron Rankin, Sprout Social

April 24, 2014


Aaron Rankin is the CTO and co-Founder of Sprout Social, the social media platform powerhouse that is coming up on its fifth anniversary. 

In the past, Aaron worked with Endeca and IBM - where he said he learned "anti-patterns". He's also the co-inventor of a patent that distinguishes relevant network security threats. He's also the co-inventor of a Pantent that distinguishes relevant network security threats.

How did your corporate background at IBM and Endeca prepare you for founding Sprout Social?

It’s funny how we learn things at unexpected times. Both prepared me in many ways though neither company has much in common with Sprout Social on the surface. 

IBM taught me anti-patterns. I saw how the company’s suffocating bureaucracy lead to a lack of passion that seeped into their workforce and products. Yeah, their products are powerful, but only when you pay gobs of cash to make them work. Companies like that feed the belief that B2B software is allowed to be bad.

Endeca was a breath of fresh air. From my first interview forward, I met passionate people building something special: B2B software that customers loved. I experienced the formative years and saw an incredible software company built brick by brick. Most impactful to me were my interactions with customers - businesses. I was challenged to think at an enterprise scale and learned a little about a lot of business verticals. Most importantly, I learned that the business of business software is as much about the tech as it is about delighting customers, about surpassing their expectations. It’s not all that different than B2C.

How does technology power your business? 

Our one and only product is a very powerful piece of software. We host that product for all of our customers (“software as a service") and so there is also a ton of technology powering it. Technology powers everything, along with a very generous helping of people.

What are the biggest tech projects your team is working on this year?

This year, while pounding out great new features, we’re taking opportunities to improve the way our tech works, end to end. Many technologies are playing big roles. We’re rebuilding the way social signals flow through our stack - what we call the plumbing - to better enable new feature development at a high level of scale. For example, technologies like Storm and Finagle, from Twitter, are nascent here. Also exciting is seeing how far we’re pushing tried tech like MySQL and how we’re really growing into NoSQL like Hadoop, Hbase and Cassandra. But a lot of data’s of no use if customers can’t make heads or tails. Our front end team is always looking for ways to riff on data in quick, agile, low-friction ways. We’re excitedly embracing ES6 modules and planning a big implementation on the D3.js data visualization library. Performance is also something we’re obsessed with across the stack. We’re currently expanding our front-end metrics with PhantomJS and working to trace the deep backend with Zipkin.


What trends do you see happening in social media management over the next three years? How is Sprout Social anticipating those trends and working towards them already?

Businesses active in social media are getting more numerous, dependent and sophisticated. Four years ago, few were doing more than tweeting press releases. Today many consider social media a first-class channel for certain functions, like customer care. We’re seeing Twitter replacing toll-free phone numbers. People — consumers, citizens, fans, etc. — are driving more and more business functions to transition to social media. That will continue and we expect it to be a gradual evolution, one that we monitor with every tweet. It’s our job to enable and empower the exchange.

As an original founder of the company, how hard is it to constantly improve and innovate your offerings?

At the start I figured the product would be done after a few months. Then we’d sit back and watch the business run itself. This summer will mark five years at it. Looking back at our original vision, we still aren’t “done”. Now we have more on our roadmap than ever, fed by our incredible customers and team. I don’t think we’ll ever stop. Anything can be made better.

What tips can you offer young companies still honing in on what product's value is? How much should they iterate/seek advice?

Follow your heart. You’re the only one(s) in the world who passionately understand your vision. Take others' advice with caution. Be careful of the market’s reaction too - products are passed over for more reasons than poor value; products are sometimes bought for dumb reasons. Tweak and iterate until you find the right formula.

What else do you want the Chicago startup community to know about Sprout Social's tech?

Our technology is powerful but pragmatic. Sprout Social is a big distributed system of great technology, up and down the stack, from cutting edge libraries to tried and tested databases. In every case we picked the right tool for the job for our product and for our customers, not necessarily the bright, shiny choice. In the face of billions of social signals per month, we try to keep things simple.


View 5 Chicago CTOs You Should Know, Part 1 Here

View 5 Chicago CTOs You Should Know, Part 2 Here

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