Talking Product & Polymaths with boomtrain’s CTO & Co-Founder

Engineering, Leadership, UX/Design

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Christian Monberg is co-founder and CTO at boomtrain, a personalization platform that uses AI and machine learning to help brands deliver experiences that consumers love to receive.

We talked to Chris about his dual background in design and engineering, the problems he’s solving at boomtrain, and why he thinks you should fill your office with Ben Franklins. (And we don’t mean $100 bills…)

Hi, Christian. Tell us about boomtrain and the problems you’re solving for your customers.

Christian: Our primary customers are marketers and — for the last twenty years or so — marketers have used mostly the same tools. Especially when it comes to email. They set up one campaign, maybe two or three, and they’ll send out an email to each cohort and hope it works.

In our early days, we found that if we were able to listen to signals from the user and figure out what their interests were, then we could send them content they actually want to receive.

Makes sense. How did you take that personalization aspect and scale it?

Christian: We thought about scaling that up to a million different people. What if you had a million different marketers who could sit down and write each subscriber a personalized email? It’d be so effective.

So we started working on artificial intelligence that could solve that problem. Now, we’re making algorithms that can help make decisions for our marketers, so that they can create the most relevant and individual experiences as possible.

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What kinds of problems is boomtrain solving internally?

Christian: That’s a good question. What we’re solving internally from a product perspective is machine learning that learns and guides machine learning. It’s very meta — like being between two mirrors.

Companies like ours should have thousands and thousands of algorithms and tests running at any time for every unique customer. In order to figure out which sets of algorithms are optimal for a set of users and content, you need to use machine learning again. So when I say we need machine learning to train machine learning, it turns into a virtuous cycle of optimization. That’s what we’re trying to do as a SaaS company right now. It’s hard but my dad told me something about the hardest jobs being the most rewarding.

The most effective product manager & the most effective engineer I know is not necessarily the… Click To Tweet

How does your background in both engineering and design inform how you approach solving problems and building product?

Christian: I don’t think they should be different approaches. I feel pretty strongly that my engineering background was too light on design work. So if I were to go back and change my curriculum, I would demand a significant investment in design. In the STEM versus STEAM paradigm, I lean towards STEAM. It feels silly today to say, “Oh, you sit in this math class and you master math — and that’s it.”

I think design and engineering go well together today is because the most effective product manager and the most effective engineer I know is not necessarily the one that’s obsessed with ones and zeros. They’re both interested in making people’s lives better.

A typical engineering challenge would be, “Build a bridge.” Well how big is the span, and how many cars need to be on it, how wide does it need to be, is the EPA going to get upset about what I make it out of?

In my world now — building software products — I need to design a system that will design bridges for any country, any city, any place. So it’s really a design challenge that has engineering constraints.

You’re big on polymaths — people who are adept in multiple disciplines and different ways of thinking. How do you encourage that kind of thinking at boomtrain?

Christian: Somebody was talking about da Vinci this morning. It made me think about how back then you were an artist, you were a poet, you were a lawyer, you were a mathematician. You just learned about all these things and your mind becomes a culture for ideas and beautiful things come out, like flying machines.

Building a culture of abundance is the biggest part of that. It’s probably the hardest facet to instill in a startup, because we’re driven by deadlines and incremental revenue so that we can keep thriving as a company.

So it’s an ongoing challenge. I would not say that we do it perfectly. A culture of abundance is best instilled not through money or through the working hours or perks, like coffee, dogs, and lunches. It’s instilled through freedom of ideas and distributed autonomy.

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What does that mean, ‘culture of abundance’?

Christian: A culture of abundance, for me, is an idea that my brother introduced me to a long time ago. Abundant thinking is core to empathetic design thinking, in my mind. So there are leaders out there that want to draw out a roadmap, or what to draw out architecture, and it’s really hard to be creative inside of that realm.

In a practical sense it’s because we get so mired in the problems we have that we sometimes think we have different problems than we actually have. We’ve probably all sat down with an engineer before and the engineer’s like, “Oh I’ve got this problem.” You talk for a few minutes, maybe you guys know very little about engineering. Ten minutes later, the engineer’s like, “Oh, I know how to fix this.” The solution came from stepping outside of your problem-set for  a moment. The engineer was thinking more abundantly — less myopically.”

A culture of abundance is instilled not through money or perks. It's instilled through freedom of… Click To Tweet

You guys are obviously relying a lot on data in machine learning. How do you balance listening to the data and your customers?

Christian: Our product managers are good. They can go talk to customers, and I believe in distributed product people that sit at the edge of the organization, near customer success, and marketing, and sales and that they talk to our customers.

This is a place where abundant thinking helps. If you listen too closely, you will build the wrong thing. I have seen it often. The best PMs have the hardest job in the company, I think, because they have to work so hard to understand all those different facets of the organization, pull them together, and then pop out something brilliant.

What would you design if not software?

Christian: If I weren’t designing software, I would design things that you can touch and feel. I would probably be working on my motorcycle, my bicycle, and for some reason I’ve always fantasized about designing really bespoke chandeliers made from wood and plants.

Was that last part weird? Is it going in the interview?

Probably. Yes.

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Luisa Posted by Luisa on Tuesday, May 24, 2016.

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Jun 28, 2017

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