Mandi Walls: Welcome to Page it to the Limit, a podcast where we explore what it takes to run software in production successfully. We cover leading practices used in the software industry to improve a system reliability and the lives of the people supporting their system. I’m your host, Mandi Walls. Find me @lnxchk on Twitter. Welcome back folks. This week I have with me Chris Munns. He is currently the tech lead slash advisor to the AWS Startups field team in the Americas. Chris, welcome to the show.
Chris Munns: Thanks for having me. I’m glad to be here.
Mandi Walls: Tell us about what you do. That’s a lot of title, so-
Chris Munns: That’s a lot of title.
Mandi Walls: Sounds like there’s a lot of work there. What kind of stuff do you work on?
Chris Munns: I’ve got kind of an interesting role, and I’ll start more broadly with what my organization does now in AWS. And so I’ve been inside of AWS now for actually just a little shy of 11 years. I think I’ll have 11 years in three months or something like that, and I’ve been in a couple different roles. I came over to the team that I’m in, in September of 2021, and so back at the beginning of September… I’m sorry, back at the beginning of 2020, we actually went and created a whole top level kind of field organization focused on startup customers here at AWS. It’s completely all encompassing of sales and solution architect and a couple different layers of biz dev and sales ops and finance people and some product folks that own some of our startup focused products like our Activate program and our Activate console. And we took that and siloed it up pretty high in the food chain at AWS. So they started that in 2020 and kind of a year or so into it through conversations that I had with the person who’s now the director of solution architecture for the startups team in the Americas, they kind of acknowledged that they had a little bit of a gap in terms of having someone or someones who could tackle some kind of higher level strategy type of programs, not related just to people management or to sales types of activities directly. Similarly, it was a pretty young org. So the org itself, even though a lot of people came over into it when they created it in 2020, it had rapidly grown and rapidly hired, and it hired probably 60, 70% of the people that were on the team when I joined. It was their first team in AWS. Quite a few of them were quite young, both in terms of actual age, but then just general tenure inside of AWS, which now is pretty large. And so I came over as effectively the senior most IC in the org, individual contributor as we use in the enterprise terms here. And my role is kind of a number of different focuses. One is kind of the highest technical escalation that we have inside of this organization that my peers can go through when they need help and typically when they need help with our customers.
Mandi Walls: So you get all the gnarly problems?
Chris Munns: I get some gnarly problems. I also just get some organizational ones, like things of communication structure and things that inside of a big company with complex customers and complex products, some of my peers don’t really know where to go to or how to get help on certain things. And even some of their managers may not, some of their managers may not. Their managers, managers may not, I should say. So I handle escalations that are of all sorts of technical nature, helping to make sure we’ve got the right product teams involved, helping to make sure that support organizations got the right access to the customer in terms of who we’re talking to and who we’re working with. So I deal with occasional fires and fire drills and stuff like that. I’m also involved in a number of internally facing enablement programs and projects. So part of the reason that we siloed off this startup focused group is that selling two and working with startups is very different from our large enterprise customer base. We see customers that come into us from incubators and accelerators and seed programs, and they could be two people at a company. We actually have a lot of non-technical founders that outsource the technical side early on, and we may interface with them directly too. So that plus the kinds of products and how the startup customers might use our products skews a bit from the average of what we would consider to be a enterprise or more mature organization in some ways. So we have to think differently about how we communicate, what we communicate, what the message is. Just as an example, again, AWS wide product portfolio, wide field enablement motions. There was a point in time where they were saying, “Everyone has to take this Oracle database migration training.”
Mandi Walls: Oh, geez.
Mandi Walls: Yeah, that sounds super different. Absolutely.
Chris Munns: Yeah, so it’s a very multifaceted, different kind of role. I’m still acting kind of as a public facing figure for the organization as well. So occasionally getting out there and speaking and writing content. But yeah, it’s kind of a jumble, senior IC kind of a role. And there’s too many hats that I wear to even stack on top of each other.
Mandi Walls: That does sound that way. Oh my gosh. So from that standpoint, like you said, you’ve been at AWS a long time. So compared to other places you have worked within AWS, does it feel like a completely different sort of thing? Because you had come in most recently from Serverless, you have been working in LaMDA, which is also super interesting for folks. And how does that compare? Is it just a completely different part of the market or is there more overlap?
Chris Munns: It’s interesting. So across my span of time, so I first joined AWS in 2011 as a solution architect in the New York office when we were less than 20 people, and we weren’t even in a Regis rent room office space. We were in a lower level copycat of Regis office rental space. And we were scattered on this one floor with different rooms, and in between us would be just random other businesses and stuff, and it was very strange. And in those early days, we basically, there were less than 20 of us in New York, there were maybe a couple hundred people globally at AWS at that point in time, and it was really small and early, and you did everything from enterprises to startups and everything in between. Did that for a few years. I actually left Amazon for about six months, ran infrastructure for a startup in New York City called Hinge, and then came back into a business development role, which was kind of a technical business development role focused on the DevOps space. And so representing our developer and management tools, did a lot of partner facing things, worked with companies like PagerDuty, worked with companies like Shaf and Heroku and other ones that were really active back then on programs and partnerships and stuff like that. And then found myself about 18 months later through I would say somewhat like serendipitous conversations with the product team that was building LaMDA kind of us all mutually, coming to a conclusion that there was this big gap in how we did go-to-market strategy for Serverless and how we actually spoke with developer customers. So as you’re alluding to, I went on to go and build out and lead Serverless developer advocacy at AWS, of which there really wasn’t anything much before I got there and kind of got a chance to shape this role focused on Serverless. So it was very deeply niche in that space. Serverless is obviously a big hot topic for AWS and has been for the last several years. It was a lot of outbound content creation, presenting, flying around, dealing with the product teams and stuff like that. I would say now where I am, what’s really interesting is again, I get this opportunity to… When I first joined AWS, there were like 24 services or something like that.
Mandi Walls: You could probably remember all of their names and what they do.
Chris Munns: Yeah. I’m like, “Cutie.” The console back then, you could almost say it was cute. It’s like, “Aw, there’s only 24 little baby services. Look at this.” And now we’re 200 plus services across almost two dozen categories of products. And granted, most customers don’t use all of them, although I think many customers sometimes try to see what they can layer into a single architecture. And then I went DevOps space and then Serverless, so I got more niche, more focused. Now where I am in the role that I am, and also we see with startups, it’s back to that wide spectrum. And so what’s really fascinating again about the startup space is that we’ve got companies doing a little bit of everything. Obviously we’ve got some really heavy machine learning workloads and AI workloads. We also have just a ton of healthcare life sciences type things. We have a ton of B2B, a ton of B2C, a ton of just anything you could think of. And so I find it to be actually one of the most, if not probably the most interesting customer segment in AWS. It really is kind of that core gene of who we first were that spun out the concept of AWS from Amazon. But there’s just so much sprawl to the possibilities. There’s so many unique needs. There’s so many unique use cases. Yes, we’re not doing a whole lot of Oracle database migrations, and we’re not doing a lot of like SAP or some of that big kind of stuff, but we’ve got customers, I mean, some of the customers in the AI and ML space, they’ve got thousands and thousands of core compute clusters.
Mandi Walls: Wow.
Chris Munns: Some of them are using GPUs in incredible ways. Some of they’re processing amazing amounts of data in the HCLS space, healthcare and life sciences where we’ve got customers doing medical research, genomic type research. There’s things that you could do now with the cloud that back in the day would’ve involved millions and millions and millions of dollars of investment to buy hardware.
Mandi Walls: Oh, yeah.
Chris Munns: It would’ve been a later stage of a time at a company, they would’ve done all of this kind of philosophical paperwork and guessing, and now you’re able to just boom, dive right in, start processing. It’s very different from that perspective. I see a lot of the aggregate data that we bubble up from these companies, from the pain points they have, from the opportunities for growth. And it just means that there’s a lot of a lot in this space, which makes it pretty exciting.
Mandi Walls: Yeah, like you said, there’s so much and as you’re talking, I’m like, “Yeah, okay.” I have definitely talked to folks who are digging around in some of these sort of frontier solutions spaces and then looking at what AWS has done and can provide. How do you get folks started? Since it’s not the 24 cute little starter apps, it’s like, “Oh, I need a virtual machine and I need a VPN thing and I can set my things up.” And then you peel off the first cover of IM and you’re like, “Oh, my.” Your face melts. How do you help folks get started across all of those options?
Chris Munns: Yeah. And I’ll say, I think I’ve actually probably said this in my last role too. I mean, customer education probably remains one of, I think the biggest challenges that I come across. Again, going back to maybe how things would’ve been even a decade ago, you wouldn’t have found a non-technical person stumbling into AWS as much. We have, especially in the accelerator and incubator space, some of these programs take folks in that have a great business idea but really don’t necessarily have the experience to execute on it already, but they’re tasked to maybe basically build that up. So it’s kind of like, “Here’s a developer tutorial and here’s some folks from AWS and they’re going to help you out.” And so where it starts from us is we’ve got a mountain of content out there, a couple thousand pieces of content get created by AWS every year from how-tos to more advanced things. When we do get the opportunity to work with a customer, my peers in the solution architecture team are incredibly well versed at helping our customers pull apart where they should get started. Like, “Okay, this is the tool you should use to start building. This is where we would point you at. This is what that kind of first stack looks like.” And I think actually one of the things I’ve been focused on last couple months is us being a lot more opinionated about that, for better or worse. Yes, there’s a lot of different ways to run a containers. There’s a lot of different ways to run a code, but how can we get you down to two to three options for that starting off day one kind of experience? In the broader sense beyond that, I would say there is a little bit of that luck and hope that customers do land on that right page for building and hosting stuff. And again, I guess we are very fortunate in the breadth of the community that we have out there of people writing tutorials and sharing their getting started experiences and stuff like that. Beyond that though, we’ve got incredible partners and incredible ecosystem around us of companies that are great for day one. And so we see companies like, I mean Heroku, it’s been around for forever at this point it feels like. But newer companies like Vercel and Netlify and Render and Supabase and a couple others that are also doing really exciting things, most of them pretty much built on top of AWS and offering up these abstractions on top of us that are opinionated, but often in a very good way for certain use cases and certain needs. And so in my mind, I am cool when customers build with those things because it solves their problem, it gets them started, and then from there they can go forward. But it is a bit of a challenge for, you hope that the SEO gods are in your favor and that it lands someone in the best getting started or the best day one content. And then if not, we hope that we have that opportunity to guide them in some form or fashion.
Mandi Walls: Yeah, definitely. Like I said, there are so many options and I feel like some of them are pretty niche, and this podcast website does go out via Netlify, and we do host some other things there just for ease of use. Like you said, it’s a bunch of flat files and I just need to put them on a CPU somewhere and host a DNS, and that’s all we really needed for those. So yeah, definitely the options are wild and crazy and I don’t have to run them myself anymore, which is amazing. So one of the things we do on the show is we debunk myths. And I know there’s plenty of myths around just cloud in general, but are there any common myths or misconceptions that you find amongst the folks that you talk to that you just want to lay it all out there? Tell some truth to the folks.
Chris Munns: Yeah, I think there’s a couple. I mean, when we talk specifically about startups, one thing that I was really surprised about when I came into a role working with them much more closely is how many of them have to think about compliance and accreditation early on.
Mandi Walls: Oh, okay.
Chris Munns: Both in the United States and I would say in AMEA and in certain other markets around the world where the powers that be have decided on certain requirements and compliance needs. The scope of them is a lot broader than I think they used to be. And so today we see, for example, our customers that are in HCLS space, far more of them happy to deal with HIPAA or HIPAA like guidance around maintaining of medical information, around personal information, personal healthcare information. Similarly, there are a lot of companies that end up falling, loosening to financial record storage and how you have to think about that. It’s really fascinating. We see a lot of companies going through the various levels of SOC early on.
Mandi Walls: Oh, okay.
Chris Munns: Which in my mind, it’s just like, “Whoa, why would you ever want to deal with that?” But there’s quite a few of them that know, “Hey, early on, I’m going to need to deal with this if I want to be a credible company.” I don’t feel like that was something that I felt like I saw in the earlier days of AWS with the kind of customers that were building with us then. I think the second is, and this is one that sometimes I’ve had to have conversations with my peers and product on is maybe some folks sometimes presume that the startup customer is less technical. It’s like, we’ll build some sort of color by numbers esque path from A to B. And the reality of it is that, again, some of our startup customers are pushing some of our products the hardest that they can be pushed. It’s really fascinating. I mean, we sometimes get product teams reaching out to us to be like, “Hey, this customer account bubbled up in our top users' list, and what in the world are they doing if they’re in startups? Well, how could this be that this is a startup company?” And then I’ll be like, “Oh, that’s a cutting edge AI startup, and they’re doing incredible things and you want to talk to them and hear what their pain points are and get some improvement to product ideas.” And they’ll be like, “Really, this is a startup?” It’s like, “Yeah, this is a startup. This is 30 people. And 30 people and the tech team’s 15 of them, and they are just kicking the tires on this product or use case like crazy.” So I think that’s another one. Maybe the last one I’ll touch on, which we always say is our most important topic is security. And we will always say that security is our top priority at AWS. We talk a lot about our shared security responsibility model around the things that we are effectively responsible for and provide for, security of the platform, security of the services, security controls for customers to consume, and then what then those customers do consume of those security controls. There’s a lot of malicious players out there trying to do malicious things and fraud and spearfishing to get access to AWS accounts. Stuff like that is surprisingly common. And I know that you and I have some peers that we know, folks that they’ve seen spearfishing attacks against their companies when they’re pretty small companies. And I think that that’s one of these things that people often don’t realize, the reality and the scope of these is that there are players out there willing to target really small companies on the off opportunity that they can mine Bitcoin for a couple hours.
Mandi Walls: Yeah. Oh my gosh, they’re going to set up some Bitcoin farming machines in Brazil or some other data center that you don’t pay attention to, and then your bill comes, you’re like, “What happened?” It’s like, “Oh.”
Chris Munns: Yeah.
Mandi Walls: Well, you’ve got a startup, you’ve got, like you said, 30 people. It’s a pretty good chance if you fake out firstname.lastname@example.org, that’s probably going to be Mike’s email versus like M Thompson four, five, whatever at some enterprise. And yeah, I’ve definitely seen that way too often.
Chris Munns: So I think from my start of customers, we spend a lot of time with the, hey, multifactor authentication.
Mandi Walls: Yes.
Chris Munns: Yeah, sometimes it’s lame to talk about things like network security. People don’t want to talk about that, they want to talk about the cool sexy topics, but it’s like, “You know what? We need you to not have your back ends dangling out on the internet without appropriate security controls.”
Mandi Walls: Please.
Chris Munns: And again, I think people don’t realize just the bad guys, as it were, in finger quotes are pretty smart and are willing to chase down anyone that they think they can get, again, a couple hours of CPU time off of for free, which in my mind has been eye-opening. But yeah, we deal with a lot of fraud and things that need policing on the internet just in the nature of things, I guess I would say.
Mandi Walls: Yes. And it doesn’t feel like it’s ever going away. It just feels like anytime you swat them back, they’ll find some other thing to harass you about.
Chris Munns: It’s like you hear the stories of folks that are probably our parents' age getting these phone calls and it’s like the FBI or not the FBI, but your son has been kidnapped, wire us a bunch of money or you’ll never see them again.
Mandi Walls: Please go buy some gift cards or whatever.
Chris Munns: Yeah, yeah.
Mandi Walls: And you’re like, “Don’t ever.”
Chris Munns: There’s a million scammers out there just looking for that one opportunity a day. So I think that’s another thing people just don’t have necessarily the appropriate awareness at all times of the things to look out for, how to prevent those successful malicious attempts.
Mandi Walls: Yeah, definitely. There’s just so much of it out there. So as you’re working with these companies, do they graduate from your programs and they sort of get to the place where, you know what, you look like a real company now, please, we’re going to help you go talk to these other folks?
Chris Munns: We have a little graduation ceremony, they have to get up and sing a song and… No, give them a little paper crown. No, we definitely do. And I mean really I think of the segment that I’m in now as a feeder to some of the biggest customers that we have here. And I think if we look at who some of our biggest customers are, it’s easy to say that some of them would have started in this segment 10, 15 years ago or something like that.
Mandi Walls: Had it existed. Sure.
Chris Munns: Had it existed. And so we’ve got really big companies that then effectively do, we do call it graduate, they graduate up to other field segments and other coverage models and just other ways of being managed inside of the business. And so we do have our thresholds in a couple different ways. I can’t go into the details on those, but it’s what you’d expect. It’s certain amount of spend, certain maturity graduates you on up to a different organization.
Mandi Walls: Yeah. You’ve learned the ropes and can do your thing on your own for a little while.
Chris Munns: Yeah, we hope.
Mandi Walls: Yeah.
Chris Munns: But yes, no, effectively that’s what it is. And I’d say that the companies that are at that point, they’ve got a significant understanding of cloud at that point. They’ve got a significant established business really. So it is much further along in the life cycle of a company than maybe one might presume.
Mandi Walls: But you’re building a, what you hope is a lifetime relationship with that company and AWS as, like AWS has all these things to offer, here’s all this stuff and when you need it it’s here. Just because you didn’t need it last year doesn’t mean you won’t need it next year.
Chris Munns: Absolutely.
Mandi Walls: So keeping that relationship alive as folks grow and expand and become more mature is super interesting.
Chris Munns: And it allows us to acknowledge reality too, that most startups fail.
Mandi Walls: Yeah.
Chris Munns: All right. So we do have this challenge that you may talk to a company and then in six months they may not exist anymore.
Mandi Walls: Yeah, they disappear. Yeah.
Chris Munns: Which I would say, and one other thing we spend a lot of time with customers on is cost optimization. And people sometimes talk about cost optimization as like, “Ah, you can pump that down the line type of a thing.” The line gets a lot shorter when you don’t do cost optimization. And anything we could do to help make that line longer for a customer, I think is valuable. And so we’ve got obviously a lot of tools in the AWS toolbox today for this. There’s a lot of stuff that partners provide that we work with in this space as well. That’s probably one other area we spend, I think, much more time than people would expect.
Mandi Walls: I definitely have heard multiple cringey kind of stories as folks get caught out, not paying attention to what they’re doing, or they’re just, they’re enthusiastic and the development team wants X, Y, and Z, and they’re not sure what’s going to happen until the end of the billing cycle and something happened.
Chris Munns: You and I both kind of cut our teeth in this industry at a time where we racked and stacked. We had physical data centers we went to. You know that I used to work at Etsy and before that meetup.com, and both of them were in physical data centers in the greater New York City metropolitan area. And I at both of those jobs spent at least one day a week at our colo just doing kind housekeeping and maintenance. Those points in time we’re obviously limited by the rack space we had or the cage that we had, or the physical servers that we had. And cost control kind of came at the other end of a PO and a long shipping process or something like that. Nowadays, the ability for companies just to come in and have access to these incredible, vast amounts of resources, and you do have to be careful, you do want to make sure that you’re not blowing all your VC funding without thinking about the longevity of the business. And so it is the kind of thing where the ease of consumption can sometimes be one of the things that people don’t necessarily think about like, “Oh, I should probably be a bit strategic about this.”
Mandi Walls: Yeah, it’s hard to balance those ideas that catch fire, that ideation, and you’re just like, “Oh, I just need X, Y, and Z to put this together.” And like you say, 10 years ago, that might have taken you six weeks to do the procurement, to get the CPUs into the racks. I hope I never have to scratch myself on a rack rail ever again. But to be able to just turn the faucet on and pour ideas into it on the cloud, super exciting. But also for some folks, a little tricky.
Chris Munns: I’ll never forget, I forget which role it was in, but I’ll never forget having to take a tissue and put it on a cut that I had that was bleeding heavily, and then electrical taping it on to myself because I had no Band-Aids in the colo.
Mandi Walls: Nobody put Band-Aids in the colos. It’s the first thing you see.
Chris Munns: No one had a first aid kit in the colo. What are you doing? What are we doing? And so you just be like, “Oh my God, I have blood running down my hands and I’ve got hours left to do things.” And you’re like, “Let me just battle patch this thing. And then what do I have? Well, I have electrical tape. Okay, I’ll electrical tape this onto me until I get home.” And yet you don’t have to do that in the cloud.
Mandi Walls: No, no, there’s no blood. There’s no blood involved in the cloud anymore, which is amazing. No.
Chris Munns: There’s no emergency custom battle triage in the cloud I guess these days.
Mandi Walls: No, you don’t have to have a tetanus shot up to date to work in the cloud.
Chris Munns: It’s true. There’s no like, oh, you must be able to lift 50 pounds type of thing that you would have in the job requirements. So again, those were those kind of things that, I don’t know, maybe now we’re dating ourselves too much, but provided some counterbalance perhaps.
Mandi Walls: Yeah. And people get so like, “Well, why are you so excited about this? It seems so boring and wrote now.” And I’m like, “Because you don’t understand how bad it used to be.”
Chris Munns: Exactly, exactly.
Mandi Walls: Oh my gosh.
Chris Munns: It’s true.
Mandi Walls: Awesome. So is there any one thing that you recommend for folks if they’re maybe in a startup and looking at solutions or just have an idea, how do they get engaged with you guys?
Chris Munns: Yeah, so I mean our AWS Activate program is kind of our core startup program here in AWS. It provides credits, it provides access to training, it provides access to, at the higher levels, business support. It also gives you a bit of a line into working with us more closely. We have a couple different levels, so if you’re going through accelerators or incubators or you are VC backed in some way or going through some sort of funded program, business schools do these local, communities do these. We’re actually recording this right now in the middle of February, but in the beginning of April, we have an event down in Miami for Startups, Startups Day, Miami, and we’re very much working with local community groups in the government level that are really excited about startups. And so how can we get plugged into them and make sure that they have a path to us? But either way, the AWS Activate program, a bunch of options there. That’s always my day one recommendation for customers just to again, get credits just for showing up and then access to more resources beyond that.
Mandi Walls: Awesome. We’ll put that in the show notes for anybody who’s interested so they can check that out. They have the next great billion-dollar idea, they can get it started on AWS through Activate. That’d be awesome.
Chris Munns: Absolutely.
Mandi Walls: Chris, thank you so much for sharing this, all these tales with our audience this week. This has been great.
Chris Munns: Thanks for having me and I appreciate the time.
Mandi Walls: Awesome. For everybody else out there, we’ll talk to you again in two weeks. And for now, we’ll wish you an uneventful day. That does it for another installment of Page it to the Limit, we’d like to thank our sponsor, PagerDuty for making this podcast possible. Remember to subscribe to this podcast, if you like what you’ve heard. You can find our show notes at pageittothelimit.com. And you can read us on Twitter @pageit2thelimit using the number two. Thank you so much for joining us, and remember, uneventful days are beautiful days.
Chris Munns is the Tech Lead & Advisor for the Startup Solution Architecture organization at Amazon Web Services. Chris works with peers at AWS on how to better support AWS’s startup customers and directly engages with helping hot startups overcome complex technical challenges. At AWS for over 10 years, Chris has previously led Developer Advocacy for AWS Serverless technologies, was the global Business Development Manager for DevOps technologies, and was a Solutions Architect in the early days of the AWS field. Before AWS, Chris held senior operations engineering posts at Etsy, Meetup, and other NYC based startups. Chris has a Bachelor of Science in Applied Networking and System Administration from the Rochester Institute of Technology.
Mandi Walls is a DevOps Advocate at PagerDuty. For PagerDuty, she helps organizations along their IT Modernization journey. Prior to PagerDuty, she worked at Chef Software and AOL. She is an international speaker on DevOps topics and the author of the whitepaper “Building A DevOps Culture”, published by O’Reilly.