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July 29, 2019 · 23 min read

Health tech, subscription boxes, and streaming video with Ryan Yockey of DNA Imprints

Ryan Yockey has accrued an enviable résumé, after over 15 years of working with a wide variety of cutting-edge companies. 

A self-taught dev, Ryan founded his own art business, DNA Imprints, in 2006, and currently works as Director of Engineering at FabFitfun; an innovative firm that dispatches boxes packed with health-related goodies to mostly female clients.

Ryan has always been at the epicenter of commerce, sales and connecting with customers throughout his career, and he shares with Ledge his ideas on how this works in the contemporary climate. Don’t miss this inside view into the subscription box business with a healthy dose of tech.

Ryan Yockey

Director of Engineering at FabFitFun
Read transcript

Ledge: Ryan, it’s good to have you on. Thanks for joining us.

Ryan: Absolutely. Thanks for having me, Ledge. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Ledge: Very cool. If you don’t mind, give a little bio of yourself. I am deeply familiar with your LinkedIn profile now, having stalked you relentlessly before this episode, but for those who don’t know, why don’t you give a little background story of yourself, your work and where you’re at these days.

Ryan: Yeah. My work history is long and arduous, but self-taught software developer from the age of 15 on. Made my way into doing my own startup a long time ago in the DNA art field, which was super, crazy, weird and unique.

Ended up selling that off and then went off to go start in the startup world here in the Bay Area. Made my way through various education startups, and then found my way into the health tech field. I worked in a couple of different health tech startups. Then, eventually, I found my way over here into FabFitFun where I’m at now, and loving life there.

Ledge: I had to look up FabFitFun. I am not as hip as the people in the office.

For those who don’t know and maybe you’re looking for a good gift opportunity, what is FabFitFun?

Ryan: Well, as the consummate sales person for FabFitFun these days, it’s a seasonal subscription box, generally for the female population. We deliver a box, mostly customized but we offer six regular items in there that can be cosmetics, jewelry, clothing, fitness gear.

It follows that fabulous, fitness and fun, FabFitFun.

Then, occasionally throughout the year, we also offer different little editor’s boxes and specials coupons. It’s an all-encompassing package there.

Ledge: Yeah. Once I looked this up, I could totally see that this is wildly popular, I’m certain, because it looks like an awesome pack of goodness that you get every season. It looks like full sample, or not sample size, but rather full product and all this cool stuff. I could totally see investing in this for making myself more interesting at home, so what I found out.

Ryan: Yeah. We’ve only just been testing the male box as well. They started working on the men’s version, so you can have your own…

Ledge: Oh yeah.

Ryan: It’s the same idea though. The full-size product was something that was, I think, unique to the business when it started. It was something not many other people were doing.

Now, we’ve also been around for 10 years, and shipping boxes for five, so as a business they’ve had the time to go figure it out and learn and build on it.

Ledge: Yeah, and just do it right. The box thing became this sort of uber insane craze that everybody had to ship a box full of something, and you knew there had to be some kind of shake out there. That’s cool. Ten years is a long time. You’re not a startup anymore.

Ryan: No. We’ve crested them million customer point at this point, million-recurring customers, as well as the big investments. We just closed the round with Kleiner Perkins, I believe three, four months ago. I might be shaky on the time.

Ledge: You just get to spend it, right? You don’t need to worry about when it closed.

Ryan: Pretty much, yeah. We’re just right now. That’s my job. Finding more developers to spend money with.

Ledge: Yeah, no doubt.

We talked a little bit off mike. You’re talking to 20,000 engineers and CTOs and everybody. Share the best practices here. You had to build a building ground engineering team all over the world. What’s it look like?

Ryan: It’s really interesting to come in where I came in, because all three of my projects that I’m responsible for with this company are all brand new to the company. I had a nice, fresh starting point, aside from everything else they’ve been doing.

When you look at FabFitFun as a web app, it’s actually fairly old. It was built in a brittle sense, so what I’ve had to come in and do is find an engineering team that can work in the old and help build some of the new at the same time.

We’ve had to instill some newer best practices, being that they have to be comfortable dealing with a slower, methodical, old process, because we’re trying to deliver to a million consumers on a regular basis, as well as rebuild this train while its running and make it a Ferrari by the end of it.

Ledge: I think that’s a thing that people… Everybody knows about technical debt, but what you often fail to think about is that success is a breeder and multiplier of technical debt, because just having had built and made money and grown a thing for 10 years, you’re five cycles down in technology. This stuff turns over every two years. Whatever you would choose to do now, will be irrelevant-ish in a couple of years.

You’re talking about two times five to get to 10 years. In tech world there, you’re dealing with some ancient stuff. What were we developing in in 2010 or what have you? It was not fun. Well, it was fun at the time.

You look at stuff and you go like, our predecessors made great choices with what they had and now how do we continue to migrate a million customers? You have to migrate very carefully. You have major, major impact for every decision that you make. That’s pretty massive scale.

You must have tremendous variability and spikes, I guess, in traffic because of that seasonality. Is that a big part of the planning and roadmap cycle?

Ryan: Yeah. It’s a huge piece of what we deal with. Luckily, most of my team’s work initially didn’t have a direct correlation to it but now it’s been released. So one of my components being a mobile app, we’re about to start letting people actually purchase and deal with the end point of everything.

We are dealing with the seasonality of things too. We have, clearly, four seasons that we deal with. We deal with that. Spring, summer, fall, winter, is what we call them internally.

Ledge: It must be like a huge holiday rush too, at different… Mother’s Day and Christmas and all these things must be just like, boom!

Ryan: Yeah. We opened up our sales on the 26th of December this last time. That was just mayhem, as it can be said. But I’ve been lucky enough to be in the company at a point where they had worked through some of the really, really tough times. Like with any place, you have downtime. You have problems that arise when you have a million customers trying to come use this product.

Ledge: It’s like the click of death; everybody at the same time. You can’t spread it out.

Ryan: Yeah. We get a little bit of spread because we try to cater to serve our VIP customers and what we call Select customers, through the process. It can spread it just a little bit, but the curve is minor in that, so we…

Ledge: Your ops team just must be like, “Oh man, we’re staying up all night this week.”

Ryan: We have an early, all-hands-on-deck for the first 24 hours of a big sale. Then things really start to turn into…

The billing cycle piece is the next big one because we bill everything all at the same time. The billing cycle really does turn into a really long, arduous process. Billing a million consumers all at the same time is not pleasurable, I guess.

Ledge: On the other hand, your payment processor totally loves you.

Ryan: Oh, they’re big fans.

Ledge: So you did the mobile and you have the TV component too. I don’t know how new that is but that’s a totally different infrastructure challenge for streaming video nonstop. What’s that look like?

Ryan: When I came onto the company in October of last year, they had only just started working with live TV programming. They really want to get into live, take advantage of the Twitch consumer base. Not necessarily Twitch for this audience but the same concept.

Ledge: Understood.

Ryan: Take advantage of this new live innovation that everybody’s doing.

Being that the company is based in Beverly Hills, LA is that center for all things TV, all things production, in terms of TV production. They have a really sophisticated – or we have a really sophisticated TV production setup internally. We wanted to take that and turn it into an experience across all possible endpoints that we could get it out to.

A lot of it, initially, was redeveloping and finding a partner we could work with. That vetting process took a while, but finding a partner that worked with us, that was cost-effective and can handle the big load. We ended up on JW player, which they get a free plug on this. I’m sure they’ll love that. They’ve been around forever so we know we can trust them. I’ve used them in the past. Developing against that and then being able to start releasing programming on that.

We work with all sorts of celebrities across the board. Being that we’re based in Beverly Hills, that’s pretty easy to pull in some new talent. Not…

Ledge: Do you get to star in the videos yourself?

Ryan: No, I haven’t been in one yet. I’ve been there while we were recording them, but haven’t been in one. I’ve watched them record a bunch of fitness videos and things, and it’s impressive to see.

Ledge: That’s quite a production.

Ryan: Yeah. It’s a full studio system that we have in our office.

Going from there, it’s delivering it to all of those end consumers. It’s a much smaller base because it’s a new product. We’ve only just released all of our OTT apps. Apple TV, all that kind of stuff, has just been released. If anybody out there wants to go watch that and check it out, it’s pretty basic. It’s what you expect, that the experience needs to be very…

Ledge: I assume it’s live, but you can do on-demand for whatever you’re particularly into and there’s all different stuff.

Are you running all the time live, like 24/7?

Ryan: We’re getting to that point. We’ll full 24/7 programming. Basically, a TV channel like what we’re accustomed to from back in the day. We’re working to that point.

Having true live programming is the next big step, the big leap, because we do it pretty well right now, but currently we’re only streaming out to Facebook I believe, to start. What we’re going to do is bring it all in-house, put it all inside of the full web app experience, and then…

Ledge: On your mobile and everything, so people can watch at the gym and the whole thing.

Ryan: Exactly. It’s coming together pretty quickly.

Ledge: You got a few things to do.

Ryan: Just a few, yeah. No big deal.

Ledge: How does that fit with the whole…? It’s obviously like a brand extension. You’re clearly delivering a service to your members that correlates with what you’re doing. So, I’m excited about getting the products in the mail. I’m a member. I feel like part of a tribe. Now, I’m going to watch and get more fitness and wellness from the channel. It’s obviously a great marketing hook.

How does it all fit into the product and engineering roadmapping then when you have… It’s just a totally different paradigm. Do you separate by team and people only work on one thing?

Ryan: Pretty much, yeah. The structure of the internal engineering organization is very linear. Each one is very isolated. So we have just a TV production-related team, then we have just the mobile team. Now there’s… In terms of engineering forever sort of thing, that’s not going to be the case, because it’s just not sustainable, because we many other teams that handle…

Like I was talking about before, we had these old systems. So we’re in this process of shifting off of what was a PHP-based architecture, into…

Ryan: We’re moving off of PHP and working into getting into Java’s series of microservices underneath. There’s whole pods, whole teams, that are trying to migrate us off of that and that’s their whole job and focus right now. Meanwhile, trying to still deliver every season, run payments and all these other kinds of things.

Currently, my teams handle those individual verticals and then we try to slice into what product actually means in terms of delivering for the marketing experience. We have this much, much grander marketing plan, in terms of the celebrities we work with. There’s almost always a sponsor or some charity attached to each box that we deliver as well. Those boxes have, from a TV experience, an attached video component to it. We go through a big live reveal and they show off what’s in the box and it’s this whole thing. We need to be able to… We had to…

Ledge: Those of us who are old enough to watch our moms shop on QVC.

Ryan: Yeah. That’s something we would love to play with in the future too, is creating that QVC component. I’m not sure anybody else is doing it. I don’t know if it’s super new or super…

Ledge: Famous last words from every entrepreneur, “No one else is doing it.”

Ryan: No one else, not that I know of. I’m sure I’ll find it tomorrow, just because I said that.

Ledge: Right on. Java is an interesting choice. I hear that a lot. Actually, now especially, it’s interesting. From the Valley, it seems like there’s a lot of people going, “Hey, this is the way to scale microservices.” It’s not what would typically be your, I think, your normal gut Reaction in startup world. It’s like, “We’re all grown up and be an enterprise now and going back to that thing that has worked at absolute mega scale, flawlessly, for a long time.”

I learned Java in college and so it’s like, whoa, that’s old school. Is that surprising at all?

Ryan: A little bit, yeah. It’s what I’ve come to expect when I hear about microservices these days and the move. Although I have, as with any engineering organization, you have engineers who are on that bleeding edge of new stuff.

I’ve had a couple of proof of concepts thrown in front of me for things like Elixir, which is Whatsapp and there’s a couple other ones I’m forgetting, are built off of to run programs at high scale in nice little microservices too. It’s actually incredible impressive for the scale and speed that you could build that thing at.

Then again, how many engineers do you know out there that know how to develop in that language?

Ledge: Right. Whilst people are making massive investments into building their own technology education, because they just, I don’t know, they got high-scale closure. Who does that? You have to get all the closure engineers. It’s incredibly successful. If you get it, there’s a lot of technology solutions that are designed to solve these problems but don’t have wide adoption.

When you make that commitment as an engineering, or if you have to take on the professional development of that as well, we also know that engineers love learning stuff. Generally, when you throw stuff in front of engineers, they want to learn it. But it is funny to me how certain things have a technology stake on the personality of somebody that you maybe didn’t like working with back in the day at a consulting company, so you go, “Oh Java,” because you remember the bad times.

It’s not a thing. It doesn’t take on personality traits. It just solves a problem. It’s a toolset.

Ryan: That’s exactly how I view it too. The standpoint I generally have is, is this the fastest way we can get this thing out the door and start testing hypothesis?

Ledge: Yeah. That build fast, deploy fast. Continue to maintain in a productive fashion. Then, does it perform? Is it performant? I think sometimes people focus too much on one of those components like, “We can build it really fast, but it’s going to fall over,” or, “That’s the most performant thing. Oh, but nobody knows how to do it, so we’re going to do the most performant thing poorly, slowly.”

It’s definitely a broader conversation when you’re doing that planning.

Ryan: Yeah. All of the engineering world gets stuck in this. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in one of each of those arguments over the last 10 years probably. Previous to this, it was most Ruby on Rails world for the most part for me. There’s a whole fanatical culture about how it’s the greatest and the most performant and the…

Ledge: It will always be the greatest.

Ryan: Yeah, greatest.

Ledge: Unstoppable.

Ryan: It’s just, what are you willing to invest in over the long-term in terms of your team, the knowledge growth, the growth of your product, support it forever. PHP being the base of Facebook when it started, was…

Ledge: Of everything.

Ryan: … the only…

Ledge: Probably 80% of the web ran on PHP at one time or another.

Ryan: Still does. Almost 80% of all blogs are WordPress blogs.

Ledge: Yeah, and e-commerce is going to be your Magento and WooCommerce. It’s still so viable, but you rely on that ops layer and hosting layer and all those things to make it scale out.

I’m seeing tons of chatter now about .NET Core and how people are making that insanely scalable and fast. Orders of magnitude better than some of the other stuff because now you can containerize and scale it out in the Linux and Kubernetes type world.

It is that interesting convergence too, hey, we grew up and we need to play enterprise now. There’s really only a couple camps there that are big league. It’s going to be your Java and .NET world. Those are the places where you’re running billions of transactions per day and we have to pay attention to that.

Ryan: It’s the background of so many websites these days, that are hardened and ready to continual load forever and ever. You just know. You know when you deploy it that’s it’s going to work out of the box.

Ledge: Ain’t nothing wrong with that.

Ryan: I can be comfortable in that thought.

Luckily, we get to play with the newer things with my teams, which makes them happy. We’re in the React – React Native world, for the most part. That keeps them engaged and having to learn some…

That’s the other tradeoff in all of this, keeping people fresh on something.

Ledge: That segmentation of frontend moving a little bit more ahead into the hot JavaScript and then your backend just needs to be solid and scalable.

I think that that seems to be how things will continue to go. There’s even movement of, hey, how do we think about segmenting our frontend into, essentially, frontend microservices using React?

I think that that will be a trend now, because your frontend is no longer just your web. It’s, like I said, OTT. It’s going to be your mobile apps on many different screens. We are quickly seeing that you would then build infrastructure in a way that is far more segmented than you used to just buckle down and do your native app on this thing, and then your native app on this thing.

We’re going to see this stuff available, watching it on your watch, on your TV, laptop, phone. It’s just goes on and on.

Ryan: It’s impressive to see. I was talking to one of my developers this morning actually about another frontend technology that’s coming up that’s starting to catch some attention, which is Flutter. The Google frontend component.

I have to agree. Everything that I’d seen is moving to this frontend-heavy direction with React-ish, JavaScript apps running the world.

There’s Electron, which is the basis for desktop apps now too. We’re delivering Atom IO, which is the IDE for almost 50% of all developers out there working in JavaScript or something to that effect. That’s built entirely in JavaScript. JavaScript, HTML and CSS, the basic stuff that everybody started with in the web. It’s basically that vanilla basics of…

Ledge: Which is all coming back around, back to basics, which is the same thing like with the backend stuff.

Ryan: It’s interesting.

Ledge: You talked about being a big fitness guy and consuming all different types of stuff.

Just you and working with the product folks, being in the space, do you gather a lot of influence and ideas from…? This is just so massive now, online wellness and fitness. It’s just such a totally different world.

The director of DevOps for Beachbody, she’s thinking like, wow, delivering P90X to everyone.

Ryan: I work with one of their former data ops guys. He works at FabFitFun with me and he was telling me interesting stories about the Beachbody days.

I agree. I’ve been in two companies now that deal with the health and wellness space. Habit, now a defunct company, but we did blood and DNA testing to gather your nutritional profile, which is very forward thinking I would say in most places, albeit a crowded space now. Then previous to that, I worked at a company called Athos, which did EKG testing on body wearables to then give you muscle output into. They’ve since gone to more of an elite athlete, working with teams and.

Having been in a wearables as well as a testing space, but all based on an online experience, I’ve seen so many changes, both from my own experiences in that industry as well as watching the rest of the industry.

Ledge: As a consumer.

Ryan: anything. I must have 10 different wearables in my house, but I always go back to my Apple watch as my fallback lately.

Ledge: Okay. Well, Apple’s happy to hear that.

Ryan: Yeah. I’m sure they’ll love that. I do know some people on that team too and they do have some interesting tech. They’ve really grown the apps up to gather more information quickly, things that matter.

Ledge: Put your futurist hat on. What’s going to happen in this space now?

Ryan: Well, more data will be the thing. I think they’re going to try and find new ways to get new pieces of data out of you. We can get heart rate. We know that. But how can we get things like your diabetes measurements on a regular basis?

We have a massive population in the United States that is running at a diabetic rate right now or pre-diabetic. Pre-diabetic is huge. It’s massive. There’s probably… I can’t remember the number. It’s probably like 35 million people in the US that are pre-diabetic, might even be greater than that. I’m just throwing a number out there, but it’s big.

Ledge: We’ll fact-check you.

Ryan: Yeah, run it against me. That population is the place where all finance and all money will really funnel to, I think, in the next 5, 10 years…

Ledge: The downstream impact on the economy and politics. It’s so big. I don’t think everybody is going to realize that, that preventative care is the only way to save us from sinking as a population.

Ryan: We’ve got to re-ingrain habits. I think we’ll see more pushes in the wellness space, mental wellness. In fact, we’ve really started to see that with a lot of meditation apps and things like that. So, how do we gather data in terms of changing your habits to also influence improving your diabetic state?

Ledge: It’s interesting to me, the diversity inclusion, it will expand that into health and wellness. If I’m somebody, I’m not in shape, I’m feeling bad with myself, I don’t even feel in a spot where I can consume the really great-looking fitness model type of video. That’s not me.

As companies, we’ll reach out and go in the same way like would say, “These are normal-looking people and we cater to them.” That coalescence, I think, is going to be a huge societal trend. Where it’s like, “This stuff is for everybody. We can’t all do CrossFit yet, but let’s support each other and get there.”

I think those conversations haven’t yet made it into… You have your elite athlete. Now, you have your prosumer type of vibe, but where’s the stuff for everybody else? Where I’m going to feel pretty good about submitting my data that really is not good data but I really want to take care of myself. Where do I get that support system?

Ryan: I couldn’t agree more. You need to make it accessible for the broad majority of people out there. CrossFit’s doing that right now. They cut all their programs really internally, except for a couple in the CrossFit Games competitive space because that’s really where they’re heading for so long. Now, they’ve really refocused their attention to the geriatric, the ageing population.

It’s really interesting to see. I’m not sure what the end result has been for them or if that’s been a positive uptick or anything, but making it attainable for the broad majority of people is really a very difficult thing. You don’t want to shame people into trying to get better, and I think that’s that culture right now. There’s a lot of that. We still have that. People love to shame other people because you haven’t worked out for so long. So it’s like…

Ledge: Don’t shame me, man. Come on, it’s been a while.

Ryan: It’s sad but it’s also so true. There’s so many people that do that.

Celebrating more folks and getting them encouraging, so then that bleeds into behavioral sciences, which I think is the other emerging piece. There’s whole teams dedicated to that inside of Google and Facebook, with the thought process of, how do we behaviorally get you to search more and how do we behaviorally get you to actually press that like button every day?

I think in the health and wellness space, we’ll probably see a little bit more attention thrown that way as the money starts to really show up. I think it is a money game. Once people realize that if you behaviorally change people for the diabetic or some other really ailing population, then you get a real big benefit.

Ledge: You have a fan for life if you help somebody. Really, it’s like you genuinely care about the value of that person’s health and wellness, and they can associate your brand and your people and your effort with, wow, I even saved my life, that’s a customer for life. They’re going to tell 20 of their friends. It’s very valuable.

Very cool, man, I love that. Alright, so before I let you go, I have some critically important questions for our lightning round.

Ryan: Lay it on me.

Ledge: Star Wars or Star Trek?

Ryan: Star Wars for me, although I like Star Trek.

Ledge: What are you reading?

Ryan: What am I reading right now?

Ledge: What am you reading right now, yeah?

Ryan: Bill Walsh’s book, The Score Takes Care of Itself. I actually have it in front of me.

Ledge: Nice.

Ryan: I probably read a book every three weeks, I’d say.

Ledge: Send us the full list.

Ryan: Yeah, I’ll send it out to you. Mostly leadership books is where I’m at right now.

Ledge: Been there. I’ve spent years in that too. Eventually when they start to run together…

Ryan: I’m in the phase where now I think I might go back into some mathematics books or something like that.

Ledge: I’m a secret spy novel, assassin, CIA thing kick right now. I’m going to come back around.

Ryan: If I was down that road, I would definitely go with some Robert Ludlum, some stuff from the Bourne Trilogies or Legacies and all of those. I enjoy all those books too.

Ledge: I fancy myself in the shadows.

What can you not live without?

Ryan: Working out every day. I think that keeps me sane, keeps me ready to handle the rest of my day.

Ledge: You look sane.

Ryan: Yeah, I feel pretty good.

Ledge: What’s the last thing that you Googled for work?

Ryan: Fastlane for automated deployments for React-Native apps.

Ledge: Alright. I don’t know if you’re a fan of The Office.

Ryan: I am.

Ledge: There’s a classic episode, maybe you watched it, where Jim is messing with Dwight as usual. In this particular episode he is sending him faxes from future Dwight. It’s one of my favorites.

Ryan: I love that. Okay.

Ledge: It made me think, love this episode, if I were to give you a piece of paper and one of those thick, black Sharpies and you could write yourself a note. So right now you are future Ryan and you can fax it back to yourself years ago. Now, what would you scroll on that piece of paper?

Ryan: That’s an excellent question. I probably would say, stay consistent with whatever you’re doing. Don’t change from thing to thing to thing. Consistency kills everything. Make sure you’re successful in everything you’re doing.

If I had to go monetary, it would be totally different. I could just say, go play the Facebook game and win the dollars, which there’s always ways to do that.

But, yeah consistency. That wins everything. I certainly have a habit of just trying everything, like a jack of all trades, but if I stay consistent with something it tends to work out pretty well.

Ledge: I wish you’d send me that fax too. “Focus, you idiot! Just one.”

Awesome. Well, Ryan, you’ve been a good sport. Totally appreciate the time together, this has been fun. We look forward to more developments from FabFitFun. Everybody, go sign up for your subscription box and I look forward to the male version, so M-A-L-E.

Ryan: Yeah, definitely. I’ll find some codes and I’ll send them your way so you can…

Ledge: There you go. This is the perks of the job.

Ryan: There you go.

Ledge: Appreciate you, man.

Ryan: Thanks for having me on.

Ledge: Good for coming on. Good to be connected.

Ryan: Yeah, appreciate it.