hackNY Summer Series: Dennis Crowley and Harry Heymann

In this post 2012 hackNY Fellow Terence Nip describes the hackNY Summer Series lecture by Dennis Crowley and Harry Heymann.

A few weeks ago, the 2012 hackNY fellows got to hear both Dennis Crowley, founder of foursquare, and Harry Heymann, Head of Engineering at foursquare, talk about the rather scenic journey that foursquare’s taken – from being acquired by Google, to Dennis and Alex Rainert, current Head of Product at foursquare, both leaving Google, to the creation of foursquare as we know it.

I think by and large, one of the greatest takeaways from the talk was that the idea behind foursquare was iterated on over not only multiple years, but also over multiple products. Oftentimes, it seems as if startups come up with ideas, build them, let them out into the wild, then let them grow on their own with minimal effort required. Dennis’ story served to debunk that.

Dennis worked on essentially three iterations of foursquare: dodgeball (v1), dodgeball (v2), and the foursquare we’ve come to know and love – and one of the main reasons why he kept coming back to work on dodgeball/foursquare despite the obstacles he encountered along the way is because it fulfilled not only a need for him, but also for people around him.

Not only did Dennis help debunk the myth that startup ideas require little time and effort to become a success, but he also showed that it’s important to work on not only a product that you truly do care about, but also one that fulfills a need. In listening to your users, you end up building a product that isn’t necessarily about your business and your needs, but rather about your users and their needs.

Serving as a counterweight to Dennis’ story, Harry provided the technical background behind both dodgeball and foursquare, beginning with how he came to meet Dennis and work with him while at Google. One thing Harry said that truly struck a chord with me was that there are very few opportunities in your career where you get to start from scratch. More often than not, you’ll be working with someone else’s codebase, having to work with decisions that were made prior to joining the company.

Harry not only talked about what it was like to start from scratch, but also discussed his current managerial role at foursquare. He began by touching on the importance of hiring great technical talent; it might seem as though you’re spending a lot of time in looking for awesome technical talent, but once you find someone that’s truly great, you’ll end up reaping dividends from the time you’ve put into your search. It was pretty interesting to hear about how he went from a developer role to a more managerial role, and how he went about handling it. As Harry discovered, the best way to manage is to admit that you don’t know everything, stay humble, and make sure your employees have everything they need to succeed and produce awesome work.

Overall, I found Dennis’ and Harry’s perspectives through working on both dodgeball and foursquare to be incredibly informative, especially since we got a sense of not only what it was like to turn what was once a user-centric project into an incredibly successful startup, but also the technical and managerial challenges that come up in the process.

It’s rather evident that foursquare is making leaps and bounds towards their goal of making the real world easier to use. As someone who started using the service two years ago, it has been interesting to see how Dennis, Harry and everyone at foursquare have molded the product from what it was, a friend-finding service, to become what it is today: a service that allows you to explore your world, based on your interests and personal inclinations.