Evan Huston: Building Teams and Products

“After working in the tech industry for a year, I was ready to pursue my long-term goal of teaching computer science at the college level,” said MCS alumnus and Sparefoot’s Director of Engineering Evan Huston. “So I went to Rice to pursue my Ph.D. in CS. Three years into the program, I realized I loved teaching, but I also loved building teams and bringing products to market that could have an immediate impact. In industry, I could do all three of those things immediately, whereas in academia it could take longer to see results.”

Luay Nakhleh was Huston’s advisor. Having done his own graduate work at the University of Texas, Nakhleh helped Huston compare different Ph.D. programs and likely career paths as Huston considered changing directions.

Huston said, “We had a good conversation about how I wanted to use my Ph.D.– in industry, or to teach at big school.  He told me ‘if you want to go into industry, you can choose a different PhD program that is less focused on publications and research, and more on preparing graduates for industry.  There are some interesting problems in industry, but if you want to continue on a research track, we need to spend some time to get quality publications under your belt.’”

Huston’s goals no longer matched the trajectory of a Ph.D., and Nakhleh mentioned the MCS program. Huston said, “I already had all the requirements for the MCS degree, so we just called it at that.”

He admits, changing direction is a difficult decision for someone in the early years of their career. He said, “You don’t have much context, you haven’t been through a big change, and it feels like a huge decision to walk away from a research focus or being a teacher. Now that I’m in my mid-30s and I’ve shifted my career focus multiple times, I can assure you, ‘it’s okay.’”

His career path has included roles in both global corporations and startups. “I worked at IBM and National Instruments, as well as a small consulting firm,” he said, “The big companies are great. They have a lot of senior staff and if you are just beginning your career, you can find lots of mentors that have different skill sets. In a small company, there may not be any senior staff or as many of them.”

Another benefit to starting out at a large company is participating in a rigorous performance management process. Huston said, “Focusing on tools like 360 evaluations—using feedback from colleagues you work for, with, and support– that quickly tells you what your weaknesses are. I was fortunate to have had a couple of rounds of that kind of evaluation and it helped me come a long way in a short time.”

Huston compared that kind of performance feedback to life in a startup. “There is no performance  management, no evaluations, it’s just work, work, work,” he said.  “Go to a big company out of college, but don’t stay too long. Stay a year or two and then take risk and do something that really excites you. Especially in your 20s, take all the risks you can. Later in life, you are going to have obligations that you may feel limit your options.”

He was one of the first employees hired by the two founders when he joined SpareFoot. Huston said, “It wasn’t even a company.” So he continued working at National Instruments full-time, then would head to the incubator program and work on the project as the team tried to meet the goals early investors had set up.  A few months after meeting the founders, Huston felt ready to take the leap.

“I came to SpareFoot taking a pay cut and having no health insurance,” said Huston, “but I recognized that I was at a point where I could take that risk. Yes, National Instruments is a great company and I’d consider going back at some point, but the opportunity to jump in on the ground floor was too attractive to pass up.”

Why SpareFoot?

He said, “Prior to SpareFoot, there was no online marketplace for self storage. Consumers would have to drive around town or search the yellow pages and make phone calls to compare options. Our mission is to provide the most relevant storage options and the best shopping experience to consumers, so they can keep the things that matter.  It seemed like a clear opportunity that I wanted to be a part of.”

Although Huston’s background was programming, he had to wear multiple hats in the growing company, including the call center. “Half our business came through the phones. When we started the company, we had a single cell phone and we took turns answering it. In the middle of dinner, it would ring and you’d step away, put on your customer sales voice and say, ‘Thanks for calling SpareFoot. How may I help you?’”

Seven years later, Huston has been responsible for up to 20 engineers at SpareFoot. He was looking for ways to make a bigger impact and had gotten to the point where working harder and longer only went so far. “The Evan plan doesn’t scale,” he said. “To be successful as a company, you must figure out how to scale your role, and to do that your job shifts from individual contributor to manager and team builder.”

He learned how to make better hiring decisions, improve his interview questions, and assign and grow his teams of engineers. “This is now where I can have the biggest impact. We’ve recently re-tooled our development process and I’m just now seeing the new teams come together.  Helping a 40-person division (product, engineering, and design) change the way they work –change our whole culture – that’s impactful.”

Making the transition to management is a challenge for some engineers, particularly those who believe their value to the company is measured in amount of code they produce.  He expects his managers’ lines of code to decrease from individual contributors and for them to become a multiplier for their teams.

Huston said, “My full time job is to delegate. It doesn’t scare me that I’m no longer committing lines of code. In fact, you will never run out of new challenges if you are willing to teach someone else how to do the jobs you are currently doing. When you are working at 120% capacity and refuse to delegate, that makes you unavailable to tackle that next really interesting project or big opportunity, and in a startup, there’s always one of those.”