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Executive interview, Eric Muntz, Mailchimp

We speak to Intuit Mailchimp’s former CTO about how the company manages IT engineering and supports different ways of working

For the past 13 years, Eric Muntz has worked at Mailchimp, latterly as its chief technology officer (CTO). The company was acquired by Intuit in 2021 for $12bn. Muntz has recently changed roles and is now a technology advocate at Intuit Mailchimp.

Reflecting on his experience of managing engineering teams, Muntz surmises: “We’re trying to get a lot of work done and, just like in every software development shop, it feels like there are not quite enough people, so prioritisation is extremely important.”

He believes teams can sometimes get stuck in a rut, where they are unable to work effectively. Muntz says this tends to happen “when the team starts to ‘group think’ a little too much or becomes fearful, and maybe paralysed, to make decisions”.

He observes that a team’s ability to make decisions can suffer as a result. “Their decisions are wishy-washy or not final. That’s a sign something is not right. It could be that the team members don’t trust how leadership is going to perceive whether they succeed or fail.”

A recent example of how senior management buy-in can help team decision-making occurred when a Mailchimp customer faced a backlog in trying to email eight million customers. Describing the problem, Muntz says: “It was taking two or three times as long as their normal campaigns. It would have taken about 15 hours to get this full campaign out, which is not right. That’s not production-ready.”

Muntz says the engineering team made a few optimisation changes to the database and were pretty confident the mailout speed would improve. But it was still sending out the mailshot very slowly, so Muntz then divided the problem into two teams – one tasked with actively tracing exactly what was happening, the other given the task of examining a potential idea to parallelise the work so that it could go faster.

He says the tracing team identified some back-end machine learning code that was slowing down the workload, while the parallelisation team figured out a way to use MapReduce across the eight million records.

Muntz admits it may have been a little risky using MapReduce to boost performance. “We didn’t have extreme confidence that it would be safe,” he adds. “That’s when I stepped in. I was helping with the on-call situation and said I was willing to take business responsibility given that the situation couldn’t get any worse. If it went wrong, we could just revert back.”

Hiring and apprenticeships

In terms of building out a team, Muntz says IT leaders need to aim at developing a well-rounded team and recruit people who fill specific gaps in expertise. “One of the things I really believe in, and what I’m most proud of over the 13 years I’ve been here, is our apprenticeship programme, which was built to bring people from other departments into engineering,” he says.

The programme takes in people from elsewhere in the business and gives them a three-month position inside the engineering team. This helps people decide if they want to work in engineering or prefer their existing job. Muntz says more than 70 people in engineering began their work life at Mailchimp in a different department.

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Rather than having a prescribed way of working, Muntz believes in offering a flexible work environment that enables people to work at their best. “It’s not the same for everyone,” he says. “Someone might want to get on the whiteboard and write code, someone else may prefer to do pair programming, and some people may just want to have a conversation about architecture and infrastructure and how it works.”

Muntz believes it is important to understand these things during the interview process. “If there’s one position and six candidates, we want to see all six of those people at their very best,” he adds.

Building teams that work

Moving on to team dynamics, Muntz found that during the pandemic, conferencing software like Zoom enabled people who are not comfortable being the loudest voice in the room to voice their views. One of his top tips is to use the mute function.

“One piece of etiquette is that everyone is muted all the time, so when you come off mute, you signal you want to speak,” says Muntz. He also found the hand-raising feature useful in the same way. “Someone will say, ‘Before we move on, I can see so and so has raised their hand’, and that has worked really well.” 

Another technique, which Mailchimp’s newly appointed CEO, Rania Succar, uses, is to encourage those who have been quieter during the meetings to share their views.

Minority team members

Muntz has written essays on the subject of racial diversity and being of mixed race. In 2020, he took part in “A Conversation About Race in Tech Culture”, an event hosted on Facebook.

“To speak from personal experience, my stepfather is a software entrepreneur and he’s black. I very much don’t look black. I am half black, but I walk around the world being treated white,” he says. “When I started working in software, my first job was for him. When people would discover I was his son, they kind of did a double-take because we have very different skin colours. But then everything I tried to do was to make sure they forgot we were related. I just wanted to be treated like a colleague.”

“Insecurities are deeply held beliefs that drive people’s actions. I wish we could figure out just how to talk more openly and make these things less mysterious”

Eric Muntz, Intuit Mailchimp

This, he says, gave him insight into what it must feel like to be in a minority at work, such as a woman in technology who is surrounded mostly by men, or being the first black member of an all-white team, or the first person with a Hispanic background, or simply being foreign in an “all-American” team.

Muntz would like people to have an open discussion about race, ethnic diversity, negative and positive biases, and how these things play out in a team at work, trying to fulfil a business objective. “Insecurities are deeply held beliefs that drive people’s actions,” he says. “They might be offputting or confusing. I wish we could figure out just how to talk more openly and make these things less mysterious.”

Muntz believes these deeply held beliefs are often ingrained when people are very young. “It’s certainly not a colleague’s job to fix that deeply held belief, but I believe that in a business culture we should really try to treat each other like humans,” he says.

While there are people who say they really do not see colour, for Muntz, this does not necessarily do much to address the insecurities people from minorities can often feel. 

For instance, people may worry that it seems to take them too long to put together a “pull request” to tell others of the code changes being made, or when they commit code they are stressed because it may be rejected. While code that does not meet the right level of quality or follows the correct standards should be rejected, as a manager, Muntz says, “you might know how I’m feeling and emphasise that I’m not rejecting you”.

There is no silver bullet to solve such challenges. But, as Muntz notes, treating people like human beings is the place to start. Understanding their motivation – as Muntz tries to do when he looks to offer people their preferred working environment – along with being cognisant of their insecurities, is the harder step managers need to take to build a coherent team.

Listen to the Computer Weekly Downtime Upload podcast with Eric Muntz >>

Mailchimp security breach

Mailchimp recently faced a security breach, where an unauthorised actor conducted a social engineering attack on its employees and contractors. The attack resulted in access to select accounts using compromised employee credentials.

Discussing such social engineering attacks and how organisations can protect themselves, Eric Muntz, technology advocate at Intuit Mailchimp, says: “It is really tough protecting people against social engineering attacks. I would encourage other leaders to, first and foremost, talk about it and make it part of onboarding and training.”

Mailchimp runs demonstrations during “coffee hour” where speakers are invited to demonstrate styles of attack. “It’s really about education,” he adds.

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