July 07, 2010, 10:25 PM — This interview is part of ITworld's regular "How I Got Here" series which focuses on the career path of successful IT professionals.
Not many dotcommers and technology executives can lay claim to working on the infamous Warped Tour, the well known annual music and extreme sports festival. And if that's not enough, BMC Software's Robert Reeves followed it up with a position as a tour manager with Flogging Molly. It's not exactly the type of experience CTOs look for when they are researching who runs the companies they are acquiring, but it seems to have worked well for Robert.
Robert is one of those people who you love to talk to at parties, because he's done everything and been everywhere, and just seems to have a background and knowledge about every subject imaginable. From his Bachelor's degree in Economics with a Math Minor from University of Texas, Robert picked up computer technology along the way at the University's lab, and it was a natural fit—and Robert's dotcom days were born.
You've had such a varied career. Did you want to go into software development even back in high school?
I was always around computers. Mom bought me a 2C when I was twelve, and it just took off from there. I actually wanted to be a fighter pilot. I grew up in Corpus Christi, and that's where they do the training for flight school for the Navy pilots, so I always saw the guys and it was really cool. Then I went to the University of Texas, and that's where I got introduced to UNIX, and forget it, I was just so in love, I never wanted to leave.
What was your degree in at University of Texas?
Bachelor's in Economics, and stumbled into a Math minor, just because I kept hanging out in that department. I was just having a blast. They had a really nice Sun lab at the Econ department, and I figured out that they gave undergrads an account. So that's where I learned UNIX, and hacking with Perl, and those sorts of things. I was using Perl for numerical analysis I had to do for my classes. A buddy of mine went out to California in '96, and he said, "Hey, you've got to check this thing out. They're paying people crazy money, and you know Perl, so you can get a job." And I did, and it was great. I was just out of college and making ridiculous money for someone that age, so I just started moving up the ladder. I built web pages initially and wound up getting a job with a startup called DoctorKoop.com. It had a spectacular meltdown after going public. It was great to be a part of that. At the time, I didn't think it was great, but now I think it was, just to experience that. It was something else! Before everything went South, I was working as a web developer. I went to my CTO at the time, and told him, you really need somebody to be in charge of getting releases out. We need to have somebody that can identify changes and development, communicate those changes to QA, and provide releases, and do the same thing with production. And he said, "What you're talking about is software configuration management." And I said, "software what-what"?
And he told me to go get a book, because then there was no Wikipedia, and I read a couple books, and said this is what I want to do. So I took that over in Koop, and had a blast. It was a lot of fun, because I was in the middle of everything. Every time I went in, it was something new. It was challenging. Then, there was the Koop meltdown, so I said I'm going to go to a company that's got real legs. Then I went to CarOrder.com, and they had a meltdown a year later. So then it was a month after September 11, and everything's falling apart, and I had survived a bunch of layoffs and I was working at Trilogy, which was the parent company of CarOrder.com, and after they went down, they kept me. Then my boss came in and said, 'Hey, it's over, man." I got a killer severance package, so I said, I'm going to go and wait this out. I had dropped out of school to start working at all these companies, so I said, I'm going to go back to UT and graduate. I needed 18 hours of electives, so I just took them all, jazz appreciation, history of rock and roll, and had a great spring. The market wasn't coming back, everybody was scrambling trying to get jobs, and I said, "I don't wanna do that, man." I wanted to break out of my comfort zone and see if I liked it. See if technology is the base for me.
So then what did you do?
I had some friends that had worked on the Warped tour previously in Cleveland. I called him, and he put me in touch with the woman who ran the touring company that works with the Warped tour. She was in L.A. and I was in Austin, and she said I sounded like a great guy, I came highly recommended, but why would she hire somebody from Austin when she's got ten thousand people in L.A. that have actually done this before? I said, "I understand, that's a great idea, I need to discuss that in person. How's your Wednesday look?" You know, I was in school at the time, so I could do this. I jumped in the car and took a little road trip. I had lunch with her and convinced her that I was the guy, that I was going to make her money. And I did.
How did you do that?
They previously had a system for managing. In the big cities, they would have 750 people on tour, and they had to feed them breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Now we couldn't keep track of that, and it was very difficult. What they would do, is that everybody would get a laminate. It was made with an index card with holes that you would punch out, so you would have one through 52, or however many days you were on the tour. What happened is that the guys in the band would "lose" their card. Their girlfriends would find it, or their hangers-on would find it. And so by the end of the tour, we were feeding like 1,200 people a day, and they couldn't stop it, they had no way of keeping track. What I did, was got a little hacked CueCat. You were supposed to take those and scan your magazines. If you get a hacked one, it can read regular bar code. It would just generate tests. So I whipped together a little access application and put bar codes on everybody's laminate. So we were able to keep track. We could see who was eating, and if somebody came through with an invalid number, or if they had a bar code that was already scanned, it would tell us. So they wound up saving all sorts of money on that tour.
So did you make any enemies from people trying to scam the system?
Oh, yeah. There was a band that was on tour. In the past they had a real problem with people using a scanner to scan the laminates, and then laminating it again and using that to get back to base. And of course, with the Internet, it was easy to just use this, use that. What happened was, one of the bands that was on the tour very briefly, he allowed somebody to scan his laminate. It just went viral. So everybody was getting backstage. He didn't change his barcode. So when Kevin Lyman, the guy who runs the Warped tour, got wind, he came to me, and said, "Robert, who's 1278?" I told him, and he said that band's not coming on Warped Tour next year! Since we were able to figure out where it came from. I don't care how punk rock you are, when you have a line of people and there's a bar code scanner, you have to realize that it's game over for gaming the system.
So what was next after that?
The tour was ending, and I reached out to the manager from Flogging Molly, and said I knew they were looking for a merchandising person, and I showed them another little access app that I whipped together. It was simple stuff to keep track of inventory on tour, so we could have better reporting on what things were selling. Instead of having to do a manual report, this was automatically generated. So he liked that, and took me on tour and then gave me more responsibilities. Next thing you know, I'm the tour manager for this punk band and we're playing festivals in Europe and touring the US and Canada.
Did you get a chance to soak up any of the local culture while you were in Europe?
You know, the local culture was at the venue. When you're on tour, you load up at 3, you do a sound check, you grab something to eat. There's always a lot of responsibility to make sure the band is comfortable and everybody gets paid. If we're running low on bass strings, I would go out and get them, or make sure we have hotels for the next evening. Then the gig would go, doors would open, and we'd start the gig, and I have to make sure that went smoothly, make sure the sound guy had what he needed, make sure the stage tech had what he needed. It's amazingly similar to software configuration management. Just make sure everybody has the bits and pieces they need to do their job. The gig's over, you go get paid, and you load up and drive to the next town, and you sleep. You wake up and do it again. I love the Molly, I had so much fun with those guys, but I just realized I didn't have the intestinal fortitude to do that as a career. You really can't have a family, and watch your TV shows and hang out with your buddies. I love punk rock, I'm always gonna be a punk rocker. I love sausage too, but I don't like seeing it being made. So I just wait for the shows to come to me in Austin now.
So then you left the music business and went back into software at that point, right?
I sure did. I had a very different perspective than when I was just an individual contributor. I reaffirmed my passion for software and for IT. It helped me understand why I liked it, and there are two reasons. One is because of the problem solving. I love solving complex problems, but I like to do it for things that are going to help people. When I was at Koop, we really tried to help people get control over their health, to be able to go into that doctor's office armed with information and to be able to make the most out of a doctor visit. Same thing with CarOrder. We're trying to give people a good deal. But because of my background, I realized that people have a real serious problem in IT when it comes to applications relief management. It's a nightmare. I missed a lot of happy hours with my buddies. I realized that there were a lot of people out in the world who are missing piano recitals, date night with their wife, guys that are stuck at the data center. We figured we need to start a company to attack this problem. We put together a prototype, and the rest is history.
So that's how your startup Phurnace got started?
We got immediately accepted into the Austin technology incubator. We got a little funding from an angel route, so we certainly took advantage of that, and some debt financing. Then got some funding from DFJ from their Mercury Group in Houston, and got a follow-on investment S3 in Austin, and in the next year and a half started selling to some great companies, and helping the folks at those companies go to those piano recitals and to those Little League games.
While you were starting up Phurnace, what did you bring to the table from your days with the Warped Tour and Flogging Molly? How did that help you with a start-up software company?
Well, I listened to a lot of punk rock. Always been a rocker, but being backstage and seeing the musicians and folks that worked on the tour, and seeing that they were absolutely fearless. They didn't care about the major labels, they didn't care about radio, they didn't care about Ticketmaster, or Clear Channel, or anybody else. They were on a mission, they were taking it to the people. They were going to find the people that wanted to hear that message, and they were going to share that. And that's what taught me that we could do the same thing in software. We didn't have to have a prior relationship with IBM or HP. We just have to find that one customer and make them happy. Just like that punk rock band, that just wants to make that album, and they don't care as long as one person buys it. That's success for them. That's how we measured our success, one customer at a time. One fan at a time. That's what I learned from the Warped Tour and from Flogging Molly. Just believe in yourself that you are doing the right thing. Just the journey itself makes you successful, regardless of what the end goal is.
How long did Phurnace last before you sold it to BMC?
It was quick, it was three years and ten months. We started on April Fool's Day, I quit the paying job to get the unpaying job. It was a wonderful time. It seemed like we were an overnight success. In 2008 we had our first significant sale, then in '09, right when everything started to melt down, we as a company said, this is going to help people save money, they desperately want to save money right now, and this is the time to strike—and we did. We got some very big customers very quickly, because they looked at it, and said, we're tired of having all these consultants and contractors around, and this is going to be the stuff that is going to help us do that.
Was the company based out in Silicon Valley, or there in Austin?
It was in Austin, Texas! We had 22 people and a global sales force of three account reps. You can't start a company like that in California. They want to give you fifty million dollars and have you hire 150 people. You have to be lean and mean, and that's the Austin way. All things configuration-related comes from Austin. It's something about Shiner Bock and breakfast tacos that makes you want to work on this stuff.
Austin has quite the vibrant innovative tech community, doesn't it?
Yes sir, it's interesting, because there's a lot of cross-pollination with other industries. It's a much more collegial atmosphere than what I've seen in other areas. There's a lot more people that are more willing to just help out, to hear what you have to say. What's interesting is that there's a lot of hard-core geeks in Austin, and they like to solve problems that aren't particularly sexy, and that's what IT is. If you solve problems in IT, it's not like you're going to be a household name like Facebook or Google. You're definitely in the back of the shop, that's for sure. The startups here are very focused on solving hard problems, and doing it in a unique way. There's no other town we could have done this in.
So what about the decision to sell to BMC?
It was a no-brainer. We were having discussions with other folks, but BMC knows this space, and they have a commitment to owning it. They wanted not only to acquire the technology, they also wanted the people. Every single person at Phurnace is a BMC employee. They even took our intern in development and converted him into a full-time employee. That kind of commitment to the people we had at Phurnace made it very easy for us to take the deal.
So how different is it being a part of BMC, as opposed to being part of a start-up?
It's great. It's exactly what we had hoped to do. We were wearing a lot of different hats, and now that we've got the BMC resources, we don't have to worry about those things. I had been doing the training, but now BMC has this huge educational services group that trains our customers, and they know how to do it. They focus like a laser on that thing, on that single problem. That's one less thing the Phurnace team has to worry about.
So with all this going on, do you still have time to go to concerts?
I do. We have to stop by and every year I go to the Warped Tour in San Antonio or Dallas and see my buddies. Any time I want to go to a punk rock show, they get me back stage and I get to hang out with the cool kids.