Geek of the Week

Geek of the Week: Automaton! Golden Idols! One’s a startup, one’s a band — Eric Peterson rocks for each

Eric Peterson performs with his band Golden Idols at the Tractor Tavern in Seattle. (Photo courtesy of Eric Peterson)

Eric Peterson has two main creative pursuits in Seattle, and both are well-suited to a city known for both. He creates software (most of the time) and music (some of the time).

Peterson is a co-founder and head of engineering and product at a startup called Automaton, which sounds like it could be the name of a band, and he plays guitar and keys in a band called Golden Idols, which maybe sounds like it could be the name of a startup.

Our latest Geek of the Week, Peterson spent eight years at Tableau, where he was most recently director of marketing engineering.

“I joined when the executive team still knew everyone by name, but experimented with flash cards to keep up, and left just a bit before the Salesforce acquisition,” Peterson said of his time at the data visualization company.

He started with Automaton at the beginning of April, joining during the height of the Techstars program when it became clear early in the program that success would depend on a technical co-founder.

“Through the magic of Techstars, we found each other,” Peterson said about helping to build a company which creates automated quality assurance for marketing and sales teams.

Peterson went to school at the University of Denver, which he was “only able to afford thanks to the Gates Millennium Scholars program (thank you Bill and Melinda).”

He’s been playing music since he was a reluctant 7-year-old piano student, and rose to mild prominence in Denver’s indie scene before moving to Seattle. The Golden Idols had a recent moment of “fame” themselves when they showed up during a Seattle Seahawks game on “Monday Night Football.”

A snippet of a performance at the Tractor Tavern in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood was used as one of those “slice of Seattle life” cutaways that are popular on nationally televised sports telecasts.

When he’s not working or playing music, Peterson fits in home renovation projects with his wife — they wrapped up a big remodel last year — and hanging with their cat.

Listen to some Golden Idols, above, and learn more about this week’s Geek of the Week, Eric Peterson, below:

What do you do, and why do you do it? All of my energy these days goes into building Automaton, a QA automation platform for marketing and growth teams. If we had a hyperbolic, Silicon Valley-style “change the world” mission, it would probably be about ridding the world of bad customer experiences.

And while we help with that(!), my personal motivation at Automaton is centered more around helping our customers be better at what they do.

I believe that great software recognizes and unlocks an inherent creativity in people. I was fortunate to work alongside world-class marketing technologists at Tableau where I witnessed the magic of such creativity unfold. My goal at Automaton is to provide a toolkit that helps unlock and augment that same creativity in similar business technology teams everywhere.

What’s the single most important thing people should know about your field? Most of the ways you experience a product, brand, or website today aren’t meticulously crafted by product or engineering teams, your experiences are clicked together by business users with off-the-shelf SaaS software.

While conceptually this is a net-positive (product teams freed up to focus on innovation, business teams empowered to solve their own problems), in practice, it’s the root of most customer experience and data problems in organizations; business users just don’t have the tools or operational excellence that software teams have to understand and manage quality.

Nine times out of 10, a bad experience you’ve had as a customer can be attributed to this fact.

Where do you find your inspiration? I hold the somewhat silly belief that true inspiration only comes from the subconscious, and dreams are the clearest window into it. … I don’t know about you, but I don’t have a lot of product or engineering dreams though, so I have to work a little harder to find it.

Nothing beats finding people who are good at what they do, watching them do it, and thinking, “That’s amazing. I bet I could do it better.” This is really obvious for music (go to shows), but a little more difficult to emulate in a professional environment. Following smart people on LinkedIn/Twitter is a good start though.

What’s the one piece of technology you couldn’t live without, and why? I’ll give an esoteric answer, if only because the obvious “magical pocket computer” is no fun: tankless, on-demand hot water heaters. I always get a pleasant shower experience, even if my wife takes abnormally hot showers before me.

(Photo courtesy of Eric Peterson)

What’s your workspace like, and why does it work for you? Honestly, I can get work done anywhere there is adequate light and caffeine. I’m fortunate that my home office has plenty of both! A laptop-centric workstation is essential though, so I can unplug and go to a café when I inevitably need a change of pace (or light, or caffeine).

While I’d like to say the decision to be surrounded by instruments that I can pick up and play at any time was intentional, the reality is that my office and studio share the same space because my home is relatively modest in size (did I mention I was on an episode of “Tiny House Hunting”?), so we have to be creative with space use.

It’s nice to be able to noodle on the piano at the same time as noodling on a hard problem though.

Your best tip or trick for managing everyday work and life. (Help us out, we need it.) This is sort of an anti-tip, but I would strongly recommend against using time management / efficiency hacks (like a personal kanban, pomodoro technique, etc.) in your personal life.

I came of age in an environment where this advice was pervasive, and it’s left me in a state of reliance on an ever-diminishing drip of dopamine hits that only come after “crossing stuff off a list.” When you run your regular life like your work life, the stuff you want to do becomes less rewarding because all experiences yield the same “I accomplished this task” feeling at the end. And the stuff you have to do becomes more daunting because you’ve placed an incentive structure on something that shouldn’t have had one in the first place, and the incentives are decreasing over time.

So optimize your time at work all you want! But it’s OK to be “less effective” in your non-work time.

Mac, Windows or Linux? Mac. Just the right blend of unix-y goodness for the dev in me, and creative tools for the musician in me.

Kirk, Picard, or Janeway? I’m probably disqualified from being a geek of the week for this answer … But I never really watched any Star Trek (or Star Wars) growing up.

Transporter, Time Machine or Cloak of Invisibility? Transporter. Remote work/life tech is good, but face-to-face is better.

If someone gave me $1 million to launch a startup, I would … Encourage that someone to get in on the next Automaton funding round?

I once waited in line for … A self-checkout machine at the grocery store, even though there were cashier lanes open. Introverts of the world unite!

Your role models: I have a lot of respect for Elissa Fink (former Tableau CMO), who built the whole department and function from the ground up. She built and embodied an incredible, people-centric leadership style and culture that I’ll take with me everywhere.

While I’ve never met Michael Lopp (a.k.a. Rands, former Slack VPE), I love everything he’s written on the topic of engineering management. A must-read for introverted leaders in tech (current or aspiring).

Greatest game in history: Untitled Goose Game.

Best gadget ever: Smart bulbs. Full color bulbs are a bit much, but being able to change light temperature and intensity according to the time of day or task at hand with a button press or voice command is a game-changer.

First computer: I grew up in that era where there was a shared, family computer (is that still a thing?). I don’t remember the model, but it was a Dell of some kind (with the cow print boxes) running Windows 95. My first personal machine was a 12″ Aluminum PowerBook G4 hand-me-down from a family friend.

Current phone: I use an iPhone X with huge cracks in the screen … It fell from my lap onto concrete while I was waiting for an email at lunch (keeping it below the table, trying to be polite). The cracks are a reminder to always “be present.”

Favorite app: Honestly, I’m scrolling through apps on my phone and desktop and nothing’s really “sparking joy” right now: whole lot of work and productivity-related apps. Tableau Public is always a delight anytime I get to pull it off the shelf, though.

Favorite cause: Right now: — An organization taking a distinctly American approach to the erosion of democratic values in the U.S.: litigation.

Most important technology of 2019: New refined scissor mechanism on Apple’s latest MacBook Pro model (I’m kidding)

Most important technology of 2021: Light rail to North Seattle (Slightly less kidding…)

Final words of advice for your fellow geeks: You’ve gotta do it if you’re gonna do it.

Websites: Automaton and Eric Peterson

Twitter: @iamEAP

LinkedIn: Eric Peterson

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