Software programming used to be fun for Jean Yang, the founder and CEO of Akita Software who joined us on DevOps Radio this week. As a kid, she started writing code using Logo – that was the language with the turtle graphics – and grew up happily programming in Visual Basic.
“Back in the early days of programming, it was super fun because there wasn’t all this context you had to deal with every time you wrote something,” Jean says. Yet, by the time she went to college and picked up programming jobs, the thrill had seemingly vanished. “It just wasn’t fun anymore like when I was a kid,” she recalls. “It was too easy to break stuff.”
The desire to recapture her childhood joy is a big reason Jean later decided to go into the software tooling field. “I wanted to create tools that would make programming as fun as if you’re just working with a basic few lines of code.”
Software tooling is what Akita Software, the company Jean launched in mid 2018, is all about. “We’re building tools to understand what software does,” she says. “What’s going on with your software and how data flowing around your software. If there’s a bug; how did that happen?”
Akita’s tools work by “watching” traffic coming and going through application programming interfaces, or APIs. The tool then “automatically infers API specs” and builds a model of the software’s inner workings. “It allows us to infer data types and data formats,” she says. “We infer relationships between incoming and outgoing API calls.”
These insights let developers more easily manage changes to code, avoid the pitfall of “breaking changes" and ultimately make developers more productive and, yes, their jobs more fun.
A better vision
Jean hatched the idea for Akita Software while doing research in programming languages as a grad student at MIT. “I had always been very worried because modern systems aren’t just one single application. They’re a bunch of applications, a bunch of runtimes,” she says. “They’re like a rainforest. It’s an entire ecosystem.”
Increasingly, Jean grew frustrated with the way people modeled these systems. “I just felt that things were very broken on that level because modern systems weren’t one language,” she says. “People don’t even know what their APIs are, what their endpoints are, what their specs are and what data they have going across it.”
These frustrations planted the vision of Akita Software in her mind. “I become very interested in how we could ultimately solve this context problem for developers,” Jean recalls. “At some point in grad school I concluded that I would probably have to start my own company to build tools for this.”
But she would have to wait until the time was right to take the plunge. First, she spent two years as an assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University, until she finally couldn’t wait any longer – nor could the market. This was when the concepts of APIs, microservices and developer velocity were swiftly gaining traction. “Friends told me ‘if you want in on this space, this is the year to do it,’” she says. “And I thought, this is the biggest ship that’s going to sail.”
So, Jean packed her bags and moved to California, beginning a new life as the solo founder of a Silicon Valley startup. The leap from academia to entrepreneur turned out to be a worthy tradeoff. “It’s been an incredible growth experience for me,” she says. “I’ve learned so much.”
Among other things, she has been busy fleshing out her market, setting her sights more squarely on developers and empowering them to work more collaboratively with operations. “I see a lot of what we’re doing is bringing DevOps closer to Dev,” she says. “By giving visibility to the underlying graph of these APIs, we’re really hoping to shift some of the burden from DevOps to developers.”
A Solopreneur Times Two
How does Jean manage to keep it all together flying solo at the top of a fast-moving startup? Keeping her energy levels high with disciplined eating, exercise and sleeping routines is one of her strategies. The other is to have “small, stimulating side projects” that clear her head and give her more energy.
One of those side projects was a lockdown-inspired virtual dating site she put together on a whim called Jean’s Zoom Dating Experiment. The project culminated in a private, Zoom-based version of The Bachelor TV show that attracted a thousand viewers and thousands of dollars in donations, garnering coverage by the New York Times and CNN. “This is just stuff I did for fun on the side,” Jean says. “But it’s a real thing: Single people are really in distress” during this pandemic.
Learn more about Jean's experience with DevOps and what Akita Software is up to on Episode 87 of DevOps Radio.