Honeycomb's Christine Yen on Harnessing the Power of Observability

Written by: Brian Dawson

4 min read

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Christine Yen is the founder and CEO of Honeycomb, a company that is pioneering the concept of “observability.” While the term is well known in the world of engineering and control theory, it’s relatively new to software development. According to Honeycomb’s website, observability provides a “seamless, current view of your system – from logs to events and traces – in a single data store, regardless of how complex your architecture is.”

When software engineers harness the power of observability, Christine will tell you, lots of good things can happen, including “faster debugging, less alert fatigue and happier users.” 

Christine shares on DevOps Radio this week that her journey to Honeycomb dates back to her code-writing days at Parse Analytics – now part of Facebook – and a handful of other vintage startups. “Parse was a really formative, interesting experience,” she says. Working on the company’s multi-tenant platform, she spent a lot of time trying to get to the bottom of why apps for a particular customer would “misbehave” when everything else about the service looked normal. 

“Detangling that mess” and understanding why software goes awry in certain situations helped lay the groundwork for her desire to start Honeycomb.

Christine wasn’t the only one at Parse interested in figuring out why software acts up. Her colleague and future Honeycomb Co-founder Charity Majors shared a similar passion. The two made the perfect team, combining Christine’s expertise on the Dev side of DevOps with Charity’s know-how on the Ops side. 

“It's been a real delight working together over the last eight years,” Christine says. “We've seen that line between dev and ops getting blurred.” Increasingly, she says, the people writing software are thinking about, and have the tools to be aware of, what their software is doing in the “wilds of production.”

When the duo launched Honeycomb, they assumed that observability tools would be a natural fit for operations teams. “We wanted to reach people who are carrying pagers and who cared about site reliability," Christine recalls. But after more than a year of talking to people familiar with the market space, they realized that developers needed to understand production issues – things like feedback loops and release cycles – just as much as operations people.  

“We realized that having a tool to enable awareness of production would actually benefit developers more than it benefits ops people,” Christine says.  

Tools for a new way of working

Observability is sometimes confused with application monitoring, but Christine sees a critical distinction. Monitoring is essentially a passive task, she says, relying on “questions that someone asked in the past and codified into dashboards.” The problem is that teams are using those historic patterns to triage a problem that they’re facing today. 

“To us, that just felt incredibly backward,” she says. 

Observability, by contrast, is about active problem solving and empowering engineers to answer questions about what’s happening in the moment. What’s more, it reflects the fast, iterative way that engineers build software today and the new focus on containerized workloads and dynamic microservices architectures. “Today we've got to be more exploratory and proactive and recognize that humans are part of the equation,” she explains. “It's a sociotechnical problem.”

Starting up

Christine has come a long way since her coding days and her first forays into the startup business, which included launching a company that helped people book event spaces. “The company went nowhere because I didn't have the right partner and we didn't know what we were doing on the business side,” she says. “It was an experience that taught me a lot.” 

Among those lessons was discovering the value of finding someone who really complements you. Fortunately, Charity fit that bill. “The two of us have very similar work ethics and perspectives on how to attack work problems,” she says, “We were delightfully complementary in terms of our expertise and skill sets.”

Doubts about the venture were inevitable, fueled by worries they might be too late to market. So, it was necessary, she says, to “have faith in what you were doing and to push through all that noise and say, "No, observability is different. And let us tell you how." 

The two entrepreneurs tried hard to avoid being the “stereotypical technical cofounders” and made a point of giving the business side of their venture the “respect it deserves,” says Christine. That approach has helped take Honeycomb to the next level.

Christine remembers a friend telling her that getting your first few customers and building the product was easy compared to what follows: the day when you're in hand-to-hand combat with all your competitors. “We kind of laughed it off and thought, ‘We'll worry about that when we get there,’" Christine says. “Now in 2020, we're very much there.” 

Listen to more of Christine’s story on Episode 88 of DevOps Radio.

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