How Akamai Balances Stability and Innovation While Serving 30% of Web Traffic

Andy Cook
August 22, 2018
Interview with Brian Howard

What do you do when two of your most important company values are in direct conflict? This is the situation that Brian Howard finds himself in constantly, given his role as Product Director.

For those unfamiliar with Akamai, they’re the team that makes the internet run. This may sound like a grandiose claim, but in fact, they power most of the websites you visit every day, serving up words, images, videos, software, and whatever new ideas we come up with next.

Akamai has a tough job: on the one hand, their platform is mission-critical to millions of businesses. They’re trusted by more than half of the Fortune 500 companies, all major U.S. sports league organizers, and all branches of the U.S. Military. They cannot take undue risks with their clients’ content or security. As Brian puts it,

“We can’t go down. It’d be in the New York Times.”

On the other hand, they’re under constant pressure to innovate and change. Because they enable companies at the bleeding edge of innovation, they need to be able to move quickly and develop new capabilities.

Akamai’s Changing Product Team Culture

The team and the way they work have changed dramatically over the past few years. In the past, they were somewhat reactionary. This was in part because their product wasn’t aligned with the expectations and requirements of the market. But it was also the result of the team culture that had developed: a culture in which they focused on the present more than the future.

Firefighting, rather than innovating, was the most common task of each day. However, over the last few years, they’ve become more adept at “ruthless prioritization”. This approach involves focusing more time and energy towards innovation and discovering new trends. They also adopted OKRs, which helps the team define the top three priorities and how they align with what the rest of the organization is doing.

Focusing on external trends and internal alignment requires keeping an eye on the landscape, generally. The current culture fosters a commitment to spending time in the field. Brian’s team uses what they call a “NIHITO” (nothing interesting happens in the office) metric to gauge how well they’ve been getting out of their office and participating in events, conferences, customer feedback sessions, etc.

Another useful approach is getting comfortable with saying “no” to opportunities that don’t align with their top priorities. It’s easier said than done, though, and as Brian said, it’s important to stress that it’s not just ok to say ‘no’:

“You have to actually champion the people who were being so ruthless about prioritization.”

Sharing Customer Feedback Effectively

Naturally, it’s difficult, or impossible, for everyone to be outside the office gathering feedback from customers all of the time. Brian and his 20-person product team struggle to share the feedback they get. Ideally, they want this customer feedback to permeate the wider organization, so everyone has access to this important data.

As a team, those 20+ individuals are in heavy collaboration, and they’re in a great position to share customer stories and trends with each other. However, outside the four walls of their internal product team meetings, it can be difficult to transmit this feedback to others. As a consequence, they struggle to fill information gaps between customers and other teams. With shared understanding comes a great ability to build the right things.

For example, if an engineer has a connection with the customer and can empathize with their problems, that engineer is in a better position to address issues with the product. Persona-oriented development and storytelling have helped, according to Brian, but he still believes they’re a ways off from having a coherent understanding between most engineers and the customers they’re serving. They continue to seek new ways to share knowledge about customers’ needs and opportunities.

The Role of Innovation in Akamai Company Culture

Akamai has a lot of ties to MIT; the idea initially came out of MIT’s 50k business plan competition. To this day, the company still leverages learnings from that experience. The culture retains baggage – both positive and negative – from its origins within MIT.

Positively, Akamai will naturally draw upon the experimental traits you’d expect to see at MIT – they love hacking and thinking unconventionally. However, on the other side, the culture can be slightly insular. Some departments take a more inward-focused approach, which runs contrary to the commitment to understanding customer needs.

Focusing on the positive side of things, Brian sees speed as a critical factor in both thinking and innovation. Akamai is at the leading edge when it comes to optimization of image performance on a website, for example. That said, the departmental silos that can exist within any team can create tensions when teams want to go in different directions. Luckily, the culture is unified around its commitment to maintaining the performance levels required by their customers.

“Given the space that we’re in, there’s a lot of caution in making sure that as we’re innovating, it’s done in a high-quality and safe way… We’re literally mission critical for our customers and their business. If we go down, we take down our customers with us.”

Rallying around a Common Goal

With such importance placed on everyone at Akamai being on the same page, we wondered how they manage to unite everyone under the same banner.

First, from a product perspective, Akamai has a well-defined development process. They seek to connect all actions back to company goals. And their focus on overarching priorities helps keep everyone aligned. As many leaders cite, constraints often facilitate creativity.

“When we’re aligned on the objective, and everyone is rowing in the same direction, you get great out-of-the-box thinking.”

This out of the box thinking ultimately leads to breakthroughs that help a company like Akamai be as successful as it has been.

Aligning Goals with the Expectations of the Customer

Sometimes urgency is the best way to prompt change, and that’s precisely what Akamai did three or four years ago.

“Customer requirements had rapidly shifted, and we found ourselves behind. Very quickly, we started to recognize the financial impact. We weren’t seeing the growth in revenue and bookings we expected. It was a ‘change or wither’ type moment.”

It’s this sense of urgency, along with the help of some dissatisfied organizations, that Akamai was able to build greater consistency and internal agreement. The sense of urgency required people to commit to staying on the same page.

“We were able to get a lot of mindshare, and build a better understanding of what DevOps means in our customers’ organizations.”

So often, this kind of urgency leads to a better result for the customer. Furthermore, it can help the team feel more engaged and empowered. The team at Akamai is stronger now because of the pressure they faced to innovate.

Sharing the Right Information at the Right Time

The technical complexity of product lines at Akamai makes for high-stakes decision-making. Simply put, shared knowledge is vital. As if that wasn’t enough, there are different stakeholders both internally and externally, and there is too much information for any one person to be an expert in everything.

However, when trying to launch a product or help a customer, people need that information at their fingertips. Customers, and the larger tech ecosystem, expect Akamai to have answers to everything, particularly technical questions that arise.

The team uses JIRA to track projects or technical information. It has become a single source of truth for different functional teams as they take new technologies to market. They’ve made a significant investment in, which is their website focused on the technical community. Developers come there to self-educate because they know they’ll have access to great information and resources.

Brian closes with a great point on how the company adapts, based on the audience. They way in which they share information varies, based on who’s involved. Akamai has spent a significant chunk of the last three years figuring out how to best support their customers. They’re now rethinking their distribution strategy and audience. While they maintain focus on excellent B2E (business to enterprise) communications, they’re also enhancing their B2D (business to developer) communication. This further underscores their commitment to end-user needs, letting them keep a finger on the pulse of market needs and opportunities.