Leadership

M.R. Asks 3 Questions: Zack Blum, CEO, Fleetsmith

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Today’s tech landscape calls for heightened levels of security across platforms, operations, data centres and devices. Understanding that security concerns are at the forefront of many organization’s operations, Zack Blum, CEO of Fleetsmith has made security the heart of their services. 

Automatically managing apps, settings, and security preferences across a company’s entire Apple device fleet, Fleetsmith is a cloud-based Apple device management startup founded not by a CEO with a computer science degree, but with a degree in liberal arts. 

M.R. Rangaswami: Where did the idea for Fleetsmith come from?

Zack Blum: Prior to starting Fleetsmith, I managed IT at Wikia (now Fandom). I found that I was spending a huge amount of time on tasks that seemed mundane—tracking device inventory in spreadsheets, updating the software on machines, setting up new devices for employees and wiping and re-provisioning old ones. There were many things I wanted to do that I knew would make a difference in security and operations, but because I had to focus on day-to-day maintenance, I never had time.

Every commercial solution I tried to streamline these processes had problems. They were overly complicated, hard to try and hard to buy, and they often had huge security holes. Worst of all, I found most didn’t save me much time.

Since I wasn’t seeing anything on the market that could deliver what I wanted, I looked to my friends in IT. IT professionals are tinkerers. If what’s there doesn’t do what we need we’ll build something that will. I soon learned from a peer at Dropbox, my co-founder Jesse Endahl, that I wasn’t alone in my dissatisfaction. The same frustrations with commercial options had driven him to address device management by gluing together a bunch of open source tools like Puppet and Munki.

This approach works. It eliminates busy work and lets IT focus on things that are more interesting and high-impact. But not every company has Dropbox-level resources to build and maintain something like that internally. We realized there was a huge need for a commercial product that offered the same level of automation as those tools, but in a simple-to-use package that everyone could use — not just big, sophisticated tech companies.

I reconnected with Jesse and our other two co-founders Kenneth Kouot (now our CTO) and Stevie Hryciw (now a senior software engineer), to build Fleetsmith, a cloud-based product for IT professionals at SMBs that puts Apple device management on auto-pilot.

Specifically, Fleetsmith automates four critical (previously manual) areas of constant, painful work for IT:

New device setup
Inventory and device intelligence
App and OS updates
Security

In the ideal world, IT and security are invisible––everything works perfectly and companies are not hacked. However, getting there typically requires so much work behind the scenes that even the world’s leading technology companies struggle with it. At Fleetsmith, we’re changing that paradigm. By making IT teams more nimble and the devices they manage more secure, we help companies punch above their weight and put the best the industry has to offer within reach of everyone.

M.R.: You have two degrees, a B.A. in art history and a B.A. in political science, can you tell us about your path from liberal arts to the founder of a tech company?

Zack: While I chose to focus my studies in the liberal arts, I’ve always loved computers. One of my first college jobs at UC Davis was being the IT manager for a small, 13-person department. It happened to be an all-Mac shop, and I learned a ton.

After UC Davis, I went to Wikia where I built the company’s IT department from the ground up into a global, service-oriented organization. We grew from roughly 65 employees and a couple of offices when I started, and by the time I left to start Fleetsmith, we were 350 employees with eight offices on three continents. I learned even more about managing technology in a high growth company—crucially, it taught me how hard it was without something like Fleetsmith.

One thing my liberal arts education instilled in me that I’ve found surprisingly helpful in the industry is good writing. Both Art History and Political Science degrees require a lot of it, and that teaches you to communicate in a very disciplined way. I’d always enjoyed writing, but college gave me a deeper appreciation for it. It also taught me to think (and write) associatively.

Good writing requires clarity of thought and it engages a different mode of thinking that can be very helpful for reframing complex problems. Now when I am facing a tough problem and having trouble untangling it with my default rational thought process, I often think, “How would I write about this?” In many cases, that exercise reveals gaps in my understanding that are holding me back or surprising connections that lead me toward a better solution. This kind of thinking is foundational to how I approach my job as founder and CEO of a technology company.

M.R.: How do you see the future of automation evolving?

Zack: Automation is going to increasingly underpin how work gets done. It’s evolved to the point where it can liberate and empower workforces. Workers are going to spend less of their time on the parts of their job that are mundane, repetitive, and boring, and more on the things that are high-value, unique, and meaningful. People are going to be able to bring their best selves to work, and in the process, they’re going to accomplish more than they ever thought possible.

That makes automation and IT natural partners. Both are amplifiers. A well-run IT department makes everything else the company does, easier. It means more productive employees, a better level of customer service, and fewer show-stopping bugs or damaging security breaches.

So when you make IT more efficient, when you enable IT to do more with the same resources, you’re also creating downstream benefits for every department in the organization. I think the high-leverage nature of automation in IT means it’s going to be an area of real innovation in the near future, and Fleetsmith is excited to be leading the charge.

 

M.R. Rangaswami is co-founder of Sand Hill Group and publisher of SandHill.com.

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