Stephanie Hannon, 43, didn’t consider herself an athlete until age 39. In 2014, a looming surgery for personal health reasons had encouraged her to start working out. She began with a hike, and like millions of people worldwide, she turned to her smartphone for some help on where to go and downloaded an app called Strava.
This week, Hannon joined Strava as chief product officer. She’s one of the major hires the company made after growing from a niche community of cyclists in 2009 to tens of millions of athletes worldwide. Now, Hannon wants to expand the tech platform for developers and the company’s relationships with cities.
Hannon is quite familiar with building tech products and working with communities. She’s been working at the highest levels of Silicon Valley since the 1990s. She was one of the product managers in the early days Gmail and Google Maps and lived internationally to help expand those products. She later joined Facebook, where she focused on the safety of its one billion people communicating.
But she took a brief break from the Valley after she was called about a position on the Hillary Clinton campaign in 2015. For 20 months, Hannon worked as Hillary For America’s chief technology officer and oversaw a team of 80 technologists dedicated to putting the first women president in office. That dream wasn’t realized, but Hannon isn’t giving up yet.
During her first day at Strava, Mashable spoke with Hannon to hear about her career in Silicon Valley, her thoughts on the 2016 election, and what she’s working on next.
What excites you most about Strava, and had you been familiar with the product and the company before or was it one of those phone calls?
I knew about Strava since day one because that entrepreneurship program I told you about, the Mayfield Fellows program [at Stanford University]. The CTO here, Mark Shaw, was in the program as well, and I think I was his mentor. He’s a good friend of mine, so he had worked with the founders of Strava and Kana, and he was the third employee.
I knew about Strava for a longtime, and I went on my own quest to get healthy. In 2014, I had a health crisis. I just wanted to say I’m totally fine. I had to have a very invasive surgery, and I wasn’t fit or healthy. So I knew 7 months before surgery if I got healthy, the outcome would be better and my recovery would be much easier.
For the first time in my life at 39, I went on a hike, and I used Strava from the very beginning to track my hike. I also radically changed my diet. I gave up meat. I gave up alcohol. I gave up a lot of things and went on this personal health quest. I had a 7-hour surgery, and I basically walked right out the door. The next day I walked 2 miles. For me, that was a really motivating moment, and when I got through the surgery, I was like I’ve never been a healthy person so how am I going to keep the motivation going when there’s no surgery moving.
So, I went from hiking to triathlons.
No big deal, just running a triathlon?
Yeah, I just want to stress that I’m not a great athlete. I think finisher is a great word. When I did a triathlon, my goal was to be a finisher, to make it across the finish line. If you’re a person who doesn’t consider yourself an athlete, carrying my bike into a big pen that says “ATHLETES ONLY,” the first time I walked through, I was like, “Is that really me?”
That was really exciting and motivating. I did triathlons, Tough Mudders, half-marathons. I went on a personal quest for fitness and when I did that my life radically changed, not just because I was fitter, but for most of my adult life I only slept 3 or 4 hours.
I started sleeping 7 or 8 hours, and I would tell everyone about it. Like, “Have you guys heard about sleep?” I was more emotionally balanced and resilient. I was happier and had better relationships. My whole experience going through that had a big impact on me. As I was looking around at companies and met great entrepreneurs and all this cool stuff happening in Silicon Valley with the combination of knowing people here at Strava, combination of my own personal journey to get healthy, and also really believing in the product.
At the core of it, I’ve worked on a lot of platforms, Google Maps is a platform, Facebook is a platform, I think the power of a platform and a lot of innovation can happen with partners to Strava or connected devices to Strava.
I think Strava can be sort of at the center of this connected world. The opportunity is much bigger. Strava is serving tens of millions of athletes, but I think there are more than 700 million athletes in the world, and I think they can all benefit from the product we build.
You joined the tech scene in Silicon Valley in 1995. What’s the biggest difference between now and then?
An incredible amount has changed in 20 years. I think the speed of development, like what I worked on when I was right out of college, my projects and products probably took a year and a half or two years to build and had a significant hardware component.
Now, you work in a consumer web services company or a company that develops mobile apps and you can iterate really fast. You can build and launch things in a week.
I think the scale and impact has also dramatically changed because of the proliferation of mobile devices and the comfort level of the whole world with social networks and data and how people manage and use their data, like the concept of what we’re able to do at companies like Strava. I couldn’t even conceive of it two decades ago.
We could also talk infinitely about diversity in tech. I felt very much unusual when I entered the workforce, but now I’m really happy to say the landscape has changed and I’m trying to encourage more diversity and building diverse teams has become really important to me and that feels more possible now than it did back then.
That’s an inspiring way to put it. Diversity in tech is not perfect, but it’s good to hear that it has improved.
Exactly. We still have so long to go. I know when you’re building an engineering team to put the first women president in office, it’s an unusually good motivation to get a diverse engineering team, but I think we all have to keep working on it.
You’ve worked at Google, twice in your career, and between that Facebook. You mentioned they’re relatable in the fact they’re mobile and they can scale fast, but is there anything in particular about the difference between those companies?
They’re both amazing companies. They’re so radically different. Google has been about organizing the world’s information and making it universally accessible and usable, which I’ll be able to repeat until the end of time. It was so drilled into us.
A lot of my time at Google was working on Google Maps. I brought Google Maps to Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, and that was an incredible experience because if you didn’t have a good online mapping tool and then you bring it to a country, suddenly they can manage in different ways, do different things with commerce and traffic, and how they look at solving big problems like terrorism or clean water, all this incredible good comes out of bringing maps to these countries.
Facebook is completely different. It was appealing to me at Facebook a billion people at the time was going there every day to communicate and how do you create a safe space for those people? A lot of what I worked on at Facebook was preventing spam and abuse and giving tools for helping people talk to each other when they were unhappy about content or had bad experiences on the platform.
Both are amazing companies. The time I worked at Facebook they didn’t have as much acquisitions, so it felt like we were all unified working on this one product similar to Strava today whereas at Google it was already a big company and there were such massively diverse product lines, but I think across them is a focus on the user or the person or for Strava’s case an athlete and how do you build really compelling, innovative experiences that make their lives better or more efficient?
Seemed like you had a pretty great life in Silicon Valley at some of the most respected companies. Why would you decide to leave these coveted jobs?
It was a surprise call to get the call to interview to be the CTO. At the time I was leading Google’s social impact team and we worked on problems like disaster response. We built tools for the ebola crisis with Doctors Without Borders. We did a lot of philanthropic giving tools, and we also did a lot of Google’s elections work. In 2014, my teams were India and Brazil and we did a whole bunch of experiments in civic engagement. I was sort of immersed in that space of government and elections, and I had friends like Megan Smith, who was the CTO for Obama.
When [the Clinton campaign] offered it to me, I was incredibly excited and paranoid because I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into, but I think if someone says, “Do you want to be part of putting the first woman president in the White House?” It was really easy to say that’s something I’ll always feel good about trying to do.
What was the great challenge you faced as CTO of Clinton’s campaign?
I would say the greatest challenge was recruitment. For many engineers, they don’t know what it really means to work inside of a campaign or know what’s possible and then the short speed, incredibly short deadlines and very little time. We had some ideas that were not executable in the time that we had and the staffing we had. The deadlines we had were so rigid. When we were working on Google Maps or Facebook features you might aspire to launch something for St Patricks Day, but if you didn’t, it’s not a huge deal.
For the campaign, for the first time ever, we put a real-time caucus app in the hands of every captain in Iowa so that meant we had a real-time dashboard so we could see the results for all areas they came in. You need to build the app, have it be reliable, and train your staff and have everything go well on that night because it’s that night or never. Dealing with those kind of rigid deadlines with a small amount of resources was my biggest challenge.
But you were able to overcome that? Did the project go well?
Well, I’d like to believe that. We could have a debate about Iowa, but I mean I’m really proud of the team. I could not be more proud of the people who gave up jobs at big companies and big compensations to come on the quest we went on for the 2016 election. I think we did a lot of things great and then there were a lot of things we ran out of time to do. A lot of time as a CTO is with these limited resources, what’s most important.
As CTO of Clinton’s campaign, how do you think technology impacted the outcome of an election?
I think technology played a massive role. A lot of modern campaigning is how do you reach the people you want to reach efficiently. Different people are wanting to get their news on Facebook or social media. Some people prefer a newspaper. Some people prefer TV. Some people only need to hear something once. Some people need to hear something multiple times. Some people are only affected when they hear something at night or on the weekend.
I think what’s exciting about technology in the modern era is you can reach people in a way that’s very meaningful to them with very personalized messages. I think technology plays a massive role in identifying the most important people to activate and how to activate them and how to measure your success. I hope we can have a positive impact with those technologies in 2018 and 2020 races.
Why are you choosing to come back to Silicon Valley and San Francisco? Was there any doubt to packing up your bags and coming back here?
No, my home has always San Francisco, although I like working in different places. Over my 10 years at Google, I worked in Switzerland and in Australia. I think of San Francisco as home, but I love being abroad and in different places.
You can imagine the grief of what happened [with the election]. The outcome was big, not only for me, but with the 80 people that I hired. So a lot of the end of the year and into this year was supporting them and helping them find new jobs. Had we won the election I would have been so happy if a bunch of my team ended up in the US Digital Service or different parts of the government, but in the end, these 80 people, we all wanted to find ways to be productive, so there was a lot of that, and then there was time-off.
Then I joined Greylock in July of this year, and for me, that was a way to be immersed in the entrepreneurship community, think about what I wanted to do next, and also help advise.
How does your time at Greylock compare to Facebook, Google, and Clinton campaign?
A lot of it was how I can use my experience building products to help portfolio companies at Greylock in different ways. For some of them, I’d help them hire their first product manager. For some of it, it might be a company in a new phase of growth and the product team needs to figure out how to interact with them. With some of them it was what does the product development phase look like. How do we iterate and use data? How do we think about metrics? How do we recruit? A lot of people were interested in my experience in scaling an engineering team so fast. A lot of my days were meeting with companies and just sort of helping and advising. Some of my days were just talking to companies and figuring out what to do next.
Google has a huge market cap. Facebook is worth billions. Strava is significantly smaller. Can Strava even compete with them?
I believe there’s space for more vertical, intimate, personal, social networks. I think there’s a set of people that you interact with for passion or love, and it doesn’t always look like your broad social network. I experienced this in the campaign era, sometime people got fatigued on Facebook because they would go there and the content was not something they were excited about. If you are a person who’s an athlete or you’re trying to get inspired or motivated or you’re trying to get a new idea and you want to go to Facebook to look for the content it isn’t easy, but when I go to Strava and look at my feed, it’s exactly what I’m looking for. It’s really easy to figure out which types of friends are which types of athletes and having these different experiences or oh, this person runs where I run so maybe we can connect. Or that bike is a bike I was thinking about buying, so maybe I should talk to them about it.
From a technological perspective, what’s the most unique or innovative thing that Strava is doing?
Many pieces add up to what’s appealing to the users and athletes today. I think it’s a good activity tracker and that’s not a small task. It’s doing incredible in biking and running and launched different multi-sport features. The idea is to appeal to all these athletes, to serve all athletes of all types. I think that’s really interesting, and then there’s the social network piece of this is a community and how do you put meaningful and interesting community features to help and support each other?
There’s this whole platform piece. We want no matter what device you use or whether you do activities indoor or outdoor, we want you to be able to have that all in one place, and that’s a meaningful technology problem.
A lot of my career I worked with cities, and I worked with cities at different capacities. In 2007, I helped launch Google Transit. If you remember back then, we only had driving directions on Google. I worked at Google in the Zurich office and obviously public transit in Europe looks different than in a city like San Francisco or Mountain View. I helped create that transit feed that’s widely adopted today, and then later in my Google career, I worked in projects on urban mobility and how do you take all the anonymized rich data we had to work on things like traffic congestions or infrastructure planning. There’s a whole Strava Metro piece. Strava is working with more than 130 cities on how they can use the data to make their city better for pedestrians, runners, and cyclists.
There are a lot of companies chasing health and fitness information. In your opinion, what gives Strava a competitive edge to them?
Well, I’m going to remind you that I’ve worked here for 20 hours. I think a lot of what makes Strava unique is how well, and first of all early, they were really focused on a type of athlete and a certain experience, and they did that so well they got significant adoption. The learnings from that and being so ruthlessly focused are big. When they moved from cycling to running, they kind of were able to take the lessons but acknowledge that the same way to motivate people doesn’t necessarily look the same. They were able to build on their product and engineering team to build a new feature set. And then from running to multi-sport and from being an activity tracker to a social network. A lot of what makes it special is how powerful the product is. Building on the core user base, but being able to expand. In London, I think we have more runners than cyclists. And then the power of the platform, the vision to be able to serve all athletes is also what makes it special.
Do you think Strava is at a disadvantage because it doesn’t make its own hardware, at least not yet?
I’m optimistic. The fact that we have 300 devices that integrate with the platform and the fact we have 20,000 thirty-party apps built on our open API, I think that’s a strong signal that we’re going to be with all types of athletes and all devices. I don’t think building our own hardware is a necessary part of that.
What do you think your biggest challenges in this new role?
I like to say opportunity. As a user, I think there’s so much to build on. There’s incredible success that Strava’s already had. Any opportunity for a product leader to figure out what to work on because there’s no end of ideas. So I think some of the things I care about is how to be the best at multi-sport and continue to invest in those experiences. We want those people to have great experiences on the product and invest in the platform.
A personal thing I feel very strongly about is discovery. I was just in Sydney, Australia over the holidays, and I was standing by the top of a bridge and I was holding my mobile phone. I know Strava has great data about places I can go, but it’s not sourced up in an easy, consumable way, so that’s a massive opportunity.
You’ve held a lot of different roles: engineer, product manager, CTO. What’s been the common thread in your career, and how do you see Strava furthering it?
Where I feel most proud and motivated is technology that makes the world better for people. That looks and feels like different things. In the early days of Gmail, how can we give this version of online email free to very institution in the world and that was a really powerful quest. As we talked about I was obsessed with transit information and then at Facebook I was able to say how do you create a safe space for a billion people to communicate and then at the Hillary campaign I had a quest which I feel really passionate about, and I think a lot of people will lead a better life if this person is elected.
Getting behind that was really easy, so in a similar way, when I look at Strava and the benefit of living a healthy active life and the power of data and community can inspire people to do that. We’re having incredible success at Strava, and I hope by me being here we can accelerate it and amplify it and reach more athletes globally.