For over a decade Pandora has been streaming music online through customised, intelligent radio stations. With over 1.5 million songs, Pandora is providing the soundtrack to many of our lives — I'm using it right now, in fact.
I often have Pandora open in a tab while I work, when I feel the need for a certain soundtrack to my typing but don't have a specific song in mind. Like a radio, of course; radio being a purely vestigial term in these days of digital streaming.
Behind the technology that runs the company is Chris Martin. Chris joined Pandora just about eleven years ago during the initial development of the radio product and is now their Chief Technology Officer. To learn a little about what makes him tick and keep the music streaming, we had a conversation with Chris about how he works.
Location: Oakland, CA.
Current Gig:Chief Technology Officer, Pandora. One word that best describes how you work: This describes a little bit more of what I do, but in using [this] word, I think it describes how I work: I view myself as a facilitator.
As far as your phone goes, because everyone lives out of their phone, are you an iOS person or an Android person?
I'm an iOS person and I have a 5s but I'm really excited for the 6s, I've been patient.
And your computer that you use on a daily basis, are you also a Mac person there too?
I'm also a Mac person. I will admit that I've been using a MacBook Pro, 13" — I just moved from a MacBook Pro from an Air. I felt like the Air was the best computer I've ever owned in my career, in terms of the weight, the quickness, the battery life, and I'm finding my brand new MacBook Pro doesn't have the battery life that my 3 year old MacBook Air had. So I'm using a MacBook Pro but I will probably be looking for an Air.
Yeah I keep waiting for them to upgrade the Air but I think they're gonna let it die off probably.
That's sad. Because the [MacBook] doesn't have quite enough computer power.
What are the sort of apps that you use every day that you can't live without?
I'm sort of a news junkie. I very actively follow the world's current events and local events and so, for me, Twitter is the thing I probably use most often as a source of information. I don't think I can live without some form of avenue to get the latest information and goings on around the world; that would be the one thing I couldn't live without. You know, before Twitter I was a huge Google Reader fan.
Do you use web Twitter or Tweetdeck or what?
I use the mobile app, primarily.
What kind of workspace do you have? Are you guys an open office or do you have your own private office?
No, we're very much an open office culture. I have a desk; we have this honeycomb furniture so it's a little more fluid than some of the rectangular stuff. Pretty standard 24" monitor and Apple keyboard.
I am unique in that I use a trackball — a Microsoft trackball that I've dragged with me for the last three or four companies. All it requires is a bit of occasional cleaning.
Why the trackball? Is that just a habit that stuck?
Yeah I think it is. For me it feels more like a natural transition between a trackpad and the desktop. It just feels more comfortable. It feels like there's less movement and it's easier to navigate.
And at home my workplace is probably the couch. I don't have a home office.
What would you say your best time-saving shortcut is?
The thing I try to do to save time is focus on just a few things. So I don't actually try to stay ultra on top of my email. They say we can only really keep seven things on our minds so I'm trying to manage those seven most important things at all times. Typically in my head, since I'm not navigating a bunch of different tools. I use to-do lists and such, but [I] try and focus on those seven things and be efficient around those seven things and replace them as new things come up. When I finish activities or tasks or responsibilities, [I] move them out and move something else in.
Along the same line of thought, do you use a to-do list manager? How do you manage what you have to do?
Probably the only native iOS app I use is the Apple to-do list. Syncs quite easily, and it's just a simple interface. I don't need anything complicated; I need to make short lists of no more than ten things and so it works quite well from that perspective.
Besides your phone and computer, what gadget can't you live without and why?
I've tried a lot of different watches. We have a lot of interesting watch partners and we've done a lot with devices here. The device I'm finding myself using right now, with my current lifestyle, is the Garmin Forerunner 220 running watch. Basically if I don't have it with me I feel naked. It's simply a running watch.
What everyday thing are you better at than everyone else?
I think the thing, maybe even to a fault, is that I am incredibly direct. People interact with me, and meet me, and they go, "...wow." And so it's provided a lot of benefits to me, but it also presents challenges.
Well that's what they said about Steve Jobs! That he was direct to a fault, so you have that going for you.
We'll be able to see the dramatized version of that as of Wednesday, right?
Yeah! With Michael Fassbender.
Anyway, when you're working, what do you listen to? Do you listen to music when you work?
Yeah, if I'm really trying to focus on something, I'll put on some tunes. If it's a very intellectually driven task, I will put on classical. I like a little Aaron Copland, which is kind of intense classical, but works for me and helps me focus. If I'm doing a mellower task I'll put on some reggae. I like to listen to a lot of hip hop, maybe some jazz too for the less focused tasks; jazz can require some active listening. I like to listen to hip hop and I find that hip hop really requires pretty active listening so I'm not typically very productive with hip hop.
Out of curiosity, because you work for Pandora, do you have a personal relationship with music? Have you ever played an instrument?
Yeah, I played instruments from the time I was ten until about 18. I started with the trumpet, picked up the sousaphone, a.k.a. baritone, and played that in an organisation locally here that actually travelled the world. We went to Scandinavia, and played in festivals. It was a really large wind ensemble; there were 30 clarinets and eight baritone horns. People came from all over the Bay Area to participate in this program, and we took a few chaperones (I was in the eighth grade) and we travelled to Scandinavia. Then when I was in the tenth grade we went to Austria, Germany, and Switzerland, and played in this huge festival in Vienna. So yeah I've always had a really strong relationship with music.
My brothers — two older brothers — they would always bring home vinyl and would play different stuff for me, and my dad his favourites. So music's always been a pretty significant part of my life.
Are you currently reading any books that you're really into? What are you currently reading?
I'm reading this book called Cooked at the moment. It's nonfiction, by Michael Pollan, who's a journalist and professor here at UC Berkeley, and is very prominent in the local and nutritious food movement. And so this book is a fascinating dive into the history of cooking and how humans have engaged in cooking over the years. The first part is on fire, which I find really fascinating. It dabbles between how we cook today, and then goes back to how fire was initially used and how the first cooked meat was even discovered. I find it quite interesting as a hobbyist; one of my main hobbies is cooking so I'm very fascinated by it.
I was just going to ask, when you're outside of work, what do you do to recharge? Is cooking like a big hobby of yours?
Yeah, it is. I have probably three things I do to recharge. I'm a bit introverted so time alone usually is the quickest way for me to recharge. Even if I have a half hour, I'll go for a run, hence the necessity of the watch, because I'm sort of goal driven. The watch is useful because I like to be able to look at it and say, "Oh another half mile, another mile, or another quarter mile." So I use that to manage my running. But I find that a 25-30min jog is quite refreshing.
I like to golf, so I'll go out on the weekend sometimes at dawn and golf a couple hours. If I have more time that's what I'll do. Then through the course of the week, I cook a lot. I cook for the family, cook for friends. [I'm] not ashamed to try and cook really hard things or really easy things. I like the empty-the-cupboard cooking; that's always quite a challenge, when you don't go to the store and you just cook what you have. I can usually make something pretty tasty if my kids' [reaction] is any indication. They love dad's cooking.
A few of us have motivated some cook-offs here. We had a competition against the marketing team — a chilli cook-off. I came in second. I was pretty disappointed!
That sounds pretty good, second place!
The engineering team won the overall event, in total scores, because it was actually about best five versus best five. But yeah, I came in second.
Well I'd take second, I think that's good enough. So my next question is about your sleep routine. Are you a night owl or are you a morning person? What's your sleep routine like?
I'm an early riser. I rise with the sun typically. I don't use an alarm clock and don't need one unless I'm trying to catch a flight.
We've had chickens for the last five years. Chickens, and actually ducks, and we just parted with them. One of the reasons we parted with them is because one particular chicken got up between 5:50 and 6:15 every day and would just squawk. None of my neighbours cared; I was the only one who seemed to be bothered by it.
I should write an article about chickens — how to manage your chicken alarm clock.
I could tell you a lot of stories.
What's the best advice you've ever received?
I think some of the most succinct advice I've ever received, and one I've been sharing with some of the people around here and some of our interns and new graduates, is probably, "Don't be afraid to make mistakes, just don't make the same mistake twice."
If you were to choose who would answer these questions, who would be your person of choice to talk about how they work?
I would be really interested to hear how Obama manages his schedule. He's not super transparent about this. I know he's a voracious reader, and he's reading all the time. I can't imagine he's sleeping very much. You hear tidbits about some of these things but it would be fascinating to hear how he's managed the last seven years in office.
Yeah, definitely. He's certainly on my list! But I don't think the White House is going return my emails just yet.
Ha, yeah. Maybe after, maybe in a couple years.
Is there anything else you'd like to tell our readers or the users of Pandora?
I think from a lifehacking perspective, people have a tendency to get wrapped up in the things we can't control, and wrapped up in things that aren't in our immediate sphere of influence. Even in a corporate environment — the one thing I think has been really crucial to me sustaining my career and being able to manage my life is to really try to influence the things around me in a productive and passionate way, while trying my best to treat everybody around me with respect and humility.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
We've asked heroes, experts and flat-out productive people to share their shortcuts, workspaces and routines. Want to suggest someone we should feature or questions we should ask? Let us know.