The Leader in Technology series interviews Irish professionals who have become leaders in Tech Companies in the US, providing insights into their current role and their advice for aspiring professionals.
Francis Shanahan, SVP of Technology, Audible
Francis leads the Core Engineering group at Audible (an Amazon company). Audible is the world’s largest seller and producer of digital spoken-word entertainment and has revolutionized the experience of listening to spoken word. Francis’ group powers everything from content ingestion, membership, catalog publishing, audio delivery right through to personalization. Prior to joining Audible, Francis worked for 15 years up and down Wall Street in the financial sector building teams, designing systems and shipping software for some of the largest financial institutions in the world.
Audible…leaders in Innovation
Innovation has always been at the forefront of Audible’s business, having been the first digital audio player ever released (4 years before the ipod) and earning more than 100 patents since 2008. Since Francis joined the company, Audible has become a core pillar of Amazon’s flagship service and product offerings including Amazon Prime, Kindle and Alexa. In this issue of Leaders in Technology, Francis provides his perspective on a range of issues including his role, innovation, career advice and his love for gruesome ultra-marathons.
Experience with Audible
Since joining Audible, you have become the tech lead for the Core Engineering Group. How has your experience been of the transition from coding to becoming responsible for the most valuable resource of the company?
At each stage of my career I’ve tried to focus on impact – where can I use my skills to provide the maximum benefit to the customer. I came to Audible having already spent many years leading teams and so I spent my first few years here deep in the weeds to understand the Audible and Amazon community. Over time I’ve switched my focus from solving gnarly tech-issues and scaling systems to now focusing on scaling teams and solving for longer-arc issues.
What advice would you have for tech people making the transition into leadership?
Surround yourself with great people. Leaders only succeed through their teams and I view myself as a servant-leader, there to ensure the team has everything they need. Then I try to get out of their way. Leadership can happen at anytime, regardless of your career level and I would recommend everyone identify and pair up with a mentor. Someone who can provide you the benefit of their experience as well as keep you grounded will yield huge benefits over the course of your career.
Innovation is clearly a priority for your organization. What technological developments will Audible be focusing on over the next year?
That would be spoiling the surprise. Suffice to say we have a lot of exciting things coming down the pike and I’m really excited to see them come to market.
What were the biggest surprises or challenges you encountered on your journey with Audible?
Audible’s been an amazing journey. I think the single biggest challenge has been to keep up with an organization that’s growing at the pace of our business. That’s a great problem to have by the way and life is never dull.
What advice would you have for Irish developers looking to work and succeed in the US?
Think Big! Don’t be afraid to take big risks (like leaving it all behind) and wander the earth for a while. Irish developers have the benefit of a tremendous education that positions them very competitively on the world stage so get out there and explore.
What has been your biggest achievement at Audible?
We’ve had a lot of firsts at Audible; I’ve lived through (now) 3 Prime Days, multiple country launches, new surface launches and countless features.I think the thing I’m most proud of though is the team (Core Engineering) we’ve built and the idea that we’re continuously improving the product in ways that are tangible to the customer.
On a broader level our company has achieved this tremendous growth without ever losing sight of our community responsibilities within the city of Newark. I think this focus makes us stronger as a company.
If you had one piece of advice for yourself earlier in your career, what would it be?
I was very driven, ambitious and intense to be around in my earlier years. At least it felt that way. I still have those tendencies but I’d like to think the years have mellowed me slightly. To Francis 20 years ago I’d say “Roll with it. Relax. It’ll all work out fine.”
Who was the biggest influence on your career?
My father. He encouraged my curiosity from a very early age. He was there to catch me through multiple “controlled failures” and taught me patience, the importance of listening and a great many other things besides.
What do you enjoy most about your current role?
This job tests me and keeps me on my toes. I’m always learning and being held to a high standard but the best part is I get to work a fantastic team of creative and caring people across all manner of disciplines. I couldn’t ask for a better role.
What are your passions outside of work? You enjoy running ultra marathons!?!
If I’m not sure I can succeed at something I’ll generally give it a try. That’s how I ended up running ultras. 50km is a good distance for me but I’ve gone as far as 101 miles in 24hours. Last year I ran the Galtee Crossing in Tipperary and failed out of Leadville in Colorado at the 50mile mark so I guess I found my limit. There’s nothing quite like heading out into the woods with the open trail in front of you to get back to basics and figure out what’s important. It’s even better with an audiobook and you’d be amazed how far you can go when you slow down and focus. Get out there and run!