Scott Ruthfield: Build your own Gig

"Generally, 95% of my job is happy moments, giving people good news or helping solving their problems. It’s a really good gig.” --Scott Ruthfield, founder of Rooster Park Consulting in Seattle, WA.

Scott Ruthfield, Rice University CS alumnus and entrepreneur.

Scott Ruthfield was burned out on math and computer science by the end of high school, and he applied to Rice University as a sociology major. He did not want to become a professor, so he included a few COMP classes for practical skills -- just in case his sociology plan did not pan out.

The CS alumnus (B.A. ’97, M.C.S. ’98) said, “After my sophomore year, I began to see the field of computer science was dramatically different than my expectations. There were so many options, so many things we could do with software.

“The department had just hired Devika Subramanian and she brought in artificial intelligence (AI) which I found really interesting, but I couldn’t fit advanced courses into my remaining semesters. Formal logic with Moshe Vardi kicked my butt, and I wanted to spend more time on that as well.”

Ruthfield contemplated staying on for a graduate degree, weighing the advantage of taking more courses that interested him against the expense of another year or two at Rice.

He said, “At the time, it was unclear if having an advanced degree would be useful or required in future of software development. The only practical application I could come up with was the additional $7K per year developers with advanced degrees seemed to be offered.

“But making that decision to go for the MCS freed me to learn a lot more. When I wasn’t being overwhelmed by the curriculum, when I had problems so intense and interesting that they required my full attention, and when I was working on Devika’s research (because I loved it, and because it helped pay for my master’s degree), those are the moments I remember best.”

As a junior, he applied for a summer job with Microsoft. Five minutes into the conversation, his recruiter asked why he’d expressed interest in a program manager (PM) internship. Ruthfield said he didn’t even know what a PM was, but the recruiter encouraged him to pursue it.

“Then the interview changed direction and I got to talk about what I’d change about Word if I could. We spent my entire interview on campus talking about the ruler at the top of the toolbar. I worked for them two summers as a PM intern then four more years as PM, all because of the first five minutes of that interview. It was a great start to my career,” he said.

“It was a good fit even though I still had a lot to learn for the role. A PM needs to understand the technology to be useful and not a hindrance to their team, but the focus is on what motivates engineers and designers to do their best work. How do you determine what they are good at? When is it worth fighting for something, and what feature will you not care about the next day? What makes a product great?”

Ruthfield said the facilitation process and PM responsibilities came easily due to his background in sociology and debate. At the same time, he rediscovered a passion for computers as the web was beginning to grow in popularity.

“When I showed up as a new hire at Microsoft, I knew substantially more about web browsers than many of my colleagues. My fresh set of eyes was helpful then, and today’s fresh set of eyes brings the same kind of perspective.”

Then came a day when Ruthfield realized he had become very concerned about promotion and his place on the corporate ladder. Although he enjoyed his work, he had gotten wrapped up in the corporate environment. It was time for a change.

At Amazon, he began managing the Community Content team that worked on features like customer reviews, discussions, and other customer submitted content. He was helping shape policies and keeping an eye on the way the community culture was evolving.

Ruthfield said, “It was a total candy store opportunity for me. My job combined two things I loved: high scale tech systems and practical business processes. Think about the massive impact we had, even back in 2003. We were already running one of the largest online communities on the planet. I had to build a team to build those kinds of systems, and also solve problems and build community features, drawing on my sociology work. Oh, and the results would be seen by tens of millions of people every day.

“We had to ask ourselves questions like, ‘Should we accept every customer review? Should we require people to use their real names?’ Online recommendations had evolved into a kind of social community. That kind of online community was relatively new [MySpace launched in August 2003, Facebook started in February 2004] and no one was doing it at our scale.

“No one had the type of impact on products through shared customer content that Amazon had, and no one had built anything like what we wanted to do. I spent part of each day digging into really hard problems, then part of the day determining how to deal with reviews – like how do we handle submissions attacking John Kerry on books that aren’t even out yet? It was absolutely fascinating.”

In 2008, hired Ruthfield as a change agent. It was a challenging time for the company and Ruthfield had to use his community and systems development skills to rebuild the engineering and technology division, aligning it with the organization’s new strategic direction. Eighteen months later, Virtuoso, the leading luxury travel network, asked him to do the same thing.

Before Virtuoso contacted him, Ruthfield had begun to admit to himself he was not a great employee. He said, “There was something about organizational bureaucracy that didn’t work for me. What would ‘doing my own thing’ look like? When Virtuoso offered to bring me on as a consultant, it was a terminal role. I would develop a team, hand it off, and not have to worry about the corporate ladder. But was that sustainable?”

Ten years later, he’s grown Rooster Park Consulting into a profitable business that satisfies his penchant for organizing teams and solving problems with technology. With 60 consultants, Rooster Park supplies technology staff to Seattle area teams in need of high quality engineers for special projects.

Ruthfield said, “We help organizations build things that are important to them, in industries as diverse as insurance, politics, and food/wine retailers. I’ll get a call from someone who has five back-end Java engineers and wants to hire five more. Then someone else will say, ‘Hey, there is this thing we want to build but we work in another area so can you build it and be our partner?’

“I love my job. I get to spend my day thinking about how we meet the needs of our clients and how to ensure we are the best place to work if you are a really good engineer. And I still get to stick my nose into product development. I am not the subject matter expert, but I know modern best practices of mobile web development and how to keep people engaged.

“Then I step out of a product development meeting and offer jobs to two people. Generally, 95% of my job is happy moments, giving people good news or helping solving their problems. It’s a really good gig.”