Clayton Stark - Enhancing the Web Browsing Experience

By CrazyEngineers Staff on 31 Oct 2008

Do not underestimate the importance of your communication skills. Communication is the most potent element of human existence.
- Clayton Stark
Flock

We all are proudly addicted to the Internet. Most of us spend hours surfing the Internet with the browser as our surfboard. A bunch of genius engineers thought of changing the world by enhancing the web browsing experience for all of us. They worked hard to create Flock - the social browser!

We are extremely proud and happy to have Mr. Clayton Stark, the Vice President of Engineering at Flock on CE. Clayton and his team of engineers is committed to creating a richer, more connected, more meaningful online experience for all of us.

Check out our exclusive Small Talk with Mr. Clayton Stark...

CE: Hello Clayton, you are the VP of engineering at Flock. Could you please tell us about your job?

Clayton: I am responsible to ensure the successful execution and delivery of all the engineering we do at Flock. This includes the design of the browser, the architecture for all of the features we build, the quality of the product, deployment and maintenance, and all of our supporting infrastructure systems. I'm also responsible to keep the team fed and happy, so development processes and morale are key deliverables too. As Flock is a pretty small company, and my background includes a lot of commercial experience, I also contribute to business development and marketing efforts. As a senior exec I am also a primary contributor to strategy and business execution overall. I take out the garbage sometimes too.

Perhaps better said: I roll with a tribe of crazy engineers.

CE : What are the problems that engineers at Flock trying to solve?

Clayton: There are different problems in different areas. Just building a mozilla browser across three platforms requires considerable infrastructure, and Mozilla-based build systems are a challenge. We have numerous problems to solve to provision and maintain scalable build systems.

For the browser, problems we are looking to solve include user experience design (especially as we try to be more applicable to an increasingly non-technical audience), implementation of systems that keep all of the social service integrations working (APIs can change without us being informed), and maintaining high quality for a very large and complex piece of software.

It is critical that Flock performs well and has high quality or users will reject it and go back to their old browser. One of the challenges is adding advanced functionality without impacting page load speed or memory and CPU usage over time. Firefox has helped a ton here as the Firefox 3 engine is such a significant upgrade in performance and reliability dimensions. We are challenged by trying to make our additional value perform so well that it represents a near-invisible additional resource load over and above the Firefox browser underneath. Adding value with the smallest possible footprint is always a fun problem, and we tackle it often.

The user experience challenges are on-going, and we are always evaluating new ways to create that must-have experience, so users will tell their friends "you have go to try this!". In Flock 2.0 we have delivered very valuable features with very good performance and reliability. Look for mind-blowing user experience enhancements in Flock 3.0.

The last comment I will make on the problems we are trying to solve: we are building a web browser on a start-up budget. That statement alone will probably resonate with some CEans. I think this alone should qualify us as Crazy Engineers.

CE: Flock is the social browser. Could you explain the concept of social browser?

Clayton: Sure. The web has changed dramatically in the last 5-10 years, but the browser's evolution hasn't kept pace with the new online behaviors of the modern Internet. The "social web" is two-way and participatory, but browsers are still optimized for consumption of content, not self-expression and sharing. Flock exists to make expression and participation on the web as easy as consumption.

There are over 250 million users of social networks, social media and blogging today. We are addressing the pain points that these people have when they try to keep in touch with hundreds or thousands of friends and content/media sources spread across multiple networks. We are trying to put everything in one place and make it effortless to share and stay in touch across the user's entire connected life.

We are also an Internet browser -- even if you don't use Facebook or Youtube or MySpace, etc, there are advanced searching, media and RSS features that pretty much any Internet user will appreciate.

CE: Flock runs on FireFox engine. How is Flock better engineered than other browsers (viz. FF, IE, Opera & Chrome)?

Clayton: Firefox is more secure and more extensible than other browsers, and we leverage that superiority to create a solid Flock.

Our team has been building browsers for years -- most of us worked together to build Netscape 8.x before joining Flock, so we have a core team with years of browser development expertise. The talent you apply to a project like Flock makes a ton of difference to the engineered product, of course.

I think that the open source browsers are better engineered because having all that code out in the open makes for better security, more peer review and ultimately higher quality -- this applies to Chrome, Safari and Firefox as well as Flock, so I am only picking on Opera and IE by saying this. I have to say that all of the products you list are very well engineered, though. IE has come a long way in the last two cycles, and while Opera's rendering engine is less capable that the others, it is still a very well executed product.

In all honesty I have to say Flock is on par with all these products in terms of engineering excellence. I don't think any particular browser is clearly the best from the engineering perspective.

CE: We would like to know about the major challenges that you faced while creating Flock. How did you handle those challenges?

Clayton: See above - we are less than 40 people competing with the likes of Google, Apple and Microsoft. A browser is a very large and complex beast, especially one with countless person-years of legacy code included.

Our weapon in the browser wars, beyond the vision of the product itself, is really the team of superstars we have who know the browser so thoroughly. We have some of the top javascript talent on the planet, and some of the best C++ guys too. Guys like Manish Singh, Chris Campbell, Richard Phan, Dylan Sproule -- all the guys and gals on the team, really -- I could build anything with this tribe. They are engineering rockstars, and we can handle myriad challenges largely because of this.

CE: Have you used any new techniques to prevent the browser from crashing?

Clayton: New? Probably not. Diligence, tenacity, test engineering and bug fixing skill are not new, per se. We stress test, we automate, and we have the talent to fix what is broken. More importantly, the level of talent and experience we have allows us to engineer things that don't add new crashes. Those we add we find in our testing. Sometimes we find ones in the core, and then we push the fixes back upstream for all Firefox users.

CE: Google's chrome uses separate process to handle each tab. Do you think that's a smarter way of handling the tabs?

Clayton: Probably. Chrome is going to prove this for us all. In a way IE proved this in the past, but the Chrome team is doing a lot to push browser technology forward. The fact they are cutting this particular path, and doing so in the open, is fantastic. We will all learn a lot. I think this technique opens up new avenues for the next generation of browser interface design, which is really exciting in and of itself.

CE: What are the important security related features in Flock?

Clayton: We are based on Firefox, and we therefore inherit all the great security work they do. Firefox security patches are also pushed to all Flock users, so we are all kept up to date. We do our own independent security analyses too, and anything we find in the Firefox core is pushed back upstream to Mozilla. This is part of the cost of entry into the browser market -- we have to remain ever-diligent in assessing security. This is where open source really pays off, too, with all those eyes on the code.

CE: What can we expect from Flock in coming days?

Clayton: Well, we just released Flock 2.0, which is enormously better than the 1.x series, primarily because it incorporates all the great work done by Mozilla in Firefox 3. We have added media RSS capability to our media bar, which is pretty compelling too. MySpace is now supported as well, so the long wait for the grand-daddy of social networks is over. In the immediate future you will see more enhancements, fixes, and more integrated services, like as TinyPic and LinkedIn. On the horizon is Flock 3.0, which we believe will change the way the general public thinks about browsers!

CE: Thank you for spending time with us. What is your message to CEans (aka Crazy Engineers)?

Clayton: In hopes that it is useful to some of your readers, I suppose I will state that which I repeatedly coach engineers on: do not underestimate the importance of your communication skills. Communication is the most potent element of human existence. Some of the best talent in the world can be useless to a project if ideas can't be clearly illustrated, or if a brilliant engineer can't get along with the rest of the team. Don't waste your mad engineering skillz -- hone your communication abilities too and in doing so unlock the power of your technical chops. Learn to listen as well as talk, and learn how to write, draw and speak clearly. Even if you aren't interested in non-technical disciplines, try and have at least a working knowledge of finance, marketing and the business plan you are operating under. These things can a make ton of difference by making you _effective_ instead of just another brilliant engineer. The value of your services goes way up, too.

Lastly, thanks for asking me these questions. I hope the answers I provided were useful. I can be contacted at my first name at flock dot com if anyone wants to follow up.

Really lastly is the shameless plug -- go to www.flock.com and meet your new favorite browser. Let me know what you think.
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CrazyEngineers is thankful to Mr. Clayton Stark for sparing time to answer our questions. For more information, head over to www.flock.com 

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