Working Geek: Donuts CTO Chris Cowherd has been coding since he was 13

chris cowherd
Donuts CTO Chris Cowherd.

Chris Cowherd’s programming career began out of necessity.

He was a kid and he couldn’t afford all of the video games he wanted, so he had to build his own.

“I started programming in the early 8-bit Atari days when I was 13,” he said. “My parents couldn’t get me off the computer.”

Cowherd is now CTO of Donuts, a website domain company in Bellevue, Wash. He makes sure Donuts’ 197 domains, like “.LIFE” and “.COFFEE” remain secure and functional.

Between his early game developer days and startup executive career, Cowherd honed his skills at Microsoft.

“Working on Internet Explorer during the browser wars, with some of the most passionate people, gave me a deep sense of product, commitment, and customer focus,” he said.

Cowherd is an avid cyclist and passionate technologist. We caught up with him for this installment of Working Geek, a regular GeekWire feature. Continue reading for his answers to our questionnaire.

Current Location: “Bellevue, WA. I had a large beautiful house by Lake Washington but my kids recently moved out so I downsized to a condo in downtown Bellevue across the street from the office. I’m amazed at how much of your life you get back when you don’t commute or clean gutters.”

Computer types: “Historically I’ve built my career on PC’s and Microsoft technologies. I love going in different directions so I made Donuts an all Mac and Linux shop – PCs only when necessary 🙂 I have to admit, once you’ve gone Mac, it’s hard to go back.  I’m currently using a fully loaded 5k iMac. The display is gorgeous.”

Mobile devices: “I like extremes so I use both the iPhone 5SE and the monster 13-inch iPad Pro. I carry the iPhone in my jersey pocket on the bike so size matters there. If they made an iPhone mini, I’d be thrilled!”

Favorite apps, cloud services and software tools: “Looking at my phone, my most used apps are the practical ones for work: Chrome, Google Inbox, Google Maps and Google Calendar. You would think with all the Google apps, I would use an Android. I’ve tried, but I’m sorry they need so much more work. The iPhone is a polished experience.  Beyond work, most of my apps are fitness related: Cronometer (calorie tracking), TrainerRoad (indoor cycle training) and Sleep Cycle. I always have one or two games in rotation. Currently I’m playing Mini Metro, which is a beautiful, well-designed little game.”

Describe your workspace. Why does it work for you? “My wife, Carol, is an amazing interior designer so my office tends to have some flair when she can get a hold of it. Currently, my office is reminiscent of a man cave on the Death Star. I’m of two minds, part outgoing artistic and the other introverted coder. Having a quiet workspace that inspires me brings out my best ideas but I also get energy from surrounding myself with brilliant people.”

Your best advice for managing everyday work and life? “Strive to minimize the noise in your life and focus on the few things you find most important. That’s easy to say, but in a couple of sentences, how can you do that? For work, I use the Getting Things Done (GTD) principles. You can manage a very large workload and significantly reduce your stress. Google’s Inbox is my tool of choice for this.

Managing your personal life is easy: Live across the street from work.

No really, living close means having that extra time to boost your options for improving your personal and family life. I have so much more time for the gym, cycling, movies, or dinner with my family.”


Your preferred social network? How do you use it for business/work? “We have recently started using LinkedIn for successfully recruiting new talent at Donuts.”

Current number of unanswered emails in your inbox? “90 — I use my inbox as my to-do list. If it is in my inbox, it is something I need to make a decision on or respond to. By the end of each day, there are zero messages in my inbox. A feature of Google Inbox lets you decide when you want to take action on something, then gets it out of your way. Trusting a system to remind you at just the right time clears your thoughts for other pressing things.”

Number of appointments/meetings on your calendar this week? “Just 25 this week!”

How do you run meetings? “I desperately try to avoid organized meetings. I avoid scheduling them or going to them unless there is a clear agenda. It is simply a matter of being respectful of everyone’s time, including my own. I prefer asynchronous communication: some form of chat (we use Slack) or email. Everyone participates on their own timeline.

Meetings are definitely necessary to get a multidiscipline team all on the same page for a new project or simply stop and resynchronize. During a meeting, it’s important that everyone has some time allotted to say what is on their mind. Many times there is one person that is more quiet or simply feels like they are being polite by not interrupting that doesn’t get to give their input. I will seek these people out and specifically break the flow of the meeting to solicit their thoughts. It’s also important to be inclusive rather than exclusive. Team members get a real benefit and a feeling of ownership on a project if they have more context.”

Everyday work uniform? “Casual collared shirt with jeans most days or an awesome Hawaiian shirt.”

How do you make time for family? “Besides my wife, I also have two daughters. My youngest is studying neuroscience at UCLA and has goals of going to medical school. My oldest recently got married and moved to Japan. I couldn’t be more proud of them both. Time with all my girls is one of my priorities so I don’t find I need to make a conscious effort. If they can’t come to me, I go to them.”

Best stress reliever? How do you unplug? “Long distance road cycling is all about energy preservation and management. I can easily spend four to five hours on the road bike, listening to my body. It is very therapeutic and relaxing.”

What are you listening to? “I will literally choose a different genre every day, mostly depending on mood or activity. It’s like choosing the right wine with a meal. I listen to practically everything from historic New Orleans jazz to house, trap, electronica, country, dance, acoustic folk, bluegrass … you name it.  Right now I’m listening to Timeflies.”

Daily reads? Favorite sites and newsletters? “By far, I get the most value out of Wikipedia and I send a donation to them every month. In addition to GeekWire, I also read Engadget, Wired, and Gizmodo.”

Book on your nightstand (or e-reader)? “Book on my nightstand: Smuggler’s Cove: Exotic Cocktails, Rum, and the Cult of Tiki. I enjoy cocktail mixology and usually end up tending bar at office parties. I’ve been especially interested in the history and recent resurgence of classic hand-crafted Tiki style cocktails.

On the Kindle: The Cassandra Project by Jack McDevitt.  I never really read fiction, though. It will take me a year to get through this one.”

Night owl or early riser? What are your sleep patterns?

Early riser nowadays which is a complete 180 for me. I find that I really enjoy a couple hours of quiet me-time.  Sometimes I hit the weight room or trainer.  Other days I  just catch up on reading and have a nice cup of coffee.

Where do you get your best ideas? “Usually in the middle of the night.  I’ll wake up randomly with a great idea and always send myself an email. I’m sure the glow of my iPhone wakes my wife up, but too many times I’ve gone back to sleep only to forget it the next day.”

Whose work style would you want to learn more about or emulate? “Strangely, this was the toughest question to answer. We are fortunate to live in an age of many very brilliant technology and thought leaders. Today the rapid exchange of ideas and information has created a boon of exciting advancements in all areas of our life but I kept coming back to what inspires me most: people that are not only visionaries and deeply passionate, but also driven. A contemporary example is, of course, Steve Jobs but a more classic example, and the one I admire is Walt Disney. I’ve probably spent more time reading about Walt than anyone else.

From a young age, Walt Disney was fervent about entertainment and technology. Starting from literally nothing, he relentlessly followed his passion, nearly running his company into the ground many times over in that pursuit. Prior to Disneyland, surprisingly, he and his company were always struggling for money; Walt constantly reinvesting in his people and vision.

Closer to me though, is our CEO Paul Stahura. Paul reminds me of these two leaders which might be why we have worked together for 17 years. He is a non-stop creative and visionary; a ticker tape of ideas. His engineering background and deep understanding of technology allows him put those ideas to work.”


Post Author: Tech Review