With nearly three decades in tech at some of the most influential companies in the world, Allan Leinwand now leads the engineering team at Webflow as Chief Technology Officer (CTO).
Allan joins us at an exciting moment. 2023 marks 10 years since Webflow first launched. And with a new decade on the horizon, our goal is to rapidly scale and innovate to bring development superpowers to everyone. Engineering will be at the forefront of these efforts, and Allan and his leadership will be key in moving us forward into this next chapter.
Allan comes to us most recently from Shopify where he served as its CTO. Prior to that, he was SVP of engineering at Slack, CTO at ServiceNow, and CTO of Infrastructure at Zynga. Additionally, Allan is also an author of two books, an investor, a board member at Compass and a trustee at Harvey Mudd College.
Recently, we spoke to Allan to chat about everything from the biggest technical challenges in the industry, to being customer-obsessed, to what excites him about the tech space, and much more.
Here’s Allan’s thoughts on all of this, in his own words.
Tell us more about your background, and how you got here.
I started my career at HP, working on the HP internal IP network. Shortly after, I made the move to Cisco Systems. At the time, Cisco was very early and had less than 35 people on the engineering team. There I got involved in building routing technology and Internet technology. I spent seven years there and did everything from engineering, to helping customers design their work, to training — all because I wanted to learn the different parts of the product and business.
When I left Cisco I joined a startup as a founding member of Digital Island through IPO, and then went on to help found a couple of startups. I found my way into venture capital and became an operating partner at JPMorgan Partners. Eventually we spun that out, and I then became a venture partner at the new venture capital firm called Panorama Capital.
After spending 6 and a half years in the VC world I was ready to dive in and start building things again.
In the mid 2000s I had been watching the wave of social media with Facebook and Foursquare and everything else that was happening at the time, which led me to Zynga. The company was probably less than 500 people and I helped build the technology stack for all the Zynga games — like Farmville, Mafia Wars, and Zynga Poker — as well as the platform that took those games global.
After, I made the move over to ServiceNow, which was in the enterprise software workflow space. I was CTO there for about seven years and helped the company grow from around $100 million to over $2 billion dollars in revenue.
In 2018, I joined Slack as the SVP of engineering and ended up being there through their IPO and then the acquisition by Salesforce. Most recently, I was at Shopify for about 18 months. The company was about 13,000 when I joined, and my team was about 3,600. There, I was in charge of leading the engineering and data teams for the company.
Along the way, I’ve taught courses at UC Berkeley and written a few books. It’s been a busy and a very rewarding time working in technology and innovation.
Why Webflow and what set it apart for you?
One of the things I was really excited about at Shopify was their mission of empowering commerce and entrepreneurship. People would literally start and invent a product in their living room and then build it into a very interesting business. Webflow has the same kind of DNA. Through the power of the web — we’re empowering people to be entrepreneurial, invent whole businesses, and create entire economies based on web design. And I think that's really cool.
The size and scope of the ecosystem and community around Webflow is just amazing to me with more than 7.5 million websites built using Webflow. That’s some incredible scale! It’s pretty obvious that if you’re building something on the web and you are not using Webflow’s visual designer, you’re doing it wrong.
Beyond that, not only does Webflow have this growing market in a fascinating space — the team here is fantastic. For me, having a fantastic team trumps everything.
In real estate, they say “location, location, location.” When it comes to choosing somewhere to work, it's team, team, team, and then it's the market, and the ecosystem value — all things that Webflow has in abundance.
As a leader, what are the core values that have guided you throughout your career?
One of the biggest things for me is transparent leadership and clear communications. When we're driving alignment in a growing org — clear and transparent leadership makes sure that everyone knows how we're going to prioritize and do the right thing for the customer.
I also believe in clarity when it comes to the entire technology stack. Whether it’s data centers, networks, cloud and middleware, or software applications, ecosystems, and apps — having an integrated set of technologies that is clear and aligned with the business is critical when growing and scaling.
Lastly, and most importantly, it’s innovation above all. For me, one of the most interesting things is to experiment and try new innovations. There’s definitely risk involved — sometimes things will hit and sometimes things won’t — but innovation and experimentation is how you build a transformative product and company and that’s always been a value I’ve held throughout my career.
What are some of the biggest technical challenges you see in the space right now, and how do you think teams and organizations can address them?
The biggest challenge I’ve seen in the last 20 years for tech companies is making sure that the right things are being built and you’re innovating correctly for your customers. This sometimes gets labeled as product-market fit, but I think it's more than that. For me, it's building an organization that empowers engineers to innovate while prioritizing and building for the business needs and making sure products hit the market correctly.
This is one of the hardest things to balance. Innovation is how you build a transformative product — but at the same time it's so easy to get excited about something new and then forget the customer. This is about not losing sight of that, and staying focused on the customer and the market, even as you innovate. When you look at who is able to thrive in tech long-term — it’s always those that are able to balance this well.
At Webflow, we obsess over the customer experience — as a CTO what will you be prioritizing and obsessing over for our customers?
When I think about the customer experience, it’s about doing all of the SaaS essentials exceptionally well while innovating. Dreaming big, shipping products, and bringing features and products that empower our customers are all going to be top of mind for me.
But, in order to do that there needs to be a stable foundation for our customers. That's why we need to make sure our SaaS platform is available, secure, and performant.
By ensuring these things, we’ll be able to deliver a product that our customers can trust for building and maintaining their web site and presence on the Internet. Whether it’s a small single-page portfolio site, a large complex site that’s powering a multinational corporation — or something in between — it’s important to me that our customer can count on us for exceptionally innovative features as well as the nuts and bolts of their site. They will be able to innovate knowing that we’re nearly always available, that their data is secure with us, and that we’re laser-focused on being performant — all of which allows us to then bring products that really are exciting to the market.
What excites you most about the tech space and what’s to come?
For me AI and automation is what instantly jumps to mind. When it comes to giving developmental superpowers to more people — automation and generative AI is going to be the game changer here. You could guide people through a better web design experience. You could get them to have their presence on the web faster, easier, more personalized in a way that they would not have the ability to do it as quickly as before. The possibilities are endless, and something I’m really excited to explore and bring to our customers.