‘The Operators’: Understanding your user – The art and science of UI/UX behind Facebook, Google, Mint, and Edmodo

Welcome to this transcribed edition of The Operators. TechCrunch is beginning to publish podcasts from industry experts, with transcriptions available for Extra Crunch members so you can read the conversation wherever you are.

The Operators highlights the experts building the products and companies that drive the tech industry. Speaking from experience at companies like Airbnb, Brex, Docsend, Edmodo, Facebook, Google, Lyft, Mint, Slack, Uber, WeWork, etc., these experts share insider tips on how to break into fields like design and enterprise sales. They also share best practices for entrepreneurs to hire and manage experts in fields outside their own.

This week’s edition features Gülay Birand, UX Lead and Product Design Manager at Facebook, and Tim Rechin, Head of Design at Edmodo, the leading education technology company. Gülay and Tim share their experiences and explain design, UI/UX, how to build a career in these fields, and how entrepreneurs should think about them.

Gülay and Tim bring experience from other great companies including Google, Amazon, Mint, and SAP. Having seen and grown in their disciplines from a variety of companies and customer types, they share deep insight from across tech.

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Neil Devani and Tim Hsia created The Operators after seeing and hearing too many heady, philosophical podcasts about the future of the world and the tech industry, and not enough attention on the practical day-to-day work that makes it all happen.

Tim is the CEO & Founder of Media Mobilize, a media company and ad network, and a Venture Partner at Digital Garage. Tim is an early-stage investor in Workflow (acquired by Apple), Lime, FabFitFun, Oh My Green, Morning Brew, Girls Night In, The Hustle, Bright Cellars, and others.

Neil is an early-stage investor based in San Francisco with a focus on companies solving serious problems, including Andela, Clearbit, Recursion Pharmaceuticals, Vicarious Surgical, and Kudi.

If you’re interested in becoming a designer, doing UI/UX research, furthering your career in that field, or starting a company and don’t know when to hire or how to manage this discipline, you can’t miss this episode!

The show:

The Operators highlights the experts building the products and companies that drive the tech industry. Speaking from experience at companies like Airbnb, Brex, Docsend, Edmodo, Facebook, Google, Lyft, Mint, Slack, Uber, WeWork, etc., these experts share insider tips on how to break into fields like design and enterprise sales. They also share best practices for entrepreneurs to hire and manage experts in fields outside their own.

In this episode:

In Episode 3, we’re talking about design and UI/UX. Neil interviews Gülay Birand, UX Lead and Product Design Manager at Facebook, and Tim Rechin, Head of Design at Edmodo.

Neil Devani: Hello and welcome to The Operators, where we talk to the people building the companies of today and tomorrow. We publish every other Monday and you can find us online at Operators.co.

Today’s episode is very special, we are talking to two UI/UX experts who have designed and researched products that have been touched by billions of people. I’m your host, Neil Devani and we’re coming to you today from the Vault of Joi here at Digital Garage in downtown San Francisco.

Joining me is Tim Rechin, Head of Design at Edmodo, the leading classroom and education community with 100 million users globally. Also joining us is Gülay Birand, a UX lead and product design manager at Facebook.

Gülay works on the newsfeed product used by billions of people every day. Thank you for joining us, if you could tell us more about yourselves and your work it would be great to hear more.

Gülay Birand: Thank you, my name is Gülay Birand. I’m a product design manager at Facebook . I’ve been at Facebook for about three months. Prior to that I was at Google for about 8 years, and I led a horizontal team on Google Cloud Platform for about four years, leading growth and engagement, support, and product excellence initiatives.

Prior to that I did a bit of a tour to Google, so I worked on search, identity, a couple of other areas like mobile ads, and before that I was at T-Mobile where I was building mass market and franchise home experiences, mainly on Android. And prior to that I was at Amazon leading experiences for the very first Kindle, so that was a lot of fun.

Devani: And Tim tell us more about yourself and how you got here.

Tim Rechin: Yeah, so I’m currently at Edmodo, leading up design and that’s really across the entire platform that serves our teachers, students and parents in the US and globally. And before Edmodo, I was at Facebook, and I was on the Feed Ads team and responsible for the lead ads product that we launched that year. Before that I was at Mint, so doing personal finance and some of you may be using Mint.

Devani: I’m definitely using Mint, its great, I love it.

Rechin: And then before that SAP, Yahoo, eBay, and then Elance very early on which is now Upwork.

Devani: Very cool, all companies that I’ve used, products that I enjoy, thank you for helping create them.

Birand: Thank you.

Devani: So it’d be great if you could tell folks more about what you do every day. Who are the folks in your company that you are interacting with, what are your responsibilities, what does it mean to do the job that you do?

Rechin: That’s a good question, it’s a bit mixed. Just for some context, Edmodo is a company a little over 100 people and so our product teams are in the 6-7 product managers range. I lead a team of 3 designers. So my day to day is really getting to work and really trying to figure out what’s going on, so this year is a particularly busy year as we get ready for back to school.

And so we have a lot of concurrent projects going, so one of the things I like to do when I get in is level set, kind of see how my day is and I’ll go check in with the different teams. That’s part of the work I do, working with the different product teams and the strategy.

So like I said, we are working on lots of different projects, so it’s really just keeping everyone aligned and making sure that designers are delivering things on time, that any issues or gaps are being filled and we can go answer those questions that are coming from product managers and designers. In some cases too, there is a project that is about to be kicked off, so everything is not clean, phased, there are always these things that kind of pop up.

So I will find myself in meetings in talking about strategy to figure out how to kick off those projects or what our go-to-market is for back to school.

Is blitzscaling killing early employee equity opportunities?

Silicon Valley has many dreams. One dream — the Hollywood version anyway — is for a down-and-out founder to begin tinkering and coding in their proverbial garage, eventually building a product that is loved by humans the world over and becoming a startup billionaire in the process.

The more prosaic and common version of that Valley dream though is to join an early-stage company right before its growth kicks into high gear. Sure, those early employees might only have a smidgen of equity, but that equity could be worth a whole heck of a lot if they join the right startup.

Every startup has a window of opportunity, a timeframe in which early employees can join while the stock option strike prices are low and the equity grants are high. Join before the big uptick in valuation, and suddenly what might have been an otherwise nice couple of hundred K dollars in the coming years becomes actually, well, in the Bay Area, a reasonably-sized domicile.

Yet, that opportune window seems to be shrinking in size, making it harder for potential startup employees to nail the timing necessary to garner their own best financial return.

For every Roblox, which as we profiled in-depth this week, took almost two decades to reach its current apotheosis, there is a Brex, which seems to reach unicorn status in no time at all. And such stories — while certainly anecdotal — seem to be more commonplace than ever.

Part of the reason for that fast early valuation growth is that Silicon Valley has simply learned how to grow even faster, even earlier. As venture capitalist Reid Hoffman and Chris Yeh discuss in their book Blitzscaling, there are now frameworks and tried-and-true techniques to not just grow a startup, but to grow it at a dizzying rate. Through better marketing channels, growth strategies, and product development, we have indeed made progress at cutting at least some of the time to better valuations.

That rapid transformation from nothing to everything though gives very little time for early employees to discover a startup through the grapevine when the financial conditions are still interesting.

Half a decade ago, I wrote about the plight of early employees in an article I entitled “The Problem with Founders.” I wrote then that:

The secret of Silicon Valley is that the benefits of working at a startup accrues almost entirely to the founders, and that’s why people repeat the advice to just go start a business. There is a reason it is hard to hire in Silicon Valley today, and it isn’t just that there are a lot of startups. It’s because engineers and other creators are realizing that the cards are stacked against them unless they are the ones in charge.

My reasoning then was simple: early employees take on pretty much just as much risk as their founders do, but for a fraction of the equity. Now, with startups jumping to unicorn status in sometimes as short as a handful of months, that risk-reward ratio seems to be even more off-kilter for those early employees.

And it doesn’t just have to be a Brex -scale transformation either. The rapid increase in the size and valuation of series A rounds of financing the past three years means that engineers and salespeople who might have an employee number in the low double digits are suddenly seeing their options struck at a couple of hundred million in valuation. Exits, meanwhile, aren’t suddenly getting richer to compensate.

I started to notice this pattern over the past few weeks in the course of several conversations with software engineering friends of mine who had gotten excited about very early-stage companies — say, just a handful of employees — but who walked away from their offer letters due to already sky-high company valuations.

Now, there is an argument to be made that joining these sorts of companies is precisely where the best opportunities lie. Sure, the valuations are already high, but these are startups with the financial resources and the backing that might allow them to compete effectively. So maybe the equity is smaller and more expensive, but ultimately, if the startup is more likely to be successful, the expected value function might actually be favorable.

Maybe. Yet it is also hard to see how these startups, which despite their rich valuations have barely laid any foundation for success, are a safer bet than a similarly-valued startup with years of experience under its belt and a growth strategy based upon dependable results. Even worse, early employees are perhaps taking even more financial risk, since the preference stack of the venture capital could mean that smaller exits are particularly unfavorable to them.

Plus, the shrinking opportunity window for leading startups means that the difference in financial outcome between two early employees — what could be millions of dollars upon an exit — could have been decided based on who joined the week before the other. That doesn’t seem fair or right, but is increasingly widespread in our industry.

As with most macroeconomic structural changes, there’s not much for anyone to do. Founders aren’t going to take lower valuations or less money just to make the lives of their early employees a bit more rosy, and certainly venture capitalists aren’t going to lowball their offers in a hyper-competitive investment environment. Indeed, the very excitement of a sudden unicorn may be the best attraction for candidates to hear a startup’s pitch and ultimately join.

But when it comes to that Silicon Valley dream of a nice house from a decent return on exit, it’s getting narrower and less widely-distributed. Blitzscaling is making a lot of people a lot of wealth, but early employees? Not so much.

Minimum investment for EB-5 investor green card expected to more than double

While not a startup visa, the EB-5 investor green card offers many entrepreneurs a path to a green card by investing money and creating jobs in the U.S. Under the EB-5 program, an entrepreneur’s family is also eligible for green cards.

Imminent regulatory changes to the EB-5 program are expected to make obtaining an EB-5 green card a whole lot more expensive. The minimum investment is anticipated to more than double to $1.35 million from the current $500,000. And with individuals from India expected to face a backlog for EB-5 green cards shortly, the opportunity to obtain an EB-5 green card at a relatively low cost and in a timely manner is closing.

Verified Expert Brand Designer: Studio Rodrigo

Ritik Dholakia worked as a startup product manager before he co-founded Studio Rodrigo, a branding and product design agency based in NYC. Unlike traditional branding firms, Studio Rodrigo is proud of its product design chops, especially when it comes to helping early-stage startups build version one of their product. It’s not an easy balancing act since most companies eventually want to bring their product design talent in-house, but it turns out, Studio Rodrigo can help with that too. Learn more about the studio in our Q&A with founder Ritik Dholakia.

Studio Rodrigo’s unique approach:

“Studio Rodrigo listened to all of our goals and dreams, concerns and uncertainties, and created a brand identity, website, and marketing materials that were true to our vision but better than anything we could have imagined.” Tze Chun, NYC, Founder, Uprise Art

“Basically, we’re a full-stack product design team. We have people who can do brand identity from a pure graphic design and visual communications standpoint, and who can also connect the dots between design and technology, business, and customer needs. We don’t have a traditional agency model with a project and account management overhead. You work directly with our designers.”

On Studio Rodrigo’s ideal client:

“We like working with clients that are solving big, meaty, challenging problems. We’ve got a smart team that likes to wrap their heads around the kinds of technologies that are pushing industries forward. For us, that’s currently technologies like machine learning and artificial intelligence.”

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Below, you’ll find the rest of the founder reviews, the full interview, and more details like pricing and fee structures. This profile is part of our ongoing series covering startup brand designers and agencies with whom founders love to work, based on this survey and our own research. The survey is open indefinitely, so please fill it out if you haven’t already. 


Interview with Studio Rodrigo Co-founder Ritik Dholakia

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Yvonne Leow: First things first, how did you get into brand design and product development?

Ritik Dholakia: I’ve been in digital design and product development for about 20 years now. I actually started my career as a product manager at a startup. I worked for two venture-backed startups as the first product manager. I was part of the Series A team, managing product development, acquiring initial customers, and building market traction.

The first startup was an enterprise software platform for customers doing triple bottom line reporting. The second one was one of the earliest social networking platforms, pre-Facebook, and around the same time as Friendster, LinkedIn, and Spoke.

Bird plans to hire 1,000 people in Paris

Scooter startup Bird is betting on the French market in a significant way. The company plans to open up its biggest European office in Paris. Eventually, Bird wants to hire 1,000 people by mid-2021, which is a meaningful number for a company that has been around for a couple of years.

Paris is an important market for Bird, and all scooter startups in general. It’s a relatively small city — when it comes to footprint, Paris is smaller than San Francisco. But it’s also a dense city. And of course, there are a ton of tourists who come to Paris just for a few days.

That’s why 12 different companies launched a scooter-sharing service in Paris (yes, twelve). But Les Échos recently reported that many of them have already left the city. Lime, Bird, Circ, Dott, Jump and B-Mobility are still around.

It’s a capital-intensive industry, and Bird has already raised a ton of money to outlive the competition. But money is just one thing.

Opening an office in Paris is also important to show city officials that Bird is serious about this market. Last month, the City of Paris announced that it would limit the number of scooter companies in Paris. They will hand out two or three licenses to operate. And Bird certainly wants to be one of them.

Bird will also use its Paris hub to educate users about safety. The company plans to hand out free helmets if you attend a safety training session.

Why you should naturalize — now, not later

It’s no secret that America thrives on tech-savvy immigrants who put down permanent roots: Three in five of the country’s biggest tech companies — Apple, Facebook, and Google among them — were founded by first- or second-generation immigrants.

Those giants combined boast a market cap of over $4 trillion and employ nearly two million workers. Considering such clear economic benefits, you’d expect an efficient, straightforward process for turning America’s tech-savviest new arrivals into U.S. citizens.

But that’s not the case. Naturalizing has only gotten harder and more expensive in recent years. And because of those barriers, even immigrants who manage to secure U.S. permanent residence often stop short of officially becoming U.S. citizens. In fact, a third of citizenship-eligible green card holders, or around 9.3 million people, have yet to apply.

If you’re among that group, don’t wait to take the final step of your immigration journey. After all, U.S. citizenship brings a host of tangible and intangible perks.

Taking the oath of citizenship, for one, is a profound experience and an affirmation that you’ve finally been welcomed into the American family. From the moment you naturalize, you become an equal stakeholder in our national project — as much an American as anyone born in this nation.

Of course, naturalization offers practical benefits, too. So take some time this Fourth of July to consider all the reasons why you should set your sights on citizenship now, not later:

It won’t get easier

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Image via Getty Images / Vaselena

The single best reason to file a citizenship application is to make sure you don’t miss the boat. The Trump administration is prone to overhauling immigration rules on short notice — so if you’re eligible today, it doesn’t necessarily mean you will be tomorrow.

Applying sooner will make the process quicker and cheaper, too. Already, the government plans to further complicate naturalization steps, at an estimated cost to applicants of nearly $205 million a year.

The bottom line: Getting citizenship will only get harder in the months and years ahead — applying for citizenship under the current rules will protect you from the future whims of America’s leaders. File your papers today, and save yourself headaches or heartbreak down the line.

Have your say

For many new citizens, this is the big one: As an American, you’ll be eligible to vote in all federal, state, and local elections and have your say in who gets to steer the country you’ve chosen to call home. Still, if you’re hoping to pull the lever for your preferred candidate in the 2020 presidential election, you’ll need to get a move on — there’s now a 10-month average wait just to get your application approved. Add all the other steps, and you could be looking at a total wait time of up to 1.6 years, and the line is only growing longer.

Also worth bearing in mind: Citizenship is a requirement for federal office and most state and local political positions. As a naturalized citizen, you’ll be able to run for office yourself.

And while immigrants can’t become president, plenty of naturalized Americans already represent their communities in Congress. Get your paperwork squared away if you want to be next.

Plan for the future 

Whether you’re starting a business, building your career, or buying a home, it helps to have the security that citizenship affords. Naturalizing also makes it far easier to bring relatives — even your parents and adult children — to America on green cards of their own. Spouses and immediate relatives of U.S. citizens get preferential treatment when it comes to green card applications, which means much shorter waits compared to the spouses and relatives of green cardholders.

Pro tip: If you’re a permanent resident and have a pending marriage green card application for your spouse, naturalizing upgrades you to the fast-track process for spouses of U.S. citizens.

Of course, naturalization is also a fantastic gift for your future offspring who are born abroad — they’re automatically citizens if you’re American at the moment of their birth. As a citizen, you’ll be able to register your children as U.S. citizens simply by reporting their birth to the nearest U.S. consulate or embassy.

Access public benefits

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Image via Getty Images / PeterSnow

As an immigrant, you’re likely already paying taxes that fund public programs such as Social Security and Medicaid — but in many cases, you can’t actually benefit from those programs. In fact, you’ve probably been justly wary of using any government assistance whatsoever, for fear of being labeled a “public charge” and jeopardizing your immigration status.

As a citizen, all that changes: You’ll have as much right as anyone else to public benefits, and you won’t have to fret about being penalized for seeking help. You might never need public support beyond Social Security and Medicare — studies show that naturalized citizens use most benefits at much lower rates than the native-born — but it’s good to know there’s a safety net waiting to catch you if you fall.

Protect yourself

In theory, green cards offer permanent residence, but it’s still possible to lose your immigration status if you spend significant time outside the United States, if you have legal problems, or if the rules change. Citizens receive far greater protections and can’t be deported even if they run afoul of the law. You’ll also have an incontrovertible right to work in America and to win federal jobs and contracts that are off-limits to non-citizens.

One caveat: It’s been reported that the U.S. government is planning to “denaturalize” some citizens. This applies mostly to cases where applicants committed identity fraud or were subject to deportation orders that they did not disclose to immigration officers during the application process. That shouldn’t affect the vast majority of naturalized citizens, though, and in virtually any legal tangle you’ll be better off as a U.S. citizen.

Get a passport, and see the world

In these turbulent times, a U.S. passport is worth its weight in gold. You’ll be able to apply for the coveted navy-blue travel document immediately after receiving your Certificate of Naturalization and can look forward to visa-free travel to more than 180 countries. You’ll also be able to call on local U.S. embassies for assistance if you run into trouble while traveling.

As a citizen, you won’t have to worry about losing your status, regardless of how long you’re away from the United States. And remember: The United States allows dual citizenship, so depending on your nation of origin, you might not have to give up your existing passport — let alone your original nationality — in order to become an American.

Give back by getting ahead

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Image via Getty Images / katflare

Getting citizenship is a smart financial decision. Citizens fare better economically than non-citizen immigrants, perhaps because they’re better placed to put down roots and invest in their future.

Research shows that naturalized immigrants earn an average of $3,200 more each year than eligible non-citizens and also increase their homeownership rate by 6.3 percent. In fact, it’s estimated that if just half of eligible immigrants went ahead and gained citizenship, it would boost America’s GDP by up to $52 billion a year.

All those extra earnings translate into billions of dollars in extra local, state, and federal tax revenues, too. That makes naturalization a great way not just to make more money, but also to support your new community and make America a stronger and more prosperous place for yourself and your loved ones.

You’ve earned it, so go get it

Gaining citizenship is more than just a patriotic gesture; it’s a practical step toward building a secure future in America and seizing all the opportunities this country has to offer. As any immigrant knows, the pursuit of happiness is an American ideal — but it’s one that’s a whole lot easier to achieve if you have citizenship.

If you’re eligible to become a U.S. citizen, then you’ve already earned your place in this country by investing years of your life here, working hard, and playing by the rules. Applying for citizenship is a way to seal the deal, both by underscoring your commitment to the American project and receiving a definitive assurance that you’re welcome and wanted in the Land of the Free.

So this Fourth of July, if you’re chasing your own little piece of the American dream, bear in mind that there are real and concrete benefits to naturalization. After all, the smoke and noise from the fireworks will eventually fade away — but your American citizenship will last forever.

In-depth with Freada Kapor Klein

It was more than 10 years ago when Freada Kapor Klein published her book “Giving Notice” about hidden biases. Fast forward to today, and it’s sometimes hard to say that anything has changed.

Kapor Klein, a long-time advocate for diversity, equity and inclusion in the tech industry, is the co-founding partner at Kapor Capital and co-founder of Project Include . TechCrunch had the privilege of chatting with her about diversity and inclusion over the last several years.

“I would characterize where we are now is a leap forward over the last ten years and several steps sideways and a few steps backwards,” Kapor Klein says. “And so I think it’s a very noisy time to be looking at D&I. Because any point you can make in a positive direction, there’s a countervailing negative. And similarly, any time you can raise a criticism, somebody can point to something hopeful. So, we’re still in the middle of it — I hope — although I worry about diversity fatigue, which people are talking about and writing about these days.”

What’s clear is that a comprehensive approach is needed, and in order for that to be successful, there needs to be unequivocal commitment from the top.

We also discuss the rebound effect for harassers, why heads don’t roll when companies don’t fulfill their diversity goals and where there’s hope in the push for more diversity, inclusion and equity in tech.

Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

MRD: I wanted to chat with you specifically, just because you’ve been working on this issue for more than a decade at this point. And I figured you would have some good perspective to add. So far, I’ve chatted with a handful of people and my plan is to try to see what the common themes and then go from there.

Freada Kapor Klein: Are there some, some emerging hypotheses or some emerging consensus or too early to tell?

MRD: So far, I’ve had some conversations that have centered around the heads of diversity and inclusion. And while the idea of them is great, often times, they’re not truly empowered within these companies. Looking at Google as an example, and some of the turnover they’ve seen throughout that role.

Also, I’m looking at how one of the changes has been that it’s become more acceptable to be vocal about this issue and speak out against it. But that doesn’t always translate into real work and actions, and progress being made.

And then also, of course, there are more worker-led initiatives, also using Google as an example. But then what may be the next step actually needs to be like, okay, well, you’re speaking out, you’re walking out, but now maybe it’s actually a matter of leaving these companies because the workers are the most important part of these companies. But it’s not always an option for some people who don’t come from wealth and really need these jobs. Those are kind of the high-level takeaways so far.

Freada Kapor Klein: That’s interesting, but maybe there is a call to action for those who are — I once long ago heard the term post economic.  And so maybe there is a call to action for those who are going to be the beneficiaries of the 2019 IPOs and who are in a position to vote with their feet.

MRD: Yeah, that’s a good point.

Freada Kapor Klein: So, great. Where would you like to start?

MRD: Looking back over the last ten years of your work in Silicon Valley across diversity and inclusion, what gives you hope that we’re moving in the right direction? Or, do you think we’re moving in the right direction?

Freada Kapor Klein: I would characterize where we are now is a leap forward over the last ten years and several steps sideways and a few steps backwards. And so I think it’s a very noisy time to be looking at D&I. Because any point you can make in a positive direction, there’s a countervailing negative. And similarly, any time you can raise a criticism, somebody can point to something hopeful. So, we’re still in the middle of it — I hope — although I worry about diversity fatigue, which people are talking about and writing about these days.

But I do remain hopeful for very specific reasons. And one of those is quite simply changing demographics in the US. The march of demographics is unstoppable. And we know the K 12 school-age population in the US, which has been majority kids of color for five years now. And so that is the future workforce. Changing demographics is certainly one cause for hope. And critical mass, which has been a concept around a long time in social science, has some real legitimacy.

‘The Operators’: Slack PM Lorilyn McCue and Google Senior PM Jamal Eason on becoming a product manager and PM best practices

Welcome to this transcribed edition of The Operators. TechCrunch is beginning to publish podcasts from industry experts, with transcriptions available for Extra Crunch members so you can read the conversation wherever you are.

The Operators highlights the experts building the products and companies that drive the tech industry. Speaking from experience at companies like Google, Brex, Slack, Docsend, Facebook, Edmodo, WeWork, Mint, etc., these experts share insider tips on how to break into fields like product management and enterprise sales. They also share best practices for entrepreneurs to hire and manage experts in fields outside their own.

This week’s edition features Lorilyn McCue, product manager at Slack, the fastest growing enterprise software company ever that recently skipped its IPO to do a direct listing (like Spotify), and Jamal Eason, a senior product manager at Google, a company recognized as a training ground for the best product managers. Lorilyn and Jamal share their experiences and explain what product management is and isn’t, how to get good at it, and how entrepreneurs should think about product management as a discipline.

Lorilyn and Jamal are also both West Point graduates and military veterans who have deployed overseas. They are experienced operators in not just Silicon Valley but also from their days serving in uniform.

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Neil Devani and Tim Hsia created The Operators after seeing and hearing too many heady, philosophical podcasts about the future of the world and the tech industry, and not enough attention on the practical day-to-day work that makes it all happen.

Tim is the CEO & Founder of Media Mobilize, a media company and ad network, and a Venture Partner at Digital Garage. Tim is an early-stage investor in Workflow (acquired by Apple), Lime, FabFitFun, Oh My Green, Morning Brew, Girls Night In, The Hustle, Bright Cellars, and others. Neil is an early-stage investor based in San Francisco with a focus on companies solving serious problems, including Andela, Clearbit, Recursion Pharmaceuticals, Vicarious Surgical, and Kudi.

If you’re interested in becoming a product manager, furthering your career in that field, or starting a company and don’t know when to hire your first PM, you can’t miss this episode.

The show:

The Operators, hosted by Neil Devani and Tim Hsia, highlights the experts building the products and companies that drive the tech industry. Speaking from experience at companies like Google, Brex, Slack, Docsend, Facebook, Edmodo, WeWork, Mint, etc., these experts share insider tips on how to break into fields like product management and enterprise sales. They also share best practices for entrepreneurs to hire and manage experts in fields outside their own.

In this episode:

In Episode 2, we’re talking about product management. Neil interviews Lorilyn McCue, PM at Slack, and Jamal Eason, a senior PM at Google.

Neil Devani: Hi and welcome to the second episode of The Operators where we learn about people building the companies of tomorrow. We publish every other Monday and you can find this online at operators.co.

I’m your host Neil Devani and we’re coming to you today from Digital Garage here in sunny San Francisco. Today’s episode is sponsored by Four Sigmatic. Four Sigmatic’s Lion’s Mane Mushroom Coffee has all the coffee’s focusing bark with none of the jittery bite. Lion’s Mane promotes productivity, focus, and creativity all while being a healthy alternative to that daily cup of coffee. Go to foursigmatic.com/operators-special to try out Four Sigmatic.

Joining me today we have Jamal Eason, a senior product manager at Google . Google is one of the top companies in the world when it comes to product management.

Also joining us is Lorilyn McCue, a product manager at Slack . Slack is one of the fastest growing enterprise software companies ever and just recently filed for its IPO. Lorilyn and Jamal, thank you for joining us. It’s a pleasure to have you both.

Just to start, it would be great if you could give us a little bit of your background, where you’re from, where you went to school, and how you got into becoming a PM.

Lorilyn McCue: Sure. I’m from Orlando, Florida originally. This story will sound very similar in a little bit because Jamal and I have similar backgrounds.

I went to West Point, the United States Military Academy for undergrad. I studied computer science there. I served for 10 years in the Army. I flew Apache helicopters for six years and I taught back at West Point for three years.

After that I really had no idea what to do. Jamal was actually helpful in that process. In that I said, “I was thinking about going to school using the GI Bill.” I was considering business school, and he helped me narrow it down to some schools that made sense.

I ended up going to Stanford’s Graduate School of Business on the West Coast. I guess a fun fact about that decision is I was thinking East Coast versus West Coast schools. And when he mentioned Stanford I said no, because there’s a lot of traffic California. And he said, “No, don’t worry, you can bike around campus.”

This was a very convincing explanation for me. That is why I am here today, is because Jamal knows me well enough to say, “No Lorilyn, you can bike.” (To Jamal) I did bike around campus by the way. It was great. Thank you.

And then I did an internship at Google in product management. The summer between my first and second year I really loved product management. I wanted to be at a little bit smaller of a company so I ended up going to Slack.

I’ve been there for about two and a half years now. I started off as a product manager on the new user experience team and recently changed to platform.

GettyImages 962642214

Devani: Awesome, great!

Jamal Eason: Myself, I grew up in Los Angeles, California.

Devani: The land of traffic.

Eason: Yea, the land of traffic.

McCue: You probably didn’t bike there though.

Eason: No biking. Similar story, I also went to West Point for undergrad and studied computer science. Lorilyn and I shared multiple classes together there at West Point.

But instead I actually went to the Signal Corps, basically the branch of the military that does satellites and data communications.

Talk leadership and mental health with VC-turned-professional coach Jerry Colonna

Esteemed venture investor-turned-professional coach Jerry Colonna has worked with a long list of top CEOs and renowned executive teams.

In his new book, Reboot: Leadership and the Art of Growing Up (available now), Jerry explores the tension between traditional leadership practices and personal happiness that faces many founders today. Jerry discusses how strong leadership and happiness can coexist if we can “reset our goals and reconnect with our deepest selves and with each other.”

TechCrunch’s Silicon Valley editor Connie Loizos will be sitting down with Jerry for an exclusive conversation on Wednesday, July 3rd at 11:00 am PT. Jerry, Connie and Extra Crunch members will dive into key takeaways from Jerry’s book, the advice he gives to young executives, his experience in the Valley, and what’s exciting him most with young entrepreneurs today.

Tune in to join the conversation and for the opportunity to ask Jerry and Connie any and all things related to leadership, management, venture and personal happiness.

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How a martial arts gym trained me to build an inclusive culture

A wave of unease immediately swept through my body. Constant puffing and growling echoed around me as heavily-tattooed fighters threw forceful punches into the heavy bags. This was the scene I encountered when I stepped into Five Points Academy, a martial arts fighting gym in New York, for the first time a few years ago. Having grown up in a sheltered environment — the last time I had gotten into a fight was in kindergarten — I wasn’t sure I would fit in.

Emily, one of the instructors, immediately introduced herself and showed me some basic Muay Thai movements. The class focused on pad work, so students paired up and held Thai pads for each other to practice their moves. Emily rotated me through different partners during the class, offering me a taste of what it was like to hit pads, and I was hooked.

A year ago, my friend, Diane Wu, wrote a wonderful post arguing that “inclusion is the cause, and diversity is the effect. When an inclusive mindset is in place, diversity naturally follows.” My experience at Five Points reflects this sentiment. Despite being in a traditionally male-dominant field, roughly 40% of our instructors, half of our fighters, and half of our members are women. It’s not a coincidence that they are also widely regarded as one of the most inclusive and least “bro-y” fighting gyms in New York.

Tech has only been male-dominant in the last few decades — the first coders in the 1940s were women — while martial arts has been male-dominant for the last few millennia. If a martial arts gym can overcome systemic obstacles, we, in tech, can do better. After interviewing the owners, coaches, fighters, and members of the gym, here is what I learned about how they created an inclusive community.

Culture starts from the top

Studies have shown that culture stems from leadership, and this is demonstrated by the three owners of Five Points, Steve, Simon, and Kevin. Multiple members noted that Steve’s laid-back demeanor, Simon’s British humor, and Kevin’s always-friendly attitude were a big part of what made Five Points feel like family. As Steve explained, “People learn better if you’re encouraging as opposed to intimidating.” This welcoming culture from the top certainly encouraged a wider range of people to join and prosper, especially among more recreational fighters.

Companies are no different when it comes to establishing cultures from the top. If inclusivity is a priority, executives have to demonstrate that.

I’ve seen cases where the CEO created a committee to collaborate on establishing core values for the company, only to scrap that conversation and send out a survey asking employees to rate cultural values the CEO personally came up with. Over time, people with different viewpoints left the company, and the ones who stayed were predominantly from the same backgrounds in terms of work experience, gender, and ethnicity. Ultimately, building a culture of inclusion requires both executive buy-in and genuine follow-through actions, or else it will be hard to sustain.

“Inclusion” includes everyone

Five Points didn’t start out aiming to achieve gender parity or market to certain demographics. Instead, they focused on creating a community where everyone was welcomed. Simon summarized it well, “An inclusive culture includes everyone. By not having the right culture, you might turn away a person — not just women, but also other men — that can potentially help improve your gym directly.” He further elaborated, “We don’t want an asshole culture not just because women might be turned off—but men would, too.”

This is an important distinction. For example, it is tempting to generalize that a frat-house gym culture could keep women away. However, many men dislike such a culture as well. Instead of lumping people into groups, we can look at each individual and ask ourselves, “what environment would be welcoming for him or her?” For instance, Kevin always makes sure to take time to understand each prospective new member, give them a tour of the facilities, and discuss how the academy could cater to their needs.

We can extend this idea further: surface-level characteristics are often times just a proxy for deeper attributes, so why not go straight to the root? When I took Muay Thai classes at other gyms, the instructor would often remind everyone, “Guys, if you are paired with a girl, please go lighter.” This gender-based generalization is just a proxy for the root attribute: size. At Five Points, the instructor would instead say, “Guys (and gals), if you are paired with someone a lot smaller than you, please adjust your power to keep your partner safe.” Safety is a concern for anyone facing a bigger opponent, regardless of the gender they identify themselves with.

In tech, there has been a lot of discussion around creating a more inclusive environment for underrepresented demographics. I believe we can be more effective by augmenting this effort. In addition to asking “how can we make women feel comfortable contributing to meetings?”, we can also ask “how can we help all employees feel comfortable contributing to meetings?”[1] In addition to discussing “how can we provide support mechanisms for minorities?”, we can also discuss “how can we provide support mechanisms for employees who are not well-versed in mainstream corporate America culture?” I believe this hybrid approach can cover more ground and ensure that help is delivered to the people who need it most [2].

Treat everyone equally

A common theme among the female coaches and members I interviewed was that they felt that gender was something that did not cross their minds during class. Multiple members have commented that the instructors treated everyone equally. For example, if you were late, independent of what demographic or skill level you were, you had to do 30 pushups [3]. Giving everyone the same standards ensured that people couldn’t pick on others or make snide comments such as “Amy got off easier because she was a girl.”

One of the rules during Muay Thai drills class is to lower the power level and focus on technique. One time, Steve took Emily’s Muay Thai drills class and hit his partner a bit too hard. Emily immediately reminded Steve, “that was probably a bit too hard.” It didn’t matter that Steve was an owner and Emily was an employee — as the instructor of the class she made sure everyone followed the same rules.

Likewise, treating everyone equally starts from the beginning: the candidate experience. A common question I get is “how do we improve diversity without lowering the bar?” What I propose is to define a set of capabilities that all candidates need to demonstrate. For example, if a productive software engineer needs to be good at algorithms, system design, communication, teamwork, and breaking problems down, we should evaluate each of the five areas fairly during recruiting.

Unfortunately, many companies only look at the first two, which not only results in a non-diverse group of employees, but also those with skillsets that don’t fully map to their jobs. By communicating the standards transparently, we ensure that all employees understand that they belong, and are equally a part of the community.

Pay attention to details

Details often reflect the thoughtfulness put in to creating a culture. Ting, a Kali (a weapons-based martial art) instructor and former fighter, explained, “Many martial arts gym are dirty and smell like sweat. Five Points pays attention to details: there are hair ties and multiple hair dryers for women’s locker rooms. The mats are mopped every hour in between classes. This removes one extra stress for a lot of women who want to try out martial arts.”

Needless to say, the attention to detail applies to classes as well. A new member shared the following story with me: “Once I was getting ready to do a private session with Steve after Emily’s Muay Thai class. Emily went to Steve and said ‘she needs more work on her left roundhouse kick.’ Of course Steve then made me do left roundhouses for 30 minutes straight.”

While the member was cursing inside, she was also grateful for the attention Emily paid to her. Sonya, a long-time Kali student, also recalled that Simon would often notice when she’s flustered with a particular drill. With his classic British humor, he would remark “too much water in the bucket?” before proceeding to break down the drill further to ensure she could absorb the information.

There are many zero-cost things companies can do that could make the employees feel taken care of. For example, in the early days, Palantir, my former employer, would proactively offer employees the option to early-exercise their stock options. They also brought in tax accountants to explain how to handle the alternative minimum tax (AMT). However, I’ve also seen companies with 60+ employees where no one was given the option to early-exercise, even though it financially costs the company practically nothing.

Be adaptive to change and proactively improve

When Five Points first started, they followed the Western boxing mindset where members sparred hard. The mentality was to identify fighters who were tough and wanted it so bad they’d return after getting beaten up. Over time, as Steve and Simon traveled to Thailand, they witnessed a different style of sparring, where fighters sparred lightly and focused on technique and timing.

They revamped their sparring classes to “Thai Style Technical Sparring,” and had a few designated “hard sparring” classes. Although a few fighters were upset, Steve and Simon were convinced that this was the right approach. As Steve explained, “the old style can help you find tough people but not necessarily the best people.” Furthermore, the best fighter can come in all shapes, sizes, genders, and backgrounds, not necessarily the “tough person” who comes in day one wanting to fight.

This open mindset certainly uncovered many great fighters they wouldn’t have found otherwise, increasing the diversity of the community. One of their fighters, a former model and actress, came to Five Points never thinking she would fight. The welcoming environment and emphasis on technique during sparring made her feel safe as she leveled up her skills. Three years in, Steve asked her if she wanted to do a fight. She ended up getting hooked and went on to win multiple US Kickboxing Association International Championships.

This adaptive mindset is applicable to other areas as well. When I interviewed at Google, one of my interviewers told me that for a long time Google focused heavily on brain-teasers and algorithmic puzzles. As a result, during lunch with his team, the predominantly white and Asian male engineers with backgrounds in coding would discuss brain teasers and algorithmic puzzles.

Over time, Google’s leadership realized that brain teasers and algorithmic puzzles have little correlation with one’s performance. They then restructured their interview process, and the diversity of the team improved. Obviously there are still areas for improvement, but being able to recognize issues and adapt to new findings is critical to fostering an inclusive culture.

Enforce the rules fairly when needed

The journey to building a diverse and inclusive martial arts community is not without the occasional bumps. As a community grows bigger, there will inevitably be bad actors, and how a leader responds to them will set the tone for how the culture develops.

Emily has kicked students out of her class a few times when a bigger or more experienced fighter beat up on a smaller or less-experienced student. It did not matter if the bully was highly skilled or fought for the gym — she enforced the rules fairly with everyone. Similarly, after a 200+ lbs experienced man repeatedly beat up others during Muay Thai sparring and refused to let go on locks during Brazilian Jiu Jitsu classes, Steve asked him to leave the gym.

On the contrary, in a work environment, I have witnessed situations where someone would repeatedly yell at colleagues in front of everyone — including executives — during meetings. It got so toxic that four people from various departments requested to switch projects because they did not want to work with the person anymore. However, because the employee was deemed important by executives, they continued to let him yell at others during meetings with no repercussions.

Culture is not just slogans hung on the walls of your conference rooms. UCSF Psychiatry professor Cameron Sepah says, “Your Company Culture is Who You Hire, Fire, and Promote.” One of the triggers for a recent employee walk-out at Google was because the company paid ex-executives tens of millions of dollars after discovering allegations of sexual misconduct. Ensuring improper behavior is dealt with immediately and fairly is vital to fostering an inclusive culture.

Success breeds success

When an initiative has early traction, it is much easier to continue the momentum. Culture is the same way. When Five Points first started in 2002, they already had three high-level female fighters—one of them, Emily, even went on to win the Muay Thai World Championships. Having diversity early on helped provide role models for members from underrepresented backgrounds who were interested in fighting.

Once an inclusive culture is established, the community members will continue to be inclusive and others will want to join. One of the coaches and fighters, Gianna, explained, “Nobody made me feel like sh*t when I was new, so I want to make sure other noobs don’t feel that way either.”

Another Kali student, Sonya, who describes herself as a “girly girl,” had to work extra hard honing her skills because she did not come from an athletic background like most of the other members. However, Simon was always patient with her, continually breaking down techniques until she grasped them. Looking back, she is extremely appreciative that Simon tried very hard to make her feel comfortable, and now she recommends all her female friends to try out Kali. Her motivation? “I want girly girls to know that they’re welcome here.”

The same applies to the tech industry. I have seen series A companies with 50 employees struggle to hire women due to their gender imbalance (15% female), only to see the ratio further decrease as the company grows (10%). On the other hand, Flatiron Health, also a former employer, focused on diversity & inclusion from the get-go, including hiring senior female leaders across all functions early on. When I was there, they had roughly 50% female employees and 50% female managers.

From inclusion to diversity

Five Points Academy never started with the intent of building a gym with 50% women and members from all different ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds. Instead, the owners simply wanted to build a gym where anyone can belong, and anyone can enjoy being part of the community. By starting with inclusion, diversity followed.

I am not at all advocating for halting initiatives on diversity. It is important that we focus on diversity, and many companies are doing just that. However, just like Five Points Academy, we also need to invest in building an inclusive culture to help people thrive and grow at the company, which will further attract more diverse employees.

Footnotes

[1] Studies have shown that a man’s ideas are often taken more seriously than a woman’s. As a result, many women choose not to participate in meetings but ask a male colleague of theirs to present their ideas.
[2] For example, according to Ascend Research, Asians score the lowest in executive parity index, doing worse than Blacks and Hispanics. However, they are not considered an “underrepresented minority,” so relatively little has been done to mentor young Asian professionals on career progression.
[3] If you had physical limitations, you could substitute them with pushups on knees or another exercise.