Welcome to our very first episode with Julie Zhuo. Julie spent 13 years at Facebook where she was the head of design for the Facebook app. She actually joined as an IC designer and worked her way up to VP of design. She's also an incredible writer, having written the best selling book The Making Of A Manager. She's also the author of a newsletter called The Looking Glass, which was a huge inspiration to me throughout my entire career. Since leaving Meta, she started her own company called , which you'll hear a bit about. And in our chat, we cover career advice impostor syndrome, product review meetings, hiring designers, giving feedback to designers, and so much more. I hope you enjoy this chat as much as I did.
Julie, I am so excited to be chatting. You've been such an inspiration to me both in my PM career and in my writing. I think I mentioned that your newsletter inspired my newsletter. And so I'm really excited to be chatting. And I'm really thankful that you're joining me on this podcast.
Thank you, Lenny! It is a pleasure to be here. I think it's gonna be a super fun conversation.
For listeners who maybe aren't familiar with you and your career, could you just kind of briefly walk us through your journey in design, and then a little bit about what you're up to these days.
Okay, so let's see, I'm a first generation immigrant to the United States. And so with Asian parents, there were really only three options that I had for a career from like, the time I was six years old, I was told I could either be a doctor, a lawyer, or an engineer.
Nothing else was really in the realm of possibilities. Unfortunately, I was really scared of blood, so I couldn't be a doctor. And I only liked reading fiction growing up so like, I could never really be a lawyer. So I was always like, okay, alright this engineering thing. But actually, it was during middle school and high school that I discovered, what I love to do is drawing and in particular, digital art. And the reason for that is because actually I have very shaky hands. And so whenever I draw a line it never looks good, have to erase it start over, you know, and so by the time the art was done, it was like a mess. It was like, here's like 20,000 eraser marks.
But when I discovered MS Paint, and I kid you not, that was my very first design application, I was like "Oh my gosh, I can draw a line!" And even if it looks crummy, which it always does, because you had to use a mouse in those early days, I can just Ctrl Z and it goes away, and just keep trying over and over again. No one ever has to know how often I tried to get to this to be what I wanted. And so MS Paint became PaintShop Pro. And then one summer I finagled my way into a pirated copy of Photoshop, because I couldn't actually afford real Photoshop and I was off to the races in my digital art career. And it was actually through digital art that I realized "okay, I have actually amassed this collection of art, what should I do?" And I was like "well, let me go and actually build a website." All these artists that I admire on the internet did that like so, I'm gonna learn how to write HTML and put together a website. And that's essentially what I did on the side in my middle and high school years. So that's kind of how I got into like, design that I didn't know it was design because I really still thought of myself as an artist. I thought that the only thing I could be was an engineer, but I went in and studied computer science in college. I always had this like vision, okay, if I like building websites, maybe computer engineering is the closest thing to that. And I had this idea that maybe I could go work for one of these big tech companies.
After I took a class my senior year that taught me what is Silicon Valley? What is entrepreneurship? By the way, here's like all these stories of two people in a garage and then they went and built something big. I totally just was so into that I was like, all right, I do not want to work for a big company, I want to figure out if I can do this startup thing, and make something small into something big. I just happened to be very lucky at the time, there was a startup down the street from my university, it was a product I had been using for two or three years, it was Facebook, it was still a high school and college social networking product. At the time, 8 million users, they were doing a lot of recruitment at Stanford. So, that's how I decided to go and join for an internship. On my first day, I remember my mentor Ruchi, she said, "what kind of engineering would you like to do?" And I was like "the stuff that people see, of course" I want to like be able to do the stuff that I've always done and she replied
"Oh, I see, you should go sit next to the designers."
That was the first time I heard that design was a profession, that it was actually a job, it was like a thing that people did. Back in those days, all of the design team was also technical. So we were both the front end engineers, as well as the designers but I felt like I had found my tribe, I had found people who kind of had always been passionate about this thing that I didn't really realize was a job. And so I realized, though, as well that I had a lot to learn about design, I was never really formally trained in it. I only ever designed for myself, for me to express my creative, artistic side.
So there was a lot in those first three years, I would think of my time at Facebook as chapter one: learn how to be a designer. Learn about usability, learn about the actual language, nomenclature of design, learn how to think about the user as somebody separate than just me and my own work. Then, because Facebook was always scaling, I got the opportunity to eventually manage a team of designers totally unprepared for that no idea what I was doing, kind of jumped in and just started to manage. But, there was a huge amount of learning around recruiting, process, what even is good design, what is the way that we want to design at this company, in our team, and so tons of learnings there. The third chapter is just sort of thinking about scale, right learning how to scale and manage, learning how to build a wide diversity of products, learning more about strategy and how design fits into working with all of these other disciplines to build something great. So that's kind of how I think about my time at Facebook and the various chapters.
And the latest chapter is eventually I left Facebook about two years ago. And now I am a startup founder. So it's something that I've always wanted to do. So go back to that early phases of figuring out how to build something from zero to one, and I'm working on a product in product analytics, I'm really passionate about the idea of making data accessible. I've seen the power firsthand from working at Facebook of what data can do to help us make better products, especially for people at scale to help us reduce the bias in our intuitions and how we think about what is the way that we should prioritize, and I'm really passionate about the idea of making it such that every single company, every single business in the world can properly use data, know how to interpret it correctly, know how to use it to influence roadmap, strategy and prioritization decisions and make better decisions as a result.
I feel like that this idea that you're working on has such intense founder market fit, and I can't wait to hear more about it when you're ready to get to go deeper and for people to use it. But going back to your time at Facebook, you kind of like made it sound like “I joined as a designer, figured out design, became a manager and then like somehow you became VP of design” and it sounded too easy. But that's like an insane trajectory for someone to follow. You have any thoughts or advice on what contributed to your success rising through the ranks that quickly for folks that are kind of just early in their career? Maybe?
Absolutely, I want to make it really clear. I always say that like the first seven or eight years that I was at Facebook, every single week, I felt like an imposter and I had no idea really what I was doing. The constant refrain in my head is like
"Well, do you really deserve to be here? Do you really know what's happening? You're not really prepared for this job. You've never done this before? Like, what right do you have to be put in this situation and get to do what you do?"
That was really the constant refrain in my head. But looking back, I think it probably took me about seven or eight years till I became a little bit more comfortable with that, after seven or eight years, I could look back, I could see all of the things that I got to work on, I could see all the ways that I had grown and learned in that experience. Then something clicked for me where I realized it's kind of two sides of the same coin, right? Being in an uncomfortable situation, being in a position where you feel like
"hey, do I really know how to do this? I'm not prepared for it." Kind of coincides with the fastest and most intense periods of growth in one's career.
I started realizing, well, maybe it's not so much of a bad thing, right? Maybe if I am constantly putting myself in a situation where I haven't seen this problem before. That's also what's going to push me to grow and learn. And so yes, you asked for specific advice. I think there's two things:
I was lucky I was in the right place at the right time. I was at a company that was scaling and when you're at a company that grows there's always a lot more opportunity to then be able to try something new, to raise your hand to volunteer for things, to be just thrown into because somebody has to do it, because it's a growing company and a lot of other people. So the first piece of advice would be, if you want those types of opportunities, sometimes you just have to be at a smaller place and you have to be at a place that is going through that rate of growth. Embrace the fact that it's okay to be in a position where maybe you don't know what to do & you haven't been trained for it. It does coincide with that intense learning, maybe approach it with that sense of curiosity and that sense of yes, it's hard, yes, I might be an impostor and I might feel that way for a while. But this is also what's going to help me get there, it's going to be what forces me to do the work and in that process, learn and become better.
It's amazing to hear that you had impostor syndrome for such a long period of time. You basically ran design for like the Facebook app. So it's kind of an empowering, inspiring insight that someone at your level, went through that for so long, and made it through that. Do you have any other advice or thoughts on just for folks that are going through that? Because I had that too, for a number of years, just like what the hell am I doing here? People are gonna see, I don't really know what I'm doing. And it's all going to crumble as soon as I make my next mistake. Do you have any other advice there for folks going through that themselves?
I think just exactly what you said Lenny, right? I think so much of it, that helped me was realizing that everyone feels this way, to some extent. That's also why I always want to talk about that, right? Because I feel like sometimes you can see from the outside, you're like "oh, this person has this title, they have this position, they have these responsibilities. Clearly, they've made it they know what they're doing." But that's never the case.
Logically, let's think about it. If you're going to do anything new for the first time, how are you ever going to feel totally comfortable, totally prepared? Every time there's something new that you hadn't encountered before it's always going to be a little bit rough, you're never going to feel like perfectly at ease. It's only upon doing something multiple times that you start to see the patterns & you start to realize “okay, it's going to be all right.” Even now, the people that I talk to the people, I really look up to the people who I think are role models and mentors for me. I mean, they regularly also share with me that it's the same, it's like they still encounter things that are unprecedented. If we work in tech, I mean, the rate of change the rate of the industry, and companies and kind of these new experiences that we have, that never goes away, that's just par for the course. So I think that feeling always exists.
I think that what I have learned is that there are better tools in your toolkit for dealing with it. One of them is, of course, me just reminding myself that if I feel uncomfortable, it's okay. Other people feel that way too. Everyone does. It's totally natural, but then to also find other pieces in that toolkit. One is I am much better at asking for help now than I was earlier in my career, I used to actually just try and hold it all in, I was like, "hey I better fake it till I make it." Everyone thinks that maybe if I'm coming to the table like I know it, then I can fool them. But now I realize I was really just I was preventing myself from being able to get that support and that empathy and that camaraderie, and that advice that would have helped me actually grow faster, and maybe with a little bit less pain in the process. So one of the things I learned is
It's okay to ask for help, it's okay to reach out to people who both may be going through the same things you're going through or maybe are a step or two ahead of you in the journey, who have actually gone through that and have lived to tell the tale and can tell you, it's going to be okay, because often that's just what you need.
You just need people to tell you, it's gonna be fine, you're fine, you're good, you've got this. That's so meaningful, right? Whenever we sometimes feel down about ourselves. That's another, I would say tool in the toolkit, asking for help, finding groups of support.
Then I think the third is, it's also okay to just be vulnerable and just talk to people. I found that some of the most meaningful conversations I had, whether with people managers, or whether with my own reports, is when we can be much more open about what it is that we find hard, what are we struggling with. And in that way, you actually form deeper connections and people are more able to help out, we can spread the load a little bit, we can put our heads together and brainstorm a better way to solve the problem. I find that applies to even like the head of a department or like a founder, it's like I'm not going to solve everything myself, I'm never going to have all the answers... Sometimes by just sharing what the problem is, by sharing the load. We're all going to collectively come up with a better solution.
Love that advice. It's so simple and so effective. Reminds me of advice a coach once told me that when you're in a new role, you are an imposter, you're doing something you've never done before and that's normal and don't feel like that's unusual. So speaking of being uncomfortable, and being vulnerable and doing hard things, you now have a startup that you've started and I'm curious what's kind of different from the experience of being a leader at Meta versus being a founder? Especially things that are maybe are surprising, good or bad.
I will say it is definitely a very humbling experience, but it's also exactly the journey that I wanted. A lot of it is just going back to kind of like this base layer, when you're in a large company, a lot is taken cared of for you. If I have a question about, I don't know, like finance or how to deal with a people situation there are experts or like experts in every single field, and I can just go in, reach out to them and talk to them and kind of handle that and they help me.
When you get back to it, it's like, okay, in the beginning it was myself and my co-founder, Chandra, just the two of us. It was, all sorts of stuff that-talk about being an imposter-it's setting up & figuring out taxes, or just figuring out how to incorporate or just 1000 little decisions. 1000 little things that we're doing different. So there's a huge amount of learning, there's a huge amount of having to do it all yourself and realizing in a lot of ways, just how many things you're bad at or don't really like to do. Or that because you don't like to do them, it's hard to get them done. So it's humbling that way of just helping you realize these things about who you are.
I think the other thing is, for me, it's going back to the idea of being much more focused on doing work with people who are at different stages in their career. When I was leading design for, let's say for the last five or seven years, it was often work directly managing senior people, either senior designers, or managers or directors and so forth, then going back to working with folks at various stages, including new grads. Early career folks. I was actually realizing I had to kind of really change a lot of how I manage. So it was again, also very humbling in that respect, I had to change a lot of, what good management looks like in that context, which was different from a lot of the habits that I had built up, but it was also so rewarding. I realized, like, actually, I really love working with people who are in that early phase of their careers. It's totally different and what they need and how to best support them is really different than what you would do with a director or a very senior person. But it's also just a whole lot of fun. So that was something that is really new.
And then of course, so much of it is again, putting that IC hat back on. It's been years since I've actually sat down and designed and often as a manager, the thing I develop is my eye, but not my hand. So I learned to be a good critiquer of design. But actually, because I stopped practicing design, and I'm definitely at the limits of like what I can actually make and what I can produce myself become really evident.So again, back in this like new company setting, I have to put on a bit of that IC hat, I have to learn how to be kind of an IC PM, Learn how to be an IC designer realize that there's so much that I'm actually really bad at as well in that way, but develop and grow some of my muscles and those skills again.
The first point you made about having to kind of do everything again, I remember the reverse of that when we sold our startup. I was so happy just to like "oh yeah, here's the one goal we're going to focus on, we don't have to think about everything in the company all the time. I'm just going to hit this one goal, this one product, it's going to be so so much easier." It was really fun for a while, but then it gets itchy and hard again, and you kind of want to have more responsibility and more challenge.
It's fun, though I am really enjoying it.
I want to transition a little bit to talking about your writing and writing in general. I think I mentioned that your newsletter The Looking Glass inspired my writing in a big way. I basically modeled your newsletter and focused it on growth and product and that was the idea. Let me just do what Julie's doing and I'll do it around a different vertical.So first of all, I just want to thank you for all the writing that you've done over the years, because it was really impactful to me. So, thank you for doing that.
Oh, thank you for sharing that. It's really meaningful for me to hear as well.
I still go back to a lot of your writing, even though, I know you've slowed down to focus on on the startup, which makes a lot of sense and we'll chat a little bit about that. But I'm curious what got you to kind of start the writing. Broadly, what impact have you seen it have on your career? and just anything in life?
What actually started me on this writing journey was a piece of feedback I got during a performance review cycle. I remember I was talking to my manager, and he shared that "hey, one of the pieces of something you should work on and an area of growth is that you have a lot of really great ideas. And you're always really engaged whenever discussions happen in a small forum, one on one, or there's like two or three people in the room. But whenever there's a large room, we're talking about, like seven people, 10 people, 15 people, you're just sort of quiet, and you're not really telling your perspective, you're not really contributing to these larger conversations. That's something for you to think about and work on."
It was really good feedback, because I absolutely felt it. I definitely felt that barrier of speaking up in a large room. I think the fear could be summarized as I don't want to look stupid in front of a lot of people. So I had all these barriers. I was like "okay, am I sure that what I'm going to say, what comes out of my mouth is absolutely brilliant?" That was really just this notion, that was I getting in the way and I was like, "okay, I really want to work on this." I want to figure out how to get that to be less and less of a friction for me. So it was around I think the January timeframe, so when the New Year came, I was like
"okay, here's an idea, what if I just did something that, at the time, seemed really scary to me, which was put my opinion out there on the internet and just do it. Just do it for a year."
My goal was post one thing every single week. It seemed terrifying like, I'm not sure what people are gonna say, maybe all my ideas are stupid, but I just want to get better at doing that. Hopefully through that year, get more comfortable with that. So that's how this whole writing thing began, it came with this kind of New Year's resolution of just 52 times, I was going to click publish on something, some opinion piece, and I was like it doesn't matter what the opinion is right? Just put something out there and just expose yourself a little bit in that manner. So that's what I did. I tried to not have any goals around like, well, I don't know, maybe people will read it? Maybe it'll be considered high quality? Those are all just additional barriers that I was putting that would make it even harder for me, the only goal was to hit the publish button. So the first couple of weeks, were actually quite excruciating. I remember I just spent like hours on this piece, and I just kept editing. And I was like, I don't know if this is any good? should I actually publish it? And so forth. But eventually I did it. And, little by little, it started to just become easier as anything does when it's due to a lot.
So by week 10, by week 15, I had gotten into a bit of a cadence and I realized something that was having an impact on my work. I realized that it became much more clarifying for me to have that space to be able to write and it almost became a kind of self therapy, because through the week, I would have all these thoughts running around my head. Things I wanted to get better at, pieces of product that I was mulling on and the act of writing allowed me some quiet time to just sit down and try and organize those different threads of thoughts. I approach my writing then, as I still do now as letters to myself, this is the framework, this is the advice that I need to give myself that I need to go and really do better. That is what my writing became for me. It was hugely helpful for clarifying my train of thought, it was hugely helpful for me to then be able to do a better job of expressing myself. By the end of that year, I saw a huge difference in my ability, then in large meetings to speak up and to become more comfortable. But even after that year, because I had seen all of these advantages and what it did for my clarity of thinking. I just decided to continue it.
I think a wonderful side effect that other people started to resonate with the writing, they were like, "Oh this is actually helpful for me" or "I was feeling the same thing" or "this gave me a little bit of additional structure to think about the problem." That was also extremely motivating. But I will say that what I think helped me continue the writing habit is that I always did it for me and I always did it because I felt that there was a lot that I had to gain from it. It's been obviously a wonderful experience to connect with readers and other people in the community about it. It definitely made me feel less alone, it definitely confirmed a lot of the ideas that I had about is this the right way to think about something? It led to a lot of really rich discussion with my colleagues and with people who just emailed or responded about the writing. So that was a wonderful side benefit as well. But yeah, I really credit my ability to think better through the process and the practice of writing.
That's such a cool story. I love that it was kind of driven by a manager, but it kind of led to so many externalities, one thing I wanted to ask you is how did you find time to do the writing? People always want to write and very few people do or find time to do well. How did you actually make the time and keep that up?
So I actually had this practice of writing even before I did this more publicly with a blog. It was because I harbored this dream back when I was a teenager and well into my my college years of one day writing the next great American novel. So I wrote a lot of fiction. I have kind of like four published novels, just collecting dust, they're not very good. I can say that now with a lot more objectivity. But I did that. I would participate in this program called . Every year, which later, I was fortunate enough to be on the board for a number of years. But what was is it stands for National Novel Writing Month in November. So it's exactly what it sounds like, in the month of November the goal is to write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days. The whole purpose and the whole point of And again, I did it for a number of years in my early 20s. It's all about just getting the words out, it's not about like “hey is just every paragraph?” Or “is every sentence pristine?” Or “do you have like the right beginning middle end?”
It was like, “No, you're gonna write a novel every single day, you need to write 1667 words and you just do that over 30 days, you will have 50,000 words.” The whole premise was like yeah those 50,000 words, they're definitely going to be junk. They're not going to be really good. But at the end, you'll have something that you can then edit and then you can shape and you refine.
The hardest part is just getting started, just getting past the blank screen and the first page and because I've gone through that experience, I had really internalized that writing for me is just getting the words out. It is just about you sit your butt in the seat and just do it. Get the word count goal out or get like a time goal. I actually like word count goal even better than time goal, because sometimes you can spend 30 minutes and then still just produce a sentence. So that was always how I approached my writing, I was like, I'm gonna sit my butt down, and I'm gonna write for 30 or 45 minutes, but it's going to be whatever 250 words, it's going to be 500 words, it's going to be this number of words. That just gave me the discipline to just get it out. Then think about revising, think about quality. Think about all that later on.
When I got into writing my book, that was exactly how I approached the first draft. I was like okay to divide up, it needs to be 60 or 70,000 words. I have like a year, I'm gonna divide it up into the number of days and weeks and I think what it came down to, for me was like five nights a week, I needed to write 500 words each day. I eventually got that down to it was like 30 or 45 minutes then we had some days a little longer, other days a little shorter, but it was about that. And I just kept that weekly goal up until the book was written.
Speaking of the book, I definitely wanted to chat about that briefly. Did you always know you wanted to write a book? Or is this kind of thing that emerged from people just asking you the same questions again and again? And then similarly, what impact have you seen from that book? Which I own many copies and have gifted many copies.
Thank you. I had this dream that I would write the next great American novel. I still want to do that someday, one day I really do want to sit down and and hopefully write a fiction book. So I always had that on my mind. I don't think I ever thought that I would write a nonfiction book. I never thought I would write a business book. That really came about organically. And it came about because I was writing this blog and I was I was publishing these letters to myself, right? That I was again, putting on the internet.
Then occasionally, I would have publishers or various folks reach out and say, "oh, this was a really great article. Have you ever thought about developing that into a book?" And my answer for the longest time was always "no, because I don't think I have the stamina to make this one topic into this huge thing." I don't think about myself as kind of like a career writer, I honestly, just there wasn't necessarily anything that I felt was that differentiated or maybe a unique angle. I also felt that most books that I read, there was always like a huge amount of research that went into it. And I was like, I know this about myself. I don't love research, not great at it, I don't want to sit there and compile a bunch of stats and whatnot to make an argument.
But one day, a publisher reached out and they're like we had some ideas about the fact that you're writing really, especially the part about for new managers, your advice for new managers or for people new to leadership, it really seems like it strikes a chord for that particular audience. And we have some ideas like, why don't we get on the phone to discuss and I took that call. It really was that call that just did change my perspective, because it gave me a particular angle on something that I felt was missing in the market. Again, most of the stuff that I'm writing is advice to myself, but I was brought back to when I first became a manager and I went to the bookstore one day, I was looking for resources on what it means to manage and stuff that would help me become a better manager. Not a lot of it spoke to me, because seemed like most management books were written by CEOs who had been leading their company for years and years. Or was by management consultants, who didn't really seem like they had been in the situation of just like "hey, I was an IC on the team and now, next week, I have four reports that I'm going to be working with." There just wasn't that much for like, the completely new manager who didn't have an MBA, wasn't on some sort of ladder and just like one day, got dropped in and asked to kind of go in and support a couple of people who were starting next week. I was brought back to that moment in time and realizing "you know, there really isn't that much that is great out there for us, particularly geared for new managers." And I felt that I had to really learn and make a lot of these mistakes on my own.
Even very fundamentally, I don't think that people ever really explained to me like, what is a manager? What does it mean to do a good job as a manager of a handful of people? And so it sparked this idea that this was something that was somewhat missing in the market, that there was an opportunity to just really write something that could speak to people like me, and people similar to me, who maybe weren't on this ladder for 10 or 12 years, especially in tech, right? I knew many people who had gone through that. The second thing for me is I realized that I would likely also become a better manager through this process, because it would force me to think about management a lot every single day. It would force me to reflect on my frameworks for management. Whenever you think about something all the time in the back of your head, it's just more top of mind. I was looking to become a better manager myself at that point and that was the additional boost that I needed to kind of commit to the project.
Has that last piece bitten you in the butt at all? When you maybe make a mistake as a manager and people are like "Julie, you wrote this book on management, what the hell's going on?"
I always tell people, I tell my own reports as well, you might come in and you might have read my book and you might think that somehow I am a really great manager and an expert on management and I always try to lower your expectations. I'm still learning. There's a lot of things that I'm still working on that I know I'm not perfect at. But that's what I think it is right? I think so much about, for me, at least learning to be a better manager- and I know I'll probably be on this journey for the rest of my life- is that you can know, oftentimes the theory because the theory is it makes sense, right? It's like, okay, we all have been in that situation, we can feel.
It is so hard to just actually put it in practice. It's so hard to do some of these things every single day because they're sort of counterintuitive, and it is so hard to apply it to the appropriate context. Even the example I gave earlier, managing early career, new grads is just completely different than managing really senior people and being able to tailor to each individual person or each specific group of people. Because humans aren't alike. We're all different. We're all unique, where there's no two people who are the same. No groups of people are the same. So it is an art as anything else. And a lot of it too, is about learning about
How can I be more honest and more authentic to my own strengths and weaknesses?
and then be able to pair that up with the person that I'm talking to, or the group of people that I'm working with. So definitely not by any means today still consider myself great, or an expert, I think like everyone else, and I'm still trying to get better.
That's a little bit how I feel where people think that I've got it all figured out. That I'd be like, the most amazing product manager they've ever worked with. And I feel like I could never get a regular job again. Because the hype, the bar, expectations are way too high. People forget that I have time to think research, process, write, and that kind of thing. And so I can never get a PM job again is basically the problem that I've created for myself.
I think you'd be a pretty great PM Lenny.
It's all an illusion haha but I appreciate it! And then the other piece is that- and you've put this out- is that like a lot of people don't realize when folks like us, write it's us figuring it out. It's not like we have the answer. And we're just like, okay, here, I'm just gonna write down the answer I already have in my head. It's the process of writing is how we learn a lot about these sorts of things. And a lot of people don't realize that.
Yeah, absolutely agree. Like I said, it's about reminding ourselves, right? I always often say I'm like the number one audience for my own writing, because I'm the person who needs to really hear it the most.
That's exactly how I feel. A lot of times when I go back to my own pieces, like oh, yeah, okay, that's what I wanted to remember, on the writing, something I wanted to ask about is you've kind of slowed down for good reason. You have a start-up to run, and you started doing more tweeting than newsletters and blogging. How do you think about that? Just like, Is that intentional? How do you think about, I don't know, Twitter versus newsletters and other things?
Yeah, it was very much. Yeah, this is a another New Year's resolution that came up later, right. And one of the things that I recognized about myself is like, I kind of have a tendency to ramble. And I've gotten this feedback as well, in 360s, where I'm not always the clearest communicator, I can be a pretty good storyteller. And I am clear and writing often than I am in person. But this was another area that I wanted to get better at, right, I wanted to get better at, in the moment, communicating more clearly, and being just a little bit sharper, a little bit crisper, in the points that I had to make.
And I remember, I work with a number of colleagues who were just so good at this, right? There'll be some really complex topic, this big product thing that we're trying to figure out. And in the moment, it would go and they would say, "Okay, I see this is what the problem is a problem is one bla bla bla bla bla, two blah blah blah, three" like, right? And everybody would be like, "yeah, you know, that's amazing. You know, that's so crystal clear, like this huge thing. We're all talking past each other and now became boiled to something so sharp and so beautiful, right?"
And I always had so much respect and admiration for the people who could do that. And that wasn't me. But I was like, okay, well as anything, if I have a thing I like and want and admire and respect, I can at least get better at it right? Maybe I'll never be at that level, but I can work towards it.
And one of the ways I saw of working towards that is, well, let's just change it up. I'd been doing long form, right, which again, works really well for the stories and this kind of like, more meandering prose. But what if I just pushed myself to communicate in a much shorter form? Which is going to force me to really strip away all that ornamentation and focus on the core idea. And I was like, I'm just gonna go and publish threads on Twitter for a year again, same thing right? Once a week, a little thread, just take whatever is that the advice I needed to give myself and then boil that down to a tweet form. So also it has helped me to get better at now wording things. I think more naturally, now, sometimes it's like 1...2...3. And that has helped me as well. And just again, the day job and the way they communicate, still a long ways to go. But I think Twitter is really great at that. And it's really great at trying to boil it down to the essence of what it is that one wants to communicate.
I love that use these tools to help work on a very specific skill that you're hoping to develop. So you said that worked? Is that something you'd recommend to folks that are working on something like this and have a challenge there too?
I do. I talk to a lot of people who want to write more because they feel like there is a lot of benefits or maybe it's because writers often talk about like all of the benefits but a lot of people do help to maybe find it as you were saying earlier hard to get started right?
My number one advice is like try to find an angle that's going to work for you because if you find yourself writing for your audience, if you find yourself writing because you want likes or you want a certain number of views, that actually is a really hard barrier to overcome, because you don't have control over all of that, right? But if you write because you're trying to work on a particular key skill
whether it is clarity of thinking whether it's going to helping you work through some stuff that's complicated in your mind whether it's just again, working on being more comfortable putting your voice out there
Then make it a goal. But make it an action goal, right? Make it like a word count goal. I saw this on Twitter, I think it was like last year, the idea of the 30 days of just writing a thing every day or tweeting every day, right? And you see this in design, too. There's Inktober, which is you just draw a thing every single day in the month of October. And I love those types of kind of structures and programs, I think that they're a way to go and get into the habit of that.
And everyone can feel like they couldn't do anything for 30 days, right? You can do anything for like three months, if you just commit to doing once a week, it doesn't have to be forever doesn't have to be some sort of like five year thing and the commitment that's like a huge milestone, you just have to do it for a little bit and then reflect on it. Is it really helping you right? Is it actually helping you get closer to that goal. And that's usually the easiest way I found to get started.
I love that just creating a little bit of structure for yourself. So you don't have to think about it. You just do it. And I don't care what I do on that day, but I'm doing it and maybe one time something will come out really great.
And that reminds me of something I wanted to plus one that point that especially on Twitter, I find whenever you're trying to go viral, it just comes across often as just like, okay, they're just trying to go viral. So lame, this person just wants a lot of likes, versus I just want to share a thing that's interesting to me quickly, or here's how I want to think about it. Or here's just like a thing I want to remember in the future, I find those end up being a lot more successful.
That's right. Yeah, that's totally right. I think it's what really gets you interested in it, is likely the thread that you want to unroll and continue to explore, right? If you just try and say what you think people want to hear, it just comes across as not that genuine and personally not that interesting.
Yeah like the thing I've kind of learned is if I find something interesting, other people will find it interesting. So I'll just share that in some form and it often ends up being really helpful to a lot of people. Speaking of Twitter, one of the threads I've liked best that you've written about-and I think you've done this a couple of times- is around product thinking and product sense and how to build that muscle. So I'd love to just hear your advice for folks that are thinking about how do I get better at product sense and product thinking? What are ways that people can get better at these things?
The number one advice that I always have for people when talking about product sense or product thinking is it's just really about observation. It's about curiosity and you can start by first observing yourself, like every time you're gonna go and use something right? Every time you're going to have a new experience, you download an app, you try something new, take the moment to reflect on kind of your emotion or your assumption at every step, right?
What was the new user experience like? What moment did it become clear to you, what was going on? How many times did you tap something and then had to exit because you went down a wrong pathway?
And even before that, it's like
what even led you to trying this service in the first place to downloading the app? Was it word of mouth through a friend? Did you see something on the internet that somebody that you respect, pitch it right?
But these are all ways in which we're learning about how things work, how products work, and always starts by just if you first observe yourself, then you'll make a lot of progress, right? And oftentimes, it's hard to do that, right? Because sometimes we're just we're going through the motions, or we're not necessarily sitting down and analyzing every step of it. But the first step, I think, is just to get really good, comfortable, familiar, habitual, with just that first, that personal observation.
The second step is then okay, cool you do that for yourself. That's not enough, because you're not the world, right? You don't necessarily present everyone. But now it's to just sort of to build on those circles. So the next thing you do is like you go and actually observe and share those observations with somebody else right? So how that often looks is like discussions about products. And so if you download this
why did you download this? Like, what made you decide that this was a great app? Do you think it's a great app? What was compelling about it?
To just really find the curiosity of thinking through which decisions did the builders or the creators of something make and what was the impact of it on us users, us customers and so forth, right?
So often it goes into then the next step, which is spending a lot of time sharing those observations and critiquing, right? I mean, a rule of thumb is if I want to get better, how often are you having a conversation with somebody about products? Dissecting something, right? And really, like, what did you think was good or bad about it and engaging that because if you aren't, it's going to be harder for you to actually learn about all of those different micro-decisions and what its impact is, and then you can go a little broader than that, right?
There's lots of really great resources, there's amazing folks on the internet, right? Who will go down and really dissect something like I love Eugene Wei's writing, I love like Kevin Kwok, you know, like I always learn something because they take these apps like Figma, or Tik Tok, or whatever it is, and then they go very, very deep with their own observations, like what works, what doesn't, what patterns do we see across different apps that are successful? And that aren't right? And this is all helping us to understand what are these again, the key decisions and what impact does it lead to that helps us become better at then making those intentional decisions in the product? So that's a huge part of it.
I think another thing, then, of course, you have to try and validate, right? So one thing we can do is, of course, we look at opinions, we look at reactions, that's data, right? That's the qualitative side, I think the other side is, is quantitative. So often, if you are building products, and you have the opportunity to run experiments to do AB test, or if you're working on one team, but lots of other people in lots of other teams are also doing AB test, it's so interesting to then be able to ask people, like ask the product manager on the other team about what they're learning about their products. And to really be able to look at specific decisions and what causally happened as a result. That's what I love about AB tests. And I think being really deep in the data. And really going back to like, can we infer some sort of causal relationship? Because we're either correlation or causation. But with causation with AB tests can we actually pick up some of these learnings? Can we look at patterns? And can we take some insights away that helps validate and confirm a lot of the hypotheses that we had about product and just ingesting as much of that as you can also helps develop your instinct for what works and what doesn't.
I always find people often have this like, “oh, design and user experience is on the other side of the coin” it's like it's a totally different industry. And they're at odds with each other, right? Being data informed and being quantitative versus being very designer-y and subjective and caring about those aesthetics. And I just think that's totally wrong. I think that they're really one, one helps confirm the assumptions for the other, right? Now, it is true that looking at a bunch of numbers isn't often going to tell you exactly the leaps of faith that you need to make to start something new. But they surely can help you validate whether a number of your assumptions about how people work or the way the world works are true or not.
And so I know a lot of really brilliant product thinkers who got that way. Not necessarily because it came through the route of like subjective observation, but because they went and they were so disciplined about always studying what happened, right? What was the impact and the numbers and people and so forth and then eventually you marry that, of course, with well, why might that be the case? And you get into the qualitative side and the observation, but these two both support each other in helping to build a really great product sense.
That's awesome. There's so much material there that we could go on and on. On that last point, I wanted to kind of double click on it a little bit. So say you're founder, and you're like "Man, I have all these really clear vision and ideas of where I want to go with my product." And your team's like, "I don't know if this is right, what if we do a little more user research or run some experiments?" Do you have any advice to the founder of just like when to rely on their gut and experience and just go with that versus doing more research? Getting more data?
That is a really great question, one of the most common pieces of advice for founders-and I actually also had to remind myself constantly of this one- is like, the more you know, your customers, the more you can really, close your eyes, and just imagine everything about their life and what they're doing on almost like a minute to minute basis. Probably the better you're going to do in terms of coming up with something that's going to meaningfully solve a problem for them. So that comes from a couple of different places.
So the first is like, look, if you're the person you're building for, and you're the target audience, awesome, you probably do have a lot of stuff that is instinctively known to you, right? And maybe in those cases, your team doesn't have that experience. And they maybe can't feel the same level of conviction you do. And they might be asking you "hey, well, can we validate all of that?" It's always good advice. But sometimes you're just actually so deep in it and you can deal with this person or you know this person or you did this job that probably can trust your instincts and your gut quite a bit right?
And I remember early days at Facebook, that was us, everybody who worked at the company was either a college dropout or recent college grad and we were building a product for college students. I mean-we we're the perfect- that was like For us By us, right? We understood exactly what this audience wanted. If we didn't, we would call up some friends. I mean, this was just pure target demographic for what we were building. But eventually, if that's not true, and this evolved at Facebook, and evolves for companies, you might start out that way. But eventually, we started to open up to the world, we started to add people in different countries, like the percentage of people that were like college grads, who are like us who are using the product started to shrink became a smaller and smaller percentage of actually all core Facebook users. So therefore, our intuitions started to become less and less reliable, right?
And I remember in spectacular fashion, I think this was like in 200- 08 or 09, we had like a string of failures, you know, big kind of launches that were failures. And I think it was because we reached the end of our intuition for the user base at that particular moment. And that's true for founders as well, like sometimes, you know, you're building a product in a domain where you weren't the target audience, right? And I feel this right now for myself, you know, I'm building an analytics product, I was never a data analyst, I understand the outside the value of data, but I never did the job. Therefore, what I really needed to do was just spend a lot of time with data scientists and immerse. Actually just try to do the job myself because the better that I understand what it is and what it's like and what the company context is, and I think for SAAS companies in particular, you might have done the job at one company, but you probably didn't do it at like 20 or 50 companies, and you're probably selling to like a lot of companies.
So it's just way more critical for you to spend a lot of time interviewing customers, because your intuition is likely not going to carry you nearly as far as if you're building a very consumer product for a very consumer audience of which you, yourself are part of right? So I do think that yeah, doesn't matter that you need to really understand your customers, you have to go out and do the work, have the conversations, teach yourself the things that they do. Depends a bit on the context depends on where you are, but it's never bad advice, the better you understand your customers, I think the better you're going to be able to build a product.
I really liked that advice of just like this model of the more time the founder spends with their customers, the more you can trust that they're going to have the right sorts of instincts, and the less they start to spend time there maybe start running more experiments and doing more research as a team around the founder. That's interesting.
Yeah or the larger your user base becomes the less reliable any one or 10, or even 100 people are in terms of understanding the whole right? It's just the numbers get too big.
And luckily, in theory, you have a lot more data at that point. And so you can actually run experiments and start relying on data. Something I also wanted to get your advice on is something that a lot of founders especially-and even PMs- come to me around is product review meetings and design review meetings. And I know you've run many. And so I wanted to get your thoughts on just how should companies structure product review meetings or design review meetings? Who should be in the room? How should they be set up? Any advice for folks that are trying to figure that out?
I really believe that it's never a bad thing. It's always a better thing to have more feedback, right? And so often, I think you don't have necessarily want to be like, "oh, you know, we have like the one review meeting and that's the one in which we like, get everyone's opinions out. And we make all these decisions and then we're done." I think about product and feedback, as kind of just the more the better, right? And most people again, everyone, especially with design, like has an opinion to some degree, right? And so all opinions are valid, because they are a true opinion. The question is, how do you then prioritize? How do you figure out what it is that you should do? Because we also can't, it isn't successful to try and do things by consensus, you're never going to get a group of people, of smart people to agree about what is absolutely the best design.
So one principle is if you're going to have feedback on the product, more is better. Try and have like different sessions with different groups of people. I would advise a designer "Hey, go and actually do a critique with a design audience. But go and then show this to the people who are most directly working on the product because they're gonna have a different set of knowledge. But then go and see if you can find some people outside of your direct team who don't have as much bias on & just know exactly how things work. And then show them the user experience. And then go and actually see if you can find like a group of target customers for who you're actually going to launch, right? And then run some user research sessions and get feedback, right? Like they all are going to be valuable. They all might contradict each other to some degree. But the right answer isn't like because we don't like disagreement. Let's just go with like one and then ignore the others, right? Everyone is going to have something to contribute to the product, because everyone has that different perspective. So again, lots of sessions, lots of user review sessions.
Awesome. Okay. But then there is an important job, which is the synthesis of like all of that feedback and a way of understanding what really matters and and the way that I often think about this is like, we have to be absolutely clear on who is that target audience and what is the most important problem that we're trying to solve for them, right? So if you can get every group to align on this is the value this is who it is right? Again, go and paint that very clear picture of the person the problem, what it is that that we're trying to help them with, and then what is most important What is the job? You know, I really like the jobs-to-be-done framework. But like, what's the job that this particular feature or product is going to fulfill for that person? Right, then it makes it easier for us to then start to categorize different buckets of feedback, right? Because the first thing that that's most important to address is like, well, is this thing actually valuable? Like, is it a, you know, doing something, this is solving the problem? Is it doing the job correctly, and if a lot of other stuff below is bad, but this is like, good, then we can move on to kind of the next most important thing, but if like, all the other stuff is, is maybe even good or interesting, but this is not there, then we should just actually disregard all the other stuff until we are quite certain that we've gotten kind of the core value, we understand the user. This, in some sense, is addressing the core pain, right?
Then once we do that, then let's focus on the next layer, which I will think about as like ease of use, right? So okay, cool. We've figured out that we validated this thing is valuable, it does solve the job.
Like, are people confused? Are they getting hung up somewhere? Is it just like really slow? So like, no one can use it? Because it just takes like 10 seconds to load each time, right?
Ease of use is just about like, can people access the value in a really great manner? That's the next most important bucket right?
And then finally, if it is very valuable, it's easy to use. And I think we get into like, is it joyful to use? Is it pleasurable? Does it really exceed expectations, right, and I think that is the bar that we should aim for whenever we are creating products. And then here might have debates about like colors, or like aesthetic properties, or animation and delight and all of the other things that just make it that much more enjoyable and surprising and wonderful for the core audience. But you don't want to just focus on that and then lose like, Okay, actually, this thing wasn't valuable. And it's like loaded in 10 seconds. Like, who cares about like, how great was the animation when the thing doesn't even load? So I think there's like a work to do to try and actually help the different pieces of feedback get synthesized. So we understand what bucket they are. And we can have the right order of prioritization to make sure we tackle the most important things first.
And just to be clear, this is a kind of a ongoing process. This isn't like one meeting, right? Where you go through all these four layers, right? Yeah. Cool. And then is your advice to focus on it in that sequence generally, and like not focus on say, the delight, and so you kind of make it through these other points? Or do you find it's kind of helpful to kind of think about all these things at once,
I usually find that if you're gonna go in and have run a design critique or review session, it's helpful to sort of start off front by saying, here's where we are in the process, this is the most important set of things we want to validate, right? We want to validate whether this actually solves the problem like we validate, it solves a problem. But you know, we validate like, whether it's easy to use, or something along those effects, to be more specific about where you are, what kind of feedback matters the most, at that particular phase and for the team is valuable, right? Because if you don't do that, sometimes you'll just get all sorts of feedback, and some of it you're not even ready for right? You're not even thinking, the team's not even thinking about some of these additional level details or just thinking about the core stuff. And you know, it usually follows just from how product development happens, right?
Like, the first thing that often teams will come up with, when they build a product is like some kind of product brief or some kind of, you know, like understanding of the user and a very high level picture about how the product is, you know, usually there's not like high fidelity mocks or prototypes at that stage right? So that's great because we're using a different fidelity, we're looking at documents and words and values and data as a way to understand the opportunity. And that lends itself well to that kind of feedback.
But where I find that things get a little confusing, it's like, sometimes you will go and just make a prototype, right? And again, the goal of the prototype is to give a feeling of how it works. It's not that the team had already spent a bunch of time on the exact UI decisions or so forth and so what happens is sometimes the audience or the people who are giving feedback, they can't always distinguish that. So then, the feedback goes immediately towards like, oh, I don't like that shade of blue. Or maybe we should put step two before step three. And that's not actually where the conversation is, right? Because we haven't actually gone and have conviction in just like the first core piece of whether this is even the right thing to build, or whether it really is solving an important enough problem. So being very clear about like, where you are, and what is the feedback that you want to get is important.
Now, again, eventually you go and you put stuff in front of customers, it's a little harder for them to just fully be able to distinguish between like wait what's the difference between the feedback versus around value versus ease of use, it gets all blended for them at that point in time though, they'll just give whatever feedback and again, I think that's fine, just collect it. But then when you go and do the synthesis when you go and do the prioritization, make sure that you're getting what you need at that stage.
As a colleague of the designer, so you're a PM or an engineer, data scientist, or whatever. Do you have any advice for just giving feedback to a designer in the critique?
Yes, the most important feedback I would say is focus on identifying a problem and making it really clear for the other person, the person you're giving feedback to what is the problem? The reason I always give that is because sometimes we're all solvers and builders. And so you often can very much get into like "wait a second I see the problem, but instead of talking about the problem, I'm just gonna give you a solution."
So people will say things like, "I see this." And I'll be like, "Why don't we make the logo purple?” Or like “why don't we try and add this feature here" And there's a lot of assumptions that are already in place like you're giving that because you assume the current thing is insufficient in some way, right? And it's maybe not ideal at being clear, or it is forgetting like to bring some important value prop or maybe like, yellow just makes this whole thing look like pukey, or whatever it is, right? There's a reason, but instead of actually stating the reason, we go straight to the solution. And at that point, maybe the solution is good. Maybe it isn't right?
But honestly, you have designers, you have other people who are just focused on coming up with the right solution, you're kind of taking that power away from them by going straight to what you think is like the right solution, right? Again, I'm not saying don't ever propose a solution, it's always good to give a suggestion, but you also have to respect that whoever is actually coming up with the answer or the solution, they're the ones who should be empowered to. Ultimately, they know the most about the problem, they thought about it the longest, right? Help them understand what you think the problem is, with whatever it is they're proposing, give examples, show them where you're getting stuck. Why is it unclear to you? Why do you think that this color is not the right color? And try and paint that because when everyone is aligned on the problem, then we can all collectively come up with better solutions. And then we can kind of rate and critique the solutions against each other. But by going straight to brainstorming ideas, sometimes a lot gets lost and people aren't actually following along on is this really the problem? Do we agree this is a problem is is actually the most important problem.
Imagine PMs are very guilty of this of just like "let's just move this button over here. And it'll be cool. It'll solve all these problems. Let's move it higher up." And it's kind of ironic because PMs also don't want people coming to them with a solution. And it's funny, you kind of forget that. And you just get people, here's what we should just do. Let's move on.
Yeah, we all forget it all the time. I mean, it is a hard one, right? Because like, it's fun. It's like we're all solvers to some degree, right? It's fun to jump in there and do it. But when you don't have extreme clarity on the problem, then that's what happens when you just end up talking past each other.
Absolutely. I've been guilty of that myself. Okay, so I've soaked up an hour of your time, I want to let you go. But I have two more questions I want to ask in different directions. One is coming back to your book about The Making of A Manager. By the way, we haven't even mentioned the name of the book yet The Making Of A Manager available at all of local bookstores and Amazon and every online shop bookshop. So a lot of people want to become managers. And oftentimes they struggle for whatever reason, they can't make it to manager, nobody wants to promote them, they're just kind of struggling there. Do you have any advice for folks that are just like having a hard time getting to that point where they actually get to be a manager.
The first is make sure your manager is aware of those aspirations, bring them in to your hopes and dreams, right? If your manager understands your goals, and what you would like to work towards, then it's much easier for you to be like "Okay, can you help and I really want to be able to do what you do, I want to lead a team, I want to lead a project, etc. Like, help me figure out how to get there."
the first thing you should ask is like, "what does it take?" Where are the skills that I'm going to need to get better at? In order for you to believe that I could be successful in doing so. And just make sure that you hear that right? And make sure that you can have an honest conversation where your manager can help you be aware of what are the things that you should work on and then work together to just make a plan to be like "okay, cool. You know, one of the things that I've got to improve on is that I, one of the roles and responsibilities manager is like, go in spending a lot of time on recruiting and like, I haven't done that, right. So let's see, let's work together for a plan where I can start to learn some of those skills."
One of the nice things about at least that I find about you know, like, what the path to management is, like a lot of the stuff you can do, even when you're not a manager, some stuff you can't right? You probably can't fire someone and learn those skills without actually being a manager and being in that role. But a lot of things like hiring, like mentoring, like working on process is all things that you can start to contribute and help out with in the capacity of an IC, right. So if that is if you've identified these different skills, then find opportunities to start to practice and be able to grow those skills. So for example, oftentimes what’s really great if you're a part of a company that's growing and has like a summer internship program, awesome, can you go in and sign up and mentor an intern and manage an intern, right? It's a very sort of small way of doing that and getting started.
Here's another example. If you're at a growing company, and new people are joining, and you might work with your manager to say, “Hey, let me be this person's onboarding, buddy.” You know, let me be responsible for helping them get up to speed over the first one or two weeks. Or if you want to spot an opportunity, let's say there's documentation or there's some process that you know, we had to change the structure of the meeting like ask your manager if you can help out with that, you can volunteer for that, your help could come up with some new process for doing something right or new way of running the meeting and just take the lead. So a lot of these things you don't need to have the official title to do, you can do a lot of it in that capacity as an IC. And again, it's also great for you to then try out like, "do I like doing these things? do these things give me energy?" As well, your manager can see whether you can be successful in this respect, and then give you more and more responsibility, if so. So it's really not binary. It's not all or nothing.