Season 3, Ep. 29 – Season 3 Learnings, with Faith Benson and our Season 3 guests
As we wind down Season 3 of the Frontier Podcast, Faith takes a look back at some of the highlights from our incredible slate of guests.
(THE FRONTIER THEME PLAYS AND FADES OUT)
Hello, everybody. Welcome to the season three finale. I cannot believe we are already wrapping up season three of the Frontier Podcast. We have been making these episodes and interviewing folks in the tech community for over four years now, so this is a huge accomplishment for us and super stoked to bring things back in season four. But for today, we’re gonna be wrapping up season three with a recap episode. So we’ll circle back to some of the most shared moments from episodes that went live this past season. So season three of the Frontier was really focused on, you know, talking to folks who are putting in the legwork to build and shape our industry today, and the context is interesting, right? We recorded these episodes late 2022, early 2023, and we all know that it’s been a wild economic time which, you know, maybe that’s true most of the time, but I think especially right now, it’s hard to read the news and not get kinda scared of, you know, what’s to come.
So for me, it’s been really awesome to listen to folks, whether they’re founders, builders, developers, user research experts, right, department heads, and just get a sense of how they’re thinking about continuing to push the ball forward in creative and innovative ways, despite what’s happening at a macro level. A takeaway that I’ve had is, you know, regardless of what’s happening in the economy or in the industry as a whole, people really think about team building and building together the same, right? Which is, lead with a mission-driven mentality. Hire the best folks you can, and then give them space to create and innovate on their own. So I’m excited to circle back to some of these conversations. If you’re a founder, there’s a few episodes you’re gonna hear on here that are gonna be really helpful for you to revisit if you missed some of season three.
Particularly, like I mentioned, how to lead with a clear mission and use that as your hiring edge, so to speak. For developers, we’ve got some really great information about building and leveraging developer communities, especially if you’re a freelancer or you’re working remote. Finding time and space to connect with folks so you’re not working on an island is more important than ever. And then for builders of all kinds, regardless of what your role is, what kind of department you’re leading, we talk a lot about, this season, how to think about UX in a time when standards for what good look like are just constantly changing. So I’m really excited for you guys to listen to these clips. I know that I learned a ton this season. Really grateful for the folks who joined us, and we will be back very soon. (THE FRONTIER THEME FADES IN AND OUT)
Jordan Ambra, via episode 1 (03:29):
…or people is really cool.
Faith, via episode 1 (03:31):
It seems like you are a very mission driven company. Like, I’m hearing…the mission is very clear with the impact that you’re having on folks’ lives, whether they’re the owners or the guests, because some companies struggle with that. In fact, a lot of companies do. And it’s hard to rally a team and a market around the thing that you’re creating without that like, crystal clear mission. And so, I’m curious about like, how that’s cultivated on the team. Have you seen that it’s been intentional, or is it just kind of like everybody gets it, it’s easy to grow out; you come on, because this is the kind of work you wanna be doing?
I will say that that makes hiring a bit easier. (Faith: Yeah.) It’s really easy to see the impact of something where you can say, “Hey, like, you’re giving people photos and videos of key moments in their lives. Fantastic.” Like, that’s not hard to describe, and people are pretty much on board immediately with that. Plus, it’s fun problems to solve on the engineering team, right? Like, not everybody gets to work on photo and video capture. But it’s visual, it’s fun, it’s interactive, and you know, that there’s a draw to that for sure, just from the hiring perspective. (Faith: Hmm <affirmative>.) But I do think it goes a bit deeper than that, too. We end up with like, our product itself ends up being very customer driven, right? You can make data driven decisions about your customers a lot more easily when you know what your mission is. Like, you know who the other people are who are using your product. (THE FRONTIER THEME FADES IN AND OUT)
Darko Bozhinovsky, via episode 3 (05:20):
…find your mistakes, don’t do them again. (Faith: <Laugh>.) That’s it. I’m still learning <laugh>.
Faith, via episode 3 (05:24):
Yeah, it takes a while. I mean, we’re like, over 200 episodes into this thing, and it’s still, we learn something new every time. So I think, thematically, the umbrella that’s over everything we’ve talked about today is how to expand your skill set and your presence as a developer, beyond just writing code. And I think you’ve found some really cool ways to do that through events and through podcasting, and we didn’t even mention content creation. Like, you write really excellent guides and blog posts (Darko: Thank you.) about technical topics, and we’ve had you write some of those for us before, and I would imagine there’s folks listening who, you know, so far have spent their careers really just focused on writing the code, right? And maybe are interested in expanding a little bit. So for those folks, if you were to distill like, a first step for them, like, “Okay, you want to expand your skill set, here’s the first thing you should do.” What would that be?
I’ve heard this interesting quote recently. I mean, actually yesterday. I’m part of, for context, I’m part of a developer relations mentorship. That’s a really, really cool and fun thing. We have guest lecturers on, and what I heard yesterday is that content is the final step of a learning process. So the advice here would be, just, if we all learn as developers, we all do like, some project or the other, solve a problem or something, write about that problem. You’ve actually had to research it, you had to learn about it, you had to solve that problem, and somebody else has that problem, probably, out there. Write about that, do a video about that, podcast about it, it doesn’t matter. That’s just, you know, document your process, and that’s already like, good enough. Everything else is details, and improvement, and iteration. Just iterate over it, and that’s it. That’s, you know, all there is to it, to my knowledge, so far <laugh>.
Just start with what, you know…(THE FRONTIER THEME FADES IN AND OUT)
Faith, via episode 5 (07:38):
Yeah, so we work with a lot of startups, right? And, I think, for folks who are, kind of, building from the ground up, the thought of implementing a design system is very far off of their radar, because they’re like, okay, what’s the minimum viable thing that I can do today, (Michael: Yeah.) you know, so we look, at least, somewhat legit? And oh, I’ll just bring in a designer to do this, like one-off thing, and that’ll be that. What are your thoughts for folks kind of in those early stages around starting with a design system early? What’s the value of starting early, rather than circling back a few years down the line and trying to rebuild everything?
Michael Carrick, via episode 5 (08:18):
Well, I think you’ve gotta look at it as a phased approach. There’s lots of levels of design systems, and certain levels make sense at certain times. So you may say, you know, we’ll start with a UI kit version of a design system, so that’s designers creating common components that are gonna be used throughout the design. So I always tell, you know, startups and stuff, look at your brand, start building out common components, and it could just be a button, it could be an input field, it could be a card. But by building those common components, other designers can reuse them over and over again, and that way, when you do pivot your brand, as startups often have to do, you know, know they might join and have a venture project that they might have to pivot their overall look and feel, because they’ve evolved or they’re looking to be purchased.
So having that control at a granular label…level, sorry…to be able to make those changes, easily, is kind of key. So I look at it as saying, look, start with what you can. If it’s just a UI kit, great. If you can add some documentation so that designers or freelancers that you hire after that can review it and say, “Oh, this is how they use their color. This is how they use their typography. This is when I should use this button and not that button.” So a little bit of documentation is really letting future designers or future developers on the code side to pick up from where you’re left off, which heavily reduces onboarding and really helps you pivot a lot as a company. ‘Cause you may say, “Hey, we’re in a huge push. We need 50 more developers and five more designers,” and then you might pull back a little bit. But making sure that everybody’s contributing to this kind of core center of truth helps that truth evolve over time, and then anyone who comes in afterwards has a starting point and they’re not just, again, building another button that’s going to create a divergent experience.
Right. To me, it feels like good hygiene in the same way that when we build back ends, we need to have the right practices in place so that folks who come in after us aren’t having to start from zero. Right? It’s the same with anything. So… (THE FRONTIER THEME FADES IN AND OUT)
Faith, via episode 7 (10:19):
For us, I feel like talking to customers is what gives us the ideas or the hypotheses and then doing our, kind of, large scale “ab” tests to see like, all right, which problem statement really hits, is how we validate what we learn from user interviews. So yeah, that’s really awesome. I think, I mean, obviously, I’m a marketer, and I focus a lot on growth, and I work closely with our product team as well. And so product and marketing, I feel like the use case for a user interview and the really rich data we get from those are obvious for product and marketing teams. But what are, maybe, some non-obvious ways that other teams can really benefit from hearing directly from the market? And the way that you, you know, conduct those interviews?
Fatima Karwandyar, via episode 7 (11:11):
One, I always record my sessions, and I share back the feedback, whether it’s with, you know, the customer or the client, but even the internal stakeholders, you know, when I worked within an organization, it was really valuable for me. Everyone that touches the product, to see that feedback, especially if you’re in a technology world, getting everyone to buy-in to what you’re doing is really valuable. (Faith: Hmm.) And I think, sometimes, technology folks, developers, engineers are really neglected in making sure that they hear those customer conversations, ‘cause the salesperson is probably talking to the C-suite, and talking to the product people, and the customer service people. Well, what about the people that are actually building the solution? You know, when they hear the value of what they’re building, and the impact that it’s providing, everyone now has skin in the game, and they understand the “why” behind what they’re doing. So I would say… (THE FRONTIER THEME FADES IN AND OUT)
Claire Atkin, via episode 9 (12:13):
…it doesn’t make sense.
Faith, via episode 9 (12:15):
Right. I hadn’t thought about the brand equity piece, because you’re right, so much of brand awareness is like, our understanding of a brand exists within a web of other connections that make that brand come to mind at certain times. And as a marketer myself, I know that I have very little control over how that web is formed in my audience’s mind. So that’s fascinating. Is there a way for marketers, like me, other than subscribing to your newsletter and staying up to date with kind of the latest in terms of ad tech news <laugh>, and is there a tool we could use? How do you recommend we get started there?
The very first thing that marketers need to understand is that there is a disinformation economy. (Faith: Mm-Hmm <affirmative>.) That’s what we’re here to dismantle. The disinformation economy is about the relationships, the business relationships with ad tech, and publishers of disinformation. Okay, so it’s very easy as a marketer to just be like, “Well, I just don’t want my ads associated with hate.” Yes. Right, (Faith: <Laugh>.) but it’s more than that. We need to also make sure that we are not funding hate. So if you think like a propagandist, you need three things, right? You need money, of course, to sustain and grow your operation. You need data, the personal identifiable information of Americans so that you can better and better target and divide people. And you need ads, because ads give legitimacy to the lies that you are publishing.
Hmm. I hadn’t thought about that.
Yeah. So as a propagandist, you want all of these three things. And so when you’re a marketer, and you’re saying, “No, listen. I don’t want my ads to be supporting any of your work whatsoever,” you need to cut them off. Not just from the ads, but from the data and the money. (Faith: Hmm.) So that’s what we’re doing at Check My Ads. We’re uncovering networks of disinformation, so that you can take them out entirely from the supply chain. What can you do as a marketer? The very first thing, check your ads. Actually go through your campaigns. And if you don’t have enough data to do that, demand that you get your log level data minus personal identifiable information, minus that PII. So demand your log level data, make sure it’s in your contract before you sign with your ad tech vendor that you get that data. Of course, you’re gonna need like, an AWS bucket or something to contain it, (Faith: Right.) and then you’re going to want to go through it. You can, you can go through it yourself, or you can pay someone to go through it, but you wanna know what’s there, because I guarantee you, there’s going to be wasted spend anyway, and you’re gonna get your money back in a big way.
Okay. The second thing, demand refunds. Don’t be afraid to push back. You are the client, and they have promised you a lot of things. They’ve promised you in the contract, premium publishers, brand safety. If you look on the website, premium publishers, brand safety. And if you look in their publisher policies, these ad tech vendors have very specific language about what they would never allow in their inventory. Things like COVID-19 disinformation, hate and harassment, election disinformation. Playwire has “We don’t work with publishers that seek to overthrow a government, any of the insurrectionists.” (Faith: <Laugh>.) No deal, right? Okay. So you go through those publisher policies, and you look at who you’ve actually funded, and you can demand refunds based on those publisher policies as well.
Well, I haven’t thought about the power that the buyer has in an ad business relationship, I think, because so many of the platforms that I work with are giant conglomerates <laugh>. So it’s very difficult to see yourself as any sort of power-wielding player in that system. As you’re talking, I’m thinking the mission of Check My Ads is so huge, and there are so many networks like you’re describing to uncover, and I’m curious how you prioritize your work. How do you decide what’s most important?
That challenge that you just talked about, that challenge that you just elucidated, that is the power dynamic between what looks, to us, like big ad tech companies, especially when we’re a smaller advertiser. How do we demand what we need? And one of the ways that we can talk about that is literally uncovering stories when it’s sketchy. And any advertiser who is dealing with this kind of challenge, who has demanded refunds or demanded their data, and they’re not getting it, can come to Check My Ads, and we will talk about it publicly with you, either anonymous or here with us, if you like. (Faith: Yeah.) That is our job. We uncover these stories, because we are the watchdog. (THE FRONTIER THEME FADES IN AND OUT)
Faith, via episode 11 (17:19):
But I love kind of like, the common thread that I’m hearing through, you know, all the conversation we’ve had about Cirus, is this obsession with the user experience and making it simple. And I see a connection there between a really simple, intuitive user experience and the mission of accessibility and equity, (Julia: Mm-hmm <affirmative>.) because navigating a UX that, kind of, favors folks who are technical is going to exclude the users that you’re trying to access. So I’d love to hear a little bit about, just your take on how a well-designed product, you know, helps you meet that goal of accessibility.
Julia Guz, via episode 11 (18:02):
Mm-Hmm <affirmative>. Yeah, you are for sure right, in terms of like, the obsession with the user experience. And I think if we ask anybody in our team, they would 100% echo that for us, taking the decision to like, actually completely pause our product in the short run, which we already had in beta version. And we had users, they love the product, they were using it, we were like, “Okay, we have to make it better.” Like that was, with everything that’s going on in the space with just the amount of complications, it comes from people to really understand what’s going on, and how to use the product, and what the benefits are, and what the real value is. Because this is really the thing; like, UX is one of the biggest challenges in the Web3 space, and I think it’s also the biggest hindrance for people (Faith: Mmm <affirmative>.) really seeing the value of the space.
And so for us, (Faith: Yeah.) we had to make a pretty difficult decision, in the short run, to be like, “Okay, let’s pause, let’s go back to the drawing board, let’s lay out the concept, let’s put the user first, not the tech first.” And of course, technology is great, but I think a lot of companies do this where they really focus on the hardware, on the software, on the tech, and then the aspect of the user, and the user experience, and the user journey is like, “Oh yeah, okay, well they’ll get it.” It’s like, they probably won’t, you know, because you have these rose colored glasses when you’re in the product. We’re developing it, you’re like, “Oh, everyone’s gonna get it; it’s so simple.” (Faith: <Laugh>. Right?) And then it, will your mom get it? Will your grandma get it? Will your sister get it?
Or they gonna be like, “What the heck is this crypto thing you guys are showing me again? I don’t understand.” And so, for us, it was like, the biggest priority, and we ended up working with one of the best designer firms in California with, you know, amazing designers who really were a big guidance for us throughout this process. A lot of iterations, and I’m sure, you know, just kind of like, how that goes, but a lot of iterations through how do we want to present our vision and the functionality of the product in a very simple way, right? Because I think that really is the kicker. You can have so much functionality, but if the user doesn’t feel that fluidity and doesn’t feel that flow right away of like, “Oh, okay, this is so intuitive,” then your mission is not complete, right? So you can push for saying like, “Oh, we have the best product out there,” but what do the people actually think? And so, for us, like, where we are today, that’s probably the biggest and most important point. Like, okay, well, what do people have to say, and what’s people’s feedback? (THE FRONTIER THEME FADES IN AND OUT)
Faith, via episode 13 (20:41):
Because when you’re applying for a job that’s gonna be like… your application materials will be ingested by an ATS and filtered for keywords. It’s like SEO, right? They just want something that’s keyword stuffed and written for a machine. But if I see that in an application, I’m like, “No, this person, they don’t really want this job. They just, they could have had ChatGPT write this, in fact.” So anyway, the space in between those two really not good solutions is massive. And what you’re describing as a use case of ChatGPT, or other LLMs, is a really compelling solution there.
Grey Garner, via episode 13 (21:25):
Yeah, I agree. And I think one of the things, maybe just to, for posterity, to get it out there, one of the capabilities of ChatGPT that I think is super powerful is the ability to role play. (Faith: Mmm <affirmative>.) Part of prompt writing and getting ChatGPT in on the right angle for what you want is to position it appropriately. So on its face, you can ask it a question, and it will return a fairly generic answer. But then if you, but then you can say, you know, “Hey, I want you to play the role of a technical recruiter,” then it can tap a whole different set of data about best practices for technical recruiting and simulate an interview with a technical recruiter. That is a very different interaction than if you just said, “Hey, how should I get a job in a tech company?”
You know? So the same tool, right? But it’s a role shift in the tool that it’s capable of doing. That can be helpful as a counterpoint. Again, like, if you think of this thing as sort of being a counterpoint to you, like, what are you asking, and what are you asking of the counterpoint, in order to get to the answer that you want? And so (Faith: Mmm <affirmative>.) that dimension, that access, is really important when you think about how do I get the most out of a tool? It’s not like Google where everything is sort of flat and linear. It’s malleable in the sense that it can be a persona, and it understands what that persona is, and it has constraints around that.
I hadn’t thought about that. Right? Like, asking it to ingest a job description on your resume and say, you know, “Now coach me through an interview,” or “Play the role of a technical interviewer,” (Grey: Right.) And then asking for feedback like, “Hey, was there anything on my resume or in my experience that I should have noted in that question?”
That’s really cool. (THE FRONTIER THEME FADES IN AND OUT)
Faith, via episode 15 (23:30):
It’s interesting, because it sounds like, in any kind of company in the digital therapeutics category, there’s going to be a really interesting sector crossover, obviously, between technology and healthcare. And what’s interesting about Luminopia is you’re crossing over into many more sectors than just, you know, healthcare and technology. You’ve got media partners that you’re navigating, obviously, complex algorithms, virtual reality, and so I’d love to hear your take on what it’s like to design and develop in that space. How do you navigate such a wide array of sectors that you’re building in?
Sunny Atwal, via episode 15 (24:18):
Collaboration is key. Getting the right people involved who, in their own respects, in their own particular category of expertise are, you know, very proficient, very experienced, but no one really, truly has experience across the entire spectrum of what we specifically do. It’s just too many things. (Faith: Mmm <affirmative>.) So we try to get the best people involved, and we work on ways to collaborate with them and then remain flexible as much as we can, too, in what we build. We need to be able to hear different perspectives. Perspectives that I’ve personally never heard before, as maybe someone who’s an engineer, traditionally. Working with someone who’s more scientifically focused or more regulatory focused is something that isn’t obvious to me, (Faith: Mmm <affirmative>.) but our collaboration is critical, in order to deliver a product that checks all the boxes the FDA approves, that we can give out, give to the public, and ultimately help people.
So I think communication is critical, getting the right people involved who have the right expertise is critical, and remaining flexible. (Faith: Mmm <affirmative>.) Where this assumption that I had about how something should be done, when I only get to think about it in my particular area, is not gonna be beneficial for a solution like this. (Faith: Right.) You need to be flexible. You need to, okay, I need to concede on this point in order to achieve this new thing that doesn’t exist yet. And how do we balance all of the concerns? You know what’s paramount, our North Star, I would say, is regulatory. At the end of the day, if we’re not compliant, we don’t get out. (THE FRONTIER THEME FADES IN AND OUT)
Faith, via episode 17 (26:10):
The other piece of regulation that isn’t maybe government mandated, but, you know, Seekr adheres to journalistic standards, (Pat: Yeah.) and I think anytime you’re building in that space, you’re gonna have some challenges with, you know, how do you address that? And so I’m curious, what has that experience been like, building Seekr and trying to do so in a way that adheres to those standards?
Pat Condo, via episode 17 (26:32):
There’s kind of two pieces to this. One is that we looked at standards in journalism, and there was some, you know, there’s dozens of them that are just extremely sensible, (Faith: Mmm <affirmative>.) and we said, “You know what? Let’s build a technical model of those.” So things like, does the headline match the body? Is there a byline? Those kind of things were, you know, the technical structure. Is the spelling right? All those kind of things, right? Because all those sort of lead to credible, not credible. But then, the part that we wove in there that’s new, is there are about 350 known cognitive biases that people have. (Faith: Yeah. Wow.) How do you take those and create them in a software program that then combines with these journalistic principles? And when they see a particular article, they all fire off and they say, “I see the presence of these things.” (Faith: Mmm <affirmative>.)
And so the presence of something like, okay, the first step, does the headline match the body? Half the time, it doesn’t. But then you see things like, hey, are there ad hominem attacks? How many unknown sources are cited? Is there confirmation bias built in? Is there some other bias, gender, or religious, or age? How do you pick all that up? Are there certain words that are dog whistles (Faith: Mmm <affirmative>.) for certain groups? And before you know it, you start to see the presence of these things, and anyone, any journalist would say, “Oh my god. Well, a presence of all those things would indicate really poor journalism, or, you know, something that is just not credible.” Right? Because it’s the person who’s trying to influence you in ways that don’t conform to the presentation, itself. They’re just false. It’s a false narrative. (THE FRONTIER THEME FADES IN AND OUT)
Ken Fichtler, via episode 19 (28:31):
So the tests that we’re using have been shown to be sensitive to impairment from every class of substance, so any kind of drug you can consume has a unique bio-signature that can be found in eye movement, typically. (Faith: Mmm <affirmative>.) So what we’re doing, we started with cannabis; we conducted the world’s largest clinical trial that’s ever been done on cannabis impairment, and we are now moving from cannabis into other drugs. So we’ve already captured some alcohol data; we’re capturing ketamine data. We’re gonna go on down the line and capture data from additional substances, and over time, the product will become much, much better and able to get down to, we think, very pinpoint accuracy with most substances. (Faith: Mmm <affirmative>.) There are some that, I think, are gonna be very challenging. So, for example, inhalants is a category that is so broad that it’s very difficult to, I think, classify the impairment that we’re gonna see as an inhalant-related impairment. It’ll look like impairment, but we’re not gonna probably be able to say, this is, you know, an air duster or, you know, paint or whatever <laugh>. (Faith: Mm-hmm <affirmative>.) There are some things that are just gonna, ultimately, be confounding, I think, to any test. But the vision, really, for Gaize is to be a single platform that can detect impairment from any class of drug, and so that’s really the world that we’re moving towards.
Faith, via episode 19 (29:49):
That’s fascinating. And I imagine for users who are not…technology companies who sell to other technology companies, usually the sale is a little bit easier, because we’re in a constant iterative state, and we kind of move at the same pace, but technologies that are selling into industries that are not, kind of, your typical technology buyer, law enforcement, you know, (Ken: Yeah.) to be blunt here. Like, I think the value of having a single flat platform really cannot be overstated here. (THE FRONTIER THEME FADES IN AND OUT)
Faith, via episode 21 (30:27):
I think when a lot of folks think about design as a profession or as a specialty, the thing they think about is the creative process and a bunch of kind of artsy fartsy people in a room making sketches and, you know, being creative when, in reality, particularly in your line of work, but really with all design, the process is heavily rooted in data. I know few people who are more obsessed with data than designers, right? So, I’d love to hear your take, kind of, regardless of the design task at hand, whether it’s super complex, like what you all work on or something, a little lower stakes. What are some mistakes you see in terms of the final design when folks are approaching it from a place of assumption, rather than being rooted in data?
Dennis Lenard, via episode 21 (31:18):
Well a typical issue is misjudging user behavior, (Faith: Mmm <affirmative>.) so that’s when you think people will do something, but actually they will do something else. And you know, a great example of that in an environment that’s easy to understand is e-commerce. You could intuitively think about the process of people just coming in, looking for a product, maybe looking at another product, adding into the cart, and checking out. But if you look at the data, that’s absolutely not what people do. I mean, that’s a minority of all the sessions, right? What people actually do is they browse on the website in a way that seems erratic and like it makes no sense. And then eventually some of them add something to the cart, and then you’re happy. So of course, the secret is to try to understand what all those erratic patterns mean, and to try to see what are some patterns within this universe of data, and then to make decisions from that to improve the design so that people can accomplish better goals. And I think we’ve all seen the evolution of e-commerce from what it was 10 years ago to what it is today, and that’s exactly this type of evolution, based on data that reveals the actual reality of people, of what people are doing.
Mmm. Yeah, I mean, I’m sure after 15 years in the industry, you have lots of examples of times you were surprised when you thought for sure the data would reveal that people would behave in one way, and in fact, they behaved in a different way. Are there any stories that come to mind of times you were surprised?
Oh, well, there are quite a lot. One of my favorite examples is when we did some work for a point of sales system. So that’s what clerks would use in a shop, this case in gas stations to just check out people and get paid. And so one of the assumptions, and it was really a view held by pretty much everybody in the project when we started, it was sort of, you know, you get a brief talking about a lot of general issues, and then one specific thing was, we want pictures of products in the tablet, (Faith: Mmm <affirmative>.) and that seemed like something that makes sense. You know, people would recognize an object much easier when they would see the picture rather than the word. But what we then learned was that actually, that’s not necessarily the case, because a lot of objects look very similar.
For example, bread, and you’ve lived in Switzerland, so you know how many types of bread there are. (Faith: <Laugh>.) And when you have a small thumbnail, you can easily mistake it, or the same is true for coffee. (Faith: Mmm <affirmative>.) So after a few rounds of testing, we ended up with having just word labels, and that was surprising, even to us in a way, even though, you know, after the fact you understand, oh, of course it makes sense for you to be this way, but in the beginning, the assumption is misleading. That’s actually the big danger of assumptions, because once you find out that it was wrong, you know why, and it completely makes sense, but before you get to that point, you’re completely blind. So at any moment in time, you’re probably holding a lot of assumptions that are completely earnest, but you don’t know.
That’s fascinating. I think often of when I was in middle school, and one of the things we learn is how to operate in AED, right? (Dennis: Mm-hmm <affirmative>.) So you’re taking a CPR class, and you learn how to operate an AED. And that was the first time I thought about design as like, the study of human behavior, because if you were to ask me today, “Hey, Faith, how do you turn an AED on, and how do you operate it?” I’d probably say, “I have no idea,” <laugh>. But I’m sure, I have to believe that the designers responsible for creating that, you know, understand what human instinct is, right? How humans tend to operate and behave. And of course, like, that needs to be rooted in data and study of human behavior and not just assumptions. So it’s a fascinating line of work. (THE FRONTIER THEME FADES IN AND OUT)
Faith, via episode 23 (35:13):
…then you came over to Highnote as a product manager, and now you are in business operations. So talk to me about that. What did that transition look like?
Jody Soldo, via episode 23 (35:23):
The transition, I have to say, personally, was pretty hard for me, actually. Mostly because I think that what Highnote as a business was looking for was a product leader at the, you know, we had grown over time, we started to get customers, we were launching customers, and really what we needed was a product leader who could start to do this 5, 10-year roadmap, really high level stuff, and that’s just not me. Like, that is not what I’m good at. I’m a very tactical person. Like, I’m like, okay, what do we need to do now? What should we get done? And so I didn’t have that skill set, but I also like, wasn’t excited about learning that myself. (Faith: Mm-hmm <affirmative>.) And so as this came up, my boss had said, “You know, we’re looking for a head of product, and here’s the person that we’re looking for,” in terms of like, what the makeup of it was.
And when I started to look at it, I was like, “Yeah, that’s not me. Like, I don’t actually wanna do that.” And so I did like, more of my own soul searching of like, “Okay, let me make a list of the stuff that I really like to do here, ‘cause I know I’m valued as an employee, but I need to figure out what that means.” (Faith: Mm-hmm <affirmative>). And in doing that, I really got an opportunity to sort of test out business operations, ‘cause business operations is really like, you work on the most important projects that the company needs at any point in time. And I was like, “Yeah, this sounds exactly like what I like to do.” Like, run to trouble, you know, try to find how we can fix it, and then leave it to the team that’s got it, and then go find another problem.
And that’s kind of what I spent my first year doing. So once I started to look at that and try it on, I was like, “Oh, I can do this,” and I actually started to find colleagues that had had that same transition in their career and like, ask them about the job. Like, “What do you think? Like, is this, you know, do you like what you’re doing?” And it started to grow on me, like, okay, yes, this is actually the job for me, and we hired an awesome head of product and I’m so excited to partner with her, ‘cause now we’ve got four hands instead of two (Faith: Yeah.) to be able to do the like, product work that we need to, so…
I’ve never heard business ops described that way, and it is like, so precisely what business ops is, you know, I think we muddy it often, because the nature of the product, the projects can change so vastly, (Jody: Mm-hmm <affirmative>.) but you’re working on whatever’s most important in that moment with the intention of then passing it off to the relevant team. And I think at a certain stage of growth, that’s such a critical function that we often overlook and don’t even think of as something that we can hire somebody to manage, because it feels like, “Oh well, you know, if it’s a product problem, let product deal with it,” or “If it’s in operations, let ops deal with it,” or…
The cool part, too, is that I liked problems that weren’t necessarily product problems, or operations problems, or even sales problems. And so I got to sit down and say like, “These are the problems that I wanna be involved in and make that part of my job,” and so I keep that list with me (Faith: Mm-hmm <affirmative>.) that I make sure like, okay, I’m continuing to do this stuff. ‘Cause ultimately that makes me excited to come to work, is doing the stuff I know is necessary for the business but it’s also like, super fun. Like, I still work on API docs, I still help, you know, with the stuff on the website. Like, yeah. I just get to do a little bit of everything. (THE FRONTIER THEME FADES IN AND OUT)
Julien Smith, via episode 25 (39:06):
From all of the people that you’ve spoken to, on podcast and off, what is the theme of those that have made it work? Like, what was…for me, I would just say, mine, I would say like, work ethic is just like, so important, just sticking. But when you talk to so many people, like what do you get? What is the principle, what are the principles that you get out of them?
Faith, via episode 25 (39:38):
Hmm. I honestly think there’s just one very clear, through line among all founders or folks who build things, which is they’re there to build, they’re not there to accomplish. (Julien: Got it.) And you think about folks who throw in the towel, or who do it once and they’re like, “That was not for me,” it’s because they were surprised by this environment where you thought it was gonna be a series of win after win after win, and you’d be able to celebrate those wins. And of course, you expect losses too, but the reality of founding a company and building something is, you kind of barely notice the wins, because you’re always thinking about the next thing. (Julien: <Laugh>.) You’re just, you are on the treadmill. (Julien: Yeah.) You’re not going for a run from point A to point B. Right. And you have to like being on the treadmill, and if you don’t, you’re, you’re not gonna come back and do it again.
Yeah. I agree with that. It’s one of the reasons that I always advise people that starting a company has gotta be in a wheelhouse of something you really care about, (Faith: Mmm <affirmative>.) and there’s probably not a lot of those, right? There’s probably not a lot of things that, your word “through-line”, I think, is very strong, that the number of through-lines in your life, what are there, like, five maybe? Right? (Faith: Mmm. Yeah.) Like, I can think of only a few things that I was excited about at the age of 10 that I’m still excited about 25 years later, (Faith: <Laugh>.) right? There’s not that many. So people change, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, but also people stay the same. (Faith: Mm-hmm <affirmative>.) And so you go out to find places where you do that. There are other people like, people that come outta Y Combinator, I always, the example I always use is Jack Altman, who started Lattice. He started a company, and it made performance review software, and so I was like, I think he talked about it pretty openly. He was like, “I did not start excited about performance review software,” (Faith: <Laugh>.) right? (Faith: Yeah.)
And I think lots of freelancers, lots of businesses of one, they’re just like, “Well, I don’t fit into this space, and here are the things that I can’t do, and I can’t, this is just like…because my first books were really like, directed at freelancers, (Faith: Mmm <affirmative>.) right? Trust Agents was directed at freelancers, where it was like, “Here’s how to build an audience online, and here’s why that’s good.” And it was a lot of people that were, just did not fit inside the box that they had been presented with. And they’re just like, “No, no, no,” and they resisted it, and they had to go out, and they had to make their way.
Yeah. You talked a little bit about one of the great joys of building a company is just being able to work with incredible talent that knocks your socks off, and you’ve had a front row seat to several other companies as they’ve been built, across different industries. (Julien: Mm-hmm <affirmative>.) And our thing here is hiring, building teams, how people think about that, so I’m curious, what are the challenges that you’ve seen that have been similar, regardless of industry?
I will say that there, that the top people always have a certain set of qualities, and that I’ve become very principled about hiring. (Faith: Mmm <affirmative>.) Like I, you know, it just, it happens over time. Like, you have to fire a certain number of people to get to like, 300 people that you’ve hired, or whatever the number is that I’ve hired. (Faith: Right.) It’s more than that, but it’s like, you have to get, there’s a certain amount that’s not gonna work out. And so I remember doing it on instinct. There are several mistakes that happened, and one of them was just like, asking rando questions, (Faith: <Laugh>.) which I think everybody goes through that phase of like, “I’m just gonna ask stupid shit.”
Right. I’ll just know when I know.
“I’ll know when I know.” No, you won’t! (Faith: Yeah <laugh>.) You will not, and so it’s a question of “I’m gonna ask random questions, and I’ll know when I know.” Do not do that, for a lot of reasons. Second, one of the biggest mistakes is people do not source enough people. (Faith: Mmm <affirmative>.) It’s so common. “Here are the people that I know. I know like, three people, I’m gonna get three candidates. I’m gonna hire among them.” No! <Laugh>. (THE FRONTIER THEME FADES IN AND OUT)
Faith, via episode 27 (44:20):
You know, one of the key levers for growth at Harness has been your open source community. And so I’d love to hear your perspective on the foundations of that, the impetus, and, you know, how you’ve seen it boost community engagement, and then ultimately growth, on the product side.
Scott Sanchez, via episode 27 (44:41):
Yeah, I think it’s important with open source that companies support and nurture the mission of that project, (Faith: Mmm <affirmative>.) while keeping two things in mind. One is, it’s okay to attach your brand to that. Like, you don’t have to keep it so far away that no one knows it’s yours. (Faith: Right.) Like, I think there’s actually comfort in knowing that there is a bigger company behind this thing, so that if I spend my time integrating this into my workflow or bringing this into my organization, it’s not gonna disappear, ‘cause someone gave up on it next week, right? (Faith: Yeah.) And so I think, you know, don’t be afraid to attach your company to something in terms of an open source project, but at the same time, don’t smother it with your brand either. Like, it should be a standalone entity that can operate, and have governance, and have transparency and visibility.
And I think, you know, I’ve had to do this a number of times in my career, and there’s a balance. You don’t always get it right. You know, I think at Harness, we’ve done a good job of navigating choppy waters (Faith: Mm-hmm <affirmative>.) with the open source world and making sure that some of our key projects, like Drone for CI or Litmus for Chaos Engineering and resiliency testing, like those are both thriving communities as a result of Harness’s involvement, not despite it, right? And I think that’s sort of the balance of it, right? (Faith: Right.) It’s also important that marketing leaders and product leaders understand that not everyone is going to find a path from an open source product to your commercial offering. (Faith: Mmm <affirmative>.) At every company I’ve ever been at, there’s always a conversation that happens at some point with an open source project of like, well, how do we get these people to pay? (Faith: <Laugh>. Right.)
And it’s like, well, not everyone that signs up ever has an intention to pay. Not everyone has a use case where paying is important and not everyone wants to abandon being a builder for being a user, (Faith: Mmm <affirmative>.) and it’s that last one that I think a lot of people, it’s easy to to forget that. Right? And so thinking about it in terms of, there are companies and teams where finding the best open source project and then building a team around it who is going to turn that into a project or product within your organization, there are people who, like, that’s what they want to do. And it doesn’t matter how much push you give them to try and move over to our paid SaaS version or our commercial offering, that’s not why they signed up for it in the first place, right? (Faith: Right.)
They signed up for it to have the ingredients, not the finished product, and I think it’s important to recognize that, respect that, and support that, because those people can also be the biggest champions of your open source project down the road, the biggest contributors to it, and so on. So I think, again, back to balance like, recognize that, for some people, it’s a path to your commercial. For some people, it’s just where they want to be, and I think making sure you support both sides of that.
Yeah, and I think understanding that they’re each valuable in their own way. You know, brand marketing is often overlooked, because it’s just kind of, it’s inherently really hard to measure ROI for, and it requires a lot of resources. So something like an open source community, you’re right, you’re always gonna have a percentage of folks who are not gonna convert to paid users, but what they will do is trust your brand and probably talk about your brand. And when they’re sitting in team meetings, listening to other folks vet solutions for something that you offer, they’re going to recommend your product, because there’s that awareness and that trust. So it’s easy for folks like you and I to see that path, but I think, when we’re advocating for something like an open source project internally, it can be challenging, right?
It can, and especially if you try and frame it as a, “this will be good for our brand” (Faith: <Laugh>.) type of thing, right? Because there is a significant engineering investment that you have to make on an ugly basis. (Faith: Mm-hmm <affirmative>.) There’s developer relations, there’s community engagement, there’s, you know, like, there’s all of these sort of like, seemingly disconnected, but really integral parts of what makes an open source investment successful, and if they’re not all there, if, you know, marketing’s doing a great job with awareness, but engineering’s not responding to poll requests or to issues with the code, or, you know, if the DevRel side of things isn’t showing up at the right places in the right communities to show relevancy and active project, like, none of those can stand alone. And I think you sort of really do need a mission statement as a company for why you’re doing this. (Faith: Mm-hmm <affirmative>.)
Not just like, “Oh, well we have this code, let’s open source it. It’ll be great.” (Faith: <Laugh>.) “We’ll have a giant community next year of all these people in our community Slack.” It’s like, no, you won’t. Right? You won’t. The reason people gravitate towards open source is, sometimes first for novelty, if you truly have a novel thing out there, but then it’s because there’s a thriving community around it, (Faith: Mmm <affirmative>.) so you have to bootstrap that until the point where that’s actually true. And there’s a great quote from Jeff Bezos, which I’ll butcher, but I’ll paraphrase, which is like, he’s willing to be misunderstood for a long period of time. (Faith: Mmm <affirmative>.) Like, willing to invest in something that other people are like, “I don’t get this,” for a long period of time, ‘cause he has high conviction. And I think open source is very similar, where if you’re a company trying to succeed with an open source project, you should decide to make a multi-year investment in all the ingredients that are gonna make that successful. Not just think you’re gonna flip from close to open and, in your GitHub repo, put out a tweet, and now, all of a sudden, you’ve got something. (Faith: Right.) It’s like, very rarely is that actually the case, right? (THE FRONTIER THEME FADES IN AND OUT)
Faith, via current episode (50:45):
That is it for season three of the Frontier Podcast. Thank you guys for listening, for sharing ideas, for recommending folks for us to interview. Like I said, we will be back for season four. We’ll continue to share fun tech history facts every week, and we’ll also be doing a founder to founder interview series, and so our founder and CEO, Teja Yenamandra, will be here as our host for those episodes. And if you know a founder of a company who’s got a really interesting story and lots of lessons learned to share with this audience, please send them our way. (THE FRONTIER THEME FADES IN) You can always reach us at [email protected]. That’s it. We will see you soon.
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