OfferZen Updates: MERGE Panel Discussion: Culture’s Role in Successful Tech Teams

MERGE Panel Discussion: Culture’s Role in Successful Tech Teams

By Candice Grobler

Over time, every tech team develops playbooks which help them build processes, teams and software that succeeds. At MERGE Cape Town, Tumi Sineke from OfferZen Foundation got to chat to Ashi Krishnan, Jeremy Edberg, Ridhwana Khan, and Dean Broadley about the teams they’ve been on. They discussed what their teams did that worked - and didn’t - as well as how workplace culture has contributed.

Panel transcript

[00:10] Tumi: So, as Stephen mentioned, my name is Tumi. I head up OfferZen Foundation, and our mission at the foundation is to help people from underserved communities thrive in their tech career. And I’m really excited about this panel discussion because we’re going to talk about culture.

[00:31] Tumi: I think throughout the day, this word has been used so much, and each of you have kind of spoken about it either directly or kind of alluded to it in your talks. People have spoken about it over snack time and lunch time, and this discussion is about culture. And in keeping with the broader theme of the section, being about Tech Team Playbooks, I thought it would be useful to break down the discussion into two sections. To say well, how do we think about culture when we collaborate within our tech teams, so how does all that work, because we can say our culture is one thing, and then add deadlines. Oh yeah, and then the fun starts. So that’s on the one hand.

[01:22] Tumi: And then on the other hand, we talk about an enabling environment. So again, we can say, well we have our culture as this, we crack a beer open on Fridays, that’s our culture. And is that an enabling environment for everyone to do their best work, really? Is that what you need? Those are the kind of topics that we’ll delve into in this discussion.

[01:49] Tumi: So, I’m super excited to have this conversation with you all, to hear what you have to say. And then to all of you as well, so as with our previous discussion, we have Slido, that is active. If you look at the bottom of the screen, it says slido.com and there’s an event code. If you just start typing in MERGE, it will auto complete. I was very happy to see that, so yay.

[02:19] Tumi: The full thing is MERGE_TechPlaybook_Panel. So, pop your questions in there, upvote some questions, and then after we’ve had a chat here on stage, then I have the tablet of truth, I will be able to ask the panel your questions. Tech, they say it’s fun. Cool. Not all my jokes will land by the way, I just want you to be 100% aware that I know not all my jokes will land.

[02:57] Tumi: So let’s start with just re-introducing yourselves. If you can remind everybody who you are, and then a fun one, your favourite tea and why. Ridhwana, you can start.

[03:18] Ridhwana: Okay. So my name is Ridhwana Khan. I am a senior software engineer at a company called Smile Identity. I’m also really passionate about cultivating inclusive and diverse environments, basically what I told you in my talk. And also like you all know, I’m very passionate about education and run an NPO, Kasi Maths. So, a fun fact is that I don’t drink coffee, and I used to drink hot chocolate, but nobody cares about hot chocolate any longer, or they never have. So I’ve started drinking green tea with lemon and lime. Specifically the Five Roses one. It’s amazing.

[04:02] Tumi: Nice.

[04:03] Jeremy: All right, I’m Jeremy, I’m currently the founder and CEO of a company called MinOps, previously Netflix, Reddit, you were here 20 minutes ago, so you probably heard this, or an hour ago, or whatever. And my favourite tea is, first of all I do care about hot chocolate, so not everybody forgot about it. But, I don’t drink tea very often, usually I just drink hot water with maybe some lemon and honey in it.

[04:28] Ashi: Is that a tea? That’s sort of the minimal requirement of tea.

[04:33] Jeremy: Is that minimalist tea I guess?

[04:36] Ashi: Yeah. It’s almost tea. We’re getting there, we’re going deep already.

[04:42] Ashi: Hi everyone, I am Ashi. I’m currently in New York, well no, I’m not currently in New York, I’m currently based in New York, I’m working at Apollo where we’re doing GraphQL stuff. Very exciting GraphQL stuff. And my favourite tea currently is Matcha, which I drink constantly, I drink every morning, a lot of it.

[05:06] Dean: Hi, I’m Dean. It’s a hard question. I’m Dean, I’m a full-time human, so I run an organisation called Designing Humans, and we focus on making organisations and software more human. My favourite tea, a T-bone. I couldn’t resist, it’s a pun. I’m a fan of the Rooibos, I’ve got to do it.

[05:45] Tumi: Really?

[05:45] Dean: Mm-hmm, yes.

[05:45] Tumi: Okay, thank you. I appreciate your-

[05:53] Jeremy: I have a new answer. In my Airbnb, they had this South African tea that was really good, and I don’t know what it’s called.

[05:59] Tumi: Rooibos.

[05:59] Jeremy: Rooibos. That’s the one.

[06:00] Ashi: Wait, is Rooibos South African?

[06:04] Tumi: That’s fine.

[06:05] Jeremy: That’s the one I’m having now.

[06:07] Dean: It’s evolved.

[06:08] Tumi: We’ll see who upvotes what.

[06:10] Dean: Yes we will, Slido, do it. Rooibos tea.

[06:14] Tumi: Great, awesome, thank you so much. Should we jump in? Yeah, okay. So, let’s start with collaboration and ways of working. As I alluded to before, I think this one is really, really interesting when we talk about culture because we say one thing about our culture, people come into an interview and we say, “We’re low ego, you can say anything to anyone. We learn, we do five whys, we are just so open, it’s wonderful.” And then things break. And then there’s deadlines.

[06:55] Tumi: And so, when we think about, and certainly in your interview experiences, what actually makes a successful team in the face of all the reality that can happen, what would each of you say is like the thing that makes a team successful in the way that they collaborate in real life?

[07:20] Ridhwana: I think for me it’s communication. I work completely remote, I do not see another human sometimes for days. But I think communication needs to be really effective. I think with the right sort of communication, you’re on your way to solving a lot of problems.

[07:44]Jeremy: It’s funny because I don’t think there’s any such organisation where it’s like, oh we give each other great open feedback and blah, blah, blah, because every person is different. I think what makes a successful team is learning how your teammates take feedback. Some people like blunt, “tell me what I did wrong, that’s all I care about”. Other people need you to sugar coat it a little bit. Some people like to hear the good, the bad, the good, and I think the important part is figuring out, which style each person likes and then doing that. And also, it’s really important to figure out, which people like to be given feedback publicly and which ones privately, because if you give some people public feedback, that closes them down, and makes them very upset. And some people don’t want private feedback, they’d rather have it out in the open so that they don’t have to hear it three times from three different people. So, it just depends.

[08:37] Ashi: I don’t know if I have anything great to add to that. No, I feel like I do actually. There’s more than a difference between personally how people like to receive feedback, I think the biggest failure I’ll say in environments I’ve been in is, is not recognising when there is enough trust in the relationship to actually give or receive this stark feedback. Very, very, very occasionally, there are organisations that both say like, we’re very honest, we’re super transparent internally, and seem to do the things to back it up. Bridgewater is this weird culty hedge fund that they, and part of what makes culty is that you go through their interview process and they’re very, very clear, they’re constantly inundating you with no, it’s actually very transparent. When they decide to hire you, they’re sitting there in the room with you there being like, “should we hire her? I don’t know”. Okay, either this is a show or you’re actually demonstrating some values. I don’t know how it is internally.

[09:54] Ashi: I think that kind of, that sort of weird culture works better, that’s kind of like a hyper-masculine articulation of close transparent relationship, and that works very well for a hedge fund. I think it’s much harder to express other sets of values in your communication paradigm without a lot of caring, without a lot of attention to figuring out processes for not just like communication, but meta communication. How do we build trust, and how do we understand how we build trust with each other.

[10:35] Dean: What was the question? Sorry, I’m just playing.

[10:38] Jeremy: You know, you’re the one she can actually smack.

[10:43] Dean: It’s the ADD man. I just like I saw something, there’s a fish there, they should close that door. So, the thing that I see repeatedly make teams successful or not, is a clear purpose and vision. The only way you can really, there are two ways you can orient people in a direction, through fear or through purpose. Fear gets people to all fight something, but it doesn’t last very long. Purpose gets people kind of really oriented, and the teams have a very clear aligned version, because everybody knows what they’re contributing towards. And so everybody knows, when I do give you the feedback, and you’ve got really good team values, that feedback is aligned to make what we’re all after better or get there sooner, et cetera.

[11:30] Dean: I would say that clear purpose and values communicated and demonstrated and loved, are the things that … Lots of companies have purpose on the walls, but then they behave in a different way, so there’s a direct correlation to have between doing your word or demonstrating your word as a business.

[11:49] Tumi: I’m quite intrigued by this idea of communication and feedback, because I think one is the subset of the other. If you have really clear communication, then feedback will, at least in part, be easier because you know what the feedback is that you’re getting, because it’s clearly communicated.

[12:08] Tumi: So Ridhwana, you’ve mentioned, I almost wanted to say, Aww, sometimes you don’t see humans for days at a time.

[12:17] Ridhwana: That’s why I come to meet ups.

[12:20] Tumi: Win for us. But practically, what are some of the habits, what are some of the techniques that you use in your work to communicate clearly, effectively with the people on your team?

[12:38] Ridhwana: I think there’s different techniques that I apply to different people because when you get to know the people on your team, you begin to realise how best to communicate with them. Some of the things that we use, some of the tools … So firstly, working in a remote team means that when you’re communicating for instance priorities, or when you’re communicating the work that you’re doing and you’re working remotely, and my team is based in the US currently, which means there’s a nine hour or ten hour time zone difference. You need to use these tools effectively to be able to get your communication across. So things like project management boards, which when you’re in person, doesn’t play such a huge impact, but when you have a ten hour or nine hour leg, you want someone in the US to be able to go on that board and be able to see what you’re working on.

[13:32] Ridhwana: Things like Slack messages, those work, but when someone is in a different timezone, of course the messages are snoozed and they see it when they come online. So Slack is mostly used for asynchronous conversations. I haven’t touched email in over a year, I’m very happy to say that, and I think another part of communication is just being conscious of how you talk to someone, being respectful, and more than talking, be open to feedback and be able to listen to what they’re saying. I found out that those tips have really helped me in my communication, especially with remote teams.

[14:17] Ridhwana: When you don’t know someone personally, there’s an awkward time when you try and figure out what’s the best way to communicate with them. I found actual in-person like retreats, help you to build up that knowledge of how a person is in real life, and then you start. That’s when I found was like the click for me, this is how I know to communicate with someone better.

[14:42] Tumi: That’s interesting. So the in-person retreats have actually helped accelerate what then happens online?

[14:49] Ridhwana: So much, so. When I initially joined this team, I sort used to treat my communication with everyone just very similar. When I met them in person, I began to know what’s their interest, what’s their likes, what’s their dislikes. When they talk to me, are they informal or formal, and that’s sort of the way started communicating with them, with bold sort of common knowledge of each other and communication got a lot better thereafter.

[15:17] Tumi: Dean, it almost reminds me of your talk where you mentioned that the journey someone’s taken to get to where they are is almost in ways more interesting than where they are now. And I guess that echoes what Ridhwana is saying as well, to say well actually, when you meet somebody and get to know them, just as a person, you can also just relate to them better and as a happy consequence, communicate with them more clearly.

[15:47] Dean: 100%. I think of an example in my career where we had done a bunch of design work and we had to work with some software engineers specifically more backend, but this is quite, it was scaled kind of very big financial piece of software. And what was interesting there was, they were between two cities, so we were down here in Cape Town, the team in Johannesburg, and I kind of picked up there was a tension from day one around we’re redesigning this thing, this thing is not working. We’d meet in person, things seem fine, but when you start to implement, change.

[16:22] Dean: And then, I went and I met with the team and then you start to listen to their journey as a team, and that in the past they had been given some really unrealistic deadlines and people got burnt out. Somebody had implemented something that broke the system, they got fired, people got tried to blame for legal things in that team, and immediately the way we communicate with that team changes. No longer am I just asking somebody to, from their perspective is, I thought that I was just asking well let’s change this frontend. For them, it has a lot of past material impact on how they process that change. They’re trying to protect at all cost the circumstance that never happens again to them.

[17:05] Dean: And it’s a very human thing to do, and often we think people are being difficult, and we just think a thing is simple and I think that’s often where things break down in teams, when we assume things are simple and they may be technically simple sometimes or from a process point of view. But from a human point of view, they may not be because of what might have happened in the past. I think that’s where if you can have that empathy and really figure that out, immediately you can kind of, you tell the story differently, you’ll also work out whether or not the thing you want done is even that important and you reprioritise around that stuff sometimes. Because if you can get the team oriented better and communicating, then that means future changes happen quicker and that trust is built.

[17:44] Tumi: Yeah, that’s super important, about understanding the people. I want to go back to something that was also mentioned earlier around feedback. It’s not a joke, it’s the truth that, at OfferZen, we care a lot about feedback, like a lot. And the joke part is, it’s taken me, I’ve been with the team now for like two and a half years or so, and I’m still getting used to the feedback, because it’s nice to say we care about feedback until you get it. And then you’re like, oh boy, oh it doesn’t feel good.

[18:22] Tumi: And so, I’m curious Ashi and Jeremy, what have been some of the ways that you have given and received feedback that have really helped you grow and accelerate yourselves in your career. Just maybe something that stands out in each of your minds, it’s like oh wow, that was actually really helpful, that feedback that I got, or that way that I received feedback in the past.

[18:49] Jeremy: Well, I’m a bit of a masochistic, so I prefer the blunt, this is ‘why you’re a bad person’ feedback. And so that works out well for me because the founder of Reddit liked to give that kind of feedback and it was great, because he made me a much better engineer because of it. He’d sit across the room and because Python is whitespace delimited, he’d just be like, “Your code is terrible.” I’d say, “How do you know?” He says, “I can tell from the spacing.” And it was great because he was right.

[19:19] Jeremy: And so for me, that works really well, just give me the blunt feedback, and then working with other people that like that, that works out well for me because I can just tell them this is where you made a mistake and they can tell me, and even for someone like that, you still have to throw in a good feedback once in a while as well. But that’s the kind of feedback that’s worked best for me.

[19:43] Jeremy: But each, there’s definitely a lot of people who I’ve worked with, who do not like that kind of feedback, and so you have to figure it out, you have to figure out what it is to tell them positive things first, or positive things for a while before you can build up enough trust as you were saying, to get to the negative parts.

[20:05] Ashi: Is that how you build trust?

[20:07] Jeremy: By giving positive feedback?

[20:08] Ashi: Yeah.

[20:10] Jeremy: Not if you’re lying to them. But if you’re telling them the truth, if you’re giving them truthful, honest, positive feedback, yes.

[20:16] Ridhwana: It’s a s*** sandwich.

[20:19] Jeremy: It is. So I try to avoid that because it’s so cliché, and typically they ignore the positive feedback because they assume you’re just saying it so you can give them the negative in the middle. So I really prefer to give actual honest positive feedback for a while, until that trust has been built up.

[20:38] Ashi: And then the gloves come off.

[20:40] Jeremy: And then the rest comes out, along with some positive feedback.

[20:45] Ashi: I kind of feel that you build trust by fighting, that’s-

[20:50] Jeremy: By fighting?

[20:50] Ashi: By fighting.

[20:55] Jeremy: No, I disagree with you.

[20:56] Ashi: Your relationship is going really well, you really like the person, you’ve never had a fight, aren’t you going to be a little bit uncertain about that relationship until you do have a fight? You will trust it more afterwards or you won’t be in it anymore afterwards.

[21:12] Jeremy: I think I agree with you in that yes, a fight will definitely solidify it. Not a fight, but an argument, a debate.

[21:20] Ashi: Yeah, sure, whatever. A conflict.

[21:23] Jeremy:… And if you resolve the conflict successfully.

[21:25] Ashi: And I think the same thing is true with employment, any group project, anything you’re working on together, you have to disagree at some point and actually hash through that, and ideally have something emotional riding on it, because it’s very easy I think in the workplace to be like, oh I did this constantly. It’s like I’ll feel a way about something, I won’t like this, I won’t like that direction, and then if push comes to shove, I’ll just back off eventually because I’m like, is this worth it, is this the hill I’m going to die on? No, I don’t care about any of this. How often are you like, I really, really, really care about my job enough to have serious emotional investment in how things happen?

[22:14] Ashi: I think a lot of us, most of the jobs I’ve had, I’ve not cared about that much, and I think that’s most people in most jobs, and so both figuring out how to navigate that, in a sense those relationships I think are harder because it’s so easy to detach, you need to figure out what of yourself you can bring to that relationship.

[22:38] Tumi: Yeah, I think that’s really important to figure out how much of yourself to bring in, as you say, because sometimes it’s really emotionally charged and it’s because you’re pouring all of yourself and all of your stuff that you’re bringing in, to a situation where if you kind of take a moment and you take a breath and you say well, actually, is this critical right now or am I bringing my stuff into it? Which sounds easy in theory, but I think Dean has some ideas. Some theories.

[23:08] Dean: Theories. Look, there’s two points. One, the concept of positive and negative feedback. Feedback is feedback. So, intent defines whether it’s negative or positive and how you receive it defines whether it’s negative or positive. For example, I’ve had people that have been in my teams and you go, “You did really well.” They’re like, “But tell me what I did wrong.” So for them, the positive feedback was negative, because they wanted to change, and onto your earlier point around figuring out who is where.

[23:34] Dean: I think also from bringing your whole self into the situation, if you bring your whole self and you’re bringing stuff with you, and the stuff is getting in the way, go to therapy. But truthfully, again to my earlier point in the talk, it’s kind of like, you’ve got to figure out what role you play in that situation. To your point, it’s like how much of myself do I want to pour into different things. If you’re the founder, sometimes you’re going to pour all of yourself into it, if you’re an employee in a 50 000 person organisation, you may want to not to do that because you might not get the same outcomes.

[24:10] Dean: But, I do think it’s just about knowing the amount that you’ve put into it, and whether or not that juice is worth the squeeze. So then, if somebody tells you that you should dress differently at work, you’ve got to figure out whether or not you care enough about that to either stay at that place and change the way you dress, or just leave because it’s a big enough reason or find some space in the middle. And I think that’s the big thing, the whole concept of positive and negative is quite relative based on a bunch of stuff.

[24:41] Tumi: Yeah, there’s so much about feedback and recently we ran a launch event for our mentoring program and I asked all our mentees, ‘how many of you can say you’ve received good feedback at work?’ Like good where it’s actionable, it’s clear, you knew what to do? And so many people were like, I don’t know … They’re like,’ I don’t know, what is that? What does that look like, what does that mean?’

[25:11] Ashi: I feel like I should raise my hand because someone might be watching.

[25:14] Tumi: Yeah. And it’s just so interesting that it’s like we all agree on some level that, that’s how you grow, and it’s really crucial to give and get great feedback, but then when it comes to the doing part, something happens, which just speaks to the challenge.

[25:32] Tumi: So then, on the other side of culture, so if that’s kind of collaboration, the other side of culture, which I think is super important is the enabling environment, and I think some of the things we’ve touched on now speak a lot about trust, and a lot of the times when people talk about culture and culture fit, I kind of cringe a little because culture fit, I for a long time thought was around the nice way of saying: you don’t fit in with the in-group. You’re not like me, so you’re not a culture fit.

[26:09] Tumi: And so, I’m curious about what have been some of the ways that you’ve seen culture being installed in the different organisations that you’ve been apart of, in a really positive way that is inclusive and brings people, everybody along with you.

[26:30] Jeremy: Culture fit is a terrible thing to test for, I think, for exactly the reason you said. I look for the exact opposite. I look for people who are going to bring new diversity and different ideas. I don’t want somebody who fits in with us because then you’re the same as us, I want somebody who is different. There’s people who have terrible communication or something like that, that you don’t want. But most people when they say culture fit, they mean they like the same TV shows that I do, and they like the same programming language that I do, and they grew up in the same background that I did, and I want exactly the opposite of that. I want somebody who grew up in a different background and learned a different language, and maybe had another career first, and all of that.

[27:11] Jeremy: So I test for the exact opposite of that basically. I look for how, I literally ask this question, “How will you bring new diversity to our team? What are you going to do that’s different than everything that we do, that’s going to be interesting?”

[27:27] Ridhwana: I 100% agree with Jeremy on this. I think that bringing in someone just like you ends up, you end up with a team that’s exactly sort of the same. In order to breed and cultivate an inclusive and a diverse team, you need to bring in people that are different, because those different backgrounds and skills, and races, religions, cultures, everything, those things sort of breed creativity and innovation. And that’s what makes companies really good and really world class, just the diversity that you have in teams.

[28:07] Tumi: I want to throw in another element here to say well, if I only hire people like me, so me, Tumi. If I only hire people who stretch and tell bad jokes, and are loud like me, I know what I’m going to get, I’m going to get stretching, loud, bad-joke-telling people, and then I know my team will work in a particular way, we will deliver the code in a particular way, we will achieve our business outcomes in a particular way, I’m safe, right? That’s how it works, doesn’t it?

[28:44] Jeremy: That’s boring as s***. When everybody is doing that, sure you know what you’re going to get, but where’s the fun in that?

[28:55] Ashi: But we also even as organisations and people who are like, I’m very pro diversity I think, but honestly, the people I get on with, the people I like, they’re, maybe I like a slightly broader slice of the human experience, but only very slightly, right? There’s a huge, huge, variety of cultural context that people could be coming from, that are, first of all just immediately eliminated by the fact that we’re hiring for a software engineering position, which awful to say, but is the fact of it. And then people put themselves into the envelope of what software engineers are, or supposed to be in order to get in the door or get in the video conferencing door and to get an interview.

[29:44] Ashi: And so, yeah. Within that, I think it’s easy to push for more diversity and to say, look at all these people who are basically doing exactly the same things and have exactly the same cultural assumptions, only like very slightly different to you and we should expand there. But I think we have not even begun to do the work of figuring out what it would mean to actually have diversity that would reflect the human cultural experience, the variety of human experience.

[30:14] Dean: I agree with that entirely. I think it’s that whole concept of being certain. So, what you’re talking about there, if I hire all the same people and I can predict the outcomes and I can get a certain outcome, means I can probably do some good financial projections, et cetera, et cetera. And so the entire ecosystem works towards that predictability.

[30:32] Dean: The issue is, it’s predictable at a point in time, so the variables all have to remain static for it to be true. The problem is, that’s not how the earth works. And apart from it being boring, working with all the same people and hearing the same jokes and watching the same YouTube clips. Just coming up with fundamentally new business ideas or avenues can only happen with disparate points of view, and most importantly the sustainability of the team. So, what tends to happen is people don’t actually want to be in a room with other people that are exactly like them because then they are not special.

[31:13] Dean: But, it’s just in my experience, teams that are diverse in background, diversity of thought, so from whichever lens you look through, rather than do you fit into our mold, and you will get predictable outcome, but you will not get a better outcome.

[31:34] Tumi: Okay, maybe you’ve convinced me, but I still think a room full of me might be fun, just saying. Let’s move on to all your questions, there are a bunch of them, so first of all thanks. I’m going to start with Jeremy and Ashi, hey. Anonymous, person anonymous has asked, ‘As the two people from the panel from the US, have you spotted any obvious differences between your culture and ours?’

[32:17] Ashi: So, the accent is really the first thing that comes into my head. I think of all non-American English accents, the South African is actually my favourite.

[32:26] Tumi: Aww, you can stay.

[32:29] Ashi: Thank you. And I’ve been here two days, so it’s hard to say other than that. Have you been here longer?

[32:38] Jeremy: Yes, I have been here twice as long as you-

[32:40] Ashi: Excellent.

[32:41] Jeremy: So, for four whole days, and what I have discovered in my vast time here is, I was actually surprised by the lack of difference in our cultures.

[32:51] Ashi: You’ve been in Cape Town the whole time?

[32:53] Jeremy: Yeah, I’ve been in Cape Town.

[32:54] Ashi: Yeah, me too. I have a feeling like this is maybe not the most representative experience.

[32:57] Jeremy: Yes, that’s the impression I get and that’s fine. But here in Cape Town, it actually feels very much like home, like the Bay Area.

[33:08] Ashi: It reminds me of Boulder Colorado to be honest.

[33:13] Jeremy: It reminds me of San Francisco culture with LA weather. But it’s the lack of difference that actually kind of surprised me. I don’t know exactly what I was expecting, but I wasn’t expecting this much of tech. I was telling some people I was super surprised to see ads for Azure in the immigration hall, I don’t even see that in San Francisco. That kind of surprised me, but in a good way. So, I think it’s actually a lack of difference that surprised me. There isn’t like a huge, other that the words that you guys use for things, which is totally different as we talked about last night, for example.

[33:57] Tumi: So, when hiring, what is your favourite non-technical question to ask? Again, person anonymous. Person anonymous asks a lot of questions, I just want you to all know.

[34:17] Dean: I think it’s this guy here.

[34:19] Tumi: Potentially.

[34:21] Dean: He looks anonymous. Can I answer?

[34:25] Tumi: Sure.

[34:26] Dean: A fun question I always ask people no matter what the job is, what is one thing that you’re most proud of and one thing you’re least proud of in your life. And the reason I ask that question is it gets you thinking about where somebody’s value system sits, because if you’re proud of this particular thing, it tells you a lot. So one person, one of my favourite answers was a lady who said she was most proud of the fact that she managed to keep a plant alive for longer than two weeks. Which told me two things, one, she’d killed a lot of plants. And two, she stuck at it until she got better, and that was an interesting value, and she is a phenomenal designer and I think it’s because of that resilience.

[35:06] Ridhwana: I can’t actually think of one offhand, but the question that I do hate is, ‘what are your strengths and what are your weaknesses?’ Most people just lie about that in any case, when you go to an interview. It’s a very standard question and usually people just play off that.

[35:25] Dean: My strengths are that I have no weaknesses. \

[35:27] Jeremy: My greatest weakness is I don’t know how to stop working. I think I answered the question earlier when I said I always like to ask ‘how will you bring new diversity and thought to our team?’

[35:43] Tumi: Okay. Then we have some other really well upvoted questions, so thank you, participation is way up for this time of the afternoon. So Dean, one for you. How would you approach trying to build a hybrid between a ChatBot and a real human interaction to engage with customers in a fast way? Go.

[36:05] Dean: What problem are you trying to solve? That’s the first part of the question, like a good designer. How would I build a hybrid? You’ve just got to figure out which questions or piece of the conversation could be automated, and which questions require more human response. Something a bit warmer, et cetera. It will require a lot of experimentation to get there, but that would be the way I would approach it, yeah.

[36:35] Dean: It also depends on again, what problem you’re solving. So, it would be very different if you’re trying to solve a medical problem. Somebody who probably wants to know they’re talking to a human, versus trying to get your balance for your bank account. So, it definitely impacts, that’s how we’d go about it as first figuring out what problems are people trying to solve, what service we provide, and then figure out how human that communication would need to be. 10 out of 10 answer.

[37:03] Tumi: Is it not just universal though to say well, if ChatBots are going to take over the world, it shouldn’t matter. It shouldn’t matter your context, you should be able to get to the doctor’s office, maybe you don’t even go to the doctor, I don’t know. You open up Facebook Messenger and you’re like ‘left arm sore’, and then …

[37:22] Dean: I don’t think humans work that way though. It fundamentally matters. It’s like you get a lot of, there was a period in design as well, where people try to make everything hyper personal and hyper human. For example, you open a piece of software and it says, “Good morning.” And it’s like, all I want to do is check my balance, why are you talking to me right now? You can see this in Uber, when Uber changed the preferences around whether or not people do want to talk or not want to talk, because it was completely unclear and I think the drivers also were unclear and as they try to start a conversation and you’re just trying to get to work, and then they’re like three stars, you didn’t like my joke. So the context is king at the end of the day, so yeah.

[38:07] Tumi: Cool, thank you.

[38:08] Dean: Pleasure.

[38:10] Tumi: Person anonymous creeps up again. Why do companies still require office time? Oh boy. We live in a digital era, so why are we going backwards in terms of forcing your team to sit in the office?

[38:27] Tumi: Last night we had a dinner, a gathering, and somebody used the term ‘presenteeism’, which I thought was a really interesting alternative to absenteeism. And I’m reminded of that term now with that question from person anonymous and I’m curious to hear thoughts on it, because we’ve got both sides, because we’ve got some people who are working in office, Ashi I imagine-

[38:55] Ashi: I’m remote, I’m remote.

[38:57] Tumi: Ashi has joined the remote forces everyone. I’m holding it down in the office, okay.

[39:02] Ashi: So I haven’t been in an office in a couple of years. And I was teaching at a school before that where it kind of made sense. It’s like you have to teach a class, the class is here. So, you should probably be here, that’s why they are paying you to be here.

[39:18] Tumi: So why is it then, I mean, so now quite a few of you actually are … Okay, we won’t even tell you the numbers at this point. But why do companies require you to be in the office?

[39:32] Jeremy: It’s easier to manage from a manager’s perspective, because if you need somebody, they’re there, you can proxy productivity with how often you see the person. It’s from a manager’s perspective, it’s the easier, lazier way to manage because it makes your job easier, because the person is there, they are available to you, you can evaluate them easier, and things like that I think.

[40:00] Ridhwana: I feel like at least in some of my previous jobs or the first one I guess that I had to be an office twice or thrice a week. I felt that it was easier for the manager to keep an eye sort of on what we’re doing, and that we’re actually putting in the eight hours, even though that doesn’t make sense, because as a remote worker, I sometimes do a lot more hours in a remote working time than when I’m in an office, because I don’t have to travel back and forth et cetera.

[40:30] Ridhwana: So I think it’s, I think some companies it’s within their comfort zone and they feel that you are doing work when they can actually see you doing the work, when in actual fact, you’re just swapping between the screen of Facebook and your terminal when they walk past. But yeah, I think it’s just seeing someone is actually believing that they’re doing the work, which doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, but I know that culture exists.

[40:57] Tumi: What about the other side of it, because there’s so many serendipitous moments that happen for us certainly at the office over coffee. There are so many wonderful conversations that I’ve had with people because we’re making coffee at the same time, or we bump into each other in the passage way, and it’s like ‘oh hey, I’ve been meaning to ask you this thing.’

[41:21] Tumi: Practically you don’t have that if you’re not there having a serendipitous moment. So, how do you deal with that? How do you still have those moments of connection when you’re so far away?

[41:36] Ashi: But you do have Slack channels. Such Slack channels you can just watch people’s conversations. You can just jump in, be like ‘oh, you’re throwing memes at each other?I have memes.’ And it’s different, you don’t have the in-person rapport. Some things are less organic, you make more time, you’re like ‘okay, we’re going to have a one on one for 30 minutes in 10 minutes’ and you do a video conference, which I don’t actually think it’s … I think I’m more productive actually because yes, sometimes you will meet at the water cooler and discover something about work, but honestly, most of the time no. Most of the time you’ve talked about something completely unrelated, which has, it does have the utility of building that relationship and building trust, but for the most part, it’s not, you’re not getting work done really as much.

[42:31] Dean: I think context again, matters a great deal. If coming into the office to execute on stuff that requires you to not do anything with another human being, then sure, it doesn’t make sense. To the point around somebody wanting to watch you, that’s just poor junior management. But we’re all currently here in a non-digital space, talking in ‘meet space’, and somebody had to ask that question, and if they weren’t here in ‘meet space’, they couldn’t ask the question because they wouldn’t have heard the thing, right? Now, I guess that’s the context that I’m talking about, is that certain problems and certain things can only happen as you interact. It’s hard to read, once you know a person, that’s the other thing, if you set up rapport, and then you have a remote relationship, it’s 10 times easier at least in my experience than if its always been remote.

[43:24] Dean: Again, context depending on what you’re building, what you’re doing et cetera, what problem you’re trying to solve as a team and a business will lend itself to more remote than not. And so you’ve got to really do the work around figuring out, well what’s the purpose I think, and sometimes it may be a mix, some companies are full remote and do really well, some companies are also zero remote and doing incredibly well. And I think that’s really the most important, it’s not this or that kind of state because I’ve also worked remotely and done really well, and been in teams that were remote and it was rubbish, because nobody spoke to each other, they didn’t have rapport, they couldn’t read intent, you can’t read body language in a text message. There’s a whole bunch of stuff that happens that you can’t do, and so I think that matters.

[44:09] Tumi: We unfortunately don’t have too much time left, but I feel like we could keep going all day, if you would like.

[44:15] Dean: No, that man’s sleeping. So …

[44:19] Tumi: So, we see you.

[44:22] Dean: A bunch of people just looked up like, ‘was he pointing at me?’

[44:26] Tumi: I do have an interesting question here, and Jeremy, it reminds me of something that you mentioned in your talk about freedom and accountability. And the question is, ‘how do you build a team or company culture where people feel safe in taking accountability for problems and get to work on solutions together?’

[44:47] Jeremy: Well, you don’t fire people for making mistakes. That’s probably number one. You don’t even punish them for it, you have to make sure that people know that if you make a mistake, it’s okay. I think that’s number one is that mistakes are okay, they’re going to happen, we’re going to learn from them. If you make the same mistake repeatedly, maybe that will cause some problems for you, but if you make different mistakes, that’s cool. I think that’s probably number one, and in fact rewarding people who make mistakes and then learn from them. And making it very obvious that you’ve done that. I think that’s probably the best way to make that culture of people wanting to admit to mistakes, as you have to make it a positive thing for them.

[45:38] Tumi: What are some of the other ways that you’ve seen individually of that working in the organisations that you’ve all worked in?

[45:50] Dean: Psychological safety. So the big thing around creating that environment where you know by default that making mistakes is okay, is you create the conditions for that to even exist. So, you can’t assume it, and I think that’s the big thing, is that a lot of people might assume because you think a certain way and I’m okay with the feedback, and I’m okay with making mistakes, that everybody is like. But if, especially in different cultures, you have things like power distance index, where in some cultures, if you’re the hierarchy or the person in charge, it doesn’t matter that you might think a certain way, they’re still going to want to do a really good job for you no matter what. And so by default, they’re going to really worry about making mistakes and working on that and paying attention to that is a big thing. And you’ve got to really create an environment that is psychologically safe, so that people can feel like they have their conversation.

[46:43] Dean: Most importantly I suppose, it comes under being accountable to one another. So, not accountable to the top of the pyramid but to one another in the team, and so that I don’t want to do a bad job for the team, not just for Mr. Man in charge. And that’s a really, really important thing that I spend all the time trying to work on with a lot of teams, is creating that safe space.

[47:06] Tumi: Any final thoughts, I see the timing of doom. Any final thoughts Ridhwana, Ashi, on just that environment, creating that environment in organisations you’ve been a part of?

[47:23] Ridhwana: I think for me, I think I’d like to give an example. So, when I started at my new team around a year ago, I was deploying something and of course everything broke and the system went down, and I was new to the team and it was really stressful for me of course, because working remotely also means that you’re kind of sometimes in this alone, especially since when I joined the team, all the engineers were in the US and I was the first South African engineer. And my manager in the US actually works very odd times, so he is a lot of the time awake during the South African day.

[48:10] Ridhwana: The way he dealt with the situation to me was really just next level amazing. We had a discussion and I was like, the system went down, and I explained to him how to reproduce what happened. And he just was really supportive, he kind of took responsibility, he said, this is how we’re going to fix it, and we literally sat on a call like the next two to three hours and tried to figure, I know that’s a very long time. But, we tried to, a lot of the team pulled together and we tried to fix the problem together. It wasn’t, ‘you deployed and you broke this, this is your problem’. It was a ‘hey, this happened, let’s pull the team in together and let’s fix this together’.

[48:57] Ridhwana: Up until today, I’m not sure what caused the deployment to break, but we fixed it as a team, and I think that’s what really sort of cultivates an environment where mistakes are okay, when you know your other team members are pulling in and they’re supporting you and we’re supporting each other.

[49:14] Tumi: Ashi, very final thoughts before they play the Oscars music for us.

[49:20] Ashi: I think if you want to have trust in a relationship, you have to fight. And if you want to have the sense of safety where it’s okay to make mistakes, you have to make mistakes. You have to model it, when someone makes a mistake, you have to model that it’s okay. It really, really helps though, if leadership can screw up and be transparent about it, and go through the same process, whatever the post-mortem process you have. Maybe don’t call it post-mortem, although I like the term, you go through it and demonstrate that it’s not just okay, it’s accepted, it’s normalised, it’s a good thing.

[49:53] Tumi: Perfect. Thank you so much. Thank you very much for answering the questions and being here and sharing the stage, yay. Yay you.

[50:02] Dean: Thank you.

Cat eyes@2x

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