Thoughts on Negative Glassdoor Feedback

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We recently received a couple of negative reviews for Barrel on Glassdoor, a website where people can find reviews posted by employees and former employees as well as salary ranges. Except for a couple of very positive reviews from interns in the past, we hadn’t seen any other posts until the two recent ones. They’re very similar to each other, so I thought it’d be a good time to publicly assess each one and share my thoughts on the anonymous feedback.

First, a quick note on anonymous feedback: as crappy as it feels to receive it, I think the feedback, even if it’s negative, is better than no feedback. I find it unfortunate that the person who wrote the feedback didn’t bring these things up while he/she was at Barrel, but I think that’s a sign that we need to be better about soliciting more honest feedback, perhaps through anonymous surveys.

Since the Pros for each review were somewhat identical (mostly about our perks like free lunch, beer/wine, and nice, young people), I’ll focus on the Cons and Advice to Management sections:

Review #1: September 9, 2014
Here’s review number one (in italics) with my thoughts below each of the points:

The marketing is flashy and perks are attractive but behind the gloss, it can be a pretty toxic place.

-Poor work-life balance, often have to stay late for client work

I think this varies depending on the employee and the position. We try to be mindful when scheduling project milestones so people don’t have to work so much to get things done, but we sometimes do get aggressive deadlines that require late nights. Our Producers meet every morning to talk about resourcing, and if we see that someone is overstaffed, we take steps to offload the work or reconfigure project schedules. We know that long-term, having people constantly work late or on weekends will have a negative impact on their ability to perform and their desire to stay. What we have is an imperfect system, and we’re making a conscious effort to make improvements.

-Inexperienced, often unprofessional management with no creative or technical background and no sense of scoping

I agree that we’ve been pretty weak with scope management. I think part of it has been the growing scale of our projects and our inability to adjust from the way we scoped smaller projects in the past. More complex projects require deeper discovery and more detailed statement of work documents. We’ve started to involve our creative, UX, and technical leads as well as our Producers to spend more time in these areas. What also helps is that we’ve been saying no to projects where we’ve had little or no experience in using the technology. Taking on a project that uses an unfamiliar technology may have worked on small projects in the past, but we can’t afford to risk a relationship and sink our team into a slog by doing large scale projects that might tank due to our inexperience.

-Complete lack of trust from management toward employees = frequent micromanagement, hovering, feedback sessions and reviews

I’m unsure about feedback like this because I sometimes get the opposite feedback from employees as well (that we’re not giving enough feedback and not involved enough). I think the issue here is that the type of feedback this employee received wasn’t helpful and that it gave him/her a sense that we didn’t trust the work.

-No interest in quality of creative ideas and a ton of emphasis from the top on churning out websites quickly to turn a profit

This statement is interesting because we’ve deliberately chosen to eat into our profits for a number of projects in order to push for quality and creativity. Of course, this hasn’t been the wisest of business decisions, so we’ve been trying to tighten up our process and the way we set expectations with clients. The other thing to note is that we have a lot of clients and a lot of projects. Some projects, by nature, require a more creative and in-depth approach while others emphasize quick and precise execution. I think I’ll have to keep a better eye on what I’m doing or saying that’s communicating a “churn out for profit” perception.

-Lots of office drama behind the scenes that influences the way they run the place

I really hate drama. Earlier in the year, we had a couple of situations where an employee was not a good fit. This led to a lot of turmoil and stress in terms of how to best handle the situation. There are a lot of lessons we learned in the process, but I’ll cover that in a separate blog post in the future. These days, things have been a lot calmer, and we’re trying to be smarter and more careful about who we bring on to the team.

-Poor compensation. Company tends to hire young people and pay them the least that they can get by paying them

I think this type of statement only comes from someone who started off with us with relatively little or no experience. For people with relevant experience, we’ll try our best to pay market rates since we’re often up against competing offers. For young people, we’re taking a risk by giving them a chance, so we’re going to opt for an entry-level salary. I’d like to think that we’ve been good about giving raises to those we’d like to retain. I do think that those who’ve been more aggressive in asking about raises have done better. We’ll have to do a better job of getting people to talk to us more openly about compensation.

-Little to no room for growth and no such thing as moving up since the company has zero interest in nurturing talent

I take this comment very seriously. I think part of the problem is communication: we haven’t been good about explicitly laying out growth paths for people and articulating expectations for how our employees can advance. These are thoughts we often have and conversations that take place behind closed doors, but we haven’t been proactive about communicating with the team and laying out concrete plans. We know this is a perceived weakness, so we’ve been investing quite a bit of time in recent weeks to think about our organizational structure, the hiring of more senior-level folks, and the way our team members can grow at Barrel.

-Turnover rate has been insanely high due to employee dissatisfaction at the hours they need to keep, the management and the low salaries

I’ll cover more of this in the other review since that person points to a specific number of turnover in recent months.

Advice to Management
-Learn to trust your employees and actually care for their personal and professional growth.

If we’ve given someone a reason to write this, then we haven’t done a good job of communicating.

-Transparency, openness and trust come first. Don’t let egos and drama get in the way.

Agreed. Same as above.

-Have a clearer hierarchy with mentorship or growth opportunities in place within each team

Yes! In progress, but we’ll need to move faster.

-Act appropriately to your employees and treat them with absolute trust and respect from every single minor interaction to every major company wide decision.

Agreed. Definitely an improvement area for me personally and something I’ll need to hold myself accountable for.

Review #2: September 4, 2014

Here’s review number two (in italics) with my thoughts below each of the points:

A lot of people who work there are coming straight out of college, or it’s their first agency job. This results in a lot of inexperience and mismanagement. Management doesn’t trust their employees to get client work done so there is a lot of micro-managing. Management also won’t hire experienced and senior employees (maybe they don’t want to lose their “control” or provide a competitive salary). Since there is no creative direction (just management telling you what to do) there are a lot of missed opportunities to work on interesting client work.

Inexperience and mismanagement are definitely a problematic combination, and I’ll admit that my own inexperience has probably played into this person’s perception. We’re actively trying to address inexperience through better training and strategic new hires. Training-wise, we’re working to established standardized discipline guides and defining the process to grow people from a junior role to more experienced roles without rushing them. In terms of hiring, we’ve been having good interviews with more experienced practitioners (3-5 years professional experience) as well as senior-level managers. Sei-Wook and I have always told each other that we haven’t really built a great business if we’re still having to manage every aspect of it ourselves, so we’re really eager to bring on experienced talent. I do think the sizable investment in an executive-level salary has made us balk in years past, but we’re committed to making some big changes.

As for the lack of creative direction, this has been entirely my fault. I’ve been the de facto creative director of my team since the start, but I’ve never positioned myself this way. Instead, I’ve been murky about who owns creative leadership at our company. I’ve done a better job on the UX and strategy side, but even there, I think I could be more explicit. As a result, I can see how this person felt that we lacked creative direction. One of our more pressing priorities is to find a Creative Director to fill this role.

Turnover rate has been very high (10 people in 5 months) because people have been unsatisfied with management, client work, and compensation. Perks are great but they are not genuine, I’ve heard HR and management say numerous times “it keeps you here”. Obviously perks are not what people value higher than trust, creative freedom and competitive salary.

There was a time, probably 2-3 years ago, when we did care a lot about the perks and thought it made a big difference, but our thinking has shifted considerably since then. We know that retention is all about engaging work, professional growth, and great personal relationships. And this person is right about trust, creative freedom, and competitive salary being important factors for people.

In terms of turnover, the perception has been that turnover has been rampant. When there are less than 30 people, ten or more people leaving feels like a very big change. We’ve had twelve departures in the past 5 or so months. That’s a lot of people in a very compressed period of time. Here’s how they break down:

    • 2 people moved to a different city for personal reasons
    • 2 people were terminations
    • 1 person was a 3-month contract that we didn’t extend
    • 2 were interns whose internships ended
    • 5 were voluntary resignations; 4 of them had other jobs lined up

It’s the last point that I’m concerned about. Four people leaving us voluntarily for another job at a pace of almost one a month. Of the four, two of them had been with us for 2+ years and the other two had been at or slightly over 1 year. I know a particular client project that did not go well contributed to some of these people leaving. This was a hard-learned lesson. I also know that compensation was brought up in exit surveys, so this is something we’ll address head on during our 6-month check-ins with the team.

The interesting thing is that for most people who work at the company, the specifics of a person’s departure are besides the point. What’s felt is the absence, especially if that person was a ping pong buddy or a friend to talk to during lunch. I don’t have an answer on how to better handle this right now, but it’ll be something I’ll have to keep in mind as our company continues to evolve through departures and new additions.

Managing people is a humbling experience. Even when I think things are going well, there are always a thousand things to improve and unanticipated challenges lurking around the corner. There was a time when I was especially sensitive to feedback and wanted to do all that I could to make everyone like me as a manager. This was a very insecure and immature way to run a company. These days, I have more of a backbone. I know where I want our company to go, and we’ve spent a lot of time thinking about our short-term and long-term goals. We’re constantly tinkering our plans, but we have a good feeling about how we want to grow the business, the type of team we’d like to field, and the type of work we’d like to do as a company.

To the people who wrote the Glassdoor reviews: thank you for taking the time to gather and articulate your thoughts. Management’s got lots of work to do.

Remove Those Silly Bars on Resumes

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I’ve been looking at a lot of resumes recently, and I find myself annoyed every time I come across a “Professional Skills” section that depicts filled up bars with a percentage that indicates the level of the candidate’s proficiency in certain areas. I see this especially on the resumes of young designers and front-end web developers. Some experienced folks also use this, perhaps believing that it makes their resumes more interesting and visually appealing.

Here’s a made-up example of what I typically see:

I've come across too many resumes that have these arbitrary numbers for proficiency in particular skills.

This chart tells me a few pieces of information that I might categorize as somewhat useful:

  • How confident a candidate feels about a certain tool or skill area; if they’re going to mark something close to 100%, then they must be very confident in their ability
  • How the candidate rates his a particular skill in relation to other skills; I can quickly compare their self-rating and get an idea of how the candidate gauges his strengths

But here’s where I get frustrated: what the hell does 100% even mean? And how is the candidate coming up with these numbers? How can you tell the difference between 95% proficiency in one skill versus 92% in another? Whenever I come across a chart like this, I never see a footnote or an explanation that tells me how these numbers were derived and against what standard they were measured. If I see that you put 97% for your Adobe Illustrator skills, am I to assume that you’re better than 97% of all designers who use Adobe Illustrator? Or is the 97% in relation to other candidates with your level of experience? Without context, a graphic chart like this creates confusion and, for me personally, raises suspicions.

Here’s what I look for in each job application, and it goes beyond the resume:

  • A short and thoughtful cover letter explaining why you’re applying to the position and why you think you’d be a good fit. It helps to be specific about why you think you’d be a good fit at our company in particular. It’s really easy to tell when a candidate is using a carbon copy cover letter.
  • A very scannable resume that succinctly lists relevant work experience (where, for how long, and responsibilities), education, and relevant skills (just a list is fine)
  • For designers especially: a link to a portfolio that showcases relevant work examples preferably with details on what you actually did on the project (I sometimes find that junior level people take credit for someone else’s creative direction, and I also find that some experienced people take credit for someone else’s execution; it doesn’t hurt to just be upfront about what you did and didn’t do if you’re going to include it in the portfolio)
  • Bonus: I love coming across candidates who write, whether it’s about their craft or about their perspective on different issues and topics.

Too many times, I see applicants who forgo the cover letter and don’t include a link to a portfolio even when we’ve specifically asked for it in the job posting. For each open job position, we often review hundreds of applicants. Rather than spend time tinkering with a graphic showing skills proficiency, I think candidates would be better served with a compelling cover letter and, if applicable, an interesting portfolio.

What I Look for in Young Candidates

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We’re starting to build out a more robust recruiting process at Barrel. For the first eight years, Sei-Wook and I have been primarily responsible for reviewing applicants and interviewing candidates. These days, we’re entrusting more experienced members of our team to recruit and hire junior-level employees. I think it’s crucial that they select people who are not only skillful but have the right attitude and exhibit the behaviors that align with our core values. These are baseline characteristics, and we make sure to ask the questions in interviews to cover both technical excellence (skills) and cultural fit (values). But here are few extra things that I like to see in young candidates:

  • Insatiable curiosity: even during interviews, I’ve found that great candidates will not only use it as an opportunity to land a job, but they will use it as an opportunity to learn more about the industry as well as new processes, techniques, and even books to read. Even if they don’t come away with a job offer, they’ll come away with knowledge that’ll help them somewhere else. I look for the questions that candidates ask throughout the interview (too many candidates only ask questions when prompted at the end).
  • Affinity for tools: whether or not they’re applying for a technical position, great candidates are constantly playing around with different tools and getting better at using them. Whether it’s Microsoft Office, Adobe Creative Cloud, developer-specific tools, or any cloud-based software, strong candidates will be unafraid to learn new tools with an eye towards maximizing their productivity.
  • Personal interests and projects: I’m really high on candidates who devote a good chunk of their free time to other productive endeavors. I respect people who have passions such as music, art, and sports that require rigorous practice routines and a high level of commitment. I am especially impressed if a candidate is prolific in extending their professional skills beyond the workplace. This might be a designer who starts an e-commerce side project outside of work selling cool posters; a project manager who runs a popular fashion blog; a developer contributing to a plugin for an open source content management system platform.
  • Freelance work: I’ve found that people who have had their own clients in the past are typically organized, articulate, and efficient with their time. Of course, they could have been terrible as freelancers, so I’ve found it helpful to probe a bit deeper about their freelance experiences to understand how they worked with clients.

Sometimes, the greatest interviewers can turn out to be a poor fit for the organization. I believe that beyond basic skills and a good attitude, there are a couple characteristics that can be good predictors for whether or not a young employee will succeed at Barrel. Based on the points I’ve noted above, they won’t be a surprise:

  • Resourcefulness: she has a curious mind with a knack for picking up new tools and figuring out problems. This person knows where to look for answers and who to ask. She loves to get things done and will be pro-active in chasing down the information and instructions she needs to complete her tasks.
  • Discipline: she keeps a very organized schedule and methodically plans her day in advance, trying to squeeze productivity out of the time she’s allocated for herself. This helps her keep focused and allows her to get through the wide range of tasks within a reasonable period of time. It’s not about working long hours but being efficient and effective with her time through a well-thought-out system.

Not everyone can be resourceful and disciplined from the get-go. It takes training, mentoring, and experience to build these up as ingrained habits, but it’s possible to get glimpses into the potential by learning more about the candidate’s curiosity, approach to tools, personal interests/projects, and any freelance activity. When I see a young candidate with lots to show for some or all of these areas, my gut tells me that they’re likely to do very well at Barrel.

A Few Ideas for Enhancing Our On-boarding Experience

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I’ve been thinking about our on-boarding experience at Barrel. We have about 5-6 new hires who’ll be joining the team over the next 4-6 weeks. Training and outlining of expectations are at the top of the list, and we’ve been working hard internally to strengthen those. This weekend, I jotted down some other ways that we may be able to enhance our on-boarding experience. I thought I’d share them here:

A Barrel Timeline
We have a post on Barrel Info Center about how Barrel got started, but it’s a really basic overview and doesn’t highlight much of our achievements and struggles over the course of our company’s history. With our 8-year anniversary just a few weeks away, I think it’ll be worthwhile to start jotting some dates and digging up some pictures to compile a more detailed Barrel Timeline that we can share with new hires as well as our team. I’m sure people will be curious about how things were like at 4 people and then at 8 and then at 16 and some of the ups and downs we faced along the way.

Detailed Team Member Bios, Printed Up
We have brief bios of our team members on our Barrel website, but I think it’ll make a really impactful on-boarding tool to have a printed packet of everyone’s bio and photo to hand to our new hires. Currently, we always send out a bio of a new hire to the team before that person starts, but we don’t provide anything for the new hire in terms of information about our own people (except what they see on the website).

To get things started, we’ll give people a set of questions to help guide their bio-writing and make it a fun exercise. I think our team members will also appreciate getting a packet for themselves once we’ve put it together.

A Guide to How We Share at Barrel
I know that we review bits and pieces of this during on-boarding already, but I think it would be incredibly helpful if we provided a comprehensive overview of how we live our Core Principle of active sharing (the full statement is Inspire each other and the world through active sharing) and what tools and channels are in place. I started on a draft outlining how we use tools like Hipchat and Tawk, our internal link sharing web app, as well as weekly discipline meetings, our blog, our team email list, and BourbON Fridays to share in different ways. The key thing is to provide examples of the appropriate types of information to share through these different tools/channels and to encourage people to do it regularly and often. I think our internal team would benefit from a refresher presentation as well.

I think on-boarding is one of the most important touch points in the lifecycle of someone’s employment. Making the right impression, providing the appropriate guidance, and readily making available the proper resources will go a long way in the new hire’s perception of the company and their place in it. I’m certain that years from now, we’ll still be trying to tweak and enhance the experience.

Themes on My Mind

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I’m exhausted, but I’m having a good time. Every week, there are all kinds of stresses and challenges, but I’m mostly able to navigate and handle things, which is extremely satisfying. And best of all, I get to work closely with a team that I respect and trust deeply.

Looking back on my writing (I’ve continued to write 300+ words a day since late December 2013) and the books I’ve been reading, I see that there are recurring themes. I’ve decided to jot them down since it’s helpful for me to see these as a list. Here they are:

Giving and receiving feedback
Creating channels and a work environment where feedback goes up and down, side to side throughout the organization. Also making sure that feedback is constructive and candid.

Training and establishing clear expectations
Continual teaching across the organization by everyone as well as rigorous training programs and well-crafted sets of expectations for every single role in the organization.

Doing great work
Making the mantra of “under-promise, over-deliver” the default treatment for clients and pushing ourselves to create impressive work on a consistent basis

Telling our story
Tying together mission, vision, and principles to tell a unique story about our organization. Being able to answer the question of our company’s future in a confident, detailed, and compelling manner.

Hiring the right people
Expanding our recruiting efforts, building a great pipeline of talent, and making sure we’re proactive in gunning for talent rather than waiting for people to appear at our door. Also making sure we’re vetting people carefully and not hiring to fill immediate holes but to build a solid team.

Reinforcing our core principles
Finding ways to make our core principles more apparent and memorable to team members on a daily basis and introducing ways to energize the team about them.

Scaling up
It’s not necessarily about headcount, but it’s about making every aspect of the organization less ad hoc and more structured and repeatable. I want to scale up business development, recruiting, and our core activities like project management, design, and development. This means better documentation, better training, and better process. It’ll ultimately allow us to grow in headcount as well, which I welcome as another challenge.

Continuous improvement
How can we instill into our culture, in a systematic way, the process of continuous improvement in everything we do? At the project level and also at the company level? How do we properly document our process and also make sure it’s happening at every position? Kaizen interests me and the idea of a team member at any level being empowered to speak up to make things better.

I’ve been fortunate to have been recommended or to have serendipitously come across some really great books in recent months that have influenced some of these themes. Here are their titles:

Building Capacity Before Going for the New Hire

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“If only we hired a person to do this, things would be so much easier.” I think this is a thought that’s crossed my mind many times over the years. And naively, I went ahead and usually hired someone.

Even recently, I heard myself talk this way when thinking about our business development efforts. Sei-Wook and I have been hoping to find someone to offload some of the sales activities that we do, including qualifying inbound leads and doing more outbound prospecting. The thought of nabbing a smart and driven individual to take on this work was very appealing, especially as the two of us have been mired in never-ending business development tasks. Why not post up a job listing and get the process moving?

One lesson I’ve learned from hiring (and firing) at Barrel is that it’s extremely important to understand that hiring someone doesn’t necessarily make all problems go away. In fact, the hiring may even be a distraction, especially if you expect that the new hire will magically make the problems disappear.

I’ve been toying with a checklist/questionnaire to help me vet my need for a new hire and, if absolutely necessary, then to plan for their hire. While I currently ask parts of these on an on-going basis, I think codifying them into some kind of framework will prove useful. I’ve written these down with a couple of things in mind: a) that the organization is one that is growing and doesn’t have all its departments and structures rigidly fixed and b) that the new hire could be for a position that does not formally exist in the organization.

New Hire Questionnaire

  • What is the role that we’re hiring for?
  • What is the problem that the new hire will help to solve?
  • If we could not hire someone at all, how would we go about solving this problem? What would it cost us in terms of time, existing resources, and money?
  • How will we ensure that the new hire is a great cultural fit, especially if this person is hired for a position/department that doesn’t yet exist?
  • What is our expectation for the new hire’s impact in the first 3 months? The first 6 months? The first year?
  • How will this new hire be trained? Who will lead the training and how will the training be structured?
  • If this is a brand new position, how will we empower the new hire to develop and institutionalize the position?
  • Who will the new hire report to? To what degree and how often will this person communicate with other members of the team?
  • How will this person fit into our existing workflow? What will stay the same and what will have to change?
  • How will we evaluate the performance of the new hire, especially if this person’s position/department has no precedent? Who will review this person and against what metrics?
  • If the new hire is successful, what does that look like? What will be different?

When I think about all of these questions together, what I basically see is my company’s need to build capacity in order to hire someone. I need to be sure that I have this person’s role mapped out thoroughly, at least to the degree that on day one, the training and assignments are clearly laid out. I have to examine my organizational structure and think about how the new hire will impact the way we work and communicate as a team. I need to think through not just about the short-term fixes this person may alleviate but also what the long-term benefits of having the new hire will mean for the company.

For the most part, we’ve been extremely lucky at Barrel to have hired some really talented and smart people. When I think about the misses we’ve had, they’ve usually come as a swift reaction to something unpleasant: an unexpected departure, a reoccurring problem that I didn’t want to deal with, or the hope that a particular individual could help us overcome an inadequacy and raise us to a new level. For new hires, these instances have resulted in a toxic environment characterized by unrealistic expectations, little guidance, hardly any training, and confusion about their place in the organization. In effect, they’ve been set up to fail. I can only attribute that to my own inexperience, naiveté, and laziness. But hopefully, by taking my time and being thorough, this is an area that I can really strengthen with a solid system that puts the brakes on hasty quick-fix decisions.

Why I’m Against Quantifying Productivity

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I got an email from MetaLab today that announced its latest software. It’s called Peak and it helps managers track what people on their team are working on in an automated way. It plugs in to popular apps used by people in the creative digital industry such as Basecamp, Harvest, Google Drive, and GitHub to show an aggregated feed of everyone’s activities. Peak looks beautiful as a web app and I’m sure it’s got the same polish as other MetaLab tools. But I think that in an effort to quantify productivity, Peak puts too much emphasis on the quantity of labor and none in the value created by the labor.

At Barrel, a year has made a big difference in our thinking about time, value, and effectiveness. Late last year, I remember poring over the reports generated by Harvest, the time-tracking software that we’ve used for the past seven years. We’ve always mandated time-tracking for everyone as a way to capture data about how many hours a project takes and also to create hourly reports for clients who we charge hourly for services. But as our projects have grown in size and the number of projects per team member has gone down, it’s become less and less important to have precise tracking. For example, if I know that someone is splitting their time roughly 50/50 on two projects over a span of 4 weeks, I can assume that they’ll have spent around 70 or so hours on each project (about 17.5 hours per week per project each week using a 40-hour work week, discounting some hours for internal tasks and professional development). And since we price almost all of our projects with a fixed fee, I don’t have to worry about billable hours but focus more on making sure a project gets done by the agreed date. As long as the price of the project is high enough to cover my base cost (employee salary plus overhead over the duration of the project) and give me a good profit margin, I don’t have to get too granular about how each hour was spent. In fact, the ideal scenario would be to totally decouple the notion of cost from the value we create for our clients. I haven’t quite figured this out yet, but I think it’ll be something where someone would gladly pay a flat $100,000 fee for something that, in leveraging a proprietary process or some technology we’ve developed, may cost us hardly anything to implement. That’s a tall order for a company like ours competing in a crowded field and fighting commoditization, but I think it’s a really excellent goal to pursue: the ability to price based on value.

So getting back to how we’ve changed in the past year: while we still track time, we don’t stress over the number of hours logged each week like we used to. There was a time not long ago when we would be alarmed if our team didn’t log a certain number of hours each week. We took it to mean a lack of productivity. We had our project managers check in on people and make sure everyone was logging a certain number of hours each week. Incredibly busy weeks made us feel like the business was doing great because it meant we were doing lots of work. But this was fundamentally flawed thinking because the number of hours didn’t necessarily correlate to results, and results are why clients come to us and agree to pay us.

Here are some example scenarios:

  • Lack of communication between designer and developer leads to a problematic implementation that then requires many hours to tweak and fix, which in turn leads to more time spent on browser compatibility testing; everyone on the project logs lots of time.
  • A designer spends many hours crafting elaborate icons which look great but don’t add much value to the client’s content and is ultimately not even used on the final site
  • A project manager spends hours putting together an incredibly detailed project schedule only to learn the next day that everything has to be adjusted because the client can’t commit to certain deadlines and meeting dates

More hours don’t necessarily translate to great work. In fact, working smart sometimes means working less. And I would rather have someone who is effective in producing results working 10AM-6PM than someone who produces less results but logs 12 hours a day. It took me a while to come around to this line of thinking as I’m the type who likes to work 12 or so hours a day and will linger at the office past dinnertime on most nights. But I’ve become more and more comfortable with people leaving 6PM on the dot as long as they’ve been effective. The goal for me, and I hope the organization, is to go beyond even the 10AM-6PM workday mindset and perhaps even the restrictions of geography, making it possible for people to work from anywhere at anytime as long as they’re able to communicate and collaborate with teammates without a hitch and produce consistent results.

With Peak and its automated feed that displays the number of emails sent, designs uploaded, hours logged, or code committed for each person on the team, I think the assumption is that more of everything means things are going great (although they do make the point that it monitors for people being overworked as well). Perhaps this could be the case, but I think it’s also dangerous to show reports like “Most and Least Active Employees” and use quantified productivity as a measure of performance. Peak’s value proposition is that by empowering managers with an easy way to track what people are doing, they’ll be less likely to interrupt their employees, leading to even more productivity. I think this line of thinking misses a deeper problem: do managers really need to keep track of what people are doing? If a manager is truly effective, I would imagine that employees would be motivated to deliver results and feel ownership of their assignments. And in this case, the manager’s job would be less about keeping tabs on people but more about identifying opportunities to help employees do even better. I think this is where Peak could have been a totally different tool. Rather than quantifying the number of design uploads per person for the manager, it could be a tool that allows everyone in the company to see all the great things going on each day. Any hint of quantified productivity would be stripped away and the focus would solely be on each piece of output that’s shared. The designers on your team could see what other designers are creating through a feed of uploads on Basecamp. Developers can see an aggregated activity feed of all the code commits on GitHub that day. Project managers can see the latest spreadsheet someone has saved down in Google Drive. The goal of this open and visual team activity stream would be to cross-pollinate ideas, break down project team or discipline silos, and give everyone in a company a better way to share knowledge.

In our line of business, where we use computers to create designs and code in creative ways for our clients, knowledge is extremely valuable. Knowledge is ultimately what allows us to come up with effective solutions. Knowledge is also something you can’t squeeze out by committing more hours. It comes about by creating the appropriate environment where people are given opportunities to explore, learn from each other, and challenge conventional thinking. I’m still learning to be a better manager each day, but one thing I’ve become more and more certain about is that my role is less about monitoring and more about finding ways to create the conditions for everyone to be effective.


The Meeting as Experience Design

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I’ve been trying something different at work. I’ve started to spend more and more time prepping for my meetings and being conscious about the experience I create for people who attend them.

Back in September, I got some really good advice from our leadership coach Peter Oropeza on running meetings. Peter, who’s been helping me and Sei-Wook for the past several months as a consultant, sat in on a meeting at Barrel and took notes as I led a group of 10 people through a brainstorming exercise related to our company’s business strategy planning. Afterwards, he provided feedback that made me realize how ill-prepared I was for the meeting. In fact, what I realized was that I just hadn’t put in the time to really think through the entire meeting in terms of its structure, its pacing, and the experience of its attendees. For someone who champions “great user experiences” on the Internet, it was clear that I was oblivious to the shitty experiences I was creating with my meetings.

A meeting without a clear goal is a meeting probably not worth having. Peter explained that it was always helpful to remind people about the goal of a meeting. In fact, he suggested that I write out the goal on the whiteboard for everyone to see at the start of a meeting. Like a good navigation at the top of a website, I think having a clearly articulated goal serves as a stabilizing reminder for both the person leading the meeting and the participants. I also learned that it’s important to thank everyone for being a part of the meeting and to introduce the meeting with its goal. I realized that I had a tendency to jump right into the meat of the meeting without any lead-in, which might have been a jarring experience for others.

The most challenging part of the feedback was on the content. My main takeaway was that creating a few slides or loosely blocking out twenty minute chunks of topics simply wasn’t enough to run a tight meeting. I had to go more in depth and flesh out each segment of the meeting, almost to the point where you could say it was scripted. This might include the exact instructions I give for an exercise or the things I write on the whiteboard. It might also include reminders to call on people who’re quiet or questions to ask to keep the discussion going. If I was going to be prepared, then all possible scenarios, like user flows on a website, should be carefully thought out.

At our next meeting that Peter observed, Sei-Wook and I came in with a meticulous game plan. We had spent about 3-4 hours writing up and rehearsing for our strategy meeting. This time, I thanked everyone for coming, noted that Peter was here to observe (I had neglected to do this before), appointed a time keeper, and stated the goal of the meeting, pointing to what we had already written out on the board for everyone to see. Sticking to the script, we ran our exercises, made sure people got out of their seats to interact, and reinforced the exercises with meeting goal. Participation was strong and evenly distributed among the group, and we could feel the energy level higher than it had been in previous meetings.

Overall, it felt great to run a well-organized meeting. It didn’t feel like a drag on people’s time, and we felt that people left the meeting energized rather than drained. The time invested in preparing for the meeting had truly paid off.

Today, I had the opportunity to run a smaller meeting about an upcoming initiative. It was only a four-person meeting but I decided to put in the prep work, creating a slide deck and printing out calendars to do a scheduling exercise. I followed the template from my lessons learned: I thanked the three others who joined me today, I made sure I introduced the goal of the initiative, and I walked them through four clear sections. We then used the whiteboard to figure out together the best way to schedule all the different activities that would help us complete the initiative. When I saw that we had a bit of extra time, we used it to do a quick UX exercise to move one of the activities forward. We finished right on the dot, not a single minute past the hour we allotted for the meeting. Later on, I followed up with an email to recap the meeting including an Evernote link that had photos of the whiteboard, the Keynote presentation I used, and the key deadlines that we agreed on for the schedule.

My initial thought on preparing so much for a meeting bordered on dread. To see myself spending that much time again and again to run a good meeting just seemed like a ton of work. But when I think of a meeting as a design challenge, it becomes a different animal. It’s no longer something I dread but something that has so many possibilities and so many areas for continual improvement. It’s not only about sharing information or discussing topics but also about setting the tone, providing inspiration, making it interactive, providing context, obtaining feedback, documentation, copywriting, and even information architecture. And if I can run good meetings enough times, I believe I will pick up techniques and exercises that can be used again and again, like a designer who has a strong collection of vector icons or a developer with a vast snippet library.

I feel like I’ve just only begun to understand how well meetings can be run, and I’m excited to further explore this medium.

What Can I Do? Thoughts on Nurturing a Culture of Self-Initiative

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Watching ESPN last Sunday night, I was struck by a comment that analyst (and former Super Bowl QB) Trent Dilfer made about championship teams and what makes them different. He talked about how players on a championship team were different in mindset. They always ask themselves: “What can I do to help my team? How can I be better?” These players do not wait on others to make the first move. There are no dependencies or excuses; just a dead-on focus for ways they can improve and contribute to the team as individuals.

As someone who hires for and manages a team, I’m curious about how I can better encourage a culture in which members of our team default to a “what can I do” attitude. I think for the most part, everyone we have has exhibited this type of behavior. From time to time, I’ll notice that there are comments that point the finger at other teammates, at clients, or at the lack of an existing process or policy. I know I’m guilty of this as well, especially in moments of frustration where I feel a bit helpless. So the challenge is, how can I help minimize this and foster an environment that emphasizes taking initiative and continual self-improvement?

I think a big part of it may be in the way I engage with my employees. I’ll have to do a better job of moving away from a “this is what you should do” stance and asking key questions in a way that empowers. The questions may be as simple as: “what do you think?” or “how would you approach this?” The goal would be to nurture and coach people by consistently encouraging them to think through problems independently and to feel more confident about trying different approaches without the fear that I may disapprove or reject. It’ll take practice and some work, and it’ll also require me to be both open-minded and very patient, a tall order for someone who draws confidence on getting things done quickly and loves to solve problems on the spot.

When I think about the type of culture I’d love to build and see in action, I imagine a team that is self-motivated and one that constantly finds opportunities in new challenges. It’s a team that handles adversity in stride and is selfless in crediting teammates while relentless in doing better the next time. It’s a team with a patient and trusting leader who empowers everyone to find their own way. I can see that there’s so much I can do as an individual to help set us in that direction, and in the scheme of things, any difficulty in changing my ways will totally be worthwhile.

Imminent Behavior Adjustments: Asking for Input and Being Open to Feedback

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I’ve been getting leadership coaching at Barrel the past few months. Sei-Wook and I have been working with Peter Oropeza of Oro Consulting to identify our strengths and improvement areas and to develop action plans to help us grow as leaders.

Last week, I met with Peter to review my ASSESS personality test, my ASSESS 360 feedback from direct reports and Sei-Wook, and my Hogan Development Survey, which shows how I behave when stressed. Peter also interviewed various people at Barrel and combined feedback from these interviews with the results and analysis of my tests.

Leadership coaching has been a really intense and engaging process. There were moments of anger and disappointment as I reviewed my test results (especially the 360, which comes with anonymous comments from my direct reports), but after I let the feedback marinate in my mind and reviewed them with Peter, I think they’re spot on, and I have major work to do.

These are not the only areas I need to address, but I’ll focus on them because they feel the most important to me and are related to each other: I need to be consistent in asking people for their thoughts rather than bowling them over with my mandates; I also need to be better about receiving and processing feedback rather than taking a defensive posture.

Asking for input is something I’ve sacrificed on many occasions for the sake of speed. As a boss, it’s much easier to come up with an idea and implement it right away. I’ve fallen victim to this convenience on various occasions, hatching numerous internal programs and policies without getting much input from other team members. It’s a behavior that’s satisfied my drive to get things done but something that’s detracted from my ability to lead. I’ve seen some of my very well-intentioned initiatives cause resentment and anxiety because I failed to involve others in the process. It’s not that I need everyone’s buy-in because the final decision is ultimately up to me and Sei-Wook, but making and enforcing that decision without discussion can send a strong message to the team without us ever meaning to.

One way to address this is to be more pro-active in asking for input. I’ve seen this work out beautifully the past month with our Barrel Strategy Task Force. I recruited volunteers to help me and Sei-Wook brainstorm and figure out the direction of our company. I’ve structured our weekly sessions to revolve around different topics that require participants to come prepared with their thoughts and ideas. This format has been great for sparking spirited and honest discussions in an encouraging environment.

I have other initiatives in the works that will be good tests for me. As I reach out to various people, I’ll take careful note of how I interact with them. It’s one thing to ask but another to be genuine and encouraging, even when receiving feedback that may be very critical of the initiative. I’m going to focus on keeping an open mind and turning my answers from a dismissive “I don’t know about that” to an enabling “Interesting, tell me more.” The same goes for scenarios where an employee approaches me with a new idea. Rather than trying to poke holes right away or countering with what I think is a better approach, I’ll pause, let the person finish, and ask more questions. I’m hoping this leads to a more fruitful conversation.

Asking for input and being open to feedback are very critical adjustments to make as a manager and aspiring leader. It’s one of those no-brainer leadership qualities that I’ve read in numerous books and articles (“A great leader listens,” “A great leader is open-minded,” etc.), but one that I didn’t realize was a glaring weakness of mine. In thinking about the big picture, it’s incredibly important for me to take action and make progress. I’m passionate about building a company that nurtures creativity and collaboration. It’s hard for me to achieve this and inspire others if I’m perceived to be a roadblock in these very activities. My goal is to continually evaluate my day-to-day behavior and identify opportunities for deliberate practice. As our leadership coach Peter told me, it’s like learning a new move in basketball. Initially, I’m not going to be comfortable using my new “go-to” move, but once I keep using it and eventually have it down, it’s going to be extremely useful in helping me perform.