Julie Zhuo is the co-founder of Sundial, a company that helps builders make meaningful use of data to fulfill their mission. With over 400K followers across social media, she is one of the most influential leaders in product design, and product thinking broadly.
Julie started her career at Facebook as a product designer and eventually led teams of 100+ designers as the VP of Design. Her experience leading at Facebook motivated her to publish the Wall Street Journal best seller The Making of a Manager in 2019. On the side, Julie shared her thoughts on technology, design, and leadership in The Looking Glass, the blog that inspired Lenny’s Newsletter.
Find the full transcript here: https://www.podpage.com/lennys-podcast/julie-zhuo-on-accelerating-your-career-impostor-syndrome-writing-building-product-sense-using-intuition-vs-data-hiring-designers-and-moving-into-management/#transcript
In this episode, you will learn about:
1) The making of a VP
* How did Julie find her way to product design?
* How did she navigate through impostor syndrome given the growing responsibilities as Facebook rapidly scaled?
* What are the challenges she faces as she transitions from VP to founder?
2) The impact and habit of writing
* What goals was Julie able to achieve through writing?
* What did she do to build a habit of writing?
* Does she think tweeting is better than blogging?
3) How to develop product sense and make better design decisions
* What are the three tried-and-true steps to develop product sense?
* When do you choose intuition over data?
* What’s the secret to facilitating great product/design review meetings?
3) How to take your first steps into management
* What can you do to unblock your path to become a manager?
* What’s the must-know trick in competing for design talent?
Where to find Julie:
* LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/julie-zhuo/
* Twitter: https://www.twitter.com/joulee
* Sundial: sundial.so
* Book: The Making of a Manager, https://www.amazon.com/dp/B079WNPRL2/ref=dp_kinw_strp_1
* Substack: https://lg.substack.com/
* Medium: https://medium.com/the-year-of-the-looking-glass
Our amazing sponsors:
* Amplitude: https://amplitude.com/
* Productboard: https://www.productboard.com/
* Sprig: https://sprig.com/lenny
Get full access to Lenny's Newsletter at www.lennysnewsletter.com/subscribe
Welcome to our very first episode with Julie Zhou. Julie spent 13 years at Facebook where she was the head of design for the Facebook app. She actually joined as an IC designer and worked her way up to VP of design. She's also an incredible writer, having written the best-selling book, The Making of a Manager. She's also the author of a newsletter called The Looking Glass which was a huge inspiration to me throughout my entire career. Since leaving Meta, she's started her own company called Sundial which you'll hear a bit about, and in our chat, we cover career advice, imposter syndrome, product review meetings, hiring designers, giving feedback to designers, and so much more. I hope you enjoy this chat as much as I did.
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Julie, I am so excited to be chatting. You've been such an inspiration to me, both in my PM career and in my writing. I think I've mentioned that your newsletter inspired my newsletter, and so, I'm really excited to be chatting, and I'm really thankful that you're joining me on this podcast.
Julie Zhuo (00:02:46):
Thank you, Lenny. It is a pleasure to be here. I think it's going to be a super fun conversation.
For listeners who maybe aren't familiar with you and your career, could you just kind of briefly walk us through your journey in design and then a little bit about what you're up to these days?
Julie Zhuo (00:02:59):
Okay. So, let's see. I am a first generation immigrant to the United States, and so, with Asian parents, there were really only three options that I had for a career. From the time I was six years old, I was told I could either be a doctor, a lawyer, or an engineer. Nothing else was really in the realm of possibilities. Unfortunately, I was really scared of blood, so I couldn't be a doctor, and I only liked reading fiction growing up, so I was like, "Never really be a lawyer." So, I was always like, "Okay, right, this engineering thing," but actually, it was during middle school and high school that I discovered what I love to do is drawing and in particular digital art, and the reason for that is because I actually have a very shaky hands, and so, whenever I draw a line, it never looks good, I have to erase it, start over, and so, by the time the art was done, it was a mess. It was like here's like 20,000 eraser remarks.
Julie Zhuo (00:03:45):
But when I discovered MS Paint, and I kid you not, that was my very first design application, I was like, "Oh my gosh, I can draw a line, and even if it looks crummy," which it always does because you have to use a mouse in those early days, "I can just Ctrl+Z, it goes away, and just keep trying over and over again. No one ever has to know how often I tried to get to this to be what I wanted." And so, MS Paint became PaintShop Pro, and then one summer I finagled my way into a pirated copy of Photoshop because I couldn't actually afford real Photoshop, and I was off to the races in my digital art career.
Julie Zhuo (00:04:16):
It was actually through digital art that I realized, "Okay, I've actually amassed all this collection of art. What should I do?" And I was like, "Well, let me go and actually build a website. All these artists that I admire on the internet did that. So, I'm going to learn how to write HTML and put together a website," and that's essentially what I did on the side in my middle and high school years.
Julie Zhuo (00:04:34):
So, that's kind of how I got into design, but I didn't know it was design because I really still thought of myself as an artist, and I thought that the only thing I could be was an engineer, but I went in and studied computer science in college. Right? I always had this vision, "Okay, if I like building websites, maybe computer engineering is the closest thing to that," and I had this idea that maybe I could go work for one of these big tech companies, and after I took a class my senior year, that taught me what is Silicon Valley, what is entrepreneurship. By the way, here's all these stories of two people in a garage, and then they went and built something big, and I totally just was so into that. I was like, "All right, I do not want to work for a big company. I want to figure out if I can do this startup thing and make something small into something big."
Julie Zhuo (00:05:17):
I just happened to be very lucky at the time. There was a startup down the street from my university. It's a product I had been using for two or three years. It was Facebook. It was still a high school and college social networking product at the time, 8 million users. They were doing a lot of recruitment at Stanford, and so, that's how I decided to go and join for an internship, and on my first day I remember my mentor, Ruchi, she said, "What kind of engineering do you like to do?" And I was like, "The stuff that people see, of course. I want to be able to..." The stuff that I'd always done. Right? And she goes, "Oh, I see. You should go sit next to the designers," and that was the first time I heard that design was a profession, that it was actually a job. It was a thing that people did.
Julie Zhuo (00:05:55):
Back in those days, all of the design team was technical. So, we were both the front-end engineers as well as the designers, but I felt like I'd found my tribe. I had found people who kind of had always been passionate about this thing that I didn't really realize was a job. And so, I realized though as well that I had a lot to learn about design. I was never really formally trained in it. Right? I'd only ever designed for myself for me to express my creative, artistic side, so there was a lot in those first three years. I would think of my time at Facebook as chapter one, learn how to be a designer, learn about usability, learn about the actual language, nomenclature of design, learn how to think about the user as somebody separate than just me and my own work.
Julie Zhuo (00:06:36):
Then, because Facebook was always scaling, I got the opportunity to eventually manage a team of designers. Totally unprepared for that, no idea what I was doing, kind of jumped in, and just started to manage, but there was a huge amount of learning around recruiting, process, what even is good design, what is the way that we want to design at this company in our team, and so, tons of learnings there. The third chapter is just sort thinking about scale. Right? Learning how to scale in management, learning how to build a wide diversity of products, learning more about strategy, and how design fits into working with all of these other disciplines to build something great. So, that's kind of how I think about my time at Facebook and the various chapters.
Julie Zhuo (00:07:16):
The latest chapter is eventually I left Facebook about two years ago and now I am a startup founder. So, it's something that I've always wanted to do. So, go back to that, the early phases of figuring out how to build something from zero to one, and I'm working on a product and product analytics. I'm really passionate about the idea of making data accessible about... I've seen the power firsthand from working at Facebook of what data can do to help us make better products, especially for people at scale, to help us reduce the bias in our intuitions, and how we think about what is the way that we should prioritize, and I'm really passionate about the idea of making that such that every single company, every single business in the world can properly use data, know how to interpret it correctly, know how to use it to influence roadmap strategy and prioritization decisions, and make better decisions as a result.
I feel like that, this idea that you're working on has such intense founder market fit, and I can't wait to hear more about it when you're ready to kind of go deeper and for people to use it. But going back to your time at Facebook, you kind of made it sound like you just kind of like, "I joined as a designer, figured out design, became a manager," and then somehow you became VP of design, and it sounded too easy. That's an insane trajectory for someone to follow. Do you have any thoughts or advice on what contributed to your success rising through the ranks that quickly for folks that are kind of just early in their career maybe?
Julie Zhuo (00:08:36):
Absolutely, and I want to make it really clear. I always say that the first seven or eight years that I was at Facebook, every single week, I felt like an imposter. I had no idea really what I was doing. The constant refrain in my head is like, "Well, do you really deserve to be here? Do you really know what's happening? You're not really prepared for this job. You've never done this before. What right do you have to be put in this situation and get to do what you do?" Right? And that was really a constant refrain in my head.
Julie Zhuo (00:09:03):
But looking back, I think it probably took me about, yeah, seven or eight years till I became a little bit more comfortable with that, and after seven or eight years, I could look back, I could see all of the things that I got to work on, I could see all the ways that I had grown and learned in that experience, and something clicked for me where I realized it's kind of two sides of the same coin. Right? Being in an uncomfortable situation, being in a position where you feel like, Hey, do I really know how to do this? I've not prepared for it is kind of coin sides with the fastest and most intense periods of growth in one's career. And I started to realize, well, maybe it's not so much of a bad thing. Right? Maybe if I am constantly putting myself in a situation where I haven't seen this problem before, that's also what's going to push me to grow and learn. Right?
Julie Zhuo (00:09:47):
And so, yes, you asked for specific advice. I think there's two things. The first is, well, I was lucky. I was in the right place at the right time. I was at a company that was scaling, and when you're at a company that grows, there's always a lot more opportunity to then be able to try something new, right, to raise your hand, to volunteer for things to be just thrown into because somebody has to do it because it's a growing company and a lot of other people. So, the first piece of advice I have would be like if you want those types of opportunities, sometimes you just have to be at a smaller place and you have to be at a place that is going through that rate of growth. The second thing is embrace the fact that it's okay to be in a position where maybe you don't know what to do, you haven't been trained for. Right? It does coincide with that intense learning. Maybe approach it with that sense of curiosity and that sense of yes, it's hard, yes, I might be an imposter and I might feel that way for a while, but this is also what's going to help me get there. It's going to be what forces me to do the work, and in that process, learn and become better.
It's amazing to hear that you had imposter syndrome for such a long period of time and you basically ran design for the Facebook app. Right? And so, it's kind of an empowering, inspiring insight that someone at your level went through that for so long and made it through that. Do you have any other advice or thoughts on just for folks that are going through that? Because I had that too for a number of years, just like, "What the hell am I doing here? People are going to see I don't really know what I'm doing, and it's all going to crumble as soon as I make my next mistake." Do you have any other advice there for folks going through that themselves?
Julie Zhuo (00:11:14):
I think just exactly what you said, Lenny, right? I think so much of it that helped me was realizing that everyone feels this way to some extent, and that's also why I always want to talk about that, right, because I feel like sometimes you can see from the outside. You're like, "Oh, this person has this title. They have this position. They have these responsibilities. Clearly, they've made it. They know what they're doing." But that's never the case, and I mean, logically let's think about it. Right? If you're going to do anything new for the first time, how are you ever going to feel totally comfortable, totally prepared? Every time, there's something new that you hadn't encountered before, it's always going to be a little bit rough. You're never going to feel perfectly at ease.
Julie Zhuo (00:11:50):
It's only upon doing something multiple times that you start to see the patterns, you start to realize, "Okay, it's going to be all right." And even now the people that I talk to, the people I really look up to, the people who I think are role models and mentors for me, I mean, they regularly also share with me that it's the same. It's like they still encounter things that are unprecedented. Right? And if we work in tech, I mean the rate of change, the rate of the industry and companies and kind of these new experiences that we have, that never goes away. Right? That's just par for the course. And so, I think that feeling always exists.
Julie Zhuo (00:12:24):
I think that what I have learned is that there are better tools in your toolkit for dealing with it. One of them is of course me just reminding myself that if I feel uncomfortable, it's okay. Other people feel that way too. Everyone does. It's totally natural, but then to also find other pieces in that toolkit. Right? One is I am much better at asking for help now than I was earlier in my career. I used to actually just try and hold it all in. I was like, "Hey, I better fake it until I make it. If everyone thinks that maybe I'm coming to a table like I know it, then I can fool them." And now I realize I was really just, I was preventing myself from being able to get that support and that empathy and that camaraderie and that advice that would've helped me actually grow faster and maybe with a little bit less pain in the process.
Julie Zhuo (00:13:09):
And so, one of the things I learned is it's okay to ask for help. It's okay to reach out to people who both may be going through the same things you're going or maybe are step or two ahead of you in the journey, right, who have actually gone through that and have lived to tell the tale and can tell you it's going to be okay because often that's just what you need. You just need people to tell you, "It's going to be fine. You're fine. You're good. You've got this." And that's so meaningful, right, whenever we sometimes feel down about ourselves. So, that's another, I would say tool in the toolkit, right, asking for help, finding groups of support.
Julie Zhuo (00:13:39):
And then I think the third is it's also okay to just be vulnerable and just talk to people about it. Right? I found that some of the most meaningful conversations I had, whether with people like managers or whether with my own reports is when we can be much more open about what it is that we find hard, what are we struggling with, and in that way, you actually form deeper connections and people are more able to help out. Right? We can spread the load a little bit. We can put our heads together and brainstorm a better way to solve the problem, and I find that too, even as the head of a department, right, or a founder, it's like I'm not going to solve everything myself. I'm never going to have all the answers. Sometimes by just sharing what the problem is, by sharing the load, we're all going to collectively come up with a better solution.
I love that advice. It's so simple and so effective. Reminds me of advice a coach once told me that when you're in a new role, you are an imposter. You're doing something you've never done before and that's normal and don't feel like that's unusual. So, speaking of being uncomfortable and being vulnerable and doing hard things, you now have a startup that you've started and I'm curious. What's kind of different from the experience of being a leader at a Meta versus being a founder, especially things that maybe are surprising, good or bad?
Julie Zhuo (00:14:52):
I will say it is definitely a very humbling experience, but it's also exactly the journey that I wanted, and a lot of it is just going back to kind of this like base layer. When you're at a large company, a lot is taken care of for you. Right? If I have a question about, I don't know, finance or how to deal with a people situation, they're experts. There's experts in every single field, and I just go and reach out to them and talk to them and kind of handle that and help me. But when you get back to it, it's like, okay. In the beginning, it was myself and my founder, Chandra. It's just the two of us, and it was like all sorts of stuff that it was like talk about being an imposter. It's setting up, figuring out taxes, or just figuring out how to incorporate, or just thousand little decisions, right, a thousand little things that were new and different.
Julie Zhuo (00:15:34):
So, there's a huge amount of learning. There's a huge amount of just having to do it all yourself and realizing in a lot of ways just how many things you're bad at, or don't really like to do and that because you don't like to do them, it's hard to get them done. Right? So, it's humbling that way of just helping you realize these things about who you are.
Julie Zhuo (00:15:52):
I think the other thing is for me, it's going back to the idea of being much more focused on doing, working with people who are at different stages in their career. When I was leading design for let's say the last five or seven years, right, I was often directly managing senior people, either senior designers or managers or directors and so forth, and going back to working with folks at various stages, including new grads, early career folks, it was actually both me realizing I had to kind of really change a lot of how I manage, so it was, again, also very humbling in that respect. I had to change a lot of what good management looks like in that context which was different from a lot of the habits that I had built up, but it was also so rewarding. I realized I actually really love working with people who are in that early phase of their careers. It's totally different, and what they need and how to best support them is really different than what you would do with a director or very senior person, but it's also just a whole lot of fun.
Julie Zhuo (00:16:50):
So, that was something that is really new, and then of course, so much of it is again putting that IC hat back on, right, and it's been years since I've actually sat down and designed. Often as a manager, the thing I develop is I develop my eye, but not my hand. So, I learned to be a good critiquer of design, but actually because I stop practicing design, I'm definitely, the limits of what I can actually make and what I can produce myself become really evident. Right? And so, again, back in this new company setting, well, I have to put on a bit of that IC hat. I have to learn how to be kind of an ICPM learn how to be an IC designer, realize that there's so much that I'm actually really bad at as well and in that way, but develop and grow some of my muscles and those skills again.
The first point you made about having to do everything again, I remember the reverse of that when we sold our startup. I was so happy just to like, "Okay, here's a one goal we're going to focus on. We don't have to think about everything in the company all the time. I'm just going to hit this one goal, this one product. It's going to be so, so much easier." And that was really fun for a while, and then gets itchy and hard again, and you kind of want to have more responsibility and more challenge.
Julie Zhuo (00:17:58):
It's fun though. I am really enjoying it.
Oh yeah. I want to transition a little bit to talking about your writing and writing in general. I think I mentioned that your newsletter, The Looking Glass, inspired my writing in a big way. I basically modeled your newsletter and focused it on growth and product. That was the idea. Let me just do what Julie's doing and I'll do it around a different vertical. And so, first of all, I just want to thank you for all the writing that you've done over the years because it was really impactful to me. And so, first of all, thank you for doing that.
Julie Zhuo (00:18:26):
Oh, thank you for sharing that. It's really meaningful for me to hear as well.
I still go back to a lot of your writing, even though I know you've slowed down the focus on the startup which makes a lot of sense, and we'll chat a little bit about that. But I'm curious, what got you to start the writing, and broadly, what impact have you seen it have on your career and just anything in life?
Julie Zhuo (00:18:43):
What actually started me on this writing journey was a piece of feedback I got during a performance review cycle, and I remember I was talking to my manager and he shared that, "Hey, one of the pieces of something you should work on, an area of growth is that you have a lot of really great ideas, and you're always really engaged whenever discussions happen in a small forum, one on one, or there's like two or three people in the room, but whenever there's a large room, we're talking about seven people, 10 people, 15 people, you're just sort of quiet and you're not really telling your perspective. You're not really contributing to these larger conversations, and that's something for you to think about and work on."
Julie Zhuo (00:19:19):
It was really good feedback because I absolutely felt it. I definitely felt that barrier of speaking up in a large room. I think the fear could be summarized as I don't want to look stupid in front of a lot of people. And so, I had all these barriers. I was like, "Okay, am I sure that what I'm going to say, what comes out of my mouth is absolutely brilliant?" And that was really just this emotion that was getting in the way, and I was like, "Okay, I really want to work on this. I want to figure out how to get that to be less and less of a friction for me."
Julie Zhuo (00:19:47):
And so, it was around I think the January timeframe. Right? So, when the new year came, I was like, "Okay, here's an idea. What if I just did something," that at the time seemed really scary to me which was put my opinion out there on the internet and just do it, just do it for a year. Okay? My goal was post one thing every single week. It seemed terrifying. Right? I'm not sure what people are going to say. Again, maybe all my ideas are stupid, but I just want to get better at doing that, and hopefully, through that year, get more comfortable with that.
Julie Zhuo (00:20:18):
So, that's how this whole writing thing began. It came with this kind of New Year's resolution of just 52 times, I was going to click publish on something, some opinion piece. And I was like, "It doesn't have to even be..." It doesn't even matter what the opinion is. Just put something out there and just expose yourself a little bit in that manner. So, that's what I did, and I tried to not have any goals around, well, maybe people will read it, maybe it'll be considered high quality. Those are all just, again, additional barriers that I was putting that would make me even harder for me. The only goal was to hit the publish button.
Julie Zhuo (00:20:49):
And so, the first couple weeks were actually quite excruciating. I remember I just spent hours on this piece and I just kept editing it, and I was like, "I don't know if this is any good? Should I actually publish it?" And so forth, but eventually, I did it. Right? And again, little by little, it started to just become easier as anything does when it's done a lot. So, by week 10, by week 15, I had gotten into a bit of a cadence, and I realized something that was having an impact on my work. I realized that it became much more clarifying for me to have that space to be able to write, and it almost became a kind of self-therapy because through the week I would have all these thoughts running around my head, things I wanted to get better at, pieces of product that I was mulling on, and the act of writing allowed me some quiet time to just sit down and try and organize those different threads of thoughts.
Julie Zhuo (00:21:40):
I approach my writing then and I still do now as letters to myself. This is the framework. This is the advice that I need to give myself that I need to go and really do better, and that is what my writing became for me, and it was hugely helpful for clarifying my train of thought. It was hugely helpful for me to then be able to do a better job of expressing myself, and by the end of that year, I saw a huge difference in my ability then in large meetings to speak up and to become more comfortable.
Julie Zhuo (00:22:11):
But even after that year, because I had seen all of these advantages in what it did for my clarity of thinking, and I just decided to continue, and it became also a really, I think, a wonderful side effect that other people started to resonate with the writing. They were like, "Oh, this is actually helpful for me, or I was feeling the same thing, or this gave me a little bit of additional structure to think about the problem," and that was also extremely motivating, but I will say that what I think helped me continue the writing habit is I always did it for me. I always did it because I felt that there was a lot that I had to gain from it, and it's been obviously a wonderful experience to connect with readers and other people in the community about it. It definitely made me feel less alone. It definitely confirmed a lot of the ideas that I had about is this the right way to think about something. It led to a lot of really rich discussion with my colleagues and with people who just emailed or responded about the writing. So, that was a wonderful side benefit as well. But yeah, I really credit my ability to think better through the process and the practice of writing.
That's such a cool story. I love that it was kind of driven by a manager, but kind of led to so many externalities. One thing I wanted to ask you is how did you find time to this writing? People always want to write and very few people do or find time to. How did you actually make the time and keep that up?
Julie Zhuo (00:23:29):
So, I actually had this practice of writing even before I did this more publicly with a blog, and it was because I harbored this dream back when I was a teenager and well into my college years of one day writing the next great American novel. So, I wrote a lot of fiction and I wrote a lot of... I have four unpublished novels just collecting dust. They're not very good. I can say that now with a lot more objectivity.
Julie Zhuo (00:23:52):
But I did that, and I would participate in this program called NaNoWriMo every year which later I was fortunate enough to be on the board for a number of years. But what NaNoWriMo was is this idea of... It Stands for National Novel Writing Month in November. So, it's exactly what it sounds like. In the month of November, the goal is to write 50,000-word novel in 30 days, and the whole purpose and the whole point of NaNoWriMo, and again, I did it for a number of years in my early twenties, it's all about just getting the words out. Right? It's not about, hey, is every paragraph, is every sentence pristine, or do you have the right beginning, middle, end. It was like no. It was like you're going to write a novel every single day. You need to write 1,667 words, and you just do that over 30 days, you'll have 50,000 words.
Julie Zhuo (00:24:37):
The whole premise was, yeah, no, those 50,000 words, they're definitely going to be junk. They're not going to be really good. But at the end you'll have something that you can then edit and then you can shape and you refine. Right? And the hardest part is just getting started. It's just getting past the blank screen and the first page.
Julie Zhuo (00:24:55):
And so, because I'd gone through that experience, I had really internalized that writing for me is just get the words out. It is just about the sit your butt in the seat and just do it, get the word count goal out or get a time goal. I actually like word count goal even better than time goal because sometimes you can spend 30 minutes and then still just produce a sentence, and so, that was always how I approached my writing. I was like, "All right, I'm going to sit my butt down. I'm going to write for 30 or 45 minutes, but it's going to be, whatever, like 250 words. It's going to be 500 words. It's going to be this number of words." And that just gave me the discipline to just get it out and then think about revising, think about quality, think about all that later.
Julie Zhuo (00:25:32):
And when I got into writing my book, that was exactly how I approached the first draft. I was like, "Okay, I'm going to divide up. It needs to be 60 or 70,000 words. I have like a year. I'm going to divide it up into the number of days and weeks." And I think what it came down to for me was five nights a week, I needed to write 500 words each day, and I eventually got that down to, it was like 30 or 45 minutes. I mean, some days, a little longer, other days, a little shorter, but it was about that, and I just kept that weekly goal up until the book was written.
Speaking of the book, I definitely wanted to chat about that briefly. Did you always know you wanted to write a book or is this kind of a thing that emerged from people just asking you the same questions again and again, and then similarly, what impact have you seen from that book, which I own many copies and have gifted many copies?
Julie Zhuo (00:26:15):
Thank you. I had this dream that I would write the great American novel. I still want to do that someday. One day, I really do want to sit down and hopefully write a fiction book. So, I always had that on my mind. I don't think I ever thought that I would write a non-fiction book. I never thought I would write a business book, right? That really came about organically, and it came about because I was writing this blog and I was publishing these letters to myself that I was again putting on the internet, and then occasionally, I would have publishers or various folks reach out and say, "Oh, this was a really great article. Have you ever thought about developing that into a book?" And my answer for the longest time was always like, "No, because I don't think I have the stamina to make this one topic into this huge thing. I don't think about myself as kind of like a career writer." Honestly, there wasn't necessarily anything that I felt that differentiated or maybe a unique angle.
Julie Zhuo (00:27:03):
I also felt that most books that I read, there was always a huge amount of research that went into it, and I was like, "I just..." I know this about myself. I don't love research, not great at it. I don't want to sit there and compile a bunch of stats and whatnot to make an argument. But one day, a publisher reached out and they were like, "You know, we had some ideas about the fact that you're writing really, especially the part about for new managers, your advice for new managers or for people new to leadership, it really seems like it strikes a chord for that particular audience, and we have some ideas. Why don't we get on the phone to discuss?" I took that call and actually really was... That call just did change my perspective because it gave me a particular angle on something that I felt was missing in the market. Right?
Julie Zhuo (00:27:44):
Again, most of the stuff that I'm writing, again, they're advice to myself, but I was brought back to when I first became a manager, and I went back, I went to the bookstore one day, I was looking for resources on what it means to manage and stuff that would help me become a better manager, and not a lot of it spoke to me because it seemed like most management books were written by CEOs who had been leading their company for years and years, or it was by management consultants who didn't really seem like they had been in the situation of just like, "Hey, I was an IC on the team, and now next week I have four reports that I'm going to be working with."
Julie Zhuo (00:28:20):
There just wasn't that much for the completely new manager who didn't have an MBA, wasn't on some sort of ladder, and just one day got dropped and asked to kind of go and support a couple people who were starting next week. I was brought back to that moment in time and realizing there really isn't that much that is great out there that is particularly geared for new managers, and I felt that I had to really learn and make a lot of these mistakes on my own, and even very fundamentally, I don't think that people ever really explained to me, what is a manager, what does it mean to do a good job as a manager of a handful of people. Right?
Julie Zhuo (00:28:56):
And so, it sparked this idea that this was something that was somewhat missing in the market, that there was an opportunity to just really write something that could speak to people like me and people, again, similar to me who maybe weren't on this ladder for 10 or 12 years, especially in tech, right, I knew many people who had gone through that. Then the second thing for me is I realized that I would likely also become a better manager through this process because it would force me to think about management a lot every single day. It would force me to reflect on my frameworks for management, and whenever you think about something all the time in the back of your head, it's just more top of mind. I was looking to become a better manager myself at that point, and that was the additional boost that I needed to commit to the project.
Has that last piece bitten you in the butt at all, when you maybe make a mistake as a manager and people are like, "Julie, you wrote this book on management. What the hell's going on?"
Julie Zhuo (00:29:47):
I always tell people, I tell my own reports as well, it's like, "You might come in and you might have read my book and you might think that somehow I am a really great manager and an expert in management, and I always try. I'm going to lower your expectations. I'm still learning." There's a lot of things that I'm still working on that I know I'm not perfect at, but that's what I think it is. Right? I think so much about, for me, at least, learning to be a better manager, and I know I'll probably be on this journey for the rest of my life is that you can know oftentimes the theory because the theory is it makes sense, right? It's like, okay, we all been in that situation. We can feel. It is so hard to just actually put it in practice. It's so hard to do some of these things every single day because they're sort of counterintuitive and it is so hard to apply it to the appropriate context.
Julie Zhuo (00:30:30):
Just even the example I gave earlier, managing early career, new grads is just completely different than managing really senior people and being able to tailor to each individual person or each specific group of people because humans are, we're all different. We're all unique. Right? No two people are the same. No groups of people are the same. So, it is an art as anything else. A lot of it too is about learning about who I am, what am I good at, what am I not good at, how can I be more honest and more authentic to my own strengths and weaknesses, and then be able to pair that up with the person that I'm talking to or the group of people that I'm working with. So, definitely not by any means today still consider myself great or an expert or whatnot. I think everyone else, I'm still trying to get better.
That's a little bit how I feel where people think that I've got it all figured out, I'd be like the most amazing product manager they've ever worked with, and I feel like I could never get a regular job again, because the hype. The expectations would be way too high. People forget that I have time to think, research, process, and that kind of thing. And so, I can never get a PM job again. This is basically the problem that I've created for myself.
Julie Zhuo (00:31:36):
I think you'd be a pretty great PM, Lenny.
It's all an illusion, but I appreciate it. And then the other piece is that you pointed this out, that a lot of people don't realize when folks like us write, it's like us figuring it out. It's not like we have the answer and we're just like, "Okay, here, I'm just going to write down the answer I already have in my head." The process of writing is how we learn a lot about these sorts of things, and a lot of people don't realize that.
Julie Zhuo (00:31:56):
Yeah, I absolutely agree. Like I said, it's about reminding ourselves. Right? I always often say I'm the number one audience for my own writing because I'm the person who needs to really hear it the most.
That's exactly how I feel a lot of times. When I go back to my own pieces, like, "Oh yeah. Okay. That's what I wanted to remember." On the writing, something I wanted to ask about is you've kind of slowed down for a good reason. You have a startup to run and you've started doing more tweeting than news lettering and blogging. How do you think about that? Just, is that intentional? How do you think about, I don't know, Twitter versus newsletters and other things?
Julie Zhuo (00:32:25):
Yeah, it was very much. This is another New Year's resolution that came up later. Right? One of the things that I recognize about myself is I kind of have a tendency to ramble, and I've gotten this feedback as well in 360s where I'm not always the clearest communicator. I can be a pretty good storyteller and I am clearer in writing often than I am in person, but this was another area that I wanted to get better at. Right? I wanted to get better at in the moment communicating more clearly and being just a little bit sharper, a little bit crisper in the points that I had to make.
Julie Zhuo (00:32:56):
I remember I work with a number of colleagues who are just so good at this. Right? There will be some really complex topic, this big product thing that we're trying to figure out, and in the moment, they would go and they would say, "Okay, I see. This is what the problem is. The problem is one, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, two, blah, blah, blah, three. Right?" Everybody like, "Yeah, that's amazing. That's so crystal clear." This huge thing we're all talking past each other there now became boiled to something so sharp and so beautiful. Right? I always had so much respect and admiration for the people who could do that, and that wasn't me, but I was like, "Okay, well, as anything, if I have a thing I like and want and admire and respect, I could at least get better at it. Maybe I'll never be at that level, but I can work towards it."
Julie Zhuo (00:33:36):
And one of the ways I saw of working towards that is, well, let's just change it up. I'd been doing long-form, which again, works really well for these stories and this kind of more meandering prose, but what if I just push myself to communicate in a much shorter form which is going to force me to really strip away all that ornamentation and focus on the core idea. And I was like, "I'm just going to go and publish threads on Twitter for a year." Again, same thing. Write once a week a little thread and just take whatever is the advice I needed to give myself and then boil that down to a tweet form. So, also, it has helped me. It has helped me to get better at enumerating things. I think more naturally now sometimes. It's like 1, 2, 3, and that has helped me as well in just, again, the day job and the way that I communicate. Still a long ways to go. But I think Twitter is really great at that. It's really great at trying to boil it down to the essence of what it is that one wants to communicate.
I love that you use these tools to help work on a very specific skill that you're hoping to develop. So, you said that worked. Is that something you'd recommend to folks that are working on something like this and have a challenge there too?
Julie Zhuo (00:34:38):
I do. I talk to a lot of people who want to write more because they feel like there is a lot of benefits, and maybe it's because writers often talk about all of the benefits, but a lot of people do maybe find it, as you were saying earlier, hard to get started. Right? My number one advice is try to find an angle that's going to work for you because if you find yourself writing for your audience, if you find yourself writing because you want likes or you want a certain number of views, that actually is a really hard barrier to overcome because you don't have control over all of that. But if you write because you're trying to work on a particular key skill, whether it is clarity of thinking, whether it's helping you work through some stuff that's complicated in your mind, whether it's just, again, working on being more comfortable, putting your voice out there, then make it a goal, but make it a action goal. Make it like a word count goal.
Julie Zhuo (00:35:26):
I saw this on Twitter, I think it was that last year, the idea of the 30 days of just writing a thing every day or tweeting a thing every day. Right? You see this in design too. There's Inktober which is you just draw a thing every single day in the month of October, and I love those types of structures and programs. I think that they're a way to go and get into the habit of that. Everyone kind of feels like they can do anything for 30 days. You can do anything for three months if you just commit to doing it once a week. It doesn't have to be forever. It doesn't have to be some sort of like five-year thing and the commitment. That's a huge milestone. You just have to do it for a little bit and then reflect on it. Is it really helping you? Is it actually helping you get closer to that goal? And that's usually the easiest way I've found to get started.
I love that. Just creating a little bit of structure for yourself so you don't have to think about it, you just do it, and I don't care what I do on that day, but I'm doing it, and maybe one time something will come out really great.
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That reminds me of something I wanted to plus-one, the point that especially on Twitter, I find whenever you're trying to go viral, it just comes across often is just like, okay, they're just trying to go viral. So lame. This person just wants a lot of likes versus I just want to share a thing that's interesting to me quickly, or here's how I want to think about it, or here's just a thing I want to remember in the future. I find those end up being a lot more successful.
Julie Zhuo (00:37:40):
That's right. Yeah, that's totally right. I think it's what really gets you interested in it is likely the thread that you want to enroll and to continue to explore. If you're just try and say what you think people want to hear, it just comes across not that genuine, and personally, not that interesting.
Yeah, the thing I've kind of learned is if I find something interesting, other people will find it interesting, and so, I'll just share that in some form and often ends up being really helpful to a lot of people. Speaking of Twitter, one of the threads I've liked best that you've written about, and I think you've done this a couple times, is around product thinking and product sense and how to build that muscle. And so, I'd love to just hear your advice on for folks that are thinking about how do I get better at product sense and product thinking. What are ways that people can get better at these things?
Julie Zhuo (00:38:20):
The number one advice that I always have for people when talking about product sensor or product thinking is it's just really about observation and it's about curiosity and can start by first observing yourself. Every time you're going to go and use something, every time you're going to have a new experience, you download an app, you try something new, it's take the moment to reflect on your emotion or your assumption at every step. Right? What was the new user experience? At what moment did it become clear to you what was going on? When were you confused? How many times did you tap something and then had to exit because you went down a wrong pathway? And even before that, it's like what even led you to trying this service in the first place to downloading the app? Was it word of mouth? Did you see something on the internet? Did somebody that you respect pitch it?
Julie Zhuo (00:39:07):
But these are all ways in which we're learning about how things work, how products work. It always starts by just if you first observe yourself, then you'll make a lot of progress. Right? And oftentimes it's hard to do that because sometimes we're just, we're going through the motions or we're not necessarily sitting down and analyzing every step of it. But the first step I think is just to get really good, comfortable, familiar, habitual with just that personal observation.
Julie Zhuo (00:39:31):
The second step is then, okay, cool, you do that for yourself. Well, that's not enough because you're not the world. Right? You don't necessarily represent everyone, but now it's to just build on those circles. So, the next thing you do is you go and actually observe and share those observations with somebody else, and so, how that often looks is discussions about products. So, you download this, why did you download this? What made you decide that this was a great app? Do you think it's a great app? What was compelling about it? And to just really find the curiosity of thinking through which decisions did the builders or the creators of something make and what was the impact of it on us users, us customers and so forth.
Julie Zhuo (00:40:07):
So, often it goes into then the next step which is spending a lot of time sharing those observations and critiquing. Right? I mean, our role of thumb is really I want to get better. How often are you having a conversation with somebody about products, dissecting something, and really, what did you think was good or bad about it, and engaging that because if you aren't, it's going to be harder for you to actually learn about all of those different micro decision and what its impact is.
Julie Zhuo (00:40:33):
And then you can go a little broader than that. Right? There's lots of really great resources. There's amazing folks on the internet who will go down and really dissect... I love Eugene Wei's writing. I love Kevin Kwok. I always learn something because they take these apps like Figma or TikTok or whatever it is, and then they really go very, very deep with their own observations, what works, what patterns do we see across different apps that are successful and that aren't. Right? And this is all helping us to understand what are these again, the key decisions and what impact does it lead to that helps us become better at then making those intentional decisions in the product. So, that's a huge part of it.
Julie Zhuo (00:41:13):
I think another thing then is of course you have to try and validate. So, one thing we can do is of course we look at opinions, we look at reactions. That's data. Right? That's the qualitative side. I think the other side is quantitative. So often if you are building products and you have the opportunity to run experiments, to do AB tests, or if you're working on one team but lots of other people in lots of other teams are also doing AB tests, it's so interesting to then be able to ask people, ask the product manager on the other team about what they're learning about their products, and to really be able to look at specific decisions and what causally happened as a result.
Julie Zhuo (00:41:48):
That's what I love about AB tests, and I think being really deep in the data and really going back to can we infer some sort of causal relationship because we're... Correlation or causation, but with causation with AB tests, can we actually pick up some of these learnings, can we look at patterns, and can we take some insights away that helps validate and confirm a lot of the hypotheses that we had about product, and just ingesting as much of that as you can also helps develop your instinct for what works and what doesn't. Right?
Julie Zhuo (00:42:17):
I always find people often have this, oh, design and user experience is on the other side of the coin. It's like it's a totally different industry, and they're at odds with each other, being data informed and being quantitative versus being very designer-y and subjective and caring about those aesthetics. I just think that's totally wrong. I think that there really... One helps confirm the assumptions or the other. Right? No, it is true that looking at a bunch of numbers isn't often going to tell you exactly the leaps of faith that you need to make to start something new, but they surely can help you validate whether a number of your assumptions about how people work or the way the world works are true or not.
Julie Zhuo (00:42:57):
And so, I know of a lot of really brilliant product thinkers who got that way not necessarily because they came through the route of subjective observation, but because they went and they were so disciplined about always studying what happened, what was the impact in the numbers and people and so forth, and then eventually you marry that of course with, well, why might that be the case, and you get into the qualitative side and the observation, but these two both support each other in helping to build a really great product sense.
That's awesome. There's so much material there that we could go on and on. On that last point, I wanted to kind of double-click on it a little bit. So, say you're founder and you're like, "Man, I have all these really clear vision and ideas of where I want to go with my product," and your team's like, "Oh, I don't know if this is right. What if we do a little more user research or run some experiments?" Do you have any advice to the founder of just when to rely on their gut and experience and just go with that versus doing more research, getting more data?
Julie Zhuo (00:43:52):
That is a really great question. One of the most common pieces of advice for founders, and I actually also had to remind myself constantly of this one is the more you know your customers, the more you can really close your eyes and just imagine everything about their life and what they're doing on almost like a minute to minute basis, probably the better you're going to do in terms of coming up with something that's going to meaningfully solve a problem for them. Right?
Julie Zhuo (00:44:15):
And so, that comes from a couple of different places. The first is, look, if you're the person you're building for, you're the target audience, awesome. You probably do have a lot of stuff that is instinctively known to you, and maybe in those cases, your team doesn't have that experience and they maybe can't feel the same level of conviction you do, and they might be asking you, ""Hey, well, can we validate?" and all of that. Right? It's always good advice, but sometimes, you're so deep in it and you can... You're this person or you know this person, or you did this job that probably can trust your instincts and your gut quite a bit.
Julie Zhuo (00:44:48):
I remember early days at Facebook, that was us. Everybody who worked at the company was either a college dropout or a recent college grad, and we were building a product for college students. I mean, we were the perfect... It was like for us by us. We understood exactly what this audience wanted. If we didn't, we would call up some friends. I mean, this was just pure target a demographic for what we were building.
Julie Zhuo (00:45:10):
But eventually if that's not true, and it evolved at Facebook, and it evolves for companies. You might start out that way, but eventually, we started to open up to the world. We started to add people in different countries. The percentage of people that were college grads who were like us who were using the product started to shrink, became a smaller and smaller percentage of actually all core Facebook users, so therefore our intuitions started to become less and less reliable. I remember in spectacular fashion, I think this was in 2008 or '09, we had a string of failures, big kind of launches that were failures, and I think it was because we reached the end of our intuition for the user base at that particular moment.
Julie Zhuo (00:45:49):
That's true for founders as well. Sometimes you're building a product in a domain where you weren't the target audience. Right? I feel this right now for myself. I'm building an analytics product. I was never a data analyst. I understand the outside, the value of data, but I never did the job, and therefore, what I really needed to do was just spend a lot of time with data scientists immersing or actually just trying to do the job myself because the better that I understand what it is and what it's like and what the company context is, and I think with, for SaaS companies in particular, you might have done the job at one company, but you probably didn't do it at 20 or 50 companies, and you're probably selling to a lot of companies so it's just way more critical for you to spend a lot of time interviewing customers because your intuition is likely not going to carry you nearly as far as if you're building, again, a very consumer product for a very consumer audience of which you yourself are part of.
Julie Zhuo (00:46:41):
So, I do think that, yeah, it doesn't matter that you need to really understand your customers. Do you have to go out and do the work, have the conversations, teach yourself the things that they do? It depends a bit on the context, depends on where you are, but it's never bad advice. The better you understand your customers, I think the better you're going to be able to build a product.
I really like that advice of just this model of the more time the founder spends with their customers, the more you can trust that they're going to have the right sorts of instincts, and the less they start to spend time there, maybe start running more experiments and doing more research as a team around the founder. That's interesting.
Julie Zhuo (00:47:12):
Yeah. Or the larger your user base becomes, the less reliable any one or 10 or even a hundred people are in terms of understanding the whole. Right? It's just the numbers get too big.
And luckily in theory, you have a lot more data at that point, and so, you can actually run experiments and start relying on data.
Julie Zhuo (00:47:30):
That's right, yeah.
Something I also wanted to get your advice on. It's something that a lot of founders, especially, and even PMs come to me around is product review meetings and designer meetings, and I know you've run many, and so, I wanted to get your thoughts of just how should companies structure product review meetings or designer meetings, who should be in the room, how should they be set up. Any advice for folks that are trying to figure that out?
Julie Zhuo (00:47:52):
I really believe that it's never a bad thing, it's always a better thing to have more feedback. Right? And so, often, I think you don't necessarily want to be like, "Oh, we have the one review meeting and that's the one in which we get everyone's opinions out and we make all these decisions, and then we're done." I think about product and feedback as just the more, the better. Right? And most people, again, everyone, especially with design, has an opinion to some degree, and so, all opinions are valid because they are a true opinion. The question is how do you then prioritize, how do you figure out what it is that you should do because we also can't... It isn't successful to try and do things by consensus. You're never going to get a group of people, smart people to agree about what is absolutely the best design.
Julie Zhuo (00:48:32):
So, one principle is, okay, great. If you're going to have feedback on the product, more is better. Try and have different sessions with different groups of people. I would advise a designer, "Hey, go in, actually do a critique with a design audience, but go and then show this to the people who are most directly working on the product because they're going to have a different set of knowledge, but then go and see if you can find some people outside of your direct team who don't have as much bias on just knowing exactly how things work and then show them the user experience, and then go and actually see if you can find a group of target customers for who we're actually going to launch, and then run some user research sessions and get feedback. "They all are going to be valuable. They all might contradict each other to some degree, but the right answer isn't because we don't like disagreement, let's just go with one and then ignore the others. Everyone is going to have something to contribute to the product because everyone has that different perspective.
Julie Zhuo (00:49:24):
So, again, lots of sessions, lots of user review sessions, awesome. Okay, but then there is an important job which is the synthesis of all of that feedback and a way of understanding what really matters. The way that I often think about this is we have to be absolutely clear on who is that target audience and what is the most important problem that we're trying to solve for them. Right? So, if you can get every group to align on this is who it is. Again, go and paint that very clear picture of the person, the problem, what it is that we're trying to help them with, and then what is most important. What is the job? I really love the jobs to be done for it, but what's the job that this particular feature or product is going to fulfill for that person?
Julie Zhuo (00:50:08):
Then it makes it easier for us to then start to categorize different buckets of feedback because the first thing that's most important to address is, well, is this thing actually valuable, is this solving the problem?, is it doing the job correctly, and if a lot of other stuff below is bad, but this is good, then we can move on to kind of the next most important thing. But if all the other stuff is maybe even good or interesting, but this is not there, then we should just actually disregard all the other stuff until we are quite certain that we've gotten the core value, we understand the user, this in some sense is addressing the core pain.
Julie Zhuo (00:50:45):
And then once we do that, then let's focus on the next layer which I think about as ease of use. Right? So, okay, cool. We've figured out that we validated, this thing is valuable. It does solve the job. Now, is it easy to use? Are people confused? Are they getting hung up somewhere? Is it just really slow, so no one can use it because it just takes 10 seconds to load each time? Ease of use is just about can people access the value in a really great manner. That's the next most important bucket.
Julie Zhuo (00:51:11):
And then finally, if it is valuable, it's easy to use, then I think we get into is it joyful to use, is it pleasurable, does it really exceed expectations, and I think that is the bar that we should aim for whenever we are creating products. Here, you might have debates about colors, or aesthetic properties, or animation and delight, and all of the other things that just make it that much more enjoyable and surprising and wonderful for the core audience. But you don't want to just focus on that and then lose, okay, actually, this thing wasn't valuable and it loaded in 10 seconds. Who cares about how great was the animation when the thing doesn't even load? So, I think there's a work to do to try and actually help the different pieces of feedback get synthesized so we understand what bucket they are and we can have the right order of prioritization to make sure we tackle the most important things first.
And just to be clear, this is a kind of ongoing process. This isn't one meeting where you go through all these four layers. Right?
Julie Zhuo (00:52:10):
Cool. And then is your advice to focus on it in that sequence generally and not focus on say the delight and so you make it through these other points, or do you find it's helpful to think about all these things at once?
Julie Zhuo (00:52:23):
I usually find that if you're going to go in and run a design critique or review session, it's helpful to start off front by saying, "Here's where we are in the process. This is the most important set of things we want to validate. We want to validate whether this actually solves the problem. We've validated it solves the problem, but now we validate whether it's easy to use," or something along those effect. So, being more specific about where you are, what kind of feedback matters the most at that particular phase for the team is valuable because if you don't do that, sometimes you'll just get all sorts of feedback, and some of it is you're not even ready for. The team's not even thinking about some of these additional level details or just thinking about the core stuff, and usually it follows just from how product development happens.
Julie Zhuo (00:53:07):
The first thing that often teams will come up with when they build a product is some kind of product brief or some kind of understanding of the user in a very high-level picture about how the product is. Usually, there's not high-fidelity mocks or prototypes at that stage. Right? And so, that's great because we're using a different fidelity. We're looking at documents and words and values and data as a way to understand the opportunity and that lends itself well to that kind of feedback.
Julie Zhuo (00:53:35):
But where I find that things get a little confusing is sometimes you will go and just make a prototype, and again, the goal of the prototype is to give a feeling of how it works. It's not that the team had already spent a bunch of time on the exact UI decisions or so forth, and so, what happens though is sometimes the audience or the people who are giving feedback, they can't always distinguish that. So, then the feedback goes immediately towards, "Oh, I don't like that shade of blue, or maybe we should put step two before step three," and that's not actually where the conversation is because we haven't actually gone and have conviction in just the first core piece of whether this is even the right thing to build or whether it really is solving an important enough problem. So, being very clear about where you are and what is the feedback that you want to get is important.
Julie Zhuo (00:54:20):
Now, again, eventually you go and you put stuff in front of customers. It's a little harder for them to just fully be able to distinguish between wait, what's the difference between the feedback versus around value versus ease of use. It gets all blended for them at that point in time though, so they'll just give whatever feedback. And again, I think that's fine. Just collect it, but then when you go and do the synthesis, when you go and do the prioritization, make sure that you're getting what you need at that stage.
As a colleague of the designer, say you're a PM or an engineer, data scientist or whatever, do you have any advice for just giving feedback to a designer in the critique?
Julie Zhuo (00:54:52):
Yes. The most important feedback I would say is focus on identifying the problem and making it really clear for the other person, the person you're giving feedback to, what is the problem. All right? And the reason I always give that is because sometimes we're all solvers and builders, and so, you often can very much get into like, "Wait a second. I see the problem. But instead of talking about the problem, I'm just going to give you a solution." So, people will say things like, "Oh, I see this," and they'll be like, "Why don't we make the logo purple, or why don't we try and add this feature here?"
Julie Zhuo (00:55:23):
There's a lot of assumptions that are already in place. You are giving that because you assume the current thing is insufficient in some way, and it's maybe not ideal at being clear, or it is forgetting to bring some important value prop, or maybe yellow just makes this whole thing look pukey or whatever it is. Right? There's a reason, but instead of actually stating the reason, we go straight to the solution. At that point, it's like, I don't know, maybe the solution is good, maybe it isn't. Right? But honestly, you have designers, you have other people who are just focused on coming up with the right solution. You're kind of taking that power away from them by going straight to what you think is the right solution.
Julie Zhuo (00:56:00):
Again, I'm not saying don't ever propose a solution. It's always good to give a suggestion, but you also have to respect that whoever is actually coming up with the answer and the solution, they're the ones who should be empowered to ultimately... They know the most about the problem. They've thought about it the longest. Right? Help them understand what you think the problem is with whatever it is they are proposing. Give examples. Show them where you're getting stuck. Why is it unclear to you? Why do you think that this color is not the right color? Right? Try and paint that because when everyone is aligned on the problem, then we can all collectively come up with better solutions, and then we can kind of rate and critique the solutions against each other. But by going straight to brainstorming ideas, sometimes a lot gets lost and people aren't actually following along on is this really the problem, do we agree this is a problem, is this actually the most important problem.
I imagine PMs are very guilty of this, of just like, "Mm, let's just move this button over here. We'll solve all these problems. Let's move it higher up." It's kind of ironic because PMs also don't want people coming to them with a solution, and it's funny, you kind of forget that, and you just give people, "Here's what we should just do. Let's move on."
Julie Zhuo (00:57:04):
Yeah. We all forget it all the time. I mean, it is a hard one, right, because it's fun. It's like we are all solvers to some degree. It's fun to jump in there and do it. But when you don't have extreme clarity on the problem, then that's what happens when you just end up talking past each other.
Absolutely. I've been guilty of that myself. Okay. So, I've sucked up an hour of your time. I want to let you go, but I have two more questions I want to ask in different directions. One is coming back to your book about The Making of a Manager. By the way, we haven't even mentioned the name of the book yet. The Making of a Manager, available at all of local bookstores and Amazon and every online shop, bookshop. So, a lot of people want to become managers, and oftentimes, they struggle for whatever reason. They can't make it to manager. Nobody wants to promote them. They're just kind struggling there. Do you have any advice for folks that are just having a hard time getting to that point where they can actually get to be a manager?
Julie Zhuo (00:57:50):
The first is make sure your manager is aware of those aspirations. Bring them in to your hopes and dreams. Right? If your manager understands your goals and what you would like to work towards, then it's much easier for you to be like, "Okay, can you help? I really want to be able to do what you do. I want to lead a team. I want to lead a project, et cetera. Help me figure out how to get there." And the first thing you should ask is what does it take. Where are the skills that I'm going to need to get better at in order for you to believe that I could be successful in doing so? And just make sure that you hear that, and make sure that you can have an honest conversation where your manager can help you be aware of what are the things that you should work on.
Julie Zhuo (00:58:30):
And then work together to just make a plan to be like, "Okay, cool. One of the things that I've got to improve on is that one of the roles and responsibilities as manager is go and spending a lot of time on recruiting, and I haven't done that. So, let's see, let's work together for a plan where I can start to learn some of those skills." One of the nice things about, at least, that I find about what the path to management is a lot of this stuff you can do even when you're not a manager. Some stuff you can't. Right? You probably can't fire someone and learn those skills without actually being a manager and being in that role. But a lot of things like hiring, like mentoring, like working on process is all things that you can start to contribute and help out with in the capacity of an IC. If you've identified these different skills, then find opportunities to start to practice and be able to grow those skills.
Julie Zhuo (00:59:19):
So, for example, oftentimes, a really great... If you're a part of a company that's growing and has a summer internship program, awesome. Can you go in and sign up and mentor and intern and manage an intern. Right? It's a very sort of small way of doing that and getting started. Here's another example. If you're at a growing company and new people are joining and you might work with your manager to say, "Hey, let me be this person's onboarding buddy. Let me be responsible for helping them get up to speed over the first one or two weeks." Or if you want a spot, an opportunity, and let's say there's documentation or there's some process that we have to change the structure of the meeting, ask your manager if you can help out with that. You can volunteer for that. You help come up with some new process for doing something, or a new way of running the meeting and just take the lead.
Julie Zhuo (01:00:02):
So, a lot of these things you don't need to have the official title to do. You can do a lot of it in that capacity as an IC. And again, it's also great for you to then try out. Do I like doing these things? Do these things give me energy? And as well, your manager can see whether you can be successful in this respect and then give you more and more responsibility if so. So, it's really not binary. It's not all or nothing.
Julie Zhuo (01:00:24):
I also want to point, there's one other thing though which is that sometimes the reason you can't easily become a manager is because your company just isn't growing. It isn't a need to have a new manager unless the current manager leaves or unless somebody departs the company and a new role opens up. I mean, you can very well have done all the right things, have the right skills, but there just isn't the role and opportunity available at your current company, and if that's the case, sometimes that's how it is, and the way that you can further your goals there is to think about moving into a different environment.
I did a lot of the things that you recommended, and I 100% agree with everything being really helpful to getting you to manager, and I think basically if you're just sitting there being really upset about not having a chance, clearly there's a lot you can do. All the things you shared, I found to be really helpful too. So, thanks for getting into all the detail there. Last question, for founders, or even PMs, a lot of them are struggling to hire designers. There's just such a shortage of great designers. Do you have any advice? I know, I don't know if there's an answer to this, but do you have any advice for founders or PMs trying to hire designers?
Julie Zhuo (01:01:26):
Yeah. I mean, for hiring anyone, even engineers too. All of us are looking for really great talent and there is a shortage. So, for designers, this is what I often advise for founders. So, the first thing is that designers want to work with people who care about design. They don't want to be like, "Hey, you're going to toss me some spec, and then I have to come up with a thing, and then I toss it over the engineer." So, the first thing you could do is demonstrate a commitment to design. Make yourself out to be someone who cares about design. Again, not because you just need to fill a box because everyone says you need a designer for your company to get that teeth, but because you truly care about it, and that already puts you far ahead of the pack.
Julie Zhuo (01:02:01):
So, what are some ways that you can demonstrate your commitment to design? Well, the first is even if you don't have a full-time designer, are you working with a good agency, or you have venture capital funding and you're thinking about what to invest in, are you working with someone on a contract basis just to build a really wonderful marketing side, or to focus on even the V1 of your product being something that shows that this is something you want to invest in. Because if you're going to hire someone, they're going to go check out your website, they're going to look at the stuff, and they're going to go and make some judgements about whether you seem like the kind of person that's committed to building a great culture of design at your organization.
Julie Zhuo (01:02:34):
But I think the second is just being somebody who can speak to and align with a lot of the values of design, and often, what that means is just, again, being really, really people-centric, having good taste, thinking about what it means to have a design organization. If you don't really understand design, you don't understand the tools designers use, you don't understand that nomenclature of how designers talk, if that's foreign, then go do the research. Go and study it. Go and interview designers that work at companies. Go and try and follow the top designers on Twitter. I mean, just immerse yourself in a bit of that culture and really get to understand what great designers value, and so, do the research so that you can... Now you're talking to a designer, you can express that, right? You can speak to them in a common language. If you say things like, "Oh, we need a designer, but I don't really understand design. That's your thing. I'm just here to do my..." Whatever, that's not often going to make you stand out against a very competitive field.
Julie Zhuo (01:03:30):
Sometimes when you just ask someone to teach you about their domain or discipline and you form a relationship, that person then maybe sees that you care, maybe has a friend, or maybe later on, they decide to get... There's already a relationship that you're making with people in the community, and that's often for long-term. I mean, again, it might not yield you designers right away, but in the long-term, it pays off because you will be considered a team or a company that really does care.
Amazing. I've sucked up way too much of your time. I need to let you get back to building your company. Where can folks find you online and maybe reach out if they have questions, and then is there any way listeners can be useful to you?
Julie Zhuo (01:04:05):
Yes. So, I am active on Twitter and LinkedIn. My handle is @J-O-U-L-E-E on Twitter. I also have a newsletter, although I haven't actually been as active in it on Substack. It's called The Looking Glass, and I have a lot of old articles and things on Medium and on Substack as well. Yeah, and I have my book, The Making of a Manager. So, that's where you can find me online.
Julie Zhuo (01:04:28):
And then you have such a wonderful community, Lenny, and very fortunate to be a subscriber, to have gleaned a lot of wisdom and knowledge from yourself and all of the amazing guests and the community that you've developed as well on Substack. So, one of the things, as I mentioned, that we're working on in our startup is just helping companies be able to use data effectively and be able to access it and make great decisions. So, if there's anybody who's listening and is a growth PM or works on the data team and would be excited to have a conversation where I can interview you, learn more about how your company works, how you guys think about data, and just learn from you, please reach out. DM me on Twitter, my DMs are open, and I would gladly take up that invitation.
Is there a website people can go to learn more about what you're building?
Julie Zhuo (01:05:12):
Yes. My product is called Sundial. The website doesn't give you that much. It's fairly high level, but it is sundial.so.
Awesome. We're going to link to that in the show notes. Julie, this was such a treat for me. I so appreciate you making time for this. Thank you so much.
Julie Zhuo (01:05:25):
This was wonderful. Thank you so much for having me, Lenny.
That was awesome. Thank you for listening. If you enjoy the chat, don't forget to subscribe to the podcast. You could also learn more at lennyspodcast.com. I'll see you in the next episode.