Breaking the internet – Sudhir Venkatesh "Product people - Product managers, product designers, UX designers, UX researchers, Business analysts, developers, makers & entrepreneurs May 05 2021 True Product ethics, Mind the Product Mind the Product Ltd 7383 Breaking the internet - Sudhir Venkatesh on The Product Experience Product Management 29.532

Breaking the internet – Sudhir Venkatesh

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Breaking the internet - Sudhir Venkatesh on The Product Experience

In 2008, Columbia University sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh published his first book, Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes To The Streets. A few years later, that got the attention of  Mark Zuckerberg, which led to a role working in Integrity for Facebook, and later, as Director of Social Science Research and Health Research at Twitter. We asked him to join us on the podcast to help understand how product people can do great things without fundamentally breaking the internet.

Listener Offer: This episode is sponsored by Stream. Stream makes it easy to give your users the perfect experience, right inside your own app. Try Stream for free at getstream.io.

Featured Links: Follow Sudhir on LinkedIn and TwitterSudhir Breaks the Internet PodcastSignal: The Tech and Society Lab at Columbia UniversityGuy Rosen – VP Integrity at FacebookFront Porch ForumCivic Signals

Discover more: Visit The Product Experience homepage for more episodes.

Episode transcript

Lily Smith:
Hey Randy, you’ve worked at some big companies haven’t you?

Randy Silver:
Yeah. Let’s see. I was at Amazon early in my career, I did a stint at Sirius XM, I worked at HSBC. Why?

Lily Smith:
Oh, I just need to know. So, did you ever break the internet while you were there?

Randy Silver:
I mean, there was that one time. What have you heard? But no, not really. I’ve broken plenty of sites, I’ve made tonnes of mistakes but I can’t say I ever broke the entire freaking internet. What have you done?

Lily Smith:
Not me, silly. I would never do that sort of thing, I’m way too sensible and risk averse.
But we do have a special guest today who apparently did or at least that’s the name of his podcast, Sudhir Breaks the Internet.

Randy Silver:
I am so excited about this chat Lily. Sudhir Venkatesh is a Columbia University Sociology Professor and he’s done some amazing stuff. He’s here to tell us about what he learned building products at Facebook and Twitter, and working at the FBI.

Lily Smith:
So without further ado let’s get started. The Product Experience is brought to you by Mind the Product.

Randy Silver:
Every week we talk to the best product people from around the globe about how we can improve our practise and build products that people love.

Lily Smith:
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Browse for free or become a Mind the Product member to unlock premium articles, unseen videos, AMS, round tables, discount store conferences around the world, training opportunities, and more.

Lily Smith:
Mind the Product also offers free ProductTank meetups in more than 200 cities. And there’s probably one near you.

Randy Silver:
Sudhir thank you so much for joining us on the podcast this week.

Sudhir Venkatesh:
Great to be here. Thank you.

Randy Silver:
So for anyone who doesn’t already know you by name, can you just give us a good, quick introduction into your background?

Sudhir Venkatesh:
Sure. Okay. So I’m Sudhir Venkatesh. I am a Professor of Sociology at Columbia University and until very recently it was the only job I’d ever held as an adult. I’ve been there since 1999 and I periodically get tired of being in the ivory tower so I go out and try different things. And before I get to that high post just say that most of my career has been studying the urban underworld. I did a dissertation on a large public housing community, social housing community in the U.S. and wrote a book about it. Spent some time writing about gangs and sex workers and gun runners, and then as I was saying every so often I get bored and want to see what the world is like outside the ivory tower.

Sudhir Venkatesh:
The first time I ventured out I spent two years in the FBI, the Federal Bureau of Investigations, and worked with them. Then I was running an advertising school or a school for advertising executives in Berlin for a couple of years, and then lo and behold in 2015, I think it was, Mark Zuckerberg decided to read 12 books that year which was enough to make headlines around the world, I suppose, since nobody reads. But I felt very gracious because he chose mine as his third book. And I developed a relationship with Facebook, I went there to work for three years managing a large team on the product side of the company that is in the space they call integrity, which is designed to think about the safety of the platform. And then I helped build out that team at Twitter for two years and I went back at Columbia and I’m trying my best to be a podcast host.

Randy Silver:
Fantastic. And this is exactly why we want to talk to you. Not because you’re a podcast host, although I’m sure that makes you a better guest as well, but we want to talk a bit about your time at Twitter and Facebook and what we as product managers can learn about it. You know there’s been a lot of talk about how great they are as companies and all the wonderful things that they do and have accomplished, but also all the challenges and some of the negative effects. And we are people and the community we work with are really interested in making sure we’re as ethical as possible and doing the right thing. So, before we ask you for some advice on how to do that and how to diagnose doing the wrong thing, just tell us a little bit about the challenges you saw working in integrity in Twitter and Facebook.

Sudhir Venkatesh:
Sure. So I landed in Facebook as the William B. Ransford Professor of Sociology at Columbia and I like to say that was absolutely irrelevant no one could care less who I was. So it was a very humbling path because in that tech environment I really had to figure out what value that I had. I kept thinking my job was to be the smartest person in the room, which is what I was trained to do or to fake it anyway. And academics you’re not really prepared to be part of a team. You don’t really work in a cross-functional environment you are the cross-functional environment, so you can understand how ill-prepared you are. The thing I had going for me was that I was working on some of these problems in the offline world, whether it was gang activity or bullying or harassment, et cetera. So I had to figure out how to make that knowledge useful for a product team.

Sudhir Venkatesh:
The thing that I always point to is scale, scale, scale. I mean, it’s just I could go out in one community, focus there not that that’s not challenging but when you’re dealing with millions and millions of pieces of content in a nanosecond or however quickly it comes across the internet, it’s just a very different challenge. The other part that really jumped out at me was that my job wasn’t really to solve the problem, my job was not to inform policy I was there to build products which meant I was there to make money for the company. And this was really my first for-profit experience. So, understanding what value research has in a setting in which the bottom line is to get people to watch ads, stay on the platform, and otherwise contribute to the good of the company was something that I had to learn. So those are some of the biggest challenges that stood out for me.

Lily Smith:
So in your experience then, I don’t know if this is answerable as a question, but is the net impact of social media good or bad at that kind of scale?

Sudhir Venkatesh:
I think the net impact is overall good. I’m not one of these people who believe that it’s the scourge of our civilization, nor do I think it’s what’s going to help us land on Mars someday. I think it can make us better people and I don’t think it’s a problem that we’re moving through this phase where that it’s been extremely challenging. I’d probably say that coming from inside the world of social media where I see a lot of what it does to strengthen people’s general experiences with themselves, with each other, families, communities, et cetera you don’t really see that on the outside. The news doesn’t care about that.

Sudhir Venkatesh:
And so I’m fully cognizant of working on the side of these companies where we exclusively my teams were dealing with negative experiences. I understand the drawbacks, I understand what it does to us but I also think that it’s an incredible tool and it’s just a tool. You really start to understand when you go inside the machine that it really is in the hands of the user. It’s starting to become like blaming the… They used to blame the telephone a hundred and some years ago. They thought it was going to be end of civilization, they thought we weren’t going to be able to have communities anymore, we wouldn’t want to talk to each other, we wouldn’t want to spend time with each other.

Sudhir Venkatesh:
They did it when we were building suburban housing and the state housing we’re going to be separate, we’re going to be living in these cookie-cutter environments. And then none of these technologies and innovations ever ended civilization. I think there’s a lot that needs to be fixed. And I love the conception that my colleague Tracy Meares uses, she’s a Law Professor at Yale university, she says, “Where we should be thinking about these tools kind of like we thought about cars.”

Sudhir Venkatesh:
When we first started to drive cars with all the accidents there were a lot of voices that said, “Oh my gosh, this is just horrible. We got to get rid of this technology.” And then slowly people started to see, okay well, how about something called seat belts or a speed limit or rumble strips on the road, or how about driver’s education? I am a huge fan that the next generation should go to school before they get to go online, or get training or something. I think a lot of people just simply are not… No one’s ever told them how to behave, no one’s ever told them how to use the tool.

Randy Silver:
Sudhir, I want to go back a moment to something you said in that when you first came to these companies you weren’t there to solve a problem you were there to make money for the company. And the way product people usually talk about things and at least in my experiences, we need to concentrate on finding the right problem to solve and then solving it. And solving it in a way that adds value to the company, but also for our customers and for our users who may or may not be our customers. is that actually one of the fundamental problems around social media is that the user and the customer may not be the same entity?

Sudhir Venkatesh:
You’re using the word problem in a different way. I came to a world where we would think about a solution set for a problem as largely getting rid of the problem entirely. So let’s take something like people who are committing… Serial violators of a hate speech policy, people are just being really hateful. Now if that was happening in your public park and there was just somebody spewing the worst kind of ethnic or gender-based hatred or whatever it is. Or you’re a Man City fan, you’re a Man U and they’re going after each other you could imagine, well that person maybe will lose their privileges to the park or that person needs to pay a fine or something like that. So, that’s the perspective that I was thinking about is what do we do with all these people who are committing this kind of hate speech?

Sudhir Venkatesh:
From the point of view of the company the problem is that they are minimising the capacity of others to comfortably watch advertising, to share with each other, to communicate with each other. So, what can we do to make them more productive members of these online spaces? That is not necessarily the same kind of behaviour change problem. So, the product manager is the orchestra director and I, who are coming from a different world I just didn’t understand what that person was looking for.

Sudhir Venkatesh:
And it took me years to be able to really get the fact that their view of solving the problem and mine were just very different. That they had an entire platform to be thinking about, and as you’re saying they had users and they had a certain number of business prerogatives to… And I was interested in, okay, we have Joe who’s not being very nice what should we do with Joe? I think it was just we were looking at it in a non-complimentary fashion.

Randy Silver:
And so solving the problem of Joe not being nice, theoretically that leads to good business outcomes. You’re creating a more welcoming space, you’re not having a harassment on the platform. You’d think that these would be good business outcomes. Was it not seen that way?

Sudhir Venkatesh:
Right. So recently, and this was after I left Facebook and Twitter, I worked at a company, consulted for a company where they had this problem incivility online. And so I said, “You know one very simple way of approaching the problem why don’t we just start here, is make sure that the people that are doing that understand and can find the rules.” Because often that behaviour is just people who are uninformed. So that led to about, and this has no brilliance on my part it’s just this is a standard technique, that led to about a 90% reduction in the amount, in the volume of that kind of in civil conduct.

Sudhir Venkatesh:
Is that people just were able to they saw the rules and they, “Oh, okay. I can’t do that.” So I said, “Okay well, we’re almost there that’s a good start.” And the company’s perspective was, “No, we’re done. We’re moving on. We’ve got plenty of other fish to fry. We’ve got the next challenge.” So that’s what I mean for me that’s the start of a sociological conversation about how do we remedy the situation, help people do better in their lives. That’s not the kind of corporate conversation that they needed. And I’m not saying one is better than the other, but those were the sorts of asymmetries that I think sometimes happen.

Lily Smith:
And product managers generally don’t come from a sociology background. Do you think that there’s a need for that expertise within product teams that really are working with large groups of people or large communities in the way that social media is?

Sudhir Venkatesh:
There’s two things that make me cry, one is my family and one is product managers. I will tell you I am so grateful for having been able to work with really good product managers. There was nobody I learned from more in technology in my five plus years than product managers. I have the utmost respect for what they do. If I could shadow them if they would let me, I would be following product managers all day. I find their job to be challenging, constantly thought-provoking and the best of them… We should be getting rid of the UN, we should be having product managers to do our diplomatic work.

Sudhir Venkatesh:
I’m just going to tell you who, his name is Guy Rosen. He’s the Vice President of Integrity at Facebook. And I would say that there’s probably two or three people at the whole company who were influential on me and have left a mark, and one was Guy. Fascinating, smart, sharp I mean managing millions and millions and millions of pieces of content. I come away thinking that one of Guy’s chief tensions is, how do I work with somebody who has domain specific knowledge? And watching a product manager understand in this case a sociologist, it could be we have an economist or somewhat psychologist figure out what is the knowledge that I need to plug into a cross-functional environment and into a roadmap so that the entire roadmap is executable and I can ship the product?

Sudhir Venkatesh:
What a skill. I mean that is real. And I’m just marvelled at the way that he could immediately size up a situation and stay focused. So I would go back to him and say, “Hey look, I know we’ve taken care of Joe’s hateful speech but what about Joe?” And I’m putting Guy in the difficult position of saying, “I don’t care about Joe, I’ve got to stay focused on my…” And of course he cares about Joe I’m just using that as an example, but to be able to, in the world of Facebook, do what’s called that ruthless prioritisation. And you’re just constantly making people unhappy as a product manager. I mean, it’s fascinating. It’s a thankless piece of work but it is absolutely so rewarding. So I don’t know if you wanted me to be more critical, but I find it difficult to be critical product manager.

Randy Silver:
That’s the nicest thing anyone’s ever said about us and also one of the saddest things. But we’re gluttons for punishment in the best possible ways, so thank you. But we also always want to get better at this. So the question is we’re the people who have built these products along with of course all the engineers and the designers and a million other people in other departments. But we’re the ones, as you said, who are responsible for ruthless prioritisation and making decisions and it rests very heavily on our shoulders at times. But if we’re the ones who built the problem in some of these cases, are we the right ones to be fixing it?

Sudhir Venkatesh:
I’ll just stay focused on tech, the world that I know a little bit. I tell you what I say to product managers when I do onboarding with people coming into the integrity safety space, we talk about the fool in Shakespeare’s plays. What is the role of the antic? There is only one person who sits next to the king and can tell the king absolutely anything, the truth teller. Not the king’s wife, not the king’s soldiers, nobody, not the priest, it’s the antic. And the fool is the one that the king turns to be reminded of his, in this case, mortality. That’s what a product manager needs to figure out how to have at his or her side is the jester. The person who after a roadmap is created and we’re moving into execution who can say honestly to her, “Hey, you’ve departed from every single hypothesis that we started with. Is that what you wanted to do?”

Sudhir Venkatesh:
That’s what we’ve ended up doing because of whatever efficiencies or speed, et cetera. Because if so, then we’re going to get to a point where we’re not going to know why it’s succeeded let alone failed. And it’s that kind of stopping and enabling that person to get a little bit of a perspective and facilitate course correction that I think when I see a great product manager that’s what they do. They’re able to stop, not for a long time but just a brief period of time and either make their teams play the role of the jester, or have somebody that they have appointed and said, “Okay, just give it to me straight where do we deviate if at all?”

Randy Silver:
Thank God you put it that way because I would look terrible in one of those outfits.

Sudhir Venkatesh:
Don’t sell yourself short.

Randy Silver:
Sometimes our users need their questions answered in the moment and we can’t be there quick enough to help. A chat app can be the perfect solution. And the good news is your team doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel.

Lily Smith:
And in fact their scalable APIs and SDKs enable your team to ship a custom chat feature in a matter of days not months.

Randy Silver:
Try Stream for free at getstream.io. That’s getstream.io.

Lily Smith:
Okay. So, thinking about the way that we traditionally approach some of these challenges with the way that people behave online we often start with controls or things to shut that down. One of the things that I found really interesting in the podcast that I listened, to the Freakonomics podcast was like going back to the reason why people were doing that behaviour in the first place. And then tracing that through and then trying to stop that behaviour even before it got to that point, is that where you see social media products going in the future? Being able to almost predict where that person’s going to end up going into bad behaviour if we call it that. And then trying to send them down a different path.

Sudhir Venkatesh:
Yeah. I think there are three points of intervention. And to varying degrees depending on the company, depending on the time that we’re living in social media companies are able to do one of the three better than the others. One is the physical space, the design of the space and affecting that so independently of the people there. The second is the journey of the particular person, and the third is the group component, the collective component. So how the three of us are in our own way creating certain kinds of expectations. Sociologists talk about, for example, turn-taking. We didn’t really except for one moment where one of us said to the other, “You get to start at the first question ask the first question.”

Sudhir Venkatesh:
There was never a document that said that I couldn’t ask questions and only you can or there was never… We just fell into an understanding of the norms and expectations and that’s a group component. I could have been difficult or I could have had a different understanding based on a different culture, it just may have taken some work we would have to specify. So the thing that I think tech companies are doing better is on the individual component. Meaning you see the cues that you sometimes are getting, the thing that we call them nudges sometimes, right? So you may try to say, “Randy, I think you are a son of a…” And then you’ll get a pop-up that says, “Hey, you called him that 17 times in the last 24 hours. Do you think you really want to do it the 18th time? He might be upset.” “I’ll do it anyway.”

Sudhir Venkatesh:
So these little reminders or these nudges that help you understand the consequences of your action, we’re starting to build those into the platform a little more. Immediate feedback upstream so that we don’t end up sending that note saying, “Hey, I’m really sorry, Randy. I did this, blah, blah, blah.” So I think there we’re getting better. I think we could get a lot better on the design of the spaces. What’s the feedback that you need when you go on Twitter or when you check your email or wherever it is, what do you need to know? What would be good to know? If you’re going on a Facebook group, for example, would you be interested in knowing what percentage of the people there are having trouble following the rules of the platform?

Sudhir Venkatesh:
Would that be something? That might make you feel like, oh, good. Now I’m with my people. Or you might say, “I’m going to be off this group.” So just think about what information could be provided to you online, the rules and or information about other people or your expectations of your behaviour. The other part that we don’t think about is the group component, the way people influence each other. There’s an old experiment that used to be done, that was done in the 1950s and by an American sociologists in which essentially what the experiments showed is that if we’re in line and I come into a line, a long queue for tickets to a Broadway show and I come right in front of Randy. And Lily let’s say you’re in back of Randy, Randy is 95… Randy has something like a 95% chance of saying, “Hey, don’t do that. What are you doing? It’s a long line.” Now let’s say that he doesn’t say anything. What’s the chance that Lily standing in back of Randy is going to say something? 5%.

Lily Smith:
Really?

Sudhir Venkatesh:
95 to 5. So now what if I could get Lily, who we’re going to call a bystander because she’s not “directly affected”, to say something. Well, I’ve just increased the chance that there’s more social order in that line. So now let’s think about it in a group environment in a conversation on Twitter in a thread, person A calls person B a jerk. What if person C heard it or saw it said, “Hey, that’s not very nice.” So there are ways in which we can also think about developing relationships with people. So I think we’re at the infancy of all of this. At Twitter when I worked there, 3,000 people managing a platform of 400 some million people, more 400 some million users. As product managers know you can only work on one or two things at a time.

Randy Silver:
One of the stories that you explored was about Facebook Live and some of the safety problems that came along with that. And I’m curious the issue that, as I understood it, is that the corporate objective was different at least in the short-term than creating the most safe, best possible environment from the safest, nicest environment. It was about popularity and take up and hitting certain metrics. I fundamentally believe that the longer term value is going to be around creating a good environment, but I’ve been placed into situations where we’ve also had to make short-term decisions. Have you ever seen anyone successfully make an argument around creating that nicer space? Around being more social rather than hitting those short-term metrics and making it stick?

Sudhir Venkatesh:
I would say that today Facebook is a very different company. And when I left and when I came in they are much more, even when by the time I left, I think they were much more cognizant with creating a very good environment for its own. Just creating a healthy platform. I think the people listening when I say this they’re probably going to have a chuckle, but Twitter is actually an organisation that does not think about the bottom line to the same degree when we think about the health of the platform. I will give that to Jack Dorsey, I will give him the credit that I believe he deserves. Now that doesn’t mean that you’re going to agree with me that that intention is necessarily creating the healthiest, nicest public space far from it.

Sudhir Venkatesh:
So that’s what I mean, I’m going to separate the intention from the what’s actually created. So when it comes to intention I think Twitter is one, when it comes to actually lived practise a great example is something called Front Porch Forum. Which is a social media space that is heavily moderated by Michael Lewis and the Northeastern part of the United States. It’s not a block, it’s not 20 people I think it’s members of now three states, residents of three states. When you publish something it takes 24 hours for it to be approved to be able to put on the site, so there’s a long lag, it’s not an immediate call and response as something like Twitter is.

Sudhir Venkatesh:
So that’s an example of something that works. But the trade-offs are fairly apparent. If you want something very civil it is very hard to do that in real time. If you want something that is very civil it is very hard to do that and continually grow if you’re doing it in real time. So I think it’s a question of the kinds of trade-offs that you can make, and depending on the ones that you can make I can point to different places where they are doing it well.

Lily Smith:
I think that’s really interesting as well. And one of the things that we do as product managers or try to do is experiment with different approaches to developing the products. I guess that seems way more risky when you’re talking about trying to influence people’s behaviour because an experiment might go wrong in the wrong direction. How did the teams at Facebook and Twitter manage that delicate balance of wanting to experiment with the way the product works in order to try and improve or change the experience or behaviour from a social point of view?

Sudhir Venkatesh:
Yeah. So we were talking about the three levers that you can pull. You can try to work on an individual person and appeal to them or give them direct information about what they are doing. You can change the space that they’re in, the design of it, or you can change how everyone is relating to each other. What is very difficult to do in social media companies is to do all three at once from a prioritisation and resourcing perspective. You try your best but the real challenge is for companies to do all of that kind of work, because you need to understand not only what you are doing, not only what’s allowable in that space but also what everyone else around you is doing.

Sudhir Venkatesh:
Eli Pariser is the Director of a project called Civic Signals, which is an interesting project where they’re looking for signs anywhere online and offline about what makes for good environments, healthy environments. And he’s come to the conclusion for the last time I listened to him in his Ted Talk that the park is a great example. Because it’s one of those few places where strangers at scale can congregate and there’s no one who is training you how to behave in a park, but you generally can create your little nook, you can find some other people, you tend to know what the rules are, et cetera.

Sudhir Venkatesh:
So there are people coming to the internet with very different models. And I think that’s what we’re all struggling with is what is the model for the social media world that will help us best figure out how to help people, groups and create that design of the space? But that’s the real challenge is doing all three at once.

Randy Silver:
Sudhir, you were talking earlier about the car and design of the roads and everything else, and it also includes a driver’s ed. I’m curious architects get licenced, lots of careers and professions get licenced do you think people who develop products or at least products at scale should be licenced in some way? Or should we have some sort of Hippocratic oath or something like that?

Sudhir Venkatesh:
I do think that if I could wave my wand and create something unlimited time, energy, et cetera what would my world look like? If you’re working with user behaviour within the area of user behaviour in social media, e-commerce, just spaces, or TripAdvisor, places where you are having conversation with others, Airbnb I would really love to create an onboarding programme for product managers. Where they spend not long just a couple of weeks even if I could get them to spend that kind of time understanding some of the feedback that they’re going to be seeing and how to interpret signal and how to differentiate different kinds of signal from noise.

Sudhir Venkatesh:
I tend to begin with a very simple example when I do my training for people in the product world. I’ll just ask somebody, “Have you ever gotten a traffic ticket?” I’ll use the U.S. example. And they’ll say, “Yes.” And I’ll say, “Well, was the experience hostile? Did you feel like you were going to get assaulted? Did you feel scared?” And they’ll say, “No, no, no. It was generally fine. A police officer came up next to me and wrote me a ticket and…” And I’ll say, “Really you weren’t angry? You didn’t want to reach out and grab them by the neck?” And he said, “No.” And I said, “Well, let’s figure out why.”

Sudhir Venkatesh:
And to fast forward essentially what they’re admitting is that they knew the rules, they were given an opportunity sometimes for forgiveness, right? The person said, “Okay, you know you’re right. You’re new to this area, I’ll let you go but if you’re going to stay around blah, blah, blah.” Or they knew where to find the rules, they knew that there was a ladder, and they have more than five points They’re going to lose their licence they’re number one, they knew the consequences, everything was clear, they were treated with dignity and respect.

Sudhir Venkatesh:
So now I’ll turn to that product manager and I’ll say, “So thinking about that, what do you think is the vision? How do you think we should be treating users on our platform?” And they’ll immediately say, “Well, I was going to say I think we should just keep punishing them harder and harder and harder until they behave.” And I said, “Well, you just told me that when you broke the rules you were treated with dignity and respect.” So there’s a knee jerk reflex that comes into user behaviour, which is that there are made up of two people, there are good users, bad users. We want the good users we’ve got to get rid of the bad users. How do we do that? We just keep punishing the bad users until they don’t come back.

Sudhir Venkatesh:
And so what I try to do in these sessions is to tell the product managers, “Hey, what you’re doing is with one hand you’re making good users into bad and the other hand you’re kicking them off the platform. Now, how long do you think your company is going to keep you there if that’s the sausage you’re producing? You’re going to run out of users.” So it’s just using simple ways of helping them to understand that you could execute a very large change by having just a different understanding of the person from one who is either good or bad to one who needs to be forgiven. It sounds quaint, sounds ridiculous but think of all the times you stopped doing something poorly because somebody said, “Hey that’s okay, everyone makes mistakes.” So it’s just those little kinds of shifts on understanding human behaviour that I think go a long way.

Randy Silver:
I love that. I’m going to ask you one more question off the back of that. There’s so many times that I’ve been involved in training either being the trainer or being someone who’s trained, and then you go back into the office the following week and it’s the same environment, and it’s very hard to follow through on it. So, how would you fix this? Who should be on the team? Who should be in the room besides the people that we have today? Or who should we be talking to to ensure that that lesson that you bring up in onboarding is kept current throughout the person’s life cycle of their career?

Sudhir Venkatesh:
Here I want to make a slight differentiation between team dynamics and client dynamics, because I think there are different kinds of problems. For the client dynamic I think that there’s the need to, this is what I was talking about with the court jester, I think you have to either create a space within your product team where periodically before you make a decision or even just once in a while, just everyone gets to write down on a piece of paper or if everyone is comfortable enough just saying, “Hey, I think we’re really off track.” Just a 30 minute, 60 minute session maybe it’s around at the end of the day a round of glass of wine or something just get people to tell you and tell each other where they feel like they’ve gotten off track. With the understanding that that’s part of the process and that you may not act on every single thing that’s being said.

Sudhir Venkatesh:
I think this thing that I’ve seen at tech companies oh, we got to move fast we don’t have time to take stock blah, blah, blah that I think is poor product management. I think the product manager needs to know when to slow down so they can move fast. And that’s why this Guy Rosen is an example of somebody I’ve always found can slow down in the right way for the right amount of time. The client dynamics, I think, is a different issue. I think there’s a lot of frustration that I see product managers experience because the people that they serve are not acting like them. It’s the why don’t they just? Like, “I wouldn’t do that why are they doing that? Why are they not clicking? Why are they behaving badly? Why are they not commenting, et cetera?” There’s this inability to get out of your own shoes.

Sudhir Venkatesh:
Now there I think the solution is actually to use your user research team in a different way. The strength that I see of a good product manager is to know when to alienate their research team and usually that’s in the very beginning, right? Because you don’t want people like us around after you have a provisional identification of the problem so you can move ahead. Otherwise, we’re the people who keep going around and going, “It’s too complicated I don’t know if that’s… That’s just not going to work.” You don’t want people like us around, I totally get it. So we should be removed. Us and the policy people, get us out of the room. The key is to bring us back in and use us as the truth tellers and say, “Okay, we’re having some difficulty tell us a little bit about our users that may help us to understand why we’re feeling this way. Because I’m a product manager and the engineers and others we’re busy, you’ve got the view of the user.” You know I think there’s little things like that in the workflow that can make a big difference.

Lily Smith:
That’s a massive challenge for a lot of product managers who often have to well A, just want to be involved and B quite often product end up running research because they don’t have the luxury of having a research team available. But I totally get your point because I have definitely been guilty of that.b The behaviour of like, “You know, why are they doing this?” So just one more question before we wrap up, how do you measure success when you’re working with a product team? Or how do you think about success and what’s making a successful team, a successful product?

Randy Silver:
You talked earlier about we solve 90% of the problem and you were worried about I think it was Jack and if it wasn’t it was Harry or whatever-

Lily Smith:
Joe.

Randy Silver:
… The name was, I’m sorry. Joe. Sorry. I bet you if we solve 90% of the problem the product and the commercial team was happy but you were, this is especially when you’re dealing with the scale of Facebook or Twitter something like that, that still leaves a huge number of incidents but you’ve done an awful lot. I’m just curious about how you go from 90%, is that success? Or how do you measure success in progress in this?

Sudhir Venkatesh:
When I first arrived at Facebook Mark Zuckerberg had done something that I didn’t really understand but now I come to marvel. And I think one of his geniuses is he really understands product. He understands product teams, he understands the product cycle, and some of his early lieutenants are just fantastic at product work. One thing that he would do is to say, “50% of your goals really have to be stretch goals. I mean, give me your roadmap for the next half and I want to see that at least half of them are challenge yourself.” And he’d send it back. And he and his leadership team would just keep sending back when the product manager that this is what I’m going to work on, this is what we’re going to… And it was a very bottoms up company at that time, he’d just would force product teams to stretch and he would not allow them to get up.

Sudhir Venkatesh:
I think that was an extremely useful way to start, because at the end of the day you’re going to compromise, right? That’s what good product management is all about, is finding a road that you can hold and working towards the end. The real challenge for me is that when you congratulate yourself for shipping the product and getting your bonus, do you know what your stretch goal originally was? And are you able to say how far short we were? Can you simultaneously say we succeeded and we failed? And if you can understand that my view genius is to be able to handle the inconsistency of life in that way at the same moment, that you can succeed and fail at the same time you usually do, I think that makes for excellent leadership. But that’s hard if your bonus is riding on it, if your incentives for the team are riding on it, if you feel like your job is riding on it and the culture of the company doesn’t permit that. I’m not saying that’s easy to do that in fact, that’s hard to do.

Lily Smith:
Sudhir it’s been so fascinating talking to you. Thank you so much for joining us on the podcast.

Sudhir Venkatesh:
Thank you for having me. It was a pleasure.

Lily Smith:
What a lovely man. There was so much we didn’t cover, but if you want to hear more from Sudhir I highly recommend his podcast Sudhir Breaks the Internet.

Randy Silver:
It’s available anywhere that podcasts are sold or distributed and much like this one. So like, subscribe, leave a review. No one ever leaves a review, leave a review. We’ll see you next week.

Lily Smith:
Our hosts are me, Lily Smith and…

Randy Silver:
Me, Randy Silver.

Lily Smith:
Emily Tate is our Producer and Luke Smith is our Editor.

Randy Silver:
Our theme music is from Humbard Baseband Pau. That’s P-A-U. Thanks to Arne Kittler who runs ProductTank and MTP Engage in Hamburg, and plays bass in the band for letting us use their music. Connect with your local product community via ProductTank or regular free meetups in over 200 cities worldwide.

Lily Smith:
If there’s not one near you, you can consider starting one yourself. To find out more go to mindtheproduct.com/producttank.

Randy Silver:
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