What I Learned From Working at Uber
I worked at Uber for over 3 years as a woman and a minority in a tech role. I learned and grew more in my time at Uber than at any other time in my career and I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything in the world. The lessons I learned at Uber have helped me reach both my personal and professional goals, and given me the courage to pursue my most ambitious dreams. Here are some of the things that Uber has taught me:
1 — Give everyone the chance to succeed, but hold them accountable
Uber fosters the idea that the next big thing can come from anyone by giving everyone ample opportunity to solve problems regardless of their function or location. There are “workations” and “hackathons,” where any group of people from all over the world can build and ship products. I transitioned into Product Management through a “workation” project.
I was hired at Uber to be a “Marketing Coordinator,” a lowly role in the marketing food chain, to help with all the odd tasks that go into running digital campaigns such as ad trafficking, tagging, building keyword lists, and posting to Craigslist. Shortly after I started, a teammate and I noticed that our driver signup rates were oddly low. The issue was clearly in our signup form, which included no information about what people were signing up for and a massive amount of fields, including social security number (so we could run background checks on drivers). The form was optimized for in-person on-boarding, where operations managers would fill it out while on-boarding drivers. It worked great for that, but not so great for advertising. Would you ever click on an ad and then give some random company your SSN?! When I pointed out the problem to our team, their response was simple: “Go design and test a new signup page.”
They didn’t care that I didn’t know the first thing about our webpages. Our design team explained our stylesheets to me, our engineering team gave me an overview of our web development stack and our data scientist taught me about good experiment design. Together, we designed a page, built it, and ran an experiment and shipped it. The new page drove 40% more signups and 11% more trips. This gave me an idea — why not have multiple signup pages, each optimized for different experiences: in person on-boarding, different ad channels, referrals? The idea became a workation project. I convinced a few engineer friends to come build it with me in Hawaii. We spent a week brainstorming, working and hanging out at the beach. When we got back, we presented to Travis and the project became a product. This experience made me fall in love with Product Management.
I moved into Product Management because my leaders and peers were willing to give me a chance to solve problems. They believed in me and held me accountable. It made all the difference in the world, and helped me find the courage to believe in myself.
Outside of official programs, Uber also encourages non-tech teams to test out new product ideas locally. During Travis’ weekly Q+A, people will often ask “Why aren’t we doing xyz?” to which he would reply “That’s a good idea, why don’t you scope it out and do it?” And he was serious. Many of Uber’s core products started off as experiments from outside of our product and engineering teams.
When people feel empowered and encouraged while being held accountable, the most impactful results can come from unexpected places.
2 — Make solutions, not excuses
When Uber would give people opportunities, they would fully give people opportunities. It wasn’t “Good idea! Give it your best shot and if it doesn’t work out that’s okay!” It was “Good idea! You are the owner of this problem and will be fully responsible for its success, failure, and execution.” When I accidentally brought down driver signups in London with my new signup page, I was held accountable. It was really hard to face my own mistakes and all the customers and employees who were impacted by them. Initially, I wanted to defend myself, to blame London’s weird signup flow and to move on. But that’s not the way we learn and grow. Instead of saying, “London had a different signup flow than usual, which caused some errors.” I learned to say “We failed to account for all the different flow types when designing our signup page. Here’s what we are doing to prevent it from happening again.” I wrote a post mortem that summed up what went wrong, what mistakes I made, who was affected, and how we could prevent this from happening in the future.
One of Uber’s cultural values is to “be an owner.”
I recall a meeting with Travis where the Growth Marketing team was discussing our city-by-city driver acquisition targets. We had stayed up all night working on our strategy and our slides. The targets themselves were set by Finance based on forecasting models and budgeting. When we got to the meeting, the first thing we presented were the city targets. Travis took one look at them and said, “San Francisco is way too low.” And he was right. Finance had some problems with their model so a couple of cities were off, including San Francisco. We started to explain that Finance set the targets, not us, to which Travis responded, “You need to own your shit. It’s your responsibility to make sure that Finance is providing you with accurate numbers. I’m not going to review a strategy that’s based on incorrect targets, come back to me when you have accurate numbers. Let’s move on.” We were all fairly traumatized by this meeting. But I will remember the lesson forever. Being an owner means finding solutions for setbacks rather than using them as excuses. Whenever I find myself making excuses or getting defensive about anything, in my personal or professional life, I remind myself to be an owner.
3 — Set goals so high that they scare you, and pursue them with fierce determination
When we set goals at Uber, they would be a mix of hilarious and terrifying at how unattainable they seemed. When I would show very promising test results to leadership, their response would be “great job, can you 10x that?” At first I would laugh, but then realize they were completely serious. Once a goal is in writing it becomes a challenge that has been accepted, and more often than not, people rise to the occasion.
Travis often says, “Fear is the disease, hustle is the antidote.”
When faced with an insurmountable challenge or a terrifying goal, we sometimes become paralyzed by fear. Only by taking action will they become less daunting. Setting ambitious goals forces you to think at scale, to be creative and to focus on the biggest bets. It also motivates you to hustle relentlessly — no task should be considered “grunt work” if it will drive results (more on that later).
My experience at Uber inspired me to achieve personal goals as well. Before I joined Uber I wasn’t very fit; I couldn’t run more than 3 miles without feeling like my lungs were exploding. I’d always wanted to be more athletic, but I was constantly making excuses, and had resigned myself to believe I wasn’t cut out for it. I would see my friends who ran marathons and think “I could never do that.”
One month at Uber, our Wellness team put on a fitness challenge where they gave us all FitBits and we had a competition for most steps taken in the month with a real-time leaderboard. Uber over-indexes on goal-oriented, competitive personalities, myself included, so everyone took this challenge way too seriously (the prize was a T-Shirt and the right to choose a new office snack). Since I could only run 3 miles, I would run 3 miles in the morning, and 3 in the evening every day to keep myself in the Top 10. Before long, I could run 6 miles at once, and by the end of the month, I ran a half marathon. I didn’t win the fitness challenge, not by a long shot. But, by starting to run regularly, the seemingly impossible challenge of running a marathon soon became attainable.
A year after the fitness challenge, I had completed my first full-distance marathon (26.2 miles!), and 2 triathlons with friends from Uber. Uber gave me the confidence to set incredibly high goals for my personal life as well as the determination and hustle to attain them.
4 — Be results-oriented, not task-oriented or perception-oriented
When I first joined Uber, some of the city teams were posting to Craigslist to recruit drivers. However, it was extremely time-consuming and their posts were constantly flagged and their accounts deactivated. In one of our Growth meetings, Travis asked why we weren’t handling this centrally. With no good answer, we promised to change that by next week. Afterwards, my manager said to me “You got this, right?” I could have rolled my eyes thought “I have a degree from Harvard, I came here to learn about digital marketing, not post Craigslist ads.” But I didn’t. Instead, I came into the office at 7am to do the grunt work of copying and pasting all day. The posts got flagged, I assured Craigslist support (such a thing exists!) that this wasn’t spam, the charges on my credit cards were flagged, and I accidentally auto-filled my cell phone number into one of the posts (drivers in the DC area are calling me to this day!).
Every night for weeks, I personally responded to the thousands of replies from the posts, helped drivers register, and tweaked the posts based on the feedback I was receiving. It was exhausting. But it worked! Driver signups from Craigslist increased by 10x. The tactic was so successful that we surpassed our driver acquisition goal for the quarter within weeks. When the team saw the results, our VP stopped by my desk and told me “these results look great, I’d like you to present them to Travis in our next meeting.” And my response was “Me? Don’t you want my manager to present it?” to which he replied, “You worked on this. You can speak to it best.” In that moment, I felt that all the time I had put in was more than worth it. While Craigslist posts seem tedious and trivial, they were contributing to the goal of adding drivers, lowering wait times and growing ridership. The meeting with Travis went very well, he even helped us brainstorm new ideas.
5 — Speak up, for yourself and for your beliefs
I used to think that if something was really important, someone would definitely speak up about it. That is not true. If everyone thinks that way, very little is actually said.
In my last few months at Uber, I became more vocal about change I’d like to see. I had always been fearful of voicing dissenting opinions to leadership. But as with anything, the only way to get over it is to give it a shot. After Susan Fowler wrote her blog post, I was heartbroken. So I wrote an email to Travis to reflect on my own Uber experience and to articulate my feelings on a subject I care passionately about. I didn’t expect him to read it, since he gets thousands of emails a day. But he did. And one day he stopped me in the hallway and said “You sent me an email. Sorry I didn’t get the chance to respond, do you want to talk?” And so we talked. At least I tried to. A jumbled mix of words, feelings, and tears came pouring out. But Travis listened. He listened carefully, helped me understand and articulate what I was feeling and we brainstormed about how we could create a better Uber.
The thing you should know about Travis Kalanick is that he cares about Uber and its people above all else. He is the kind of leader who stops by daily engineering standups and tells teams that their work is extremely important. He’s the kind of leader who helps you work through problems by going to the whiteboard himself. He’s the kind of leader who keeps you on your toes, holds you accountable when you’ve made a mistake, and gives you a chance to make it better. He’s the kind of leader who invites employees who live in Oakland to his space planning meetings to give him advice, because he wants the new office space to positively impact the community. He’s the kind of leader who is available at all hours, well after midnight and on weekends. He’s the kind of leader who once invited all of HQ to his tiny apartment, much to the dismay of his entire neighborhood. He is the kind of leader who believes that people can change, and I saw him change so much for the better over the last 3 years. Thank you Uber and thank you Travis for helping me grow as well.