SXSW 2017 — Ideas from Inspiring Panels

In March 2017, I attended South by Southwest Interactive Festival and had a blast! I was on a mission to learn, and my main topics of interest included design, AI/bots, behavioral science, and VR/AR.

Below, I’ve distilled insights from two of my favorite panels on product and behavioral science:

Product Mavericks: Top Tips From Women Who Build

Learnings from product leaders at top companies:
Merci Grace (Head of Growth, Slack)
Stephanie Hannon (CTO, Hillary For America)
Tali Rapaport (VP of Product, Lyft)
Fidji Simo (Director of Product, Facebook)

What’s the recipe for growing a startup?

Put together a diverse team. It puts you in a mindset where you give up obsession of how you see the world, and you become more empathetic.
 — Merci Grace

How do you balance intuition and product?

Data cannot give you ideas by itself. You need conviction and the ability to prove opinions right or wrong.

What is the hypothesis behind the data? Look for the constraints (e.g. how long should a driver wait). With constraints, you narrow down the choices available to get to the answer. 
—Tali Rapaport

Think about going into an environment where your skill set is very unique. To develop intuition, you would send people off to the actual place to understand the situation and figure out ways to optimize for that. 
—Stephanie Hannon

How do you prioritize speed versus polishing?

This depends on the size of your company. Polish is important for creating a differentiator in your industry.
 — Tali Rapaport

What will make or break a product is finding the core hypothesis (e.g. Facebook video), not throwing features in.
 — Fidji Simo

Earlier on, you can take more risks and you have the ability to move faster. This should be intentional with the users in mind. It took 7 days to make the Hillary Clinton website and 2 weeks to build the fact checker. In those examples, the time needed to achieve speed vs polish is different because resiliency was more important than feature set.
 — Stephanie Hannon

How do you choose where to focus resources?

When Lyft Line was created, this business disrupted Lyft’s core business. So why disrupt this quickly growing core business? Because it is focused on the same mission: shared rides and getting cars off the road. Also, it meant a lot for the passenger: transportation is expensive, so this helps make transportation more affordable. High risk and high reward.
 — Tali Rapaport

Facebook takes a portfolio approach, which is to go back to the team and re-establish priorities. Whatever you do should be aligned to priorities. Otherwise, you could start a lot of products that do not make a lot of sense. Sometimes, engineers are re-allocated to an opportunity because of the window of time. We embrace change and follow the market and opportunity.
 — Fidji Simo

Give team a problem to solve instead of a product to create, this helps with flexibility.

What are your tips on managing up?

Be transparent and consistent in communication. If something changes, have a thesis on why it changes. Storytelling ability is important, that is, what is the story and how should you feel at the end of it? You should know the end of your story when you are building.
 — Merci Grace

Can you share some of your failures?

Google Wave was a communication tool that failed because it didn’t get enough traction. They wanted to do too many things at once with a new paradigm and it was just too much. It stifled innovation and the speed of the core product. Don’t be afraid to try big things and talk about what you learned.
 — Stephanie Hannon

When we built the casual driver with a carpool option, we could not get enough drivers. Lesson: look at the economics through the perspective of drivers and passengers. Think through: what are the life circumstances of the drivers? Make sure you put that first.
 — Tali Rapaport

How do you build your confidence?

Being a CTO is different than being a product leader. I had a lot of people and resources at Google, but I started from scratch at Hillary Clinton’s organization. It comes from saying you don’t know all the answers. You have to get help, be helpful, and be curious. Ask questions until you have all the pieces.
 — Stephanie Hannon

Realize you are more powerful than you actually are. At first, I had my colleague sit in meetings with me for credibility, but he said I didn’t need him. I used to rely on external ways of building confidence. I also thought I would need to look put together all the time. Then I realize I don’t need to be perfect, I just need to rely on my own knowledge.
 — Fidji Simo

Google “cognitive behavioral therapy” if you are cerebral. Usually you’re your own worse enemy, so take good care of yourself.
 — Merci Grace

Tips on work life balance

Have your own way of making things work. Don’t second-guess your decision. Doing that makes me happy with those decisions.
 — Tali Rapaport

Figure out what makes you happy. Recognize what you need to feel alive when you’re not working. Find a way of incorporating that once a week.
 — Fidji Simo

How do you set priorities across different product managers?

Make sure you have discrete problems and prioritize between them.
 — Stephanie Hannon

Organize yourself around goals. Sometimes they are overlapping features, so see how you can work together.
 — Tali Rapaport

How do you raise daughters to go into tech?

Help direct them to their interests.
 — Merci Grace

Expose them to code camps and similar experiences.
 — Stephanie Hannon

How do you know when it is a good decision vs a bias from intuition?

This is why diverse teams help so much. It’s not easy to go to the root because it is human nature. There are basic biases. Exposure to a lot of viewpoints is the best way to counteract bias.
 — Fidji Simo

Tactically, there’s an economic bias. Have a company support day, where everyone answers customer support tickets. This works well because you see the verbatim of what people are expressing and hear it in their own words. As close as you get to the user is best.
 — Tali Rapaport

How do you balance risky vs conservative goals?

A lot of long term strategic bets and 1–2 risky ones that would pay off.
 — Merci Grace

It also depends on product life cycle and having a clear sense of what your funnel looks like. If you want people to be watching videos, figure out if people are already connected to it.
 — Fidji Simo

How are decisions made in a competitive space?

Be clear on the mission and North Star. Make sure you track to the mission because it is important in the long run. Stick by it and you’ll do right by people. When growing fast, you have the opportunity to fix things. You want a passenger to feel your product is the best experience, not that you are moving as fast as possible.
 — Tali Rapaport

What’s your best advice?

Do your normal design, and if you can use it when you’re drunk, you got it.
 — Merci Grace

Be resilient. This directly determines success. Take care of people.
 — Stephanie Hannon

Keep user needs top of mind. Build honest relationships at the company and help them feel you support their success.
 — Tali Rapaport

Your success is everyone’s success.
 — Fidji Simo

The key takeaways are to be intentional with your product and listen to customers.

Brain, Behavior, Story: Mind-Changing Narratives

Connecting neuroscience, behavioral science, and narrative theory for more effective storytelling, presented by Ogilvy’s Christopher Graves. Told through a series of live tweets.

The key takeaway from the panel is that storytelling is the most effective medium for sharing a point of view and perhaps influencing others to begin considering your perspective. Facts and debunking myths don’t always help.