Extended Highlights from Rebekah Cox’s Quora Session

On January 28, Quora’s first hire, Rebekah Cox participated in a Q&A session. I’m a fan of her product insights (especially in regards to Twitter) and was eager to read her answers. Here are my notes, combined with some relevant tweets. Note: each question is linked to the full answer on Quora.

Q: What social products/features are you most excited about?

A: Of things that exist now I’d say Quora and Slack (more on Slack vs. FB)

…but what I’m really most excited about is the tremendous opportunities that exist from internalizing the relationship between culture and technology. Snapchat is probably the closest because it’s something where culture and the product are indistinguishable…they’ve shown exceptional cultural product savvy thus far.

Q: If you took over the Twitter product team tomorrow, what direction would you take the product/what would you build (or kill) over the first year?

A: From a CEO perspective:

tap on the tweet to read the whole thread

From a CPO perspective:

Look over whatever data is available and start asking a lot of pointed questions. Questions about the product and what worked and what hasn’t from a data perspective.

Products are a reflection of the entire company but there are no functions that have more influence than data, design, and engineering. I would do whatever I could to help get the engineering team straightened out. You’re not going to get any meaningful product executed well if engineering is a mess.

Product-wise, if I have to answer without any data/inside information, I would look at consolidating trending topics, Moments, and search into a single algorithmic feed.

I would also look at consolidating the Twitter, Vine, and Periscope video products directly into Twitter and create a single product. Why Twitter hasn’t already copied Instagram’s center camera button for video I do not know. Even if it’s patented surely it would be worth the growth before the legal issues could be resolved.

I would also push hard on thoughtfully, carefully integrating the 10K character increase into the core Twitter product. There are a lot of ways to screw that up but perfectly executing could really open up tremendous opportunities.

At both Facebook and Quora, strong engineers were behind every single successful product I watched ship. The designers could be so-so, the PM could be terrible, but the engineers had to be on point. They weren’t enough to guarantee success, but there was no chance of it without them.

Q: What are some specific steps you could advise a new designer that would best help accelerate their career?

A: If you want to make a lot of impact, then work on getting good at identifying and executing on high leverage projects. This is risky because before you are good at identifying high leverage projects, you will work on some stinkers. And sometimes something that looks like a stinker is actually going to be extremely high leverage.

If you want to learn how to execute better, then design everything at least 5 different ways, always. Design it to completeness one way and then start over from scratch and do something totally different. You disagree with the direction given? Design the best version of that direction that’s possible. Then design it the way you think it should be. There’s a measure of discipline with this approach where you have to not let yourself sabotage versions you don’t personally like but if the idea is to learn and not to advance your personal agenda, you will see obvious benefits from this approach.

If you want to be in management, then work on the first two things I’ve listed (impact and execution) and look to improving your interpersonal skills. Realize that the only way to have n times the impact is to empower n people.

Q: You’ve tweeted about your goal of accelerating the future. How do you plan to work towards this goal?

A: Evolve VC such that capital is more broadly defined or replace capital with something else that’s even more valuable. There are more ways to speed along the future that aren’t profitable than are. For example, the internet wasn’t started to become a business.

I’ve decided to be very public about what I’m thinking because I tend to get copied a lot. If someone from YC reads this answer and decides that there are ways to simplify YC, great! If you are reading this and have an idea of where I could better spend some time, leave a comment!

Q: How important will it be that designers write production code as the industry evolves?

A: Production code is the source of truth. It is the realtime sum total of all the conversations, all the decisions, all the politics… it is everything. Whoever is pushing code to production is running the product, everyone else only has influence.

Q: Who has most influenced your product thinking?

A: At Facebook it was Mark Zuckerberg and Aaron Sittig. At Quora it was Adam D’Angelo and Charlie Cheever.

From watching Mark review many products I learned to be uncompromising and ruthless when thinking about product from the perspective of the interface. Aaron helped me internalize that digital social products are a fundamentally human endeavor built on existing relationships. Charlie showed me how to see the good in everything.

Overall, Adam D’Angelo probably had the most influence because by watching him work and by receiving his direct and concise feedback, I was able to get a lot better at communicating product goals, forming more objective insights, and measuring the strength of those insights dispassionately.

Q: When analyzing consumer apps, is there a framework that you use?

A: No, no framework. What I have been doing lately is writing. I write paragraphs and paragraphs about everything… from high-level to details, from a global perspective to my perspective. Then I move on to whatever shiny object has caught my attention and write about that.

When you’re writing…you should end up with a lot of unanswered questions. Questions like: Why was WhatsApp a serious threat to Facebook? Why hasn’t Twitter maintained its early growth rate? Where does my confidence in Slack come from? Why don’t I have confidence in Pinterest’s longterm viability? Why is Uber so thoroughly dominant?

Then I write out my answers… from my perspective, from the business/VC perspective, from the user perspective, from the market perspective, etc. Sometimes a pattern emerges from across perspectives, but usually it doesn’t and I have even more questions to answer.

I basically build a pile of information, insights, and questions and then I methodically chip away until I’ve found something that won’t budge. If what’s left is a fundamental truth about the human condition, I rank those products very highly and keep an eye on their execution.

Q: What do you think will happen to software Product Design as AI advances to make interfaces conversational?

A: As long as people/companies desire to encourage specific behaviors from other people/companies there will be a need to have directed calls to action. Calls to action have been simplifying as they evolve; from .exe, to .com, and, currently, to apps.

Most of the things I can imagine revolve around what I call mini-apps. Mini-apps that fit within a text bubble without any installation. Pushing a button — especially on mobile — is a lot more efficient than typing even a single character on a keyboard.

Misc quotes:

Thanks for reading this! If you got value out of this article, I would really appreciate you hitting the / recommend button below.

And connect with me on Twitter! I’m @kaz.

ps: Want to see some other “highlights from Q&A’s?” that I’ve gathered? Here are my summaries of some Product Hunt Live Chats.