Han Yuan of Recharge: Five Things You Need To Know To Successfully Manage a Remote Team
An Interview With Tyler Gallagher
Invest in a knowledge base and ideally hire a team whose sole job is to ensure that everything is documented and up to date. A knowledge base is not just a tooling investment, but it is also a people and cultural asset that could take years to get right. When teams can find what they need without asking for help, they can be wildly productive.
As a part of our series about the five things you need to successfully manage a remote team, I had the pleasure of interviewing Han Yuan.
Han Yuan is Senior Vice President of Product and Engineering at Recharge, the leading subscription management solution, where he leads these two key functions and empowers 15K+ merchants to support their 50M+ subscribers.
Han comes to Recharge by way of AKF Partners, where he was Associate Partner. Prior to that, Han was SVP of Engineering at Upwork, where he led one of the world’s most distributed engineering teams — 350+ engineers in 40 countries worldwide. During his tenure at Upwork, their revenue doubled and the company went public in 2018.
Han was also an influential mobile engineering leader in a previous life, having incubated world-class teams for eBay and Netflix. Han helped scale eBay’s mobile business from 200M gross merchandise volume to 2B+ and in the process grew the engineering team from one to more than 80. At Netflix, Han and his teams launched Netflix on Android, and mobile usage grew from just 15% monthly active users when he started to over 65% on iOS, Android, and Apple TV.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. What is your “backstory”?
I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area at a time when consumers were just adopting personal computers. It was an exciting time, and my experience with an Apple II computer would eventually change my life. The idea that you could build something useful from just typing instructions on a computer was a magical idea, and I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to exist at this time in world history.
In my 23 years of work experience, I’ve had the privilege to work on a few projects that I’ll cherish forever. In the early 2010s, I was involved with the mobile programs for eBay and Netflix, and later I was the head of engineering for one of the world’s largest freelancer marketplaces — Upwork. If you’ve ever bought anything from a mobile phone on eBay, watched anything on Netflix through an Apple TV, iPhone, Android device, or hired a freelancer on Upwork — I was part of those efforts.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
I spent ten years working in enterprise software at two relatively unknown companies: Saba Software and Movaris. I was passionate about the Internet in the 90s, but I wasn’t part of that as a young engineering manager.
However, I don’t regret that time because I reported to several elite managers during those years. Some reported directly to Larry Ellison in earlier parts of their career, and others were founders. I also had the opportunity to work with extraordinary people who would later start unicorn-valued companies and, in turn, become billionaires themselves. I didn’t know it at the time, but being around extraordinarily talented people earlier in my career helped me become the leader I am today.
Steve Jobs once said, “Again, you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.”
I didn’t know it then but looking backward in hindsight, I can see how the dots connected.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
About six months into my role as a software engineer at Saba Software, I figured out a way to have browsers “remember your password.” My approach wasn’t very secure, and it was a bit of a hack, but I was excited that I had figured out how to build it. My hope was that it would improve our customer experience, so I slipped it into production without telling anyone.
The entire site broke when we pushed the code because nobody could log in! I was embarrassed by it, but my manager, Rich Ellinger, who co-founded Saba, didn’t say a word about it. I think Rich understood how embarrassed I was, and for me, it proved to be a valuable lesson in emotional intelligence.
What advice would you give to other business leaders to help their employees to thrive and avoid burnout?
As software leaders, there’s a tendency for us to be tactical. What are we building? What is getting shipped? Towards that end, we fashion ourselves as building software.
In reality, I think we’re in the business of building teams and organizations, and the most crucial piece is the people. To understand your team, you need to talk to them. More important than discussing projects is discussing how you can help them be more effective inside the company and support their roles, so they feel like they are doing great, motivating work. If everyone feels like they have ownership and that their work matters, they will stay motivated.
My second piece of advice is to ensure that you counter-balance that motivation by encouraging your colleagues to bound their hours to 40 hours, and model that. If you’re to have a long career, you need to pace yourself, otherwise you run the risk of moving fast but not going very far.
Ok, let’s jump to the core of our interview. Some companies have many years of experience with managing a remote team. Others have just started this, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Can you tell us how many years of experience you have managing remote teams?
I’ve been managing remote teams since the 90s — initially out of India — including both agencies and employees. Later, as the world became more global and technology allowed remote work, my teams were both domestic (in other states) and in other countries.
While at Upwork, I was managing the most distributed team members. We hired off the platform for a good portion of our workforce and had teams in 41 countries around the world (in almost every time zone).
None of these companies were necessarily remote-first from the beginning, as was the case when Oisin O’Connor and Mike Flynn founded Recharge, so I am learning a lot about how remote-first companies work now.
Managing a team remotely can be very different than managing a team that is in front of you. Can you articulate for our readers what the five main challenges are regarding managing a remote team? Can you give a story or example for each?
When you first start managing remote teams, the five challenges that come to my mind are:
- New team members can struggle with onboarding due to difficulties in getting context, often because of the lack of documentation.
- The norms of how folks interact with each other may vary dramatically across different locations and cultures, so defining what is acceptable in detail is essential.
- Figuring out ways to engage everyone in group meetings over video calls is essential.
- There’s a strong bias towards written communication, unlike in-person companies, so helping team members adapt to best practices can’t be prescriptive enough.
- Because remote work implies much of the work is “together” and “alone” simultaneously, team members may feel isolated.
Based on your experience, what can one do to address or redress each of those challenges?
Towards that end, here are five things I recommend to combat these challenges:
- Invest in a knowledge base and ideally hire a team whose sole job is to ensure that everything is documented and up to date. A knowledge base is not just a tooling investment, but it is also a people and cultural asset that could take years to get right. When teams can find what they need without asking for help, they can be wildly productive.
- Define a code of conduct that describes acceptable language, how people communicate within the company, how quickly people should respond to email, and when to schedule meetings to start. Creating a detailed manual of how to do the work will enable team members to collaborate. For individuals, have each person author a “user manual” that they can share with their colleagues to create empathy and help smooth over the getting-to-know-you process.
- Keep group meetings small, if possible. If you’re broadcasting a meeting, consider recording it and sharing it so that everyone can watch the meeting at their convenience. When you have meetings with more than one person, designate an individual who advocates for another person on the same call to make sure they feel heard.
- Encourage people to write memos over Slack messages and presentations. Memos encourage people to articulate the logic behind their thoughts and are a durable point-in-time asset that helps set the context for current and future employees.
- Meet in person as often as you can. Not having an office means that you can get together anywhere in the world — take advantage of it!
In my experience, one of the trickiest parts of managing a remote team is giving honest feedback, in a way that doesn’t come across as too harsh. If someone is in front of you much of the nuance can be picked up in facial expressions and body language. But not when someone is remote. Can you give a few suggestions about how to best give constructive criticism to a remote employee?
I encourage managers to read Marshall Rosenberg’s book: Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life: Life-Changing Tools for Healthy Relationships.
My process involves writing the feedback down in a format that answers the following questions:
- What are the non-debatable facts?
- What were my feelings and interpretations of the event?
- What are my underlying needs?
- What is my ask of you?
I find that writing down the feedback is helpful for both parties, as they can refer back to it. The feedback also provides either facts or feelings from the feedback giver’s perspective, which can open up doors to mutual understanding and empathy.
Can you share any suggestions for teams who are used to working together on location but are forced to work remotely due to the pandemic. Are there potential obstacles one should avoid with a team that is just getting used to working remotely?
When teams first move towards remote work, they may feel disconnected from each other. My suggestion for teams just getting used to remote work is to have a daily stand-up to discuss what everyone is working on and if they are experiencing blockers.
What do you suggest can be done to create a healthy and empowering work culture with a team that is remote and not physically together?
In a world of remote work, managers must think about ways to empower every team member to make decisions independently. If you don’t solve this issue, time zone challenges will cripple the speed of decision-making, and nothing gets done. If you solve this, you’ll have a team making things happen at all hours of the day, and you can move your business faster than you ever imagined. The choice is yours!
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
We have many people on our planet, but opportunities to thrive are not equally available to everyone. When I think back to my work, I’m proud of what I did at eBay, Upwork, and now Recharge, focused on supporting entrepreneurs in small and medium-sized businesses that create opportunities that otherwise wouldn’t exist for people. We need more companies that add value to this world that amplify society.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Maya Angelou once said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
I’ve spent decades as a people manager, which means I talk a lot, and no doubt most of it was not memorable. But people do remember how I made them feel. In the same way, my managers and the people I’ve met in my career have also made similar impressions.
I find this quote powerful because it provides a framework for thinking about making your work matter — not in terms of accomplishments, but in terms of the impact you have on the people around us.
Thank you for these great insights!