Mark Kinsella of Opendoor: How To Communicate With Your Team Effectively Even If You Are Rarely In The Same Physical Space
Interview With David Liu
Set core working hours: To increase collaboration and ensure people aren’t getting messages during their off hours, it’s helpful to establish your core work hours so that the rest of your team knows when you’re available and when you’re not.
In this interview series, we are interviewing business leaders who share the strategies, tools and techniques they use to effectively and efficiently communicate with their team who may be spread out across the world. As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mark Kinsella.
Mark Kinsella currently serves as Opendoor’s Vice President of Engineering, where he oversees the engineering organization, heping to scale our platforms and teams. Before joining Opendoor in June 2020, Mark worked at Lyft, where he led Driver engineering. In his time at Lyft, he built and led numerous teams — across Support & Internal Tools, Safety & Insurance, Driver — and helped the company through IPO. In his career, Mark has taken on leadership roles at both small startups and large companies and has also worked across the spectrum of technologies from embedded systems to mobile apps.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
When I was younger, I thought I wanted to be a teacher and followed my passion for it. In college, I was initially working towards earning a doctoral degree to become a professor. Almost everyone in my family is a teacher, so it’s always felt very natural to me. Though I ended up pivoting and getting my Bachelor of Science in computer science and engineering, I kept my passion for helping others succeed alive. I started by managing interns and helping new graduates, which led me to my career path in engineering leadership. I worked at a series of startups before joining Lyft, where I led driving engineering for over five years. Now, I’m leading the engineering organization at Opendoor, a real estate technology platform transforming how people buy, sell and finance their homes, to help scale our platforms and teams.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Absolutely. Sean Fannan is someone who helped me in the early days of my career. He’s the co-founder and CTO of Chartboost. I joined when the company was very small and worked closely with him across different technical challenges, people and process improvements, and business strategy. I’m grateful to him for giving me the opportunity to try, and fail, at things as the company experienced rapid growth.
Ok wonderful. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. The pandemic has changed so many things about the way we behave. One of them, of course, is how we work and how we communicate in our work. Many teams have started working remotely. Working remotely can be very different than working with a team that is in front of you. This provides great opportunity but it can also create unique challenges. To begin, can you articulate for our readers a few of the main benefits of having a team physically together?
What we’ve seen over the past year is that working remotely can be beneficial for many people. In fact, I interviewed and onboarded completely remotely at Opendoor last summer, and am still working virtually to this day. But there will always be instances where working together in the same physical space can be valuable. First, working physically together provides a lot of personal connections. In person, you can read body language, facial expressions, and pick up on certain interpersonal cues that might not come across on camera or over the phone. As an engineer who is leading a team of engineers, whiteboarding is critical to our process. It’s vital to our discussions and decision making process, and it’s typically more efficient and effective to do in person. However, all that being said, this past year has taught us that almost everything we did in-person can be done in a virtual setting. And I’ve been impressed with how the team has adapted and embraced our new environment.
On the flip side, can you articulate for our readers a few of the main challenges that arise when a team is not in the same space?
By not being in the same space, relationship building with teammates, especially new teammates, is difficult. Small talk and unplanned interactions that happen in the office, such as catching up in the breakroom or watercooler chat in the kitchen, doesn’t happen virtually unless you schedule time. Those organic conversations that enhance relationships are a lot harder to come by remotely. Also, time zones can be a blessing and a curse. It allows people to work from wherever they are but it can make collaboration difficult at times, as there are fewer hours that overlap. Lastly, the internet can be prone to issues, such as spotty WiFi, freezing, and software can slow down the speed. However, we work through them and there are so many wonderful virtual tools that help teams collaborate.
Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experience, what can one do to address or redress each of those challenges? What are your “5 Things You Need To Know To Communicate With Your Team Effectively Even If You Are Rarely In The Same Physical Space ? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Over-communicate: Whether you’re working remotely or in-person, many people say communication is the key to success. I will take it a step further and say that over-communicating is the key to clarity. Ask for deadlines well in advance and talk through expectations or goals for a project.
- Meet people where they are: It’s clear that the future of work is a hybrid one, and in order to communicate effectively, it’s important to meet people where they are. If your team uses Slack then utilize Slack for communication.
- Written, async documentation: In order to increase collaboration and development efficiency, it’s important to practice high-quality documentation. It makes it easier for Engineers to do their work effectively, improve tools and support the onboarding process.
- Team bonding: Engineers should be able to always rely on their teammates, from code reviews to architecture and design help to supporting each other when personal crises arise. I personally find team bonding events like virtual offsites, hackathons and learning programs invaluable.
- Set core working hours: To increase collaboration and ensure people aren’t getting messages during their off hours, it’s helpful to establish your core work hours so that the rest of your team knows when you’re available and when you’re not.
My particular expertise and interest is in Unified Communications. Has the pandemic changed the need or appeal for unified communications technology requirements? Can you explain?
The simplification of unified communication — for example, a single-pane-of-glass — is important to ensure everyone knows where and how to communicate with their teammates. Too many means of communication allows for mistakes to happen and details to be missed.
The technology is rapidly evolving and new tools like VR, AR, and Mixed Reality are being developed to help bring remote teams together in a shared virtual space. Is there any technology coming down the pipeline that excites you?
There’s been a lot of advances in video and virtual tech that I’ve been impressed with. Especially as we’re all working remote, it’s been pivotal to stay connected. Looking ahead, I’m most excited about technology, like AR and VR, that will help remote teams collaborate more seamlessly and facilitate daily interactions that mirror in-person activities.
So far we have discussed communication within a team. How has the pandemic changed the way you interact and engage your customers? How much of your interactions have moved to digital such as chatbots, messaging apps, phone, or video calls?
The real estate industry has been long overdue for innovation. From selling to buying, and everything in between, the Opendoor experience was well on its way to becoming a digital one, even before COVID-19. Our digital, on-demand experience makes selling, buying, and financing a home as easy as a few taps online. For example, we’ve always offered on-demand, self-tours of Opendoor-owned homes and in the midst of the pandemic, we added eNotaries and virtual assessments. Our goal is to build a digital one-stop-shop real estate marketplace that empowers everyone with the freedom to move when they want and how they want.
In my experience, one of the trickiest parts of working with 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 team member?
Personally, I like to write any and all constructive criticism down on paper first and share it with the person before talking it through. In my experience, it’s better to get all of my thoughts out clearly and concisely in one place, and it’s easier for the recipient to digest and think through questions he or she might want to ask. I like this approach because there are no surprises when it comes time to discuss the matter 1–1. It also ensures that feedback is objective and based on performance that you observed, instead of comparing performance to others on the team.
Can you give any specific ideas about how to create a sense of camaraderie and team cohesion when you are not physically together?
Our team does several things to ensure team cohesion — from engineering all-hands where we ask team members to participate in three truths and a lie, to our annual Hackathons, to team offsites. I also host monthly round tables with every team. I use this time to say hello, understand what’s going on with everyone and see how I can help. We have a very fruitful team-wide discussion on what we can do as a group to improve things. We also do virtual happy hours via Gathertown, where you can “walk” around in a simulated game for impromptu video calls and hallway conversations. It’s a nice way to feel like you’re closer.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
- Add me on LinkedIn and follow our team’s engineering blog on Medium.
- We’re also hiring! If interested in joining our team, check out Opendoor’s careers page.
Thank you so much for the time you spent doing this interview. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success.