Interview with Zach Schendel

Design Leadership Interview at DoorDash

Hey Zach! Thanks for taking the time to chat. You’ve recently joined DoorDash as the Head of Research. Tell us what made you join DoorDash, and what you’re excited about.

When I had my final interview with my future manager at Netflix in 2013 I learned that the research team had answered some important questions, but there was so much left to do. As he listed off the unanswered questions, I was legitimately excited. It was years worth of work, an unending stream of discovery and potential. I don’t have the list anymore, but I am pretty confident that we crossed them all off by 2021.

I had the same feeling when I was interviewing at DoorDash and am now growing a new list.

From a business perspective, I am most excited about the mission, scope, and rocketship growth of the company. I went into my interviews a bit naively focused on restaurant delivery pain points. I left my interviews thinking about growing local economies, new verticals, B2B solutions, logistics, and expanding globally. Restaurants are simply a foot in the door, or as this article puts it, food delivery is to DoorDash what books were to Amazon. There is a lot of ambition here, and it’s both daunting and inspiring at the same time.

From a research perspective, I am excited about the new researchers I am going to meet, watch grow, and celebrate. I am excited about the new partnerships the team will form with people from all corners of the business. But I am most excited about the potential for impact from the vast quantities of unknowns we will seek to answer. I am already anticipating multiplying the moments when our work is front and center in the formation of new business strategies.

How did you get your start in UX research?

For me it’s not really about UX research as much as it is about research, full stop. I love research. I still remember my first proper middle school science fair project where I pulled differently designed fishing lures through Tetra and Piranha tanks with my dad at a local pet store to measure the impact on the distance they were followed. If I recall correctly, it was a 2 (lure color) x 2 (lure length) x 2 (fish species) within-fish design! I was a Westinghouse semi-finalist in high school where I conducted an experiment, inspired by the eyewitness testimony research of Elizabeth Loftus. I had my friend steal something from an in-session classroom and followed that up with immediate and time-delayed eyewitness recall questionnaires.

Those early days ballooned into bigger and bigger things: music and psychology degrees at St. Olaf, a Ph.D. in Cognitive Psychology from Ohio State where I studied similarities and differences in the production of and memory for sequences of music and language, and then a career in applied research. Prior to the move to DoorDash I led research at Altria, Unilever, and Netflix on everything from anti-aging to anticipation and the perception of premiumness to the paradox of choice. If there’s an unanswered question out there, and it’s even remotely interesting, I am usually up for figuring it out.

What are some of the most rewarding aspects of your role as a research leader? What are some of the challenges?

As a leader, my own success comes from facilitating the success of others. There is something magnetic about watching people succeed at something they are amazing at. Whether it is the Olympics, a tricky musical passage, or even MarioKart, watching someone at the top of their game do something elite that you could never imagine being able to accomplish yourself is mesmerizing. At DoorDash this comes in many forms. It could be a particularly well-explained presentation, a simple, creative, perfect “how might we…” product solution to a pain point, or a brilliantly run qualitative interview. This is particularly fun when I have watched that same individual grow over time to get to where they are now. There is nothing more rewarding in my role than receiving a genuine, unsolicited note from a colleague praising someone on the team, particularly when that team member was the unlock to open an entirely new innovation path.

DoorDash is not quite a start-up, yet not quite an establishment. This phase spawns unique challenges that remind me of a quote from the book, The Rainbow Goblins, my parents constantly read to me as a kid, “All the goblins dance and pranced about in glee, for they knew that after the wildest morning thunderstorm comes the most beautiful rainbow.” Challenge is a double-edged sword. At this phase in the company’s growth there are multiple teams hungry for insights, even outside of typical product partners like Design or Product Management. They sincerely want us to contribute and to be a voice at the table. This is great! But we cannot do it all. The team is still growing so we need to prioritize, and we have to say no more often than we would like. We’ve missed some opportunities for impact, and we’ve missed other opportunities to create relationships with new business partners, but it’s the right decision. We are focused on growing and scaling right now. Wider impact and those partner relationships will grow over time if we lay the right foundation now.

I am already anticipating multiplying the moments when our work is front and center in the formation of new business strategies.

You’ve been managing a team for a while. How would you describe your management style and leadership philosophy in general?

My grad school advisor once described me as a Type A person in Type B clothes. I like to have fun. I don’t take myself too seriously. I like to be vulnerable and honest. I am not above anything; I will get my hands dirty with you. But, at the same time, I am honest, pragmatic, principled, decisive, have high expectations, and am a straight shooter. I choose fairness over popularity. I am flexible. I am whatever you need me to be in the moment — a cheerleader, friend, listener, a technical whiz, or a reality check.

But I am certainly not perfect! I don’t think any single manager can be the one person that you rely on to grow in every aspect of your career. I try to surround myself with leaders who bring complementary skills and perspectives to round out the overall team environment. This is one example of a way I seek to achieve balance on the team.

A balanced team is an impactful team with strong business partnerships. I seek to achieve this by encouraging the triangulation of insights from diverse research methods, by partnering qualitative and quantitative experts, and by spreading research leads across complementary business areas. I encourage a balance between partner-driven and more self-driven, proactive research while also straddling strategic and tactical initiatives.

You’re currently hiring for multiple roles on the team. What are some of the key qualities you look for in candidates?

Great researchers always think about how the needs of our three primary audiences (Customers, Dashers, Merchants) can inspire the business. They build amazing relationships with partners, and genuinely have a seat at the table. They are organized, efficient, and can parallel track research. They ruthlessly prioritize and balance their research portfolios with strategic and tactical work. They have broad and deep methodology and analysis toolboxes. They are incredible communicators and storytellers. They make an impact on the business.

I am looking for researchers who are humble, self aware, and driven. I am looking for researchers who are confident, quick, and well-spoken. A bias for action is key to success here. I am looking for people who are up for a challenge; people who thrive in the unknown.

Great researchers can come from anywhere. I have hired Human Computer Interaction experts, every flavor of psychology Ph.D you can imagine, an architect, and even a documentary filmmaker! They have all been successful. Agency researchers, academic researchers, applied researchers, design researchers, life-long researchers, researchers who learned on the job, tech, CPG, FMCG, QSR, whatever your background, if you love research, then let’s connect. Your unique perspective is important to me, and it’s important to the success of the DoorDash.

What do you do when you’re not working?

I am a dad! I have two kids, Matthew, who is 9, and Evy who is 5. They are an endless source of entertainment, energy, and, at times, frustration. It depends on the phase they are in — that usually determines what we do. Right now it’s games — Taco vs. Burrito, Exploding Kittens, MarioKart, Just Dance, hogball (that’s just soccer using a ball that has hedgehogs on it), basketball, whatever. Who knows what it will be in 6 months? But I am sure it will be fun!

To be honest, I will try just about anything to learn or to challenge myself. The latest project that has consumed a lot of my time is gardening. The family thought it would be fun to grow plants from seeds. My son picked out sunflowers. I said, “sure, how hard could it be?”…. 😑….. The biggest ones are over 12’ tall now, and they are just starting to flower.

Without the kids, which is a rare occurrence, I like to watch Family Feud with my wife, watch surprising movies, write, draw, root for the Ohio State Buckeyes, bake desserts, and eat the desserts I have baked.

We can’t end without asking you a few food-related questions. What’s your favorite dish of all time, and what’s your go-to place for delivery or pickup?

This is a funny question for me. A friend once told me that if I could put meals into pill form instead of eating them, that I would probably do that to increase meal efficiency. That’s a BIT extreme, but not too far off. I am, in general, a very flexible person. I am definitely the most flexible eater in the house. So, I don’t really get a say that often. I have a very low bar — my “go-to” is just a peaceful dinner where everyone actually eats. But, if I get to choose (basically just on my birthday) then it’s probably going to be Southern food, a ridiculous brunch that’s closer to dessert than food, or just eating actual dessert. I would order barbecue, baked mac ’n’ cheese, cornbread, a fresh-baked seasonal pie, and probably an obligatory side salad, just so I could claim I ate something healthy.

Interested in joining DoorDash’s awesome design team? Check out these open roles on our Career Page.