“Striving to Build a Happier Workplace”: Front Product, Design and Engineering Panel (Video + Transcript)

March 8, 2022

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Angie Chang: Next, we have a panel of Front women, please join me in welcoming Jill Schweitzer, Kaitlin Fink, and Vrushali Patil from Front. They will be talking about how they’re striving to build a happier workplace from company values coming from product design and engineering. So let’s do some introductions and start with Jill.

Jill Schweitzer: Sure. Hi everyone. I’m Jill Schweitzer. I’m a Product Lead here at Front. I look after our product group that’s focused on our end users who use Front to communicate with their customers on a daily basis.

Jill Schweitzer: I joined Front about eight or nine months ago, most recently from Airbnb, and I actually wasn’t looking to leave Airbnb when Front first reached out, but I was convinced for several reasons. First of all, was the culture and the people.

Jill Schweitzer: I was really impressed by the people I met during my interview process. Lots of great folks across teams and across functions.

Jill Schweitzer: I was really excited in particular about two of the values that Front holds that really came through in my conversations with folks, which were transparency and low ego, which I’m sure we’ll talk more about in just a little bit.

Jill Schweitzer: The next thing that really was important to me was Front is in a really interesting size and stage. So my past experience in product was mostly focused recently on large, late-stage companies, like Uber and Airbnb.

Jill Schweitzer: And prior to that, I was on the opposite end of the spectrum, very small, very new, had my own startup and also joined a Series A company that was about 25 people as their first product person, but obviously very small, very early.

Jill Schweitzer: And so this kind of sweet spot right in the middle, of Front being Series C, about 350 people, and growing rapidly was a kind of spot along the spectrum that I was hoping to fill in my personal experience. So, that was certainly compelling.

Jill Schweitzer: And then actually getting to know the product and seeing it in action was kind of a “seeing is believing” moment. During my interview process, my now manager gave me a demo of the product and showed me how it works.

Jill Schweitzer: I instantly got it. It was kind of like, really seeing the value of what we’re delivering for customers, and also seeing a lot of really interesting product work that I’d be able to help drive with the team moving forward. So those are kind of the reasons that I joined Front. I’ll pass it on to Kaitlin.

Kaitlin Fink: Hi, I’m Kaitlin Fink. I’m a Product Design Manager here at Front, based in San Francisco. I joined Front in August of last year.

Kaitlin Fink: Prior to Front, I had worked at Pinterest and IDEO where I’ve worked on everything from design operations to advertiser tools and redesigning a voting system.

Kaitlin Fink: Similar to Jill, I was not looking for a new opportunity, but the more I learned about Front and met the people, it was an opportunity that I couldn’t pass up.

Kaitlin Fink: One of my main reasons was similar to the company size, especially as a manager and growing in my career, I was really excited to come and grow a world-class design team, recruit and hire and then grow individual’s careers.

Kaitlin Fink: Another piece that kind of swayed me was working for a female-founded and CEO-led company. Mathilde, our founder, is one of my inspirations in leadership and I think her leadership style emulates throughout the company, and it was just too good of an offer to pass up. So I’ll pass it off to Vrushali.

Vrushali Patil: Hi, there! I’m Vrushali. I joined Front around six months ago. Prior to this, I was at Salesforce where I was running engineering for a product called Salesforce Communities.

Vrushali Patil: I came to Front because I wanted to sort of have a change of pace. After 14 years at Salesforce, I wanted to work at a startup that’s well run.

Vrushali Patil: For me, people and culture, similar to what Jill and Kaitlin mentioned, were really important. And I felt I really found, through the interview process, that I would’ve loved to work with the people that I talked to at Front.

Vrushali Patil: And then the other important aspect was the stage of the company, where I felt like Front was going through this rapid growth phase where someone like me could come in and make a difference and help the organization scale up. So yeah, so that’s about the experience, and really happy to be here.

Angie Chang: So it sounds like you all have worked at several companies before joining Front. So in your experience, what are some things that are unique about how engineering, product, and design operate at Front? And Vershalli, I think we’ll start with you.

Vrushali Patil Yeah. I think it really helps when you have transparency and care as part of your core values. Because what I feel is that at Front, we are not afraid to get into a healthy debate.

Vrushali Patil When we need to make product decisions, we’ll get in a virtual room and we’ll express our opinions. We’ll duke it out, but leave the room with a decision. And that decision could be that we are in full alignment, or it could be that we are going to disagree and [inaudible], but the fact that we make a decision helps us move forward and stay really efficient.

Vrushali Patil: And then the other part, which is sort of very core to Front, is this habit of doing retrospectives, and it’s part of our culture. We make decisions quickly, we move fast, we can make mistakes.

rushali Patil: We want to look back and learn from those mistakes. And this goes all the way from our CEO, who does a retrospective of Front at an all-hands meeting, how the past year has been, and down to a team level, where on a weekly basis, we’ll say, “Okay, what’s gone well? What’s not gone well? What can we learn from it?” And it just helps us to reflect and sort of learn from mistakes and then move forward.

Kaitlin Fink: Another thing that’s unique to Front is how we build empathy with our customers. So we all, as individuals, use our product, day in and day out. And this helps everyone within the company, no matter what your role, understand our product and more about what our users are going through.

Kaitlin Fink: And I’ve seen at other companies where maybe PMs or even sales end up being that voice of the customer, and then engineers and designers end up being further away, and it makes it harder to convince the team around what to prioritize.

Kaitlin Fink: So it’s much closer to home, and the product decisions are democratized across all of engineering, product, and design, but we also know that using our product isn’t enough.

Kaitlin Fink: So we need to talk to customers firsthand to hear from them what they’re going through. And we have a number of ways to get customer insights that everyone in the company has access to.

Kaitlin Fink: So we record customer videos with our go-to-market teams, we record our user research sessions, and then we have a shared product inbox that customers and sales and support team members can write into with product feedback.

Kaitlin Fink: And, knowing how important this customer feedback is, one team has even started, at a weekly team sync, bringing in random insights that each team member finds and rotating and sharing them back with the rest of the team.

Jill Schweitzer: And then I think, just adding another thought, on a completely different note, Front also has kind of a fun game culture. Games, kind of being part of healthy competition, and encouraging fun amongst employees. We have a literal gaming culture where…

Jill Schweitzer: Actually board game nights are kind of a long standing part of Front’s kind of after work culture. So we do sometimes host game nights at the office where there’s lots of different board games or card games or various things kind of happening at the same time. It’s super inclusive.

Jill Schweitzer: So, there may be multiple games set up at different tables, but it’s always kind of a, “Yes, come join us.” And if there’s a limited number of people in a game, people kind of sit and watch and learn for a round before hopping in.

Jill Schweitzer: I think this is kind of unique because this kind of enjoyment of games goes all the way up to the CEO. So being able to kind of sit at a table and play a casual game with your CEO is, I think, a rather unique opportunity that I certainly haven’t seen at other companies that I’ve been at, necessarily. So that’s been a lot of fun.

Jill Schweitzer: And I think this also carries through with other traditions. Front is very much a kind of building and Lego-based culture.

Jill Schweitzer: So you’ll also notice in our offices across the globe, there are multiple different Lego sets represented across the office that employees have helped build. We get unique Lego figurines or sets for big company milestones.

Jill Schweitzer: So that’s kind of an interesting part of the culture that brings us together.

Jill Schweitzer: And then finally, I think another kind of unique example of fun and kind of encouraging people to participate is, in our weekly all-hands, which is on Zoom, I’ve never seen a more active chat.

Jill Schweitzer: The chat is literally kind of blowing up whenever anybody is speaking. So throughout the all-hands, through all the different segments, people are chatting away, adding reactions, commenting with emojis or plus ones. A

Jill Schweitzer: nd it’s just a really kind of fun and engaging example of how people are excited about what each other are doing, but also supporting each other.

Angie Chang: Thank you for sharing about the company culture. That sounds very exciting. I love Legos.

Angie Chang: So aside from fun and games, literally, how do you find yourself making tough calls at work? Can you share how you got out of a tricky situation?

Kaitlin Fink: Yeah, I can kick it off. So at the end of last year on our core product team that both Jill and I work on, we had a couple of projects that we thought would be really straightforward and we’d end up… And we were trying to ship them by the end of the year, but they ended up being quite complex and we realized that that end of the year timeline just wasn’t realistic.

Kaitlin Fink: So instead of cutting corners or trying to de-scope the project, we actually took a step back and reevaluated our plan. And I’m really proud to be on a team that doesn’t cut those corners and is really making sure that we’re solving true user problems holistically. So I’ll pass it over to Jill, to give a little bit more detail about that.

Jill Schweitzer: Thanks Kaitlin. Yeah, so basically after realizing this project was way more complex than we had originally anticipated, besides kind of pivoting our course for this specific project, one thing we did was we started introducing new forums for our team to connect, and we made this more a part of our ongoing process for product development as well.

Jill Schweitzer: So taking this project as an example, we realized we would’ve [inaudible] from syncing earlier as a full cross-functional team.

Jill Schweitzer: So even before the product spec was fully written, getting engineering, product design, and our cross-functional stakeholder’s data and research all together and aligned, even at that very, very early stage where we’re still specing it out, would be really beneficial for everybody on the team. So that we’re all in lockstep as we’re exploring solutions, thinking about what potential designs could be, already kind of being aware of possible constraints or possible concerns that different functions might have.

Jill Schweitzer: So now, moving forward, for any project kickoff, we actually kick off a lot earlier and with a larger part of the team before we’re actually getting into specing mode. And that way, design is much better equipped with kind of the cross-functional story, including possible red flags when they’re moving into design phase.

Jill Schweitzer: We’re also making sure to sync more frequently during this entire kind of process before handing off for full building mode. So we are doing weekly project-based syncs, sometimes more than once a week, if… Depending on the project cadence.

Jill Schweitzer: We also set up project-based Slack channels, so we have the right people in that channel for any specific questions and just encouraging people to kind of keep up that asynchronous communication throughout the week.

Jill Schweitzer: And making sure that we’re more intentional about bringing in the cross-functional team, even during phases where they may not actually be needed yet for hands-on work. So I think it’s been a really good kind of eye-opener and opportunity for us to refresh our approach for how we work together on any given project.

Vrushali Patil: I think we have one more example, Jill do you want to set that up?

Jill Schweitzer: Sure thing. So another example of kind of how we’ve been working together as an engineering product and design org was last quarter, my team discovered that we actually had some additional complexity on a cross-team project. So this was not just us involved. We had some engineers from another team within Front who were helping us complete this solution.

Jill Schweitzer: We realized it was clear that we were going to need more time for execution from both our own team and from our partner team.

Jill Schweitzer: What this meant was that we’d actually be impacting multiple teams’ roadmaps in terms of timing and just delivery of other projects that we had committed for the quarter.

Jill Schweitzer: And we had to consider trading off some important tech debt work that was kind of well aligned across the organization that we wanted to commit to that quarter. And both teams that were involved in my team’s project were also involved in kind of completing that technical debt project. So we were in a little bit of a sticky situation. Vrushali, do you want to kind of round it out?.

Vrushali Patil: Yeah. And so, Jill and I were really trying to figure out how to move forward here. And on one hand, we had this team that was working on this one project, it had been going on in full swing. On the other hand, you’re getting delayed to start work on the technical debt work.

Vrushali Patil: And when it comes to these situations, it’s often people say, “Oh, just do brutal prioritization, just stack rank.” And it’s not as simple as that because there are so many nuances that you need to consider.

Vrushali Patil: And in this case, we want to think about the impact on the team, of what would their morale be if we abandon the feature at this stage? What would the cost of context switching be? And could the technical debt work be done in some other way?

Vrushali Patil: And there are people coming in from different points, a few, there’s no right or wrong. Everyone has the things they care about the most. And so we, again, we got into this discussion, we laid it out, laid out all our cards, our concerns on the table. And then we ended up coming up with a pretty creative solution.

Vrushali Patil: We found a way to work on the feature that we’re working on, on the technical debt work as well, and we ended up de-prioritizing something else that was lower down. And we were able to come up with this creative solution because we were sort of having that frank discussion and came up with an optimal outcome.

Angie Chang: Thank you for that story. So now, apart from building projects and… What are some ways you find to collaborate. Vrushali, you’re hiring, can you share an example?

Vrushali Patil: Yeah. I feel like one area, beyond making product decisions, where we come together really well is when it comes to closing candidates. In general, at Front, we take our recruiting process really seriously.

Vrushali Patil: We want to make sure that our candidates get the best experience possible. But I think when it comes to closing candidates, we really go that extra mile.

Vrushali Patil: And this is an example from something that happened a month ago, we were trying to close out on a candidate who had done well in that interview round. She had multiple offers, and we were trying to figure out how to convince her joined Front.

Vrushali Patil: And, given the timelines, we had around two hours before the candidate was going to make a final decision. Our recruiter came up with this idea that, “Why don’t we create a video for her? Each one of us saying why we like Front and how this could be a great place for her?”

Vrushali Patil: And it was amazing to see how many people contributed to that video. We had 15 plus people sort of create these two minute clips, including our CEO, and it was a lot of fun putting it together, and that sense of sort of camaraderie that comes in when you are trying to do these things is, I feel, what makes Front so special.

Kaitlin Fink: Yeah, and I still personally remember when I was making my decision last summer, all of the personal outreach that I got from people across the company, all different disciplines, all different levels, reaching out with some personal anecdotes about why they joined and why they’re excited for me to join.

Kaitlin Fink: And now on the other side of that, as a hiring manager myself, I understand how we use our product to collaborate behind the scenes and get all those personal touch points.

Kaitlin Fink: So when we have an offer out to a candidate, the hiring manager and recruiter will send a conversation to the whole company, celebrating the offer, but also sharing some sort of personal details about the candidate, so that anyone who can relate to that can jump in and reach out directly.

Kaitlin Fink: So maybe, for example, this candidate is moving to a new office location and they’re curious about others who have made the move, or they’re going from a large company to a small and are looking for someone who’s done similar, or it might just be something totally outside of the company, like they’re a photographer and they want to connect with other photographers.

Kaitlin Fink: And then you’ll see Frontiers just on their own initiate those reach outs and connections, and it’s really awesome to see how our product can help us collaborate internally and externally to make future Frontiers feel included inside of Front.

Angie Chang: I just realized what “Frontiers” meant! So I think we have one more minute. So I wanted to ask a final question to you all, if you have a piece of parting advice for our attendees today?

Jill Schweitzer: Sure. I think one thing to keep in mind is that there will always be some natural tension between functions, which is totally expected.

Jill Schweitzer: And honestly, it reflects each person caring about what their role is intended to prioritize.

Jill Schweitzer: So I think the most important thing is to have open communication and to stay aligned, or flag when you’re misaligned.

Jill Schweitzer: And then establishing shared outcomes up front so you can align on, for instance, what problems you’re solving, or what success looks like, or what outcomes you’re driving for your users or customers, because those are the things that are ultimately going to bring everyone together and keep you focused, even when each function might have a slightly different point of view.

Kaitlin Fink: Yeah. And to build on that, I would say at the beginning of your time at any new company, take that time to really… The first two weeks, month, you have a responsibility to make relationships and build those throughout the company. And that’s really the only dedicated time where you’ll have that space.

Kaitlin Fink: And go beyond just, “Hey, what team are you on?” But make those personal connections, especially when we’re remote, it’ll help you so much later down the line, connecting with people outside of your team. And then when you do maybe end up going into an office, you remember something that you have in common with one of those coworkers.

Vrushali Patil: Yeah. Plus one to everything that Kaitlin and Jill said. And I think the last thing I would say is, the collaboration between your PM and design partners doesn’t need to be transactional.

Vrushali Patil: Really take the time to invest in that relationship because project deadlines come and go, products come and go, features come and go, and it’s those relationships that will sort of transcend over all of these boundaries.

Angie Chang: Thank you for all that… for sharing.

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