Josh Brewer

CEO of Abstract

How Product Needs to Empower Design to Build Great B2B Products

Josh Brewer: All right. Good morning everybody. There's a noticeable lack of people up front, and I feel like that is like a, a throwback to high school for some reason. I'm really appreciate you guys being here this morning and, uh, I hope that you guys, uh, can get something out of this this morning. As you heard, my name is Josh Brewer. I'm the CEO of a company called abstract. Uh, this might give you a tiny bit of a, a quick picture about me. Uh, it is all so super washed out, so that's probably a good thing. Um, nobody needs to see my tree pose for that long. Uh, prior to starting abstract, uh, I had, uh, started a small incubator called habitat that was, uh, something that I was really passionate about after, uh, my time at Twitter. So I was very fortunate, uh, to be a recruiter from 2010 to 2013 as the principal designer there.

Josh Brewer: Um, got to work on a lot of really incredible projects with some amazing folks there. Uh, what I want to do today is tell you guys a little bit of a story. Uh, that sets some, some context and a little bit of backdrop, uh, for some of the more practical and tactical things that I want to share with you guys. So if you remember this Hashtag, uh, I'm super impressed. Uh, Hashtag new new Twitter was a redesign that we did in 2011. Uh, it came almost exactly a year after Hashtag new Twitter, uh, which was the first big overhaul of Twitter, uh, during its whole history. Uh, new new Twitter was, uh, largely sparked by Jack Dorsey's return, uh, spending some time, uh, in and around the company in 2011. It was a really interesting time for the company. It was definitely an interesting time for design at Twitter.

Josh Brewer: Uh, when I joined there were about five designers. Uh, by the time we hit a new new Twitter, there were some, I don't remember to be totally honest with you guys, but there was somewhere around 11 or 12, I think, designers. And, uh, we had all been feeling that some of the, some of the navigation, some of the core interaction patterns in the product needed an update. And that coincided with Jack coming back and having some ideas for some new product offerings. And we saw it as a real opportunity to lobby for design. Do you have an opportunity to really, um, do some early exploration and really set a, a, a vision for potentially where we could go? And it was really exciting that we convinced, uh, Dick Costolo the CEO at the time and Jack Dorsey to let us have some time. You know, we asked for, I believe it was six weeks to do like deep exploration.

Josh Brewer: Um, the mission was to actually redesign abstract on four different platforms. Um, and uh, this will also tie in a little bit to what we're talking about with, uh, so obviously not a means to be a product. Um, just to be very clear with you guys. Um, however we knew that, uh, we definitely had a lot of touch points with our customers. Uh, this definitely translates into pretty much any digital product that's going out there today. So at the end of 2018, you're designing for multiple platforms, multiple screens, multiple, uh, resolutions, multiple experiences, uh, across all kinds of devices and, uh, environments. And it's really driving home the need for a designed to be deeply part of the product development process. So back at Twitter, we convinced them to let us have this window. We dove in deep into the exploration. And what we discovered real quickly was there was no way in hell we were going to pull this off because we had to design for Ios, Android, mobile web, and the web all at the same time.

Josh Brewer: And currently at that moment in time, all of the design team had no idea what everybody else was doing. Everybody lived in their own folders, had their own files, sometimes, unfortunately, even just on their own laptops, not even, not even in Dropbox, like literally on their desktop, recreating each other's, uh, work all the time. And we discovered the only way to move forward efficiently. And the only way to kind of give visibility at the right scale that we believed in was to, uh, get everyone to begin to work together, uh, in a version controlled manner, uh, and be able to work on the same files together effectively shifting it from like, these are mine to, these are ours. And this was a real pivotal shift for design. Uh, at that time, especially the team at Twitter. Uh, we unfortunately, or fortunately depending on how you want to look at it, uh, had made such great progress by adopting this new workflow.

Josh Brewer: And we were constantly sharing in progress work. We had set up a room inside of the office where anyone in the company could come walk through. We had office hours where we would talk about explorations cause we are in massively divergent, uh, phase at that point. And we were starting to narrow in on a few things that felt like they were really, really solid. And, uh, Jack and Dick came through one afternoon and we're so excited that they decided that we were done and that they were going to go tell the company that we figured it out and we're going to go, we've got it. Unfortunately, that didn't really go over well with our product managers and our engineering counterparts. As you might imagine when we first lobbied for this opportunity of exploration, the goal was six weeks of exploration in ideation, another month of working with product and engineering to take these things and actually scope them and refine them and make sure that they were lining up to the metrics that we were trying to actually move.

Josh Brewer: Uh, I don't know what many CEO means. I to be totally candid with you guys, I think of many of me from Austin Powers, right? Like that's not what we need in our businesses. Uh, often I think people very much want to be able to take that authority and really they're looking to, to be able to demonstrate that they're capable and competent and that they can grow and they've got a, you know, a career ladder they're trying to climb. And what I want to go out on a limb and say is that if you're climbing that ladder at the expense of climbing on other people, I just think that fundamentally we're doing it wrong. And I want to take the chance to really say product managers I think actually have an incredible influence on the culture and a way that a company operates and the way that they think and the way that they communicate.

Josh Brewer: And if, you know, if we go back to the title of this talk is how can product empower designed to build great B to B products or great products in general? A lot of it is reversing this trend, reversing this stereotype, reversing this belief that I am concerned or I'm afraid that someone's going to abuse their power. And this to me also speaks to people who decide not to participate in the process, but sit up a little higher and then just come in. I think the favorite term I ever heard was swooping poop. Uh, definitely heard that about some CEOs, but I've definitely heard it about certain, uh, product managers as well where they're not involved at all. They're up here and then they just swoop in and shit all over the project and then take off without bearing any responsibility. And uh, to me that's not a great product manager.

Josh Brewer: A great product manager is in there. They're concerned daily with the welfare of their team. They're concerned about not just the product, but also the process and the people involved in it. This is actually what I want. This is what I do. This is my goal as a leader. Whether I'm a CEO or a design leader or a product leader, I want my, I want my team to feel like this. I want them to feel invincible. That no matter what comes their way, I have their back and they have this superpower that is, I am part of something. And I have someone on my team that cares about the part of, uh, the part that I play in this bigger puzzle and feels empowered to actually do their best work.

Josh Brewer: One way that product can do this is to be an advocate. So I've seen this as a design leader. I've seen this in large organizations. One of the most effective ways that you can get your design team to actually like really step up and feel empowered is to advocate on their behalf. It turns out, uh, one of the best ways for kind of senior level executives to get a picture or understand the value of design in your company is for somebody that isn't the design team to talk about the design team and how helpful they are and what they bring to the table and what unique value they add that isn't currently being expressed in the way that we're functioning. And I've been the recipient of this. It has been a, an incredible blessing. Uh, to me when a product partner or an engineering partner, uh, stands up and says, Hey, actually it'd be really important to make sure that their design has a voice in this decision.

Josh Brewer: And here's why. Um, and so this is a real easy one. This is actually not hard. Um, I guess the only piece of it that is tough is if you don't have that relationship with your design team and you don't think that they're valuable, it's gonna be really hard for you to advocate on their behalf. Um, but this is a big one for me. And the last point that I want to talk about, uh, is failure. So at abstract we have a saying, which is failure is only failure if you don't learn from it. And a lot of this comes from my own experience and several, several of our team, uh, were fairly, failure is usually punished. Uh, mistakes might often be met with either reprimand, uh, a performance improvement plan. You might actually just straight up get fired depending on how intense the environment is.

Josh Brewer: What I've seen, what I've learned and what I've experienced is failing is going to happen all the time. Mistakes are going to be made all the time. And if we can turn that lens and flip it around so that we use them as opportunities to learn and change the process, change the way we operate, changed the way we make decisions, that becomes a massive exponential multiplier for every other future decision that that team is making. And I've seen, you know what I was talking about, people that are scarred and are traumatized from really people being abusive in the power that they hold in the role that they're in. And a lot of that is leading to teams of people who on the surface look like they're all pulled together and they're doing their best and they're really great. And underneath they're just like dying because they're afraid.

Josh Brewer: They're terrified instead of feeling safe, instead of feeling like if a mistake is made, there is a way that we can actually, uh, sit down, evaluate where the point of failure was, and make a decision together as a team of how we will change the way we work so that it doesn't happen again. This happens in our company on a regular basis. Literally happened last week. We had something, a ship that should not have shipped. Uh, and we weren't even sure how in the world it got out. Cause we have a process and we did a very quick retrospective. It was quickly identified, there was two small communication, uh, things that could have been done slightly differently and one person's eyes should've been on it, that wasn't on it. We just didn't have a process for that. And so in the matter of like less than a day, we had completely changed the way that we shipped.

Josh Brewer: We have two new processes for how we get the right eyes on, on the right things. And I guarantee you we're not going to make that mistake again. And the team doesn't feel afraid. They don't feel ashamed. They actually feel empowered. And now they're starting to adopt this mindset, which is okay, we need to move. So I, for those of you, uh, uh, I come from Twitter, didn't work at Facebook, so move fast and break things is a terrible, uh, idea in my opinion. Uh, move as fast as you can and try not to break things is actually kind of like where I land. Um, cause if you're trying not to break things, that means you're being conscientious and thoughtful about the way that you're operating. And at the same time we need to move fast. And so creating a culture where there's enough safety, net enough psychological safety that I can move fast and I know that we can course correct if it is not working versus I'm going to move fast, but oh my God, I'm going to be beaten, I'm going to be punished if I make a mistake.

Josh Brewer: And so the anxiety and the stress that comes along with that, it begins to bleed into every part of our lives. And so one of the things I'm committed to and one of the reasons why I'm excited to be able to talk to you guys today is I actually think that this is a very tangible, practical way that we begin to shift the culture in Silicon Valley, shift the culture in tech in general and start thinking about a new way of being both innovative and progressive with the products we build, but also deeply inclusive and people focused in the way that we're operating as, as teams. So I really, really appreciate your guys' time today. Um, I finished with 38 seconds left, so thank you.

Speaker 1: [inaudible]

Josh Brewer: any questions?

Speaker 1: Yes, I worked with 12 engineers. If you're bringing somebody in for the first time at about that size, how do you set it up?

Josh Brewer: Oh, so the question was, uh, you know, bootstrap team's getting up and running really quickly, often grow to 10 to 12 design or developers before a designer gets into the door. Um, definitely see that often. Um, I'd always advocate that even if you don't have a full time designer, having a design even as a contracting role early on can be really beneficial just to set up a few of these structures. Um, so building out a very lightweight design system and some of the basic templates and components can allow developers to move a lot faster for a lot longer. Um, if you are that first designer coming in, most often in a startup, you're a generalist, you're gonna be asked to do a bunch of stuff. Um, one caution I always throw out there is a lot of teams are like, oh my God, we're, we're 12 people and we need a designer.

Josh Brewer: That means we need a head of design and just wanted to tell you, your first designer is very likely not your head of design. They are by virtue of their, the only designer in the company at the time. But I'm putting that out there as an expectation already sets them up potentially for failure. They might not be a manager, they might never want to manage it. They might just be an IC. So carving out room for them to do what they do best, and then, um, making sure if there is someone in a product role that they're connected and collaborating health in a healthy way early on, um, with clear kind of like delineation between responsibilities. I think that's probably the one of the best things that I could advocate for. Hopefully that helps. Any other questions? Awesome. Thank you guys. Really appreciate it.


Keep me posted on Empower 2019.