Operators Ep 13: Shani Taylor (Airtable)

  
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Shani Taylor is a Mid-Market Customer Success Manager at Airtable. Shani joined Airtable as the first customer success hire and the fourth go-to-market hire four years ago.  Prior to joining Airtable she worked at Matthews Media Group and Cross Culture Ventures.

In this episode we talk about how Shani went about building her first Customer Service Team, her advice on adaptability, and the advantage of unscalable behaviors early on. She also talks about how her background in psychology has helped navigate customer needs, the close relationship customer service has with product and engineering, and her genuine love of Airtable.

I hope you enjoy the show.

Transcript available here.

Ep 13 Transcript

Shani Taylor - Airtable

Delian Asparouhov: Hi everyone. My name is Delian and I'm a principal at Founders Fund, a venture capital firm based in San Francisco. This is Operators where I interview non VC, non CEO, non founder operators that make the startup world go round.

Today I'm interviewing Shani Taylor, Mid-market Customer Success Manager at Airtable. Shani joined Airtable as the first Customer Success hire and the fourth go-to market hire four years ago. Prior to joining Airtable, she worked at Matthews Media Group and Cross Culture Ventures.

I hope you enjoy the show.

Shani, thanks so much for coming on the podcast today. Really excited to have you on.

Shani Taylor: Thank you, super excited to be here. I appreciate the invitation.

Delian Asparouhov: So maybe before we dive into your work at Airtable, we can go back and talk a little bit about your sort of like educational background. I feel like for somebody that works in the world of startups, uh, you have a lot more degrees than the, uh, the, the typical person. You've done so much work across psychology, business design, African American studies, health education.

What led you to pursue like all these various different areas?

Shani Taylor: You know, I think it was by virtue of just an innate curiosity and a desire to learn a little bit more. And, um, you know, anything that interests me, I want to pursue it. I think that's part of it. And I think, uh, it's also a function of my background.

You know, I grew up, um, my parents immigrated to the US uh, from Jamaica and they came here with full intention of making sure that their children, my sister and I, had a better life than theirs. And, um, that was very much rooted in this desire to use and see education as a currency for access and opportunity.

And so, to them, that was success. You know, the me telling my mom "I'm applying to grad school", or "I'm thinking about business school" was just like music to her ears. So, um, I think it was something that was very much ingrained in me.

Delian Asparouhov: Love that, love that. And so between your sort of first digit school and your second stint, uh, you actually worked at this like media group as a project manager and project director.

Can you talk about sorta, you know, uh, that sort of career path, that life choice, and it was almost like, you know, three, three and a half years roughly, uh, what led you towards that and how has that experience?

Shani Taylor: Yeah, it was great. I was actually working at a company, it was called Matthews Media Group, part of the Omnicom Network.

And that company was focused on patient recruitment. So enrolling patients into clinical trials and another arm of the business focused on health communications. And so this was my opportunity to use my degree. Um, I had just finished up my program at Hopkins and it was an opportunity to partner with the National Cancer Institute, the CDC and FDA to really get health messages out to their constituents. And what was exciting about that was that we were using, you know, at the time new media strategies, which was like that early web 2.0 kind of foray, um, and using those technologies to try to get closer to our audience. So getting people to quit smoking. Um, one of the exciting things that we had developed was a text messaging program, uh, that was rooted in cognitive behavioral therapy.

So someone could opt into the program, sending a message, sending a request for support and get the right message at the right time. Um, and that actually was quite impactful experience and really getting me excited and interested in leveraging technology for positive health behavior change.

Delian Asparouhov: Super cool. And so, you graduated from Northwestern and then headed off to Airtable as their first sort of Customer Success Manager, sorta like why customer success? You were their fourth ever go-to market hire, supposed to be like super early on in the company.

Uh, what got you interested at that sort of early stage companies and was there anything like, particularly special on Airtable that sort of convinced you to join a company that was so young in their lifecycle?

Shani Taylor: Yeah. I was particularly excited and interested in the early stage. You know, I wanted to go to a place where I could have a lot of impact. Um, I could, you know, basically work and operate from a blank canvas.

I really wanted to build and to sort of partner with the team to build. So it was, it was honestly less about customer success, more about the stage of the company. And then, um, mostly about Airtable. I just loved the product and they were really, really excited and passionate. Uh, in fact, I had applied for a Marketing Manager role at the time.

Um, I think it was a little bit early for the company and our CEO, how he reached out, let me know that they were in fact hiring for Customer Success Manager, which I thought was perfect because it was actually more aligned to my background. I had previously worked in client services and so it felt like a natural fit.

Delian Asparouhov: Makes a ton of sense. And so Airtable had been around for about four years when you joined. Uh, so what did the company look like? I guess when you joined and was there anything that you wish you'd known, uh, you know, back then that you know now, um, or things you would have done, like, let's say, you know, differently in the early days of Airtable?

Shani Taylor: It was, it was such a fun, exciting time.

You know, when I joined, we were about 15 or so employees, mostly engineering. Um, and this actually was before we even had an enterprise plan, it was before we even had a mechanism to collect payments from customers who were excited and wanting to subscribe to Airtable. Um, so it was a very early time. I remember in fact, uh, sitting in the stairwells because we didn't have enough conference space.

And so my colleague Sasha, who was our first sales hire. We'd be in the stairwells taking phone calls from customers. And I think it just characterized how scrappy we were at the time. Um, it was an environment where you were, you know, I know startups, you are expected to wear multiple hats, but it was really inherent at the time when we were at, when I was at Airtable early on, I felt like I wore a bit of a support hat, a sales hat, a marketing hat in addition to customer success.

And so that was exciting. And I think that's probably one, you know, takeaway or, um, one thing that I wish I had known just how much of that opportunity would be in front of me, which was exactly what I was looking for. Um, a couple of other things that I think was really useful to know and sort of, as I look back, um, at my time, just the lack of specialization.

So doing some of this unscalable high touch things early on, um, actually served us really well because you've got to learn a lot from your customers. You've got to really get close to them and, and get connected and to understand what they were looking for. And that's sort of the foundation for us to dig in and understand where we actually did want to specialize or where we wanted to, um, you know, create separate support functions.

So that was something that was really important. Um, and I think just having that balance of highly unscalable work, um, and then eventually getting to a place where there's much more efficiency, what was critical.

Delian Asparouhov: Yeah. Can you talk about one of those, let's say like unscalable things that you noticed, started to work really well or really got customers engaged or excited that you guys ended up sort of like deciding to scale and how did you identify that and what was the process for like, you know, scaling that up or making it more scalable?

Shani Taylor: Yeah. Yeah, there are a couple of things, you know, um, one, so there, there are the things that are unscalable that you do want to operationalize and incorporate and keep. And then there are things that are unscalable that yes, you have some great learnings, but it's not going to be, um, beneficial to neither yourself nor the customer.

So I'll talk about those two things. One was, um, the way that we worked with our customers: Airtable, we, you know, empowers anyone to create custom applications and so, um, early on, we would often build those applications for our customer. We'd understand what they were looking fo, you know, they'd send over their spreadsheets, they'd send over their process and we'd build it we'd even import the data for them.

The data import was something that was unscalable that we've not moved forward with because you lose sort of this investment in the process, you lose the customer's confidence and ability to, to do this on their own. But what we did end up keeping and sort of spinning out, we noticed that our team was spending a lot of time building these applications for our customers instead of in, in conjunction with them. And so we did a time study and audit, and I think this is one thing that's really, really helpful for teams that are growing to regularly evaluate where people are spending their time. We did a time study and we saw that a significant chunk of CSMs were spending a lot of time building the application for our customers.

We knew that was a high leverage activity. And so we ended up spinning out an entirely separate team and implementation specialists team who was really understanding the process and, um, you know, creating an effective path forward for our customers as they are building up their applications. And so that was an example of something that was unscalable for us to do, but we knew it was high leverage and really impactful for our customer and we decided to operationalize it and figure out a better path to basically execute against that.

Delian Asparouhov: Makes a ton of sense. Um, and so you never really built, obviously a customer success team before Airtable, your work was like an immediate group around like, you know, messaging, uh, but you know, what of the past experience has sort of helped prepare you for that versus what were some of the things, um, that were maybe, you know, more foreign or things that you kind of had to like learn on the fly?

Um, and do you think there are any mistakes that you made that, like, you feel like a lot of young companies sort of make, um, that, uh, you know, are more generalizable that people, you know, should avoid or pitfalls that you feel like people should avoid?

Shani Taylor: Yeah, you're right. I had never, um, built a customer success team or even been part of one and actually Airtable was my first time being at a tech company and working at a startup.

So it was a lot of firsts happening at the same time, but I think, um, you know, the, the guiding principles and taking a first principles approach to everything was key and being successful early on and being able to build the team that we built. Um, you know, a lot of it really just was rooted in understanding our customer needs and really being deeply curious and looking at every engagement with our customers and learning opportunity to figure out what would be the optimal way to partner with customers, what they are actually looking for and what they need and what will be beneficial to the relationship, um, and being very deliberate and intentional about defining what success looks like in our customer's words.

And so that was really critical for me and I think it was hugely helpful for us early on. In terms of a couple of learnings, you know, I think we established that customer journey a little bit later and maybe that was probably  by virtue of taking this constant learning approach. And so every engagement was different and we would sort of try to figure out what the customer needed, but it was, um, really helpful when we got to the place where we did define that customer journey. So I'd say one piece of recommendation or advice is to establish that early, but be very comfortable adjusting it and evolving it over time.

Because it's helpful to have this sort of North star as to where you're guiding the customer, not only for your team and how your team is operating, but so that the customer knows like, what is next and what should I expect in this partnership?

Delian Asparouhov: And, you know, it sounds like when you first joined early on, there was a pretty technical team. There weren't that many sorts of go-to market hires. Was there like a particularly effective way to communicate with the engineers, how to maybe adjust parts of his customer journeys, that things are already sort of, you know, the, the customer is more likely to be successful on their own as opposed to like relying on their team, like, how did you sort of make the case for it say, you know, features that were needed or, you know, particular messaging in the product or things that need to be adjusted, um, to sort of push people through these sort of ideal customer journey. What were the best ways of going about that?

Shani Taylor: Yeah, I'd say one of the things I do really love about Airtable is just how tight our relationship is with our product and engineering team. You know, early on everyone at the company wore a support hat and everyone did support. And I think having that ability to hear what our customers are saying, what they're looking for, where they're running into stumbling blocks and where we can help unblock them and make them more effective that coming directly from our customers, which is usually helpful, of course, as we grew, that was not scalable for our entire team, but we do still have an environment and sort of the way that we operate as engineers and product join us for customer calls regularly, they have access to information. And so, um, then being brought into the loop has been really, really helpful and understanding what our customers are looking for and incorporating that feedback and, uh, those insights into our product development and roadmap.

Delian Asparouhov: And do you think there are some parallels between, let's say like the marketing messaging that you did to consumers, and then also you stated your background in like psychology or maybe even health education that allowed you to sort of successfully understand like customer psychology and how to partner with them and communicate with them, or like, what were some of the parallels that you brought in from there?

Shani Taylor: Yeah. Yeah. So, you know, I think being customer facing, there are a lot of parallels, not only from education, but just my background as well. You know, I grew up, I have had over a hundred siblings in my entire life. My parents did foster care. Um, and so having that diversity of siblings, um, people from lots of different backgrounds, it just forces you to have a great deal of patience and ability to be adaptable and deal with lots of different personality types.

And I think that has been hugely helpful in working with customers. Um, but I would also say to your point, uh, that education has been helpful. So when I was at Hopkins, um, I studied, uh, health behavior and there are a number of theories around how people decide they're ready to make changes. Um, and there's, you know, the Transtheoretical Model, which is also known as the Stages of Change.

And I think that is great parallel to thinking about how to move the customer through the journey. Like, are they even ready to adopt a new tool? Do they have the tools to be effective? Um, do they have a deliberate intention around maintaining that tool and keeping it, you know, within their business or making sure that the team is using it. And so I think that there's a lot of parallels just around understanding someone's readiness to actually move forward with changing the way that they work. Um, and so I think that that has been critical and incorporating and how we train our customers and communicate with them.

Delian Asparouhov: I mean, is that something that you guys at Airtable actually like pretty actively track, sort of like the customers' readiness, your sophistication with the products, you sort of know, okay, this person is somebody who has already built pretty sophisticated applications, when they're coming in, their questions can be routed to a more expert team versus this is somebody that actually probably needs to get routed more towards like a education team that is going to help teach the person about Airtable. Is that sort of how you guys deliver thinking about sort of, uh, the, you know, gradiate gradations of, you know, customer sophistication.

Shani Taylor: Yeah, we, we definitely think about customer sophistication and less around how we're routing them, but more around the insights and making sure that we're creating an experience that is inclusive for all of our customers. Um, I'd say that the other thing that we take, you know, in consideration is when our CSM team is training our customers or no, facilitating a Lunch & Learn or something like that, we want to make sure that we have accounted for the different types of, um, you know, uh, customers in the room and their different like level of readiness and sophistication. Then we can modulate how we're actually interacting with them. So definitely, it manifests itself in how we're engaging with our customers.

Um, and it is something that we think about, um, as we're building the product and thinking about messaging. We do have these different profiles. I actually say one of the things that, um, you know, I learned early on was just, it's almost not every end user is equal in that way. Where, for us, one of the learnings that was really helpful was just understanding and finding that tinker persona, that tinker who actually had influenced you, because that helps ensure that what they were trying to drive, which was changing the tools that they were using internally would be more successful. And so that has been really helpful, making sure that we have that relationship or at least that persona as part of our contacts within a particular company.

Delian Asparouhov: Was there a point after you started at Airtable where like, it felt like it really clicked, like, you know, this is when you know, it's really, you know, it feels like it's working up into the right, it's going to be like super successful. Um, and like, you know, maybe it's who were some of the early and maybe anchor clients or things like that, where like, when it felt like it was really resonating and with them, we were like, okay, if it's resonating with this customer, like, you know, this is going to be big because like, if they're going to be using it, there are lots of people like them that would use Airtable like this.

Shani Taylor: Yeah. You know, for me, it's always just been about my belief in Airtable and sort of its success has always been influenced by my love of the product. And, and honestly, where I felt like Airtable occupied and sort of from a mission standpoint, the ability for this tool to be picked up and used by anyone, regardless of your technical expertise or background and empower you to be able to drive such a significant amount of change, um, whether it's in your business or in your life.

Um, I think that is what clicked for me. And that's where I felt like, okay, this is going to be exciting and important. Um, I also remember at the offer stage, I was perusing Twitter and I just did a search for Airtable. And I was so excited by just the unsolicited feedback and love that people had been sharing.

And so that got me really excited, even before I joined. But when I think about our earliest customers and our anchor clients that I think really helped us grow and learn, it was much more from a, um, uh, you know, what they were able to teach us standpoint as opposed to like revenue. So one of my earliest customers, when that was Netflix and, you know, they're larger than Airtable is, and being able to understand what Airtable looks like and how it was being used in a much larger company than ours, at the way and sort of level that they've been using it, was hugely helpful for us as we were growing. For example, you know, Airtable today is about 300 employees. We would never understand what it's like to collaborate on a single application in Airtable with a team of 500. And so being able to have that insight from, you know, early customers like Netflix was hugely helpful.

We had such a great relationship where they gave lots of helpful feedback. We would showcase things that we were thinking about with them early and I think that was, was really critical from like a, you know, early customer standpoint.

Delian Asparouhov: And do you know, sort of how it came about that? Like Netflix started to adopt it at such a wide scale? Was it sort of like a pure bottoms up approach that, you know, somebody started discovering the product and they started to use it and then do you have a particular, let's say like favorite use case of something that like Netflix taught you about a way that Airtable either could have been used that you guys sort of incorporated into like the core product strategy?

Shani Taylor: Yeah. So I'm very much a bottoms up, you know, having those individuals as, uh, employees who have an idea about the way that something should be operating or very opinionated about what they expect from their software and just haven't had that before. Um, and it was, you know, an individual who noticed Airtable, which fit the needs that she had established, um, and brought it into the company and it flourished.

Yeah, Netflix uses Airtable for a number of ways, but I think the thing that we were able to learn most, and that has been really critical for our product strategy is just really understanding what it looks like to operate and collaborate at that level and making sure that the product is seamless and, and, you know, for users who are collaborating at scale.

So again, imagining, you know, a single application being used by hundreds of people at the same time.

Delian Asparouhov: Makes sense. Makes sense. And I'm sure that you, uh, you know, have run with it, like a variety of different, let's say, you know, strategies, whether it's, you know, implementing aspects of this, like customer journey, understanding, you know, particular sophistication, how did you sort of, you know, bounce experimenting with sort of like, you know, new strategy and new ways of interacting with customers versus like doubling down and sort of scaling the ones that were sort of like working and like, how did you find sort of the time to do both? Or was it kind of alternating between the two or, um, yeah, I'd love to, I would love to hear about that.

Shani Taylor: Yeah. You know, I think honestly, we're, we're experimenting all the time. Um, and I think, you know, the way that we experiment is not only establishing a new strategy or a new tactic, but how can we also make that new strategy or tactic more effective and more efficient.

And we have an incredible, incredible team that is, um, you know, incredibly smart, has lots of ideas ,and we work very collaboratively. So there are ideas around what to do and experiments that are happening all the time. In terms of how we think about doubling down on an experiment, it's being able to see that it's been repeatable and it's driven similar outcomes.

So one thing that we've been very deliberate around is identifying sort of the power users within a, an account or within a customer, um, customer base, and really trying to kind of, um, work through that, that team as a way to collect feedback and disseminate helpful information, and being able to see that that replicated across a diverse set of accounts is helpful for us to understand, okay, this is something that we might want to incorporate into the way that we're working, as opposed to just have available as an, as a, um, a tactic that we might try with one or two accounts. So in short, I really think it's this constant desire to experiment and then recognizing that something is working for multiple accounts and in wanting to take that forward.

Delian Asparouhov: Can you talk a little bit about, you know, it sounds like you've had a, it'll take you to two different jumps while you've been, uh, at Airtable, uh, you know, one into sort of a more enterprise, it sounds like also, you know, moving cities and, you know, shifting to a different, like certain different segments of the market.

Uh, can you sort of talk about, you know, sort of both those changes and then also maybe, you know, what led you to Austin or, uh, how, how that all came about.

Shani Taylor: Yeah. So, um, I've been in Austin since February, so it's pretty recent. And it was, you know, prior to, prior to moving to Austin, um, I did focus on our enterprise segment.

So those were some of our earliest customers. Um, but we recognize that, you know, Airtable, of course it can be used by a wide, wide variety of, of customers across a number of different industries and, and, um, uh, segments. But there is a real opportunity for a lot of these smaller teams who may not have the ability to have, you know, many, many different tools or they may not have as many resources available to bring to life the processes and applications that need to, you know, need to be built internally to help them execute and sort of achieve their work.

And so the opportunity across the SME and mid market segment, we just recognized this was quite large. Um, not only from a customer base, but also an opportunity for us to really double down and think about how can we still provide a really effective and excellent experience for our customers in the segment, given that it was quite large, we would inherently like, just have to scale.

And so for me, what I was excited about was the opportunity to shift and sort of apply what I had learned being a little bit more, um, uh, involves a higher touch sort of level of service with our enterprise customers and thinking about how we could revamp that, um, our service level for mid-market and SME, but in a way that would enable us to scale.

And so I was, I was specifically excited about the opportunity to come to Austin because it felt like a blank canvas. It felt like the early days at Airtable, again, starting from scratch. Um, but this time doing it in a much more informed way. So when I first joined, of course didn't have a customer success background, but here I'd be able to apply the things that we know were working well for our customer base um, and, and sort of experiment with this new segment.

Delian Asparouhov: And, you know, I feel like one of the benefits of being such an early employee, you get a lot of like, you know, moral credibility, you know, with the, with, you know, future hires. And, you know, especially, so when, you know, sort of setting up a new office, obviously, I assume during COVID, you know, most everyone's sort of been pretty remote, you know, even if they're in Austin, but you talk about sort of like what it's been like to sort of open up a sort of blank canvas.

And how do you feel like you're transferred the values and culture, you know, from the, you know, San Francisco office to Austin sort of what's been effective, what's been maybe more difficult than expected? Uh, both with, let's say like the move and also, I assume being remote during COVID.

Shani Taylor: Yeah. You know, um, we had one, one solid month of being in person with one another and we were working out where we worked before we were getting office space and then moved to a remote, um, only kind of environment. And I think we've had to be just incredibly deliberate about really making sure that, um, you know, new hires who hadn't had a chance to meet anyone in person could feel and sort of understand and embrace the culture of Airtable.

And I think it's not a thing that, you know, the way that I think about culture, it's very much something that it's not always organic. I think you can, you have to be very deliberate and intentional about preserving, sort of building the culture you want. And so that's something that we have done, you know, lots of, uh, activities online, lots of team outings and team events. We are, um, you know, every time a new hire joins, we have, uh, an exercise that basically allows them to share some of their experiences, their interests, um, you know, what gets them excited, um, their background, um, we even have a, like a Austin playlist where everyone gets to add one of their favorite songs.

So a lot of activities where we are really hoping to just make the experience feel a lot more cohesive since, you know, many of us have not even met each other before, aside from just, you know, working on Zoom. Um, and I think in terms of how that translated to working with our customers, they're going through the exact same thing they're having to, um, accelerate their digital transformations, they're having to rethink how they're operating, how their processes were and how they've been operating. Um, and so we've been able to, to be very supportive of that, um, with a, with a platform like Airtable.

Delian Asparouhov: You know, you talked a little bit about, you know, the, the new hires that you bring on. Can you talk about sort of what you think, you know, makes an ideal, let's say, uh, you know, customer success, uh, you know, so a higher, uh, are there particular, you know, uh, you know, behavioral traits or properties that you're looking for, are there also aspects of, you know, somebody that can be great at customer success, but maybe not necessarily a fit for the Airtable type of, let's say customer success or within the Airtable culture, sort of, how do you think about what the ideal sort of archetype looks like for somebody that's joining your team?

Shani Taylor: Yeah. The interesting thing about this is I think over time, that's definitely something that evolves, you know, early on our first, um, uh, CS hires were oftentimes product evangelists. They were users of Airtable. They had  introduced Airtable within their businesses, within their companies. And they were effectively wearing the hat of the customer success manager, wherever they were working.

And so they were, um, product experts. They were just very passionate and very much athletes, you know, because again, the role was broad, you were doing a little bit of everything. Um, and as we've grown and as we've evolved and really established our strategy, that profile has shifted a little bit to, um, you know, candidates and individuals who have had past customer success experience, who were really effective navigating different organizations and building deep relationships with their customers.

But also people who can contribute and sort of bring, um, their experience to helping us expand our practice in the way that we're working. But regardless of the stage that you joined, I think things that are true, um, for the types of CS individuals want to bring on are those who are curious and like have an intense desire to learn more and to tinker and to explore. This is useful, not only from the perspective of you know, understanding what our customers are really looking for and what's driven them to change and to consider a new platform, or even what they're aiming to build and to get out of this partnership. But also Airtable's evolving constantly. And so tinkers, you were ready to get in there and to, you know, create and build, um, so that they're even more informed and more effective for their, for their customers. That's very much the profile that we're looking for.

Delian Asparouhov: And it sounds like the customer support team is sort of starting to specialize over time. You obviously mentioned one set of specialization, which sounds like it's just like customer segment, you know, enterprise to like mid market, which I assume is differentiated by just like level of, you know, hands on and you can sort of be with each customer, but can you talk a little bit more about sort of the different types, the other types of specialization that you guys have gone through and sort of, uh, you know, what each specialty particularly, you know, focuses on and how maybe the different, you know, roles differ.

Shani Taylor: So in addition to, you know, kind of the different segment that exists across the customer success team, we've also spun out the implementation specialist team, as I mentioned earlier. So a team really responsible for figuring out the optimal approach to building solutions in partnership with our customers.

Um, in addition to that, because one of the other hats that CSMs wear early on was extensive amount of training. They were doing all the training. We even hosted webinars. We have created a dedicated team and education team, which actually sits under marketing that is responsible for bringing to life a lot of that live and on demand content through the form of webinars and training videos and snippets and things like that. That's another team that we have, I've actually specialized in sort of spun out of what was the core responsibilities of the customer success team early on.

Delian Asparouhov: I feel like one of the things really neat about working at customer success at a, an enterprise software company versus, you know, let's say, you know, a customer support that somebody's just selling consumer hardware or a door dash, something like that is that you guys actually drive a significant amount of the revenue. Like, you know, most, you know, most customer or most enterprise software companies, you know, only get a small amount of like the ACB and bookings in the upfront. And it's mostly the like negative churn and the growth from customer accounts that leads a lot of the revenue growth.

Can you talk about sort of how that impacts your guys' organization? Do you guys structure yourselves around sort of like, you know, revenue goals and think about that pretty actively as you're sort of working with customers, a lot of it is like sort of, you know, expanding. And, uh, how do you think about, let's say, uh, you know, do you guys have some sort of like commission structure? How do you guys think about the commission structure within the customer success team? Um, yeah. We'd love to hear.

Shani Taylor: Yeah. So for us, it's, it's incredibly important to make sure that our incentives, our team's incentives are aligned to what is actually most important and meaningful to the customer. And so for us, we've actually landed on basically 20 day, like, you know, monthly active usage, essentially.

Um, we believe that that's important to our customer too. They want to make sure that this product, the solution that they're spending money on the purchase that they're getting the value out of it, that their teams are using it and have successfully adopted it. And so that's what drives the customer success team.

Um, that's essentially our harvest metric where we believe that the inputs that we're we're, um, focusing on day in and day out, training and supporting our customers through workflow consultations and, you know, having those regular partnership reviews will lead to that increase in activity. So that's what we're comped on and really focus on as essentially our numbers star.

Delian Asparouhov: And I imagine your team, especially now at a later stage, you know, it nearly sounds like obviously tons of, you know, engineering and, you know, product interactions, but I'm sure now there are many other functions you guys have to work with, you know, uh, you know, finance to determine maybe what the, you know, comp commissions look like, you know, sales for, I assume one seat or somebody who's sort of leading a close to the client, handing them off to you guys, you know, marketing, it sounds like they work with you on the education product, we obviously like talked about. Can you talk a little bit about like the various, you know how those various like partnerships, you know, work and, uh, strategies that you found that are successful across these various organs. And again, I think maybe the most interesting would be, let's say like, you know, finance, sales and marketing we would chat through.

Shani Taylor: Yeah. So I've, I've always seen, um, customer success as like a highly cross functional team for the reasons that you just outlined. You know, we do work very closely with many, many, um, orgs within the company. Um, one thing that's unique about Airtable and the way that our team is structured is that both sales and customer success are under the same umbrella.

Um, so we both roll up into the same leader on our team and we're, I think it's, it's designed to really make sure that we are in lockstep, that we have this very seamless approach to how we're working with our customer. We don't want them to feel like they are having a disjointed experience. And so, um, we have regular, you know, syncs and meetings with our sales colleagues.

We do regular offsites just to make sure that our goals, our incentives and our approaches are aligned as much as possible so that, that is reflected in the relationship that we're, um, managing from a customer standpoint. In marketing, you know, we, uh, I sort of look at it as  it's like this, this feedback loop, you know, a lot of what marketing is doing, brings the customers into the company.

We then manage them. We learn more about the customers, what they're looking for, how they're talking about their successes, how they're talking about their challenges and we're able to feed back that information to marketing. So, you know, I love, and I'd say it's a similar relationship with product too.

Um, things that really make it a successful relationship, I think honestly starts at the company level, knowing that we are all rallied around the customer, that our goal is to really make them successful, to make them competent and capable and sort of how they're approaching and using our platform, knowing that that is sort of true  and it's the mandate across the company. It helps us have a similar conversation. It helps us bring, um, you know, insights and priorities that, um, are for the most part aligned across the team, because they're all rolling up to this broader company goal. So I think an effective partnership really starts with a company mandate that can bring all teams, um, basically rally all teams together.

Delian Asparouhov: Yeah. What advice would you give, let's say to like another early stage, uh, you know, enterprise company, that's looking to make their first, you know, customer success, hire, you know, what do you think, you know, how would you advise a founder and sort of what the ideal candidate looks like? You've talked a little bit about like this athlete being willing to, you know, uh, wear multiple hats, but you know, what do you think somebody should be looking for, especially if they're trying to, you know, hire somebody scrappy or we can't afford somebody that has previous customer support or customer success background they need, they need to go for a broader search.

Shani Taylor: Yeah. You know, I think there's a lot of value in, um, having diverse backgrounds, um, and especially those early hires against someone who can be very adaptable and can jump in, maybe has seen a lot and has had a lot of experiences that they can draw on, um, as they're building from zero to one, essentially.

So I do think it's really important to, um, you know, prioritize that diversity in their background. I think the other thing that is really important that I would recommend is being very thoughtful and deliberate about the hiring process. Like what are you asking candidates to do? What does the structure of your interview loop look like?

And does it really set you up to extract and understand whether the candidates are bringing the qualities that you were looking for that are critical for you in that role? You know, one thing that's really important for us is having candidates or team members who are comfortable with ambiguity, who are ready to dive in and, um, you know, tinker, who are collaborative in their approach.

Um, and we have an exercise that, um, is technical in nature and it's essentially helping having the candidate make the assets, essentially to have the candidate use Airtable um, to set up an integration. And oftentimes we expect that they've never done this before, but it's less about "Are they able to do it correctly?"

It's more about being able to see how do they talk through what they're attempting to do. Do they, you know, have this disposition or this predisposition to partner with us to try to collaborate, to get to the end answer. Um, and if they don't get it right, how do they respond to that? And I've actually had a candidate who didn't get it right, had a great disposition, didn't get it right, was super excited about the exercise, flew back home to New York and emailed me the next day and said, "I tried it again. I figured it out. I'm so excited." That's what we want to see, that perseverance. And so I would really impress upon the Founders to be very thoughtful about what that loop looks like, and what's being asked in the hiring process to make sure it's going to help yield insights into what they want from that first hire.

Delian Asparouhov: I absolutely love that. Um, I'm sure there are times where, you know, maybe even with like Netflix or some of these, like, you know, early, like anchor clients that you, you know, you learned a lot from, uh, where there was a use case that they sort of like wanted, you know, implemented, or they maybe, you know, wanted customer successes time more than was expected or the, you know, product to implement something.

And it just felt like it was too much of an ask and you guys had to like, sort of decline it. Like when did you guys sort of decide on those trade offs? How did you decide sort of which, you know, customer needs to go satisfy versus which ones were too maybe custom or extraneous or not in the corporate strategy?

Like how did you sort of balance when to say no, versus when to say yes to a customer's needs?

Shani Taylor: Yeah. So, so the, the beauty of the product is that a lot is really possible in Airtable. And so, um, oftentimes one of the biggest, uh, opportunities for us is really just helping the customer understand that what they're looking for is achievable and doable in the product.

And so in many instances, not all, but in many instances, it's often an education gap. And so our CSM team is a clip to really support our customers through that. Of course, there are instances where, what they're looking for, it might require, you know, technical or development resources that they don't have on their side.

And, you know, we might not be able to, um, offer in depth, but we do have teams that are available that we can pull from. For example, one of the teams that we've um, you know, introduced maybe two or three years ago is a Customer Solutions Engineering team, which allows us to serve a little bit as the gap for customers who just don't have the dev resources internally.

And while we'll not, we're not always able to really build for them, and again, we typically take a stance of wanting to avoid building for, because we really want to invite our customers into the process and make them comfortable using the tool, so we really want to take approach that's education first.

Um, but we do get to partner with them and fill that gap. Um, the other thing that we're, you know, the way that we approach some of those questions is really understanding, you know, why they're not able to achieve what they're looking for today. And that is really helpful for us, um, on our product engineering team, because we're constantly looking for ways to make sure that our customers understand how to use the tool to achieve those goals. So again, it's, it's an education gap sometimes and onboarding gaps. Um, so that information is useful to take in. There have been instances in the past where we have done some custom work. And I think again, another example of doing some of the unscalable stuff, you can't do it for every customer, but if there's an opportunity for us to learn and, you know, um, and incorporate that into what we're doing, there are instances where we want to take that. So early on, there was a customer that wanted to have, um, and, uh, integrate or wanted to have the ability to push content directly from Airtable to social media. And this was a few years ago, this was before we even rolled out Apps, the platform that we've recently launched.

And I think a lot of the learnings from that experience suddenly built in partnership with the customer, but understanding the need and just the challenge that existed for that customer and why they needed that was useful as we, um, you know, built out that for that native functionality to actually be able to use an Airtable app, to push from the platform to the social.

So in short, I think part of it is also recognizing what the learning opportunity is. And can we benefit in a way that we could then sort of, um, disseminate that learning to our broader customer base?

Delian Asparouhov: And do you think that's an example of maybe one of the more impactful, uh, projects that the customer solutions engineering team sort of worked on as a custom basis, but then ended up, uh, actually being, you know, pretty impactful to the product? I mean like, yeah, your guys sort of, quote unquote, app store that Airtable has now, um, is a pretty significant aspect as to like why people really love the product. Like, do you think that's sort of whether it was impactful or do you have others that you can share that are sort of examples of the side of, you know, custom one off projects, but that are actually ended up yet really leading to, you know, big changes in Airtables, you know, product.

Shani Taylor: I think that's, I think that's one, you know, I think it's, um, that was, uh, work done by our product and engineering team. And I think that was actually, um, part of the broader vision. So it was a great opportunity to see this being requested by a customer. And it was so essential to their business that they were willing to go above and beyond and, you know, pay extra for custom work.

Um, I think having that understanding of just how core to our customers' workflows, that, that kind of functionality would be just, I think, um, it very much connected to the broader vision of what we were expecting from Apps and how it can really be valuable to our customer base.

Delian Asparouhov: It sounds like both, you know, customer success and sales roll up into a single leader, which sounds like it keeps you guys aligned, but I'm curious, how do you guys balance the tension between, you know, I imagine you guys are comped on, like you said, monthly active users, which probably just incentivizes you to really focus on the organizations that are already successful because I imagine each additional monthly active user, uh, bringing them on and onboarding them at a place like Netflix is probably significantly easier uh, than the early days of a customer, that's only just getting started. In each individual user, uh, is probably somewhat not painful per se, but yeah, requires a lot of education and you're starting to understand the use case versus at Netflix, like, "Hey, there's already this thing working and you just like, you know, plug them in."

Um, and so how do you guys balance sort of, you know, deepening the relationship with preexisting companies, uh, as opposed to sort of, you know, beginning and fostering the relationship, sort of like new customers that might not be as easy to bring on or as easy to get as many monthly active users.

Shani Taylor: Yeah, you know, it's important for us. So it's less about just the absolute, you know, terms of monthly active users. We also want to look at it as a proportion of the number of seats that that customer paid for. Um, we really want to make sure that their investment in Airtable and this partnership is maximized. And so even if it's a brand new customer, um, what's most important to us is that the customer succeeds and so, uh, we would never, you know, um, we would look at that opportunity of a new customer as exactly what we want to be able to do, which is deliver the best experience for them, make sure that they're, they understand how to use Airtable and are getting the most value out of the product. So in addition to just thinking about like ensuring our actives, you know, stays up because it does align to what our customers are looking for, we also want to make sure that there is no gap between the actives relative to however many seats, they initially contracted.

Delian Asparouhov: And if you were to go back in time, let's say five years ago before you really got into like the world of, uh, you know, startups, uh, and, uh, in particular Airtable, uh, what advice sort of, would you give to, you know, maybe somebody that's, you know, in a similar set of shoes of, you know, has a great educational background, uh, it doesn't know anything about the world of startups and like, who wants to get into it. How do they end up landing, you know, sort of a position like yours, where they get to, you know, join a rocket ship company, uh, early on and get to, you know, learn so much about, uh, you know, completely, uh, in a new skillset that they maybe never had before.

Shani Taylor: You know, I think there was something to be said about, um, you know, really following a product that excited me. Um, you know, when I first learned about Airtable, I was in a moment where I needed it. I remember I went to undergrad with our co founders and I saw our CTO, our now CTO, um, uh, tweeted about Airtable raising their Series A and it was like serendipity that I was here.

Here I was, you know, managing this process that can really benefit from a tool like Airtable. And I saw it and I signed up right away and I really enjoyed the product. And for me, it was following the product, following something that actually had an impact in my own personal life, in my own world. Um, I think, especially for something like customer success or being on a customer facing team at a product led company, it's going to be important to have that passion about the product that you're selling or that you're promoting, um, have that, uh, you know, your own personal stories as to how it has been impactful for you, because I think you're learning everything else on the job, regardless of if you have experience in that domain or not.

But being able to, um, you know, feel that affinity towards the product. And I feel like it energizes me. It's what gets me excited about coming to work every day, because of how much, um, I feel aligned to what our mission is overall. And so I would say for individuals who are looking for their next opportunity, you know, follow what interest you, and I think you will land on something that, um, you'll be excited and passionate about and ready to go build with longterm.

Delian Asparouhov: Well, Shani, thank you so much for coming onto the podcast today. I really appreciate your time.

Shani Taylor: Well, thank you for having me.

Delian Asparouhov: Thanks for listening everyone. If you'd like to support the podcast, please sign up for a paid Substack subscription, which we use to pay for transcripts, mics and other improvements. If you have any comments or feedback on what kinds of questions I should ask, who should come on the show or anything else, please do let me know. Have a great rest of your day.

Operators Ep 12: Thomas Dimson (ex-Instagram)

Podcast audio here: https://delian.substack.com/p/operators-ep-12-thomas-dimson-ex

Thomas Dimson was the former Director of Engineering at Instagram. Thomas joined as one of the first 50 employees and the 16th engineer there. During his time at Instagram he developed prominent features such as the polling sticker in stories, hyperlapse, emojineering, and authored the feed algorithm. He left Instagram in February of this year and is currently working on a new project. 

In this episode we talk about the origin and rationale of the algorithmic feed, why he advocated for the Instagram engineering team to not share Facebook’s office but rather have their own space, and the story behind polling stickers. He also shares his claim to fame feature on Kindle, why he considers himself a generalist, and his passion for building things, which ultimately led to his decision to move on from Instagram.

I hope you enjoy the show.

Operators Ep 12: Thomas Dimson (ex-Instagram)

  
0:00
-48:31

Thomas Dimson was the former Director of Engineering at Instagram. Thomas joined as one of the first 50 employees and the 16th engineer there. During his time at Instagram he developed prominent features such as the polling sticker in stories, hyperlapse, emojineering, and authored the feed algorithm. He left Instagram in February of this year and is currently working on a new project. 

In this episode we talk about the origin and rationale of the algorithmic feed, why he advocated for the Instagram engineering team to not share Facebook’s office but rather have their own space, and the story behind polling stickers. He also shares his claim to fame feature on Kindle, why he considers himself a generalist, and his passion for building things, which ultimately led to his decision to move on from Instagram.

I hope you enjoy the show.

Full Transcript Available

Operators Ep 12 Transcript

TRANSCRIPT Thomas Dimson (ex-Instagram)

Delian:  Hi, everyone. My name is Delian. And I'm a principal at Founders Fund, a venture capital firm based in San Francisco. This is Operators where I interview non-VC, non-CEO, non-founder operators that make the start up world go around. Today, I'm interviewing Thomas Dimson, former director of Engineering at Instagram.

Thomas joined as one of the first 50 employees and the 16th engineer there. During his time at Instagram, he developed prominent features, such as the polling sticker on Instagram stories, hyperlapse, emojineering and author of algorithmic feed. He left Instagram in February of this year, and is currently working on a new project. I hope you enjoy the show. Cool. Thomas, thanks so much for taking time to hop on the podcast today. Excited to, chat some of the things that you've worked on.

Thomas:  Yeah. [laughs] excited to be here.

Delian:  Maybe, if you like to, take it back a little bit. you used to, study, computer science, at, Waterloo, and then later on, got a sort of master's degree, at Stanford. maybe, walk us through what got you excited about, computer science, originally. how you got into this whole field?

Thomas:  Yeah. I think it's been part of my entire life. I started actually maybe when I was 12 or 13 building half-Life modifications, which, was more involved I think than, maybe it is even now. So you have to, learn C++ figured out all these weird, esoteric KPIs that were in there, and, play around a lot. so a friend of mine built some mods together and, released them online.

And I always had that interest. I think the interest was more about product interest, it's like, "Hey, I wanna see something cool. I don't wanna play with my friends." and see as I was amazed to do that. and then when I- I got to school at Waterloo, I was, I was reluctant to go into it, but then I got, I- I joined, Waterloo in the math department, and it's very connected to the c- to computer science. And then I got my assed kicked in my early classes, which was, like, good for me because I was like, "Actually, I don't know everything," and I went back there [laughs].

Delian:  [laughs] When do you think Half-Life 3 is gonna come out?

Thomas:  Half-Life 3, man, we've gotten like a- a surprise with this VR, Half-Life: Alyx. I was [laughs] excited to see that. I played through it. It's a ... Yeah, I think it's probably the best VR experience I've had. ...

Delian:  [laughs] Very cool. and so your first co- ... let's say, professional, work was an internship at Bloomberg. what did you end up interning in while you're there? W- ... did you have a good experience there? And how did it end up influencing, future career decisions that you made?

Thomas:  Yeah. I don't know. It's like interesting. So that was my first ... At Waterloo, you do, six internships, at least in my program. Th- they're mandatory, so you alternate school and work. Bloomberg was one of those ... it was my first s- step into the US. so I think it was a good ... It was good for that. part of it, I think it was more of a culture experience than anything.

I also joined Bloomberg, during the financial crisis, actually just as [inaudible 00:03:08] was breaking. [laughs] interesting being behind the scenes of what's going on there. I had no awareness of what was happening. Honestly, like I saw Bear Stearns collapse and people were like, "You're gonna remember this." And I was like, "Oh, yeah. Sure, whatever." [laughs] "I'll just continue programming." and we are building like an attribution and risk management stuff. So very related although, like, all those models completely failed. yeah.

Delian:  And so then, your next couple of, ... I believe you guys call them, externships were, at Amazon. And then you, I think, went to, Amazon after- after, graduating. What sort of drew you to the company ... why- why did you end up deciding to, go there, and how- how is that experience?

Thomas:  I honestly can't tell you what drew- drew me to Amazon. I think ... A- at Waterloo, you just have a list of all these companies you can apply to. And I applied to a bunch of them. I got jobs, but most of them ... And, the job at Amazon I think said something about learning machines, which I was like, "I wonder if that's machine learning?" [laughs], but it was ... So I'm like, "Ah, it sounds interesting." Okay, ass- assuming it's a four months commitment. So I jumped on that and then ...

Actually the team was much more interesting than I- I had even imagined, because it was way involved with the early Kindle. And so Kindle was this new platform, and, we were a little bit behind the scenes of, what can we do with the data from this platform? and so my internship project was this ... it actually still exists. It's these little popular highlights. I don't know if you've ever read a Kindle book. yeah, it's got these little underlines under there, and that was like my claim to fame, 'Cause it was like, "Hey, we've gotten all these, this data about highlights that is like clunky. Can you make this into some product?" And I was like, "All right."

and it was a good enough experience. Liked the team, I had a great, ... I think Amazon gets a bad reputation in the industry sometimes, but I had a great experience there. No problems. And so I was like, "Yeah, I'll go back." and went there full-time.

Delian:  Yeah. I've definitely- definitely use that product on the Kindle. super cool to h- hear that you built it. and so from leaving Amazon, you then added an interesting sort of, you'd say, journey from, leaving Amazon to, Stanford, to ... it sounds like a startup, acquired into Instagram. Can you just walked through, that whole journey to glory? How the hell that all happened and how you eventually ended up [crosstalk 00:05:18]?

Thomas:  Honestly, sometimes I get lost myself. I joined Amazon. I was working there on the same team for quite a while. it was a great team and I was excited to be there, but I think I just had an epiphany, and it was like in a coffee shop. And it was, ... I overheard some conversation about mathematics, which is what I studied in addition to computer science. And I was just like, "I need to go to grad school. Like I, I'm just not ..." I could probably be an Amazon for the rest of my life and have a very comfortable life, but it's not really being true to myself. I rather would learn something new.

and so I applied to Stanford, for a master's, which is like a two-year program. It's mostly coursework based, but, got in and it's "Okay, I guess I'll go to Stanford." [laughs] I- I ... being Canadian, and I, I've obviously heard of Stanford, but it wasn't like so ingrained in me. It wasn't something I would have ever considered applying to for undergrad.

so yeah, I went down there, studied AI, which was just as ... it was slightly before deep learning, but like right- right in there. and was most interested in natural language processing because of this Kindle interest. and then, I guess I met a friend of mine from undergraduate f- for beer, and he's "Hey, you wanna ..." he's, Ivan Karpenko. But he's ... He had these two brothers and himself were forming a company. the amazing Karpenko brothers, we used to call them.

And he's "You wanna meet my brothers?" And I said, "Sure. Okay." And I met the brothers and I was like, "These are the smartest people I've ever met in my entire life." [laughs] And so I was doing my masters. I was like, "I'll just work part-time for these guys." they were making video stabilization for the iPhone. And the product that they had was using, measurements from the, gyroscope, which just made it, cinematic quality. I was like, "Okay, yeah, for sure, I don't care what they're doing, I just want to be around these people." 

Delian: And so the company got acquired into Instagram and Instagram at the time had already been acquired by Facebook. 

Thomas: Y- yeah.

Delian:  So you [crosstalk 00:07:18] acquired by the big behemoth at that point.

Thomas:  Yeah. It's ... it's I don't know, like a big fish eating a little fish, eating like a minnow or something like that. So it- it was acquired about a week before I started there, to be honest with you. And then, so this- this company, which was called Midnox, they made a product called Luma. it was a YC company. And they were acquired right- right at, ... yeah, just at the time that Instagram was launching video, which is about six months after the acquisition by Facebook.

And I was still doing my masters. I was midway through it and I was like, "Okay, I guess I'll just go along for this. I have no idea where this is going to lead." so this seems super silly in retrospect, but I was like ... honestly, I didn't think much about Instagram. I was like, "Yeah, it's cool product, Let's see what that's all about." and at the time, Instagram was 40 people.

So again, in retrospect, I was like ... I should've just been ... had the attitude of a rocket ship that I- I would have just grabbed onto and hang on, but I just thought ... didn't take much. I came there and they gave me the option of either being an intern or quitting to return to studies in three months. I chose three months quitting option, and then after, after that summer ended, they were like, "Okay, you can just stay along part-time and continue working. So finished my masters and continued working there.

Delian:  Nice. yeah. What was it like, when you first joined? What were some of the early you know projects that took on a while- while you were there?

Thomas:  It was a weird time. and again, in retrospect, like Instagram had 40-ish people, and it already had more than 150 million users. And so when you think about that kind of ratio, it's there are very few companies that have that. and so I didn't ... again, no awareness at the time ,just felt "Okay, sure. I'm just an intern at some company." But like that level of influence is it's pretty unique to Silicon Valley, I'd say.

and the company, it was small, everything was on fire. We were still in AWS. It was still very isolated from Facebook. and so a lot of my time was just spent, fixing servers. our deployment process was a mess. It was just like everything that you would think would be fixed by a hundred million users was not fixed.

And, I remember even ... My first diff was reviewed by Mike Krieger. And I Googled his name and was like, "Why the hell was the co-founder of Instagram reviewing my diff. That's crazy." [laughs] Like ... yeah. So pretty hectic time. I guess I had a machine learning background because of my schooling. And so I was able to, look for projects and that kind of area, everything was horizontal. It wasn't like anything was organized into divisions or anything like that. So it was a good chance to play. ... Yeah

Delian:  It sounds like one of your, most impactful projects was like the, algorithmic feed, project. Was it primarily because of your, machine learning that they asked you to go tackle That? How did that sort of project come about and shift? and it's feels like it's been obviously one of the most meaningful, changes to the core Instagram product.

Thomas:  Yeah, a little controversial, [laughs]. But, ... Yeah. that was like actually a little bit later, later on, but, I had worked on an explorer pro- the Explorer project for Instagram, which was just like the second tab, which just showed you cool shit on the platform. which made sense and was pretty successful, especially relative to what was there before, which was this like popular page. [crosstalk 00:10:46].

Delian:  And how do you, define ... How ... Did you just define success was basically just like engagement on that, tab, time spent on it?

Thomas:  [laughs] so part of being early in those companies is you, barely measure anything and like measurement is a challenge. that was fortunately a pretty unambiguous product. We ran a small test, ninjad this thing. It wasn't very announced, by a personalized explore tab. and there is no metrics that were particularly down. It was some, ridiculous number of ... even just engagement with the tab or coming back to the tab, that kind of thing, it was just like ... it was off the charts. The P value rounded to zero and all the experiments were like, "Okay. Sure, this is, good news."

and then feed was a little bit later on. It was actually in New York, we were looking for a project. We just moved out there, and the company ... we had a company or had a- an office of maybe five engineers. and wandering around in circles, not sure what we were supposed to do. And there was this ... It was in the air. People would always talk about Instagram having an algorithmic feed, because Facebook did, and it was pretty successful for them.

And I was just like, "Okay, let's just fucking do it." like [laughs] ... it's- it's been talked about, it's inevitable that I think we're going to try it at some point and I'd rather this be done right than be done wrong." And so we just ... we- we went for it. And so that was like the origin at least of that, project.

Delian:  And for both the projects, let's say, walk through how you went about solving them. was it mostly like academic problem of, "Okay, what are the various signals that we're going to read into so that we can feed this into some neural net and figure out basically, how- how to recommend?" or was it like, "Hey, we're actually going to use like, super- super simple, ML, and it's mostly figuring out the, systems engineering, like, how to scale this, so that you can like generate, algorithmic, recommendations for, again, 15 million, different users with different habits"?

Thomas:  Yeah.

Delian:  Like, how did- how did ... walk me through just like the step by step of the architecture of what types of, engineers you needed and how you solve those problems?

Thomas:  [laughs] it's, it's a little bit of everything. certainly, I think if I was more ... I think when you're in these things, you just don't realize what you're doing in a sense you're like really just ingrained and you ... It felt like we could tackle these- these problems, even though now, in retrospect, it's that's kinda crazy, At the time we were doing feed ranking, I think it was something like 500 million people on the platform. and we were just a small group of engineers. I don't think it was technically motivated. And I think that's- that's something I've always taken. it's not the idea of "Hey, this is a cool technical challenge, let's go after it." The ... It's more of "There's a product issue here and what does it ... what needs to be solved." And particularly or, let's just pick our feed 'cause I don't think people always talk about motivations and stuff. It's just the network had ...

the motivation was that you ... when you went to Instagram, you would miss some of your feed 'cause ... when you scroll down and see everything. And over time, there were more and more people that posted, and there were some people that posted their regular amount, maybe one a day or something like that. And the people that posted more and more often started to dominate your feed more and more.

And so we're like, "Okay, we need to somehow fix this challenge and the product." and there are a couple of solutions that are not algorithmic feed, but the algorithmic feed one is like probably the one that works where you say, "Okay, instead of keeping this in a stable order, we're going to bring up the stuff that you would actually enjoy from the post that you otherwise would've missed."

And so that's like your product motivation, now you actually go out and solve that while you try to figure out a way of modeling the users so that you try to see what they would actually want to see in their feed. what would they want to ... not want to miss? And that tends to go towards these things that you can model, different engagement things that you can do, to model with whatever machine learning things you- you can.

And, yeah, the models, they're interesting. We can go deep into what these [inaudible 00:14:48] and stuff like that are. But I think it's much more interesting to think of this as "What are they solving and what are we actually trying to do?" Which is make the product better, 

Delian: And I feel like you're an example o- ... I've heard this from others that Instagram, of someone that was able to, have pretty meaningful impact on the product, both from this explore page and, algorithmic ranking of feed, despite not necessarily, being the person that like tried to, have as much head count reporting directly to them.

Thomas:  [laughs] Yeah.

Delian:  can you talk about was that intentional or was it more just this is the type of style of work that I like to have? and then what do you think let's say, e- enabled you to do if somebody else were listening to the podcast and, is an IC at a company, but like really wants to have meaningful changes without necessarily, having people report to them, w- what- what's your recommendation for how they go about doing so?

Thomas:  Yeah. You could do it. I think it's m- mostly, it's a bit of a personality type for me, I'm definitely a generalist, and I like my scratch my itch in interests. And generally, that means that I go very deep into something, and then I snap back and hop on to something else. I think that, just like having some interface and having the ability to actually change the product, and, ...

in some ways, engineers are really the best people to actually consider what the issues are in the product and how to solve them. And then the question that I think sometimes comes up at these big companies is like, "You have no opportunity to actually, show people what you're doing or make a product argument."

and so I think I was just loud and annoying. And usually the way I would do this is I would just build it. if I thought something should be built, I would built it ... build it, show it to people and be like, "Okay, it's already built. Is this something we should do or is it not something we should do?" And at that point it was pretty usually unambiguous. there were certainly things I felt they kinda sucked, and the answer was no, but, there was, I think, more often than not, I had like actually had success there.

Delian:  Do you have a favorite project that, you had sucked, that didn't quite make it as a product?

Thomas:  [laughs] boy. i- I remember I wrote something down and I was like, "What was the worst project I ever worked on?" And I guess maybe one thing that I- I ... This has shown up in Instagram over and over again. I won't to say it just une- unequivocally sucked, but one thing we- we've built so many iterations of the Instagram explore tab at this point. So V1 was the popular page, V-2 was the ... the V1.1 was personalization.

There was this lost product we had called Explorer V2, which was this, ... the idea ... I can make a sane product argument for it. It might sound good, maybe. Which is, as we did more personalization, there was less shared context. And so we really wanted to integrate, more- more of a sense of culture, more of a sense of Zeitgeist into the explore tab.

How do you do that? we were going to introduce trending hashtags. So it's like the cultural zeitgeist of the day and, editorial content in Explorer. So things that we decided, this is what everybody should see. so that- that sounds good. except when your platform is 500 million users, and there's no way editorial content scales [laughs] to people's tastes and trending is a hot mess that you need to clean up all the time.

And, it w- it was out there for- for quite a while, but o- over time, what we discovered, just it's hard to be what you're interested in what we're trying to imply, modeling your behavior. And that was probably one of the more difficult projects that were ... we worked on. And plus we were interfacing with editors, content editors that worked at previously news companies. And so that was just like ... It was definitely [laughs] a culture clash to say the least. so it was kinda interesting. Yeah, that's probably my- my example of a failure. There might be other ones too, but, yeah.

Delian:  You talked a little bit earlier about, starting the New York office and having, a five person engineering team there. can you walk through ... you said that you don't necessarily love going into like management, but obviously, like starting a new office and hiring engineers, that there as ... the world [inaudible 00:18:56].

Thomas:  [laughs].

Delian:  I- I imagine there were also challenges of being a ... I think you guys were one of the, the first remote engineering offices that had, multiple people.

Thomas:  Yup.

Delian:  what was the process like? Anything that you'd do differently, now ... if you were ... your new thing, let's day, I start, new remote engineering office?

Thomas:  Yeah. I- I think it went, so in retrospect, very well. it was the first remote engineering office for Instagram. I think there's a theme that's emerging in this conversation, which is just I don't think we realized at the time, why it would be successful. It wasn't intentional. it wasn't like, "Hey, we planned for this to work exactly right.

I had always signaled that I'd be interested in working in New York 'cause I like the city. and I signaled to this probably three months into my career there, but over time, and I would bring it up periodically and, it's just it took maybe two or three years, but eventually, the stars aligned where it was like, "Hey, the Bay area is getting expensive to hire."

There was encouragement from, big brother Facebook to actually hire outside of, Bay area. And so since I had already signaled my interest, it was like a natural fit. And plus, I had, the cultural context of Instagram. in terms of decisions that we made a very controversial decision at the time, which was ... So Instagram and Facebook were in the same office, office campus, whatever you wanna call it in, in Menlo park. And, I felt it was really important as we were getting started to actually pick our own space and not be in the same office.

I think it was more of just "Hey, we want to nurture something here and, it might be really distracting." Plus the desks that we were offered were, like, next to recruiting, and it was going to be very loud. and so we went off with, myself and then one other engineer, to just sit around and see what we can come up with. and so the separate office, we started hiring people.

And I think, the big inflection point is like, while we started working on this feed ranking, and that's a pretty big effort. And so we had the right mix of, we had our- our separate culture that was being nurtured in- in this office. We had camaraderie and everything like that. We had the people with the cu- cultural context from Menlo park, which is like myself and some engineer, Lindsey. And, then we had a very important project, which is often a mistake that people make with remote offices is that it's considered like an afterthought or "Oh yeah, we've put, something that's maybe not business critical there because the chance of failure is very high."

And so those three things made it so that we were important. We were recognized we had the cultural context from Menlo park and we had the awareness. and we also just grew, we were like a kind of a family as it was evolving. eventually, when we merged back into the main Facebook office ... but at that point, probably were about 200 people, 150 people at that point, it was ... we had already built our culture and it was like a st- strong foundation. So I- I think it went really well. it could have either ... lots of things could have gone wrong, not even starting feed ranking or something like that. it was ... It wasn't obvious that was going to happen, I'd say. ... Yeah.

Delian:  Yeah, Imagine just even the process of convincing, the execs of Instagram that, such an important product change, would be like run by a remote engineering team. seems like a sort of Herculean effort. Like-

Thomas:  [laughs].

Delian:  [inaudible 00:22:23] over the line or is it one of these things where you just, went and built and said, "Look, we're the remote team and we built this, and this is going to be good. And we need to like, run this ... ha- ... Wha- what was the process for convincing them?

Thomas:  yeah, I don't think it was as controversial as that. I had a very good relationship with Kevin and Mike, the founders of Instagram. We were very tight. and so I don't think it was like ... because it was my sponsorship, plus we had the ... we were ... we had a big team that was ... not big, but a s- small team that was ready to go on this. it seemed like a natural fit. Plus it was like the type of thing, this attitude of just like doing it and then being like, "Hey, we built this thing. Do you want it?"

it wasn't exactly like that, but it was closer to that and, a big top down product change. It was like more or less, we had some infrastructure that we had built from the explore tab and "Hey, we can probably just apply this. We should see if this works or not." and so it- it just naturally evolved like that.

but I think it was the ... it was a good decision by them to let that happen. I don't know. It probably would have been more damaging for them to pull it away from us. I think that would have been, demoralizing and I think it was the right decision in the long run for the company too. ...

Delian:  you also had a ton of like side projects that ended up, I think having a decent amount of success from probably my favorite, the polling buttons on stories.

Thomas:  [laughs]

Delian:  Like I remember specifically [inaudible 00:23:41] being like, "They should have had this, forever," to hyperlapse videos and emojineering. you ... how did those ideas end up, coming up? What was the response from colleagues when you sorta suggested them or wanted to try to roll them out? and how do you think, engineering cultures can encourage that type of, experimentation?

Thomas:  Yeah. I think it goes back to that thing we were talking about, just having, having an ... a forum that engineers on the ground can actually interface with product managers, product leaders, executives. for us, it was like hackathons. And I was very .... I ran most the hackathons in New York, started that kind of culture and actually made it like a thing.

sometimes hackathons, especially now, are I will say, they're not in the forefront of anyone's mind [laughing]. but, I was very adamant that we actually produce products in those things. And so my personality is m- like, when I see an opportunity that I really think should exist, I make it happen. I'll go through polling stickers 'cause I think it's probably the most interesting story there. Maybe hyperlapse was also was initially started.

But like polling stickers in particular, we were working on feed ranking, and stories, had just come out maybe a year prior, half year. And, I liked a lot about stories, but one thing that always bothered me was that when you post, your post goes out to the ether. So- so you can post, I don't know, does anyone see it? Yeah, maybe we can go and check, but you don't get notifications, you don't get any feedback. It's just it's like casting a bottle into the ocean or something. Throw a bottle in the ocean and maybe somebody reads it, maybe somebody doesn't.

and I knew that from feed ranking that actually that signal of engagement, the like button is actually quite important. Not even from a machine learning perspective, but just like a person giving a like really enjoys giving that it's "Hey, I signal that I'm interested in this person receiving it," and it's "Hey, my audience is really engaging with this and they like this particular post."

And so I was ... always felt that we should have something similar into stories bothering me. at some, at- at some point I was talking to one of our data scientists and she was mentioning that she had this crazy idea for a tamagotchi sticker, where you like nurture a pet on your story. And I was like, "That is a crazy idea. It's probably the craziest idea I've ever heard." wait a minute, if we had op- ... the sticker idea was a- a light bulb. I was like, the problem with likes is they're obligat- obligatory, and, it can get, like a really negative feedback loop. But if you're opting into it, if you're like, "Hey, I want to post this on my story. I want you to engage with it," that's a much more healthy way of doing that.

And so I hacked together, like with a small team that I ... the people that I work with a like sticker, for stories. And we- we tried it out, presented it to different execs and stuff like that. And it was cool, but what was interesting is that you could put multiple likes stickers. And what was quickly evolving was like, "Oh, actually the interesting way of doing this is to put one like sticker over here, one like snicker over here and you'd choose between two parts of the photo. And so I was like, "Oh, actually we should build a poll. That makes sense." [laughs]

And, yeah, so that's kinda like how that- that evolved. It was not particularly linear and I don't think people really anticipated the amount of success that it actually had. It was pretty significant for the business, and it opened a new domain of stories as well.

Delian:  And ... Yeah. so what ... when did you know that it was going to have success? How did that end up actually impacting people's usage of stories? What we're the- the future, let's say, iterations or things that kind of came out of that?

Thomas:  I'm ... It's I have- have to say, I- I hope for the best, but I kind of plan for the worst. And so I, never anticipated it being more than like a curiosity, scratch my own itch. and so other people were telling me, it- it's going to be big. but I've heard that before. And sometimes it's not big, sometimes it is big.

so really it was just a march day. We like, put it out there and it was a meaningful impact on people's creation habits. And I was like, "Okay, this is like a product that's resonating with people." And, the future iterations were obvious. It was like, we've just opened a new domain of interactive- interactivity into this platform, which is something that hadn't really existed in the format on Snapchat or on Instagram.

And so it was, what can we do with that? we can do anything really, voting is the- the star point, but there's you could do comments, you could do slidey stickers, you could do all kinds of crazy things. And the great thing is because they are stickers, it's not that much of a product commitment; it's much more flexible. and so that's ... That ... a lot of things, it was like, that was the- the starting point. And then I took myself out of that and there's like teams that were working on it from ... to- to develop it from there. And I- I think it was great. Yeah.

Delian:  I can see why, ... In a situation like that, I feel like sometimes people want to ride that wave, and they're like, "I want to become like the VP of stickers and like [inaudible 00:28:41]-

Thomas:  [laughs]

Delian:  ... engineering team, and, experiment with all the various, potential like interactive stickers. what, what makes you want to just be like, "Okay, I'm going to, le- leave this and go on to the- the next sort of experiment or thing"?

Thomas:  I think it's just a ... Yes. I think if I was motivated by, being a longterm career company person, maybe that's when I found THE success, I'd be like, "I may stick to this," but not. I just wanted to build cool things, and they were interesting to people and resonated with people. and I know myself enough to know that I'm much better in an early stage than I am in a later stage. and I can be a specialist. It's ... I'm capable, but I think it drives me crazy, and I get de-motivated by it. And so it's very clear in that case.

I think it's ... I was in a, in many ways, fortunate position 'cause I've been with the company for so long, I'd grown up with the company. I felt the reputation there that I had the flexibility to jump around and people not really questioned what I was doing. and so I just exploited that ... the ability to do that and fool around with things. Yeah.

Delian:  You mentioned like one of the important things of, Instagram's culture, or generally places that, experiment quickly, move, ship out new products is like engineers being able to like access ... engineers on the ground being able to access the exec team and founders.

Like how do you think ... w- what do you think like Kevin and the founders did to facilitate ... were there ... Was- was it just like having these hackathons? Was it just being like super open to having individual engineers pitch product ideas and setting aside time for that? what were the aspects of the culture that you think enabled, some of these, let's say features that you- you talked about?

Thomas:  Yeah, i- it evolved over time. when you're small, everybody knows each other, you can just fool around. And, I think the ability ... there's some things that are at even Facebook broader culture, like the ability to, work on the main line of the code- code branch and actually code up features that are not, deployed to everyone and be able to show people like, "Hey, here's what I built." Or even better, 'cause it's a social network, you have your friends that are working with you. And you build it, and then you say, "Try this thing out."

so it's like more of a grassroots kind of effort. I don't know. Kevin and Mike, like Mike was always very hands on and very respected by the engineering team. And he was that voice in upper, management, whatever you want to call it, speaking for engineers and had the respect of us. And I think he was like a very, inspiring figure to a lot of people that, hey, you can actually get to that point and really have an eye to the ground and be grassroots. And so I think just him being present there was a big motivator for people.

and then honestly, I was adamant about creating that hackathon culture 'cause I knew it worked for me. we didn't talk about hyperlapse very much, but it's ... I spent like a year trying to get that thing shipped, grinding gears with lots of people in the meantime. And really the last thing that I think we got over the edge was like, "Let's just make it into a product that a hackathon and make it a huge forum that everybody looks at it and gets excited about it, and then it will be very obvious that this thing needs to get out the door."

and so I think having that form is just, it's just important and not underestimating engineers in terms of I think you can get pigeonholed into other ... the coders that pick up features and, move them over. I'll say one more thing just briefly is, I also think you can go the o- opposite direction where sometimes engineers believe that every idea that they have is great.

The truth is that getting from an idea to a product is incredibly challenging. N- nevermind a successful product, but like a product in general. and you shouldn't underestimate the amount of work and- and sometimes stupid work. Like stupid work in the sense of you see something in your head and you're like, "This needs to exist," You need to convince every single other peop- ... o- other person around you, why. [laughs] And sometimes you might not even know, it may be gut feeling, but you have to justify yourself. and so I think that just because you've built it doesn't necessarily mean that it's good. ... Yeah.

Delian:  Yeah. Maybe we can dive into hyperlapse a little bit. I imagine that it was a much more significant ... I, just trying to understand the level of, engineering effort. I feel poll buttons and stickers feel a lot easier than, the times [inaudible 00:32:59]-

Thomas:  [laughs]

Delian:  ... during, video post-processing and, i- implementing hyperlapse. ... And it sounds like you, granted some gears with folks trying to get over the line. You talk about wha- what was difficult about getting it over the line. Why did you end up finally, y- deciding to do it in the hackathon, what ended up eventually getting people excited about it, and now it's- it's, it's its own standalone app? ... Yeah.

Thomas:  Yep. I- some- some things about these ... these journeys are always non linear and you'd like to take all kinds of unexpected terms, and it wasn't as intentional as maybe it would look in retrospect. but I had a chip on my shoulder 'cause I joined this company that did video stabilization and never got a chance to play there with their technology.

And so probably about a week into my career at Instagram, I was ... Honestly, actually my first couple of weeks on Instagram, I wasn't very happy. I was working in dev ops and I was like, I'm an AI person and I wanted something more interesting. i- if I had quit, that would have been a huge mistake, but it was actually in my mind that I might do that.

and so I was looking for things that were a little bit more intellectually stimulating. I was like, "Oh, we have this technology for video stabilization. I wonder what happens if I use it for time lapse?" And so it wasn't trivial. I got the iOS code base. I'm not really an iOS full-time type of person. But I grabbed it and I was, "Okay, let me like fool around with this. What's the simplest thing I can do? Let me just drop frames. Let me just ... If I capture eight frames, let me drop seven of them. And then I'll apply stabilization, on the non-dropped frames."

And then I tried it, I went ar- ... walked around campus, took a few videos, and I was like, "Holy shit, I have something in my pocket that nobody on earth has." And I felt like I needed to ship it. I posted it in kind of internal groups and stuff. People are always like, "Yeah, that's great. Cool." and I was like, "Why don't you see what I see? we need to get this out there."

and so honestly it actually died for about a year and I was sorta working on it in my spare time. And when we had this hackathon coming up, I was like, "We gotta get this out there." And so I grabbed a designer friend of mine and another coder of mine. and we're like, "Let's just build a product." And the designer figured out an interface that could possibly work for this thing. we built it and then I spent about a week before we had this, called Prototype Forums where you present.

I spent a week capturing footage, just going around, go to Stanford, went to the aquarium. I was like, "Let me just take anything that has not been done in TimeLapse and do it in TimeLapse." And I edited the video, got some music, and that was our- our prototype forum. So here's a amazing demo of this [laughs] thing.

I remember we presented it. We actually got invited to ... this was the Facebook Prototype Forum, not the Instagram one. And got invited to present in front of Zuck. And one day I rode my bike from Stanford campus over to Zuck, where I was in school and we presented it. And he was like, "This is cool." And I remember exiting that meeting, and a product manager came out. he was literally like, "Oh man, it was pretty cool, And then exiting that meeting somebody who was in the room came and said "Zuck loved your idea." [I was like, "Okay." and actually, fortunately, after that, both Kevin and Mike were like this is a good product. we should make it part of the Instagram family." And we polished it up and shipped it out.

Delian:  This is actually during your time where you're doing part time master's degree. Part-time, part-time-

Thomas:  Yeah. [laughs] yeah.

Delian:  Wow. ...

Thomas:  It was a, again, weird time in my life, I don't know how the hell I ever did it. But sometimes, being busy is good. it's just like you ... It's like sometimes work makes you more engaged and stimulated and exciting. And, learning stuff, and being able to actually apply it right away, it was really exciting for me. And so ... I- sometimes think being busy, not stupid busy, but stimulated busy is actually a good state to be in. You'll get all kinds of crazy ideas.

Delian:  it seems over the course of, your career at Instagram, you had to interact With a lot of different teams. You've mentioned, obviously, interacting with the exec team. I'm sure you got to interact with, product managers, designers, et cetera.

can you talk about, what were the, let's say, communication styles? what- what teams were easier to partner with versus not? what- what, and what sort of strategies would you recommend to folks that are maybe in a position like yours at a large company, 

Thomas: Yep.

Delian:  ... that are trying to figure how to best interface with, the various groups that, they need buy in from, and, and need to work with?

Thomas:  Yeah. So I think, ... I- I've definitely made a lot of mistakes around the way. And I- I think maybe it's- it's more helpful to start with mistakes that I've made. So when you're building products, you're interfacing with everyone. there's no team that you're not going to talk to. You're gonna talk to people that do content strategy. So what strings do you use in the app or how to guide people through it, designers policy, 'cause you're dealing with social media privacy, 'cause you're dealing with social media, spam fighting teams. th- this is the kind of thing you just have to go through. Not to mention all the- the wellbeing fonts you need to do about, reporting content and all that sort of stuff.

the mistakes I think I had made was just assuming that people had the same context that, I did. And I have a very, I have a very like strong user model about what- what works, what, doesn't, how this technology works, like how AI works. And I would show up to meetings and just assume that everybody had the shared context of understanding how a ranked feed, what that means. everyone sees something different. It doesn't ma- ... Like ... and the mistakes I would say I made is just assuming that context ... And then when people didn't have that context, it was like a little bit grinding or I might get frustrated or I might not hear them out the way I needed to hear them out. And so I think that you just approach it like everybody ... The truth is everybody does have, this cognitive diversity and it's like a good thing. It's not a challenge. It's it's more just like people are coming from a different point of view and you should see how that fits. And if they don't have the context that you have, you- your job is to translate that, and make sure that people understand these systems at the same level that you do, or at least can approach that level. So yeah, I think that's the main thing.

The other thing I'd say is, that's a very fuzzy answer. Sometimes the best thing to do is just show up with like hard data. That's well explained that you've actually researched yourself and can discuss the flaws with them and the- the good parts of it, because at the end of the day, that's going to trump, any- any kind of like opinion that is in the room if you can prove or disprove any, any questions about what you have. And that goes for anything, like anybody shouldn't be responding to data.

Delian:  Make sense. so you finally just had to leave Instagram in February of this year. right before the world crashed. what-

Thomas:  It's actually bad timing [laughs].

Delian:  Yeah. It's [inaudible 00:39:51] your stable job, instead of starting a new project. Yeah. w- wha- what led you to finally decide to leave? And, can you talk A little bit about what you're working on now or what you're exploring?

Thomas:  Sure, totally. yeah. I don't think I have a very good, story to tell. I've- I've been at Instagram for seven years. I've watched that platform grow from a hundred million to billion, users. And, I had a very good career that- that I was quite happy with, but, the loss of Kevin and Mike as founders was felt to me. and I had moved into management in the last year at a pretty high level of it, the principal engineer. And so I moved into being a director at this company, directly, which was challenging.

I also had a lot of personal challenges going on at the same time. And so all of these things aligned plus the fact that, I really didn't see myself as a lo- ... my career aspiration is not to be a VP at Instagram or Facebook. I like building things. I like getting on the ground and, failing on my own.

and so all that, I was like, I need ... if I'm gonna ... Maybe I'll come back with my tail between my legs and be like, "Okay, I- I wish I had a directive job at Instagram again," but I thought that I can do that when I'm ... 10 years from now much older and ready to have a very mature perspective on these things. and that was it. It was like, "Okay, time to go. It's scary, but, I'll- I'll make it, I'll survive. [laughs] There'll be some- something on the other end."

and in terms of shock projects, I don't think I can tell you enough that it was like a pedal to the metal experience, and I was in a bubble of ... The scale of that company can warp you. And, when you exit, I think it's extremely important to take some time to yourself. And, for me, I- I traveled around China a little bit, learned Chinese a little bit, and-

Delian:  During COVID or ...

Thomas:  or not during COVID. So I- I actually spent a couple of months doing that right before the ... my official leave in February. which strangely enough, yeah, it was, there [laughs], there was COVID in Wuhan. I was in Guilin, so it didn't really affect me. But, ... Yeah. And so that was important to me.

And then once COVID started actually, was, fortunate enough that I spent some time and being able to do remote learning at Stanford. And so I just actually went back to school a little bit for six months. I, studied things that I had ... AI changes all the time. And so actually I could take the same class or talk to the same professor that I did seven years ago, completely different, four years ago, completely different. And so I- I tried to get up to speed with some of the latest, that field's changing like crazy. And that's also what guided me towards doing products as well.

Delian:  you have this a website that I thought was funny though, This Word Does Not Exist that uses machine learning, like catalog, made up words. 

Thomas: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

Delian:  So- so this machine learning application, can you just, tell us a little bit about that kind of site?

Thomas:  [laughs] Sure. Same motivation, just like I, ... This is after I left. And so I was like ... I actually tried this ... Okay. Let me ... First let me start with a product. Product is, hey, ... it didn't exactly start here. What I started with was I want to type in a sentence and then I wanted to make up a word that represents the meaning of that sentence.

very clear there's like input and output and stuff like that. And, actually, there's a great training set, which is the dictionary. The dictionary is a perfect training set, so it has the definition and then the word that actually fits that definition. And so you might imagine if the- the definition says the word, "Russian" maybe it's a Russiany sounding name or something like that, or French if you have accents and stuff like that.

and I had that in the back of my mind, seemed like a cool product. when I say cool product, not necessarily useful, but just cool. and so I, tried that about ... When I was doing field ranking probably in 2016 or something, I tried, using these ML models called, character RNNs, and it was a miserable failure. I don't know if it was my problem or, it was just like the stuff I'd threw out kind of work. It was like Russiany, but it would repeat characters and be all over the place.

And so it was frustrating. I had this on the bat, it didn't work, I wanted to launch it. And it was just frustrating me that AI wasn't there. And so when I left Instagram, this is like GPT-1, GBT-2 had come out, not GPT-3 yet, but, it was about to come out. And I was like, maybe language technology has improved enough to actually make this work.

And I tried it, tried GPT model, GPT-2 style model, and, with a bunch of hacks to make it somewhat good. And I was like, "Holy shit, this works." and I guess the ... Maybe the more fun part was like, if you didn't have the conditioning, so if you didn't like condition on text, it would just generate the entire thing. So word and definition in and of itself. and I was like, "That's cool."

And so started brainstorming a little bit and was like, "Okay, if maybe I could just make this into a quick demo that generates words that are not real, but sound real, and that have the definition and also have an example." and, ... Yeah. It took a while from the lab to production, but then made it and watched it, got some press. I was excited about that. And now, GPT-3 makes that like a platform you can just generate these kinds of sites as a, [laughs] as a service almost. ... Yeah.

Delian:  So if you were to advise somebody that's maybe, similarly, leaving, let's say, Stanford, or, studying, AI, ML wants to apply that into the world of consumer products and have an impact on the world, maybe now with the more mature perspective than maybe where you were in ... at 28, 12, 13, when you maybe stumbled into it, what would be the path that you'd recommend for somebody?

Is it like, "Look for the place that has, super out-sized users relative to the size of team"? what do you think is the, ideal path for, if you were to advise yourself from eight years ago, maybe existing in the world of 2020 as opposed to 2012?

Thomas:  Yeah. There's- there's a lot there. I think that, if you can find that team, it's ... you definitely want to grab out of that. if you see an exponential growth curve and have the opportunity ... it doesn't even matter what job, what role you're in. I started in dev ops, like literally just writing scripts to auto scale, AWS tiers. you want to just be on that rocket ship? You'll ... It'll be fine. and ... But that's a rare opportunity. Not everyone's going to have that. Also, you need to make a prediction about the future about what's going to be successful. And so that's- that's a challenge.

A couple other things I just mentioned briefly. One is that what I've discovered now ... When I was in AI, like stra- strangely, even in 2012, it was like a backwater field. It was not a thing. and I ... So I had an advantage because I knew this skillset, let's just say a skillset that almost nobody else knew. and right now AI is table stakes. Every software engineer graduating should know, something about machine learning. it doesn't mean you- you need to go into it, but it's- it's a necessary component of any computer science education, just I don't know, operating systems or programming languages or something like that.

the other thing I think is like ... There may be some opportunities that are- are ... Okay. the last thing I'd say is just ... it's probably right now, I think, as a society, we're struggling with the ethics of AI. And I think that's actually an interesting question to take up. And so I think that not neglecting other parts of education, so having a more broaded perspective and actually just considering the questions that exist, and then going to get the experience of Facebook or Google or whatever, company that has, challenges, that's like the sweet spot to be educated and to actually have a very thoughtful opinion on these kinds of subjects.

Delian:  Makes sense. Appreciate, you giving that advice. Thomas, it was really nice having you on the podcast today. great conversation. Thanks so much for coming on.

Thomas:  Yeah. Thanks for having me.

Delian:  Sweet.

Thomas:  All right.

Delian:  Thanks for listening everyone. If you'd like to support the podcast, please sign up for a paid subsidized subscription, which we use to pay for transcripts, mics, and other improvements. If you have any comments or feedback on what kinds of questions I should ask, who should come on the show, or anything else, please do let me know. Have a great rest of your day.

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