Poornima Vijayashanker

Why You Should Consider Working for a Growing Tech Company

BuildTV

I’m a huge proponent of working for an early stage startup, having already done it three times in my career.

I even did a series a couple years ago to showcase the benefits of being an early-stage startup employee, which you can watch here.

However, early stage isn’t the only stage.

It would be unfair of me or anyone else to lead you astray based on what has worked for us.

You’ve got to find a stage that fits your needs.

To help you out, in today’s episode, I’ve invited a guest who has oodles of experience working at growth-stage technology companies: Pedram Keyani.

Pedram is currently the Director of Global Growth Engineering at Uber. He’s grown the engineering team from around 20 to 250 engineers in the past couple of years. Prior to Uber, Pedram was the director at Facebook and began working there when it was a 200-person company, and was there during the IPO. Pedram began his career working at Google as a software engineer right around the time it was IPO-ing.

This was a really fun episode to do with Pedram because of his fun, goofy, and creative energy, but it’s also super valuable. No matter what stage company you decide to work at, here’s what you’ll learn in the episode from Pedram:

  • What to do if you can’t convince other people to pursue your project idea;
  • How he dealt with the challenge of having to build a lot of infrastructure even though he didn’t know how to;
  • Why growth is a delicate balance of developing your employees and building product;
  • Why his preferred coaching style is the “dumb manager”;
  • How to handle the communication overhead as your team and company grow;
  • Why his goal is to hire as slowly as possible;
  • Why he prefers to cultivate talent that’s been around longer, rather than always hiring experienced people from the outside; and
  • How he manages his time between work, staying healthy, and his growing family, and encourages his employees to as well.

Once you’ve had a chance to watch the episode, tell me one takeaway you learned from Pedram, and that you’re going to try in the next week. Let me know in the comments below!

Listen to the episode on iTunes!

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Transcript

Pedram Kenyani: Do I have time to do hair and makeup? I got my lipstick on this again.

Poornima Vijayshanker: Oh, wow. It’s a nice color.

Pedram Kenyani: Yeah, you like it?

Poornima Vijayshanker: Yeah.

Pedram Kenyani: It’s purple.

Poornima Vijayshanker: Purple. Nice. Welcome to the 21st episode Femgineer TV, brought to you by Pivotal Tracker. I’m your host, Poornima Vijayshanker, the founder of Femgineer. In this show, I host innovators and together, we debunk myths and misconceptions when it comes to building tech companies and products. There are a lot of misconceptions when it comes to working at a growth-stage tech company. When I say growth stage, I mean one that has millions of customers around the world and is potentially going to exit for millions or even billions of dollars. In today’s episode, we’re going to tackle some of those misconceptions and to help us out, I’ve invited my good friend Pedram Keyani, who is currently the director of growth engineering at Uber.

Prior to working at Uber, Pedram was a director at Facebook and got his start as a software engineer at Google. Thanks for joining us today, Pedram.

Pedram Kenyani: Thanks for having me. Excited.

Poornima Vijayshanker: I think we met back in 2007, or maybe it was before that, but I want to go way back to the very beginning. What got you interested in tech and lured you into startup land?

Pedram Kenyani: Sure. I think the first time I got excited about computers was when my parents brought home an Atari and I started playing Frogger, and I got really excited about video games and grew up playing more and more video games, and one day I was like, “You know what? I want to make these things.” Started studying computer science in college and funny thing is, I actually never made a single video game, but it led me to some really interesting places.

Poornima Vijayshanker: Yeah. Why didn’t you ever make a video game?

Pedram Kenyani: I took some graphics courses and I realized that they were far more tedious and math based than I actually was excited about.

Poornima Vijayshanker: OK. Your first role was as a software engineer at Google around 2005, so right after the IPO. Tell me what that was like.

Pedram Kenyani: Yeah. Google was an amazing place to work at. First job out of college. People around me were super excited about technology. It was a playground for engineers, and the most striking part about it was that most of the people that I was working with had all the sudden become incredibly rich and there was this humbleness there that was very to me, it was very striking that all these people no longer had to work and they still loved what they were doing and no one was flashy about it and that stuck with me throughout my career.

Poornima Vijayshanker: Since this was your first experience at a growing tech company, what were some of the challenges that you experienced?

Pedram Kenyani: Yeah, the biggest challenge for me was that in school, you have to learn everything and figure it out on your own and if you get your answers from other people it’s called “cheating,” whereas in the work environment actually, you’re supposed to work with people. You’re supposed to collaborate with people and come to the solution better and faster and that took me a while to figure out. I would spend a lot of time in the early days just reading tons and tons of documentation when I could have gotten the answer from someone sitting right next to me in two minutes, so it took me a little while to figure that out.

Poornima Vijayshanker: What were some critical skills that you think you experienced while you were there?

Pedram Kenyani: I think the first thing at Google that I learned is that if you invest in your infrastructure and you build things that you can leverage, you can actually build incredible product experiences on top of it, so just getting the basics of building for developers. And then the other thing is just communication, collaboration. How do you formulate your ideas and how do you get them across to a group of people, because it’s not always that you have to have the best idea; it’s that you have to have the best idea that you can communicate to people and get them on board with it.

Poornima Vijayshanker: What’s an example of an idea that you had when you were at Google?

Pedram Kenyani: Yeah, so one of the things that I saw, I was working on Orchid—which is a social network very popular in India and Brazil—and one of the things that I saw was that there was a high volume of pornographic material all over the site and actually, this was an example that didn’t work well in terms of I couldn’t convince other people to see that this was a problem. I just went and built a bunch of tools on my own to be able to identify this and create power tools to remove it all and so I went and did this on my own. People saw the power of this thing and a lot of people in the company actually started contributing to it.

If I’d been able to convince other people we might have gotten there faster, but as a result of me not being able to convince them, I had to build it on my own so I learned a lot in the process.

Poornima Vijayshanker: Then you left Google to join Facebook and you joined pretty early on. Why did you decide to leave?

Pedram Kenyani: Yeah. I was using Facebook all the time and it was very compelling to go and work on something that I was using and that be part of a very tiny team. I think at the time the company was 200, 250 people. Not a lot of people in engineering, so I wanted to actually have an impact on something that I was using for maybe hours a day at the time.

Poornima Vijayshanker: It was your new video game.

Pedram Kenyani: It was basically my new video game, exactly. With real people instead of characters.

Poornima Vijayshanker: Yeah.

Pedram Kenyani: The other thing that was real exciting about it was that a lot of the technology hadn’t been built yet so I got the chance to just build things from scratch and I think that was very formative for me to be able to say that I’ve built something big and complex and know that I have the capability of doing that. It gave me a lot of confidence.

Poornima Vijayshanker: What was your initial role then at Facebook?

Pedram Kenyani: Initially, no one really had a lot of roles. I went in and I solved bugs and fixed problems. I started to gravitate towards spam protection because I had done some of it at Google before and it was one of those things where you can see the value of it. If the graph has a lot of trust in it, people will use it more.

Poornima Vijayshanker: Yeah. That makes sense. You were at Facebook for a little over seven years and you started off building and then eventually you transitioned into a management role. What was that like, that transition for you?

Pedram Kenyani: Becoming a manager is one of those really challenging things because in school you learn how to write code. No one teaches you how to manage other people, so it took a lot of time to actually become a good manager and I did it out of necessity. Our team was just growing rapidly. There wasn’t a dedicated manager there just for my team and so I grew into the role organically.

Poornima Vijayshanker: Given that the company and the team were growing so quickly, what was that like for you on a personal level?

Pedram Kenyani: It was exciting. It was challenging. Again, it was like a new role where I just didn’t know the answers and I had to figure a lot of things out. I was very lucky to be in a company that really puts a lot of emphasis on teamwork and collaboration.

Poornima Vijayshanker: A lot of people say that they have a very collaborative and teamwork-oriented culture. What’s an example of that that you can cite from your early days at Facebook?

Pedram Kenyani: We had to be collaborative out of necessity. We were much smaller than our competitors. We didn’t have the same kind of resources as them so it was either you work together really effectively and have basically outpaced impact or you fail.

Poornima Vijayshanker: Yeah.

Pedram Kenyani: I don’t have specific examples, that’s just the general way that it came about at Facebook.

Poornima Vijayshanker: OK. You’ve been cited as the ringleader of hackathons at Facebook. How did you get into this role?

Pedram Kenyani: Yeah, so the second week that I was at Facebook, we had a hackathon. I remember describing it to my wife like, “Hey, I’m going to be home tomorrow morning. I’m going to be out here all night long working on ideas and projects.” She thought it was like, “What?” She’d never heard of it before. It was an incredible experience. Everyone was in the office just working on ideas. We launched most of the things the next morning and maybe two months later, I was asking some people on my team like, “Hey, when’s the next hackathon?” They explained it’s whenever someone wants to have a hackathon, so I got excited by that.

I went right back to my desk. I sent an email saying, “I’m going to hack tomorrow night. Who wants to come? I’ll get Chinese food and we’ll do it.”

Poornima Vijayshanker: Yeah.

Pedram Kenyani: Most of the engineering came the next night and we had a hackathon and so from then on, it just started sending these emails out and over time it just became a thing. It was really cool to see it go from 40, 50 engineers to hundreds and then thousands of engineers and having to scale this thing up for the entire company because a 40-person hackathon is very different than a multi-thousand-person hackathon.

Poornima Vijayshanker: Yeah. Aside from the product, how do you think it helped the culture?

Pedram Kenyani: I think a lot of the stress of having to launch something in 12 hours gets you to really focus on what’s important and what’s not important and that’s I think a critical skill that you have to get a lot of practice doing, because usually when you start an idea you get very excited like, “Oh, we could do this and that and the other thing,” and then when you realize, “Oh, I have five hours left to do this thing,” all of a sudden, those crazy ideas are no longer important. The essence of your idea becomes a thing that you really focus on. I think that’s a pretty critical part of hackathons and what makes companies again be able to focus and then also just having a small number of people that you have to collaborate with in a short period of time so all the unnecessary process and things just fly out the window.

You get in the room about this big with a group of people and the kinds of energy that it creates and the bonds across the company are just…they live on beyond the hackathon.

Poornima Vijayshanker: That’s great. So it actually helped with a lot of the culture later on in the company.

Pedram Kenyani: Yeah, I believe that it helped. We scaled with the company and I think it’s scaled our culture as a company, too.

Poornima Vijayshanker: I’ve also read that you are pretty instrumental in developing a culture of empathy. How do you do that as your team is growing and you’ve got millions of customers around the globe? Gotta be a challenge to take the time out to do that.

Pedram Kenyani: Yeah. It’s more work, but I think my philosophy is that meaningful work is done in teams. You can’t do anything meaningful just by yourself. It’s a team thing, so that if you understand that your teammates, their goals, their priorities, their challenges that they face, put a little of investment in that as a team you actually get a lot more done. That goes as far as being very transparent about your strengths and your weaknesses, your victories and your losses on a weekly basis, and that’s the kind of thing that it pays for itself.

Poornima Vijayshanker: Some people might be opposed to being vulnerable or seeing this as a needed tool for managing teams. How do you deal with that?

Pedram Kenyani: You can’t have any of this unless you have core trust. I think the way that I do it is that I show my vulnerability and I also show that I don’t take myself too seriously and I feel like I can live that. I just bring up the goofiness to work. I know a lot of people it resonates with them and it makes it easier for them.

Poornima Vijayshanker: What do you think made it easier for you to actually go out and champion these hackathons? Was there some secret Pedram sauce or was it being goofy? How did you get buy-in from management and as the company grows more process comes into place? There’s board of directors, all that stuff going on, right?

Pedram Kenyani: Sure. You know, actually there was never any approval process.

Poornima Vijayshanker: OK.

Pedram Kenyani: Either any of the companies that I’ve been at. I think the best technology companies, the people at the top understand that all the best ideas come from the people with creative energies so I do have to do, for all the hackathons I’ve run at Facebook and at Uber, I have to do a lot of legwork. I have to go get buy-in from other leaders within the company because, again, any time you’re in an environment where there’s a lot of stuff going on, people don’t have time and energy. It’s like, “Oh, I’m going to stay late tonight or tomorrow night.”

I had to go and get a lot of excitement from people. That’s where a lot of the energy goes but not getting buy-in from management. I think they understand that you have to experiment with things like this.

Poornima Vijayshanker: Yeah. They were open to it. They weren’t like, “What’s the ROI of this hackathon afterwards?”

Pedram Kenyani: No.

Poornima Vijayshanker: OK. That’s good. Yeah. What do you think your biggest impact was while you were at Facebook?

Pedram Kenyani: I built the site integrity team from a very early stage and I think that’s pretty instrumental in just the trust in the social graph, hackathons and scaling those. I was very inclusive in how I built that out and I brought people in and I try to champion them becoming the face of hackathon as well. I think one of the big things I did was I try to live the culture, the values, even when it was hard because actually that’s when it’s most meaningful that you lean into the culture of values is when they work against you in the short term.

Poornima Vijayshanker: Give me an example of that.

Pedram Kenyani: Being open. That’s a big one at both companies actually. It’s being able to talk about again your victories and your losses and you have to lean into that. It’s not an easy thing to do a lot of the times.

Poornima Vijayshanker: After seven years of being at Facebook, you decided that you wanted to join Uber. Tell us why you decided to leave Facebook and why you wanted to join Uber.

Pedram Kenyani: Sure. Like I think most Uber employees, I had a magical Uber experience.

Poornima Vijayshanker: Oh, OK. Yeah. What was this?

Pedram Kenyani: I was just stranded in a city and me and my wife were stranded and she pulled out her phone and said, “Hey, I’ll just get an Uber.” She pushed the button and a car was there a couple minutes later.

Poornima Vijayshanker: Nice.

Pedram Kenyani: I was just like, “Oh my God. This is amazing. This is like magic.” Ever since that night, I just kept thinking about, “What if you could do this in every city everywhere in the world? What’s the technology behind this?” I started thinking about it all the time. The next thing is I have many friends who came to Uber, had conversations with them, I came to the office and I checked it out and met with the people and I was just like, “OK. I see the hunger and I see that first 1% of the problem is solved but there’s so much more to do,” and I just couldn’t hold back my excitement.

Poornima Vijayshanker: What’s your current role at Uber?

Pedram Kenyani: I run engineering for our global growth teams. We focus on China, India, other emerging markets like Southeast Asia, Latin America.

Poornima Vijayshanker: That’s the product is in these places or your teams are in these places?

Pedram Kenyani: Most of our team is here, but they build the products to get the riders and drivers on to our platforms. Eliminating any of the friction that may slow them down from experiencing Uber and being able to incorporate it into their daily lives.

Poornima Vijayshanker: How do your teams get to know the local geographies? Do they travel there? How do they get the information to build the app for the geographies?

Pedram Kenyani: Most of our engineers are here in San Francisco, but we travel to and from China and India and other markets quite a bit. We also have an office in Bangalore where we’ve just started an engineering team there. We go back and forth. We meet with the ops people. We actually talk to drivers and riders and try to prioritize effectively so that we make sure that we grow our market share faster.

Poornima Vijayshanker: Yeah. I have used you guys all over the globe as long as it’s in one of the cities and one of the things that I find really fascinating is how seamless the app is. I don’t have to download an Uber for London or for somewhere in China, it’s just there automatically. I’m assuming that’s kind of baked in as well into the experience.

Pedram Kenyani: That’s baked in. There’s a lot of work that goes into creating that magical experience wherever you go so there’s local technological challenges that we always have to be thinking about and making sure that once you get out of that airport, there’s a car there when you push the button.

Poornima Vijayshanker: Nice.

Pedram Kenyani: That’s our obsession.

Poornima Vijayshanker: It’s been almost two years since you started at Uber. How has the engineering team transformed since you started?

Pedram Kenyani: Sure. When I joined, Uber was in about 100 cities. Now we’re in 450. We’re much more international as a company. A lot more focus on making sure that the experience in all these different countries is top notch. We’ve hired engineers and built out teams to create that seamless experience across the world. We’ve also grown quite a bit. When I joined, my team was about 20, 25 engineers.

Poornima Vijayshanker: Oh. Small, yeah.

Pedram Kenyani: Yeah and then it grew to about 250 in two years in a really short period of time.

Poornima Vijayshanker: In that time, what’s been the biggest challenge? Going from 20 to 200, you’re 10x-ing your employees.

Pedram Kenyani: Yeah so on my team, we have grown quite a bit and so the challenge is actually as you scale up these teams, are they scaling in a balanced way? Do you have the right leadership in place? Are you developing people’s skills? There’s always a competing pressure is grow so that you can get more stuff done, but if you grow too quickly, and you don’t develop your people, then they’re actually far less effective and then you just have big ineffective teams so spending a lot of time to refine what are the qualities of engineering that we want? How do we make sure that we’re mentoring people? Then, as these teams grow, the communication overhead increases. Teaching them about how to be really effective in your updates and how your teams work together in creating good boundaries between what the teams are doing so they can work independently as well.

It’s been really challenging. Kinds of problems that are amazing to have and I’ve learned so much in the process of building out these teams.

Poornima Vijayshanker: Yeah and I imagine that it’s also a challenge where you want people to build but you also have to cultivate them internally, and how have you managed that versus hiring people externally to join the team?

Pedram Kenyani: Sure, so the goal is to try to hire as slowly as possible and build out as much of leadership and technical depth from the people who have been around longer. You do have to balance that. It’s great because now as we’re such a great brand, we’re able to hire the best engineers from all the other top companies so you can accelerate the skillsets that you have in your team and still because the surface area of our product is growing and the number of problems that we’re tackling is growing, everyone still has more and more opportunities to grow so it works out very well.

Poornima Vijayshanker: Yeah. Why do you think it’s important to cultivate internally versus bring somebody from outside that’s more senior, more experienced?

Pedram Kenyani: Yeah I think the biggest part about is you can only absorb outside culture and values and influences at a certain rate. If you do it too quickly, you lose the core of what makes your company what it is. There’s all these great companies out there but we’re not trying to be any of these other companies. We’re trying to be the best Uber. The company that’s going to be amazing 10, 20, 30 years from now.

Poornima Vijayshanker: Now, as a director, you’re coaching a lot of people. What would you describe is your style?

Pedram Kenyani: My management style or my coaching style?

Poornima Vijayshanker: Your coaching style.

Pedram Kenyani: My coaching style I call it the “dumb manager.”

Poornima Vijayshanker: OK.

Pedram Kenyani: Actually one of my managers taught this to me, which is you ask lots of questions. Someone will come to you with a problem. Your natural instinct is to solve their problem, like I’m having a conflict with my coworker. Oh, OK, well this is what you need to do. The other approach, the one I take, is ask why are you having this conflict? Why do you think they don’t see your point of view? What would it take for you to see their point of view? You just walk them down this path until they effectively have solved their own problem. They also saw how they got there as well.

Poornima Vijayshanker: Nice. Does this piss people off?

Pedram Kenyani: It’s frustrating and a two-minute conversation turns into a half an hour conversation and it’s not super scalable because you can’t do it with everyone at all times, so you have to pick and choose when you do it, but it teaches them far more than just giving them the answer.

Poornima Vijayshanker: Nice. How do you think that this coaching style has changed over the years?

Pedram Kenyani: I think the biggest thing is initially I didn’t have a coaching style. As someone in the technical field who’s writing code to coaching, I just want to give people answers initially and so I had to learn to have this patience and actually say I have to cultivate these people because effectively, my job is to work myself out of a job. If I’m making the most important decisions for my team then they are in deep trouble because I’m supposed to hire smarter people than me, so I have to get them to the point where they’re able to solve these problems.

Poornima Vijayshanker: We have a number of viewers out there who are parents and one of their concerns is having some amount of balance between having time with their family, but then of course doing the work that they want to do. It’s not always a fine balance, but I know you’re a dad so maybe you can walk us through how you manage it and how you coach your employees as well who are parents.

Pedram Kenyani: Sure. Having a family that you love and want to spend time with and a job that gets you excited and you want to focus on, both of those require time and each of them you have to be focused on them when you’re around them. The way that I do it is I basically cut out anything that’s not family, work, or very close friends. I’ve had to actually had to learn to say “no” to a lot of things that I typically would say “yes” to, and really be smart about my time as well. I wake up super early, I go for a run, I get ready for the day, I spend time with my kids and make them breakfast and get them ready for school. Go to work and then I come back in a time that I can usually I can have dinner with them, give them a bath, and put them to bed.

I try to teach my team that it’s not about working harder, it’s about working smarter and being more focused around when you’re focused on your family, when you’re focused on your work, and saying “no” to things that don’t matter.

Poornima Vijayshanker: I’m sure it’s hard though for people because they might want to please you as their boss or their team or feel like, “Oh, well Uber is growing and I want to participate in that,” so how do you give them a gentle nudge to take time off or attend to their needs?

Pedram Kenyani: I think it’s important to not focus on when people are right in the office and they shouldn’t optimize for visibility. They should optimize for impact. Getting the most important things done, being there when it matters is actually more important than just being there all the time. Helping especially people who this is maybe their first big job understand that is pretty critical.

Poornima Vijayshanker: How do you go about doing that?

Pedram Kenyani: I show them when I take time off and I show them that I can be really effective at my job and also be effective in my family time.

Poornima Vijayshanker: You do a lot of coaching and as a director, you’ve got a big team that’s 10xed, but who coaches you? Do you have any mentors or sponsors over the years?

Pedram Kenyani: I’ve been really blessed. I’ve had some really amazing managers at Facebook. My previous director and our VP of engineering are still people who I lean on, but most importantly actually run all of my big problems with my wife and she’s my best coach.

Poornima Vijayshanker: Nice. Yes, we’ll do a shoutout to Rajale.

Pedram Kenyani: Hi.

Poornima Vijayshanker: Awesome. For our viewers out there who may be excited about joining a growth-stage company but a little apprehensive, what’s one piece of advice that you would give them?

Pedram Kenyani: My biggest advice is don’t be afraid. People typically underestimate what they’re capable of so if you get excited about something, lean into it. Do it and be really focused. I think the most important advice is marry someone that’s smarter than you.

Poornima Vijayshanker: OK, good. What are some things that you have brought over from Facebook and instilled into the culture her at Uber?

Pedram Kenyani: Sure. The biggest one I think is hackathons.

Poornima Vijayshanker: OK.

Pedram Kenyani: They’ve done a couple of hackathons here at Uber and now I’ve taken them on. We’ve done I think four by now. The thing that’s really exciting about the hackathons is that engineers get to interface with Travis directly on their products. As we’re doing our hackathons, he’s walking around, he’s sitting down with the teams and they get to jam and they get to work with an entrepreneur who’s built a business from nothing on crazy ideas that they have and I think that’s one of the things where I get the most excited and proud about because we see our engineers and our designers and our PMs just bringing an extra level of creativity to the job.

Poornima Vijayshanker: Nice. Do you have any upcoming or do you have any for the public?

Pedram Kenyani: No public hackathons, but if you’re excited about hackathons at Uber, you just send me your resume and I will make sure that you get a seat to our next hackathon.

Poornima Vijayshanker: Awesome. Wonderful. Anything else you’d like our viewers to know?

Pedram Kenyani: I want them to know that we are hiring. We are super excited about the mission of our company and what we’re trying to do and if people get really excited about what we’re doing, we’d love for them to send their resumes, check out our job page, and see you soon.

Poornima Vijayshanker: Yeah. Well, thanks so much for joining us today, Pedram. This has been a complete pleasure.

Pedram Kenyani: Thank you so much. It’s been a lot of fun for me, too.

Poornima Vijayshanker: Yeah. Thanks to all you viewers out there for tuning in today and special thanks to our sponsor, Pivotal Tracker for their help in producing this episode of Femgineer TV. If you’ve enjoyed this episode, then please share it with your friends, your teammates, and your bosses and be sure to subscribe to our YouTube channel to receive the next episode. Ciao for now.

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