2021 in conversation: Learnings from the podcast

An end of year compilation with the insightful conversations, business learnings, and reflections from this year’s guests on the podcast.

We’re not exactly sure how, but yes, it’s that time of the year again. And what a year it has been! More than integrations and features and quarterly reports, back in August, Intercom turned 10. It’s been 10 years since co-founders Eoghan McCabe, Des Traynor, David Barrett, and Ciaran Lee sat in a small Dublin coffee shop and dreamed of making internet business personal, and we’re still every bit as excited.

Although we don’t care much for dwelling in the past – as Des Traynor likes to say, Intercom doesn’t need an archeologist – this was, naturally, a year of reflection. And truth be told, our journey wasn’t the only one we learned from. Throughout the year, we’ve talked to business leaders, experts, and pioneers about all kinds of topics: from creating world-class customer experiences to the challenges of running a business during the pandemic, from being an ally and addressing gaps in diversity to building technical leadership careers.

With that in mind, before we welcome the new year and all the good things to come, we’ve gathered our favorite insights and nuggets of wisdom from 2021 in a special wrap-up episode. Thank you all for listening over this past year – we hope you enjoy this episode and we’ll see you in 2022. If one of these particularly piques your interest, you can listen to the full episode below.

In this roundup of the year’s best bits, you’ll hear from:

Make sure you don’t miss any 2022 highlights by following Inside Intercom on iTunes, Spotify, or grabbing the RSS feed in your player of choice.


Lessons learned on leadership with Karen Peacock and Leandra Fishman

In February 2021 Intercom’s CEO Karen Peacock and recently appointed CRO Leandra Fishman spoke at an internal staff event event and we wanted to share some of the highlights with you. They spoke on the topic of leadership, and although we’re a little biased, it was a fascinating and enlightening discussion, with a lot of great insights gleaned from their respective careers. Over the course of the conversation you’ll learn not just about what makes a good leader, but a good ally, a good colleague, and a good friend.

Productboard founder and CEO Hubert Palan on mastering product strategy

Far too many businesses rely on early-on hunches to inform their product strategies. But as you scale beyond Series A, how can you be sure you’re choosing the right lane? In this episode of Inside Intercom, we caught up with Hubert Palan, CEO of Productboard, for a chat about starting small, committing to a product strategy that helps you reach your long-term goals and making sure everyone’s on the same page.

Code for America’s Amanda Renteria on defining the citizen experience

Government services shouldn’t be renowned for their endless queues, confusing forms, and excessive bureaucracy. They should be simple, accessible, and easy to use for everyone. Amanda Renteria, CEO of Code for America, is a firm believer in this idea. In fact, it’s what’s been driving her in all her years as a public servant. In this episode of Inside Intercom, our Director of Brand Marketing Sarah Tran had the honour of sitting down with Amanda for a chat about how governments can leverage technology to build better services and empower its citizens.

Black Women’s Business Collective founder Zanade Mann on advocating for your peers

Our International Women’s Day theme in 2021 is #ChooseToChallenge. Challenge drives change, so we must choose to challenge ourselves. And the timing couldn’t be more urgent. Women, and especially black women, have been hit disproportionately hard during this pandemic. It’s going to take exceptionally bold and driven people to rise to the challenge. And no one knows this better than Zanade Mann, founder and Managing Director of the Black Women’s Business Collective. In this special episode, we sat down with Zanade to talk about allyship, empowering Black-owned businesses, and what it takes to change deeply seated systemic issues and affect policy at a national level.

Wikimedia Foundation COO Janeen Uzzell on future-proofing history

Information has never been so accessible – the world’s knowledge is quite literally at our fingertips. But as more and more stories get told, that begs the question: who’s telling your story? In this episode Chief Operating Officer at the Wikimedia Foundation Janeen Uzzell walks us through her mission for the Wikimedia Foundation and her fight towards knowledge equity.

Later’s Farhan Virji on adapting B2C support strategies for B2B teams

On the surface, B2B customer support issues might look quite different from those of B2C. Typically, B2B issues can be more complex, require the collaboration of a lot more departments within the company, and are often in direct dialogue with the consumer, rather than a buying team or committee. But despite these differences, Farhan Virji, VP of Customer Happiness at Later, believes that there is actually quite a lot that B2B support teams can learn from their B2C colleagues. On this episode of Scale by Intercom, we spoke with Farhan to learn more about where the future of customer support is heading, and how understanding customer behavior can help to drive revenue in the future.

Calm’s Will Larson on how to build a technical leadership career

There are plenty of resources and advice on unlocking the secrets of the engineering management career path. But what if the manager role is not for you? In this episode of Inside Intercom, Brian Scanlan, our own Principal Systems Engineer, sat down with Will Larson, CTO of mindfulness app Calm, to talk about all things staff engineer – what it is, how to get there, and what happens when you progress beyond a senior engineering role.

Webflow’s Maggie Hott on building a scalable sales team from the ground up

Scaling a sales team is not for the faint of heart – for one, it’s not even that much about selling. In this week’s episode, we bring you insights from someone who’s done it not once, but twice – Maggie Hott, Director of Sales at Webflow. We chat with Maggie about all things sales – from laying down a solid foundation to hiring the right people and, finally, scaling the team into hyper-growth.

Intercom on Product: Keeping the momentum going as you scale

Speed is every startup’s biggest competitive advantage. But as the company grows more complex, will you be able to keep it? On this very special episode of Intercom on Product – recorded on our 10th anniversary – Intercom Co-founder Des Traynor and Intercom SVP of Product Paul Adams, look at the past 10 years of Intercom’s journey and reflect about speed – how to increase it, how to recognize what gets in the way and how to get rid of all the necessary fillers.


There we have it. A year across all three of our podcasts, Scale by Intercom, Intercom on Product, and of course, Inside Intercom. And that was just a small sample of the amazing speakers who joined us this year. So, do browse the back catalog for more fantastic conversations. We have amazing guests lined up for 2022, but for now, we want to thank all of the brilliant people who shared their knowledge with us this year. And thank you for listening.

Inside Intercom Podcast – 2019 updated images

As always, here is a transcript of the compilation episode:

Making better decisions

Liam Geraghty: Hello there, and welcome to Inside Intercom. I’m Liam Geraghty and it is the final episode of the year. A lot of incredible things happened this year. NASA’s Ingenuity Helicopter, part of the Mars mission, performed the first powered flight on another planet in history. The 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo finally took place. And here at Intercom, 2021 saw us reach many milestones. The biggest, in August, we turned 10. 10 years of making internet business personal.

Here on the podcast, we spoke to CEOs, pioneers, and leading experts to hear their stories and gain a little wisdom in the process. So today, I thought, just before we welcome in the new year and all the big things to come in 2022, we’d do a wrap-up of all the amazing insights we heard on the podcast this year. Our very first guest of 2021 was Hubert Palan, the founder and CEO of Productboard, a company focused on product management. After hearing Hubert describe Productboard as a system for making better decisions, we asked him what other areas does he apply that systematic thinking.

Hubert Palan: Ask my wife how I’m applying systematic thinking to everything, it drives her crazy sometimes. The world is a complex problem and the way we approach it as humans is that we try to break it down into smaller pieces. Look at the world problems around us. We’ve just been through, or we are still in, I guess, a very tumultuous election season here in the US. If you think about politics, it all comes down to looking at the country, looking at the people, identifying the criteria or the most important things that people care about, dissecting them and seeing how the country is segmented, and then going after each of the segments with the right messaging, the right policy, to hopefully satisfy that.

“There’s so much knowledge in notes from customer success, quarterly business reviews, and conversations. We can distill it, we just need to get it out”

It’s the same thing in product management. It’s the realization that the markets are not homogeneous, that people differ significantly in their needs, and it’s not just functional needs, it’s not just what job you’re trying to get done in terms of utility. It is also the emotional needs, social needs. What is it that makes us happy as people? And you need to understand how the groups differ. To give you an example, this is the Inside Intercom podcast, right? At Intercom, there are different audiences that you guys satisfy. There are support people, marketers, product managers, salespeople. It’s critical to understand how the needs of these target audiences differ and how you’re going to build a product, or multiple products, actually, that satisfy the needs of the customers.

And so, customer feedback, that’s the input. That’s how you get to understand people. I mentioned earlier we don’t have a system to centralize the understanding around customers, but we have a lot of this input in systems like Intercom, in support tickets and conversations and chat threads – there’s so much knowledge there. There is so much knowledge in the sales CRM systems. There’s so much knowledge in notes from customer success, quarterly business reviews, and conversations. We can distill it, we just need to get it out. We need to structure it and then turn it into patterns and understanding. And again, whether it’s product management or understanding some other problem out in the world, it’s the same problem. Look, observe, learn, identify patterns, then figure out how you’re going to go about approaching the problem. What’s the sequence? And ultimately solve it.

Listen to the rest of the interview here.

Defining the citizen experience

Liam Geraghty: In January, we also spoke to Amanda Renteria, CEO for Code for America. They’re a non-partisan, non-political, 501 organization founded to address the widening gap between the public and private sectors in their effective use of technology and design. Amanda chatted with Intercom Director of Brand Marketing, Sarah Tran, about how governments can leverage technology to build better services and empower its citizens.

Sarah Tran: I’d love to shift gears and talk about creating accessibility and creating an accessible government. We think a lot about customer support, customer success, how businesses can better support their customer, how some tech companies excel at offering what we call proactive support. A key part of thinking about this is making sure that people get the information they need at the right time when they need it, in the right place and in a place that they can access that information. So, it strikes me that accessibility must be a very important factor when we’re talking about offering support to citizens. How do you think about that accessibility? Is it an important factor when we’re talking about offering that proactive support to citizens, getting them the information that they need at the right time?

“How do you close gaps? How do you reach as many people as possible?”

Amanda Renteria: You see this right now in a crisis, how important it is to get information to people in a trusted way and how valuable it is to set a strategy for a country or a state. The issue is that the government hasn’t been very good at that. And we’re learning, the government is learning in real-time why you need to build these systems of accessibility, of communication, of trust. Much of what has been done over the last, I’d say, decade-plus, is a conversation about being afraid of reaching too many people in a program because maybe there’ll be fraud or maybe someone will take advantage of it. And we’ve got to start changing that mentality.

And certainly, with the pandemic, with kids being out of school and working remotely, we’re all learning how to do things in a new way. The idea of “government is supposed to reach all people,” does that mean sometimes you’re going to make a mistake here or there? Yes. But the intention is, how do you close gaps? How do you reach as many people as possible? And if that could be the guiding light, as opposed to a fear of failure or fear of fraud, we would have an entirely different way of working together. And I think that’s the hope for the future – as we come out of this pandemic, understanding the importance of unity and good communication. That’s the real hope for the government at large, that there’s a real emphasis on being able to have that dialogue with people and knowing the importance of it as government evolves.

Listen to the rest of the interview here.

Climbing the leadership ladder

Liam Geraghty: In February, we were joined by Intercom CEO Karen Peacock, who shared lessons learned on leadership.

Karen Peacock: In college, I studied math and computer science and engineering. And at that time, and maybe still now, there was no talk about leadership. That was not at all on the curriculum. And so I graduated from college with excellent skills around math and computer science and engineering and able to solve lots of problems, and certainly no formal training on the leadership side. I worked over the summers and I worked my way through college to help pay for that, but always as an individual contributor. My first job out of college was with the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) as an individual contributor as well. And I became an excellent individual contributor. I could do my work very well. And when I first became a manager, I realized very quickly that that was a totally different job and I had no training or preparation for that. And I wasn’t very good at it. Because I tried to do exactly the same things. I just tried to help other people solve their problem very well. And I was focused on right or wrong answers versus “Hey, here’s where we’re going.” And I thought it was all about the work. And yes, the work was one piece of it. But it certainly wasn’t all about that.

“It is about the people, and vision and purpose and work, in that order. Not work, work, work”

I went to the Boston Consulting Group for a few years and then I went to business school at Stanford for a few years. I learned a lot more about leadership there because that actually was a part of the formal conversation. It was really eye-opening for me. A few years later, joined a startup. I lead product management and some marketing, and I ended up getting promoted to reporting into the CEO, which completely broadened my perspective about what was important. Because I was thinking all of a sudden about all different functions, and I was on an executive team and it was just a very, very different world for me.

And at the time, I took what all my friends told me was a bad move and a real step back, because I had been leading product management, reporting into the CEO and I became a senior product manager with nobody reporting into me. And it was like, “Oh, what are you doing?” I’m like, “No, no, I believe in this company and the vision and the mission and what we’re doing, and it’s a company that invests in people.” And so I took that leap, and over the years ended up taking on more and more responsibility there. And just learned most of what I’ve learned about leadership there. Learn that it is about the people, and vision and purpose and work, in that order. Not work, work, work. And that it’s much more fun and rewarding for me rather than just doing the work to actually lead people and lead teams. And one of the things that I get most excited and inspired by is when folks on my team do amazing things, things are so much better than what I had thought of or imagined.

And so over the years, I spent more and more time on things like vision and purpose and strategy. And getting all arrows pointing the same direction and really just ended up realizing that life was about so much more than just getting the answer right. And it really is about where are you going? Why does that matter? Why is that exciting? Where does everybody else want to go? How can you best inspire and empower the people around you?

Listen to the rest of the interview here.

Being an ally in business

Liam Geraghty: And on that note of empowering the people around you, in March, Zanade Mann, founder of Black Women’s Business Collective, joined us to share some great advice on advocating for your peers and how you can be an ally.

Zanade Mann: I know what it feels like to want to do something for your business or a business idea that you have and not have the capital. Capital is important. And I know people will often say, “Oh, try to get VC funding or angel investment funding.” That is not an option for many of us until that atmosphere opens up for us. And that leads me to A, which is allyship. We need buy-in. We need people who have access. We can’t create it ourselves. You may have the opportunity to be around the access, but we don’t have the access, which would be the systemic barriers that you mentioned earlier. Because it’s systemic, that already 100% excludes us.

“For most of us who want to scale, we need capital investment. We need someone to make warm introductions for us because that’s just the world we live in right now”

There’s a little controversy behind that, but we do need those champions in certain spaces. We can say, “Oh, you know what? Let’s pool our own money. We could do it ourselves.” And I get it. I’ve seen it done in certain communities. But for most of us who want to scale, we need capital investment. We need someone to make warm introductions for us because that’s just the world we live in right now, unfortunately, with the amount of racism and other systemic challenges out there. We need someone to open that door for us or even give us information. A lot of times, we are bootstrapping unnecessarily because we don’t know better. You only know what you know. So if you don’t know it, you’re liable to make a mistake or put yourself in a situation where you don’t have to do that, you can outsource.

I remember the first time someone said to me, “Why are you doing that yourself? Why don’t you outsource?” And they told me about this website: “Go get some people who can create that graphic for you.” Because I was learning CS4. That’s how old I am. We’re talking about Creative Suite 4 from Adobe. And I was over here learning Illustrator because I said, “I need some cool graphics so people can like my business.” This was my mindset. And then someone said, “No, just pay somebody, if you have it, pay in $50 and get them to make the logo for you. You don’t have to put all your brainpower into that. And I’m just like, “Oh, okay.”

But a lot of us at this moment, they don’t know that. They want to make some sales: they’re making some shea butter, they’re making soap, they’re making candles. And they’re not thinking about these processes that will help them scale your business. So that you don’t have to work in it, you’re working on it. And that comes from access. Give me access to information. You don’t have to give me access to your whole network. I mean, that would be nice too. But you can give me access to information, share what you know.

Listen to the rest of the interview here.

Wikipedia’s journey towards a more diverse community

Liam Geraghty: An important tool for sharing knowledge is of course, Wikipedia. In March, we were joined by COO for Wikimedia Foundation, Janeen Uzzell.

Janeen Uzzell: The information on Wikipedia is only as strong as the citations that support it. That’s why you’ll often hear Wikipedians say, “Citation needed.” This is true, but where’s the citation to back it up? It’s also what lends so much validation to the stories and the content on Wikipedia because the likelihood of the truth being told is backed up by the citations and the newsworthiness. We like to say, “If it happens in the world, it happens on Wikipedia.”

“There would be more stories about women if more women felt like they could be a part of the community”

Now, the challenge of that is people will say, “Well, this is critically important. Why is there no Wikipedia page on it? This person is encyclopedic, they’re Nobel Prize winners or otherwise. Why are there no Wikipedia pages on them?” One: because there is a bias, a gap that we have to close, particularly as it relates to women and the content of women on Wikipedia. There’s no one size fits all method to improve diversity, and that presents a serious challenge.

Currently, right now, only about 18% of the biographies on English Wikipedia are about women. We know that that is not reflective of the percentage of women in the world, correct? So we’ve seen gender disparity. There would be more stories about women if more women felt like they could be a part of the community. This goes back to what I talked about earlier about our universal code of conduct and creating a place that is safe and thriving.

“Editing Wikipedia is an activity that’s been dominated by men. We need more community organizers to be women, we need leaders within our movement to be more diverse”

For the past several years, only about 10% or 11% of our contributors across all of the projects identify as women. Last year, in 2020, we saw this number jump to about 15%, and this is exciting and wonderful because we are trending in the right direction. Based on our research, we’re seeing this increase in gender mostly among contributors that live in Africa, the Americas – both Latin America and Northern America – and Oceania. This is exciting and important because editing Wikipedia is an activity that’s been dominated by men. So we need more community organizers to be women, we need leaders within our movement to be more diverse so we can create a space that shifts the structures of power, even in our movement, so that they’re more representative of the world.

Another thing that I want to say is back to Wikipedia being a tertiary source. As much as we must do our part to ensure that we have a more diverse community of people, other media sources in the world must tell the stories that support what goes on Wikipedia. When we write a story about someone, we need the news to back up the validation of that story. If there were more stories in the news about women: women in technology, women in STEM, women in medicine, women in sports, if the news wrote more of those stories; if our media sources spent more time elevating the stories of women, then that would help drive content to Wikipedia as well. It’s a community effort, both on Wikipedia and in the world.

Listen to the rest of the interview here.

Trust is always in demand

Farhan Virji: Customers who trust their brands will spend more money, even if it’s more expensive than competitors.

“The service you get from the brand you interact with is more highly correlated to what your impression of that brand is than what the marketing and the product actually are”

Liam Geraghty: Farhan Virji, Vice President of Customer Happiness at Later, provided us with this nugget in March about how great support is key for retention.

Farhan Virji: Trust is not something you easily get anymore, especially when it comes to service. The service you get from the brand you interact with is more highly correlated to what your impression of that brand is than what the marketing and the product actually are. People associate the service they get with their impression of that brand, and then they talk about it. So I think that’s where B2C has a much higher level of impact than B2B.

Listen to the rest of the interview here.

Building a technical leadership career

Liam Geraghty: Will Larson is the CTO of Calm, the mindfulness app. Will had some great insights into how to build a technical leadership career. Here we asked Will to tell us a little about the four archetypes of staff roles, namely architect, tech lead, solver, and right hand.

Will Larson: One of the core problems with staff engineers is, what is a staff engineer? If you talk to people at seven different companies, you’ll see some overlap, but also a lot of things that don’t overlap at all. I was trying to figure out how to describe them in a way that acknowledges that different companies have different kinds of needs, and so, you have different staff engineers. Facebook actually has this idea of, I think, five archetypes, which is kind of their level. They’ve developed this into their own set of representations of what makes sense for them. But as I talked to more different companies, I kind of settled on these four in terms of different ways different companies have needs that represent the role of the staff engineer.

If you look at our industry, some of these ideas are really well understood but have fallen out of favor. Take architects. When I first started my first job in the tech industry, it was at Yahoo. And over a certain level, I think it was maybe the fourth level, everyone became an architect. And then they’re like a senior architect, a principal architect, then a senior principal. I think there were 14 levels – the first three were engineers, and then there were 11 levels of architects or something.

But the idea of architecture has not remained popular because many of the people fulfilling these architect roles did it in a way that was very top-down, which doesn’t represent what we’ve learned about leadership since. But the work is still there, it still needs to happen. So I wanted to think about how we talk about what these people are doing, but in a way that’s a little bit more about decoupling the role from level. And that’s how I ended up with these four.

“Staff engineers are leaders, whether they’re doing any of these different archetypes, but they’re not managerial leaders – they’re their own different type of technical leadership”

Just quickly, the architect is usually someone who’s responsible for a given area. So, they’re often going to be a director, a senior manager, and they’re trying to figure out how to make all the decisions in a given area, say databases or networking, or it could be front end, in terms of the user experience (UX), or maybe iOS engineering. It could be any of these different areas. And it’s really thinking about the quality of the code in that area. The tech lead is typically someone who’s tagged to a specific team as partnering with them on whatever they’re trying to do.

Solvers tend to be reactive to what leadership is really worried about. For example, “Hey, there’s a GDPR deadline, and we haven’t done any GDPR work, and we’re about to be screwed in two months. How do we fix it?” And so, I think most companies at a certain size have teams or individuals who are just able to pivot to whatever the leadership is really concerned about. It might be reliability, it might be a compliance issue, it might be a competitive threat, whatever. And these folks are real and important, but often they’re kind of ignored because they don’t fit into this team structure that we typically use to think about larger organizations.

And the final one is this right hand, and I think this is an important construct because a lot of companies have folks who have some random title, often a staff engineer, but they’re almost not doing what we’d consider to be technical work, in some ways. They’re almost doing the same work that the manager is doing, but they have no direct reports. And we need to find a way to acknowledge these folks, and so I talk to Rick Boone, Senior Software Engineer and Strategic Advisor to the Vice President of Infrastructure Engineering at Uber, who’s a great example of this. I also talked to Michelle Bu, Payments Products Tech Lead at Stripe, who is partnered directly with a senior leader and is taking a lot of their leadership tasks. And this is where I think this idea of management versus leadership gets really interesting, where staff engineers are leaders of the companies, whether they’re doing any of these different archetypes, but they’re not managerial leaders – they’re their own different type of technical leadership.

Listen to the rest of the interview here.

What to look out for when hiring

Liam Geraghty: In September, Webflow‘s Maggie Hott spoke to us about building a scalable sales team from the ground up. That process involves a lot of interviewing, so Maggie shared some questions to ask to understand if the person interviewing is the right one for the job.

Maggie Hott: Actually, these days, I’m in five to six interviews a day, so I ask a lot of interview questions. But I’ll touch on some of the core themes that I like to focus on. So first off, I really like to understand, what are their most proud wins? What are their toughest losses? I like to understand, especially for these early days, what these account executives have done that’s above and beyond their current role of just selling? I like to ask about the biggest mistakes they’ve made, about their proudest moments.

“What I’m looking for here is not if they can win or lose deals, I’m actually looking to see, do they take ownership of losing the deal? Or are they blaming others?”

Something that is really, really important to me is looking at their career trajectories. I’ve actually found that the most impressive candidates are the ones that are promoted from within an organization and continue to grow from within versus the ones that are leaving and hopping every year in order to get a higher title or pay elsewhere. I also spend a lot of time digging into why people make the moves they did because I actually think it really takes a full year to get good at selling a product and building a pipeline, and it’s a bit of a red flag if someone’s hopping after a year because it means their pipeline probably wasn’t where it needed to be.

Finally, during my interview process, one of the biggest telling signs for when I pass on a candidate is probing into why a deal was lost. What I’m looking for here is not if they can win or lose deals, I’m actually looking to see, do they take ownership of losing the deal? Or are they blaming others? What did they learn from this last deal? How are they using this to improve? And I think above all else, the number one thing that I’m looking for here is a growth mindset.

Listen to the rest of the interview here.

Keeping momentum going as a startup

Liam Geraghty: Speaking of a growth mindset, our very own Des Traynor, co-founder of Intercom, and Paul Adams, SVP of Product, had an enlightening conversation on our podcast, Intercom on Product. It was all about keeping momentum going. They had this chat just as we turned 10 years old earlier this year. Here’s Paul.

Paul Adams: Momentum is velocity times mass. Velocity is how fast you’re moving. For us in building software, that’s how fast we’re executing. That’s maybe product changes made. And then, it’s not just speed, it’s speed in a specific direction of the strategy. So you look at how fast we’re executing – is everyone moving in the same direction? Are we just executing blindly all over the place?

“Momentum is infectious, and when a company is a high-momentum company, you just know. You walk in the door and you can feel it”

That’s one thing, velocity as a company. And then, the second thing is mass, which is, “How many people do we have? How many teams do we have?” You can dig into both of those areas and ask, on the mass side, how big are the teams? Are they efficient? What are people doing? How are they making decisions? On the execution side, what are people’s expectations of what good looks like? Shipping product changes and not shipping product changes – do they all add up to a strategy? So there are specific things we can drill into.

And the other thing, I often say to people momentum is infectious, and when a company is a high-momentum company, you just know. You walk in the door and you can feel it. The first time I ever walked into the Facebook office, the HQ in Palo Alto circa 2010, I was driving from the Google offices into the Facebook offices, and holy shit, the difference. In the Facebook office, the momentum was infectious. It was in the air. You could just feel.

Des Traynor: Just buzzing. The noise, the pace, people storming from desk to desk getting stuff done.

Paul Adams: Yeah. People were just like, “We are on it. We’re on a mission here.” And it was just amazing and brilliant to be a part of. So it’s really infectious. A lot of the things that create that atmosphere are happening in the discussions people are having and how fast they’re making decisions. It might really just boil down to that simple thing of how fast people make decisions.

If you’re walking into a room and it’s like, “Here’s what we’re going to do. We’ve got to do this, we’ve got to do that. What do we know? Who’s deciding? Are we deciding now? Are we deciding today, tomorrow?” and we’re shipping and getting customer feedback, and it’s a whole beautiful virtuous loop. That’s just a very different feeling to a company where you walk in and there’s a lot more procrastination: “Hmm, interesting. Let’s think about that.”

“The reason things end up quarters late is because you lose a quarter in days and half days, you don’t actually lose it in one-quarter decisions.”

Des Traynor: There’s a meeting on Thursday that we’re going to go to where we’re going to learn what we’re doing.

Paul Adams: Some versions of this have some validity, of course, like, “Hey, we need more data. We’re not sure. How sure are we? We’re 60% sure. We want to get to 80% sure.” Then the worst versions of this are things like, “We can’t decide today. We’re going to decide that next week.” I’m like, “Why are you deciding next week?” And it’s like, “Ah, Des is on holidays.” “All right. Who’s Des?” “He’s our designer.” “All right.” “It’s a kind of design decision.” “Well, it’s not really a design decision, it’s a PM decision.” “I don’t really want to upset Des, he’s on his holidays. When he comes back, we’ll have a chat. Actually, our team meeting’s scheduled for a week after he comes back, we’ll probably talk about it then.” And I’m like, “Uh oh.”

Des Traynor: People don’t realize that the reason things end up quarters late is because you lose a quarter in days and half days, you don’t actually lose it in one-quarter decisions. No one’s like, “Let’s push this whole thing out a quarter.” It’s just the consistent aggregation of those “we’ll chat about that on Tuesday.”

Some amount of this has got to do with the companies who insist on a synchronous culture, as in everything has to happen in meetings, and therefore everyone needs to be around at the same time, and therefore it needs to get scheduled, and therefore it needs to get pushed out a week, versus Slack threads, Basecamp, Gmail. Whatever the tool is, many decisions can be made async. Is it fair to say an async culture can be a lot faster because you just don’t have this calendar collision problem?

Paul Adams: It’s a good question. We were a very synchronous, face-to-face company and culture for all of our early years up until the pandemic forced us not to be, in a way. I think you can have an insanely fast culture, high-momentum culture. Facebook was like that, too, back in those days. It was all face-to-face. Nothing was even written down. So I think you can have it in a synchronous live culture if that’s how people operate and behave.

“People can lose hours or potentially weeks or let their calendar get filled up on these empty carbohydrates that ultimately don’t really matter”

Des Traynor: I think you’re correct, and simply being async doesn’t mean you’re moving fast either. You used the phrase work work earlier, and when I hear work work, usually what my mind jumps to is the worst form of yak shaving – something that’s indirectly, potentially associated with something that might help something that might help us ship software.

I think we have been pretty good at fighting against anything, whether it’s process steps or reports or whatever, where people can lose hours or potentially weeks or let their calendar get filled up on these empty carbohydrates that ultimately don’t really matter. When you have a free calendar in a synchronous culture, you just walk down the hall, ask Des to make a design decision, and that’s an actual easy thing to do. Whereas if he’s busy, like dotting I’s and crossing T’s on a dozen different outcome reports or whatever, then you can genuinely feel that delay of, “We’re a synchronous culture, but the person I need to talk to is fully booked.”

Paul Adams: Yeah. In all of the things we’re talking about today, there’s obviously a sweet spot. For example, in a fully live synchronous culture, maybe people feel like everyone needs to be part of the decision, and that’s not necessarily the case. That’s only a problem if the expectation is set within the culture that everyone should be part of the decision. Then you get the worst versions of this, which is some kind of democracy or something. And that’s not the sweet spot, clearly.

There are other extremes where people are just left out of the loop. You have an alpha culture where people are just deciding, irrespective of other people’s opinions. But there is certainly a sweet spot, and I think, again, it’s often just the boiling of the frog. Little bit by little bit, the culture starts to naturally gravitate towards trying to include everyone or get more data. It becomes a little bit more conservative as you grow, and it’s something you have to actively fight and think about.

Listen to the rest of the interview here.

See you in 2022

Liam Geraghty: There we have it. A year across all three of our podcasts, Scale by Intercom, Intercom on Product, and of course, Inside Intercom. And that was just a small sample of the amazing speakers who joined us this year. So, do browse the back catalog for more fantastic conversations. We have amazing guests lined up for 2022, but for now, we want to thank all of the brilliant people who shared their knowledge with us this year. And thank you for listening.

Janeen Uzzell: Thank you so much for having me. I just appreciate you allowing me to be so expressive and to share some of my passions.

Samuel Hulick: Thank you so much for having me. It’s a real pleasure and I’m really grateful that you want to help spread the word.

Maggie Hott: Thank you so much for having me.

Shep Hyken: It is my pleasure and you know what? I hope that I get to come back again. So I’ll just put it out there. I’ll be back.

Will Larson: Thank you so much for having me. It’s been been fantastic, and I hope to be back with another book in like three to five years.

Zanade Mann: Thank you so much for having me, and I hope you have a wonderful day.

Leslie O’Flahavan: It’s absolutely been my pleasure. Thank you for interviewing me like a friend.

Inside Intercom Podcast – 2019 updated images