Etsy engineering director Lara Hogan on public speaking

Lara Hogan is an engineering director at Etsy, the marketplace for buying and selling unique goods, and is probably best known for championing performance as part of the overall user experience.

Her first book, Designing for Performance, published by O’Reilly in 2014, was on that topic. Given Etsy’s pride in sharing its engineering knowledge and culture, it’s no surprise Lara went on to coauthor Building a Device Lab and the recently published Demystifying Public Speaking. She’s toured the world advocating the importance of web performance to designers and developers alike, presented at Google I/O, keynoted the Velocity Conference, and given talks to organizations like The New York Times and the Hillary Clinton campaign.

My interview with Lara covers a range of topics including managing developers, managing with empathy, tech’s diversity problem and how to handle speaking at conferences.

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What follows is a lightly edited transcript of the interview, but if you’re short on time, here are five key takeaways:

  1. It’s not so much a case of should designers code, but how everyone, both designers and developers, can make the user experience better by having at least some knowledge of a second skill set.
  2. A background in liberal arts, gives you skills like developing a strong thesis and supporting arguments and being able to explain it succinctly. These skills translate into most careers but particularly help you be a good teammate and manager.
  3. Humans are really bad at feedback – both giving it and receiving it. The number-one way to improve is to be clear with yourself and the people giving it as to what kind of feedback you are looking for.
  4. Without diverse representation of different voices, of different experiences, of different backgrounds, we’re not going to advance very far as an industry. Be clear with yourself and the people giving it as to what kind of feedback you are looking for.
  5. You may get weird or aggressive questions when you present in public. Practice for them and get comfortable saying, “I don’t actually know the answer to that question.”

Geoffrey: Lara, thanks for joining us. You’re currently Engineering Director at Etsy, but I believe you came to that role after a long, long career in user experience. Could you talk us through your career so far?

Lara: Absolutely. In undergrad, I didn’t study computer science at all. Actually, I was a philosophy major, which I’m thankful that my parents let me go and do that considering there probably were not a lot of job prospects for philosophy students at the time.

I did a lot of website design and front-end website development, so user experience stuff, for friends and for my own personal work – I was running a wedding photography company at the time. I got started doing front-end development that way through little side projects.

At that time, CSS was a brand new thing and there was a lot to do with best practices and a lot of different ways you could be developing for the web. From there eventually, I moved towards more of an engineering focus in my work, working full time in tech, and eventually found my way to Etsy. Managing has been the best. Managing developers has been really rad.

Geoffrey: I suppose the question at the moment, “should designers code?”, is a particularly interesting one for you?

Lara: There are so many skill sets. It’s not just designing, not just developing, but thinking about our users or thinking about how to make things accessible for our users. There are so many different things wrapped up in UX work and in development work these days, and there’s so many skill sets that people should at least try to learn something about, even if it’s not developing a full second skill set.

Geoffrey: You’ve been central in popularizing the idea that web performance is the experience. I suppose that’s the idea that page speed and load times can have a huge impact on how people actually trust your brand. How do you convince designers to actually make these trade offs for the sake of performance?

Performance is a huge part of how people experience a website.

Lara: It’s funny, when I first started talking about web performance, I was talking to a lot of developers about it and I started to realize I wasn’t influencing people who had a huge effect on how long a website takes to load, the design team. I wanted to help designers start to understand the impact their design choices were having on what would end up being the total page time. My work shifted really to figuring out how to translate all of what makes up the user experience, not just the aesthetics, but also the speed, too.

In my work, I did a lot of trying to translate how the internet works – how a request makes it back to a user’s browser – to help designers understand the impact of adding more images or more fonts, or how heavy those kinds of things are. I realized that by helping designers understand that performance is a huge part of how people experience a website, I was able to help get them weighing aesthetics as much as they do speed.

Making mobile testing more accessible

Geoffrey: Talk me through Etsy’s device lab, which you had a hand in creating. I think it was around 2013 when I first read about it on the Etsy engineering blog, Code as Craft. Obviously that was pre-Apple Watch. What sort of challenges do designers and engineers face as the number of interfaces keeps growing?

Lara: Doesn’t 2013 feel like such a long time ago now, just in terms of how much devices have advanced? Back in the day, I was working as the Mobile Web Engineering Manager at Etsy, meaning I worked with a group of developers whose job was to help all of the product engineers optimize their new features or their new changes to the website so that they worked on smaller screens. Our job wasn’t so much to actually make the mobile website exist or be pretty. It was to help empower the people who were shipping our production code base to the web, understanding the impact of their changes or understand the nuances between clicking and tapping.

Lara’s first iteration of the device lab at Etsy. She and her project partner Destiny Montague assembled a best practice guide for the setup.

Around that same time, the mobile engineering director asked me if I could start working on the device lab for Etsy. The state when I first found it was a little locked box. It’s like a gray cabinet, a locked cabinet full of devices. I don’t know where they came from or how old they were. They weren’t even charged. No one was going to use this set of devices in this locked gray cabinet.

I partnered with Destiny Montague, who at the time was an engineer on the corporate IT team, to create a new experience, again talking about user experience, for checking out devices and using them as part of engineer’s daily workflows. We worked with the facilities team, who does a lot of office improvements at Etsy, to build the first version, which was the bookshelf effectively with different size shelves where we could fit different sized devices.

We went through everything from thinking through the power set up – how are we getting power to the lab, are we being efficient about energy usage – through what is it like when you walk up to this device? What’s it like to pick up a device? What’s it like to return a device? How can we make it easy for people to see at a glance the kinds of devices that they might want to test their work on, or how easy is it to plug a device back in when you’re done with it? My and Destiny’s biggest source of headaches was people returning stuff to the device lab incorrectly. A lot of the work had to do with making the user experience in the device lab improved, which gave us headaches, but also made it a lot easier for people to test.

Over time, we made a lot of improvements in how much people were able to check in and check out devices. We could log which devices were most popular or add new devices to the lab as different sized screens, different operating system versions and different kinds of devices became more popular. At one time, we even had Google Glass. We partnered with Microsoft and with Mozilla to make sure we were covering their phones as well. Over time it’s evolved a lot. A couple of years ago, we handed it off to another teammate of ours, and he’s done some amazing things with it as well.

Geoffrey: These sorts of things can really help from an organizational point of view to make mobile performance a real priority for the company.

Lara: Yeah, you can imagine how easy it is to ignore that subset of users. It’s really easy for us to develop on our laptops or desktops and totally forget that there’s a very different user experience when you’re holding a screen. Our hope was to make it as easy as humanly possible to test this stuff.

Empathy and communication in management

Geoffrey: You come from a nontechnical background. How would you say that’s helped you in your engineering career? What advice would you give to others in a similar position try to break into engineering?

Lara: I love this kind of question. My philosophy degree, when you’re writing all these papers, you have to get really good at developing your thesis statement, developing supporting arguments, making your case really clear, explaining it succinctly – all of these things in writing that translate into most people’s jobs. We all have to communicate with other humans, and I don’t just mean in writing papers or writing blog posts. Just in emails, it’s helped me be more clear, be more concise, and make my point more succinctly. Coming from a nontechnical background, all the stuff that you learn in the humanities education really is helpful in being a good teammate, being a good manager, and being a person who understands that there’s more to this work than the code that you’re shipping.

Geoffrey: As you’ve taken on more and more managerial responsibilities, you’ve written some really strong pieces on getting the most from your team and giving meaningful one-to-one feedback. How important has deliberately designing these feedback loops been for your team?

Lara: Humans are fascinating. We are all so different and we’ve all got different fears. We’ve all got different strengths. We all need different things. For me, when I first started being a manager, I was like a robot. I didn’t really understand that people were different from me. It took me a long time to realize that whether it’s in one-on-ones, giving people feedback or just having a lunchtime conversation, you really need to be in tune to the person that you’re talking to and understand what’s motivating them, what’s driving them. What is it they’re trying to fix right now? What is it that they need help with? For me as a manager, it’s a lot to do with knowing myself well enough, but also, knowing the person who I’m speaking with and making sure I get what their deal is.

Geoffrey: One of my favorite parts that you’ve discussed is understanding what makes your employees grumpy as well.

Lara: I straight up stole that from a manager of mine who asked me that in our first one on one. He said, “ Lara, I’m just going to ask you some cheesy questions. What makes you grumpy?” I was so caught off guard. I’ve never thought about that. Have you ever thought about what makes you grumpy and just told someone? I definitely haven’t. For me, it was like alright, grumpy is a cool word. It’s like not what makes me angry or makes me upset. It’s like, not being caffeinated makes me pretty grumpy, or being hungry.

His follow up to that was, “How will I know when you’re grumpy?” Which is a perfect manager question, because our work isn’t just about reducing people’s grumpiness, but it’s more like cool, how do I use spidey-sense when something’s going awry? The one-on-one questions evolved from there. I started to realize that people had different preferences in terms of the recognition that they received. Some people really loved public recognition. I personally love public recognition. Some people really prefer private recognition, one-on-one, a thoughtful note, or sometimes their favorite baked good, which is another question that I like to ask. Getting to know this stuff, getting to know the ways they prefer to receive feedback, the medium or the routine, what their goals are, what they need from their manager or from their teammates, all of it helps me t get a better picture of how I can support them as their manager.

Breaking down public speaking barriers

Geoffrey: Speaking of feedback, your new book, Demystifying Public Speaking, is all about getting comfortable with giving presentations and conference talks. A big way people can do this is actually getting feedback on a talk in advance of giving it. Could you talk us through that some more?

Lara: I love talking about this because humans are really bad at giving each other feedback and humans are really bad at receiving feedback. I don’t know about you, but for me, whenever my boss or my partner says, “Hey, you do this thing that really bothers me,” it’s really hard to hear. I tried to spend a lot of time talking about feedback in the book because it’s something that we can all get better at and we can all really utilize in our daily work life.

If you give a dry run to a group of people and get feedback on it ahead of time, that’ll help you learn what you can do better and differently, and that applies to the words that you’re saying as much as it applies to how you’re standing, how you’re holding your hands, what you’re doing with your hands, how fast you’re talking. It can really run the gamut.

My number-one piece of advice is to think about what kinds of feedback you’re going to be looking for from someone who’s helping you get better at a thing, whether it’s public speaking or something else. You can tee them up beforehand and say, “I would love some really actionable or specific feedback on my narrative structure and whether any of these bits get boring.” That person can watch you give this dry run of your talk, keep that in mind throughout and at the end say, here are some thoughts I had, or here are some feelings I had, or here are some things I think you can try and do differently. That way, your brain is prepped for that specific kind of feedback, you’re going to be more open to hearing it, and it’ll probably land better.

Geoffrey: To reverse that question, what’s the best way for people to receive feedback?

Lara: This is super different based on the person. One of my co-workers prefers to record a dry run on his computer and send the audio to his co-workers and then ask them to reply with feedback in an email. For him that’s a lot easier, that’s a lot more welcome than having to stand in front of a person and brace yourself for the words that they’re about to say. It allows him to digest it better.

Some people might prefer creating a Google forum or something else for people to be able to submit their feedback to you. That’s a great way to do it, or just take someone to coffee. It really depends on the way you prefer to receive feedback and the way that you think you can hear it better.

Geoffrey: How has your own experience with public speaking informed the book?

Lara: I had a lot of imposter syndrome running up to publishing this book, because a lot of it is based on my own experience and the experiences of people who I know and who I’ve read about. There are so many fantastic authors who have also covered this ground. I’ve been a little bit hesitant to put these words out there, because there’s no possible way I could know everything there is to know about public speaking. Everything that I’m talking about, I’m hopeful that it’s going to be helpful to someone somewhere. I tried to cover the gamut of the different ways that people can get more comfortable or reduce their fears about public speaking.

I put out a survey on Twitter asking people what their number one public speaking fear is. Mine personally is tripping and falling when I’m getting on stage, but I heard everything from my fly being down to fumbling my words, blushing, being judged, being wrong, realizing halfway through the talk that I’m a fraud. All of that information really informed how I wrote this book.

Geoffrey: You’ve presented at the likes of Google I/O, The New York Times and even for the Hillary Clinton campaign. Do you still get nervous before you speak?

Lara: Absolutely. I get a different kind of butterflies, but there’s still butterflies. I get a little less nauseous these days. The nerves are different. Everybody wants to do a good job at whatever kind of work that they’re doing. The stakes are always really high. Whether it’s a huge audience or just one on one, you want to make sure that you’re doing good work.

Diversity, the elephant in the auditorium

Geoffrey: We’re in 2016 now. Is there really any excuse for conferences and events that don’t feature female or diverse speakers?

Lara: This is something that our industry has been wrestling a lot with over the last two years or so of discourse, whether the discourse has been about Gamergate, and the way that underrepresented groups are represented online or attacked online through codes of conduct, and the myriad of discussions and ways to improve safety at events, efficacy of codes of conduct, etc.

We’ve got a major hurdle here, which is that without diverse representation of different voices, of different experiences, of different backgrounds, we’re not going to advance very far as an industry. We’ve got a huge risk if we don’t make it safer, if we don’t create more inclusive events, and if we don’t make a point of having diverse voices on stage.

I think that there’s a lot that events can do to try to improve this. Again, the spectrum ranges from making it really safe to inviting people to leaning on one’s network. It’s really unfortunate that we’re still debating the validity of this stuff. It’s been more than enough time for us to make a difference here.

Geoffrey: So much responsibility falls on the shoulders of conference organizers to be deliberate about these things in advance. How can conference organizers facilitate these this?

Anonymizing submission forms could go a long way in helping us.

Lara: A lot has already been written online and there are a lot of really good examples of conferences that do this well, that have written about how they either make it a safer space or anonymizing conference talk submissions. There have been a number of studies done about anonymizing, whether it’s resumes or orchestral applications. Violinists come in and have a curtain up so that the people judging them can’t see them. Regardless, anonymizing submission forms, anonymizing CFPs, etc., could go a long way in helping us have a more diverse group of people represented.

Expecting the unexpected question

Geoffrey: One of my favorite parts of the book is when you talk about how to handle difficult Q&As at the end of a conference talk. What’s your advice there?

Lara: We’ve all either attended or spoken at a conference or an event where someone raises their hand and asks a bad question that’s not actually a question. They’re trying to make a statement or maybe they’re just excited to hear themselves talk. I’ve had attendees or audience members say something that might intentionally or unintentionally put a speaker on the defense. The best way to help prepare yourself for when this happens is to practice it.

From the crew that I’ve gathered to help give me feedback on my presentations before I give them in real life, I’m able to lean on that group to help me practice answering weird or aggressive questions. I’ve gotten really good at saying, “I don’t actually know the answer to that question,” which is fine. It deflates the situation. I’ve also started to get more practice in re-framing questions or re-framing statements that aren’t questions to help give the audience some take away. If someone asks something that’s totally off the wall or bananas, I can respond in a way that says, “Hey, I’m going to actually shape your question and reframe this a little bit,” answers this new question that I’ve created, and hope that the audience still takes away something actionable or inspiring.

Remember, the audience is rooting for you.

Your job as the speaker is to make sure the audience is learning something and you’re still in control during this Q&A time, even though it may not feel like you are. You have a lot of power to reframe questions and handle those really weird or aggressive ones. Remember, the audience is rooting for you. Everybody in the audience knows exactly what’s happening when that audience member asks a weird or otherwise aggressive question.

Geoffrey: There’s a line I really love – it’s not your responsibility to be the expert in answering other people’s questions. That mode of thinking unburdens you in a way when you realize that you don’t have to provide a canonical answer to every single question that comes up to you.

Lara: Totally. As a speaker on stage I’ve said, “I actually don’t know the answer to that question. Does anybody else in the audience know?” It’s so honest and it’s still helping everybody learn something and it’s totally fine. Saying I don’t know is absolutely fine. In fact, it’s better than trying to stand up there and stammer something out that may or may not be true.

Geoffrey: Can a lot of the advice contained within your book be used for simple things like presenting in a meeting or actually giving interviews? It’s not just related to public speaking on an open stage in a conference, right?

Lara: We have all these opportunities in our daily work life to stand up in front of someone or sit in front of someone and say some prepared words to them. Maybe that’s a design critique, maybe that’s pitching your work to a client, maybe that’s asking your boss for a promotion and needing to make a case for why you deserve it. There are all these opportunities for us to say some prepared words in a spotlight, whether that spotlight is literal or figurative. I’m hopeful that the kinds of skills, the kinds of tactics that I list out in the book are helpful to people in many more settings than just a stage.

Geoffrey: Brilliant. Thank you so, so much for joining us, Lara.

Lara: Thank you for having me.