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Julian Gutman, CPO at Patreon, Part One

Published 1/10/2022

Today, Julian Gutman, Chief Product Officer at Patreon, joins us to discuss community, culture, and buy-in.

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Transcript (Generated by OpenAI Whisper)
Hey everyone, welcome to Developer Tea. In today's episode I have the exciting opportunity to talk to Julian Gutman. Julian is the CPO chief product officer at Patreon. It's an excellent discussion about culture and just a ton of other fantastic topics that came up but Julian really does care about culture the most. I hope you enjoyed this discussion. And hey before I go, I want to invite you to join the Developer Tea discord community. We're going to be doing a lot of things hopefully this year and growing what we're doing with the podcast beyond just the podcast and the best way for you to influence that and to learn more about it is to join that discord community. Head over to developertea.com slash discord. It's totally free to join that. And let's get into the interview with Julian. Julian welcome to Developer Teagreat to be here. Thanks for having me. I'm excited to chat with you today. I want to start out with a question that typically I save until the end because I think it will have you based on our little bit of conversation we had just before recording. I think you'll have a really good answer to this question. And that is simply what do you wish more people would ask you about? Oh wow, that's such a great question. In life or in work? Well I think let's try to integrate them. What things do you feel like people could be interested in on both dimensions? It kind of overlap on both sides of that? Yeah, I think one area that I really love to talk about generally and maybe this is sort of how I've ended up at Patreon this culture. I'm a big believer that culture is sort of a hidden force behind so many things behind the people behind organizations behind communities and obviously mean somewhat different things in all those contexts. But somebody recently told me this phrase, I don't know who it's attributed to so apologies for the un-intributed quote, but culture eats strategy for breakfast. I think it's pretty famous phrase and I think that's true in many things and because it's the hidden force, it's not the visible force. I think we don't pay enough attention to it as organizations, as people, as communities. Obviously working at Patreon, which is a force of culture and is a deeply embedded in culture. But also as an organization, I think we're trying to build a unique culture and be really focused on that, particularly considering that we build for creators who are very culturally motivated people. It's a topic that I'm passionate about and love talking to people about and getting their perspective on. Yeah, and we're going to dig in really hard on this. I guess I went straight for this conversation, but I'd love to back up just a second and give folks a chance to understand what context you're in. Can you tell us a little bit about what you do on a day-to-day basis? Yeah, so I'm the Chief Product Officer at Patreon for those unaware of Patreon. We are a platform for creators to support their membership, their fan membership. We help creators set up memberships for their fans. Our general mission is to help creators become more independent, have more ownership over their business ownership, over their creativity, their audience. We've been around for eight years, we've been processing over, we've set over a billion dollars for creators, over two and 50,000 creators on our platform and eight million members. And obviously, the creator economy, as it's called, is just heating up right now at a level that we've never seen before. We hope the stay would come, where people would recognize that value. Of creators and how much they give to the world and how much we should give back to them. But that moment's really arrived and we're excited to play a role in helping creators achieve their dreams over the next decade. Within that context, I support our product design and engineering teams. So we've kind of combined that all under what I call the Capital P product umbrella, not product management, but the folks that come together to build products and very excited by sort of the structure we have, really looking to build collaborative, cohesive teams focused on solving challenges for creators and their members. I love that you made the distinction about coming together to build a product versus product management. I want to come back to that. But before we do that, I want to return to our discussion about culture, because I think there is something really profound in this idea that culture is a hidden force or almost like an engine. The idea of culture eating strategy for breakfast, why is that? And I don't know that we can answer that on this 30, 40 minute call that I'm going to hear. But I do think it's important, first of all, there's probably people who are listening in this pocket almost certainly, because I would have been in this boat even just a few years ago, who hear you talk about culture. And they're starting to tune out, and I want to capture them before they go. Because what I would have thought a few years ago is that, okay, you're saying the words culture, but really what does it actually mean in some organizations, they've used that to make up for other things that they're not able to meet market demands on. You fill in culture as an example. Absolutely. I want to give some boundaries on what exactly do you mean when you say culture? If you can put a definition on it. And then why do you feel like this hidden force exists related to that definition? Yeah, so going back to your first point, I want to make a point of clarification. It's not culture and not other things. There are foundational things that I think every organization, every community needs to do really, really well. Right? Whether that's execution, whether it's clarity around strategy, whether it's some amount of process, there are the basics without which I don't think culture can necessarily make up for those. But I do think when you look at organizations that are thriving, when you look at individuals that are thriving, when you look at great products or services out in the world, and you do a deeper investigation, you talk to those people that are thriving, you talk to leaders in the organization, even talk to customers to some extent, and what they attribute a lot of it to is the culture. And it's not the culture replacing gaps in other things, but it's almost an amplifier or a hidden force that pulls those other things together in a cohesive way where the sum is greater than its parts. And then answer your other question. What is culture? Fundamentally, I think it really boils down to another great quote I've heard is culture what happens when the leaders aren't there to some extent. It's sort of this share set of knowledge, the share set of beliefs, which turn into a shared set of practices. But it's almost a clarity around how we operate, what we value, what trade-offs will make, and what animates us as an organization. I'll give you an example. Some organizations, one example of culture that people talk about, some organizations are extremely data-driven. Other organizations are extremely creatively driven. It's not a better or worse necessarily. Those are examples of cultural decisions where the organization has a shared set of beliefs for what it's trying to achieve in terms of what direction to take. And the clarity around that, that it gives the entire organization in different roles at different moments in time, is extremely powerful. And when there isn't clarity around those types of trade-offs or those types of decisions, what you end up doing as an organization is everybody has to debate those things constantly in every project and every moment and every time. That's obviously both inefficient but more so than inefficient. It's not really an environment of thriving. Because without that clarity, one people can't self-select into organizations that meet the way they want to work or what they believe or the type of thing they want to do right now. And two, I think a lot of builders want to build. They don't want to be constantly sort of debating some of these points. And what culture really gives you is a lot of clarity and a lot of alignment as an organization that then creates an environment for people to do their best work. I love this definition because it's so focused on actual behavior or actions, things that are happening, things that people do. I do think that a lot of that distaste that I was kind of referring to before, why people might check out, is that number one, what I already mentioned, the idea that we're using it as kind of a crutch. But also, the misconception that culture is some slide deck that you put together. And it's the things that you say that you care about, but really it doesn't affect anybody except the people that are saying it. It seems like a better way of thinking about culture. And I actually just had a great conversation about this with a good friend of mine. On this podcast, I don't know if it will have aired by the time this one goes out. His name is Ernie. Ernie said or brought up the idea of operationalizing culture or operationalizing values. And the idea being, okay, if we have this kind of value that we've set out as a part of our intentional drive to create a specific kind of culture in our company, what does it actually mean? How does it separate us from another company that has a different culture, not necessarily in a better way or in a worse way, but just in a different way. How do we respond to these kinds of situations? And you mentioned exactly something in line with that, the idea that culture kind of helps not just help, but you can determine a culture based on how you're making decisions or trade offs. Yeah, that's exact. One of the things we talk about often at Patreon when talking about culture is we try to ground it in situations. How will this value or this cultural decision manifest? What types of decisions will it influence? How will it make us act in certain situations? Because to your point, I really do think there's two types of organizations with respect to culture. I think the first one is the one you pointed out, I think people used to call it, the poster on the wall. The slide deck or the video culture where it's sort of, it's there, it's written down, but it's not really lived on a day-to-day week-to-week basis. It's not part of the bloodstream of the organization. It's sort of a check box that you need to check. Then there are organizations, which I think are oftentimes when we talk about the organizations that we admire. It's different for different people, but when you think about the Pixar's of the world or the apples of the world or the ones that build great products and have a very clear point of view in those products or something that they really do well in those products, when you dig in, you really see that those cultures are really lived in terms of decisions they make in terms of how they operate, even in terms of how they structure their organizations. I think about the famous story with Pixar, how they hold these really critical reviews at every stage of making a movie. One of their values as a culture is really being honest and critical and having a sort of a creative forum for creative criticism that is not personal, that is very constructive, that brings together a certain set of folks and that's not only a value they have, but it's actually ingrained in how they go about making those movies and that obviously shows in the end product. I think organizations that increasingly organizations that really have a lived culture are going to be at an advantage, partially because I think increasingly people want to work at those types of companies where the culture is actually lived because folks that work in tech today have a lot of options. It's a great time to be an engineer, it's a great time to be a product designer, it's a great time to be a product manager. There is a software as even the world or whatever cliche you want to use, there's a proliferation of great things happening in technology which is great. You have a lot of good options, what are you going to choose? You're going to choose a place where the culture and the lived culture really aligns with how you want to build and how you want to work and the mission that you want to achieve, partially because it's a better environment to practice your craft and you will thrive more. Partially because if you believe in that you have a point of confidence that you will build better things. To your point, that's the key, the key is it can't just be a squishy thing or replace other things. It really has to be oriented both around the day-to-day thriving of the individual, their growth, their ability to grow their craft, their ability to work with people that they feel are pushing them in the right ways. Ultimately, we're all builders. You want to believe that that will manifest in a product and in a contribution to the world that reflects your values. I'm sitting here wondering as you're talking about this because I feel like if you were to go and look at 50 job posts, all of those job posts are going to talk. They're going to mention having a good company culture and then as kind of sub-bullet points of that, they might say something like, oh, we have a really good balance. We encourage unlimited PTO. We have all of these benefits. We want you to take care of yourself, wellness type. All these things that have become kind of in vogue and attached to, for better or for worse, this idea of culture. I wonder, going beyond these competitive offerings that people see as essentially benefits, we're kind of aligning the term of good culture, healthy culture with things that I like or things that make my life more enjoyable. I wonder if you were to take a step past that and say, here is what makes us, if you were to take those 50 different roles or job postings. Here's what makes us, our unique parts of our culture, the things that, once again, are not necessarily a good or a bad thing. But if you do fit within this, we talk about culture fit all the time, a lot of times, that also is a substitute phrase for, can we get along or not? There's something more to, okay, we're very mission oriented in our culture, versus we are very lifestyle oriented. Those are two very different companies, both could be quite successful, completely different cultures, right? Absolutely. We do agree with that kind of assessment, first of all, of the confusing picture of what culture means in the marketplace, but then also, how do we differentiate between real cultures between two companies? Yeah, definitely agree, I think the, there's a couple components to it. There's the, what you put on paper, which can be clear, but again, it's not necessarily clear how does that manifest, right? How will that manifest in my work? How will that manifest in my day-to-day life at the organization? I think that's one element that you can't tell from a job posting. One thing that we've tried to do at Patreon is we actually send out a deck of our sort of core values, core behaviors to prospective candidates, and that deck is actually quite thorough. It talks about the values, it talks about what they do mean, it talks about what they don't mean, it talks about how we try to practice them in our work, and so really trying to give a deeper level of clarity beyond just those kind of bullet points. So that's, I think, one dimension is really being specific to some extent. I think it's really important with culture to our prior point around the squishingness. And then the other dimension is oftentimes organizations will have similar bullets, not all the bullets are the same, but you'll see a lot of organizations that talk about excellence, or you'll see a lot of organizations that talk about collaboration. But what's missing is how do they fit together? Because it's not just about the individual culture bullets. It's about a collective set of values and beliefs and the sort of holistic system in terms of how they come together, like how do you balance collaboration and excellence, how do you balance feedback and kindness, and really the nitty-gritty is in this balance. It's in the, how do these set of things come together for an operating model, a shared set of behaviors and beliefs. Even honestly, and I think this is where culture stops being squishy to some extent, is how do you take into account in whatever your performance process is or your promotion process is, right? Your culture is not real if it's not part of the evaluation for how you promote people in the organization and how you think about the leaders of your organization. Because a major portion of a leader's responsibility is to make the culture clear and be a cultural carrier for lack of a better term, to provide that type of clarity to the organization. And so yeah, agree that the bullets don't do it, and it's a question of how do you get specific about it? One piece of advice I always give folks that are interviewing is the interview panel. It is actually, you know, you think you're being interviewed, and that's certainly the case, but how do you leverage that opportunity to get more of those specifics? Sometimes you just get it for meeting the people. I think very often times people don't take advantage of when the interviewer said, what questions do you have for me? And that's a very powerful moment that really is an opportunity for you to get clarity on some of these squishy things, right? The obvious things, I think you'll get through the process, you'll get through the documentation, you'll get through just the other means, but you know, you're sitting there arguing with folks that will be your peers, your managers. It's a great opportunity to find the specifics and see if there is alignment and fit there, because ultimately I think when you talk to people that leave a job, it's very often about this general area of culture. It's really about fit. And I've seen this happen with cultures that have changed, or organizations that have grown, or have evolved their cultures, or have had a new leadership come in, and you see sort of an exodus of, you know, the prior set of folks, the product is the same. The business is the same. The momentum is the same. The organizational structure is the same. The code base is the same. So those factors haven't changed, but what changed, to some extent, again, is that hidden force in the organization? I'd love to ask you a hard question then. What are some of those questions that they should be asking? We'll be right back to talk about that. And after we talk about today's sponsor. Developer Tea is supported by Core. Core is the messaging tool that gives you direct access to hiring teams inside technology companies in London, Europe, and New York. Core enables what is currently not possible in a simple conversation with someone who wants to hire you. The wider impact of these conversations is far reaching with Core. Engineers find work through conversations rather than applications. Interactions and replies are meaningful, fast, direct, and relevant. Hiring teams inside the world's most advanced technology companies use Core to hire. From recent Y-combinator alumni to publicly listed technology companies, whole teams are built on Core that wouldn't otherwise exist. Inside companies who are on the cutting edge, developing vaccines, tackling climate change, and building autonomous vehicles. You can get started on Core today at cord.co-t. That's cord.co-ta. Thanks again to Cord for sponsoring today's episode of Developer Tea. I'd love to ask you a hard question then. What are some of those questions that they should be asking to get at, like you're saying, the squishy things? What is a good two or three very good kind of razor type questions that you would expect could provide really good handle on some of those cultural concerns or differences? Yeah, so I love this question. My general framework that I try to give people for whether it's interviews or just one that you're trying to get to know something at a deeper level, a person organization, a community, is two things. One is tensions. You want to push on tensions. I'll give you an example of a tension. What is a value that the organization has today that it's struggling to apply or that causes the most challenge for the organization? I think when you, partially because just when you ask somebody around points of tension, it really gets their mind going. They generally will be more honest and transparent with you and you're really getting at the heart of the matter. I think that's one. The other framework I like to use is extremes. I think you need to probe at the extremes to get clarity. As an example, what is the value that you think is most unique to the organization or most uniquely applied to the organization? What is the value that's hardest for people coming from different organizations to get up to speed on to live to understand? Tensions and extremes, I think, is generally a good framework, not just for culture but for other areas where you're really trying to understand something in a conversation with somebody. Oftentimes, what you'll see is the person on the other side of the table will actually kind of keep going and they'll give you an opening to ask a follow-up question. But I think it kind of knocks the conversation out of the prototypical, what are your values or things along those lines where you'll generally get that list of bullets again. Attentions and extremes push you out of the list of bullets into interesting conversations and interesting specifics that can then sort of give you the room and the opportunity to ask more questions. Let's imagine I'm in an interview and I've been in an interview like this before where I'm trying to push on exactly the kinds of things that you're saying. Where does the stress come from? Is a question I like to ask in an interview, which is very similar to your question about tension? And let's say that it's a fairly young start-ups typically go through this and you can't really, it almost feels like culture is absent even though we know that that's not true because you can't have no culture. It's just perhaps one that you're not necessarily intentionally creating. But how do you fill in the blanks there when you feel like as somebody who's kind of on the outside looking in, there doesn't seem to be a consistent through line of culture in a, I'm trying to think beyond just interviews because of course there's other ways to look at this. Certainly people within their own companies may feel like, I don't really know what our culture is. I want to know what it is so I can determine if I can help further it or if I can change it in a positive direction or something. What advice would you give somebody in that scenario where it seems kind of hard to grasp? Yeah. And I think the point you make is absolutely right, which is every place has a culture. There's no question about it. Just some are more implicit versus explicit or more known to the people involved but there is no institution even of five people without a culture. In those situations, I think what you want to, you know, you're almost on a journey with the other person to understand this but you want to go to where culture shows up, right? Because it is implicitly there and it is showing up. People just don't realize that what that thing is is culture. And in that case, I like to ask, how do or when do questions, right? How do you do this thing? How do you make a decision? How do you build? How do you decide to move from this phase to that phase? How do you think about this problem? So I think how do questions is where culture shows up and similarly when questions, right? When do you choose this over that? When do you all usually, you know, do this thing as part of the product process? And so I think in a situation where it's less formalized, where, you know, there's less of an opportunity to ask those tensions and extremes questions because people are less aware. It's more implicit. Then you have to start looking for where culture shows up, which is trade-offs. Its decisions, it's maybe, you know, not points of tension in the culture but moments of tension in the organization when a decision or difficulty or sort of a disagreement about the implicit culture shows up and you kind of have to probe about those situations where that culture will show up because then oftentimes whether the person can exactly say it in a formalized way, you will get a sense for what are those values, what is the way the organization thinks about things that when formalized would be described as their culture or their values. Yeah. That's helpful. And I do think, you know, there are people who are listening right now where they're like, man, I just have never really thought about culture. Work as work, and home as home. And I do think that it is worth considering, you know, there are some cultures that are very, I would say it is a cultural value to say, okay, we're focused on the work. We, you know, one thing about our culture is that we don't bring in a lot of external, you know, concerns. We're very focused on our work. We're very kind of objective oriented. That is a type of culture. That's not an absence of culture. That's right. It is a way that some companies operate. And it might be something that if you're listening to this, you're like, yeah, that's the way I prefer to operate. I don't want to deal with all the, you know, extra, you know, I don't want to go to, you know, nightly get together. There's a feel the, the kind of social pressure of having to do things for work outside of work. That's, that is a cultural kind of edict that you're laying out for yourself that you don't really, you don't want to want to participate at that level. I think you actually hit on something really important, which is, culture is a big word. It means a lot of things. And I think that's what you were getting at earlier, right? It's a big umbrella. There's societal culture. There's a very overloaded culture. It's a very overloaded term. And I think, I'm glad you brought it up because I think it's important to make the distinction between what I think I've mostly been, been trying to talk about, which I would say is more organizational culture or operating culture. It's not even about the social culture of an organization, right? Do we do board games? What are the expectations in terms of like your social participation? I think that's actually a separate topic. Social culture is a bit of a separate topic. There's somewhat intertwined, obviously, the operational culture of an organization will somewhat define the social culture, you know, a banking culture, which is an operational culture also to some extent dictates the social culture. But you know, I think what I'm really pushing on is the operational culture piece as people that are builders, as people that have values in terms of how we build and how we practice our craft. There are some people that believe, you know, again, going back to my earlier example, the only way to make decisions is with data. And that's a valid point of view. And you should make sure that you're at a operating culture that believes the same thing or else you're going to be out of alignment that's going to be a constant point of stress intention versus there are other folks that, you know, believe, hey, yeah, data is important, but we, you know, we need to be data in form, not data driven. And those are forms of operational culture. It's a very specific example again, but those are the types of things that I'm referring to more so than societal culture, broad culture, or even social culture, which is a different, totally different category of culture. Another huge thank you to Julian and government for joining me on today's episode. And thank you to you for listening to today's episode. And the third thank you goes to Cored for being today's sponsor. You can get started today heading over to cord.co slash T E A that's C O R D dot C O slash T E A. And once again, that's conversations direct conversations with people who want to hire you. It's that simple. When check it out, cord.co slash T. Remember, if you don't want to miss out on future episodes, including the second part of the interview, which Julian and go ahead and subscribe and whatever podcasting app you're currently using. Last thing, we need your voice in the Developer Tea Discord community. Head over to DeveloperTea.com slash discord. Now you can share your ideas and thoughts about the show. We'd like to start doing a regular discussion on each episode. But what we need the most is your feedback. Once again, that's DeveloperTea.com slash discord. Thanks so much for listening. Until next time, enjoy your tea.