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Interview with Joshua Aziz (Part 1)

Published 12/6/2017

In today's episode, I interview Joshua Aziz from TransferWise.

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Transcript (Generated by OpenAI Whisper)
You've almost certainly heard of test-driven development. Then you've probably heard of behavior-driven development. But I can make a pretty good guess that you haven't heard of purpose-driven development. This is kind of what this show is all about. Finding your career purpose as a developer. Finding your career purpose isn't just a walk at the park. It's something that takes quite a bit of work. And sometimes some painful experiences to actually get to the place where you know what it is that you are intended to do. And it may be something that you uncover yourself or maybe something that someone else kind of points out to you and then you eventually agree? There could be many different things. That's what we're talking about in today's episode. My interview with Joshua Aziz, your listening to Developer Tea. My name is Jonathan Cutrell and I'm going to get out of the way. Let's get straight into this interview with Joshua Aziz. Joshua, welcome to the show. Thanks for having me. We were discussing beforehand some of the things we're going to talk about. And it feels like every time I have a guest on and you're included in this group that whatever they want to talk about happens to be relevant to my experiences for that week. And I'm sure that that is just, I don't know, confirmation bias or something, but I'm really excited to talk to you. So you work at TransferWise. Let's go ahead and cover this piece of the puzzle here. Can you explain, first of all, what is the purpose of TransferWise? What does TransferWise do? And then what is your role in accomplishing that purpose? So TransferWise is aimed at making money movement around the world, completely borderless. We're trying to solve a real problem for people all around the world where when you're trying to move money from one country to another, maybe you're a freelancer working for a company in the United Kingdom or you have family in Australia and you're trying to send home a Christmas present. You're always trying to move money in the way that the banking system has been set up is super old, super expensive. They're always taking a really big cut. And TransferWise's ultimate purpose is trying to save everyone money and make their lives a lot easier when they're moving money around the world. So we like to say the mission at TransferWise is one day making international money transfer eventually free, instant as easy as possible for as many people in the world as we can. And at TransferWise I'm a product manager and my personal purpose at TransferWise is enabling everyone on my team, whether they're engineers, customer support, people in operations, to get even closer to that purpose, to that goal, whether that's helping them find insights, talk to users, getting my hands dirty and picking up the customer support line, but anything that helps further people getting towards that mission. This is an excellent answer. Let me start by saying, if you're listening to this episode right now and you don't have that answer for yourself, this is an exact kind of a perfect idea. An example of why it's so important to establish that kind of purpose both at the company level. So if you're leading a company, if you're a manager or if you're a CEO for that matter, finding a purpose that everyone in your company can understand and attach to, but also you as an individual in the context of your work, finding what you do to contribute to that larger goal. This is also why it's so important to understand who you're going to go and work for. Josh's goal is to work for TransferWise to accomplish their mission, but to do so in this particular way. It's not a secondary mission, it's not parallel. It is a contributing kind of structure, a support for that larger mission. And I'm just very, I can't overstate enough how important it is for people, Josh, to be able to say what you just told me. You didn't rehearse that for me. We didn't talk about this beforehand. That was something that you already had available. Yeah, I think it's really important to understand what your personal mission is and what your company's mission is because so many times when people work at a company often, when there's a breakdown in communication or someone's working on the wrong thing or they feel like they're not having impact, more often than not, it's because they're not building towards an eventual purpose or mission. And when that's not clear to you, it's really hard for you to have an impact on your day-to-day life. Josh, you mentioned, well, I guess you didn't mention it yet. I looked into the portfolio of things that you've done in your career and one of the things that you've done, you worked at GrubHub. Can you kind of explain what your role was there and what the mission of GrubHub is? When I was at GrubHub, I also did products and my mission was to rephrase the mission that GrubHub was to make ordering food and getting food delivered to you, easy, exciting, fun and seamless, essentially. And my role was working with our web and mobile teams to make it so that when a user picks up their phone, they're really hungry, maybe they're hungover, and they want to get fed right then and there. They don't have to think, they don't have to make a lot of guesses. They just know exactly what they need to do and it's habitual to them and it's seamless for them. Although the mission at GrubHub was to help people discover and grow in food and be happy, I personally felt like a mission that resonated more with me was doing something bigger and for me that was transfer wise. The problem in the mission that transfer wise had was a bit clearer for me and that helped me kind of shift my career and make a different decision of where my purpose lied and where I eventually wanted to go. That's a perfect example of making that kind of crucial decision. A lot of people think that even on the show, we've talked about the importance of loyalty and the importance of growing in where you are, being able to focus long enough that you're not constantly discontent. There is a lot to be said for finding a way to maximize wherever you are today. I think a lot of people, unfortunately, they give up really good opportunities, things that are healthy for them, things that have a lot of potential to grow them as an individual as well as a professional programmer or professional developer or product manager or whatever that role is. People give that up because they constantly feel like they're missing out on something or they see a little bit more opportunity across the street. On the show, we've advocated for sticking to something long enough to understand why you're there and long enough to get something out of it. This is a perfect example, Josh. You outlined a reason at a more value-driven level, a reason to change directions in your career. And absolutely, we're not an advocate here of never changing direction. That would be most people who come to development unless they started in development. Most people are coming from a different industry. Most people come to development having been burned or maybe they felt like their potential was limited in a different industry. They come to development because they see new opportunity, they see growth, they get excited about that possibility of participating with something that they actually have some ability to influence the world through software. That's such an exciting thing. Absolutely, we don't recommend by any means to stick in a job that you hate. That's not the point. But Josh, you outlined a perfectly good reason for shifting directions in your career. And I actually have some domain experience with this at Whiteboard. We've worked on projects where we want to move money from one country to another. It's actually pretty surprising how, first of all, potentially corrupt a lot of these various gateways are. Moving money from one country to another, there are people who are taking advantage of the difficulty of that process today. The crazy part too is moving money around the world isn't a new concept. It's existed ever since currencies have existed. And it's always surprising to me, especially when I talk with co-workers who work in Europe and Australia and a few other countries. And whenever they come to the US and they see how our banks are set up and how money movement really works here, they're often so surprised. And it's crazy that in today's day and age, something as normal, like sending money home to your family is so difficult and has so much money grabbing and it can be expensive and it's hard and it's tough. And it's not a new thing. And so I think that's what also leaves it kind of ripe for disruption. Yeah, it definitely is. It's one of those, it's a category of business that I believe there's still a lot of real estate available. And that is logistics, logistics is a huge, huge business. And strangely enough, the logistics of moving money is not bound to that physical reality. But it is bound to policy realities. It's bound to the humanity realities that you can't really jump over, right? If there is a law, for example, against, and I'm not sure if this is even the case. If a country has not accepted the usage of Bitcoin by and large, then Bitcoin is not going to be an acceptable resource for people to use in that country. If they can't exchange for whatever their country's currency is, then they're kind of out of luck. And now this thing that Bitcoin or whatever other E currency that you want to fill the blank with. This currency is now essentially only valuable outside of that country or to a very small group of people in that country. And in the United States, we have the ability to easily transfer between those currencies. There's very, I won't say there's very little regulation, but the regulation is not so prohibitively expensive that I wouldn't be able to expect to receive payment in that kind of alternative currency. So that makes transfer for me very easy, but that's not true everywhere. So would you say, Josh, that that assessment of cryptocurrency, does that apply to the way that transfer wise, you know, is transfer wise kind of working in that field? Are you interested in that field? Or are you hoping to kind of unify this and actually do direct currency manipulation, or not manipulation, but trading between currencies? That transfer wise, we think that there is still a lot of room to grow and a lot of big problems we can solve using the existing banking and currency frameworks. So the way that if you're not familiar with transfer wise, the way it works is we have a big infrastructure of bank accounts and connections in lots of countries around the world. And when you're trying to send money from say the US to the UK, right, you're sending USD to GBP. Normally, the way it would work with your bank is they do an international wire transfer. It'd be expensive, it'd be slow. It has to go through all these like manual checks and processes. And even though it's regulated, because some of those things are manual, it can't, it sometimes is not necessarily a safe. What we instead do at transfer wise is we use the money that people are sending from the US to the UK to help match payments that are coming from the UK to the US. So we actually use money domestically and we're able to avoid the money moving internationally, even though at the end of the day, the person you're sending money to gets it on the other side. We can save a lot on the slowness and the infrastructure costs by keeping things local. So that's one way we've been able to use the existing banking system to make things really accessible for people. And I think to get back to your point about maybe countries that don't have that as easily accessible, we're always looking for new ways to solve that, whether it's with mobile payments, different types of partners, that sort of thing. We can find ways that we can make it successful. Because at the end of the day, going back to your point about purpose-driven development or just having a purpose as a company, one of those big things in the transfer wise mission is sending and receiving money around the world accessible to everyone. And I think whatever we can do to get closer to that, regardless of what that technology is, is something we're going to always chase. That assessment is so interesting. I love this mission. I love the idea that payments shouldn't be transferring resources. It shouldn't be a limited right. If I have resources and I want to transfer them to another person, the market, the global market should be able to support that. And I love that mission. Realistically, I know about one hundredth of the information that you know, Josh, about transfer and currency around the world. So I appreciate you educating me, first of all, but also the audience. A little bit about this mission. I'd love to know if you can kind of back up a little bit and kind of give me a background. Where do you come from? How did you end up becoming a product manager? What is your education background and your personal background? What were your interests that led you to this? So I was born in Canada. I'm not a native US citizen. I was born in Canada, raised in Southwestern Ontario right near the border of Detroit, Michigan. So I was surrounded by, you know, the big three automotive companies. My uncle was in mechanical engineer. My cousins worked in automotive industry. And I was constantly around people who built things and invented things. And that's always interested me from a young age. And as I grew up and was going to school, math and science and physics always kind of tickled my fancy. And I went to school at the University of Waterloo, which is one of the larger computer science and engineering schools in Canada. And I studied engineering there. And something that was really important to me because like so many young people, I didn't really know what I, what my purpose was. I didn't know what I wanted to truly be when I grew up and choosing a college, choosing your study form. It can be really hard. So I knew I was interested in engineering, but I didn't know if I would really like it. So I went to Waterloo and one of the big draws for me there was they have a co-op program there, one of the largest ones in Canada that allows you to work in different industries at different jobs throughout your college career. So as I went through college and I was figuring out, you know, where do I want to specialize in engineering? Do I want to go more to computer science? Do I want to do mechanical engineering? I actually tried out different internships. So I worked in automotive plants. I worked for a bank, actually surprisingly, for a little bit, doing software development. And as I went through that, I found one I myself wasn't necessarily a great engineer. I wasn't very effective at coding. And I, I worked at a company where the engineering team was just kind of told what to do by the sales team. And this was a little bit before product management and customer-driven products had really started to kick off. And I thought to myself, wouldn't it be great if there was someone who could help talk to the marketing folks who can't necessarily resonate with engineers? But make sure we do the right things for customers. And that's kind of how I fell into product management. And I saw I was a lot more effective at helping engineers be even more impactful engineers and reach their purpose than I did with I was an individual engineer myself. And through that, I kind of fell into product management and I got a job in the US right after I graduated college. And a few steps later, I'm now here and still loving it, still loving making engineers have happy, happy days. Yeah, that's so cool. I have a very similar passion in terms of empowering other engineers as the reason the show exists. This is not, I'm not coding right now, right? So I really appreciate and enjoy building software still. And I do that on almost daily basis now, depending on the day. But I also have this drive to help other Developer Truly succeed. And in a way that is genuine and fulfilling for them. So I resonate pretty deeply with that sentiment. Today's episode is sponsored by Linode. Linode has been a sponsor of Developer Tea for a while. So if you're a listener of the show, then you've heard the pitch quite a few times. But what you may not have heard is that Linode is always developing new stuff. They're not a static company. They're actually moving things forward. In fact, they even have, they didn't send this to us. I actually went and found this. Linode block storage. It's in beta right now. You can actually opt in. It's a public beta. You can opt in your Linode index page. This is something that's live right now. I found that because they actually have an IRC channel. So Linode is not your average posting company. They want to get connected to you, the developer. They want to serve their customers closely. That means talking to you one-on-one. They have a forum for that. They have 24-7 customer support. This is such an important factor in deciding who you're going to stake your application, the hosting on. Who do you stake that on? Of course, that great customer service only matters if the product is great. Linode's product is great. Their deals are fantastic. The best gigabyte per dollar ratio that you're going to get on the market. Linode is offering you a $5 a month one gigabyte of RAM server. It's $5 a month that's so cheap for a gigabyte of RAM. You can get that spun up in just a few minutes. Of course, Linode also has high memory plans. For example, they're 16 gigabytes of RAM for $60 a month. Go and check it out. Linode is also offering you $20 worth of credit on your new account when you use the code Developer Tea 2017. Head over to spec.fm slash Linode to learn more. Make sure you use the code Developer Tea 2017 when you sign up. Thank you so much to Linode for setting the standard on customer service when it comes to service providers. More specifically hosting providers. Thank you for connecting with this community and for supporting DeveloperT. Your story is interesting. It has some turns. I assume that at some point along the way, you experienced kind of a dark period or some kind of a low point. I'd love for you if you can to kind of reach back into your memory and share with us one of those low points where you felt like you weren't really sure what your direction forward would be. That's a great question. I think an example of this that came from my past was in one of my past roles when I was doing one of those internships. I was young. I was working at a company where I thought every move I was making was being watched. I was getting stressed out over a project that probably didn't need to be that stressful for my time in my age and what I was trying to experience. I felt like one of those weeks where you're consistently spinning plates and you feel like no matter what I'm doing, I just feel like I'm adding something to the to-do list and I'm not really, really having impact. That week, when I was feeling very down on my job, I didn't know if the career choice I had sort of made or the career path I had started a car for myself was the right choice. It blocked me and stumped me and really stressed me out. Hard to just keep face when you're working in your career, especially when you're a young person surrounded by people who are older than you. I think the something that helped me turn that around was team members of mine. Some of these people who were five, ten years older than me, and I was 22 at the time, quite young. I'm just celebrating the little successes or patting me on the back and treating me like an equal. I think that really helped me to break out of my dark zone because there are so many times when someone joins a company and they're new or I think especially for young people where you just always kind of assume the worst and that can just be cyclical and break down in your mind and your mind. You almost have not self-affirmations but whatever the opposite of that would be. You're depriving yourself and I just think the little things can go a long way. I've tried to take that lesson and apply it in my career when someone does something that's helpful even if it is just normal expected. I try to celebrate it because for me it doesn't take that much effort but to that person maybe they're going through a dark time and it can help them get out of their funk or get them out of that stress zone and I think it's important to be wary of your friends and your team members and how you can make them feel a little better. That's really good. People all around us, this is a reality that either we can face it or we can ignore it but it doesn't change it. People all around us are going through really difficult stuff and even people who are really, really good at their jobs very often they can feel like they're failing every single day. This happens. This happens with good developers. It happens with good product managers. It happens to people who are extremely talented and it happens to beginners just the same and even if you've been in this for a long time and you have a lot of experience in your belt that doesn't always make up for the affirmations. It doesn't always make up for the simple fact that as humans sometimes we go through periods of uncertainty and it's such an excellent reminder if you're on a team to encourage the people that you're working with. It seems simple but as it turns out it's incredibly effective to just look someone in the face and say you are doing a good job today. You are actually executing well on your job and I appreciate you being here. That sounds like it's overdoing it if you're the person that's giving that message but I read a quote recently on the subject that said that I'm paraphrasing. I'm not going to get it exactly right but kind words are very cheap to give but very effective to receive. It's such a simple thing. Yeah, absolutely. For sharing that kind of moment of darkness or that dark period in your career but I want to flip around and ask about what was the moment of epiphany where you feel like in just in that one day that you had the haze lifted for a moment and you realize something that changed your perspective for the long run that you actually now you're walking away with a new way of thinking that is going to affect the way you do your job, the way you live for the rest of your life. So there's a story I really enjoy from actually working at Transfer Eyes where on random occasion sometimes customers get confused regardless of their age and they find out our office address on the internet because we haven't listed it on the website and that sort of thing. And this older gentleman wandered into our office and was a bit confused. He thought he had to come to transfer wise to make a money like a Western Union or another physical money transfer service. And a bunch of us were sitting there like confused saying, I wonder what this guy's doing here, can somebody help him out or something. And without even anybody saying a word, one of my co-workers, this great engineer from Estonia, his name is Martin. He's got this goatee, he can look super intimidating. He just stands up, walks over to the guy and he's like, I'm Martin, I'm an engineer here and I want to help you. And he brought this guy into a room and sat him down and showed him the product and hurt him out and helped him with his problems. And it kind of just like was an epiphany for me of like, this is what having a clear mission is all about. This is what like purpose driven development is about when you have an engineer or anyone who's working not be like, I'm just supposed to be coding right now, I should be doing this thing. Just being like, I'm all about helping out every single customer and that includes this man who wandered into our office. I think it totally changed for me the way I think about how can you make that mission or that purpose even clear amongst your team. Before that, I'd focused a lot more on what's the priority of the backlog and what's the recent dashboards and data saying, and from what I saw, the actions he took from that, it's like, you know, so much more impact if you can get a team aligned behind a purpose and a mission and sometimes again, we do an actual fun, cool experience like that. So yeah, that is so cool because realistically, if you're doing your backlog correctly, if you're setting things up right, then what you're doing with code hopefully is doing exactly what that engineer did that day. It's actually accomplishing the same mission if things are done properly and when I say properly, that's a really loaded term, of course, because there's so much that goes into, what does it mean to align every effort to that mission? But I love that story. That's such an interesting thing. How many people would be confused and maybe not confused, but certainly paralyzed and not know how do we handle this very strange situation? And realistically, you know, there are people on the end of your software, where there are people who are operating the computers that are on the end of your software. And if we can't connect to that as developers, then we're going to build the software to that end. We're going to build it only for the sake of the software. Unfortunately, you know, that's going to leave people like this gentleman who wandered into your office. And he's going to leave him confused. He doesn't understand it. And if we can't connect to that reality and sit down at a table with a person and say, hey, this is the product that we've built. Tell me what's confusing. Help me understand how to help you better. That's the reality of product management, right? Having that mission of helping that person. Yes, it's interesting. I think it even applies to engineering that so often we talk about, focus on the customer. Everything we do is for the customer. Yet, you know, ask yourself, when's the last time you actually saw one of your users in person? That can make such a difference in the way that you build products and the way that you perform as an engineer and the way that you handle customer support, that sort of thing. I think try to actually have faced-to-face time with your users if you can, because it can make such a difference. Yeah. I'm going to actually ask you a question that sounds unrelated, but in my mind, it totally led to this. I'd love to know, do you have books that you've been reading recently, maybe a book list, something that you would recommend to people who are getting kind of lit up by this idea? Any books that you feel like are really particularly right in line with what we're talking about? That is a good question. Or maybe books that you have been reading recently that have been inspiring to you or are kind of informing the way that you think and do your job? Right. One book I recently read, I think came out several years ago already, was this book called Hooked, that Nurel had helped write. It was about building habit forming products and how when you're designing a product or when you're coding or when you're thinking about an idea, how you can tie that back to something someone does in their day-to-day lives and how you can help them to form habits about your product. The thing I found interesting about it wasn't so much about how do you just make your app or your website or your tool, whatever you're building, just super engaging for people to use a lot. It was another thing that tied back to what are your users doing? Who are the people who are using your product? What are they doing in their day-to-day lives? How do they interact with your website? But are they grabbing a cup of coffee and then thinking about sending money internationally or whatever it is? Actually tying back to real people and real interactions because again, so often, and this even happens to me from time to time in my daily life at work is you can get so separated from the people you're trying to solve problems for. I think books like that or reading techniques and stuff, trying to really challenge myself to think, has this relate back to the end user from a real person standpoint? That's kind of where you're refreshing. The reason I asked this question as you were discussing, getting back to the customer's perspective, I'm listening audiobook listening to Blue Ocean Shift right now. This is an excellent book for, first of all, if you're building a product or if you're trying to make a pivot, trying to expand your market, trying to define the market, this really helps think in new ways. But more explicitly, there's a discussion in the book of actually walking through the customer experience, which is something that surprisingly, we don't do often enough, and this is true at so many levels. We think that market research means understanding who our users are, but typically that market research gives us just a picture of who they are. It doesn't give us the putting our shoes on in the morning and being that person, walking through their journey, understanding each of their pain points. One of the discussions in the book actually relates to what it means to be sick, to take a sick day. They asked some employees that are at a pharmacy if they got sick, what would they do? And all of them unanimously said that they would all come into work and they wanted to understand why would they come into work rather than doing something that, by the way, brings us a pharmacy money, which is go see the doctor, right? So they walked through that process and they found that the long, arduous process of calling insect work and calling and getting employment with the doctor and dragging your kids to the doctor's office and waiting and then eventually getting in and there's all of these, there's tons of hurdles between me being sick in the morning and actually taking a sick day, that it's pretty much less painful for me to just go to work. And so they walked through that whole thing and this opened up their kind of their perspective on what can we do for our customers? And for the first time, instead of focusing on how can we fulfill orders two or three minutes faster or how can we increase sales of cough drops, you know, like instead of focusing on those things, they're focusing on how can we understand things that have nothing to do with us tangibly to begin with, but eventually they end up here. How can we understand the customer's entire experience? Thanks so much for listening to today's episode. The first part of my interview with Joshua Aziz. I hope you will join me for the second part. If you don't want to miss out on future episodes, including the second part of this interview, go and subscribe right now before you close out your podcasting app and move on to your next activity. Otherwise, it's very likely you're going to forget. And we post a lot of episodes on this show. We're well into the 400's heading to 500 by the time that this episode airs. We will probably have broken 8 million downloads. So if you want to be a part of that, go and subscribe right now. Of course, those 8 million downloads wouldn't be possible without our sponsors. Thank you to today's sponsor, Linode. You can get a Linode server up and running in just a few minutes for $5 a month, and for those months are essentially going to be paid for right away by Linode. If you had over to spec.fm slash Linode, use the code Developer Tea 2017 to check out and you'll get $20 worth of credit. Thank you again to Linode. Thanks so much for listening. Until next time, enjoy your tea.