In today's episode, I have a discussion about product development and counter-intuitive decisions Dom had to make along the way in making Around.
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Transcript (Generated by OpenAI Whisper)
The products you use change the way you experience life. Sometimes in small but meaningful ways, other times in drastic ways. And especially when you're using a product day in and day out, when you're using a product in really critical moments, those products, the way they're designed can have ramifications, not in a fear mongering way, but in an opportunistic way. This day, this is what we're going to be talking about with our guest, Dominik Zane. Dom started around, go and check it out around.co, where he created a unique take on video meeting software. We talk about some of those unique design decisions that Dom and his team are making to address some of the issues that we all have experienced to some degree when using this kind of meeting software. This is especially important as we continue to see remote work become the status quo for many large organizations. These kinds of pieces of software are not just used in the gaps anymore. Sometimes, and this is certainly true for me, they become a critical primary tool in your tool belt. I'm excited to talk to Dom today about how he made around a little bit different. Before we get into that, I want to take a brief moment to remind you about the Developer Tea discord community. If you would like to discuss episodes that you've heard of this show, maybe you have questions about a stage that you're in in your current career path, maybe you're not even an engineer, but you'd like to discuss the topics that we talk about on the show or something that is in keeping with this kind of discussion. You are more than welcome to join the Developer Tea discord and I'd love to have you. It is a community of like-minded engineers and some non-engineers, product owners, engineering managers like myself. We talk about all kinds of things, we have a book club, we have people asking questions about situations in their workplace, career issues that they have, and it's totally free. We're not trying to monetize this at all. This is just something that I wanted to start for people who listen to the show, who have a like-minded approach and wanted to place to discuss these things that go beyond just the technical aspects of their career's software engineers. Go and check it out. That's the Developer Tea discord community developertea.com slash discord. Once again, you can join for free. Thanks so much for listening to today's episode. Let's get straight into the interview with Dominik Zane. Dominik, welcome to Developer Tea. Hey Jon, thanks for having me. Super excited to be here on your podcast. I'm excited for you to be here too and I kind of want to give a disclaimer at the beginning of this episode that around has sponsored Developer Tea in the past. We're going to talk about the product in today's episode probably quite a bit. We can't really avoid it because it's so much of what you care about. But this episode is not a sponsored episode by around. It's not a product, testimonial episode or anything like that. Here's the thing about around that I think is so interesting and why I'm okay talking about the product. And typically wouldn't do this on this show. But I've used around and I find it to be an extraordinary product for a couple of reasons. It feels very much like a modern part of my life kind of tool rather than a thing that I have to work around. It feels very much like a natural tool to use. And I noticed this when I was talking with an actually an ex co-worker of mine who now works with you at around. He kind of got me onto using this product. And there's so many small subtle details that kind of advance this beyond the average calling software. So I want to talk about with you how important it is that we think about our software as part of our lives. It's not just a tool that we can pick up and set down and it has no effect on us. The tools that we use throughout our day, especially tools that we use for hours on end, can have profound effects on our lives, on our health, on our outlook, on our culture. So this is the top, I guess this is like many topics that we're going to get into here. But that's why I want to talk to you is because I feel like this is a perfect kind of case study in thinking about a tool beyond just getting it to the place where it's functional, beyond getting it to where it has a cool interface. All that stuff is fine and great. And I think you've done a little bit more thinking about the impact that this has on people. Can you talk a little bit about what the inspiration was for building around? And I guess we should talk about what around is as well. Yeah, absolutely. And so around is a distinct audio and video communication space. And our signature around user experience enables remote teams to come together and work together in a more energizing and a more human way. And so what does that mean? In remote collaboration, we're finding that communication has to remain high volume. Right? We want to expand the bandwidth of communication, we want to have little moments to go over an idea, collaborate together maybe in Figma or all kinds of collaborative tools. And maybe that session can take two hours or it can take 15 minutes. And it's very much sort of ad hoc as needed. And so how do you do that when you want to increase and want to make sure that you have high throughput, but your fatigue remains very low. It's counter intuitive. How do you increase the volume while reducing fatigue? And if we look at all the existing video products, they do the opposite. Right? So people are, you know, you schedule a 16 minute block and it's extremely fatiguing experience. And so our goal was to create a space for teams where they feel the opposite. And so we can go and sort of dive deeper into those nuances and how 100 details together allow for teams to truly feel that way. And obviously the feedback and everything that our users and customers say sort of proved that we have accomplished that successfully. And yet it's so many subtleties that allow for that to be true. Yeah. It's interesting, you mentioned fatigue and in preparation for this episode, I came across a study that talked about fatigue as it relates to video calls, which is right down the alley of what we're talking about here. And what's even more, I guess, concerning about this is that it affects people asymmetrically. So people who are already kind of leaders in a given team are going to be less fatigued than the people who are not leaders. People who are more vocal on a call are actually less fatigued than the people who are less vocal on the call. So the existing dynamic that's already difficult in a remote environment is pronounced further by video calls. Right? And equal things out like you would hope would happen in a remote environment where everybody kind of has the same, you know, the volume is the same and the, you know, whereas in a physical room, the volume is different, that's actually pronounced worse in a remote, in typical call, right? And so I find it interesting that that fatigue was, first of all, is a driving factor. And so I think that's a great thing. In some of the features which I'd like to talk about, some of the choices the kind of product decisions that you made to address some of the stuff. But I also find it interesting that it is asymmetric in its effect, in that it particularly it affects people who traditionally are less likely to speak up in the first place, which again historically is going to be people of color or women in the room. They're typically, you know, historically have been kind of suppressed from sharing your voices often. So in some ways, a tool like this is working to combat some of those more super cultural problems as well, which is a very interesting angle to think about it. But I'd like to talk kind of at an atomic level for a second. What is, you know, if you had to pick out one feature that you feel like really kind of kind of exposes this idea, which feature would you kind of say this is the poster child for fighting fatigue? Yeah. So I'll start with sharing this story from 2015 when I first had that realization. So we worked in a remote team. You know, I was the manager on the team and some of the team members were physically located in an office in California. And then, you know, we also had engineers all across Europe. And so every day we would do like a sync up stand up meeting and it was very powerful when, you know, when we realized there's the center of gravity in that room in California. And everybody else is kind of like a second class citizen. And there's this massive, you know, 70 inch TV. And we're fiddling with all the, you know, connection and the HDMI cords and, you know, how do you screen share and how do you see people in Europe and how do you utilize this big TV. And so, so, you know, the set up is kind of, it was going to clunky at the time. But I realized something, you know, we've had phenomenal engineers on the team. And just like you said, you know, some people are more introverted, some people are more extroverted. And so, you know, I think people feel comfortable on camera, some people feel less comfortable on camera, right? And so I'm sitting there in that room. And I'm trying to, you know, as a manager, I really focused on ensuring that, you know, the greatest people provide their thoughts, opinions and input. And then we're working on the right things. And I'm looking, you know, at this massive 70 inch TV. And there's like, you know, these tiles of, you know, basically like a grid view of our engineers. And I wonder, how do they feel, you know, being a little sort of rectangle on a 70 inch TV, knowing that that's how they're appearing to us. And us also in that room, looking at them. And there's something really awkward about that moment. And I'm wondering like, do they even feel enabled, empowered or great in the world? In this moment, do they feel like, do we have we potentially reduced their extraordinary talents just by creating such as such an awkward experience, you know, and it didn't feel equal to me at all in that moment that it didn't seem like we're on a level playing field in this conversation. And I, you know, I started really worrying about that. And so then I, you know, I was thinking and that was some of the motivation for starting around, which was, can we remove these strange and awkward moments in a way that everybody end up call whether that's a fully remote setup or hybrid remote setup feels a lot more included in sort of on the level, the equal sort of playing field and with how they're showing up. So that was 2015. And we started fundraising for around, you know, we were an early stage company and I was trying to explain this, this nuance to investors. And obviously this is pre pandemic. It, you know, that was late 2017 at that time. And nobody could understand like, what are you guys talking about? Like, what do you mean psychology of, you know, what do you mean like equal video experience for everybody? It wasn't a theme at that time. And so, you know, obviously in the post pandemic world, we're now realizing much more that those details matter. And so around this, you know, this signature or maybe this set of key principles in around is that we're bringing everybody into an experience that no matter how you're physically located whether some portion of the team is one physical space or in a room or some people are remote, they're all displayed equally. Everybody's on their own camera. We've created this very sophisticated audio technology that eliminates the traditional echo problems when you have multiple devices in one space. And so it's a much more organic way to bring people together in a very sort of humanized way. And, you know, whether you're more introverted, extroverted, you know, when that playing field is sort of leveled and equal, it facilitates better conversations. And those details then don't, you know, we're ensuring that we don't reduce extraordinary people to something less because they're too focused and too worried about how they're showing up and how they're appearing. And if you can really remove that sort of burden, you know, that we have that psychological burden like, hey, like, am I cool? Am I okay? Like, is this how are we showing up if we don't have to think about that piece anymore? And naturally, we can devote more of our talents and skills to the task at hand and be better and much more effective, you know, at teamwork. And so that is the, you know, key set of principles in around is to make sure that it feels really good. And I'm showing up and I feel great, you know, because this tool is really about not just using it because I have to, but because I want to, I want to show up, you know, I feel comfortable. And I, you know, my, my presence is just the right size and it's not bigger than it needs to be, you know, and I'm comfortable showing up. And that makes the profound difference on that team collaboration. We're going to take a quick sponsor break and we'll come back and continue our interview with Dominik Zayn. 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You can use your free retool credits to build tools that join product and billing data into a single customer view, tools that help non-technical teammates read and write to your database or even tools that convert manual workflows into fully featured apps for your team. And so much more is available. Retool gives you a head start with pre-built UI components, integrations and other advanced features that make building from scratch much faster. To learn more, head over to retool.com slash startups. And if you'd like to let them know that you're coming from Developer Teahead over to retool.com slash startups slash devt that's retool.com slash startups slash devt dvta. Thanks again to retool for their support of Developer Tea. You know, it's interesting because there does seem to be some acknowledgement of this, of some of these difficulties industry-wide as well. We have, for example, the common way of dealing with, you know, being self-conscious about the room is to blur the background. There's a new feature I think coming out in iOS and FaceTime where you have spatial audio. So you kind of hear where the voice is coming from. So you have a little bit more awareness of who to look at, which is a big problem with video calls. You don't know who's looking at you, especially when there's a lot of people. When it's kind of a one-on-one conversation, it's a little different. But when you have, let's say, 10 people on a call, you don't know when people are looking at you, whereas when you're in the room together, you know when people are looking at you and when you're not. And so you can kind of relax and go through those kind of natural motions of not having to be presentationally perfect when you're in the physical room. And so getting these cues of who's looking at you when or having some kind of, like you say, equalization, not overstating my presence too much, that combined with a lot of the other subtle, again, subtle features. A couple of other things that I really love about this. And I'm going to talk about some of what I feel like the psychological impact is and then you can kind of add what you, you know, your reasoning and what your team is thinking here. But there's not a traditional kind of chat window in a round. And I think part of my frustrating experience with the chat window in a remote environment is that there seems to be two conversations always happening. One is in the chat window and it seems like the people who are talking in the chat either want to speak up and they can't or they don't want to listen and they want to do something totally different. That's not to say that there's never useful things, but a lot of the time it seems to be two parallel conversations and it can cause some kind of awkward moments in the meeting itself. And so instead, the way around handles this is as you type what you're saying shows up beneath you, almost like you would in a conversational environment where there's some primary kind of conversational narrative and then there's people who are kind of chattering around. You can't really do that in audio space, but you can do it in the visual space. There's kind of the interesting decision to put that text right there at the bottom of my face, give people a chance to read it and then I can clear it. Raising your hand is another thing that happens kind of a voting mechanism almost. Even the filters, right, this brings another piece of, okay, I can kind of change. I can choose an appearance that I like. I don't have to try to move around in my house, for example. I can change my filter to a point that it's like, oh, that's pretty cool. I like that. Okay, cool. And all of this has combined to the times that I've used around, actually, it was very weird. I looked forward to using it, which is a bizarre thing for something that we otherwise would consider a utility tool, right? And I remember feeling this way in the early days of other products, like, for example, Slack. I remember being excited to open Slack because it had changed the landscape of communication in those early days. I've kind of gotten used to it now, but I have that same kind of emotional response to this tool. So I'd love to know kind of what you think about some of the other decisions in around and how, maybe more broadly, how can we apply these ways of thinking? What are maybe the cardinal sins of running a bad remote meeting? Because quite honestly, you can still run a bad remote meeting in a round, right? You can still screw it up here. There's deeper principles that play, and I'd love to talk about those a little bit with you. Absolutely. And all the things that you've mentioned, we've put a lot of thought and thinking into that. And chat is a great example of how it immediately disrupts your train of thought as you're speaking and seeing some chat message, right? And so I think, as you said, a lot of companies are innovating right now with technology. What I'm seeing is it's not just bringing these ingredients. And placing them in the product, that's not necessarily a successful formula. I think it's all about creating a great recipe, you know, from all these ingredients. And so we're going, I think we're going to see a lot of interesting ideas, but not necessarily put together in a thoughtful way, right? And that's what we're trying to accomplish with around is to really think like how do these tiniest subtleties make sense together? And that's why we have a different approach to chat, for example, so that it doesn't disrupt your thought or train of thought. And I think a great example is maybe when we first, all of us, you know, saw the first iPhone and we saw that magical moment and you kind of like swiped to unlock, you know, and there's probably like a hundred ways to unlock a phone and imagine 2008, this was a novel concept, right? And so it's about, you know, having the ability to swipe your finger over, you know, on a touch screen, but using that technology in a way that it, you know, the recipe at the end of it is amazing and makes you feel a certain way, not some magic moment, right? Or maybe that they've eliminated the stylus at, you know, at the core in that philosophy. And so those details matter a lot. And so I think we have to come back to the core principles and realize that even if we have a business product, right, like it's a business product and ultimately we want to accomplish some, you know, business results with it, but who's using it? It's people, right? And people have psychological responses, right? We feel a certain way. And I think that's the biggest trend and maybe shift in our values is that we're realizing, you know, we don't have to be clunky professionals. We're, you know, we're humans, right? And so if we want to be great at what we do, then we also have to care about these nuances and I think the remote era has basically just amplified this realization that it's important. And so when we're creating business products, we have to go back and think about, well, how does this business product make you feel? And that was a very counterintuitive, I guess, philosophy just three, four years ago that anybody would even care about that problem, right? All the business products pre-2014, most of them actually look pretty bad, right? And so enterprise, even in the enterprise space, you know, the decision makers, the leadership is also now realizing, especially the new remote era. If these products are not making our teams feel energized, you know, can they still be productive and extraordinary? And so that is, I think, the biggest shift and Slack spearheaded that era around 2014. And at that time, we were thinking, like, oh, you know, that's kind of crazy. You have like these wild colors and emojis and gifts. What is that, right? That was controversial in 2014. And we realized, wow, that is the way because ultimately we're still human. We want to have fun. And that's what makes work great. And then we don't have to think about like what our appearance is. We can be more authentic. And when we're more authentic, we don't have this, you know, all these other burdens about like how to appear and we just do our best work. And so that is, that is how we approach everything in around with our product, making sure that we have this very human centric point of view. And all these details like, well, why does this chat message is this right? Is it okay that I'm speaking in this chat message comes up in a very obtrusive way? And it seems like a very simple thing to consider. But there's a hundred of these things that we have to consider one by one. And that's what I come back to this idea. Did you may have the ingredients, but do you have the right recipe? And that's what we focus on. Yeah. Thanks so much for listening to today's episode of Developer Teathe first part of my interview with Dominik Zane. I hope you will join us for the second part of this interview. Make sure you subscribe so you don't miss out on that and many other future episodes of the show. Of course, we have a back catalog of over a thousand episodes of Developer Tea. I hope you will take some time to go and find some episodes that are interesting to you. Thank you again to today's sponsor retool head over to retool.com slash startups to get started today. You can also head over to retool.com slash startups slash dev T. If you'd like to let them know that you're coming from this podcast. Thanks so much for listening. And until next time, enjoy your tea.