Merging Teams At Buzzfeed: 6 months, 4 crises, 7 lessons.
Merging Teams At Buzzfeed: 6 months, 4 crises, 7 lessons.
Enabling cross-functional product teams can be a daunting task because its not just about the work but also the politics involved. And as CTO of Buzzfeed, is what Peter Wang faces.
In this session, Peter Wang will reflect on his first six months as BuzzFeed CTO of a cross-functional team, and the 4 challenges he faced: health, economic, social, and attrition.
He hopes to turn his renewed perspectives such as building trust as a new leader, finding your voice during a crisis, to new way to think about retention, and more. He can’t promise it’s exactly seven lessons, but it’s more than three.
Peter Wang, CTO,Buzzfeed
Peter Wang: Yes. I'm actually from Temecula. We, our family just moved here. I'm actually in a temporary Airbnb right now. We just moved here from the New York area to the West coast to be closer to family. And this move has taken a lot out of us and shows just how unpredictable and how many changes are happening in 2020. Anyways, I'm happy to be here. As John mentioned, I am the CTO at Buzzfeed. And many of you have experienced Buzzfeed perhaps through one of the three brands. The Buzzfeed brand now Buzzfeed news, or tastier food or food vertical. And we're very fortunate to have millions of users interacting with our brands. Every single day, whether it's on social platforms, on our website with our apps. What I wanted to talk to you guys today is not a grand talk. And I found that over the last couple of months, the best way during this time is actually just to have conversations and having talks. So, I want to just share with you a number of learnings through the last couple months that either have learned this through the hard way or I've come into it more consciously proactively. And I'll start with a very start with the very first one. The very first one is know what your role. Know what role you play beyond your title. And what I mean by that, and I'll share one quick slide actually. Let's see if this works. I'll do it off just so you can have the visual here. Know what role you play beyond your title. And what do I mean by that, is that the same title in every single company, maybe in different things completely. Especially at CTO coming to different Buzzfeed was very different than the previous CTO roles I've taken before. But I've learned over time that it's clear that you can, we embrace a new role, whether within the same company or with a different company. The more clear that you articulate for yourself, because a lot of times the competent isn't that articulate for you. The stronger and the more grounded you are the way you enter and start the world with (inaudible) . And for me, it must be a 13 year old company. And it doesn't feel, it still feels very young in all the ways, because the content we produce because of the audience we attract and also the way we react. But it's a 13 year old company and in the 13 year span, we had three, two CTOs before me. I was a third CTO. And the reason I think about this particularly which CTO I am is because every CTO and every gap into a company's maturity journey, has a different responsibility. The very first CTO helped us, we got off the ground in a major way. And the second CTO really shaped the architecture and the engineering process to be much more mature so that we can scale up. Both on the engineering perspective, but also how quickly we can build products. And as a third CTO, my job was different from the former two. In this case, I am responsible for all products. Engineering design data is really more about ensuring that we can build a successful business from the components that we have built. And I think that's kind of business centric. A product centric perspective is what grounds me here at Buzzfeed if even before the crisis started. So, anyway, that was the very first piece. And as John's mentioned, I started Buzzfeed in February a month before COVID happened. I was very excited. I came in with a (inaudible) day plan, like many people. I call it three teas. The very first month I want to focus on people, really understand who the folks are, who are the 150 folks in my organization. What are they like? The second one's about product second month, what's going to be about product digging into the performance of the product and the analytics. Understanding where the opportunities are, where the gaps are with weaknesses. And the third one, that was pretty much taking everything I've learned about people, everything about learner products. Come up with a proposal, like some of the planning going forward. Of course, three weeks into the new job, COVID hit the fan, so to speak. And that plan went out the window in a lot of ways. So, we went to much more of a crisis management mode to stabilize the business, to understand what beings .Fortunately for us, Buzzfeed is a very data informed company or culture, and our decisions. Often ask first, what kind of numbers can help us make decisions? So, at the very beginning of February, we'll start to track the number of COVID cases in every major city that Buzzfeed has. A presence in and as cases go up, especially for example, for New York, we have a threshold set. So, once it goes beyond thresholds, we are going to move into plan A, plan B, plan C and so on. And we won the first companies that announced working from home earliest ones in New York city. As an example. Of course, for me working from home on a new job means something very completely different and creates a lot more challenges. And that brings me to the second learning that I want to share with you as I was looking at the crisis that we're facing now. Crisis, economic crisis as we are trying to stay with the company, I find myself having to really articulate (inaudible) what the crisis means for us. I suppose people also Buzzfeed tech, particularly my department and beyond what the means. What particularly, what kind of opportunities are represented in the crisis? And I'll just show you a quick visual, just in terms of, I guess, be necessary in terms of what I'm saying here. As in every crisis articulated the opportunity in it, in the chaos. And I find this is very important because first of all, it unifies. It provides a unifying force amongst the chaos for folks. And for Buzzfeed tech, we particularly articulated how this COVID crisis means for us from a monetization perspective. For how we can focus on the use of growth perspective? We also talked about operational perspective. How can we leverage this opportunity to be a leader operationally? How could we tighten up the collaboration across the company, the feedback loops? And also how we can use the opportunity to give what transparency across within Buzzfeed tech itself. Which has made out of 12 or 13 product groups. So, one of the things we did start doing is what we turn to call the unified roadmap. Unifying every single team's roadmap into a more standardized format, a reproach and language to discuss. And share amongst teams, what we are working on. In this way we can look at what's in conflict. Maybe independencies and also see trends faster. And everybody helped us to articulate what kind of impact that possibly is. Tech is baking in the middle of this crisis. And that took a couple of weeks. Right? To go through the exercise, articulating the opportunities unifying our roadmaps and figuring out which paths we are going to take. In the meantime, on the company level, we've also created a number of work streams. And I think this is where I should really appreciate the way that the buzzfeed, it really takes full force to commitment and to figuring out what kind of levers we need to take. We created work streams on international websites. Right. Looking at international offices, we create a work stream on health and safety to focus on the needs of the employees. We create work streams out of revenue. To understand what the impact on the revenue. We brought extreme cost structure. How can we look at the cost structure to slim it down and restructure in a way that's most efficient. And those are great lessons for me also looking at the way that Buzzfeed has organized itself into those work streams to tackle these different areas, head on in parallel. In the middle of this, as we started going to work, working from home, it's a pretty big change for a lot of folks. And one of the first things we start to ask ourselves as leaders in the company is, what do people need now that we are all working from home? And that leads me to the third kind of question. The third learning here that I would like to share with you. Which has asked what your people need. And don't assume, you know. And this is an important one here, I believe because when you have a large organization that you're managing across different disciplines, also different geographically and also different demographics. We didn't know exactly what people's situations are. So, we, in a very Buzzfeed fashion, we ran a survey within Buzzfeed tech. We asked questions, like, what are your top concerns on a personal level? What are your top concerns and work level? How has the situation changed now that they're working from home? How's it changed your day to day? And what is the number, one thing that buzzfeed can do to support you? Are you a parent? Are you responsible for taking care of any other individual in your household and also where are you located? So, we can look at information geographically. And that kind of survey, we did one on the tech department level. We also did another one, much higher at the company level. Really helped us understand the whole range of needs. And some really fascinating findings. One, for example, I found out that there are certain individuals living with their parents. One particular designer was living with her mother in the studio with her mom going to work every day. And she was having anxiety about how to deal with that situation and feeling anxious. Worried about her mom getting sick or a bigger finding (inaudible) this for a large percentage of our tech course. Actually, our parents and parents have very particular needs than non-parents. And that really was a good learning for us to understand how we can support parents in that way. And I'm a parent myself. Actually I have three little kids and when I first started working from home for Buzzfeed, I wasn't a veteran to working from home. I had led a large group of teams before Buzzfeed for about three years at a home office set up. And I understand some of that cadence and rhythm. But working from home during COVID times, it's quite different. The kids are home a lot more than usual. You don't actually go out to see folks as you normally would. You don't have the cadence of working from home and then go on to the office. So, a specific percentage, and I find that I had to structure my days, much more stringently. I had to structure my children's dates much more specifically. I also have the carve out time for walking in the morning to stay healthy and so on and so forth. And one of my learnings through this process and I also talked to a lot of parents within Buzzfeed and also within Buzzfeed tech itself. Some people are saying that it may feel like they hate being a parent during this time is a weakness, is something that hurts your performance at work. On the contrary, I personally believe that being a parent it's actually a superpower. And that we should really embrace that, especially during COVID times. And there's two reasons. One is empathy, and the other one is resilience. And I'll speak to both real quick. And it's my three kids there, seven, five and three year olds. Two girls and the boy. We just took this photo right before, as my wife took this photo right before we came to California. The reason why I really want to encourage parents to look into their super power, is I have found that because there's a lot more demand on your day. Parents are much more used to dealing with the chaos throughout the day and navigate that, which also happens at work. And you can really lend that ability. The resilience at home, bring that over to work. And also in the meantime, I think that sense of empathy is much higher for parents because we, to take care of our children we have to really understand what they're feeling. We ask a lot of questions. We try to treat them as individuals. We are very in tune with the interactions and dynamics with the individual children. So, I think that's also a very portable skill that you can bring from parenting to work. By the way, this live streaming format is really interesting. Because not getting a lot of feedback, but I'm hoping everyone can hear me okay. And hopefully this is how it's being helpful so far.
Speaker 2: Loud and clear.
Peter Wang: Thank you, John. If you can show your face, it would help me ask you. So, I feel like I'm talking to a human being that will be great.
Speaker 2: Yeah. (inaudible)
Peter Wang: [00:14:57] So, number five, we talked about a couple of things we've talked about. Right? We talked about before we came to a role, really understanding not just your title, but what your role really means and embracing that. The second thing we talked about is when you are faced with a crisis, make sure to take the time to articulate the opportunities in the chaos. So, that your team feels grounded, unifies them. The third thing we'll talk about is, because that unifying them specifically, you also need to understand individually what your people need. Don't assume that you know, so that you can actually tailor your policies, your decisions in a way that accounts for the various needs in your team. And the fourth one is, actually leaning in as a parent, especially during the COVID crisis. And I really applaud every parent out there. I just know how hard it is. Where's you homeschooling ourselves? So, that's extra. We can have a different whole two minute talk on homeschooling, but really embracing that versus seeing it as a weakness. And the fifth one I want to talk about is slightly different, but also along the similar line.
Speaker 2: Especially with (inaudible)
Peter Wang: The fifth one we'll talk about is to take the time to find your voice and your message. This one, I want to pause this for a moment. This one particularly came to me during the social crisis. When black lives matter movement was happening, with the murder of George Floyd, triggered by George Floyd and the social unrest in the crisis was happening in the world. Plus, he was feeling as well and the company itself was asking many employees in the company are asking a lot of different questions. What's supposed to be doing about it? What is leadership think? What is our perspective on a number of topics? And I particularly needed to take a, probably a good week actually to really absorb, read the facts, really reportings and also reflect my own identity as well. And I should have here in case you have the reason I had to reflect on that is because I didn't grow up in America. I came here and as an immigrant when I was 13. I grew up in Taiwan, in the country of Taiwan. And I came here with my brother. I would have rather been my mom and went through a fairly challenging time in high school, just in college. But also found different ways to assimilate into the American society. For example, I have found that if I use my legal name, Yu Chun, to lead our resume, they don't get reviewed as frequently. So, over time, what I've done has changed Yu Chun Wang, which is my legal name, to Yu Chun Peter Wang, Yu Chun Wang Peter to Peter Wang. And I realized that there's definitely some inherent bias where people review resumes. And I found, and I was just one example of how I've adapted to the system throughout the career. And when a social crisis was happening, I had really a red flag or something. My own experiences, how I adapted, how much role I've taken and so on and so forth. What is, thank you. And I want to particularly talk about taking the time to find your message and your voice is because people today can sense inauthentic voices very quickly. And as a leader, if you want to be able to trust in your organization, you must speak from your own heart and integrate part of your experience. Very similar to how actors probably would say that as well is that you have to put yourself into the role and not just play the role itself. And that has been a little bit of a rumbling for me, but also I felt I came out. And I was able to speak from my heart in terms of my own perspective and how I feel about the subject matter more broadly. So, he was, I want to, I want to share that and hopefully you find that helpful. And number six, I think about 10 minutes left. We have how many minutes we have left, 20 minutes?
Speaker 2: Five minutes or so.
Peter Wang: Five minutes. Five minutes or so. Okay, great.
Speaker 2: So, just to clarify, 19 minutes. (inaudible)
Peter Wang: [00:19:56] Okay. Okay. That helps. Thank you. Yeah. So, the next one I want to talk about is also a little personal and I want to also share why in the second. During this COVID crisis, a lot of my time has been spent in crisis mode in terms of stabilizing, crafting the right messages. That really is authentic, but also provides people confidence. Looking at product roadmaps, understand what things do we need to do to accelerate. For example, social community experiences like Quinn's party. We felt that that was very important to accelerate. Maybe creating new ideas that we can bring to the revenue team so they can bring to the market to ensure that we stay ahead of any refugee clients that we're experiencing or talking to individuals on the team to make sure that their home setup is okay. That their home situation I can understand and provide anything we can do. So, there's a whole myriad of things that as a leader, you're constantly just doing to ensure the boat keeps afloat and the train keeps running. And many of us, and I've experienced myself, we put our whole life to the side and we sacrifice our own personal time. Whether it's with family, whether it's breakfast or I should I just speak with them. Let me get my coffee real quick in the back. Things like this because we prioritize the team. And I think this one here, I want to remind everyone to really live your whole life and don't put it off. I choose Chadwick Boseman here because after his death, it was a surprise for all of us and he's only a few years older than me. I actually went to the hospital to get a checkup myself because I've had some issues and I wanted to be putting it off. (inaudible) , maybe you can wait, wait till after COVID. I went in and I did find some things and they took care of it, fortunately. But it'd be worse if I hadn't gone in. And that kind of personal experience by having done it really resonated with me that, and I want to share it with you guys that just because you have a lot of things going on at work. Please do not put off living your whole life, including your own and your families and take care of yourself. So, that you can be a whole person versus a partial. I guess. And lastly, well maybe not the last one. I want to talk about the job of a leader. And what management really means during this crisis moment period, but also just in general. One of the things that I think we're still going through the period right now, but I'm still having to remind myself almost every single day. Is that while we can focus so much on the challenges of during this period of time. Whether it is the revenue piece? Whether it's how fast we're executing? Whether I would prioritize correctly? Whether if are we aiming for the right metric? Do we have the right visibility to certain things and so on and so forth or what if someone leaves? So, much of what I kind of remind myself is I just need to be the light for the team. Be the light. It's not a great image, I would say, but like, my job is actually just to be the light, if I can summarize it up. And that means a couple of things. I shouldn't be articular that just a little bit more. Once they be the light, it means a couple of things. One, make sure you're putting a spotlight on the most important things for your team. Because whether it's the specific narrative that you want to make sure your team remembers, think about putting the spotlight on there. Take every opportunity. Whether it's all hands. Whether we have the AMA channel on Slack. Whether we have an internal tech talk five at one stage. Take those opportunities to talk with your team, while encouraging others on the team. To make sure you put a spotlight on the right narrative. Because when we are all remote in our own homes, we don't get as most is. We don't hear all the conversations. We don't get the feeling of the culture, but we tend to have a lot less information. And we, as humans, will piece together narrative based on information that we have. And a lot of times it is incomplete. A lot of times it is actually not the right thing to focus on. So, the first thing being a light is putting a spotlight on the store. And the second thing, which I am still learning through is levity. Bring levity to the workplace. It's very easy to be serious about the roadmap. It's very easy to be serious about the target dates. Very easy to be serious about the metric. It's very easy to talk about the operational aspect of things. And I had to constantly remind myself, I need to combine a sense of humanity because our job is to let our teams know that whatever problems they're facing, we're facing together. Whatever problems that we have, it is easier than we may, you may appear on the surface and help them get through it. And I think that I kind of tell that kind of like going there and waking up in the morning. Okay, cool. Whatever's going to happen is going to be okay. My job is to help make that levity. It's actually something that I still have to remind myself every single day. And third being the light. I know like how far can you stretch being the light, but I'm actually pretty serious about this one. The third being a light is, I'm not sure I have the right exact language for it, but there is a prayer cost or any player may be many of you guys have heard of it. It goes something like, grant me the serenity to accept things I cannot change and encouraged to change the things that I can and the wisdom to know the difference. Again, it's going to be this ready to accept things I cannot change. Courage to change the things I can and wisdom to know the difference. I wonder if I have a vision forward, the reason this one really resonates with me. And I actually, I want to do my (inaudible) though. Sharing the visual (inaudible) for a second here, is because doing a crisis moment is very easily confounding, external factors, internal factors. What can I do? Why not have control over? And therefore feeling like you're out of control. And different stress levels go up. You're feeling anxiety. I've gone through that myself many times, for many weeks through this period of time. But I have to come back to this and ask myself, of all the things that are happening, what is outside of my control?And this applies to you individually, but also to a team. So, every team you have to ask them, hey, what factors are outside of control? (inaudible) you can not worry about those. Recognize them, identify them, but do not worry. You can't worry about them. Then write down a list. What things do you have control over? What's on your roadmap? You can actually have control over. Maybe you don't have control over the type of content specifically we produce. But can you control? Do you have control over how the content is being distributed? Just an example. And we have no control over if people will leave the company, it's their decision. But we do have control over is (inaudible) that environment, having conversations with folks to ensure that we let them know that we value them and can stay in the connection during this time where everyone's remote. So, there's a lot of things we actually can do. So, just having that, it's just putting the light on differentiating what you can have control over, we don't have control over. That's also a very important part of what it means to be the light. And lastly, lastly is being in light, I will zoom up to mountain a bit on the company level for a moment. Buzzfeed is in the media industry, one of the one bias and one of the leading ones. And I do feel the responsibility that what we do at Buzzfeed, how we perform at Buzzfeed business wise will represents. Send a message that sends a signal to the rest of the industry. And I actually feel that. How will we perform? It's not just about our own paychecks. Our own business itself, is that especially during this time, we need to let the rest of the world know that there's still hope. And that is actually a very motivating thing that elevates what we do beyond the day to day. Unfortunately, after many months of decline, stabilizing, and really focusing on revenue, focusing on user growth and many initiatives. We've definitely seen a recovery in Q3 and Q4 as well. So, we're all hoping that this year will end in a way that we can be so very proud. To not only share it internally, but also share it with other folks in industry saying, hey, when you have a diverse revenue stream, when you have a team that is organized well, when you take care of people. Here's a possibility about your coming out in a way that's much more positive than you can ever imagine. So, that's also what means to be the light as a company level.