Chad interviews Kirsten Hurley, Managing Director of thoughtbot's Launchpad II team. The Launchpad II team covers the EMEA area: that's Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. She talks about working remotely for almost the entire time she's worked with the company, her approach to talking with potential customers when she knows she's never going to meet them in person, and what she sees happening to the different geographies that thoughtbot is selling and expanding into.
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CHAD: This is the Giant Robots Smashing Into Other Giant Robots Podcast where we explore the design, development, and business of great products. I'm your host, Chad Pytel. And with me today is Kirsten Hurley, Managing Director of thoughtbot's Launchpad II team. Kirsten, thanks for joining me.
KIRSTEN: Thanks for having me on, Chad.
CHAD: So I've now talked with a few managing directors at thoughtbot about the new team that they're leading. So I think listeners are probably expecting what's coming next which is, you know, why don't you give people a little bit of an overview of what the Launchpad II team, which has a slightly different name than the other teams we've talked to so far, do?
KIRSTEN: Sure. So I guess maybe to remind some folks, so Launchpad I refers to the Americas. So you've already spoken to a few of the managing directors who head up different teams across the Americas. You have different propositions. Over in Launchpad II, which historically was the London studio when we were working in a physical office environment, we are a smaller team than everyone else who was based over in the Americas.
So we didn't quite scale out to be able to have individual teams working on particular propositions. But I think what the team had been successfully doing anyway was working across everything. And we still do work on Ignite-style projects, Lift Off, and Boost engagements as well. So yeah, that's where we've got to. And I think maybe the changes for us is that since we've gone to fully remote working and officially called ourselves the EMEA Launchpad II team, we've started hiring folks from further afield, which is really exciting for me.
CHAD: So not everyone may be familiar with the acronym, although it's fairly common, EMEA. So what regions does that actually cover?
KIRSTEN: [laughs] Sorry. So that's Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. And I should say we were already working with clients pretty much fully across the region anyway. It was just never really official. But I think the more global terminology is Europe, the Middle East, and Africa or EMEA. But because we're thoughtbot and we like to do things a little bit...well, we like to own our things. So we've called it Launchpad II to go with the rocket theme that we had in our rebranding. What was that? The end of last year I think we came up with it all.
CHAD: Yeah. So what has it been like to go from a team of people that were...[laughs] actually, as I ask this question I realized that you joined a week before the pandemic started, and we had to go remote. So I was going to ask you what it was like to go from a team of people that were going to a studio every day all based in London to a remote team. [laughs] But you never really experienced the alternative.
KIRSTEN: [laughs] No. I think the most time I spent with the team as a whole was actually in my interview process [laughs] before I even started in person I should say. That was a pretty interesting week. You had flown over from Boston [chuckles] to spend some time getting me all set up and running. And I think it was the Wednesday where you and I had a bit of a chat, and we were concerned about this virus that was going around and the duty of care that we actually had to our teams across the world from a point of view of them commuting to work, and it didn't feel right. And so I think we made the decision that day that from the following week, everyone would start working from home. And I think we thought it would just be for a few weeks, and we'd see how it went. So yeah, it was interesting for sure. [laughs]
CHAD: Right. And I remember what happened is I went to...I usually leave on a Friday when I visit, but a few of us, I think, went to a pub or something on...we were planning on doing that on Friday. So I was going to leave on Saturday morning, and I did. But I woke up on Saturday morning ready to catch my flight to the news that the U.S. had shut down all flights from the UK or from Europe, was what the headline said. And I was like, oh no, [laughter] I might be stuck here. And then when you actually read the article, it said actually the UK is exempt and also U.S. citizens were exempt, so they can get back. I remember waking up that morning and having a fright that I was going to be stuck there and made it back safely, thankfully. So the U.S. then went remote that following week if I remember the timeline right.
It was an interesting time. And like you said, we thought it was going to be temporary, relatively short, but it wasn't. And then, at the end of last year, we decided that we would be going completely fully remote, and that was pretty exciting. I think for folks, it was obviously...unexpected is probably the wrong word because we couldn't be in person anyway. But it wasn't what people were necessarily expecting when they joined thoughtbot. People join because we often, or at least they have the expectation that we're in an office together. But it's been exciting for Launchpad II because it means that you can now and are hiring people much differently and further afield than you were in the past, right?
KIRSTEN: Yeah, and even actually working with partners further afield as well. So we have some great partnerships still in the UK but actually working with some of your cohorts from AgencyU, your coaching program, Subvisual over in Portugal, and a couple of others as well. That's been really great to work with those teams as well.
CHAD: Having come into a new team as in a leadership position and being, basically as we've said, entirely remote almost from day one, how has that been for you?
KIRSTEN: Certainly, it wasn't the plan. [laughs] So I think my last few roles were very much working based in an office. And so my background is commercial and sales, account management. And I was very used to building rapport with teams and clients in person. So I had joined thoughtbot and joined the London studio as it was then but Launchpad II with a remit to grow the business. So I think you had been looking after the team for about a year, giving us a great foundation to then really grow.
And coming in, this black swan event had happened in the world, so the priorities changed overnight. And it was okay; how do I keep this team safe? Is everyone set up to be successful in their role? And also our existing clients and our existing projects, are they supported in the right way? This is a shock to them as well. I think, at thoughtbot, we're very lucky that from a point of view of asynchronous communication and remote working practices, being a global company, it wasn't such a shock to the system, but for some of our clients, it was. So we had to make sure that they were supported. And in some cases, we showed them what good looks like.
But rather than focusing on new business and growing straight away, it was really a period of stabilization, I would say, for about three to six months while everyone got used to what was an evolving situation, but we came through it. And I have to say a huge thank you to the team actually for their kindness and patience with me and learning remotely everything about thoughtbot that I was so excited to become a part of. But also, learning a leadership style over Zoom wasn't really what I thought I was going to be doing.
CHAD: Well, you mentioned selling a lot of what you had done previously was relationship building with clients in person or potential clients in person. Is there anything that stands out to you in terms of how you've needed to adjust either your style or your approach when talking with potential customers when you know you're never going to meet them in person?
KIRSTEN: I'm not sure you can really change your personality per se because I am always interested in building rapport through understanding an individual's motives and what they're passionate about. And quite often, those conversations can be things outside of work, so talking with clients about maybe going up for runs and things like that and personal bests and things just because that's a natural thing to talk to someone about. I still very much make room for those kinds of things in calls.
Because I think in a consultancy relationship, people buy people, and people want to work with people who understand them. And while the majority of that is obviously people understanding your job and the product that you want to be building as well, I think you need to have that personal element. So while it felt a bit stilted over Zoom to make that time, I think that it's worth it in the long run.
CHAD: That's a really good point. I think if you're not careful about it, it's very easy to just get right to business in a call as opposed to when you're meeting someone in person you need to walk to a conference room or something, and it naturally lends itself to some small talk.
KIRSTEN: Exactly, that bit where you're riding in the lift together.
CHAD: And I think that that probably applies to sales as much as it does our team members too.
KIRSTEN: Absolutely. Funnily enough, I was talking with our Development Director here, Rob Whittaker, the other day about one-to-ones should not be really that much talking about your client project. It's obviously important to make sure that someone is happy and they're being successful in their work. But actually, what's going on behind the scenes and understanding that within your team is probably just as important, if not more so, like you say.
CHAD: So tell us a little bit about some of the interesting work that's happening in Launchpad II.
KIRSTEN: Well, we've got a couple of flagship clients that keep on growing for us, which is really great, actually. They're effectively partnerships, really at this point. And so, one of those clients is a large financial service institution where we were building APIs for all of the COVID loan schemes. And I think the last I checked, the amount of money that had flowed through that system and the loans approved was something over £75 billion. So for a pretty small development team, it's really impressive what they've achieved over that time. So that's a team of three developers in a Boost-style engagement, so like Josh's team over in the U.S. working on a Rails project and working alongside business analysts from the team and other stakeholders there as well.
And so over in the Middle East, we have a food delivery client, so they're actually a huge brand over there. And we had started working with them nearly two years ago now on creating a mobile app for their customers. So we've been adding to features, getting that released. And obviously, with what's happened in the last 18 months, food delivery is a sector where you've seen huge growth. And that's even led to us recently looking at re-engineering the platform and making sure that we're still managing to delight their customers as well with their user experience.
And we've even been working on some Ignite-style projects too. So there's a lot of startups, a lot of folks have been at home thinking about what is this new business? What's the impact I'm going to have on the world? And most recently, we've been running some product design sprints with a wellness brand who are looking at bringing a different type of wellness to the market. And again, that's a mobile app which we're really excited to be working on.
CHAD: Have you seen the different geographies both from the U.S. and UK...what do you see happening to the different geographies that you're selling into and expanding into? Are there any notable differences you would call out?
KIRSTEN: I think the biggest difference that I see between clients in the Americas and over here in Europe, the Middle East, Africa would be the funding levels for startups and the expectations around that. It seems like a more mature market from a point of view of being able to get a decent budget to really build a meaningful platform for first release over in the Americas, whereas over here, it's a bit leaner definitely [laughs] on the startup side of things. So I think that's probably the biggest challenge we have when talking with clients and making sure we can give them the bang for the buck, as it were. So making sure that the research that we did, that the designers do, for example, is focused on the right thing and really gives them the insight that they need to have the confidence to progress and invest in that build. Or whether they actually need to go back and do more before they actually start spending on the development side of things.
CHAD: I would definitely second that. And one thing that I noticed not only were the amounts different in the U.S. and the UK, but it seems like in the U.S., when you're talking with a founder, there's more often than not other people they need to check in with in order to make a decision. And when I was talking to founders in the UK and beyond and in Europe, what I often felt was that there was actually someone that they needed to check in with and get permission from or that was holding the purse strings or something. And that might be a cultural thing as well, far less likely to just make a decision with you in the meeting saying, "Yeah, we're going to work together." There was always, for me, a lot more back and forth, and checking and permission getting around decisions that are being made.
KIRSTEN: Yeah, I would agree with that.
CHAD: Is that something that you've seen too?
KIRSTEN: I think so. It's interesting because what we've started doing recently actually...sometimes through the product design sprints but even in the sales process, if a founder does know or does realize in those conversations that they're going to need to find an additional source of money to be able to fund it, conversations have gone more into how can we help them with their pitch deck as well? And I think I've seen this with the Ignite team over in the Americas as well, to be fair. The prototypes that we build, very early-stage prototypes, where we're testing and doing the user research those go into the pitch decks now to give potential investors greater confidence as well if that's the route that they go down.
CHAD: I wanted to tell you all about something I’ve been working on quietly for the past year or so, and that’s AgencyU.
AgencyU is a membership-based program where I work one on one with a small group of Agency founders and leaders toward their business goals. We do one-on-one coaching sessions, and also monthly group meetings. We start with goal setting, advice, and problem solving based on my experiences over the last 18 years of running thoughtbot. As we progress as a group, we all get to know each other more and many of the AgencyU members are now working on client projects together and referring work to each other.
Whether you’re struggling to grow your agency, taking it to the next level and having growing pains, or a solo founder who just needs someone to talk to, in my 18 years of leading and growing thoughtbot I’ve seen and learned from a lot of different situations, and I’d be happy to work with you.
Learn more and sign up at thoughtbot.com/agencyu
CHAD: What do you think is next for Launchpad II? As you look ahead, what do you see, and what do you want to accomplish?
KIRSTEN: Well, so it's budget season [chuckles] at thoughtbot at the moment. So we've just gone through our first iteration of what that might look like. And we are super keen to make the most of what we've built over, certainly in my time, the last 18 months. We've had great commercial success, and we've grown existing clients. We've brought on a couple of new ones. And we've really matured our team as well from the point of view of what we think works for our clients and what we get the greatest fulfillment in as well.
So I think in that first card, we would like to grow the team by an additional ten folks, and that's working across design, development, and product management as well. So that's something new that we brought in this year. We had our first product manager join the team, and that's been a huge success as well. It's something that everyone at thoughtbot working on projects had assumed responsibility collectively for, but actually, some projects really need that nominated person. So I'm excited to grow that team as well as the other ones.
And I think looking ahead for our hiring as well building a more geographically diverse team as well that better reflects our client base. So we currently have clients in the Middle East; as I mentioned, we've got France, Germany, and a few more UK-centric ones as well. So it would be great to build a more diverse team from a point of view of life experience. Because as we well know, the more diverse a team, the greater the empathy for a broader range of human experience, and that leads to great products as well.
CHAD: Well, speaking of hiring, you do have a bunch of open positions in Launchpad II now. And we probably can't stress enough that those positions are open to anybody, anywhere in Europe, the Middle East, Africa. And we'd love for people to apply from across all of those places and including an apprenticeship opening, right?
KIRSTEN: Oh, absolutely. I would also encourage people to reach out to me as well if they're not sure whether they would maybe qualify for the role. I think we do a lot of work on our job descriptions to make sure that they are as approachable as possible. But nonetheless, if someone isn't sure, then please do just reach out to me. And we can have an informal chat before the more formal process starts. I'm more than happy to have a 15-minute call with someone and just answer any questions too.
CHAD: Well, on that note, I'm interested in your perspective, especially as someone relatively new to the team. Coming in externally, you have a perspective that maybe someone who's been here a long time doesn't have quite as fresh a perspective. But what do you think makes people a good fit for thoughtbot?
KIRSTEN: From what I've learned from the team over the last 18 months or so, there's obviously a passion for creating great software. But I think what really seems to resonate with folks is feeling like they're a part of something bigger, so open source contributions, contributing to potentially clients who've got some social good agenda. Those kinds of things are pretty important to people. And working with even people who have empathy for each other and who envisage those values we have around earning, imparting, and summoning trust.
I think we've all been through a pretty tough time over the last 18 months. And the level of compassion that everyone has shown each other has been incredible. And the patience, as I've mentioned before, is great. And I think everyone just wants to pull together for positive outcomes, whether it's within the team, whether it's for clients. What would be your old school view then, Chad, as a founder of what, 18 years ago? [laughs]
CHAD: Yeah. I think the other thing that I would call out that maybe isn't explicitly in the values, which people can read about at thoughtbot.com/purpose, is designers, and especially developers at thoughtbot, are not what you might typically envision a developer to be in that developers at thoughtbot are expected to be able to talk directly to clients and work directly with clients. And that's not an expectation everywhere.
So, people who like talking with people about problems and collaborating to solve problems, not everyone is a fit for that. And one of the things we look for in the hiring process is those communication skills, and the ability to have those conversations, and to weigh trade-offs, and be a consultant, and all of those things. So someone who enjoys doing that in the process of building a great product is something that I would call out.
KIRSTEN: Yeah, I think that's a really good point. Collaboration is huge for us, always has been. And obviously, the way that that works has changed slightly with the move to remote working. But I think thoughtbot is the least hierarchical consultancy that I've ever worked for in that everyone is encouraged to give their opinions and discuss challenges with clients very openly.
Everyone is encouraged to contribute. It's not just the senior developers or the team leads who are making decisions. Everyone makes a decision together. And I think that's incredibly empowering for people maybe who haven't had that opportunity before. Sometimes it takes folks a little while to grow in their confidence and believe that it's true. But it's really nice to see when people who join us start coming out of their shells and really get a sense of satisfaction from genuinely being a part of a really constructive team.
CHAD: And the other thing that I often say is really important, not necessarily to being hired at thoughtbot but being really successful here, is being able to lift your head up from the particular client project that you are on right now and to see and get excited by the bigger picture of what's going on. So that might be noticing patterns in the way that we're implementing something that will lead to the creation of an open-source project or a product to solve that need. It could be if you really love thinking about engineering or design best practices and getting the chance to experiment with them in your work, that's going to make you really successful at thoughtbot over the long term.
Because we do great work on clients’ projects, but our actual product that we're selling goes far beyond the lines of code or the design that we produce. You said it yourself earlier, people buy our people, and our process, and our culture. That's what people are making decisions about whether to work with us or someone else over. And so we have an opportunity to be working on improving the company, and our processes, and our engineering practices, and all that stuff, and it makes us a better company. So the people who are able to do that tend to be very successful and grow into leadership positions and those kinds of things.
KIRSTEN: Yeah, I would agree with that. So I was actually going to ask you, Chad, what are your hopes and dreams for the Launchpad II team? We obviously have a few conversations here and there. But it's good to know from your experience, having worked with the team before I came along, maybe it's interesting for people listening what you think the potential is.
CHAD: I think that there is a lot of potential, and I think that it's probably no surprise that I think that, to be honest. [chuckles] I'm very excited by the ability to expand throughout a larger region and to bring new team members on as well as new clients on, and the way that that's working now is really great. It's not that the way that we were working before wasn't good. There are pros and cons to every way of working. And the pros now are being able to hire people no matter where they live and to have the expectation that we're able to work with these clients remotely everywhere.
And we're getting the chance to be involved in a lot of really cool exciting things and with cool, exciting people because we're doing that. And I do this and have done it for so long because of the cool, exciting things that we do with the cool, exciting people that we do them with. So that is what I'm really excited by. And the thing from a business perspective and a team perspective that I keep on reminding people of and pushing people towards is the team structure that we have in the Americas was created at a certain point because the number of people in the Americas made sense to have a breakdown and have some focus. And that focus is proving very positive.
It's not that in Launchpad II, we're not doing a good job on our client work. It's not that people aren't fulfilled in their work. But what we see is when people never know what kind of project they're going to be on next, or are tasked with going from a project where they're doing huge scaling and architecture, and the timelines on things are months, not days, and then you rotate on a project where it's the complete opposite. You're bringing your product to market super quickly. The timelines you're operating on...a ticket you're going to work on now is going to go to production a few minutes later. It's a different skill set.
And not that the people at thoughtbot can't do all of those things, but there is a benefit to being able to excel in the moment of that kind of project that you're on and to be able to raise your hand and say, "You know, I really like this kind of work," and to be able to focus on that. So that's down the road for Launchpad II. That's something that we have to look forward to is the team will eventually get big enough where we're able to say, "Hey, what kind of work do you want to focus on?" It's a transition we've been through in the Americas. Hopefully, we've learned from that.
And the other thing that will be the case for Launchpad II is that it won't necessarily all happen at once. In the Americas, we did it as a reorganization, and it all happened at once. But in Launchpad II, it can happen more organically where we say, "There is enough work in this area and enough people now," that we start to focus a little bit and we create a team of people that focuses on Boost-style projects or a team of people that focus on Lift Off-style projects and without worrying about also needing to create those other teams at the same time. So we should do it more organically. I'm excited. I'm looking forward to that process. I'm not exactly sure when it will happen. But I think it will be an indicator of the growth and success that we've had in Launchpad II.
KIRSTEN: We're certainly watching all of the great experiments that are happening over in Launchpad I in the different teams, looking at the learnings that are coming out of all of the different things. And yeah, I think it's giving us a lot of food for thought right now as to how will that work for us and how will it work for the clients that we work with as well? Because that's the other thing we mentioned before about the maturity of the startup market, et cetera. So we may need to organize ourselves a little bit differently to be able to serve them. So it will be interesting, as you say when we get to the scale, that that's appropriate, which I hope is going to be sooner rather than later. [laughs] So yeah, it's going to be an interesting challenge.
And I agree with you on the organic thing as well. I think it might be a case where some folks want to actually try out some different types of things. Maybe the newer folks who join us next year may not know what gives them the most fulfillment. But that's also another great thing about thoughtbot generally is that nothing is permanent. [laughs] And if we find a better way to do something, then we'll always twist rather than stick.
CHAD: I like that saying. That's cool. You're right to call out that a lot of the improvements that I've talked about are from a team perspective and an individual perspective. But a big driver of that was from the client-side, and we see lots of benefits there too. And you called out that we have project managers now. And that's been successful in a way that project management at thoughtbot has never been successful before.
And part of it is when everything was the same in all of the individual studios, not every project would benefit from a project manager. And if we only have one project and that happens to not be a full-time project for a project manager, it wasn't enough work. But when we can coalesce a team together and a client base together that needs a certain kind of thing consistently, then we're better able to support that which makes our work for the clients better as well. And so that's also been a really good area of improvement for us.
KIRSTEN: Yeah, I think it's interesting to consider product management in the industry as well. I think it's matured quite significantly whether thoughtbot was doing that or not. I think product management generally is a far more important role than it ever used to be because clients themselves invest in those roles a lot more than they used to.
CHAD: Yeah, and I think that I realized...I just caught myself in a mistake. Was I saying project management before?
KIRSTEN: [laughs] I should have corrected you. I wasn't entirely sure if I'd misheard you across the pond here.
CHAD: [laughs] Okay. That was a mistake.
KIRSTEN: I think a few of us still make that mistake.
CHAD: Yes. Actually, that's a really good thing. I caught myself doing it just because they're similar words. But I totally meant product management and not project management. And there are two different things, two distinct things that I think it's important to make that distinction clear. So what is the distinction between those two things, Kirsten?
KIRSTEN: [laughs] And now it's my turn to tie myself in knots a little bit. It's because product management; I think the first thing you go to is thinking about someone who's responsible for maintaining a product roadmap. And I know that that's a spicy conversation to get into sometimes because you don't want them to be so resolutely set at the outset of a project. But you need someone who's got one eye on the end goal.
And sometimes, when you've got a team of developers and designers working to some pretty aggressive timelines, and deep in technical problems and solving challenges, that person who helicopters out and looks across everything and retains the broader context of the overall program or the overall client objectives, and can hold the team true to that is really important strategically for the success of a project.
But I think; actually, you also need to be flexible and listen to the designers and developers when something that was on the roadmap is disproved somehow or is not viable for whatever reason, whether that's because of end-user research or just technically [chuckles] it's too challenging for the budget available to the clients. So then being able to talk with the client as a whole team but lead that discussion and help them understand the recommendations that are being made. I think we've seen that work really well in our team here this year.
CHAD: And I think an important distinction as well is that some of our clients look to us to make those decisions on their behalf, not all of them but some of them. And that's one of the things that distinguishes a product manager and someone who's making decisions about what the product even is versus a project manager who it's much more about the day-to-day tasks, making sure the backlog is organized, tickets are clear, things are moving along, meetings are scheduled, that kind of thing. And it's much less about the product actually being built.
CHAD: Well, I think that brings us at about time. If folks want to get in touch with you, apply to those positions, where are the best places for them to do that?
KIRSTEN: Well, my email is email@example.com. And I am on LinkedIn, Kirsten Hurley, pretty searchable,I think going Kirsten Hurley in thoughtbot. Those are the best ways to get ahold of me.
CHAD: And I think people can check out all those jobs and apply at thoughtbot.com/jobs. You can subscribe to the show and find notes for this episode at giantrobots.fm. If you have questions or comments, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can find me on Twitter @cpytel.
This podcast is brought to you by thoughtbot and produced and edited by Mandy Moore. Thanks, Mandy. And thank you for listening, listener. See you next time.Support Giant Robots Smashing Into Other Giant Robots