Interview with Cate Huston: Engineering Director at DuckDuckGo

Date Added
Dec 11, 2020 1:26 PM

In this episode

In episode 30, Cate Huston shares the lessons and best practices she has learned as a remote manager at companies like DuckDuckGo, Automattic, and Google.

Cate is the Engineering Director of Mobile at DuckDuckGo. Prior to her current role at DuckDuckGo, Cate was the Head of Developer Experience at Automattic, Director of Mobile Engineering at Ride.com, and a Software Engineer at Google – experiences that have led her to live and work remotely in places such as China, Colombia, the US, Canada, and Australia.

Tune in to this episode to learn some remote best practices that you can adopt, such as leveraging asynchronous communication to let your team consume important information.

Like this episode? Be sure to leave a review and share the podcast with your colleagues.


Aydin Mirzaee 02:32

Cate, welcome to the show.

Cate Huston 2:33

Thank you so much for having me.

Aydin Mirzaee 2:35

Yeah, we were just, you know, chatting before this, but we have something in common and that both of us have gone to the University of Ottawa.

Cate Huston 2:46

I don’t know if they are claiming me, as one of their own. But yeah, I definitely spend some time.

Aydin Mirzaee 2:50

Yeah, it’s not very often that I get to meet people from my alma mater. So that’s kind of cool. But I mean, to kick things off. You are. I mean, you’ve been a digital nomad, for a very large portion of your career. Tell us about that. Like what got you interested? How did you get into this world of remote work before? Everybody?

Cate Huston 3:09

Yeah, totally. I was nomadic for about three years. But before that I like was moving all over the place. Anyway. So I lived in Canada, I lived in Australia. And then after I left Google, I just you know, that’s when I went like fully nomadic. And I was just kind of splitting my time between South America and Europe. And then my first management job was kind of it was taking me based in Colombia. So I was supposed to get a visa and go to Colombia. And then in the way of like, chaotic startups, I accidentally ended up as like, a questionably legal migrant in Colombia, with no visa. And there was no company incorporated in Colombia. But I was like, working there. And, you know, they’re pretty chill in Colombia. So with a British passport, you can spend six months of the year there. So I was just trying to like time things out. And when I was in Colombia, I would just be somewhere else, right? But I remember when I left at the end of that year, they were just like, Okay, how do you like Colombia, you can come back next year. But I’ve been in and out. I’ve been in and out so much. My passport was, full of stamps, and so no one could tell how much time I spent anywhere. Eventually, it was full. And I got stuck in Thailand, but that’s like a wholly different story. So anyway, I’ve been kind of like half, you know, living in Colombia and half elsewhere. And then when I was looking for me, I was starting to think about my next job. And Matt Mullenweg automatically reached out to me and then I ended up automatic, which has obviously been fully distributed. from the get-go. Yeah, I mean, that was great. It was like even more so because the first company I was out, we were like, in a similar time zone. You know, we were generally living on ESP, but automatic was like truly, truly global, truly distributed. And so that kind of went from like, remote on easy mode to like, full, full distributed And I loved it. Like I really really loved it like I like love text based communication. I’d like been blogging for a long time. And that, you know, meant that I adjusted to it much more easily. I think then I noticed in people who weren’t used to writing

Aydin Mirzaee 5:14

Yeah, and you know, for people who don’t know, Automattic is the company behind WordPress, and I think, I don’t know, what portion of the world’s websites still run on the word WordPress framework.

Cate Huston 5:26

I think it was like 34%.

Aydin Mirzaee 5:28

Yeah. Which is, which is like an enormous percentage. And yeah, so Automattic, obviously have been, they’ve been distributed from the get-go. So when you started working at Automattic, was it foreign to like the way that they were operating? Or did it feel just just at home?

Cate Huston 5:43

It was super natural. One thing to understand about Automattic and this is also true about DuckDuckGo, it is built on this premise of open source software, right? And this is how open source communities work and how they’ve always worked with, and acceptance of a little bit of chaos, there’s this kind of embrace of text-based medium, and there’s this need to document right, because people come and go in, like an open-source community. And so when you kind of build companies on top of those open source principles, it makes a lot of sense. And it all I think, goes together, you know, the open-source nature of how things work, and really, like very high levels of transparency and kind of running the company. And like both internally and often externally right, like Matt was quoted as saying, you can share anything except the password files, which is really cool. If you like to write, which I do, because I could write about, like, pretty much anything. And then, you know, to kind of work with it is like adapting to an open-source project, right. And so, you know, everything was there, everything was documented, like the way that things worked, was clearly laid out, you know, for posterity, right. So it was I joined the team, I like sudden, I don’t know, a couple of days is like reading everything the team had produced, like last year, so for the last six months, and like really got a sense of like, where things have been going. And, you know, like both what was that and also what wasn’t.

Aydin Mirzaee 7:01

And now that so many more teams are distributed, it’s interesting that you can walk into a company like Automattic and not need to talk to 300 people. And you could just start reading and reading and get all that context. Very quickly. One thing that I wanted to I guess, since we’re talking about Automattic, I mean, today, your engineering director at DuckDuckGo, which is, which is a search engine and anonymous search engine. And obviously, you ran developer experience at Automattic, so you were very much you know, curating the experience for all those folks. And obviously, you talked about your time in Columbia right.com, to look back at your whole sort of like career history, who would you say is is is a memorable or favorable boss that you learned from?

Cate Huston 7:44

I repeated to my friend, most of the time, I was at Automattic, which is obviously an intense learning experience, you know, if you report to the CEO, you learn to manage very well. And you also learn how to, like meet your needs, right? Because they have a very, very hard job, and they don’t really have time for you. So you know, I had a coach that I worked I’ve worked with since I was at Ride. And that’s been really helpful to kind of give me that continuity, when, you know, I can’t really expect it from the people above me, I was thinking about this question earlier, come to me in the prep, and like, the most memorable manager was, like, probably my worst manager, you know, and when I became a manager, I thought about him a lot. You know, and, like, both in terms of way, I don’t want to be that dude, you know, but also, in this like, tower of like, I have a much clearer manager, a much clearer model of what bad looks like the what good looks like. And so from the beginning, I like really saw this need to understand and define for myself What good looks like so I was going towards it, because, you know, I remembered like, viscerally this terrible manager telling me that he couldn’t be a terrible manager because he was not doing the things that his terrible manager had done. And now it’s like, oh, my God, oh, my God, I’m never like, this is the thing I’m going to take from you going forward is I’m gonna define good and go towards it. And not be like, Oh, I have this very strong definition of bad and so I’m just going to be not that deep, because then you’re just another dude doing a bad job.

Aydin Mirzaee 9:10

Yeah, it’s so interesting, because you often think like, you know, I guess he thought he was being a good manager because he had a bad manager and wasn’t like him. But I think you bring home a really good point that I hadn’t thought of, which is you can’t just have a Don’t be like him person in your life. You also have to be like a, let’s be like this other person too. So you need both role models? Almost.

Cate Huston, 9:33

Yeah. I mean, I think to be authentic, you have to be like yourself, hey, and so just trying to like be like, you know, like we mentioned Camille Fournier. Before we spoke when Camille is one of my best friends, I love her so much. You know, we’re alike in many ways, but like, we’re not the same, you know, like, I’m not going to go to work and be like a poor approximation of Camille. Like, I really want to go and be the best cape. And so, you know, that’s what coaching I think has been probably more helpful than like any individual man. I have it because you can read widely and voraciously. But ultimately you’re going to kind of practice what you read imperfectly on other human beings. And having somebody who is just invested in you, being the best you and you know, helping you reflect back and learn as much as you can from those situations, I think that is the most powerful tool for being the best manager you can be.

Aydin Mirzaee 10:22

Yeah, I think that that’s super wise. And it does take a long time. I don’t think people with a lot of clarity on day one can just say this is the true authentic me. I feel like it’s a spectrum of discovery over the course of time. Would you agree with that?

Cate Huston 10:36

Oh, totally, totally. And I mean, especially right now, like, I feel like everyone’s priorities have fundamentally changed, you know, like, who I am authentically as a manager in a pandemic is like, very different from who I was authentically, as a manager, you know, when I was nomadic.

Aydin Mirzaee 10:51

Yeah, no, I mean, that’s, that’s a good point to context. The environment means a lot. I have to ask you, though, to tell me about this. This harmful manager that you had, what did he do? What is something people should avoid?

Cate Huston 11:05

I mean, I think the biggest thing was like gaslighting, like that was probably the single biggest thing, like, I remember, like, like, the team was just like not delivering it. There was no accountability. There were deadlines, but nobody talked about deadlines. But like, the reason why you would know there was a deadline was that the tech lead would disappear. So like, we had a deadline, and the tech lead just disappeared for three days to search for his missing cat was just like farcical, you know. And I remember talking to this guy and being like, Look, I’m like, like, this team was really going so badly that we got fired by an internal client at Google, which, like, you want to be doing so poorly, to happen, like so bawling. And I remember talking to this guy and saying, like, you know, I’m like, worried because we’ve missed this deadline. And he was like, What deadline? It was no deadline. Yeah, that was the deadline. People knew about it. Which is crazy. I think, like, I mean, he really wanted to believe he was doing a good job. And I like, you know, was new in my career. And I really wanted to like, like, and respect my manager. But like I couldn’t, and I remember one day, I was out with a friend. And I was like, you know, I realized Ken is a terrible manager. And my friend was like, Cate, I have been trying to tell you that for months.

Aydin Mirzaee 12:22

Yeah. So it’s, I mean, I think that you bring up a, you know, really interesting point, which is, I think, like, there’s just this tendency for people to want to, like their managers to I mean, it’s probably not a great place to be if you don’t, but yeah, sometimes it’s, it’s good to kind of see the bigger picture. So I have to ask you, On a related note, I mean, you know, and, you know, we talked about, you know, developing over the overtime and getting better over time, what were some of the early mistakes that you think you made when first starting to lead a team? And, when was that?

Cate Huston 12:53

So actually like, not on that topic, but related to like how important your manager is like, after that kind of experience, one of the things I took from it, it’s like, I should interview my managers. And so if I’m going to like, someone’s going to potentially be my manager, I’ll be like, how do you do this? What like, what can I expect from you? And I think those answers have really taught me a lot. And then I also try to give it to other people. So when I’m interviewing for people to join my team, I’m like, Look, I truly believe that people should get to interview them on it. And so you can ask me anything you want. And I will be honest with you. Turns out this is like a really great way to close somebody, but it’s turned it off. Just being like, no, I truly believe that this is important.

Aydin Mirzaee 13:34

Yeah, it’s two tips in one right there. But tell us about like, what kind of interview questions should people ask their managers?

Cate Huston 13:42

Well, firstly, people need to decide what they care about. Right? So so many people, I think, are lost in that career. And when you ask them what they want, they talk about what they don’t want. Right? And so, you know, they’re just looking for, you know, not the sea of red flags, right? They don’t have perfect color vision, right? There are all these flags that they can actually see, you know, you need you to make better decisions when you decide what you’re going towards, and what you actually care about, right? So, you know, when I joined DuckDuckGo, I like really wanting to get back to working on a product team, and delivering a product like this was really important to me. And I wanted to have a manager and peers that I could learn from those were the things that I was like, evaluating heavily. And like, obviously, there were red flags that could have just been like deal breakers for me. But you know, I was very clear on, what I cared about and what I didn’t care about. And so anything, you know, it’s like, Okay, well, you know, I don’t feel great about that. But like, is it actually one of the things that are truly important to me? And if it wasn’t, I would just let it go.

Aydin Mirzaee 14:39

That’s really important. Is there an example question, for example, that you would ask?

Cate Huston 14:44

I think this is what individuals have to do. Like, sometimes I ask people questions, and I see that all they have is like, what they don’t want and then I’m like, I don’t know if I can help you. Right. So I think individuals have to do that work first. And then once they’ve decided what’s really important to them, then they can go kind of focused on questions around those topics me talking to your manager about like, how they operate with feedback, like how often they’re delivering? What’s the team strategy? And how are they articulating that? And like, how do team members get involved with things? What can they expect from like in terms of both decide what you care about, and then ask about the things that you care about? Because otherwise, you’re either asking for like, is this a red flag is that you’re like checking for red flags, which, like, tend to be quite narrow and uninspiring questions, right? Or you’re asking, like, very broad questions where there’s not really a good answer to them. It’s like, Oh, you know, tell me how the team operates day to day, you know, what’s an average day like for you? And like, my average day is like, of no use to me, I see who interviews with me, right. Like, it’s not what that was going to be like, once you decided what you care about, then I think the questions will like flow naturally.

Aydin Mirzaee 15:47

Yeah, I think that makes a lot of sense. I have to ask you. So I mean, this concept, and, and we’re totally going off-script here. But this concept of, you know, the manager read me, you know, it’s this like, concept that that’s popularized. And, and people write a lot about themselves, managers do it, and then they may give it to their team. Like, what would you say, if you’re kind of trying to interview like, your manager? And they just hand you this Read Me? Is that? Is that a good or bad sign?

Cate Huston 16:16

Probably, like, swipe left? Mm hmm. Okay, next. Yeah, I like very mixed feelings about the manager Read Me. Like, I think most people are just like, they haven’t had enough therapy to write a truly accurate manager. This is my assessment of them. And, you know, like, they were popularized. And I remember, like, it’s a really popular guy with a manager with me. And I was like, well, this isn’t stupid, but I’ve had terrible things about working with this guy. So I sent it to one of my friends who had worked with him. And like, how apply was, if only he did any of these things?

Aydin Mirzaee 16:48

Yeah, yeah, that’s crazy. You know, and I have mixed feelings about it, too. And, you know, part of it is like, you know, say that you have a I don’t know. So you know, people, you know, one of my flaws that I’m always trying to work on is, is to always give more positive feedback as an example. And so and say, I tend to lean towards, you know, just like, how can we improve this type of feedback? So if I put that on my manager Read Me, is that all of a sudden an excuse for me to never change? Like, this is why I have a few mixed feelings like, as you said, as well, like, Is it a license to just operate the way you are? And not improve? I don’t know. So those are some of the things that I think about.

Cate Huston 17:30

Yeah, I actually wrote a manager Read Me, but then never shared it with anyone, like, and I tried to write it in a really honest way. And then I was like, I’m not sure I can share this with people because I seem incompetent. So I was just like, really, for myself on all the things that I thought I needed to do better. But I also think, you know, to your point that it kind of, like enforces a power dynamic, you know, that’s like, this is how I am and you must work with me as I am. It’s much more interesting to get your employees Read Me, you know, and so I asked every new person that I stopped managing, like, how do you like to get feedback? How do I know if you’re struggling?

Aydin Mirzaee 18:06

Yeah, that’s a great question. Very good question. Yeah, I and I agree with the power dynamic concept. But I also agree with another point that you were subtly hinting at, which is that, you know, even if you don’t share it, the process of actually coming up with one is probably instructive and useful in a lot of ways. It’s kind of like a retrospective. And yeah, and like you said, it might make sense to update that sort of thing, even if you don’t share it with anyone, probably every so often.

Cate Huston 18:33

Yeah, I used to be really worried about showing things I work on management with my team, because like, oh, right about, I don’t know how to do a great onboarding experience, or how to, like, define a strategy. And of course, when you write like, you write things in a tidy way, right. But like real life will work, like, doesn’t show up like that. And everything that I’ve written about, you know, I’ve also failed at that, but that’s why I like to launch it well enough to articulate it. And then, you know, eventually, I decided, I felt uncomfortable with that. So I should share it and like, tell them that, you know, they should call me out if I’m falling short on these things because it’s what I’m aspiring to.

Aydin Mirzaee 19:10

Yeah, no, I think I think that makes a lot of sense. And you are right, like, you know, for all the people who do write about management, I mean, a lot of these lessons are learned from making mistakes. So nobody’s perfect. But you know, one thing that I can’t talk to you about is, you know, particularly given just all your background on like, distributed work, I wanted to ask you about, like synchronous and asynchronous meetings, right? So for all of those people who are now like, you know, forcibly working remote, and they’re just literally doing everything that they used to in the office, just on a remote schedule, I’d love for you to tell us about what is an asynchronous meeting and what kind of meetings should be asynchronous?

Cate Huston 19:53

Yeah, so any meeting that is boring should be asynchronous.

Aydin Mirzaee 20:00

That’s very quick and to the point, I was expecting this long, you know, drawn-out explanation, but that’s, I think like that’s, you know, if you have a boring detector and just okay, this should be asynchronous. I mean, that could work.

Cate Huston 20:11

Yeah, totally. I mean, like, just think about it, like status has been boring unless there’s a problem, right? So your status update should obviously be asynchronous. updates are, very boring until people disagree. Right? So you should get all the points of your like sprint planning where people agree into an asynchronous meeting, you know, most presentations are pretty boring. Again, those are things you know, make them a thing, put them in writing, and like, have, hopefully, a lively discussion in the comments. And if there’s something that’s like, genuinely contentious, then it deserves a meeting. I think this is, extra important right now. Because zoom meetings are exhausting. And so you can put people in a conference room. And if a meeting was going to be particularly boring, you could give them some doughnuts or something. But like, you can’t do that anymore, right? Like they’re on zoom. There’s no like no computer meeting when like, you’re on zoom. And so you’re like boring meanings have gone from like, not particularly useful to like a negative energy drain. And that’s why it’s so important to get rid of them right now.

Aydin Mirzaee 21:09

Yeah, so that’s really interesting. So if it’s boring, you got to think about that. And I also like, the other thing, which you said is like, if it’s contentious if you’re talking about problems if there might be different opinions, and like, maybe that deserves to be synchronous, but otherwise, like, it can be async, I have to then ask about like this, this other console because I feel like one of the things that start to happen when it is a synchronous meeting, and it is like a very old way of working, it’s kind of like, oh, you’re in the office, and I see you, therefore, you’re working, therefore something is good. I kind of feel like there’s an element of that in meetings or synchronous ones, which is like, I see you, therefore you’re consuming and, and retaining this information. But if it’s asynchronous, how do I truly know that you’ve read and consumed it? Is there like, like, what do you say to that? Like, is there a way that you can and communication is hard? How do you know if people are especially if it’s like a presentation type thing that you send to folks like, how do you make sure that it is it has been consumed?

Cate Huston 22:04

Yeah, so I mean, I think like, like something it used as word receipts, like, I definitely use them that way. I remember, like, very early on, I got feedback that I hadn’t liked somebody posts when I’d read it, I just read it offline, you know, and I was like, Oh, my likes are important to people like this is one of the powers I have in my position. And so like, I made a point to start liking things, but I think if somebody has put a lot of work into something, then you know, leaving a comment and like, you know, asking like a question that shows that you have read it, and that you understood it is like really, really important. And it models that behavior and encourages other people to do the same. I also send a lot of like, private compliments, you know, so like, like a post, and I’ll be like, whatever, some good question. And then I’ll dm the person and be like, I really liked this post that you put together, I thought it articulated this really well or whatever. And I make sure that I follow up with that kind of validation, both publicly and privately. So people know that you know, it’s real and authentic.

Aydin Mirzaee 22:59

Yeah, I think that’s it’s such good tactical advice there. Like, even though it’s such a small thing, like an emoji to react to something, but like understanding that like, from a position of like, the position that you’re in that little emoji actually carries a lot of weight. And I also love the tactical, you know, after the fact go do go out of your way and message someone and tell them that you appreciate it something that they wrote, I think that’s Yeah, very powerful.

Cate Huston 23:24

I mean, we talked about like, the skills required to run a meeting effectively, right to get the right people in the room to make sure that there is some kind of consensus made, and like, have a series of follow-ups after the fact and kind of come back with them, like those skills for running and meaning but like, you know, you can make that meaning a text-based posts. And like, you use the same skills you ping the same people you follow up with, they haven’t weighed in and say like, your opinion is valued, you made sure it comes to some kind of consensus, and you push the action items going forward. And you know, merge in the same way that I think you know, a manager and a co-located company might like coach people on how to run their meetings more effectively. You know, as management a distributed company, like this is like something that I spend my time on. And particularly when onboarding people, you know, onboarding people into this way of working, like you have this project and this is how we’re going to break it down. And this is how we’re going to communicate it and helping them get to the next steps after each post the people that I’ve seen come into an asynchronous context and be like the most ineffective and almost like when you watch someone being so ineffective and it’s almost like they don’t understand why and those people that when you talk to them get to know them you get that like their previous jobs, like their job was to go to meetings in a distributed context. It’s no one’s job to go to meaning like meanings are just like, really a function for getting things done.

Aydin Mirzaee 24:53

Yeah, to work for it. But you’re right like I mean, people’s identity, to a large extent is tied to this concept of meetings.

Cate Huston, 25:00

Yeah, it’s so unhealthy!

Aydin Mirzaee 25:01

Yeah, it’s very interesting. You know, there’s another concept that’s like, very related, again, in the remote context. And I feel like there’s a lot of work to be done to re-educate everybody about like, how do you actually work in this modern context? And you know, that is, when talking about written communication, that silence means agreement, which, which, obviously, you have very strong views on, I think, like, the natural thing is, if nobody disagrees, then you know, everybody agrees, what do you think about that?

Cate Huston 25:29

I think it goes both ways, right? Like, sometimes though, they like silence, people take his disagreement, and things just die, you know, and it’s like, if you’re running something, it’s your responsibility, that it doesn’t just die, you know, either move forward or like, actively kill it, don’t just like have a thread die. And then the other thing is to like, make sure that the people who should weigh-in and the people whose opinions you about, you have weighed in, ping them on your channel, tag them directly in the post, like, whatever it is, and, and follow up if you don’t hear back from them. And I think those like really, really important skills. But then on the other side of that, that’s kind of on the power dynamic way of like, if I need approval from my boss or something, it’s my job to make sure that he’s waiting on that vibe that he’s given his opinion that I’ve gotten feedback, people on the team who haven’t spoken up, he to learn to speak up because you can’t kind of come back with them. And later wait. And I think, you know, when you move to this distributed context, you lose all these like signals, right? So if somebody is in a meeting, and they like sat back, their arms across, they’re looking kind of checked out, it’s a sign that you don’t have that agreement. And you know, you can call on them and say, Hey, what do you think I know you have this experience or whatever like this is the responsibility I think of being a good distributed worker is that you don’t have those signals anymore. They weren’t healthy. Anyway, if you have an opinion, you should share it. Yeah,

Aydin Mirzaee 26:51

I think like, it’s interesting that like, everybody kind of has to take on that new responsibility, then maybe potentially be more vocal. But, you know, the other part of it is like, and you know, eventually, our technology will get there, we’ll get eye-tracking right in, in all these virtual meetings, it’s hard to signal anything, frankly, from like, looking at a virtual meeting with where tech is today. But what I would say is, like, I feel like things like feedback are so much more important. And so like, if there is an important, you know, direction or strategy memo or something like that, or presentation. Like I feel like it’s more important than ever to use, you know, whether it’s like DM-ing people and asking them directly or doing an anonymous survey of some sort, but that that feedback function is even more important than that before.

Cate Huston 27:39

Yeah, I used to do a lot of that, really in the depths of team transformation. I do a lot of that in one on one to be like, okay, you know, this post went up. What do you think like, what was the reaction from your team, and just kind of make sure that, you know, it was as expected and that people were coming along.

Aydin Mirzaee 27:57

[AD BREAK] Hey, there, just a quick pause on today’s episode to let you know that we really appreciate you helping us spread the word about the super managers podcast, if you’re enjoying what you’re hearing so far, dial into your podcast app of choice, whether that’s on Apple, or Android or Spotify. And just leave us a quick review. Now back to the interview. [AD BREAK ENDS].

Aydin Mirzaee 28:20

Yeah, and so like, in this same kind of concept of like synchronous and asynchronous, like one of the obvious, the points of, of getting together in person would have been in previous like, way of functioning would have been team bonding. In-kind of like a remote setting like the whole concept of team bonding, do you feel that people can bond by just being in a meeting and just doing a status meeting? That could have been a sink? But you know, maybe we continue it? Because like there’s, we get to see each other? And the team bonding makes it worth it? Do you agree with that?

Cate Huston 28:53

I mean, I think he should have that meeting, I just don’t think it should be a status meeting on our team, we’ve been kind of adjusting our team call, because one of the things that we do as a team is we have, we call them experiments. And so we’ve been trying things, you know, with the expectation that some things will fail, and some things will need to be adjusted. And that is lightweight. And we’ll be like, okay, we’ll try this for a little bit. And we’ll revisit it and if it doesn’t work, then we’ll get rid of it. And the reality is, we’ve got rid of almost nothing. You know, we’ve been putting in these things. And one of the big focuses for us has been this team cohesion because there are so many people on the team already and we’re still hiring, who haven’t met anybody else on the team. So we made a watercooler channel. I can’t believe that there wasn’t one before but like, just for like chit chat and stuff. Although, you know, there’s a lot of British people on the team. So there’s been some unexpectedly in-depth conversations about how people feel about death, which is not what I expected, suggested the journal. We start every meeting with something called feelings of the time, which I really believe in. I saw pretty much every meeting I went that way. And everybody just like to share how they feel and what’s going on with them.

Aydin Mirzaee 30:03

Should that be at beginning of the meeting that you go around and ask people?

Cate Huston 30:08

Yeah, and I will be like, tell me like, share one or more feelings. And so someone could just be like, I feel fine, you know, or someone can say like, Oh, you know, I’m like, stressed by this project or like, you know, right now, like, my country’s going into lockdown again, and I don’t feel good about it. And so then we kind of get this sense of, of where people are at, you know, because like, there’s always this, like geographic diversity and how people are experiencing things on a distributed team. Since the pandemic started, I’ve been finding that, like, more stock than ever, just because of the variety and the ways of which countries are handling it. Right. And so, you know, some people are under much higher restrictions and others, they’re like lives would be much more curtailed. You know, some people are not, but they have much higher anxiety because of the way their government is handling things. And so, you know, one of the agreements that we made, say on my last team, but as this was starting, was that, you know, we just couldn’t know what anybody else was going through. And so we should ask, and like, except that people might not want to talk about it.

Aydin Mirzaee 31:06

Yeah, I think yeah, I mean, these are all, you know, things that, again, because there is no standard water cooler, there isn’t like people bumping into each other in the hallway. I mean, you basically have to make space for these things. And I think that makes a lot of sense to dedicate some time in the beginning of the meeting for that, versus like, let’s get right to it, you know, yeah. To business. Yeah, I think that makes a lot of sense. And, like, kind of in the same context, though, of, you know, a lot of these sort of remote operations. You also talk about trust, obviously, trust, everybody knows, trust in business is a core tenet. Like you kind of have to have it in order for teams to structure and work. And you think that just in general, on remote teams, that the that they tend to have more trust,

Cate Huston 31:55

I think they need more trust to function. But then one thing I’ve always said is that like, remote work is the same as just work, right? But the remote makes the problems of work more explicit, you know, we go back to that terrible manager, right? I’m sure he thought that that team was like, really cohesive because they ate lunch together every day. But like, they weren’t, you know, we weren’t, wasn’t like for like, a lot of reasons. And so it’s, it’s easy, like in an office, right now, most people are fine. You know, we have lunch together all the time, as people get on it, but you don’t really know until something goes wrong. And then what are people doing, you know, they disappear to search for their cat, I really like showing up and trying to be a good teammate. And I know, in a remote context, like, there’s none of that, like a shortcut. You know, we know that people have like, literally no connection, unless we build it. And so, like, I really love that because I’m like, now these problems are just explosive. So we’re just gonna work on them.

Aydin Mirzaee 32:50

Yeah, and you talk a lot about the concept too, which is like remote work basically means you have to be intentional about almost everything. And you know, whether it’s intentional, like you said, about liking a post, or dm-ing someone afterward what are other intentional l things you find yourself doing?

Cate Huston 33:06

I think a lot, especially lately about onboarding is like a really good, intentional problem. So this posting courts, and we talk about onboarding, like it is giving people a sense of belonging, and a sense of accomplishment. And so those are the two things I tried to be like, really intentional about, and you know, which things hit which box, you know, this is your first project, you know, so as to give you a sense of accomplishment, you know, because it’s supposed to be small and self-contained and whatever, then one of the other things that we do, to support a sense of belonging is every, you know, because I mentioned, my team does experiments, and every new hire gets to experiment on the next thing. And so our first new hire on the team, like what she did was great, she put together a piece of advice from everybody on the team to give to the next new and then relegated. Yeah, it’s lovely. And so then what he did for, you know, the new hire that came after him was, he like, got everybody to share an example of a project that they thought was really helpful to mine.

Aydin Mirzaee 34:12

Yeah, that’s awesome. I mean, I love that that’s such a great tactical tip, which is like, get everybody to give a piece of advice to the new person joining on board. That’s super awesome,

Cate Huston 34:23

Right? And because it’s documented, you know, it’s a witness and like, every new hire gets it on that checklist. And they can add that one piece of advice over time. But no one was really nice because in our team call like we each went around and shared our piece of advice for this new person to like, make him feel welcome and special that works on belonging on two counts. Wait, so you know, the previous new hire, she’d been given, you know, a sense of ownership, and like the power to really influence the experience for the next new hire. And then, you know, he got to see that we’ve all taken time, and like, put something powerful together to make him feel welcome on the team.

Aydin Mirzaee 34:59

Yeah. I think that makes a lot of sense. And, you know, speaking of hiring, you also have this thing where you save it, you know, just in terms of like how you hire, one of the things that you consider during hiring is if we give people feedback, and they take it and multiply it and do a lot better at them, we feel a lot more excited about hiring those people. What does that mean? I’d love for you to elaborate on that.

Cate Huston 35:24

Yeah. So like, likewise, for like companies, or distributed companies, both automatically conducted, though, we would give people projects, you know, so work samples are, like, obviously, there’s a lot of complaints about them, but they’re also proven to me, like one of the least biased leads to hiring somebody, I mean, but you know, whatever you get from people, you know, you’re looking for certain skills, and you’re not looking for it to be perfect, right? Like, and so kind of, when we like evaluate it, we also find things that were missing, and just telling people like, Oh, you know, you didn’t do a particularly great job with the metrics here. Do you want to think about that, again, or, you know, you’ve missed this, we noticed this kind of problem in the code, do you want to have a look at that, and then we see what they do with it. And, you know, the highest that I’ve felt best about, and that I’ve seen, like, really go on, and really, Excel has been people that I gave, like, very blunt feedback to you, you know, a guy who applied and, and I, like, rejected Him. And He replied and asked for feedback. And I told him that his resume and cover letter did not explain, like, why his experience was a fit for the job. And then he wrote me back like an essay, and like, you know, corrected it, and like, you know, I gave him that opportunity. And then he, like, knocked everything out. The pot joints became a leader on the team, you know, and like, the person who wins that team now tells me like, you know, thank you that you gave this person the feedback, and you gave them the opportunity to so you know, was like, I think people who have ended up being maybe a little bit disappointing, like, you know, they’ve checked all the boxes, and when you hire them. And like, any hiring assignment is always just like, an approximation of the job, when, at some point, people are going to run into something they can’t do with a place they need to learn. And then you know, you try and give them feedback. And it’s like banging your head against the wall like they’re not coachable. And you’re like, pushing them to one accent, you’re like, really having to like hold their hand for managing their emotions. And, you know, it’s like, so frustrating. I truly believe that, being coachable is the best thing that you can do for your career. You know, the best thing that I can do for my like sanity as a manager, is to try and hire people who are coachable, because they are the people who I can like level up who can take on more and more and who I like, feel like I get the most out of working with and that they get the most are working.

Aydin Mirzaee 37:50

Yeah, so it sounds like I mean, all these things are, let’s try and figure out if this person is coachable. So if there is some feedback during the interview process, and like the first reaction is to be defensive, or to say, Well, you know, I hear what you’re saying, but here’s why you’re wrong. Or if they did that, then maybe that’s not at either. They don’t have to agree. But like, maybe the reaction is, like, I’ll ask you more questions that you can explain your feedback, versus just taking a strong stance or being defensive.

Cate Huston 38:18

I actually really respect a strong stance, but like, not necessarily being defensive. I, like gave somebody some feedback recently, and they came back and were like, you know, this is why I think you’re wrong. And I read it. And I was like, You know what, he had to make some valid points, let’s move him forward. And we ended up hiring him. And, you know, I told him as part of that, like, I really respected how you push back on this and like without being a jerk, man. And, you know, what he told me was that he had really appreciated, or it had been the only hiring process had been in where he’d been able to, like, give that feedback and feel like a human being.

Aydin Mirzaee 8:53

Yeah, no, I think that that makes sense. Yeah. And I think like, the key phrase there is without being a jerk. You know Cate, this has been really awesome. We’ve, I know, we’re just coming up on time here. And you know, so many different insights. And you know, particularly very useful in this, this world where a lot of people are getting used to working distributed and just learning what the new playbook looks like. So but one question that we ask everybody who comes on the show is, you know, for all the managers and leaders out there looking to constantly improve at their craft of management and leadership, what are some resources, books, advice, words of wisdom? What would you leave them with?

Cate Huston 39:35

So I guess the simple one is to get a coach. But the more complex version is deliberate practice is very hard in management because you don’t tend to see the same situations again, and again, like hopefully you don’t and so you have to figure out how to learn as much as possible from any situation, even with all the variables and all the messiness of human behavior, and like how do you distill it how Do you take the learning? How do you improve what you need to improve? And how do you not take on emotionally? Like the stuff that like really is like that person was, you know, whatever. And I find coaching is really, really helpful for that like we talked about Oh, yeah, the other thing that’s really helped me a lot is writing and kind of, you know, I feel like I’ve fully processed a situation where I’ve like really distilled everything I’ve learned from it into a series of blog posts on the waiting for everybody. But I do think it really does help people, even if it’s just a journal to just kind of really like be honest about the situations that you’ve been in, like, what can you take from it? What can you learn from it? And what can you adjust, because the more you get into a position of power, and the more that you’re doing, like mostly a good job, the less feedback you’ll get. So you have to mine what I would call implicit feedback for everything you can if you truly want to improve.

Aydin Mirzaee 40:50

Yeah, that’s incredible advice and a great place to end it. Cate, thank you so much for doing this.

Cate Huston 40:55

Thanks so much for having me.