Reflections on work, life and change
How was your 2016?
Truth be told, I haven’t heard too many positive responses to this question.
Aside from the slightly mental political landscape, it felt like a year of substantial change and anxiety. I’m quite a reflective person by nature — according to a personality test taken on our latest company retreat, I’m an INFP-A — so I tend to spend some time thinking about things. Maybe too much time. When I reflect on the year gone by I see a lot of turbulence too, but I also see a lot of turbulence in 2015, and the year before that. Life moves fast and the future is increasingly unpredictable.
Maybe this year was kinetic in the extreme, but amongst it all I’m grateful and hopeful.
I originally intended to write a post about how and why I’m no longer a product researcher at Buffer, but it didn’t feel right to pull it out of context of the broader changes in my life. I hope you don’t mind reading something that is both personal and professional. At Buffer, I’ve always been encouraged to bring my whole self to work. This sounds cliché, but it’s not. I wanted to write about a transition at work, but when I sat down and started typing all I could think about was how the “transition” never really ends. So, if you’ll indulge me, I’m going to go a little deeper in this retrospective.
Two weeks ago I returned home from my second Buffer company retreat in Madrid. These retreats are fantastic because they’re a chance for our remote team to get together to bond and strategize.
It’s also roughly a year since I returned from my first retreat, in February 2016. My experience then was atypical because my Mum was really sick — after a long and painful battle with a rare neurodegenerative disease, she was dying. I made the decision to go to Hawaii for the retreat, partly as a respite from caring for her with my Dad and sister. I also decided to only go for a few days, in case her health deteriorated to the point where I’d need to be home to say goodbye. I had no idea that this would actually be the case. When I walked in the door of our apartment the night I returned to Sydney, it was clear from the way she was breathing that this was going to be our last night together as a family. The timing felt surreal. Had I stayed an extra day in Hawaii I might not have been there by her side when she died. Having received warning from Dad, my London-based sister also arrived home in the nick of time, along with my other other Sydney-based sister. My gut tells me that my Mum held on so that the six of us could all be together one last time. She was the strongest woman I’ve ever known.
I share this for a few reasons; to highlight that last year was difficult for me on a deeply personal level, and to help explain why my life and my work are inextricably linked. Being a remote worker enabled me to be there for my family when they needed me the most. And everyone at Buffer fully supported me as I balanced being a caregiver and learning a new role. I can’t overestimate how life-changing that was for me and I’m eternally thankful.
I clearly remember the third conversation I had with someone from Buffer. It was my final interview before joining as a “customer researcher”, and it was with the co-founder, Leo, in October 2015. I had admired him from afar and was a little nervous about our conversation. However, he quickly put me at ease, and we ended up speaking at length about life, death, and learning to let go. I was so struck by how natural this felt, despite what one might typically expect from a traditional job interview.
Leo, if by chance you end up reading this, thank you for confidence you gave me that day.
Being a customer researcher at Buffer really was a dream job. I was initially embedded in our Onboarding team, along side a product manager, designer, data analyst and a couple of engineers. In essence, my role was to validate or invalidate the hypotheses we had about the experiences we were creating, by talking to customers. I would run rounds of interviews or tests, and then debrief the product manager and the team. Over the next year or so, I would rotate in and out of teams (and products) and my title would change to “product researcher” to reflect industry standards and an increasing scope for the job. Part of that increased scope involved working more closely with the design team, in an attempt to level up our UX practices and push our designs to become more research-driven.
In June 2016, Buffer found itself in a cash flow crisis. You can read more about it here, but it was scary as hell. The day that the layoffs were announced, I was sure I was going to be one of them because I was the newest of the five researchers at the company. I told my friends and family that Buffer and I were about to part ways, and I didn’t sleep at all that night.
I’ve been through layoffs at other companies before. Although I’ve never been had to do them myself, I imagine there is no “good” way to deliver the news. I once worked at a 60+ person startup where management decided it was best to send two groups into two different meeting rooms simultaneously; one for those being told they were being let go and one for those being told they were being kept on. The news was delivered to each group, then we all took the afternoon off, some going to the pub to share a beer. It was strange to say the least. I was in the ‘staying’ group, although I was laid off a few months later, not long before the company closed its doors. It was via voicemail from the founder, while I was on vacation, just before Christmas.
Experiencing the layoffs at Buffer was vastly different because I was so much more invested in the company and the people. It’s incredible to think that I had met most of my teammates in person only once, and yet my connection with them is deeper than with many people I have known for years. I put this down to the power of our shared values and bonds created through sharing our personal lives with each other. I hesitate to describe it as a family, but it’s about as close as you’ll get in a globally distributed software company. When I found out that I was not going to be laid off, but some people I had grown close to were, I didn’t know what to feel.
I learned so much in my first year as a researcher at Buffer and was incredibly fortunate to work in an amazing team. We were forging our own path, experimenting, asking questions and collaborating across projects. My work was fun and varied. One morning I’d be chatting with a product manager in Ohio about customer signals, and 12 hours later I’d be running through some prototype testing with a designer in Rotterdam and a customer in Dublin. In between I’d fit in some reading, swimming, maybe some rugby chat with teammate in Innisfail, and almost certainly a nap.
At the same time, I never managed to nail down my OKRs. I felt I was doing good work but I struggled to define it, and this seemed to be indicative of the shifting nature of my role as a researcher. As a marketer, I was used to having hard metrics to guide my progress, but as a researcher I had more questions than answers.
After my Mum died, I continued living with my Dad and youngest sister. It was an exhausting few months, and we decided it would be great for us all to travel to the UK together for a vacation with my London-based sister and her partner. I worked from London and then took some time off as we traveled together north through England and up to Scotland. It was a fantastic trip and afterwards, as they returned home, I continued on to the USA, where I would spend the next three months working and traveling.
It was invigorating working in the same timezone and sometimes the same city as other teammates. I was able to join group calls that I would otherwise be sleeping through and generally felt more productive and connected. At the same time, I was traveling alone and found plenty of time and space to reflect on what I think had been a defining time in my life.
Are researchers bridging the gap between the product team and our customers or inadvertently creating a wall?
When Buffer was a smaller company, it made a conscious decision, led by Leo, to double down on customer development. I joined as one of four full-time researchers; speaking to customers with the specific intent of understanding their problems, so that we could build the right products.
As time went on, a side effect emerged; because specialist researchers were spending so much time talking to customers, product managers and designers naturally began to rely on researchers as the source of the truth about customer problems. This isn’t necessarily a problem in itself — in fact, there’s a strong argument that researchers filter out bias in product development — but after growing too quickly and experimenting with scaling up our product teams, I could sense we were keen to simplify things where possible.
As we began to recognize this side effect, we made a conscious effort to involve product managers and designers in more research. I started doing pair interviews, where a designer and I would call customers together, sharing note-taking duties and debrief immediately after the interview. Product managers were encouraged to do their own end-to-end research and I would help them ask the right questions and review their notes. Instead of conducting research myself, I made myself available as a sounding board.
Our research lead was a mentor and friend, so it shook me when he decided it was time for him to focus on his own projects and leave Buffer. It also forced us to confront our lingering conundrum. The research team got together on a video call with Joel, Buffer’s CEO and co-founder, and Leo. It was an important opportunity for us all to talk openly about how we felt about research, and where we felt it was heading. The general consensus was that changes were necessary, but the path forward was still uncertain.
After the our group call, we all agreed to keep the dialogue open, and I was both relieved and nervous. I was back in Sydney and for the first time, looking for an apartment to rent alone; a small but significant step of adjusting to life back home. In the meantime, I was sleeping on a mattress in my Dad’s study — where I would also work during the day. I was feeling untethered, in a general sense.
Listen First, Then Listen More is a value that I hold dear. As a researcher, it isn’t just a value; it’s an everyday imperative. As a human being, it has helped me empathize, reflect and become a better person (although I have much room for improvement!).
When we next spoke, Joel listened carefully to me when I attempted to explain how I was feeling about Buffer and my future. My thoughts were a bit of a mess, but I told him I wanted to stay at the company, I wanted to explore other roles, and I wanted to contribute where I was needed most. He calmly reassured me that he was committed to supporting me in finding what would make me fulfilled. I’m very grateful for him taking the time for me at that moment, especially considering so many other important conversations were going on in the background, and I admire his commitment to listening.
After our chat, I put together a shared document outlining some ideas I had for how I could transition out of my current product research role and into other areas. My background before product research was marketing, and I had developed a great passion for understanding customers, so both “product marketing” and “customer success” felt like options worth exploring. I had admired both our marketing and happiness teams for a long time and I felt a strong affinity for both.
I was lucky to have amazing support from the directors of both teams and the leadership group, and we settled on trying something a little different with my new role; a 50/50 split between customer onboarding and marketing. After a month of anxiety about my future, I was happy and excited to be starting something new.
What does this hybrid role look like in practice?
Well, the cool thing is there is some natural overlap between teams at Buffer, so I’ve found myself working with the growth team quite a bit too.
Here’s what a typical day might look like for me:
7:30am: Catch up on overnight updates in Slack / Discourse / Email
8am till 11am: Jump into our ‘Onboarding’ inbox in Helpscout, where people write in with questions about getting started with Buffer.
11am till 12pm: Close out remaining tickets, call an Enterprise prospect, update onboarding resources.
1pm till 3pm: Work on designing new email drip campaign to increase Individual user activation rate.
3pm till 5pm: Update our transparent product roadmap and respond to UserVoice comments, async collaboration with marketing team.
I was initially quite nervous about being “split” between teams, but so far it has been an interesting challenge which I’m thoroughly enjoying. Throughout the day I’ll be doing a lot of asynchronous collaboration with Hannah, our awesome and experienced Onboarding Specialist. She has been leading the way in product education and customer onboarding, so I am learning a lot from from her. I’ll also collaborate with Brian; our top of the funnel marketer, Maxime; our growth product manager, and Kevan; our Marketing Director on our onboarding campaigns, product resources and landing pages etc.
For guidance and mentorship, I have weekly 1:1s with Kevan, and a sync with Åsa (our Director of Happiness) every other week.
I still love research and I try to incorporate it into my work as much as possible. I seek to understand customer problems, (in)validate our hypotheses and create thoughtful experiences — just in a different setting. I’m also continuing to learn about product research and UX in my own time as a sort of “side project”. Maybe one day I’ll continue what I started as a product researcher at Buffer, or maybe I’ll be doing something else completely, but for now I’m happy and excited to be starting a new chapter, helping connect people with Buffer and make the most of their opportunities on social media. I’m keen to stay open and transparent as I work through this transition. If you have any questions or thoughts, drop me a line here or on Twitter.
I’m also really excited for our new vision for Buffer. From Joel’s blog post:
Today we’re recommitting to a single path and a unified vision.
We will be a long-term, sustainable, fully remote team that works hard on mission-driven work. We will be the most reliable social media tool in the market. And we will continue to push the boundaries of transparency, culture and freedom in the team.
We will strive for the kind of healthy, long-term growth that we believe will naturally follow as we focus on creating trustworthy products and providing unexpectedly delightful customer service.
We will create space to build a uniquely empowering company culture (which we like to call “a workplace of the future”) by investing in creativity, learning, innovation, and joy at work.
One more note of thanks…
I consider myself incredibly lucky to be in a position where I can experiment with work and life and how they come together. I’ve mentioned a few people in this post but there are countless others — friends, family, peers — who have helped me realize what’s important in life and brought out the best in me over the last year and more. I’m looking forward to repaying the time you’ve invested in me — thanks!