A conversation with Facebook’s Julie Zhou about managing teams and time
Julie Zhou, VP of Product Design at Facebook, sat down recently with our VP of UX, Lynsey Thornton, to talk about Julie’s new book, The Making of a Manager, and take questions from the Shopify UX team. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Lynsey: We’re going to take this opportunity today to get a little bit more context on your book and on your blog, which people within Shopify have been reading for many years now. We’ve been collecting questions from the team and voting on those questions over the last couple of days.
To start, what does your day-to-day look like today — there’s some questions coming up later about “give us some advice on how to write a book when you’re doing all of these things” — but what is a regular Monday to Friday like for you?
Julie: So I usually get into the office around 9am. I probably spend 30% or so of my time on recruiting, and that’s everything from reviewing resumes, having coffees, early conversations with candidates, to interviewing to doing all the selling process. We’ve been very fortunate to work at a company — as I’m sure you guys are in that same situation — of rapid, rapid growth, which means that one of the most important things that all of us do as managers is ensure the healthy growth of our teams. So I consider recruiting to be one of the most important activities because it’s really about building that long-term future, being able to go and think about “What does that dream team of mine look like in a year and two years time?” and trying to go and evaluate who are the people who are going to make it so. So that’s about 30% of my time.
I would say probably around another 30% of my time is just spent in helping to support the people who report directly to me, or through me. And so I spend a lot of time in 1:1s. That’s where we have a dedicated time every week to go deep on whatever issues they want to talk about. I’ll also often do meetings with individual members of the team as well — not everyone because at this point we’re so large that I’m not able to have that direct one-to-one relationship with everyone. But there are a lot of folks who maybe they want career advice, or they want to talk about this particular challenge that they’re going through, and I might be a good person for them to talk to to work through some of that.
And I would say the rest of the time, which is about 40-50%, is spent focused on product. That’s everything from attending product reviews, doing design reviews, giving feedback on documents and product strategy, or even just spending time using certain features that we’re in the middle of building and writing up feedback and sending it to the various teams that are working on it.
So maybe the only thing I’m missing is that bucket of 1:1s with other people. Obviously I spend time talking to folks that don’t directly report to me. It’s really important to build cross-functional relationships and that includes with my engineering or PM counterparts, or people for whom I feel like I can learn a lot from, whether it’s someone who’s really, really awesome at data, or a marketing expert or somebody who’s a domain expert. I feel like with AI, we’re trying to figure out how we can better integrate user research and experience with some of the advancements that we’re seeing in technology. So, that’s a huge part of what I spend my time talking with people in 1:1s about as well.
Lynsey: What about “chaos time”? I find, personally, that I underestimate the amount of unexpected things that might happen in a given week that end up taking my time. How do you work that in?
Julie: When I say like “30-30”, they’re not all scheduled 30%. Sometimes I’ll have a free block but I know I’m going to use it to go and look at a particular product experience by myself at my desk… And I think that’s similar to the part that’s about supporting my reports. There’s obviously dedicated time for us to talk, but there’s also things that come up or someone will ping me and say “Hey there’s a big thing that I need a little bit more feedback or advice or support on” and I try to make my schedule flexible enough that I can be able to start that. I think it’s really important that you don’t have basically eight hours of scheduled meetings, because that makes it very, very difficult to have any buffer for the fires and the kind of urgent things that were unexpected that come up.
Lynsey: We recently implemented no-meeting Wednesdays, because we were finding people’s calendars were essentially running their lives…Even keeping Wednesdays meeting-free has not always been successful, but for many people they are really doing it.
Dealing with the unexpected things that come up in any given week seems to take a lot of people’s time. How do you keep control over your calendar, and your week, when so many people want a piece of you at any given time?
Julie: I’m really glad you brought up the no-meeting Wednesday because, as a manager, a lot of how I do work is through other people. So if my days are filled with meetings, or I need to do a context change, that comes with the territory of being a manager. But if you are an individual contributor, having focused time to work is so critical because we all need that flow state to get into our design problem or content problem or, if you’re an engineer, get into that code base. So for individual contributors we try and institute at least five chunks of what we call “flow time” where there are unscheduled three-hour blocks, because even if you only have half of your days in meetings, if those meetings are all with a half-hour gap in-between it’s very, very difficult to make progress on a big problem and to go into the meat of it and get into that flow state.
But going back to some of the things that I do to try and protect my time, I block time off at the beginning of the week to look over my calendar for the rest of that week. It’s also a time for me to kind of reflect — to imagine I’m driving home Friday afternoon after I’ve just left the office. What do I need to accomplish to make me feel great?
Lynsey: The first question from the team is: What tips would you give to individual contributors to extract the most out of their managers or leads? In other words, how can a great report also help their manager to grow?
Julie: I think the best way to do this is just to ask your manager a bunch of questions and to also be very, very clear about where you would like your career to go. So let’s talk about the second part first, and then we’ll talk about the first part.
A lot of times — I certainly felt this for many years early in my career — I really believed that if I just closed my mouth and I did great work, then the rewards would come. I believe that I work in a very meritocratic environment and managers are good and they recognize when I do great work. But the thing that I didn’t realize is that if I was more upfront with my manager about what I wanted to do and achieve, then my manager will be able to find way more opportunities for me and help me along. If you don’t tell someone what you really want, then you’re missing the opportunity for them to be able to help you. And in ways that you might not even be aware of or see, because maybe they have access to other information or other opportunities. And so the first thing is your manager is an ally for your career. When you succeed, then you’re helping the teams to succeed, and therefore you’re helping your manager to succeed. They have a very vested interest in helping you do well and helping you achieve your goals and so the first thing is just be really, really frank with your manager about what your goals are….If you really want to run that team meeting, let them know and then ask for their help and say, “Hey I want you to give me feedback on how I can improve.” Or if your goal is to eventually be a manager one day, “Help me understand where are the gaps and what are the things that I need to do to get there.” See them as that partner and that coach to help you where you want to go. So that’s the first thing I wish everyone tells me when they report to me. I would like them to tell me what it is they really want.
I think the second thing is if you do find yourself with some spare cycles and you’re looking for ways to increase your impact, simply ask your manager “What are the biggest problems that you see and that the team needs to solve?” Or, “What are some ways, if I wanted to stretch and really help out the team or help you out, that you think I could take on?” As a manager I love hearing those questions because it shows me that this person wants to do more. It shows their initiative and it shows that they care a lot about having an impact and helping the team and contributing in every way that they can. I think it’s a mutually beneficial kind of conversation and relationship. Oftentimes you hear the old adage that if you want to be considered for the next role, it’s easiest if you’re kind of doing that job or doing parts of that job already. So the way to do it is just to help your manager realize that you’re on the lookout for those opportunities and you want to help her, and you want to help your teammates or the rest of the team.
Lynsey: You’ve written a good bit about vulnerability as a strength, and we talk about that a lot internally, I think that that plays into this a lot here too. A lead-report relationship is a human relationship and needs to be considered as one, and vulnerability is a huge element of that. I think part of that is expressing things like your career goals, but also your frustrations. A really good story somebody told me from somebody on one of our teams was where the report actually went to the lead and respectfully, and with care, said, “You know, I actually really dread our 1:1s. And I don’t get what I need out of them, because of x y z.” And the lead was like, “Oh, shit!”, and was floored. They came back and said “Okay, I’m gonna have to reconsider this,” and that one piece of vulnerability and honest feedback from the report helped the lead grow in huge ways because it forced them to completely rethink how they were conducting 1:1s with all of their reports, not just this person, and lead them to becoming a better lead themselves. So I think putting yourself on the line with feedback and delivering that feedback with care is another huge element.
Julie: That is absolutely true and I always tell people if you want to improve and you want to grow the fastest, the best thing you can do for yourself is just ask everyone around you for feedback, all the time. It’s not because you want to get pats on the back, or you want everyone to tell you how great you’re doing, it’s because you genuinely want to learn what you can be doing better. I think people can tell if someone is coming to the table with that sense of curiosity, versus if they’re really just looking for compliments. If you are really looking for compliments you’ll probably get them, but you’re not going to hear the honest truth that’s going to help you get better. So the fastest way to learn is to ask for feedback. The most generous thing you can do for someone else is the same, is to give them feedback, because like you said you are risking putting yourself on the line oftentimes to give critical or helpful feedback. It can feel a little bit like, “Well, why do I risk it?”, they might not like me after I do this. But if you do it for the right reason, if you genuinely want to help that other person, then that’s going to come through as well. And that’s going to make it so that you are doing the most selfless and generous thing.
Now, I do think you have to check your motivation. Sometimes we give feedback to other people — and I know I’ve done this, I’ve been guilty of this — because I want to feel validated, or I want to feel that that I have this authority and power or whatever it is. And those are, I think, the wrong motivations because people can also tell when you’re going into it with that kind of mentality versus with a true desire to help them be better.
Lynsey: Yeah, I agree with that. Next question is “What is the most unintuitive lesson you’ve learned through your career?”
Julie: That’s a great question. I think it’s that a lot of things that most people want or care about, if you set them as the actual goal, they’re less likely to happen than if you put your goal on something else and then this becomes kind of a byproduct of that, if that makes sense. So one example is for a long time as a manager I felt that you had to come across as confident, competent, like you really know what you’re doing, and that was the way that you got people to respect you and want to listen to you. And, in fact, if you actually think that way then what happens is you come into the room and you pretend like you know all the answers, and even if you don’t you’re like “I gotta sound really confident and like I know what I’m doing.” And that actually makes it harder for people to trust you and to want to follow you. There’s a few people who are very good actors and can get away with that because they come off completely convincing when they don’t know what they’re doing. But I think for the vast majority of us authenticity is something people can sniff out, and if they sense that you’re not being authentic, even if you’re trying to come off really confident, then you just are less trustworthy. So the unintuitive lesson being, if you really want to earn someone’s trust and respect a lot of times being as yourself as possible is the best way to do that. Then the respect and competence comes as a byproduct of focusing on actually being authentic.
Lynsey: There’s a section in the book where you’re talking about managing yourself and the various triggers that you’re aware of as a human. One of them is fear of being seen as incompetent. I feel like that’s a human trait, I certainly feel it. And how do you balance that with the want to be authentic and go into a situation, and say that you are not competent to deal with this situation as it stands, how do you deal with that?
Julie: The irony is, if you are able to admit that you don’t have the answers, that takes a good amount of guts and courage and frankly self-confidence to be able to say that. So at the point which you are comfortable admitting that, and asking for help, you’ve already proven to a subset of people that you have that confidence.
It’s a very unintuitive lesson that I’ve learned, but the more that I’ve been able to go to people and just say “Hey, I’m really struggling with this,” the more likely they are to think that I’m actually extremely competent and, in fact, I’m the kind of person who isn’t letting their ego get in the way of doing what will get better outcomes for myself or for my team. So there’s a weird irony there.
And this is why I think it’s such an unintuitive lesson because I think a lot of times that people that we respect the most come off like they know what they’re doing, but this is where I go back and try and be very frank about the fact that sometimes I might sound like I know what I’m doing, but that’s because I’ve done it for the 50th time or the 100th time. And the first time it was no different than how you’re feeling. That’s still true for things that I haven’t done before or that are bigger challenges than I’ve ever faced in my career — I still feel like I don’t exactly know what I’m doing, and I still feel like, “Oh geez, I don’t know if this is going to work.” But the lesson that I’ve learned over the years is I feel better equipped with the tools to help me get through those emotions, and some of those tools are telling myself that these feelings are quite normal and universal. Some of these tools include having a support group, having people that I trust that I can go to and say, “Wow, this feels like a really insurmountable challenge and I don’t know if I can do it,” and talk through it with you. They will be there to either say, “You’re being too hard on yourself,” or “You’re going to get through.” Sometimes it helps us so much to hear that message from someone else that we trust.
I think I’ve shifted my mindset from “Okay, if I fail at this, that means I’m a failure,” —and personifying whenever things don’t go well as a reflection or a judgment on my identity and my character — and instead moving to a mindset where “Just because I’m doing this thing, and I’m not great at it today, doesn’t mean that I can’t get better at it and improve over time. And I’m going to take this as a learning opportunity, and I’m not going to have failure feel like it means that I’m a bad person or I’m a failure.” I think that mindset is also extremely liberating.
Lynsey: What question do you feel people — ICs, managers, folks in general — don’t ask enough? And how would you answer it?
Julie: Yes, I think, I think the question is “Hey, what did I do well in that particular scenario and what could I do to have that go even better?” or, if you want to be really specific, twice as well.
A lot of times you’ll give a presentation and you ask people and, if you didn’t bomb, then people are going to be like “That’s pretty good!” And that isn’t necessarily helpful because what you’re looking for is that next level of granularity or depth that’s going to really help you. Some ways that you can do that is just to imagine “Okay, say I was twice as good, what does that look like it?” One of the things I’m working on right now, I’ve been doing a lot of these fireside chats and some of the feedback that I’ve gotten from coaches in the past is that I have a tendency to ramble, or I have too many filler words — things like “um” or “so” — and you can get much better feedback if you ask about those particulars, and you can get that specificity that’s going to help you improve. So I think sometimes we say we are asking for feedback, but are we really doing everything we can to get the most helpful feedback for ourselves?
Lynsey: I think that’s back to your earlier point about asking for feedback that’s not just fishing for compliments. Compliments are great, we all love them, but they don’t necessarily help you be better.
Next question: What are some traits of an IC that you notice and identify as signs for potential to become a great people manager?
Julie: So first is “Are they more curious and interested in the outcome of the thing, rather than what specific role they play?” Because to me that’s the big difference between “Are you going to be happier as an IC or as a manager?” Now there’s things that I love to do as part of my job more than others. I love talking about the product, I love product strategy, I love giving feedback on design work. But if my team is down four or five designers, I would be spending 85% of my time on recruiting, because that’s just what the team needs. And so it’s not about what I personally love to do, it’s about “What does the team need me to do that would be most impactful?” If people are more motivated by the outcome or the outputs, and they’re willing to roll up their sleeves and be flexible and do a bunch of different things, then I think they’re going to do really well as a manager and they’re going to probably find that job enjoyable. But if someone is like, “No, I really just love going deep into the craft of this one thing, and that’s what gives me a lot of satisfaction,” then you may be happier and better off in that individual contributor role.
I also tell people that management is not the only way to be a leader on the team. There’s this Venn diagram where you can be a manager or you can be an individual contributor — and there’s a whole area of overlap in the middle that I think is leadership. To be successful as a senior individual contributor — for example, to be a creative director or to be the architect of the system — you’re going to need to learn how to work through other people, you’re going to need to still be someone that others respect and look up to. You need to be able to influence and rally a group of other people around the cause. You should learn those skills and get better at them and you can be very successful in that individual capacity, or as a manager. I say that to be a successful manager you have to be a good leader — because if nobody wants to listen to you or follow you, you’re probably not going to be able to do the job successfully — but it is not the only way to be a leader and to grow in your career.
Lynsey: Yeah, I completely agree with you on that.
Last year we went back on some of the technical leadership and people leadership tracks that we had attempted to develop a couple of years prior, but failed to honor from the technical capacity. It took a lot of going back to work out “What is the overlap with leadership?” between these two roles and, what we ended up coming down to is “You’re working through people, but in the people leadership role you’re really working through your team, and in the technical role you’re, you’re leading through work — and of course the work cannot be done without people.” I think that’s been a good separator between the two roles for people.
Maybe one last question to finish it out: What advice would you have to people more generally about being kind to yourself through extended periods of change?
Julie: I think the most important thing is oftentimes to just take that time to reflect and to really deeply get to know yourself, your own values, where you’d like to go. I find that doing that allows things to crystallize and, honestly, I think life can put a lot of pressure on us, right? The examples that we’ve seen — maybe on TV or movies, or through social media — give us this impression of how we’re supposed to be or what great looks like. Sometimes the pressures that we feel from our own colleagues or managers similarly form this picture of “You should do X, you should do Y.” But it’s only by spending time with ourselves to sort of know “Let’s put all of that aside, yes that’s out there, those are influences, but what do I truly care about at this point in my life?” And it’s okay to then say “Look, this is the thing that matters.” That means that I can give myself permission to say that these other things I’m not going to worry about as much, and if I don’t do X or Y, that’s okay. It doesn’t matter what my colleagues or managers say. Sometimes these are the choices that we need to make ourselves to feel happy and fulfilled. I think it goes back to “Don’t let the world or other people around you shape what it is that you think you should be.” Spend that time with yourself to truly figure that out because that’s the way that we’re going to be able to live the life that we want to live.