Leading through a year of upheaval at Uber


Organisational learnings and life learnings in a tough kind of a year

This week marked my first year at Uber. Anyone who remotely follows Uber, knows that this year was a hard one for us. So for someone who put their faith in Uber in this very publicly messy year, how did it feel to be in the inside? How did it feel to process and overcome these issues in front of a team? When I think of my year, I think of it in four different ways.

Managing Historical Complexity

When I joined Uber, from day one, I had the daunting task of taking over from a manager who was worshipped by her team. She was and is a superhero. She fought discrimination and political incorrectness. I was in total awe of her. She decided to leave Uber post the Susan Fowler incident and was lauded for her bravery in bringing many of the issues to the front. Susan Portalupi’s was a big shoe to fill.

February through May was a time when I think I had split personality. On one hand, I was terribly distressed by the series of events and was second guessing my choice but at the same time I knew I had to keep even keel for my team. They are mostly remote, they hear things and feel agitated and don’t always have a person who can give them the “right answer.” I had no right answer for them either. All I could do was provide a space for deep introspection. We talked about what bothered us the most in the whole incident and how we as a group might act if something like this were to happen in front of us. Knowing that they could and must stand up against such behaviors, hopefully offered some reassurance.

It was not enough that we were dealing with ethical issues but we also lost some good people around this same time. I lost my manager and my team lost their earlier manager. Coming into this new role, my first 6 months felt like initiation under fire. I give myself some credit for managing my own emotions in this phase. I let people have their space. I let them continue to work as they would have done without the towering shadow of a new manager. I welcomed an ex-colleague into the team, without really knowing how she would feel reporting into me. Every single one of these moments was ambiguous but I told myself to focus on being myself and have the right intentions for the team. When the going gets tough, I try to stay focused on the things I can control — my own attitude towards the problem and making sure my work keeps moving on.

What did I learn? History gets rewritten pretty quickly these days, especially in the tech industry. It can happen through discourse and a sense of way forward. One thing, I hope I have done right this year is keep the doors open for discussion, questioning, self processing and revisiting. At the end of the year, I feel my team is more inquisitive, more demanding and more balanced in viewing themselves in relation to Uber than when we started.

Processing Regional Complexity

When I started the year, I was supposed to look at research for India and Asia Pacific. Very soon, Latin America and Europe came within the fold.

Each region we operate in is not only different in terms of the business landscape, scope and complexity but also in terms of how the regional entity does business. As much as we are a global company, not every region understands our skills and value proposition equally. Latin America thinks of UX Research as some kind of an offshoot of Market Research. Europe and the Middle East are figuring out what exactly is the benefit we generate and Asia Pacific and India are sold on the concept so much that everyone wants to build their own research wing. Some groups are more collaborative, others are more clandestine. Then there is the US and our HQ teams trying to get what they need.

A big part of my thinking this year has been around how to align the headquarters with the regions and vice versa. This was my one dissatisfaction with Google. Sure Google runs summits and country level annual PR events for its products, but the regions had very little hand in bottom up planning. And when there is no bottom up approach, you basically showcase what HQ teams build and try to retrofit it to the regions. That is not what a successful global product development looks like. We miss out on the diversity of thinking needed to succeed locally.

Trying to align four parts of the world really fires my imagination. Thank you Aaron Schildkrout for signing me up for this. I love this challenge because it is one of the hardest things to crack. It also raises the question of am I capable of being a true global leader, someone who much like a chameleon can change her ways of working according to her stakeholders and regions. I don’t have too much precedence to fall back on. Few companies I can think of have done this successfully- FMCG giants like Unilver, P&G, Pepsi and Coke and possibly Amazon and Whatsapp in the tech space. Uber is a strong contender to be a successful global brand but we still have some way to go.

In order to manage this global conversation, I have had to break the model I myself built in June, showing how every region will do research and product alignment. The efficiency seeker in me had to stop splitting my hair over why the process was not working and focus more on the regional team cultures and the individuals on my team who are in charge in each region. Some of my team members gained their stripes in their regions by being supportive and delivering a lot of work, while others decided to wait for the right things to focus on. Their successes and challenges are different. My role is to help them succeed in their specific contexts, cut loses as needed to keep my team healthy and continue to course correct almost on a quarterly basis.

In 2017, I have barely scratched the surface of what’s clearly going to be several years of work towards gaining a seat at the table in every single region of the world. If there is one thing I would like to achieve in 2018, it will be to help keep Uber more bottom up in its global strategy planning. As Daniel Graf asked of me, I need to help product do much less and be more efficient around the world. I am on it.

Unpacking the Experience Complexity

In order to thrive at Uber, you really have to understand experience as a competitive advantage. Our business model is easy to copy. We have competitors all around the world trying to do the same. There is enough money floating around whereby they can outpay us in incentives and promotions to drivers and riders. And yet, Uber continues to grow.

Uber survives by differentiating itself on experience. What that means is we have the opportunity to create a single, unified experience that is so magical that people can go from one city to another and rely on the very same Uber magic to move them on the rider side. On the driver side, no matter who you are, how many hours you want to drive and whatever parameters you operate within, we make it possible for you to earn a part time or a full time livelihood anytime, anyplace. This is the magic of the Uber experience. We offer tremendous choice within a singular experience.

But in order to achieve this magic, there is a need for our design standards to be more intelligent and context sensitive. We ran a test in 7 countries around the world this year and a single button called “Go Online” was understood in very different ways round the world.

What this signals to us as a UX team is we need to build visual and linguistic databases of how people around the world understand the same thing differently. We need to align very closely our design and brand guidelines. We must always think of a minimum to maximum experience spectrum which kick in depending on what kind of a context you are using Uber from. We do not make you wait for 5 minutes before your app starts to load in India and we do give you an option to call an Uber by phone, even if you are in the US and have run out off of data.

The magic of Uber experience needs more method to it. I want to see our designers work more closely with researchers not just for usability testing or strategic insights but more on experimentation. Experimenting with intent and guiding our stakeholders to the right things to build for our user base, are the only two competitive advantages we need to hone in on in a highly fragmented product space.

Our amazing research and design teams excel in their core craft but what I hope we will see going into 2018, is a richer understanding of design and behavioral patterns. This means more focus on diversity of skills levels and human motivations and making sure our products are secure, private and accessible, just as people want them to be. This kind of global synthesis and pattern development is really hard but we need to undertake much more of this, to make sure we continue to take the lead on experience in the ride sharing and food delivery space.

Harmonising Personal Complexity

While much of the things above are work centric, this year at Uber also left a tremendous impact on me as a human being.

I am learning to enjoy being an underdog and how to steal the show when no one really expects you to. When I presented at events on behalf of Google, people would enjoy an average talk, just because it came from someone from Google. Today, there is almost no expectation from me. In September, I sat at a conference in Barcelona and I knew I had to come up with a provocative spiel to make sure our talk got enough attention. I went into the tricks of business development I had learnt in my past life and focused on a theme which start ups almost always like- failure. It worked. I got emails and tweets 2 months after the event, thanking me for an outstanding presentation when no one knew what to expect. I like this position. I have a lot more space to experiment with. I toe the party line just enough and yet have space for individual opinion. This is incredibly empowering.

Another part of me which was perhaps dormant in the last 7 years, was the feminist in me. In India, you need to be a feminist to make sure you are heard. In Europe, if you say you believe gender politics exists, it is almost like you just betrayed the whole idea of a fair work place that people are trying to build. This passive-aggressive attitude to gender in Europe is quite a challenge and as an immigrant trying to establish myself in this part of the world, I think I over-indexed on integration than sticking to a core principle that is dear to me, in the last few years.

At Uber, this year, I felt like I had to stand up and be a woman and a leader to ensure there is always a counter narrative. I worked with my team on how to be forceful, how to defend their ideas, how to speak up if they saw any form of discrimination, how to demand more from stakeholders and yet be a collaborative and a contributing member of a team at all times. The feminist in me is glad to have found back my voice. It’s still scary at times but having a sense of agency, makes me a stronger human being than I was a year before.

So, was this year worth it?

2017 will always be the inflection point at Uber. It was mind-boggling to have been here and witnessed each outburst first hand. It was a great year to learn about yourself — your values, your strengths and weaknesses and how do you lead under crisis. It was an equally great year to have started many ambitious work streams and learn what does not work here. If you are a problem solver, there was no better place to be than at Uber this year. I think I matured by 2.5 years in this one year.

As I start on my second year, I feel realistically optimistic. Bad PR will most likely not leave us behind anytime soon but for the first time, in Uber’s history, I think people have a sense of what organisational resilience looks like. It involves being humble, doing the right thing and apologising publicly when we make mistakes. It is a more honest work place today. It is trying to solve some really hard challenges by doing things together.

At an individual level, Uber brought out the very best in me. It taught me to be optimistic in moments of despair for the sake of other people. This took practice, a whole year of practice. I learnt if I can convey truthfully a sense of optimism, people will follow. I learnt to keep calm when things where going up in flames every day. I learnt to keep a group of people together. I learnt how to manage diversity. That’s a lot of good stuff for a year.

It was absolutely worth it being at Uber this year.

It was worth it because very rarely do you get a chance in life to show your mettle when the going gets tough.

P. S — Much of my learning in 2017, would not have been possible without the unbounding support of my own manager, Molly Stevens. There is no one thing I can thank her for. I owe her everything.

Photo credits: Photo by Jason Wong on Unsplash

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