The Looking Glass: The Most Operationalized Product Teams

Also: References make the world go round, ingredients for influencing, and why pickleball is well designed

Julie Zhuo
5 min readMay 18


Hello readers!

This week’s tidbits:

  1. The most operationalized product teams
  2. References make the hiring world go round
  3. From the archives: The prices of greatness

For paid subscribers:

  1. Subscriber mailbag: What are the best and worst parts of being an entrepreneur?
  2. Ingredients for influencing
  3. Why is pickleball well designed?

It’s been a chaotic past two weeks — broke my foot (playing pickleball of all things! You can read my musing on that below), gave some talks (including my first data talk — which I feel is a milestone of sorts, in my journey from engineering to design to product to data!) Enjoying the sun. Meeting a lot of companies. Learning a ton. Love ya’ll!

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The most operationalized product teams

  1. Have a rock-solid data foundation and design robust logging from the get-go
  2. Map desired outcomes to clear output metrics
  3. Monitor those metrics weekly with reviews or reports
  4. Brainstorm hypotheses for what drives those metrics from a) speaking with users and b) segmenting their data
  5. Conduct high-velocity experiments to understand which hypotheses seem true and which aren’t
  6. Asks their data team to spend the majority of their time on finding new insights that will drive the business, NOT on reporting, querying, or answering data questions
  7. Build future roadmaps off the work of those insights

References make the hiring world go round

More than once a month, I get asked for a reference. This rate is only increasing as my career lengthens.

Who did you think highly of when you worked at X?

I’m thinking of hiring Y — what do you consider their strengths and weaknesses?

Would you work with Z again?

I also ask for references. Sometimes I get even when unasked for, like this morning, when I mentioned a person I was evaluating, and a friend said: I want you to know, when we worked together, I didn’t think highly of that person…

The sneaking thing about references is that they don’t play a big role early in your career. When you’re 22 or 25, everyone gives you the benefit of a doubt. You get evaluated on your answers to open-ended questions, or your list of achievements and grades, or your attitude. So you can easily get the impression that these are the things that really matter to your future employability.

But what starts to happen is that the more senior you get, the more your future employers start to rely on references to evaluate you.

As a hiring manager, I consider references gold. This is because I’ve learned the humble lesson that my 4–5 hours with a candidate in an artificial “get to know you” dialogue is nowhere near as sharp of a signal as someone else’s 50 or 500 hours with that person in an actual, honest-to-real-world-working environment.

The best reference is an honest reference backed by facts. The point isn’t for a reference to be “nice” or “punishing” for the person in question, but rather to tell the truth with give enough context so that the hiring manager can make the best decision.

Here’s how to do that, if you’re asked for a reference:

  1. Describe the context you worked with the person. “We worked closely and directly together across a dozen projects for the past 3 years” versus “We were both at Company X and saw each other maybe 6–7 times in big meetings 7 years ago, but nothing more direct than that. So I can speak to what I saw in those meetings, and also what I know of their general reputation from that time.”
  2. Describe how you’d feel if you had to work with this person again. I’d consider it a huge plus to work with this person again versus I wouldn’t want him on my team.
  3. Describe how you compare this person among others you’ve worked with in that role. This person is the top % of PMs/designers I’ve worked with vs This person is similar to others I’ve worked with in that role, nothing terribly remarkable.
  4. Describe what things you’d trust or not trust this person to do. I think this person is excellent at rallying support for ambiguous initiatives but I don’t feel they’re the best to establish the quality bar.

Other things to keep in mind about references:

  1. The hiring manager will also be calibrating your assessment — what does it seem like you value more or less, and how does that map to what the hiring manager values?
  2. People do change. So someone you couldn’t stand working with 7 years ago might have worked to soften their rough edges during that period. So share your feedback.
  3. It can feel risky to give a reference, especially a negative one. If you feel uncomfortable doing so, it’s fine to decline and say that — I don’t feel comfortable giving a reference (which still says something — that you’re not giving a glowing one). You can also request to give the reference in person over a phone call, and ask the hiring manager to keep it between you.
  4. The reasons to give a reference:
  5. A belief in karma
  6. If you want to ask for references of your network, be the kind of person who will also give references to your network.
  7. If, after reading this, you start to wonder “are my past colleagues being ask for references about me?” the answer is almost certainly yes.
  8. References are based on the oldest social capital in the world — reputation. And the easiest way to have a good reputation is simply to treat others well and be the kind of person they can rely on.

From the Archives: The price of greatness

If you surround yourself with great people, you’re going to get better faster. But the price you pay is the constant feeling of inadequacy.

If you invest in equities over a long enough period, you’re going to make money. But the price you pay is the constant feeling that you’ve missed out on some important trend or deal.

If you study a topic deeply enough to becoming discerning within it, you’re going to be called an ‘expert’ or ‘visionary’. But the price you pay is constant disappointment that the world and your work doesn’t measure up to your vision.

Every glamour has its price.

Most people think the price of winning — of greatness — is hard work and sacrifice. But beyond that, it’s also the mental battle. The constant drumbeat of dissatisfaction. There is no end to it. Consistent high achievers learn to make peace with it.

Of course, this isn’t the only path.

Sometimes, social media makes it seem like achieving / winning / changing the world is the only game worth playing. It’s not.

Play the game that suits you. But know there is always a price.

Read more



Julie Zhuo

Building Sundial ( Former Product Design VP @ FB. Author of The Making of a Manager. Find me @joulee. I love people, nuance, and systems.