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Your team is your product

Fail Faster

Episode 412


29 minutes

In this episode, we dive into the fascinating journey of Arul Isai Imran, Vice President of Product and UX Design at Premise Data.

Premise Data is a technology company that collects, analyzes, and provides real-time global data to empower businesses and organizations with valuable insights. Arul shares insightful stories from his career, including how he learned to fail faster and pivot when needed. From building innovative mobile apps to managing a diverse team, Arul’s experiences offer valuable lessons in the ever-changing world of product design. Join us as we explore the importance of embracing failure, developing a learning mindset, and creating a safe and supportive environment for team successes.

Podcast transcript

Vandana: Hey, Arul. Welcome to the Fail Faster podcast. How are you today?

Arul: I’m good, Vandana. Thanks for having me on the show.

Vandana: Absolutely. I can’t wait to get into your world and get some great insights from this conversation. To begin, Arul, let’s start with your background. I know I did say that I loved your name. It is so unique. And I want our listeners to not only hear the story behind the name but also know a little bit more about you. So take your time. Give us a little bit about you, please. 

Arul: Yeah. Sure. I’ll start with my name. My name is Arul Isai Imran. It’s kind of a unique name. So on my father’s side, my dad’s dad, my grandfather, he was philosophically very intrigued by certain concepts. And through that, when his first grandchild was born, he wanted to use the word Arul, which is a Tamil word that’s rooted in Tamil literature. And it means grace, mercy, brilliance, benevolence. It’s a multifaceted word.

And he decided to name all his grandchildren Arul something. So there are nine cousins. All of us have a name that starts with Arul. So I have, mine is Arul Isai. My sister is Arul Mother Niam. And then when it came to my parents, on my father’s side, we have a mix of Hindus and Christians and my mother’s side, we follow Islam.

So from my mother’s side of the family, we wanted to have a name there as well. So Imran got appended to the name that came from my father’s side. So I have Arul Isai Imran. And also, Arul is a word that, because it means grace, it’s very common in Christianity. And it’s also very common in Hinduism, especially in South India, where it’s associated with Lord Shiva. So I have a name that blends in Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Tamil, Arabic. So a lot of different things come in.

Vandana: Cool. I just love that. How cool is that? You’re just like an amalgamation of all these, not only the meaning, but a lot of the cultures coming together. Super cool.

Arul: Thank you.

Vandana: So when somebody calls Arul, everybody looks at them?

Arul: So in our family, we’ve always, like, because there’s always been more than one Arul, everybody calls by the second half of our names. And as we got our own families, got married, our spouses call us Arul. So it’s only when, like, we need for family gatherings, someone will be like, ‘Hey, Arul,’ and then a bunch of us will add a little bit of adjustment. But yeah, that happens. Even at school, because my sister and I had the same first name, her friends did not know how to call me and all that sort of thing.

Vandana: Family addition or everybody knows how to handle those situations, I’m sure.

Arul: Yeah.

Vandana: Awesome. And let’s talk about how you came about, you know, in this role, Arul, your career journey a little bit.

Arul: Sure. So I have an engineering background, my undergrad was in engineering, which is again, very common if you graduated in India at the time that I did. I came here for a master’s in industrial engineering, but I switched over to HCI and human factors. I participated in some industrial design projects, got a lot of great exposure to the design world.

It was at Virginia Tech, I was lucky to meet a professor called Steve Harrison. He is an architect who then went into computer science, and there’s another professor in industrial design. And they pulled me into a project called Feed Me Speed, which was helping middle school girls learn more about science concepts. And we were working on a large multidisciplinary group, working on building a moving science exhibit. And all of that was a fantastic experience, it gave me great exposure to lots of methodologies and tools. And I think that gave me a great foundation in user research, ethnography, visual design, a lot of the skills that I was then able to bring over into my first role at Axela.

Axela is a company that does software for state and local governments, typically permit management, license management. Again, this was in the… The company started in the late 90s, early 2000s, everything was paper-based, they were making it digital. And by the time I joined, a new CEO had taken on and he was like, we need UX, we need to go beyond what’s just boring arms and clothes and make this product more usable, more interesting.

So I was brought on as the first UX hire. I was there for 12 years, I call it my second education, it’s like 12 years of school and then 12 years at Axela. It was a very interesting time. Axela was pretty small when I started and it grew and scaled and I grew with it. And every few months, like 18 months or so, it was like working at a new company, like the company’s pace of growth, it expanded to a global market.

We started selling the software in the Middle East and I had to learn how to localize, how to internationalize. We were selling to state governments, which meant accessibility was important, so I learned how to do that. An enterprise product that was built in the late 90s, outdated technology, we re-architected to more modern HTML, CSS, JavaScript-based architecture. So again, how to do all of that? It was an on-premise software, it moved to SaaS.

So figuring out that, going into mobile, waterfall to agile, as Axela grew, it acquired companies, so integrating with other products, Axela then got bought out and then adjusting to that. So it was a whole whirlwind of activity and like just a lot of learning during that period. 

Vandana: Wow. And that is a long climb too, for sure. Wow. 

Arul: I was able to grow. I was lucky to start with a great manager, who’s now a close friend. He guided me from the world of academia to applying all that knowledge in real-world conditions. It was a time when UX was just becoming mainstream. I remember I had to constantly explain what it was that I did to family, to friends, others. And by the time I started managing a team, most companies had some level of a UX product design function.

But this was the time when the field was growing when I remember attending the first IxDA conference. A lot of the community was maturing and forming around that, and I was very lucky to again have that confluence happen at the same time as I was growing in this field. So there was a lot of learning and stumbling, failing, creating things, corrected. But mentors along the way really helped me. There’s a lot of self-learning, but good guidance from mentors. So I was very lucky that way.

So that then led me to Premise. I’m the VP of product and design here. When I started, Premise had just undergone a major pivot. We were kind of rebuilding the team. So I got to build the team from scratch. I brought in product managers, product designers, helped establish the user research and product ops functions as well.

And it’s also been a very interesting journey going from a small team to the size we are at now, which is just shy of 400, I think 350, 400. And then navigating COVID as most people had to, we were also in it. That was the time when we had just started kind of getting some traction. So it was startup life combined with like remote working with a distributed team. It was just really, again, a lot of like things to learn from that. But I think we got past that, the companies, you know, we are maturing, we are looking at expanding into different markets, different parts of the world.

The other part with Premise is we had crowdsourced data collection, and we get data from all over the world. So the mobile app component, which is the B2C component, spans 140 countries, almost 30 different languages. So trying to scale user research and product design to make a product that works across all these countries with like phones that are four years old, a very different set of challenges. So I think, again, it’s been, but it’s been a very fun journey so far.  

Vandana: Wow, that is a lot, yeah. So what are some of the fail stories or hiccups as you are managing this huge work, you know, work bite?

Arul: I think there’s quite, there’s a lot, I’ll pick a couple. I think the most basic one, I hinted at before, like I learned human factors, HCI in an academic environment. So while there are trade-offs, it’s like near-ideal conditions, right? And like you follow the methodology, you go from step A to step B to step C in a very structured manner, all of that. And but in the real world conditions, it’s not like that. You have to skip some steps. You have to know what to use, what not to use, and you can’t go for the ideal. There’s a lot of trade-offs.

And so my first manager, he was a great help to me. He was very patient, very understanding. He would be like, I remember this conversation, he asked me for an estimate. And then he said, okay, if you are saying you’re going to do this in two weeks, you’re going to take twice that much because I’ve seen the way you work. And so let’s try and do this in two weeks. And then he helped me kind of like make those trade-offs and all of that. And I think it’s less about a failure, but it was like one thing where I was stumbling and like someone helped, like there’s someone to catch me before I fell and like helped me kind of get back on track. And so that experience then gave me a lot of confidence and I was able to move faster.

And leading to my first, I think this was one of those transformative failures that taught me lessons that I still carry with me. Axiom, enterprise software, web-based, we worked with like these large government customers who are in terms of citizens. And so when mobile apps came, our CEO was like, okay, he was a very early adopter of the devices as well as apps. He knew it was coming and he was like, we need to get ahead of this. So he had us both look at mobile apps for building inspectors, for contractors.

And we were all like scratching our heads, like who’s going to buy these $1,000, like at that time it was like $500 devices. Who’s going to give someone an iPad? Doesn’t make sense. These are places where they give you these ruggedized four-pound tablet PCs that people hung on a harness and walked around and it could take a beating, could stop a bullet literally. So he was very confident in that. He pulled me and said like, look, I want you to become the product manager for mobile.

Mobile is a different world. It requires, the experience is super important and I think you can do this. So he kind of gave me that opportunity and we built three apps in rapid succession. And then we came up with the strategy of going directly to the consumer. So this was around reporting things like potholes.

There was a whole slew of apps that came up, we were like, well, this could be an opportunity where we go directly to the citizens, we help them report whatever issues they see. Is it a broken street light, a pothole, graffiti on the wall, take a quick photo. Don’t worry about whom to send it to, just hit send, it’ll come to us, we’ll figure out how to triage it and get it to the right customer.

And then from there we could say, hey, we have all this information, here’s the information for free. But if you want to help process it, then buy our product and we can help you like seamlessly process all of this. So the idea seemed sound, we did some validation, there was a lot of demand for something like this. We knew that the customers wanted it, since I was the PM and I was also leading design and I had a great engineering partner in this, we built it creatively, Axel was waterfall until then, we tried Agile, we built an MVP, we tested it, it was user-centered, it got featured on the local news, our CEO went on the news and demoed the app, it was showcased in some app stores.

We did all the things right, it was a fantastic app, very usable, still very proud of it, but we missed one crucial step and that was the go-to-market research. The customers were interested, like I told you, there was a demand. What we forgot or what we overlooked, and rather I shouldn’t say we, I think it’s me, because I was the PM there, it should be on me, is like, which department’s going to pay for this? Where’s the budget coming from?

So 311 wasn’t like a department in these cities or counties, which you could go and say, okay, this comes from your budget. It was a function that was distributed. So if you had reported a pothole, it would go to the asset management team, or if you reported graffiti, it would go to code enforcement. So it was getting distributed to multiple departments and you kind of had to get a lot of different people to agree to buy something and getting that kind of traction was hard.

And so even though we had interest, as it is condensing one organization to pay for something is hard. Now we had to condense four or five to be able to do it, and then there was no one central owner. So we kind of dropped the ball on that. It sort of fizzled out, but it wasn’t a total wash. We built it on top of a new API strategy. It helped us kick off a new platform. We went from product to platform, we were able to get third-party developers to come in, build apps, extend our ecosystem, and we built a whole developer program around it. So a lot of wins.

We unfortunately weren’t able to capitalize on the opportunity as we had hoped, but we were able to extract a lot from there. And so that taught me a lesson that it’s not like build something awesome and it’ll pick up and it’ll work. You need to know who’s going to buy it. Will they buy it? It gave me a good business lesson on how to scope something out and see if there’s interest and demand before going too far.

It was also the time that lean methodology was becoming a thing. I think 2013, when lean started becoming a major concept, and I had learned through failure why it was important to be lean. And again, if we had done a little bit more legwork early on, I think we could have avoided that failure and gone in a different direction, but there were a lot of good takeaways. So that’s kind of my first big failure and lesson.

The second one, and one that I’ve continued to learn and improve is on managing people. It’s hard. There’s a lot to learn, a lot to do. I think when I first became a manager, I was really confident that I was going to be an awesome manager. I knew how I wanted to be managed. I preferred an approach where, tell me what to do, back off, I will do it, come to you when I have questions. Otherwise, just let me do my thing.

So for the first person I was managing, the way I would like to be managed, unfortunately, it didn’t align with that person’s style of working. They felt ignored, unheard, unsupported. I didn’t pick up on the feedback. And one day that person just kind of very frustrated, they came to me and they just vented out, right? That should have been my cue to modify my behavior. But then I doubled down, I became defensive. I didn’t see what I was doing wrong. I told myself a story that, no, that person maybe not the right fit. It was not my mistake. I was managing well. It was the other person’s mistake.

It took me a while to reflect back and see that my approach was flawed. It was too late by then. The person was kind of done with me and the company and I lost someone.

But around that time, I had again moved, we had gotten a new VP. He was again another great mentor. He was the one who helped me understand how to manage a team. Again, it’s not like he sat me down and gave me a whole course, but it is more like guidance and tips. And he said, these are the things that are important. These are the things you should keep an eye out for. And so I made some several modifications since then.

Now, whenever someone joins my team, day one, I talk to them about what works for them. What is their style? What is the cadence in which they want to be communicated? What are the areas that they’re strong in? What are the areas where they feel like having a manager keep an eye out for or support them would be helpful. And at the same time, I tell them how I work and how I see this relationship working, that I’m there to support them, that they should feel free to reach out.

And sometimes if I don’t reply, it’s okay to nudge me. I don’t get annoyed by that. It’s just that I’m handling six different things at once and sometimes things slip to the crack. So I start by setting that relationship.

I think for the longest time, I had a fixed mindset on what I was doing. And then it kind of got to a more learning mindset from there. But managing a team to me is by far the most challenging aspect. I mean, a team, in my opinion, is a very complex system. It’s easy to get out of balance. It’s made up of people.

People are human. They’re evolving, adapting. People are human sounds dumb, I don’t know why I said that, but people adapt. People are temperamental, right? And it’s a system that’s constantly changing. And what happens is if you’re not constantly monitoring and adapting, you get blind spots. If you’re doing your job right, you’re maturing the team, you’re developing them, which means the team of today is not the same team of tomorrow. Now your challenges of today aren’t the same challenges of tomorrow.

But in my mind, I take a snapshot of the team, like I’m like, oh, this is the team. And then I held on to that, which started giving me blind spots. And now I know that I have to constantly recalibrate and adjust. Every time the team composition changes, even if you get one new person, you have to see if your previous strategies and tactics are still going to work. And sometimes it’s not just your team, right? You may get a stakeholder who enters the company and that person’s style then has maybe ripple effects.

And so with what I learned is something probably very cliche, but as a manager, the team is your product. And as designers and researchers, we have really good methodologies on how to get an awesome product. You know, the same principles, like are you doing the discovery? Are you measuring, testing, validating? Is that market fit? Like do the other stakeholders in the company get value from your team? So applying those principles and those practices here, I think make it easier for us, or at least for me to manage the team and like to keep them healthy and delivering impact that they need to. 

Vandana: How amazing, Arul, I have to stop and really absorb what you just said. That was a lot of great, great insights into, and then also acknowledging where you missed. And it’s huge, you know, it’s not you just saying it just like as a matter of fact, but you know, for you to reflect back and say on a public podcast that, that, you know, you were looking at it in a wrong way and, you know, you were set in your ways and then you kind of recalibrated, it is huge, you know, just as a manager and your teams might be listening. So I just have to, I have to stop here and tell you, congratulations, my friend, for being, for being so open and for not being fearful of judgment, you know, you’re, you’re like very open. And I love that.

Arul: So that’s one, thank you for that. And but that’s one thing that I feel is very important in teams as well as being able to be transparent, candid and safe, like safety. That’s going back to the very first person I was talking about. I feel like one of the good things I did was the person felt safe enough to talk to me. The mistake was I didn’t acknowledge that, but I feel for teams to thrive, they need to develop trust and trust comes when they feel like they can be their true selves.

And so I appreciate that. That’s something I try to do with my team. I think I’ve told some of my team members the story of like how I screwed up. And knowing that, you know, I’m not a perfect manager, I think also helps give me some room to like make mistakes publicly and, and correct them with the help of my team. So yeah.

Vandana: Humility wins the day. Awesome. Okay. So, so where are you today? Like, what, what does that bring you bring us to? Like, where, where are you headed with this team that is constantly evolving and supporting you and you supporting them?

Arul: So, interestingly, we just did a two-day design team meet. We did a workshop that was really fascinating. It was just the designers and the researchers in this one, but we took all our, all the activities that happen in a, in a sprint, like whether it’s product engineering design, and we tried to map it out. And it was very interesting to see that every one of us had a very different map, even though directionally we were aligned, we all said, okay, now you do the discovery, then you do some iterations, and then you build the thing after validation, and then you measure it. But the sequence in which we put things together, all of that was like, not the same.

And like, there’s always like new things that I learn from these kinds of exercises. And this one was like, we are all thinking similar things, but we are not aligned on the same tactics. And so for us, next steps there are like, how do we then take all these pictures and make one unified process map for us to say, like, this is the sequence we all want to do and like, make sure everyone understands that.

Yeah, so with my team, I think it’s good. I have a great team here at Premise. I think one of the strongest, strongest design teams I’ve worked with and researched as well. Everyone has their own strengths. We have some junior designers who are like performing well above their level, senior designers who want to be mentors, who are teaching and supporting each other. So I feel like other teams, teams happy, healthy, but like I said, we just did this measurement. There’s still lots of room to improve. I think because of the way our teams are structured right now, there’s a little bit of an alignment mismatch. And that’s what we need to kind of work on to be able to improve our impact.

So there are a few like resources, there’s this, there’s a person called Alyssa Briggs. I think she’s at Autodesk now. She has a great workshop called Maps and Markers that’s on her website. That gives some really interesting and clear ways for you to like approach your team to try and like set simple, simple exercises to like build a vision, a mission to make sure everybody in your team is aligned. Like what we did was kind of a adaption or adaptation of what she had. And there’s a lot there, a lot of resources out there to like learn how to build a team. And there are some excellent speakers and thought leaders in the space who, whose work has definitely been very helpful to me. 

Vandana: Awesome. And I love the, how you put it, you know, your team is your product. That is, that’s such a great way to look at things and understanding everything is always evolving. So, so what are some of the goals that you have, if you, if you can share that would make you and your team successful if you were to achieve that this year? 

Arul: So we are still in the process of defining that, like for us, the immediate next steps is we’ve had some changes in the team. So we are regrouping, we are defining what the team norms need to be. How do we get closer? We want to make sure that we understand how we should work with each other so that we can be successful in all the other steps we are trying to take after that.

The second thing we focused on with growth and development right now in this economic climate, we aren’t necessarily spending a lot and like conferences and all of that. So how can we get scrappy? What are some of the things we can do amongst ourselves to help each other develop, help each other grow?

Some of the team came up with some great ideas. There’s a concept called design roast, which I learned during this conference where we have design critiques where, you know, the designer presents their work and everybody gives feedback, but there’s that aspect of like the person who created it is in front of you. So you try to be kind of nice and like, and sugarcoat some of the feedback.

Design roast is you’re pulling something from the wild and then you’re, you’re being as brutally honest as you can about it. And that seemed like an interesting way to like really be very candid with your feedback and also learn how other companies are doing, do a teardown. So a lot of new ideas came up. I think implementing some of those will also be really helpful for the team to like be able to like start developing additional skills. 

Vandana: Awesome. Awesome. I feel like you’re on a very exciting journey. Lots of things are happening. Awesome. Anything else, Arul, that you want to share that I haven’t asked? Any golden nuggets for the listeners as we wrap it up? 

Arul: I think one thing that I started doing this year, which I should have done earlier, but I just joined ADP List as a mentor. And the reason I did that was when I started working, it was during the great recession in 2007, it was hard to find a job. And I was lucky to have found Axella and had great support throughout, but I see a lot of people going through the same thing here.

So I joined ADP to help people kind of get ready for like the job search or whatever other mentorship they want. Interestingly, what I found is like, I’ve been learning a lot from those experiences. I’ve been seeing how different people in different places are experiencing their challenges and just having those conversations, having the discussion about like someone in like Europe facing a challenge with like how they’re trying to break into product management or someone here goes going from user research to product design.

It’s just being with each mentorship session, I’ve been learning a lot more than I feel like I’ve been giving. So I thought it would be more like, okay, let’s give back to the community. But in that process, I’ve learned a lot. I highly encourage people to try to get hired at mentoring or meet with someone. Again, ADP list is a great free resource. And I think doing that is a very enlightening experience. And like, it helps you like really learn and grow, whether you’re a mentor or a mentee. So that’s been something that I highly recommend to your listeners and see if they take a new shot. 

Vandana: Awesome. I’m going to check it out myself. Thank you so much for the great tips and sharing candidly, Arul. This was such a wonderful time with you and good luck with all the stuff that that is on your table today. 

Arul: Thanks, Vandana. Very glad that I was able to have this conversation with you and thank you so much.

(Outro) Thanks for listening. If you’d like other people to hear these stories, please give us a review. If you’re frustrated with the pace of innovation in your environment, or want to solve meaningful problems in your organization, check us out at failfaster.show. We’d love to get into conversation with you and serve you. In the meantime, stay awesome.

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