Interview with Pei-Chin Wang, Senior Director of Product at Redfin
Published on Dec 26, 2019
13 min read
Vidal: Good afternoon, Pei-Chin. Thank you. Well, welcome to the show. Thanks for joining me today.
PEI-CHIN: Thank you.
Vidal: Could you maybe introduce yourself, say a little bit about where you’re located and what your current role is?
PEI-CHIN: Yeah, so I work at Redfin and we help people buy and sell homes. Currently, I’m a senior director of product at Redfin, leading our consumer facing products, so this includes acquiring new customers, thinking about how we evolve our search experience and converting more site users into customers that use Reston to buy or sell homes.
What’s your background and how did you get into management?
Vidal: That’s great. I mean, that’s a big market, real estate. Could you tell me a little bit about your background and how you got into management?
PEI-CHIN: Yeah, so I am an engineer turned product manager. I started out my career as an engineer working at Google, worked on Google search infrastructure. And then after a few years I wanted to tap into my, I guess, inner superpower, which I think is connecting different ideas and really strong empathy to human beings. And I thought I’d try out product management. And it’s been, I think I’ve been the product manager for probably close to 10 years now. And I started managing, I think, five years ago. I was in a startup after I left Google. And as the company grew, I had the opportunity to manage, starting with one person, and that was a really great experience, and now at Redfin I manage a much bigger team.
Vidal: Okay. I think that’s great how you said you were an engineer turned product manager. Can maybe talk a little bit, I haven’t had too many product managers on the show. Maybe, is there anything that engineers, engineering managers maybe don’t understand about product managers, or might be helpful for them in working better with product managers?
PEI-CHIN: I think maybe one thing is to understand, at least this is my personal point of view, that it is by design to have healthy tension between engineering and product and design. And engineering often thinks about what is the best way to build something in a scalable way or what might, because engineers, like code, are touched by many different people. And I actually think, I really admire that engineering partners tend to think about how to make components more reusable, scalable over a long term period of time. And a product manager, oftentimes they want to bring the product to the market sooner. They want to test the hypothesis as fast as possible. And so there’s a healthy tension between getting to the market sooner or slower.
PEI-CHIN: And then, product manager also plays a role of like being the voice of the customer, who’s the only person that’s not in the room, but the most important person for us all to serve. And so I think that healthy tension is helpful, and I actually really enjoy a lot of engineering partners that work with so we can have that healthy debate and tension. It really brings out the best of all of us.
What are the biggest challenges you face?
Vidal: I think that’s well said. Yes, you have to balance it. Could you describe, maybe what are some of your biggest challenges as a manager?
PEI-CHIN: Yeah, it actually evolved as my team got bigger. I think at the beginning when I was managing a few people, the biggest challenge is to think about how do I help them grow and consistently deliver good results? How do I set what good looks like to them? And figuring out how to describe it as concrete as possible but still giving them to run, it’s that balance that at the beginning of my management career I need to balance.
PEI-CHIN: But now, as my team got bigger, the challenge I am working through is develop process, so the team can scale. And sometimes process doesn’t sound like the sexiest word, but I think it is the critical thing to allow an organization to scale. Like, when we are only, say, three four people, we just all know what each other is thinking because we talk all the time. But when you get to like 10, 20 people, how do you make sure information flows through, how do you create a common set of goals and so the teams can naturally align? How do you make sure two teams that are working on things that are depend on each other are actually talking to each other? Is having a clear owner. And so those are kind of like the new set of things I am thinking about, like how to set up set processes that can scale and send my team off for success?
Vidal: Yeah. I remember when I was just starting my career, I hated all kinds of processes. And it’s funny, then when I became a manager and I had to start creating processes, I started to understand why. What they were good for. I think that’s a very good challenge.
Could you share with us maybe a lesson you’ve learned as you’ve… Oh by the way, how big is your engineering team? I mean your product team. How big is it?
PEI-CHIN: I think my team currently is nine people, I think.
Could you share with us a lesson you learned as an engineering leader?
Vidal: Okay. Okay. That’s a good size. So I’m going to go back. Could you share with us a lesson you’ve learned as a leader and a manager over the years?
PEI-CHIN: Yeah, this is a hard one and I’m glad I learned it, but I definitely learned it the hard way. I’ve had a lot of good fortune to work with different people with very different backgrounds and performances. And for some folks when we have the performance improvement conversation, I think earlier in my management trajectory, I didn’t say things as clearly as I should have. I had an experience where after the performance review, the employee left the review feeling they have done a good job, while my intention was to say, “You need to work a lot harder, so, to meet the expectations.” And…
Vidal: Yeah, I get it. Yeah. I mean, people often hear what they want to hear. You have to kind of check with them, so that they really get the message. That’s kind of what you’re saying?
PEI-CHIN: Yes. And I think one lesson I learned is to really confirm that what I meant to deliver is received, and if it wasn’t received the responsibility’s on me as the manager. And so I think a few concrete things that I learned is number one, practice how to be direct while caring so the message actually comes through. And second is, after the conversation, check with the person to see, to ask them to say it back to me what they heard, to make sure we are actually on the same page. And then the third, I think is just more about reinforcing that message, after the performance review consistently.
Vidal: Okay, that’s great. That’s good. You have nice steps for that.
PEI-CHIN: I wanted to say, I learned it the hard way. But it was a good lesson.
What’s your approach to hiring?
Vidal: What is your approach to hiring and recruiting?
PEI-CHIN: I hire in San Francisco and it’s a very competitive environment. And I would say there are two things. I think, as a PM, a lot of things are actually teachable, and so we look for hiring people that are really smart and have strong drive to improve and cares about customer. And that’s probably, I have to say, these are the things that are hardest to teach. But everything else, like UX design, analytical feel, strategic thinking, it’s actually more or less teachable and we try to kind of boil down to like the core things that we think are critical for the product management job, and that is being able to process new information quickly, really care about the customer and have that drive to improve.
Vidal: What do you look for then in someone to see if they have that when you’re interviewing them?
PEI-CHIN: Yeah, so we tend to ask behavioral questions about, for example, like for the drive to improve, we will ask them question like, “Tell me a time when someone gave you feedback about your work performance and how you incorporated the feedback and improved your work.” And just to see, have they actually taken the reflection before and actually changed their behavior? And you’d be surprised. A lot of people don’t have good answers to that question.
“Tell me a time when someone gave you feedback about your work performance and how you incorporated the feedback and improved your work.”
Vidal: That’s a good question. Go ahead.
PEI-CHIN: And then we also look at if people can learn new skills. I think, in technology or just in general, in this current age, the skills you know today might be irrelevant five years from now, and the ability to learn new skills is more important than the skills you currently have. And so we would ask people questions like, “Tell me a time you had to learn a new skill from scratch. How did you go from knowing nothing to be reasonably proficient?” And you can kind of see how they grasp new information and try to make sense out of something new.
Vidal: That’s another great question. Yes. I mean, everything here changes so quickly in our industry. I think that’s fantastic.
What’s your advice for managers who are just starting out?
Do you have any advice for new managers, people who are just starting out as managers? A lot of people who listen are new to management.
PEI-CHIN: I would say the number one advice is be adaptable about your management skill. I think that a lot of people become managers because they are really strong individual contributors. And when they become managers, the default way is to think about like, “Oh, I’ll just manage people how I would like to be managed.” Which is like, sounds totally reasonable, I’m pretty empathetic. But human beings are actually very different than, we’re all weird and different in different ways. And learning how to adapt your management style based on what your reports needs, I think it’s like the most important thing. And really understand the why behind human behavior. I think another important thing is to think about skill versus motivation. If you see someone is not doing the job to the level you want, is it lack of motivation or lack of skills? And trying to dissect that, I think, is quite important.
Vidal: I think that’s great. Not assuming that people want to be managed the way you would like to be. Because yeah, everyone is very different. And I think that’s the easy mistake to make.
What’s your workday like and how do you manage your time, emails, etc.?
Vidal: As a product manager, I’m sure you, I mean like all managers, you just must be inundated with things to do and messages and email and stuff like that. So I’m curious, what’s your workday like and how do you manage your schedule, phone calls, all the demands on your time?
PEI-CHIN: I have lots of meetings, sometimes more than I would like, but I really try to create like two hours of chunk on my day that I can focus on something. I think it takes me like 15 to 20 minutes to get into a zone to actually think deeply about something. So like 30 minutes block is not very good. I can answer emails, but I can’t think anything deeply. And I think if I have like 90 minutes to two hours, I can actually think deeply about something. And so I try to, it’s really important that I create those times for me. And sometimes there will be weeks where it doesn’t happen as easily, but I try to have like four to five chunks of alone time that I am uninterrupted to do more deep work.
Vidal: That’s fantastic.
PEI-CHIN: And turning off the Gmail tab, quit Slack, which is hard. Sometimes I will see my fingers just unconsciously started opening a Gmail tab and I’ll think too close. But it’s a habit I’m trying to get better at.
What’s a personal habit that contributes to your success?
Vidal: That’s great. That’s great. Speaking of habits, do you feel there’s maybe a personal habit you have that’s contributed to your success?
PEI-CHIN: I think learning to disconnect. Learning, to achieve higher performance is to disconnect, which counterintuitive. But I think earlier in my career, and every now and then I’ll do the same, I’ll just like work crazily for like a few days and like I will feel like, “Oh my God, I’m so productive. I am working 10, 12 hours a day, getting a lot done.” But then I think, at least for me, like biologically after certain hours, I actually don’t have the best quality thinking. And I actually need to disconnect, and step away from work for a good amount of time and actually bring new ideas and perspectives. And that has been something I am trying to get better at. But I think it actually improves the quality of my work when I detach more.
Vidal: That’s great. Do you like meditate or do anything like that when you disconnect or…?
PEI-CHIN: Yeah, I do. I try to meditate. I don’t think I do it consistently, but it really helps me, or just get out, like stand up from my office and walk outside and breathe some fresh air. It’s surprisingly powerful to bring new ideas.
Vidal: Nice, nice. Is there anything?
I actually uninstall my Slack app every Friday evening, because I think if I don’t uninstall it, like I needed to increase the friction to access it and so I’ll uninstall it. I’ll delete the app Friday evening and then Monday or Tuesday I’ll bring it back. And it’s kind of ridiculous.
PEI-CHIN: Oh, there’s one thing, it’s just like a fun tip. So I have Gmail and Slack on my phone, like a lot of people. I actually uninstall my Slack app every Friday evening, because I think if I don’t uninstall it, like I needed to increase the friction to access it and so I’ll uninstall it. I’ll delete the app Friday evening and then Monday or Tuesday I’ll bring it back. And it’s kind of ridiculous. It’s actually a lot of friction, but it’s powerful for me to actually not check work.
Vidal: Wow, that’s great. No, I think that’s a very interesting tip. No, that’s good. That’s good. I’ll have to try that.
PEI-CHIN: Like I’ll turn off my work email and my Gmail account and I’ll delete Slack apps.
Share an internet resource or tool that you can’t live without.
Vidal: Wow. Interesting. So speaking of things like the Slack app, is there any internet resource, tool, or app that you really like? That maybe helps you in your work a lot?
PEI-CHIN: I like to listen to different podcasts, so there’s just lots of great product podcasts out there. And I think they just help me think about the world differently and there are lots of great product thinkers out there. Listening to different podcasts, it brings a fresh perspective into my work.
If you could recommend one book to managers, what would it be and why?
Vidal: Yeah. I love podcasts too. It’s amazing, the stuff that’s out there. Moving on, if you could recommend one book to managers, what would it be and why?
PEI-CHIN: Can I recommend two?
Vidal: Sure, sure.
PEI-CHIN: So I would say two years ago, I would recommend this book called High Output Management by Andy Grove. It’s pretty boring. I used to read it before I fall asleep. But it’s still good. I would read it again, throughout different times and found different content to be really useful. But last year, this new book’s released, I think it’s called The Making of the Manager. It’s by, yeah, The Making of a Manager is by this Facebook Design VP called Julie Zhou. And it’s very good and it’s much easier to read and it’s very authentic, talking about kind of the emotional challenge about becoming a manager as well. I have bought both books for many people. Highly recommend them.
What’s your approach to mentoring and coaching members of your team?
Vidal: Those are both great books. Awesome. One more question for time here. What is your approach to mentoring and coaching the members of your team?
PEI-CHIN: One thing I think is the biggest weight, like the best lever to unlock potential in people, is to understand what drives them. And everyone’s a little bit different. So much [crosstalk 00:19:49].
Vidal: So how do you under… No, go ahead. Go ahead.
PEI-CHIN: Like some are driven by feeling a sense of community, support. Some are driven by autonomy, some are driven by power, status. And there’s no good or bad. It’s like, this is what drives you. And I think understanding what drives someone and connects what they need to do to what drives them yields the best outcome. A lot of people know like, “Oh, I should improve XYZ.” But if it’s not connected to what drives you, I think that motivation is not as strong. That’s one thing I really try to dig in to find out what drives someone.
Vidal: Awesome. No, I think that’s powerful. I mean, that’s great. So tying everything back to their motivation. Is there anything else you do for mentoring and developing your team?
PEI-CHIN: I guess you were trying to ask me like kind of how do I find out what drives them?
Vidal: Yeah, maybe. Okay. How do you determine what drives them?
PEI-CHIN: I try to ask them how they make some of their important life decisions. So you get to know their life and you will see like there are like a few moments in their life where they made a big decision to change their, where they live, what they do. Ask them the why behind those decisions and that tends to be a gold mine to understand what drives their behavior.
Where can we go to learn more about you? (e.g., LinkedIn, Twitter, Blog, etc.)
Vidal: That’s awesome. Yes, that’s a great tip. That’s a great tip. All right, Pei-Chin, you’ve been really generous with your time. I really appreciate it and I think you’ve shared some really, really unique and good tips and information here. If people wanted to connect with you or learn more about you, where could they go? Where’d be the best place to go?
PEI-CHIN: My LinkedIn profile.
Vidal: Okay. I’ll put a link to it. Well, again, thank you so much. I really appreciate you joining me today.
PEI-CHIN: Thank you. Bye.
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