“We talk a lot about velocity and just moving quickly, and I think a lot of teams get caught up in moving quickly that they forget that they need to have a direction as well.

They're on the treadmill of doom, essentially. Moving real fast, looking real busy, but ultimately not getting to the outcomes they want. You can easily burn out a team for a year and accomplish absolutely nothing. 

When we first saw the talk titled “Space Aliens Are Among Us, Your Product Roadmap is Realistic and Other Lies you Believe,” we knew we had to sit down with Best Egg’s Johnny Ray Austin at LeadingEng SF last year.

Johnny joined our host Conor Bronsdon to discuss how engineering leaders can navigate unrealistic expectations and pressures, drawing from his experiences and relating product roadmaps to the less-than-tangible UFO disclosure we’ve seen in recent years. The conversation explores the pressures engineering leaders face, how to align product roadmaps realistically, and how to manage ambiguity within teams.

By aligning engineering goals with business objectives and building a transparent, high-performing engineering culture, you can give your teams the context they need to drive focus and concentration toward the right outcomes.

Episode Highlights: 

  • 1:36 Where Johnny came up with the talk title "Space Aliens Are Among Us" 
  • 4:15 Advice for engineering leaders struggling with roadmap realism 
  • 6:44 Cutting through the noise to find the metrics that matter 
  • 11:41 How do teams know if they're moving fast in the right direction? 
  • 14:58 How do you handle teams that are getting the wrong input? 
  • 20:32 Lies we tell ourselves that we need to get past 
  • 28:32 What it’s like to create a new unit inside a company 
  • 33:53 Identifying and dealing with ambiguity on your teams 
  • 40:45 Johnny’s Thoughts on AI


(Disclaimer: may contain unintentionally confusing, inaccurate and/or amusing transcription errors)

Johnny Ray Austin: 0:00

we talk a lot about velocity and just moving quickly, and I think a lot of teams get caught up in moving quickly. That they, you know, forget that they need to have a direction as well. That's right, they're on the treadmill of doom, essentially. Right? Moving real fast, looking real busy, but ultimately not getting to the outcomes they want. So you can easily burn out a team for a year and accomplish absolutely nothing. And then the idea is like, oh, you work really hard, but we didn't actually achieve what we wanted to because, you know, I, as a leader, did not give you the right context and I give you the right prioritization. I just kept you busy for 12 months. And so, you know, we see that all the time, actually.

Conor Bronsdon: 0:36

Gardener just released their market guide, showing that software engineering intelligence platforms, help engineering leaders significantly improve both team productivity and value delivery. Through Gardner's in-depth analysis on the critical features of sci platforms and how they can be used to drive engineering excellence. Linear B was named as a representative vendor. And therefore we're giving away a complimentary copy of Gartner's sci market guide. Head to the link in the show notes to download your complimentary copy and learn how you can unlock the transformative potential of software engineering intelligence for your team. Hey everyone, we are back at Dev Interrupted here live at Leading Engineering West Coast. I'm your host, Connor Bronston, and today I'm joined by Johnny Ray Austin. Johnny is Senior Director of Product Connected Digital Experience at Best Egg and former head of technology there. Johnny, great to have you with us.

Johnny Ray Austin: 1:27

Thanks for having me. I appreciate it. I

Conor Bronsdon: 1:29

mean, it's, it's a distinct pleasure to have you on because honestly you have the best talk title that I have heard in a long time. Space Aliens Are Among Us. Your Product Roadmap is Realistic and Other Lies you Believe. Yeah. And you're an experienced engineering leader. Who's built and led high performing teams, globally distributed engineering teams. You understand the pressures engineering leaders face, you know, pressures we're all feeling. Growth, product innovation, efficiency, what competitors are doing. I'd just love to know, how did you come up with that talk title?

Johnny Ray Austin: 2:07

But given what's going on in the actual real world. So the concept probably started back when, you know, the New York Times released images of like UFOs, like real UFOs. And so I was just like, that's not a UFO. That's a dot on the screen. That's not real. And so I was just like, ah, all right, whatever. So that's where it kind of be, you know, uh, originated from, I am not lost on the fact that we just had a congressional hearing, and this might actually be a thing, but, you know, I figure if I'm wrong about aliens, then we have a lot more to figure out than go to market strategies.

Conor Bronsdon: 2:37

Yeah. At least you'll be funny about it, right? Like, all right, we're wrong. Like, I mean, honestly, we're. We're here on a convention floor in a spaceship looking dome. Yeah, yeah. It all fits.

Johnny Ray Austin: 2:47

And, you know, the rest of it is just all about pulling from, you know, my day to day experience. You know, you talked about pressures of delivering and, you know, sometimes those pressures are fine and reasonable. Sometimes they're completely unreasonable and, you know, if you can get a few engineering leaders into a bar with a few drinks or whatever and, you know, they'll talk to you about the ridiculous things they've been asked to do in the past. it's a big tongue in cheek, there's a little bit of comedy in there, so I'm hoping to kind of lighten the mood a little bit.

Conor Bronsdon: 3:14

So what's one of the ridiculous things you've been asked to do?

Johnny Ray Austin: 3:17

So I guess I was asked to launch a 3D world for a conference with like a month's head of time.

Conor Bronsdon: 3:27

What was the value driver behind that, let me ask? Was it just, this will be cool?

Johnny Ray Austin: 3:31

Yeah, that's it. It would be really cool. It'll look great. You know, we'll show up real nice.

Conor Bronsdon: 3:35

We'll get five people to look at it.

Johnny Ray Austin: 3:37

Yeah, people will look at it. They'll be like, who built this? And yeah. That. That's it. What, uh, how'd you handle that? Uh, I mean, I had to do it. I mean, and I'm, I'm saying me, but you know, I had a fantastic team who was really behind it. Really great engineers who really came together under like a. Tremendous amount of pressure to kind of pull that together to this day, I don't know how we did it honestly. Um, you know, even then as a manager, I had to kind of jump in and do most of the dev myself on the back end. And so it was classic all hands on deck type of situation.

Conor Bronsdon: 4:07

So what's the advice you have for engineering leaders who are struggling with these same problems as they try to grapple with product roadmap realism?

Johnny Ray Austin: 4:15

Yeah, I mean, you know, it's really all about aligning to your, so this is the conclusion I draw on the talk, right? It's about aligning to your, your, your common delusion. So even up until last night, I was struggling with how to close this talk out. And the reason was because I wanted to end on a, how do we stop lying to ourselves type of note. Um, but even then I was lying to myself because we won't. This will continue in perpetuity. And so my task then was to figure out, well, how do I, how do I justify that? How do I walk off the stage with that, with that message? And, you know, if we're going to continue to tell these stories about what we can do or what we should be doing, and some of them are valid. Um, we just need to be aligned in that, in that vision, and so if you're gonna, you know, do the really hard stuff and ask reasonable things, you know, just have a transparent culture about it and, you know, let people know what they're walking into. Some people thrive in that situation, in that scenario, and so just better to know up front.

Conor Bronsdon: 5:15

Why is it that you think we share this collective delusion about what our product roadmap is going to be and how realistic it is?

Johnny Ray Austin: 5:21

We're humans, we follow incentives, we have these incentive structures. Right, you know, we live in a capitalist society and, you know, ultimately it, it all boils down to, you know, chasing those metrics quarter by quarter. If you're a publicly traded company, if you're a private company, VC backed, you know, you got a hundred X to growth or whatever. And so we have this incentive structure that we all live in. And so ultimately we're going to follow those incentives, but not just that, you know, they're going to be perversion of those incentives. Right. Right. So now it's. Not just hit the metrics next quarter, it's um, you know, what are the easiest metrics we can possibly hit for the next quarter, that sort of thing. Or what is the most audacious thing we can absolutely hit so that, you know, um, our investors have a 10x return on their investment. So, I think we kind of put ourselves in this situation, right? You know, we kind of look around and say, how did we get here? It's like, well, we put ourselves here, you know. And it's only partially our fault, you know, it's how we evolved, you know. Evolved this way to cooperate with each other so we can build societies. And we did that, but we haven't stopped. And so here we are.

Conor Bronsdon: 6:28

I think that nugget around cooperation is, is really interesting too.'cause yeah, it's all about aligning incentives to your point. Yep. And it can sometimes be challenging to kind of cut through the noise. We get so much signal today about Oh this matters. That matters. Yeah. Let alone just speaking about like the amount of information our frankly lowly evolved monkey brains are trying to handle. Yeah. How do you cut through that noise and find, not the metrics that don't matter, but the ones that do.

Johnny Ray Austin: 6:53

Yeah, it's reorienting ourselves to what we're trying to achieve. You know, I like to talk to my teams about being outcome driven. And I think one of the key mistakes we make when we talk about metrics is we tend to think about the inputs, right? You know, how many hits to the page do we get, right? I mean, those things are useful for leading indicators, but You know, really thinking about what are the outcomes and focusing on those all the time relentlessly. I think what you'll find is that the, a lot of the metrics and the inputs we use to sort of try to get to those are changing, right? Because the environment is changing all the time. And so being focused on the outcomes and not what the inputs are, are going to be like the most important North Stars for your, for your teams.

Conor Bronsdon: 7:36

Do you also think about it as looking at the inputs as connected to those outputs? Or do you mostly say, Hey, let's focus on the output and work backwards? How do you think about it?

Johnny Ray Austin: 7:43

I think it's helpful to start with the outputs and work backwards because if you start with inputs, you, you make a lot of assumptions. Mm-Hmm. Right. True. And when you'll make a lot of ass, and, you know, they, they may be true, but they may not be true. Right. But if you start from the outcomes and work your way backwards, um, it's hard to kind of go wrong that way. Um,

Conor Bronsdon: 8:00

Let's go run this experiment, see what it does, and I can go Okay. Like. Why did that happen? Let's understand. Again, because we're evolved brains, um, we have a trouble, uh, deciphering, you know, causation from correlation, right? You get inputs, you start there, and it's like, oh, this is correlated to this thing. It's like, yeah, but it didn't actually cause it. There's something else going on there. We don't know what it is.

Johnny Ray Austin: 8:25

And so now we're busy moving that front end metric, but not really, you know, uh, moving the needle on that outcome in the way, in the degree of, uh, control we would like. Because we're unaware of what's going on in the middle. So starting from the outcome and working your way backwards is always a better idea.

Conor Bronsdon: 8:41

What are those outcome metrics that you think product and engineering teams should be focused on?

Johnny Ray Austin: 8:45

It kind of depends on the stage of the company you're in, and, you know, what your business is looking towards and looking to achieve. But, I mean, you know, thinking about, you know, the average business, if you're talking about, you know, profits. That's a big one we haven't been talking about over the past 15 years, but we are now. Um, you know, what does it take to drive an actual profitable business? And kind of work your way backwards from there. And, you know, you're probably dealing with, well, what are your customers going to actually pay for? How much are they going to pay for it? Why would they actually do that, right? Are you delivering value to them? You know, none of these things are things that have to do with, you know, the funnel and things like that. Again, those are inputs. Um, and you should track those, um, but ultimately I think you want to like keep those outcomes in front of mind.

Conor Bronsdon: 9:31

So how do you build that focus on your team so that they're actually thinking about the right keys?

Johnny Ray Austin: 9:37

Yeah, focus is super important. Um, I think one of the things, particularly as senior leaders, we need to do is kind of recognize that, um, our day to day thoughts are not the same as our ICs and frontline managers day to day thoughts. And so We have a lot of things to kind of keep in our head because we're always thinking about, you know, the far off future. Um, but on any given day, for your ICs and line managers, there's probably two things worth thinking about and probably one thing worth acting on. And so the way I tend to talk about it with my teams is, all right, this is a very simple device, but I find it helpful. It's like, all right, your number one priority is thing one. Your number two priority is thing one. Your number three priority is thing two. Everything else is on a backlog. Now this is obviously ridiculous, right? Um, and, you know.

Conor Bronsdon: 10:25

It's a mental framing.

Johnny Ray Austin: 10:26

It's a mental framing that if you challenge your people to think about this every single day, it really gives them a sense of clarity that they wouldn't otherwise have, right? It gives them permission. to not think about other things that are just not relevant or not the focus of the business today. And once you have those people focused, and then obviously this assumes you're prioritizing the right things and the right things are in the right order, you'd be surprised how fast people can move.

Conor Bronsdon: 11:06

To, you know, other folks in the organization. And I see that same thread in what you're saying of like, yep. How do we help our teams have the context they need to be focused on the right priorities because yeah, there's so much change that happens. Maybe it's can be aliens are truly here. Yeah. Uh, who knows. Yeah. And we need to make sure they're prepared for shifts by giving them context, helping them understand that shifts will happen. Mm-Hmm.. And then make the right decisions. Yep. Exactly. Okay. Like we're, we're moving faster, we're focusing on output metrics. How do we know if the outputs are right? How do we know if we're moving fast in the right direction?

Johnny Ray Austin: 11:39

Yeah, um, that's a really good question. You know, um, and I'm glad you mentioned, um, direction. Because, you know, we talk a lot about velocity and just moving quickly, and I think a lot of teams get caught up in moving quickly. That they, you know, forget that they need to have a direction as well. That's right, they're on the treadmill of doom, essentially. Right? Moving real fast, looking real busy, but ultimately not getting to the outcomes they want. So that's why it's important to keep those outcomes front of mind, because you know if you're getting close or not, because you can kind of measure your progress towards them. So you can easily burn out a team for a year and accomplish absolutely nothing. And then the idea is like, oh, you work really hard, but we didn't actually achieve what we wanted to because, you know, I, as a leader, did not give you the right context and I give you the right prioritization. I just kept you busy for 12 months. And so, you know, we see that all the time, actually.

Conor Bronsdon: 12:28

Is that something you've personally experienced, kind of learned from?

Johnny Ray Austin: 12:32

Oh yeah, I mean, I've experienced it, you know, as an IC in my career. I probably made some hard decisions that, you know, weren't the right decisions, particularly early in my, um, leadership career. You know, just kind of, Making sure teams were really busy, but me, myself, not being able to kind of focus them on the right things, either because I didn't know what the prioritized things were, or I didn't communicate it well enough, right? I mean, all of these things are factors, but, you know, these are all lessons I, you know, draw from every day.

Conor Bronsdon: 12:59

Yeah, that constant learning and growth is so crucial. Yeah. I'm curious, how do you think you should communicate this priority and context to your teams? What's the effective way that you've found to do it?

Johnny Ray Austin: 13:10

You know, it depends on the culture of the team, but I mean, written communication is really great. I mean, meetings are good. You want to make sure you gather teams, especially for really important information. But what I found out, particularly teams of engineers, is that people really need to kind of sit with information, you know, kind of think about it, think about what it means, you know, for their world. So I really like written communication as well, but also frequent communication. Um, the joke I always tell, you know, leaders on my team is, I need to say things so many times that I need to get sick and tired of saying it, then I need to say it three more times. Then people will actually start to act on it.

Conor Bronsdon: 13:48

That's, that's good advice that I should probably listen to more . Yeah. That, uh, that second, that third time to say it again, I'm like, ah, I really have to Yes, yes. Because the, the focus that you have on that, you're, you're like, oh, I've been hearing this from senior leadership for a while. Yeah. I've been, you know, aware of this. But to your point earlier, like. Your ICs, your developers, your, you know, PMs, they are in it. They are saying, hey, I have this one priority and I'm helping you. You're helping them get on that priority, but it's hard for them to spend that time on the context that you do. And it's a very different role, so I appreciate you bringing that up, because I think that is a challenge for a lot of us.

Johnny Ray Austin: 14:27

If your team is focused on the right things, it's going to take a lot to move them off of those priorities and get them focused on something else, right? And it should take a lot, right? You know, some Joe Schmo middle manager shouldn't be able to walk into a conference room or hop onto the Zoom and say, now you're focused here and all the stuff you've been doing for the past six months is out the window because someone said something, right? So it should take a lot to kind of move that focus and concentration.

Conor Bronsdon: 14:52

How do you deal with teams that are getting the wrong input somehow? You know, maybe they misunderstood the context, or maybe you and your leadership failed in communication at some point. Yeah. How do you realign that?

Johnny Ray Austin: 15:03

Yeah, that's a good one. I think it starts with first acknowledging that, right? Um, when those situations happen, there's a, tends to be a, you know, a big blame game that goes around like, who messed up, right? How do we get here? Sort of thing. And you should retro. If you think that's important, but as a leader, you know, I have to take ultimate accountability regardless of where it went wrong, right? Yeah. It's on me, right? So I need to readjust, acknowledge to the team that I haven't been effective in, you know, setting those priorities appropriately and just being very clear about what my priorities are now and what the business's priorities are. And be very clear about the things that they have permission to stop working on. A lot of times that's what people want to hear as well. It's like, I hear you Johnny, we should be focusing on X, Y, Z. But I've been doing this, right? Are you telling me I can just stop working on that? Or, you know, it's good where it is? Yeah, I mean, you need to be, you know, specific about that and give people permission to do that. So I think that's something to think about.

Conor Bronsdon: 15:59

I like that you're bringing up written communication here too. Yeah. Because it increases clarity. Yeah. And it makes something people can look back to and Yep. To your point, maybe if something's unclear, they can respond. Hopefully. Yeah. Uh, whereas if you do it in a meeting, maybe you think you have communicated this. And also this is a mistake I made earlier in my career as a manager, is I was like, oh, I had a meeting with them. I talked to 'em about it. Yeah. Um, but did I write it down? Did I really clarify? Did they make sure they understand it? Did I ask them to kind of, restate it back to me how the priority stack worked. Because I found myself spending a lot of time being frustrated about how those priorities were still misaligned. I was like, I've been doing the communication, and I had to kind of sit with it and realize, Oh, I'm doing the wrong type of communication for the situation.

Johnny Ray Austin: 16:42

Yeah, the wrong type of communication. I've been there before as well. I was like, oh yeah, I just synced with such and such two days ago. We should be good, right? And it's like, no. It didn't work. You need to be a bit more deliberate. You know, delivering that communication in a one on one setting is not the best idea because, you know, you don't have any witnesses, especially if you didn't write anything down. It's just like, did you really say that? You know, that person forgot. You talked to them, then you moved on mentally because you have a hundred things going on and so you don't revisit it. You just assume things are kind of moving in place, but they're not. So, you know, making sure that you're prioritizing that communication with the group. Written communication following up in one-on-ones to make sure that people understood it in a way that you understand it is important, but kind of leading with that is not necessarily the best idea.

Conor Bronsdon: 17:28

This is also where you need to understand your team's strengths. Weaknesses too, right? Yeah. Like sometimes you'll have a team member who's incredible memory. They're like, okay, I think about prioritization. Yep. And you bring in a new team, team member, and you expect the same thing. Maybe you even bring them into a leadership role. And yeah, it's a different style of communication that, that, uh, adaption understanding of that is., uh, kind of crucial sometimes, and sometimes it's just the wrong fit, frankly, too.

Johnny Ray Austin: 17:50

Yeah, yeah, for sure.

Conor Bronsdon: 17:51

How do you make those kind of tougher calls when you're saying, Hey, I'm, I'm trying to provide this context, but it's not getting through. Like, what do you do when there's that struggle happening? I feel like all my answers are, oh, it depends. Well, it really does. Context matters, I think that's fair to say. Yeah.

Johnny Ray Austin: 18:05

Yeah. I mean. If it's not getting through, there's got to be a specific reason, right? Either there's a competing priority that, um, you haven't explicitly given people permission to not prioritize, or someone on your leadership team is delivering, like, conflicting priorities. Um, like there's something else there that's not quite clear. Um, your decision making framework is maybe off, right? I was going to mention a book, by that, that journalist used to work for Newsweek, and he used to work at HubSpot for a while. talked about a situation where he sat with, uh, the CEO of Hub HubSpot and gave him permission to go, like, work on a thing. And then, you know, he came out and then like his boss was like, yeah, we're not gonna do that. And he's like, wait, the CEO told me, he's like, what kind of place is this? Where the CEO says the thing can happen, but then like, no one can listen. No one listens to them and there are no consequences. So anyway. That's a clear breakage in like how decisions get made, and it's not clear how that happens. And so if that happens in your organization, then yeah, people won't pick up on that clarity and those, uh, those priorities.

Conor Bronsdon: 19:11

It's gonna be really tough in founder-led organizations too. Yeah. Where you, you create this almost like cult of personality around a founder and it's like, oh, their decision goes. But sometimes the founder's lacking context too. Sometimes there's information the other team members have and Yep. Creating these communications and, and making sure that there's two-way flow of it is really crucial. Mm-Hmm.. But to your point, it can be hard to say, well, I mean, I was told to do this. In the end, I kind of have to do it. Yeah. So how, how do you think teams should navigate these kind of tricky communications where maybe you have context that you think you can provide as a leader? Mm-Hmm.. And you're like, I don't think this director from the c-suite is Right. How, how would you approach that situation?

Johnny Ray Austin: 19:52

Well, don't communicate to your team. I think as a leader, you need to figure out how to get in alignment with the C suite. You don't want to deliver, you know, context or information to your team that is like, well, we've been told to do this. I disagree. You put the people who work for you in a very precarious situation, right? As you know, you know, you're their boss, and so, cause they know what you want, but there's the, the mandate from on high, and then they're just like, oh, who do I, who do I listen to in this moment, right? Um, because at the end of the day, you're gonna do their performance reviews, and so, you really put them in a weird situation. So I would say, don't communicate the ambiguity there, align with the C Suite. I think ultimately as leaders, we won't always agree with what our bosses want us to be doing or mandating. It's on us to either get into alignment or debate, but commit regardless of whether or not you agree. That's the job. One of the smaller ones I'm talking about in the talk is, uh, you know, we need to refactor. Right? This one comes up all the time, and I'm making fun of the engineers here, and I talk about three categories of lies, um, and this one is, uh, one of the delusions. Right? It's, you really, really do believe it. Right? In your heart and soul, you believe it needs to be done. But really, it doesn't. It's delivering the impact it needs to. Um, you know, it would be nice to refactor it. It's a brand new programming language, brand new framework. It'll make your developers happy. You'll look busy for a while. But the fact of the matter is, you know, if you can't quantify the impact, positive impact to the business or customers, then you probably shouldn't do it. Ultimately. Um, you know, the dark secret here is that even with the modernization of like, banks being fintech companies, ultimately their call stacks lead to a mainframe somewhere. And so, nobody wants to touch that.

Conor Bronsdon: 22:03

Yeah, there's uh, that very famous XKCD comic of This giant technology stack, and like one senior engineer who knows Unix, who's doing this little piece here and when they're gone. Uh oh.

Johnny Ray Austin: 22:16

So yeah, exactly, exactly.

Conor Bronsdon: 22:17

What are the other delusions you mentioned two other categories that Yeah, so we're kind of telling ourselves.

Johnny Ray Austin: 22:22

Yeah. So there's the boldface lie. That's, that's the easiest. That's just, you know, it's not true. You know, it's not true. Your boss knows it's not true. You know, these are the ones that can get you in trouble, right? Yeah. You know, misreporting earnings and users and all this other stuff. Um, then there's the, there's the betrayal, right? This is the one you know deep down inside is not true, but you have trouble articulating it. And so, and you operate it in a world where you actually believe it.

Conor Bronsdon: 22:50

Interesting. Can you give me an example of what a betrayal looks like?

Johnny Ray Austin: 22:52

If you build it, they will come. The idea that, you know, yeah, yeah, yeah, I'm going to build this thing. It's going to be great. Yeah, yeah.

Conor Bronsdon: 23:01

If you, like me, are in the audience and listening here and are a little triggered by some of these things, I'd say just sit with that. Think about the impact. Johnny, I appreciate you, bring this up because you are, uh, you're holding our feet to the fire a little bit here.

Johnny Ray Austin: 23:16

You know, and it's all, it's all done in love, right? Because, you know, we've been doing this for a long time and, you know, over the past 10 years or so with, you know, 0 percent interest rates, we've just gotten really out of hand and we're suffering the consequences of it right now. A lot of folks, you know, built their careers in an era that is just not reflective of kind of normal times where we're actually trying to build businesses to generate profit. Deliver real value to users. And so they're finding themselves kind of struggling right now. Yeah. To know how to, how to proceed. Right. You know, startups are shutting down, you know, um, venture capital money just really isn't there like it used to be. Um, and just people are, are really struggling and they're. Searching within themselves for solutions. And you know, I think we have to kind of show ourselves a little bit of grace here, but you know, it's kind of time to wake up to reality and kind of, you know, take everything in stride.

Conor Bronsdon: 24:10

Absolutely. We have, I mean, we're, we're in the technology business. It's a, it's a change focused business. The only constant in life is change. Yeah. And when we're doing engineering, we're continuous learning, continuous iterations. That's what, how we should approach it. We need to apply that same phenomenon to how we lead, how we construct teams, how we think about our businesses. Because the circumstances on the ground today are very different than two years ago, six months ago even. And to your point, I think a lot of us have struggled with, how do we make that transition to this? And, you know, we were incentivized by all these zero interest rate phenomenon to make these other decisions. Public, private that thought this would continue forever. And uh, yeah, I mean, look at what happened to crypto. Look. Yep. Look at, you know, many companies that thought Covid related demand would just continue forever. Yeah. Um, zoom, for example, has had some issues. Pelotons has some issues. Yeah. Plenty of other names wouldn't just pick one out of the hat. and it's, it's okay to have been wrong and to make mistakes. We all do that. It's now, now though, we have to learn from it. Yeah. And the failure to now learn and change and iterate, that's where problems come in.

Johnny Ray Austin: 25:27

Yep, yep. Exactly. You know, everything you said is, is, is spot on. And you know, and a lot of those companies are making changes, right. They're hard changes. Um, but they are, and you know, a lot of employees. The other thing about it is, you know, they felt. They feel betrayed by a lot of the companies, right? Because they've been, you know, delivering a certain narrative over the past 10 years. Overhiring. Overhiring, um, making a lot of promises. Um, you know, a lot of folks were, you know, really banking on this idea of, you know, we're going to go public and I'm going to be said and all this other stuff. That's nice. I mean, it's, it's, you know, and it's tough. It really is. It really is. And so, and now it's the opposite, you know, it's laid off and, you know, um. Your role has been eliminated, that sort of thing, and people haven't really lived through that. It's funny, you know, it was still sort of towards the beginning of my career, but I remember going through the financial crisis and like, when things were in a downturn then. Um, you know, and so to see it come back around, it's like, oh yeah, we've kind of seen this before. Um, but a lot of people haven't. I mean, they're having a real hard time kind of, you know, reconciling what they've been told the past few years versus what's actually happening. Yeah,

Conor Bronsdon: 26:41

And let's be clear. Like, Johnny and I aren't blaming these people. These people, some of you probably listening, are feeling this way. This is a tough situation. We want to be here to help. Built the skills to now iterate based off of changing market conditions, understanding the context of the business and other pieces. Yeah. Uh, and maybe eventually we'll go a product roadmap, right? Yeah,

Johnny Ray Austin: 27:11

yeah, exactly. I mean, the good news is these things are cyclical. Yes. Right. The markets will come back, you know, companies will start to raise money again. But I think that, you know, the people who are going through this for the first time now will be wiser. Yeah, right. They'll know in their heads, like, you know, times are great, but it's only a matter of time before, you know, we're in another down cycle. Um, and so they'll have a new generation of people to kind of help walk through that process. But

Conor Bronsdon: 27:36

Yeah, and I think there's this concept of, you know, hedging in financial markets or de-risking, uh, at a, at a company level where we think. You know, leaders should look around corners and think about how to de-risk and, and be prepared for these situations. And sometimes you can be, and sometimes it's hard to be. Yeah. Um, but it's also something we need to think about in our own careers even. Yeah. It's like, okay, like, yes, do it for your business, do it for, for your work, but think about yourself too and say like, I, it won't be this way forever. Change is that constant we keep talking about, like, how do I need to think differently about how I lead my team? How do I need to think differently about the decisions I make, whether it's. I dunno. Saving more or Yeah. You know, your career track, uh, learning new skills. Yep. Um, it's a, it's a tough topic, but it's, it's a necessary conversation.

Johnny Ray Austin: 28:19

Yeah, for sure.

Conor Bronsdon: 28:20

And I know you have also been confronted with some new challenges here, which seems like are driving growth and excitement. I mentioned that your, your role has recently changed. Um, yeah. Because it sounds like Best Egg is building out. Uh, a new product organization which you are taking a leading role in.

Johnny Ray Austin: 28:41

Success, you know, in fits and starts, um, started off as a single product company and kind of found, found its way into a multi product company, but the organization kind of lagged behind in terms of adjusting to that multi product world, um, and so the way things had been getting prioritized and done in the past just wasn't really scaling to what was needed, right? You know, I think the, the big inflection point was, um, you know, the company I was a part of, uh, till when we were acquired by Best Egg last year. Um, coming on board and all of a sudden, you know, us having to integrate, you know, our technology, but also our users, and figuring out how we add value to the rest of the organization, that sort of thing. Um, and figuring out prioritization. It became clear that we needed a new way to kind of operate. That allowed us to, um, empower people to make decisions for their particular lines of business. And, you know, normally, that's, you know, the product organization, you know, doing that. But, since one did not exist, it was really hard to kind of enable that for the rest of the org. And so, we decided to, um, create a product organization, and so. My new role has taken up one of the leadership roles, um, as senior director of product for Connected digital experience and helping to kind of drive that change throughout the company.

Conor Bronsdon: 29:54

What have you learned from both the acquisition process, mm-Hmm., which is always a interesting one for folks that come into a new company. Yeah. And then now creating a new business unit or being part of creating the new business unit within Best Egg.

Johnny Ray Austin: 30:06

Yeah. Um, change is hard., I mean, this is something I knew, you know, mentally,

Conor Bronsdon: 30:11

but, but you're feeling it right now?

Johnny Ray Austin: 30:12

Yeah. Really, really feeling it. Um. Change is hard, but you know, one of the things that Really sunk in for me over the past eight months or so is that, you know, having a really strong team Really helps make things a lot easier. The team that we hired over at Till and brought over is super, super resilient To think about all the things that they had to go through, you know last year when we actually started talking about acquisition Building a product knowing that that's a thing that's probably gonna happen, but maybe not happen what happens if it doesn't happen Integrating into a new company, a new company culture, new ways of doing things, new ways of making decisions. By the way, relaunching the product, um, signing new partners, you know, all in the span of like six months or so. Um, and they were like, able to hit every single one of those goals. And so, I think it was because the team we had was so strong. And that's something I think about a lot. That's something I'm bringing with me in a new product organization at Best Egg and really starting from basics and figuring out how we can build the strongest team possible. Um, 'cause product orgs are gonna be like the backbone of any organization that's trying to actually deliver customer value. And so it's something that we're taking seriously.

Conor Bronsdon: 31:28

How do you approach building that resiliency within an organization?

Johnny Ray Austin: 31:32

It's about embracing ambiguity as it exists, but also focusing hard on rewarding the, um, the, you know, the clarity that comes with the product organization. So one of the, the key tenants that we used to work with at Till and coming in the best day was, you know, we have to destroy ambiguity at, at all costs, right? So, not being able to, you know, not being afraid of it, you know, being able to deal with it is one thing, but actually actively going out, finding it and destroying it is really, really important. And so teams that have practiced doing this become very, very resilient. It's hard to shake a team that absolutely, you know, uh, annihilates ambiguity on site. Um, because, you know, most things that go wrong, you know, originate from some level of ambiguity, right? Whatever. Um, and a lot of that is born through ambiguity, so I think that's the root of a, a lot of issues that a lot of companies face.

Conor Bronsdon: 32:36

To your point, I think one of the crucial skills that I look for when I am trying to bring on talent is, is this someone who can go into ambiguity and help bring, order that chaos? Yeah. Because some people are really great at that and it is such a, a necessary skill, especially in startups where there's so much ambiguity. You have to have that comfort level coming in. And then being impactful to help take it from, you know, You can spend time trying to train people on this, and there's some opportunities to improve on this, but some people simply aren't comfortable with that level of ambiguity, and it's not a good fit for the resiliency you need in that organization.

Johnny Ray Austin: 33:18

Yeah, and it's one of those things, it's a common skill. It really doesn't matter what you do, right? Whether you're working in product or tech or finance or whatever, the ability to deal and sort out ambiguity is, you know, that's a superpower in any business. And so it's one of the things that I tend to look for when I'm hiring, regardless of the role and getting a feel for how people deal in those situations and in how they act on them is one of like the most important things.

Conor Bronsdon: 33:47

How do you go about identifying that? And then secondarily, if you identify, let's say a couple months into someone being on a team that they don't have that, what's your approach?

Johnny Ray Austin: 33:57

Yeah. So dealing with ambiguity, it's really hard to fake those in interviews, right? Because I won't say, okay, now I'm going to ask you how you deal with ambiguity, right? It's really digging into someone's, uh, experience and, you know, asking the hard questions about how they behaved in those situations. It's very clear when you're dealing with someone who can deal with ambiguity and drive clarity, because that's, that's really the only thing they do, right? They talk in terms of generating clarity, right? If it's a senior engineer, It's like, oh yeah, we had this problem. We couldn't scale this. And, you know, I found that we had to dig in and, you know, we were getting these many requests per second and our ECS cluster thing didn't scale. And so this is what I did. And so it's very clear that this person thought through what was happening and was able to kind of figure out a solution to the problem. Same thing with product people and design folks and dealing with users and, you know, separating what they ask for versus what they need. That comes through. Conversely, it's very easy to kind of know when you're talking to someone who doesn't have really good experience dealing with ambiguity. Because a lot of their stories are around, well, such and such told me to do X, so then I did it. Then they told me to do Y, and then I did that. Or they won't talk about what they did, they'll talk about what the team did, right? It's kind of indicative of, you know, either they don't have the ability to deal with the ambiguity, or maybe they run away from it. And this is not universally true. But, like, these are high markers, I think, for looking for that skill set. But if you do make the wrong decision and, you know, you found that you hired someone who can't deal in the level of ambiguity that you need them to in your organization, the most compassionate thing to do is to kind of help them figure out what their next move is.

Conor Bronsdon: 35:40

Because otherwise they're gonna spend so much time spinning their wheels and struggling.

Johnny Ray Austin: 35:43

They are. And people know when they're not performing. Yeah. Right. And they're not happy about it. And so, you know, the best thing you can do is figure out how to help them get to the place where they can excel. Um, 'cause they're, they're gonna be happier and your team's gonna be happier because you're gonna get someone else in that role who can actually make their, their lives easier. Um, and you're gonna have a lot less stress on your plate as well. So, um, it's a hard thing to do in the moment. But it's always the best thing to do in a long term.

Conor Bronsdon: 36:12

You brought up something about interviewing that I think is really crucial to note too. Mm-Hmm., which is, I think a lot of us struggle when we are going into interview processes with claiming the credit, um, and saying, I helped build this thing, or I built this thing. Yeah. I just said that I helped build this thing. Yeah. My, my team did X like, particularly folks who are like, I'd say egalitarian leadership styles. Yeah. Uh, and are kind of moving in those leadership roles we're like, oh, my team did y my team did x. There's some value in that, but when you are interviewing, you need to be able to translate that to like, this is what we deliver, this is how we identify the problem. And here I'm using we language here, because I'm like thinking of this. But like, that needs to be reframed when you're doing an interview and approached a little differently to convey the right message, it sounds like.

Johnny Ray Austin: 36:54

Yeah, yeah, and this is something I struggle with, and still struggle with. Um, I received coaching about this, you know, months ago as a matter of fact. It's really about Not quantifying, but really specifying your impact to the team. Because even as a leader, you may not have been the one rolling up your sleeve, getting things done. But if you were achieving the right outcome like that in and of itself is an achievement, right? Because the team knew what to do. They knew what was important, right? As the leader, did you not drive that clarity? And so staking a claim and, you know, helping guide the team in the right direction is important because when I'm hiring leaders. That's what I want. Right. A lot of leaders will come in and say, well, I can do X, Y, Z. Like, great, I know you can do it. Can you have a team of 10 people do it? Yeah. Right. Because if you can do it, but you can't get a team of 10 people to do it, this is not the right role for you. Right. I'm very proud of your skillset, but this is not the right role for you. And so one of the things I tend to talk about when I'm talking to product leaders especially, but even you know, tech leaders, is um, do you lead through example or through influence? Right? And so that's a, generally a question that gets a lot of, hmm, ha, and thinking about, you know, the times where they were, you know, jumping in, leading by example versus when they were able to kind of move other people to get things done and figuring out if they have that skill set or if they don't, you know, can we develop that skill set to such a place that we need it to be.

Conor Bronsdon: 38:19

What about when you're maybe earlier in your career as a manager and your team that you're bringing on board is more junior? Mm-Hmm.. And it's harder to identify when you're making those hires. Yeah. Do they have ambiguity? Do they have the skill sets? How do you approach those? More junior hires and the more necessary training and opportunities, different opportunities you have to provide them to have the opportunity to grow that skillset around ambiguity.

Johnny Ray Austin: 38:41

Yeah. So juniors are tricky because they don't have experience to draw from. They may not even know whether or not they're good at dealing in ambiguity. Yeah. Um, so the things that I tend to look for are more about, are more related to, you know, passion and curiosity. Um, if they're passionate, if they're curious, chances are they're gonna ask the right questions to help drive clarity. Mm-Hmm. Right. Even if it's just for themselves. Right. Leaders drive clarity for their teams. You know, people who are more junior drive clarity for themselves so that they can operate at their level. And so, if they're good or showing the indicators that they're going to drive clarity for themselves, um, that's a really good bet to make on someone who is, uh, pretty junior and they have no experience to draw on. So, obviously, you still need to do all the training and make sure they understand what the expectations are. You need to have a good onboarding process, you know, give them an opportunity to be successful there. Um, but, you know, they need to show those signs as well.

Conor Bronsdon: 39:37

Johnny, I've really enjoyed this conversation. I appreciate you ranging so broadly with me. You know, from how to approach that product strategy, understand the lies you tell yourself, into the kind of more specifics of team management and recruitment. Are there other concepts that you want to highlight?

Johnny Ray Austin: 39:52

You know, um, I don't think so. Um, You know, nothing I'm going to get on stage here in a couple hours and talk about is going to be, you know, earth shattering or anything like that. I

Conor Bronsdon: 40:02

don't know, man, if you told us about the aliens, that would be really interesting.

Johnny Ray Austin: 40:04

That's something I don't have information on. Um, you know, it's the stuff that we all know intuitively. I'm just going to shine a light on it, you know, make some jokes and hopefully we can, you know, um, just be a little bit more open about these things and, you know, open with our teams in particular about, you know, The type of environment we're operating in now, so that they can, you know, adjust their expectations accordingly. And so it allows you to kind of free your mental capacity up to kinda lead in the times we're in now and not harping on the, the good old days.

Conor Bronsdon: 40:33

Well, speaking of freeing up mental capacity, I know my, uh, my producers absolutely love it when I ask people about ai. Why don't you tell us some thoughts on AI to close us? they're shaking their heads behind us. You don't have to, Johnny Ray Austin: I mean, yeah. I don't know. Speaking of aliens. Yeah, there we go. I think, you know, we, uh, I just don't buy the ais. Ooh, okay. This, this is the take on actually. Yeah,

Johnny Ray Austin: 40:54

No, it's, um, it's a productivity hack and it's great, but it, it's a very fancy, at least the way it exists today, it's a very fancy auto complete, right? Yes. ai. Part of the problem is we call it ai, it's not, and

Conor Bronsdon: 41:06

we're talking about a GI really like

Johnny Ray Austin: 41:08

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Conor Bronsdon: 41:08

Artificial general intelligence versus, yeah. Yeah.

Johnny Ray Austin: 41:10

And it, and it's, it's not intelligent. it's, it's clever I guess, but it's, it's based on data. That we have given it. Right. It can only be as smart as you know.

Conor Bronsdon: 41:22

How was it trained?

Johnny Ray Austin: 41:23

Yeah. How was it trained, essentially? Um, I think the danger is that we continue to generate AI generated data that it uses to feed itself, and we get in this weird recursive, cycle of junk data, like that's,

Conor Bronsdon: 41:39

or gonna be there really quick with how much AI generated content's on the internet now.

Johnny Ray Austin: 41:43

Exactly. So I think that's the danger. I don't think it's Terminator two. You know, I think it's just, I don't, I can't even predict what

Conor Bronsdon: 41:50

it's data integrity.

Johnny Ray Austin: 41:51

Data integrity. We are already suffering from, you know, what's true versus not. And then we have like junk AI data and you know, generating it data for itself. And yeah, I think. You know, and, and that threatens our relationships and how we interact with each other. Draw connections online. I think that combined with, you know, advertise based engagement algorithms, like that's where the real danger is, you know, us kind of not being able to kind of live with each other and not, you know, Arnold Schwarzenegger coming back in time and blowing us away or anything.

Conor Bronsdon: 42:24

Yeah. Arnold Arnold's more exciting so people think about that more. But yeah, I mean, we've seen some of these impacts already online, right? Like the way we've. Adjusted our social communication systems. Yeah. And some of the misinformation that's gone into them. Yep. And we talked about it from a team perspective earlier, but that is a giant risk for a team. And I'll say like, I like to think about humanity as a giant team that maybe squabbles a little bit. Yep. Um, and I know not everyone feels that way, but we have huge opportunities with productivity and these things that we can. Help with, but we have a lot of risks and we need to consider that to your point. Yeah.

Johnny Ray Austin: 42:58

Yeah. If the aliens are real, maybe it'll unify us as a species and we can turn this whole thing around.

Conor Bronsdon: 43:03

Maybe. I mean, that, that's my favorite sci-fi honestly. Yeah. It's like, oh, the aliens shop, humanity unifies. So yeah, it'd be fun. I, I, I wanna live in that future.

Johnny Ray Austin: 43:11

Yeah. Me too. Cool.

Conor Bronsdon: 43:12

Well, Johnny, thanks so much. I appreciate you coming on the chat aliens, teams, and everything in between. I've really enjoyed our conversation. Uh, if you want to check out more of Johnny's talk here at Lead Dev. I'm sure it'll be online at some point. And if not, uh, this is a great primer. And, uh, Johnny, where can we find you on the internet if we wanna learn more?

Johnny Ray Austin: 43:28

Yeah, you can reach me on Twitter at, uh, recursive Funk, funk with the K. Yeah, so check me out.

Conor Bronsdon: 43:34

Alright, you've got a way cooler app than I do , um, . Well, you can also find Dev interrupted on, on Twitter at Dev Interrupted, uh, or check us out on, uh, YouTube. Uh, if you're not watching this, it's a great conversation. John. He's a cool dude, and I think you'd, you'd really enjoy checking out some of the clips as well. So thanks so much for listening folks.

Johnny Ray Austin: 43:51

Thanks for having me.