UserConf (now Elevate) 2016 is coming up soon and reminding me of the wonderful time I had presenting at their Portland conference last year. The conference is fantastic and I highly recommend it. I talked about my transition from birthwork to working at tech companies and how they ended up not being as different as you may think. Video below! And transcript below that!
“I went into the interview for what would be my first technology startup with the vaguest idea of what a technology startup was. I had spent the last few years as a doula – it was my job to help women while they gave birth. Whitetruffle was very early, bootstrapped, and risky. The CEO asked if I was okay in high stress situations. I told him that as long as no one was bleeding and everyone was breathing, that I’d be okay. And I was. Since Whitetruffle, I’ve worked in customer-focused positions at Mighty Spring, GitHub, and now Earnest: a financial startup lowering the high costs and barriers to credit faced by millions of financially responsible people.
“While the experience of working at a startup is nothing like assisting a woman in labor, I find myself drawing on the lessons I learned from birthwork every day: First, that everything will be okay; things are rarely as urgent as we think. Second, as deeply as I care about everything I do, I need to keep firmly in mind that this is not my baby and not my birth. Third, that it’s important to fully understand and plan for what progress is really like.
While everything is important, not everything is urgent.
“Everything will be okay. Things are rarely as urgent as we think. I remember my first births as a doula. I wanted to do everything just right. A mother would call me, excited and nervous and absolutely sure that she was in labor and she wanted me there and I wanted to be there and I would drop everything and rush to her side. As soon as I arrived we’d sit and chat. I’d quietly time any contractions I noticed and they would get further and further apart as we both felt calmer. After those first few births, I learned how to more accurately assess real versus perceived urgency. Instead of rushing to the rescue, I learned to have those chats over the phone. Things felt calmer and contractions would slow. We’d both agree it was best to stay home and get as much sleep as we could. Labor was coming soon – but it wasn’t here quite yet.
“Similarly, understand in advance what likely is urgent for your customers and your product. Keep a close eye on as much of the customer experience as humanly possible. Have a plan of action to respond quickly and appropriately when urgent issues do arise – but admit to yourself that, while everything is important, not everything is urgent.
“Know when to question the rules. Once a woman in labor is admitted to the hospital, this is often the only thing she will be given to eat until after she gives birth: ice chips. Why is that? Not so long ago women were routinely knocked out for birth, and of course before any planned surgery or procedure in which a person is given general anesthesia, it is accepted practice to prevent the patient from eating or drinking because there is a small chance of aspirating vomit while unconscious. Of course, it is also standard practice to put a breathing tube down a person’s throat when they’re put under to reduce that risk of aspiration even more. As a result, the actual likelihood of anything terrible happening is incredibly low, especially with local anesthesia and epidurals being much more common than general anesthesia during birth. So, the risks of eating and drinking during labor are pretty close to zero. And birth, calorically, is just like running a marathon. Knowing this, the mother and I would find ways to sneak her calories. Clear, sugary liquids to pour into her ice chips. Grapes, honey, and other high calorie, easily digestible foods to give a much needed extra energy boost before pushing.
What rules would your team most like to break for customers?
“What are you doing that maybe doesn’t make sense? Comb through your support team’s current rules and policies. Are any of them unclear or unspecific? Outdated? Do they jeopardize relationships? Ask your team for insight into which rules they would most like to break for customers. See if it makes sense to change them.
“Labor is painful – and so is some aspect of your product. The biggest difference is that everyone expects labor to be painful. Give your customers strategies to work through that pain. Earnest is a financial technology company that helps people who behave responsibly with money, but may have thin credit profiles. Personal finance is an interesting space to be providing support in. It’s something that people simultaneously know to be incredibly important – and harbor a lot of confusion and anxiety around. Knowing that, we’re working incredibly hard to reduce that anxiety for people. Our loan terms and disclosures are written at a 10th grade reading level to make them as easy as possible to understand. When someone is declined for a loan, we provide them with reasons why, make ourselves available for followup questions, and will always reconsider an application upon request. We emphasize communication and clarity in every part of the our user experience.
“Care deeply about your company and product, but know when to let go. Pregnant moms and I would work together on a birth plan well in advance of labor to help both of us better understand her vision of how she’d like her birth to be. While birth plans are never set in stone, mothers generally hired me to help them follow through on those plans and balancing that against what might be needed when labor was actually there could sometimes be challenging. A woman I worked with who was set on not using any painkillers during birth ended up in very painful labor that lasted for days. She was exhausted and having a hard time coping. I let her know that whatever choices she made for her birth, they were hers. She had proved herself strong, and capable, and no one would think any less of her whatever she chose. She ended up taking a mild painkiller and was able to get a few hours of sleep. When she woke up her energy was back, her confidence had returned, and her baby finally came. Not considering a deviation from the birth plan would have been terrible, so we let go.
Especially if your team is growing rapidly, the regularity of your weekly team syncs, bimonthly reporting, quarterly goal planning, and whatever other rituals you have established all provide reliable structure, a built in outlets for needed communication, and keep momentum flowing.
“I found myself in what felt like a similar situation at Whitetruffle. Whitetruffle is an employment matching service and used LinkedIn’s API to make it easier for people to create user profiles. LinkedIn decided that they no longer wanted us to use their API. In addition to that, they asked that we get rid of any data we had gathered using it and gave us a deadline for deletion. We quickly created a way for people to easily port information if they wanted to keep their profile active. Over 75% of our user profiles had been created using the LinkedIn API. Everything was going smoothly, and then Hurricane Sandy happened. We had a large userbase on the East Coast. As important as it was to us that we preserve those user profiles, it was nowhere near as important to the many people displaced by floods. Continuing to push people to port their employment data would have been terrible, so we let go.
“If a woman is free to move during labor she will usually find a spontaneous ritual, usually adapted from something we went over in our prenatal appointments, or another childbirth preparation class, which she will repeat precisely the same way contraction after contraction. If a partner is a part of the ritual, that person must also consistently repeat their part and over with her. The ritual changes from time to time in labor. If a woman feels overwhelmed and unable to carry on a ritual, it was my job to help her find it. Breathing, rocking, pacing, moaning, or – in this case – deep hip compressions through the apex of each contraction.
“As you build your support team, establish a regular rhythm of reporting and check ins that team members can rely on. Don’t skip your one on one’s if at all possible. Especially if your team is growing rapidly, the regularity of your weekly team syncs, bimonthly reporting, quarterly goal planning, and whatever other rituals you have established all provide reliable structure, a built in outlets for needed communication, and keep momentum flowing.
“Anticipate the ugly. Progress is not always pretty. I always brought grapefruit oil to a birth. As the baby’s head moves down, it was not uncommon for a little bit of poo to escape. I was always ready for a quick, discreet cleanup and would spritz a little of that oil around to brighten both the room and the mood in late labor.
Progress is messy, bloody, loud, painful, and sometimes ugly. And you want to be – because that means you’re getting somewhere.
“I’m sure we can all think of times we’ve had to clean up a little bit of poo. An unfortunate bug, a delayed feature ship, the stresses of keeping up with exponential demand. Growth can be painful – but the pain of growth is good for you. You’re moving in directions you haven’t moved before, you’re learning, and you’re figuring out the ways all the pieces work best together. The important thing is to anticipate that things will not always work smoothly, learn from it, and have your grapefruit oil ready the next time.
“This is me. Minutes after giving birth to my son in my living room. For most people, creating a quality customer support experience may not have obvious parallels to assisting women in labor – but birthwork is actually the most intense, high feedback, full contact customer support role you will ever find. Birth teaches you to identify and prioritize what is actually important – do that, and everything will be okay. This is not your baby, not your birth. You are building the experience for someone other than yourself. Progress is messy, bloody, loud, painful, and sometimes ugly. And you want to be – because that means you’re getting somewhere.
“I want to leave you with what I told my mothers preparing for birth:
“This work is going to be hard. But it’s also going to be worth it.”