Q&A with Lisa Quayle, Co-Head of Engineering @ Joyous
Returning to work after parental leave is a struggle for many people, and in a high-growth startup, it can be even more daunting due to the pace of change.
We caught up with Lisa Quayle, Co-Head of Engineering at Joyous to learn more about her experience of returning to an engineering environment where the code she wrote in the early days of Joyous was completely re-written, as well as coming back into the fold as a Co-Head of Engineering.
We also touched upon how in a tight talent market, Joyous is doubling down on how they can achieve more without necessarily adding to their headcount and the exciting future ahead for the business.
About the Speaker
Lisa is the Co-Head of Engineering at the fast-growing Joyous.
Getting to know Lisa
Favourite book of all time?
Harry Potter. I wouldn’t call myself a Harry Potter fan really but it’s a series I have read many times and doesn’t seem to get old.
Top hobby outside of work?
Indoor bouldering. Really missing it at the moment as I’m avoiding it while we’ve been at the height of Omicron.
Your number one daily habit that keeps you productive?
Planning time for tasks that require focus. With so many things going on it allows me to have dedicated time where I know I’ll make progress.
Favourite piece of tech you use in your workday and why?
Time Out. It’s software that gets me to stop and have a 40-second break every 20 minutes, and a 4-minute break every hour. It helps a lot with keeping pain-free and ensures I’m taking time to stretch and move during my workday.
One thing you are trying to learn or get better at right now?
German. My partner speaks it so that’s the incentive. I’ve never learned another language so it’s a new challenge for me.
Transcription of the Q&A with Lisa
“We're all about including people in making change happen at work, and we want to start conversations that create positive change. ”
Great to check back in. I think, as a starting point for people that might not be as acquainted with Joyous, at a top line, what does Joyous actually do?
We're all about including people in making change happen at work, and we want to start conversations that create positive change.
Our customers are large enterprise customers looking to engage more people in the organisation through feedback. That feedback could be understanding something like well-being in a team or it could be something like rolling out an org-wide strategic project.
We are really trying to get a feedback process going through conversations that are attributed to people, rather than the typical survey-style, anonymous type feedback.
In terms of the sort of current state of play, where would you put the business in terms of product life cycle or the business life cycle at the moment?
So, we're about four years in. We've currently got a large number of enterprise customers and a user base in the high tens of thousands.
The past year was a big one for us. We've doubled the team. We're about 40 people now. We’re definitely on that high-growth journey, and we've really been looking to stabilise the foundations of our application and build towards what we now know as the product future that we're embarking on.
It's kind of coming out of that really early-stage startup vibe into a little bit more mature, but still holding onto that fast-moving and high-paced kind of thinking.
And then for you personally, a lot has changed since you've been away. You've just recently returned from parental leave. How long have you been back in the office, and how long did you take off?
I came back a little while ago now, around September, when I sort of reintroduced about two and a half days a week, and then in January was when I started doing four days a week.
I had my son in November of 2020, so I took about nine months off to care for him. Having said that though, it wasn't really completely off. The government in New Zealand has something called "keep in touch" hours which are an allocated number of hours that you can work while you're on your parental leave whilst you are still not considered as having returned to work.
So, I utilised those when Josh was about three months old. I started doing five hours of work a week, and I continued that till he was six months old, and then I could pick up a few extra hours if I had the time between then and when I moved to two and a half days.
The cool thing about that was even though I was only spending a little bit of time, it meant that I could stay in touch with essentially what was going on, any strategic decisions that were being made.
I also helped out with some of the hiring, as we were getting new engineers at the time and did a few interviews which was cool, and then just helping out my co-head of engineering who at the time was acting head of engineering and sort of giving him that one-on-one time where we could go through any things that he was trying to solve, any kind of discussion about the team and where things were going.
It was really great to be able to stay involved somewhat, even though for the bulk part, I was at home looking after my baby.
Keeping your hand-in and keeping in touch must have been super important. Tell us a little bit about the feeling of returning to work.
I think in particular for someone coming back to a startup that's growing so quickly, that to me sounds like it must be a lot to take on, given that things are changing so quickly. How was that experience for you?
“When I did come back with a few more hours a week when I did a couple of days, it was tough. It was a very different role from when I left to when I came back. ”
They definitely change quickly! I mean, I thought that being able to stay in touch a few hours a week would be, I guess, sufficient to know what was going on, but there's a very big difference between seeing from the outside what's happening and actually being there with the team day to day, knowing the decisions that are happening.
When I did come back with a few more hours a week when I did a couple of days, it was tough. It was a very different role from when I left to when I came back.
When I left, it was me as Head of Engineering and a much smaller team of engineers, and while I was away, they hired more people.
Also, my Co-Head of Engineering had really upskilled, and it made sense to keep him on as one of the leads so that we could essentially get the benefit of two leaders in this space, particularly as engineering was growing anyway.
That was a really great decision, but it meant that I was coming into a co-leadership position with a larger team. The other main thing that happened while I was away is they did a really big project where they rewrote most of the software that I'd actually written.
That might sound a bit funny, but when I came back, there was a lot of code that was unfamiliar to me, so to be a technical lead and to be able to jump in and get back in there and help guide the team from the technical standpoint, it was actually quite difficult because I had a lot of upskilling to do, a lot of knowledge that I had to gain before I could really step back into how it used to be.
The code baby that you had been nurturing from an early age had sort of in some ways grown up and been replaced which no doubt adds to the anxiety.
How did you manage that process yourself in terms of making sure that you weren't overwhelmed, and what were some of the sort of practical things that you did to ease your way back into what is a pretty intense role?
It was tough, and I mean, it was lockdown at the same time. I was doing the whole thing remotely which was another interesting challenge.
I think at first I had quite high expectations of myself and what I thought that I needed to be achieving or outputting within X amount of weeks or months when I came back.
Probably the biggest thing is honestly just talking about it, talking with my co-head of engineering of laying it out, this is how I'm feeling and this is where I'm seeing I'm at, and talking with the other CEO's at Joyous, because we have three, and getting different perspectives and understanding where I can start to add value.
I think that was the thing that changed how I felt. When I could see where I could contribute. Sure, I don't know about this part of the code, that's fine, but I can do this, and I can do this and help while I upskill on the rest of it.
It was finding a way to make an impact so that I could feel like I had some momentum and understanding that it was okay to not know all of these things that I feel like I did use to know and giving myself time to be like, "Yep, it's all right. I'll get there. Just need to be more involved in these conversations and I will start to take it back in again."
I think expectations for me, internal expectations, are a big one.
Joyous has a very progressive parental leave policy that's been written by people that have been through the same experience that you've just gone through.
How did that help ease you back into that role and make sure that you weren't putting too much pressure on yourself?
Totally. I really appreciate our parental leave policy. One of our Co-CEO's and Heart of Product, Ruby Kolesky, she championed that.
She'd had some experiences that were not so great through her parental leave in the past and so she was adamant that at Joyous things are going to be different for parents which is amazing.
We've open-sourced the policy as well. So, we definitely encourage other people to come and have a look at it. You'll be able to find it on our website.
Things that have been really impactful to me is one is the flexible return to work. So, it is that ability to ease into it, if that makes sense for you, and if you've come back too soon and you find actually this is not working for me yet, or maybe you come back and your child is in daycare and they're getting really sick, you can actually go, "Okay, hang on. I need to be changing what I'm doing here."
Another one is that for six months after returning to work, we only need to work 30 hours rather than 40, and you can still get paid your usual salary which means that you can take more time to have that flexibility however you want, whether it's shorter days five days a week or a day off, which is what I'm doing.
It just means I can spend a bit more time with my son while he's still little and he's still used to being around me all the time. He can still have that time with me which is great.
I guess the other thing that makes this quite different to other companies' parental policies is it's not just for the primary caregiver, but also for the secondary caregiver.
What that means is, for example, fathers often only get a couple of weeks off, maybe two weeks off, and then the mother gets a long time off. But if the mother wants to return to work sooner, then with a policy like Joyous's, then the father can have that flexibility.
They can have that reduced hours. They can have flexible time off, and it means that it's not all on the mother, which does end up adding to that gender inequity and the pay inequity over time. I really appreciate that we are looking at it from a more holistic view.
“I think a lot of us feel that it is harder than we expect, but it's all right for it to be harder, and it's okay to talk about it...”
Is there any advice for other parents that are thinking about their upcoming journey or for people in the leadership roles at other companies that might be thinking that they really need to update their own parental leave policies.
I think it's being understanding with each individual because each individual will have a different experience.
Some people really want to take more time. Some people are very eager to get back into work, so trying to find ways to work well for that individual.
Understand that it is a pretty massive change in their life and it is stressful. I guess just having that little bit extra understanding and a little bit of extra flexibility can go a long way and make quite a big difference.
For parents, I suppose don't be too hard on yourself when you come back. I've talked to a lot of mums who when they come back in, they're like, "Oh, I didn't realise this was going to be so hard."
I think a lot of us feel that it is harder than we expect, but it's all right for it to be harder, and it's okay to talk about it both with other people in the same experience and also with your team and your company so that they can get a feeling and understanding because unless you've had a kid, it's pretty hard to understand what it's like.
That's really great advice. Switching gears a little bit and thinking about co-leadership, I know that that's been a model that's been adopted across the board there at Joyous.
How was that for you in terms of coming back in a co-leadership position? What are the pros and cons for you?
I love it. One great thing about co-leadership and coming back into that is there was no external pressure for me to ramp up immediately.
It was like, here's this other person who's already like doing the Head of Engineering role. I can come in and I can get familiar and upskill at whatever pace I can, and know that Kevin, who's my other co-head, he's got it. He's running it. It's all good.
It was actually quite nice to be able to come in and feel like I had that support and I could ramp without worrying that if I dropped the ball, everything was going to go to pieces. So, that was quite nice.
At Joyous, we really think this is a great leadership model. We've got a CEO collective of three CEO's. The way they operate is a little different to us. They do like a quarterly rotating operational role.
Within the co-head of engineering, it's a little bit different. We don't really rotate so much as share the role.
It tends to happen a little more naturally with the two of us because we can just have a chat about what's going on, and the way we structure our engineering team is we break the engineers down into smaller crews, we call them, of three or four engineers in each crew, and we'll split out who's across what crew.
It's not a hard and fast rule because we'll find things that one crew's working on, the other person might have some knowledge or input, and so they'll jump in and be a part of it for a while.
It does mean that for me, as I've mentioned, I'm working four days a week, so on the Mondays that I'm off, Kevin can jump in, and if the crews need any help, he's aware of what's going on, that sort of thing.
Apart from having more capacity within this layer, we can also stay closer to the engineers than we could if it was just one of us.
So, one of us trying to manage a full team's work, do all the people management, do all the hiring, do all the strategy, you just wouldn't be able to be in there with your teams seeing what's going on and actually spending time working with them.
That's a really great benefit is that we both get the chance to do that as well as I guess the more strategic or higher-level parts of the role
“The key thing is to know the end-game, you're going in the same direction and you are going to work together to do it because ideally you're filling each other's gaps. ”
Are there instances where you would see that wouldn't work, or what are the sort of core tenets that need to be there for it to be successful?
I think really you do need to be two people who are aligned. You need to have the same goals and same values, and that's not to say you should think the same or always have the same ideas about how you do things.
You definitely want that difference of thought, you want the different opinions, and you want to be able to discuss and figure out how best to go forward, but the thing is you need to be going forward as a team together rather than in any kind of competitive fashion.
The key thing is to know the end-game, you're going in the same direction and you are going to work together to do it because ideally, you're filling each other's gaps.
There are things that one of us will be better at than others or things that one of us will spot or miss, and knowing that the other person's going to pick those things up.
So, highly collaborative, a lot of communication, and pulling in the same direction. For us, that's what enables it to work, and it's the same at our CEO level. They have a lot of different ideas and opinions and different ways of working, but they always come back to realign and make sure that what they're doing is in fact where Joyous needs to go.
In terms of now being back just over six months, do you feel like you're fully back up to speed and feeling sort of to the same level that you were before you left to go on parental leave?
Not really. There's still a lot I feel like I don't know, but I would say I'm much further along than I was, and I guess I'm a lot more comfortable with the things I don't know.
I'm a bit more comfortable with going, "Okay, it's fine. The team knows this. It doesn't matter if I don't know this. They're going to help us get to the right solution and I'll just learn from them and that's going to be alright."
Then just take the things that I feel like I know what I'm doing and just roll them through, keeping the momentum going.
“...rather than hire more people to get things done, we're trying to be more efficient with what we have.”
The other thing that I think's really interesting about some previous conversations that we've had is around the philosophy at Joyous of trying to do more with less.
Can you explain how that actually manifests in terms of the day-to-day operations of the business?
So, rather than hire more people to get things done, we're trying to be more efficient with what we have. That's not to say we're not hiring. We absolutely are. We do want to grow our team, but we want to grow it in such a way that we're, I guess, maximising the amount of time and capacity that we have to work on things that make the biggest impact.
One example is our full-stack roles. We have full stack engineer roles. We also have full-stack product roles, and we're also introducing a full-stack customer role.
The idea of rather than hiring specialists to do specific things and then needing to have really great communication between your specialists to ensure that you're not having miscommunications or losing information or having bottlenecks, rather you've got a group of people who are upskilling, and the same people are, I guess, privy to useful information.
For example, our product people, they'll sit in on customer calls and actually get really close in with our customers and understand their use cases. How they're using Joyous so they can help them to use it well.
It means that when they come time to design the product roadmap, what features are we developing, what's important, they've got firsthand knowledge. They've got that understanding.
It's sort of removing a bunch of barriers of communication that can often, I guess, slow things down or lead to maybe building the wrong thing.
Then within engineering, it's really how can we be more efficient, how can we automate, what can be automated, how can we ensure that with technical debt, we are reducing that as we build.
We don't want to get a pile of tech debt that's slowing us down and meaning that we're actually spending twice as long building features. So, it's really good engineering hygiene has to become a high priority in order for you to move fast.
We describe a few other ways that we do this in a book that we've written about the way we work which is called Joyfully which describes how we do product and engineering
“...we now know what we're about, and we know we can make a really meaningful impact to people, and we've seen that actually work.”
Looking forward, you mentioned that you are still hiring. If you are thinking about people coming into the Joyous environment, what is it for you that makes that environment unique, and who are the types of people that typically thrive?
We have a pretty cool environment. It's really focused on growing and learning and I guess doing it all together.
It's very collaborative, so if you are someone who really enjoys working with others on solving problems and you're free with ideas and you're really keen on just figuring out what's the best way, that's the kind of person. So, for someone who wants to make an impact, do something meaningful.
Lastly, regarding your own personal experience with the company, you've been there since the early beginnings of Joyous. In terms of the stage of growth that you're in now, why do you think now is such an exciting time to be part of that journey?
It's interesting because it is so different. When I started, we were working in this shed on top of a building in Britomart that you had to climb five flights of stairs up to with no lift and had no cleaners. So, that was quite different.
Now we're in a stage where we know where we're going. The figuring it out stage is definitely fun, but we now know what we're about, and we know we can make a really meaningful impact to people, and we've seen that actually work.
We're seeing the results of doing the work that we do, and our journey right now is to focus on scaling up.
How do we scale this business, stay efficient and really reach out to a lot more users? The other thing that's really exciting at the moment is we've had a data science team working on some natural language processing with machine learning to essentially find opportunities for change within people's conversations.
That's pretty cool because usually in that space, it's all about kind of finding themes and understanding what's the topics really that people are talking about, but we want kind of a little bit more than that.
We want to know where people can make positive change and how we can find that out programmatically. So, that's going to start coming into the product.
From an engineering perspective, that's a pretty exciting piece of work. So, we're all looking forward to getting that in there, so I guess, from a few different angles, it's a pretty cool time to come onboard.
It does seem like a pretty exciting time of the journey to be joining. Really great to reconnect with you, Lisa. We appreciate you giving us that insight and we look forward to checking in again soon.
Absolutely. It's nice to chat with you again.