Turing Distinguished Leader Series: Vishal Punwani

Hello, everyone! Thank you for the fantastic response to the Turing Distinguished Leader Series. For this episode, we have Vishal Punwani, CEO and co-founder of Sophya, the Harvard-founded startup where companies of all sizes go to establish their virtual HQs. Sophya was part of Harvard iLab’s inaugural Launch Lab X program in 2018–19. Now, Fortune 50 companies and startups alike enter Sophya’s metaverse to work, socialize, form communities, and throw incredible events.

Today’s Topic: Engineering leaders discuss employee engagement in virtual teams and share tips for engineering managers to enhance remote team management.

Jonathan Siddharth:

Welcome to Turing Distinguished Leader Series. I’m Jonathan Siddharth, founder and CEO of Turing. Today I have a very special guest, Vishal Punwani, who shares a similar love for distributed teams and building the office of the future. Hi, Vishal, welcome! Could you tell us a little bit about your journey?

Vishal Punwani:

Hey, Jon! Great to be here. So brief introduction: I’ve always been a technology lover since I was three years old. I started my first company when I was ten, and my brother was 11. I’ve always been a longtime gamer, so all of this has a through-line of video gaming underneath, which kind of leads into why we founded Sophya. I went to medical school, did part of my emergency medicine training, put that on hold to focus entirely on Sophya. And that is what is occupying all of my time and attention right now. But I make a little time to play video games, ideally every day, for about 20 minutes.

Jonathan Siddharth:

That’s awesome. You have such an interesting background. And for people listening, could you tell us a little bit about Sophya, what problem it solves, and why you should use it?

Vishal Punwani:

Sure, yeah. The funny thing is that there’s a lot of really fantastic examples of great collaboration in gaming. So you think about any of the big MMOs, whether it’s World of Warcraft or Everquest or Elder Scrolls Online, any of these big ones: one thing that is common among all of them is that you have to get into groups and guilds. You have to execute missions together. You have to form leadership layers. You also have to communicate context and information to your teammates. There’s a lot that you have to figure out, for example, the bylaws of your guild. And so, it may sound silly, but there’s a lot of analogous company pieces there.

During the pandemic, we were like: “Oh my gosh. This is our team, and we feel like our culture is slipping. Our bonds with our teammates are getting frayed,” and that was scary to my co-founders and me because we’re such a culture-heavy team.

We believe the best business strategies are people-first. So if you look after your people and have wonderful relationships with your teammates, that will transcend the social aspect and return those business results. And so we were like: “There’s a much better way to do this than Zoom and Slack.” And the reason we felt so strongly about that was that a bunch of my teammates-we met playing World Warcraft, and that was 17 years ago, and we became best friends, even though we lived on three different continents at the time.

So we said: “What if we took a stab at transforming our work environment into something more like an MMO?” And so, we built this hacky MVP that completely transformed our team. And we’ve never felt closer as a distributed team; we’ve never felt more collaborative and more productive. It has changed the fabric of what our team is.

And so, I don’t know if that specifically answered your question, but to get a little specific, Sophya is a world, a community, where you can get a private office inside that world. And you get all your video chat, text chat, DMS, file sharing, screen sharing, and all the different collaborative tools you might need for your team to be productive.

Along with this, you also get all of those middle moments covered. So, you can see where all your teammates are if they’re in your office or maybe somewhere in the world. You can teleport to them and vice-versa, whatever the case may be. So you can have all the moments that you would miss if you didn’t have the physical office. You get to do that with people distributed all over the world.

Jonathan Siddharth:

Sounds great. What have you learned from customers using Sophya, like anything interesting in terms of the way they use the product?

Vishal Punwani:

People need the ability to feel connected and engaged and belonging at all times of the day. That’s how you build and give humans the tools they need to be healthy, internally and externally. So if you don’t feel like you can’t build great relationships at work, then, first of all, you’re going to have not a great time.

Wherever it is that you work, you’re always going to be looking for the next thing. From a business perspective, if you don’t focus on making sure that your team can form profound relationships with each other, guess who’s not going to be able to do their greatest work? Guess what organization will not be able to benefit from having aligned people who trust and care about each other?

All of that is part of what we’re building. An environment that is 100x than what the physical office can give you. The physical office can provide you with space, but it cannot give you best practices built into the walls. And, a lot of what’s coming out of publications like HBR and a few others that we like to talk about is ‘best ways to build organizational health into your office walls in the virtual world in Sophya.’ So, we want to make that available to everybody so that their teams keep getting healthier.

Jonathan Siddharth:

Absolutely. Speaking of distributed teams, which is one of the things that Sophya makes possible and easy? What would be your number one piece of advice for founders, product leaders, and engineering leaders who are building and managing distributed teams?

Vishal Punwani:

That’s a great question. I’ve boiled this down to three things.

One is relationships between your teammates. That’s something that you have to have figured out, right? If you want them to do their best work, you have to do that right. We do that through Sophya, obviously, but there’s a couple of other ways you can do that.

The second thing is context. You have to get good at providing fantastic context for your team to understand what problems they’re solving, the organization’s overarching goal, and the organizational mission and vision. All of that information has to be front and center.

And then the third thing is accountability tools. I don’t mean accountability tools in a punitive sense or anything like that. What I mean is that people like the clarity of knowing what they’re driving, who they’re working with, what is the context around it, and when the task or activity is supposed to be completed. So that sounds very operational, and it kind of is. We use Asana, which I think is helpful for that because you can sketch out your quarter, your whole year, and then make sure that everybody’s in charge of a different piece of it. So all the communication happens there.

Jonathan Siddharth:

That’s super interesting. So on the relationships front, how do you use Sophya and other tools to ensure you’re building the right relationships? And what is your advice for people to solve for relationships in a fully distributed or a hybrid team?

Vishal Punwani:

That is a great question. If you read the news nowadays, one of the biggest things you’ll notice is that company leaders embrace work from home and work from anywhere forever but are worried about the watercooler chats and the spontaneous interactions between teammates. And there’s a research paper that showed that the way you get true innovation is contrary to what one might think. It’s the mixing of very disparate verticals that’s important. Like, you’ve got someone with one skill set, and then someone with a completely other skill set comes along, and then they blend their two worlds and then come out with something.

So, for example, if you’re using calendar links and one form of video chat that doesn’t give you that spontaneous ability where you can see where your teammates are, you risk losing a lot of those serendipitous bump-ins. I call them the middle moments that happen in any working day. And to go back to make sure everybody’s following the through-line here: I was saying that there are two schools of people right now. One is the people thinking about going remote but saying: “Oh, we need to solve this problem to make sure that we’re retaining the creativity and the innovation that we feel we have in the office.” And then the second group is the people who are like: “We are going back to the office because we don’t have tools, and we want that social interaction to make sure that we engineer innovation in that way.”

And so for us, one of the great things is we feel that we have something where both needs can be met. If all you know is Zoom and Slack, then, of course, you’re going to want to go back to the office. But if you know that we’re entering the golden age of remote work and companies are building wonderful tools to solve that exact problem, then you’re going to think twice. That’s why we’re passionate about what we’re building. We love being close to our teammates.

The second part of your question was about how we use Sophya to build relationships. So we use a mix of calendaring inside the application, so for example, if we have team games a couple of times a week, people who are inside the world will get a notification that says: “Hey, games are starting, teleport to them!” and then you teleport to the games and all your teammates are there and they’re running around, and you see emojis flying around, and you can see who’s talking and all that stuff, even if you’re not in a conversation with them, you can see the liveliness of conversations happening outside of your video tiles which is interesting. And so there’s a bunch of different ways that we actively build relationships using Sophya, but there’s a bunch of ways that you passively build relationships in there as well.

So one of those ways is just by seeing the activity around you. One of the drawbacks of using video only is that you can’t show that much personality. Let’s say there’s 20 of us on the screen, and there’s like a Brady Bunch-ish style of chat happening. The remaining 18 people who aren’t having a conversation are just going to be sitting there with their red lights on, and you can’t tell anything about them or attempt to build a relationship with them.

In Sophya, we’ve used an utterly gamified approach, and so everybody gets their avatar. You can customize it to look however you want. So we have like 24 million combinations of what you can look like, which is a lot of fun. And so, just by seeing what people are wearing and how people are presenting themselves, you kind of get to know them more. And so you can constantly be doing these little things that add up in terms of building a foundation of trust and relationship, and that’s just a small example.

Jonathan Siddharth:

Sounds great! Do you have any advice for product engineering leaders building distributed teams in terms of things to do to make sure that people have the right relationships with each other?

Vishal Punwani:

Totally, yeah. So we take culture very, very seriously, and we think good relationships are at the foundation of a great culture. I love that quote: “Your culture is what happens when the founder isn’t around.”

What that means is that not only do you have to have excellent standards, but you have to have clearly articulated principles or virtues. And so it starts from the selection and hiring process. We make sure that we’re upfront with all of our candidates and tell them this is who we are and what it will be like to work here. There are particular traits that we seek. Humility is one of the biggest ones. Being people-smart is another one. And the next hunger to succeed. We focus a lot on discipline in our company. And so we made sure that people that we bring in are very disciplined because if they’re very disciplined in their work, they’ll probably be disciplined in their approach to their friendships and relationships. So it starts in the selection.

We also do a series of these personality tests to get a sense of where a person may be best placed on the team. So we do three, which is probably overkill, but we think each of them serves a very different purpose.

And so one helps us to understand it’s like the typical personality. So I’m an ENTJ (MBTI), right, and that allows me to know that I need to soften my edges, much of the time.

We also do something called the Working Genius, which is Patrick Lencioni’s group’s test.

And then, we do another test called Predictive Index to understand how much flexibility people prefer. So there’s an intentional process of bringing people in and building and constructing the team. And then every other week, we have something called the Growth Club where we take a reading, and we break it down into lessons. Every teammate writes how the article made them reflect on problems that they’ve faced in their life. We always aim to have things be more personal because we think that if you break down communication barriers between people in a healthy way, they’re going to do their best work together because they’re developing this baseline of trust.

Jonathan Siddharth:

That’s super interesting. Do you conduct these tests to figure out how to best communicate with this person and put them in a position where they will be successful and happy?

Vishal Punwani:

Exactly. We don’t do this in a vacuum. All of these other considerations are thought about and discussed with the candidate. All the results are shared, all the thinking is open. We try not to be prescriptive and say: “Oh, you are super high detail-oriented. Therefore, you can only be our company counsel or like a data scientist.” But they’re like: “I’m an artist.” So we want to put people in their sweet spot. And generally, if you get people to sort of vibe on the same wavelength like that, people will feel understood. And that works well.

And that changed my whole thinking about these things because it’s not really about forcing people into positions. It’s about saying: “How do we make sure that different types of people can succeed together when they don’t know each other?”

Jonathan Siddharth:

Absolutely. That makes a lot of sense. So, switching topics a little bit. I know one thing that’s on top of everyone’s mind: fully remote vs. hybrid. How do you think about fully remote vs. hybrid? What is your advice to people thinking through that decision for their companies?

Vishal Punwani:

Yeah, I think my company used to believe a lot more in what hybrid could be, but I think our thinking has evolved a little bit. This view might sound contentious, but we think that hybrid is a delay tactic. It’s like: “I haven’t made up my mind yet.” I’m going to take the example to the extreme. You think about Facebook or Google, or Apple. They initially were like: “Oh, we’re going to be returning to the office. That’s what we’re gonna do.” But then their employees were like: “Well, I moved to the other side of the country, and I bought a house with my husband, and I have a kid and a dog. So, no thanks. You know what, I’m gonna work from here because by the way, over the last year and a half, we’ve launched some of the best things that our company has ever done. We had our most profitable quarter since we began as a company. So, no, thanks.”

And so, it’s a tough argument for companies to be making. Companies might even think of doing three days a week in the office or three days remotely.

Well, that doesn’t work for the person who lives on the other side of the country. Meanwhile, all the people in the office are like: “Okay, so which teams go in on what days?” So there still has to be coordination. And then, given that the office will be 30 percent capacity on any given day do you need that much real estate in Palo Alto? What about the huge campus that costs millions of dollars a year?

And while all that’s happening, you have other companies who have engaged fully remote, and what they’re doing is they’re saying: “Hey, come work with us, we’ll pay you a great salary, and you can live life on your terms,” and that’s going to be a competitive edge in hiring.

One of my friends said the other day: “Off-site is the new on-site.” So I think hybrid will not last for very long; instead, it will turn into companies that allow people to work from anywhere forever. And then the hybrid model will morph into just hangout spots. I think Basecamp has something like this, where they have a couple of little base camps in different parts of the US, and you could go in and co-work together for a day, but that’s not the norm by any means. And I think hybrid will not be a norm, either.

Jonathan Siddharth:

It’s super interesting. Why is it that you think we can sort of sense some top-down management push to get people in the office, at least some percentage of the time? Why do you think that is?

Vishal Punwani:

Yeah, so, you know, I don’t think it’s all that complicated. If people who are accountable for really excellent teamwork and results don’t have systems, then they’re going to be worried, and they’re going to want to swim back to shore and grab the pier. But that’s all I think it is. If a team doesn’t know that they have options that will speak directly to their concerns, then they’re going to be worried, and they’re going to want to go back to in-person.

The managers and the upper sort of executive and leadership, they’re humans too. They want to spend time with their families. They don’t want to miss their kids’ first steps. They want to be able to walk their dogs. And so, I think any leadership person will derive the same benefits as the employees. It’s just a different set of pressures that are on each group. And they just don’t yet know that it doesn’t have to be Zoom and Slack, no offense, again, to those companies, but I’m just saying.

Jonathan Siddharth:

I’ve genuinely enjoyed this chat, and I want to close with one question for you. Besides Sophya, what are some tools that you found to be supremely helpful in running a fully remote-first company that you would recommend for people, building the offices of the future?

Vishal Punwani:

Well, you know, I’m biased because I know you, but I do have to give Turing a nod here. We’ve found it to be super helpful. It’s easy. We can find precisely the skill sets we’re seeking. We can book consultations, and we get a breakdown of the Google-level staff equivalent of this person. So, it just makes it very easy for us and, it’s taken engineering recruitment to a different level.

The other one that I think has been super helpful is Asana. And I say this because we’ve been trying to move the company entirely off of Slack because I think Slack does a lot of unhealthy things for people in some emotional state. Everything seems urgent, and things get lost and all that stuff. And I know that was probably the intent behind creating it, but for us, that’s not quite working, so we think we can manage communication through Sophya and Asana.

And then we do a lot of our recruiting and searching through Turing. Our engineering team has their whole suite of tools. But, from a perspective of a team-wide set of tools? That’s mostly Sophya and Asana.

Jonathan Siddharth:

That sounds great. Thank you for joining me on Turing Distinguished Leader Series, Vishal.

For more of Jonathan’s conversations with other Distinguished Engineering Leaders, go here.

Image Credit: Provided by the author; from www.freepik.com

Jonathan Siddharth

Jonathan is the CEO and Co-Founder of Turing.com. Turing is an automated platform that lets companies “push a button” to hire and manage remote developers. Turing uses data science to automatically source, vet, match, and manage remote developers from all over the world. Turing has 160K developers on the platform from almost every country in the world. Turing’s mission is to help every remote-first tech company build boundaryless teams. Turing is backed by Foundation Capital, Adam D’Angelo who was Facebook’s first CTO & CEO of Quora, Gokul Rajaram, Cyan Banister, Jeff Morris, and executives from Google and Facebook. The Information, Entrepreneur, and other major publications have profiled Turing. Before starting Turing, Jonathan was an Entrepreneur in Residence at Foundation Capital. Following the successful sale of his first AI company, Rover, that he co-founded while still at Stanford. In his spare time, Jonathan likes helping early-stage entrepreneurs build and scale companies. You can find him Jonathan @jonsidd on Twitter and jonathan.s@turing.com. His LinkedIn is https://www.linkedin.com/in/jonsid/

Turing Distinguished Leader Series: Vishal Punwani was originally published on ReadWrite on October 20, 2021 by Jonathan Siddharth.

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