Conveying warmth with Jaclyn Spangler of FullStory
Imagine if you could pick a person off the street and put yourself in their shoes for a day. Now imagine you could do that for a user of your product, watching where they click and seeing where they get confused or where they struggle. That’s precisely what FullStory helps their customers do, and Jaclyn Spangler, FullStory’s “Hugger in Product”, has been instrumental in crafting their product vision and company ethos.
Jaclyn was gracious enough to talk to us about how she found her way to technical product management, as well as how she helps the company create a strong culture and maintain a management structure that prevents bottlenecks.
To China and Back
Jaclyn emerged from university with a degree in international trade and Chinese language major. Her first port of call after college was Ha’erbin, China, where she taught English as a second language to students ranging in age from three years-old to fifty. After that brief stint, she moved back to the U.S., landing in Atlanta, where she found work as an account manager at a shipping & logistics company.
While she enjoyed her work as an account manager, she often wished she could take more of an active role in shaping the product in a way that would help her customers. This desire spurred her on to change her career focus. She says, “Eventually, I switched into product management, and a product in that world is a little different than a SaaS product, but it’s a similar idea of understanding customer pain points and your business strategies, and fixing those pain points with the offering that you have.”
Over time, despite having great interest in product management, she decided to leave the shipping and logistics industry. “It’s super stressful, and all deadline-driven, so I wanted to get out. I’d been involved in some technology projects with some of my customers, where we were trying to integrate different systems or data to help them improve their supply chain, and I found that I really liked those technical projects. Based on that, I decided to move to working in technology, and I wanted to aim for a startup.”
Starting Up in Atlanta
On her quest for a new job, she started exploring the Atlanta tech startup scene, and quickly fell in love with it. “There’s so much great energy here, and being outside of the Valley makes it feel like companies are especially scrappy and hungry.” She was introduced to Scott and Bruce, the cofounders of FullStory, through her network. They were interested in finding a customer-facing person to join their engineering team, as they already had a strong product, but hadn’t yet spent a lot of time talking to customers.
“They recognized the need for someone who could go out and work with customers, understand their use cases and their pain points. But they also really specifically wanted that person to influence product strategy. They wanted kind of a hybrid of account management and product management, which is exactly my background; so it worked out very well!”
Into the Matrix
One of the things that drew Jaclyn to FullStory was the culture. “We do a lot that isn’t necessarily just in the `Business 101’ playbook. It’s about how people want to work, how they want to interact, and what makes them want to come to work every day. We have a lot of processes built up around creating those facets of our culture.”
One such process is called a “Prove It,” which is how the team makes decisions. FullStory uses a matrix-based management structure, where the idea is not to have traditional t people managers (who often become bottlenecks), but instead leaders are resources to other employees.
“We think about management as ‘Okay, I’m a designer by trade, who can help me with that trade?’ You go to that person and ask them about things you’re struggling with or don’t understand, to see what their suggestions are as someone who’s been in the field for a long amount of time.”
That matrix means that nobody is a bottleneck, and employees don’t have to wait on one person to give them a go-ahead. Instead, what happens is that they create a “Prove It” document when they feel strongly about something. It’s a way to make sure that ideas are being acted on, instead of staying an idea.
“You put as much data together as you think you need to show people that it’s a great idea, and then you get the people in the room who would be working on it, show the data to them, and see what they say. They might love it and want to do it, or they might say no, or they might say that they need more data, but either way, you’ve made a decision.”
Huggers, Families, and Bucking Tradition
Management and department structures at FullStory are somewhat unorthodox. Instead of departments, they have “job families”, each with its own “head of family”. The head of family looks at macro level strategy, the five year plan; it’s also their job to make sure that everyone is focused on moving towards those five year goals.
Jaclyn is the Head of Family for Hugging, which is the department that covers sales, product development, and customer interactions. She’s referred to as the “Hugger in Product” and is a liaison between the Hugging and Product families, spending most of her team with the product team and syncing up with Huggers on the side to make sure that she knows what’s going on in their family and can bring that information to the Product family.
The title (and department) revolving around hugging was initially a joke, but came from the FullStory team really wanting users who reached out for support to feel like they were talking to real people.
“We didn’t want to run the traditional playbook of customer success or customer support. We don’t want those things to be completely separated from the rest of the organization. The term “hugger” was meant to convey warmth and being people-oriented.”
Over time, it’s taken on a life of its own. Empathy is one of the big watch-words at FullStory — it is, after all, what the product is about. Jaclyn says, “Once you know someone is struggling, you can feel their pain, know where they’re coming from, and make a conscious choice about whether that’s a problem you want to fix or not. Hopefully, most of the time, the answer is ‘yes’.”
As Hugger in Product, it’s Jaclyn’s role to take the information from the customer success team, figure out what to prioritize, look at which things are gaps in functionality or actual holes in the product vs. misunderstandings of the product, and relay all of that to the product team, so they can start to fix it.
Democracy Over Disruption
One of the “families” is MOPS (Management, Operations, and Strategy), which includes the cofounders. According to Jaclyn, “The co-founders could be a bottleneck before we put the matrix in, but now Heads of Family get the final decision-making power, so they can say ‘Hey, we all agreed this is the best course of action,’ and loop Scott and Bruce in as much as possible, but they don’t have to be there or be active in every single decision.”
Of course, given that this is an unusual management style, sometimes there needs to be a little bit of translation. They’re open about the management style and titles during the interview process, and they also give new hires the option of deciding what the equivalent title would be at another company, so they can use that on their resume/LinkedIn when they leave FullStory.
Overall, having a more democratic team structure has helped the team iterate faster and improve their product. It’s good incentive for other companies to revisit their team structures — after all, when you start a new company, there’s no need to do things the way they’ve always been done just for the sake of it.
When it comes to other companies looking to create a unique structure, Jaclyn doesn’t think “disruption” should be the aim. “Make sure your ultimate goal has to do with great outcomes.”