Why Do Zoom Calls Make Us So Tired?

My most recent post on LinkedIn cross-posted here.

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With COVID 19, Zoom and web conferencing have become mission critical for enabling team members to communicate while at home. Pre-COVID, many of us already had days filled with meetings; and with COVID, the need for more face-to-face communication and daily meetings has grown (selfishly some of what we’re trying to solve at Loop Team).  With back-to-back virtual meetings, we are experiencing “Zoom fatigue” and “feeling more tired” at the end of our workdays.

In recent weeks, I’ve seen several Twitter discussions extrapolating as to why a day of video conference calls is making one feel so tired.  I don’t think there is an exact answer, but I’ve collated below some of what I’ve read, as well as some tips that I found that may be helpful.

Why Do I Feel Tired?

  1. Detailed in Nick Morgan’s book, called “Can You Hear Me?,” he discusses that in IRL (in real life), you can see people and their “body language” from head to toe, which enables you to interpret non-verbal cues including moods, feelings, reactions and more.  When virtual, you are unable to see body language nor even make proper eye contact, so your brain must work double-time to fill-in those missing non-verbal gaps.
  2. When you are physically talking to someone, you look at the person. Web conferencing tools recognized this early and pushed “speaker view” as a default experience where the speaker is enlarged.  But speaker view makes it more difficult to see your whole team and some consider this not egalitarian.  As a result, some conferencing tools offer “gallery view” also known as “brady bunch view”, but this means you now have to subconsciously process multiple people at the same time which further exacerbates the problem detailed in #1. Scientists have also given this a name – it is known as “continuous partial attention.”
  3. Extending on #2, you can’t make real eye contact when virtual. This gives a feeling of needing to be “always on” as if the paparazzi is following you.  In IRL, you know when someone is looking at you, and these intermittent breaks give you much needed moments to relax and close your eyes.
  4. Working at an office not only creates work/life separation, but it also provides for natural breaks.  Between each office meeting, you are often walking to another room which provides a few minutes before and after the meeting that help to serve as a warm-up and cool-down period.  These “watercooler” moments help ease the transition to the more demanding and focused discussions. However, virtual meetings see little opportunity for side watercooler chat due to the formal nature of conference calls and the inability to have side discussion.
  5. As alluded to in #3 and #4, our brains need frequent short naps, but the nature of virtual conferences make it challenging to find these healthy “time outs.” When virtual, every sound is amplified to the same volume regardless of whether or not you are wearing a headset. This is considered a feature, which makes sense with the varying microphone hardware across laptops and devices.  The pitfall though is that conversation audio has no depth and no conversation is private.  Everything is interruptive – you can’t zone out.

So What Can We Do?

  1. Adjust your meetings to 20 or 25 minutes, especially if your schedule is back to back. These 5 to 10 minute breaks will give you an opportunity to stand-up and have a more natural break.
  2. Schedule phone calls again. Yes, that may sound counterintuitive, but walk and talk where you don’t have to feel that you’re on camera all the time. Video use is becoming even more of a necessity to feel connection, but audio-only calls take the pressure off.
  3. Have smaller meetings. The more people in the room, the more processing you have to do and the more your brain has to work. Smaller meetings encourage more watercooler chat which provides an opportunity for your brain to decompress.
  4. Invest in an external camera and mount it to the TV. This obviously won’t work for everyone but the idea here is to have a camera that is farther away from your face so you don’t feel always on. In addition, the other party can now see the entirety of you so they can visually read when you are in and out of focus – which actually helps both sides. Of course, this won’t work if you are doing most of your calls from your PJs.

If you have other ideas and tips to help make video conference calls less mentally taxing, please share.

My Product Management Interview

My most recent post on LinkedIn cross-posted here.

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A few months ago, I was asked to speak to graduates aspiring to be PMs at a startup school about my product management interview process. Now, to be clear, I haven’t worked for any of the valley unicorns and I’ve surprisingly never had formal interview training. Most of my process is “startup organic” by making mistakes and absorbing feedback from others, as well as books like Cracking the PM Interview.

So, with that in mind, here’s my interview process and some questions.

Background Notes

  • I like to ask the same questions. I find asking from the same pool of questions, enables me (or a team) to better pattern match the candidate’s response
  • I lean towards open-ended case style questions where the question is really a story and we build along the way with follow-up questions
  • I prefer questions that don’t have a right or wrong answer. This is much more about understanding how someone thinks and less so about remembering exact frameworks
  • I generally avoid looking at resumes and/or LinkedIn profiles. I sometimes can’t avoid this if I have to solicit and/or screen the candidate but when I can, I find this helps me eliminate any potential bias
  • Each of my questions have a specific goal, whether it’s strategy, design, analytics or other. Ultimately, I believe product management is a mindset

Questions

Q1: Tell me about a (software or hardware) product experience that you disliked? (something you haven’t worked on)

  • How do you describe the product and background? From a UX perspective or more high-level? From a customer perspective?
  • Are you specific?
  • Let’s talk through some edge cases
  • Are you inductive and/or deductive?
  • How would you fix it? Let’s design, whiteboard, and iterate?
  • What if the fix didn’t work?

If not obvious, my goal with this question is to see if you have product empathy, if you can focus on what you think the problem is, and how you would design to fix and test it. I generally steer this question towards design (personal bias) but that’s not required.

The “not so great” answers are often very high-level discussions about why iTunes sucks — but without any product detail. Use the whiteboard and start at the top-left so you have enough room to answer.

Q2: You are the PM of Google Music and you need to present to the CEO a strategy to compete with Apple Music. Discuss

  • Do you ask clarifying questions? How opinionated are you? Do you create a hypothesis? Are you open to alternative ideas?
  • How do you organize your thoughts?
  • And I like to interject with alternate potential angles-of-attack (e.g. geo, biz model, go-to-market etc.)
  • Where does your thinking bias towards? (e.g. market vs product vs model, or other)

Honestly, this question could literally be about any major product between two companies. I intentionally choose something crazy big to see how the candidate narrows, organizes, and focuses.

Using the whiteboard is a must here. The worst answers are very disorganized in their approach and often only consider one insertion point and/or may not have a strong hypothesis. Sometimes, I may even ask the candidate to try to outline some slides to see if they can organize their ideas.

Q3: You are the CEO of an airline and you have unlimited budget (full reign to change anything you want with the plane or the airport). Design a faster way to board a plane.

  • How out-of-box and/or creative are you with your thinking?
  • Are you analytical? Did you think about the edge cases? I usually hint along with scenarios you may have missed (e.g. handicap, families, seating preferences)

Failing to ask any clarifying questions is not good (and this is thematically true amongst most of my questions). As mentioned before, there are generally no right or wrong answers. Some answer with very creative ideas: “park the plane into the airport and let people board directly as they arrive to the gate.” Others have very in-the-box answers but maybe very customer-centric: “mandatory use of a mobile boarding pass and potentially giving people a real-time seat assignment based on preferences and order of arrival.”

As I’ve written, the goal from these questions is not necessarily to rule you out as a candidate but rather to identify your strengths. Are you creative, analytical, or organized? Then I determine if that best matches what we need at the company at that time.

Q4: Flow diagram the product development process (week to week) (eg Agile, Sprint or other)

  • Can you organize your thoughts?
  • Have you really managed and iterated on a product with an engineering team?
  • How do you deal with different scenarios (e.g. CEO asks for a feature last minute; or your team keeps missing dates)?
  • What ratios and graphs would you like to have or review in this process? Sometimes, I’ll draw some odd plots of odd ratios or parameters and ask the candidate to interpret (for example, a burn-down graph that doesn’t burn down until the day before the sprint ends).

Usually, I can pretty quickly ascertain whether the candidate has actually iterated a product with an engineering team from v0 to v1 and to v1.XX. This is not to say that all product managers need to be hands-on project or program managers, but this question provides more data points to match against the role we need in the company.

Q5: Psuedo-code a load balancer

  • Can you write an algorithm?
  • Can you draw a simple architecture diagram?
  • Do you know basic data structures?
  • Can you optimize and determine edge cases?

With this question, I’d always start with an architecture diagram while asking clarifying questions. The best outcomes usually start simple and then iterate on edge cases and performance. I don’t really care about programming language or syntax but mostly about whether the candidate has some analytical chops to earn the respect of the engineering team and whether he/she can think technically particularly when writing requirements for something like backend APIs. I like this example of a Load Balancer because there are so many opportunities to increase complexity while continuing to optimize, so you can easily determine the technical ability of the candidate.

Q6: You are the PM of the Gmail app for the iPhone (generally indifferent about which mail app and which platform, but it should be something the candidate uses). You’ve been asked to present an analytics report to the management team. Outline your slides

  • Can you define assumptions and goals to measure?
  • Can you identify the key metrics? What ratios are relevant and how would you represent this data (e.g. over time, per user, per session?)
  • How would you get and normalize this data?

I love this question, and the product can really be anything, but I like to choose products that the candidate has used. The “not so great” answers tend to be very disorganized and/or are lacking very obvious actionable metrics. I can usually tell pretty quickly how much time this potential PM has spent in growth or engagement — the vocabulary they use to describe an action or metric can be revealing. That said, just because you may not know the right terms, doesn’t mean you can’t deduce it and I’ve definitely had experiences interviewing candidates that had obviously never performed analytics but were smart enough to deduce what they would want to do.

The second part of this question requires organizing these metrics into presentable slides (at an outline level). I come back to slides often because I feel a large part of product management success is championing a strategy and plan and winning over your various constituents (employees, peers, management) and so becoming a pseudo-salesperson is a must.

Q7: What are you most proud of from your career?

This question is very telling. I find those that have managed teams often discuss moments where they had to carry a team through a tough period. Those that have been more IC (individual contributor) will often talk about how they designed a specific feature which was received well. Those that lean more project management will often highlight how they shipped their product on time and so forth. The answers are varied but they can signal strengths and humility.

The “not so great” answers are always too broad and do not highlight a specific accomplishment. This is certainly in the bucket of questions I’d suggest prospective interviewees to think about before starting an interview process.

Summary

In short, these are a subset of ~15 types of question templates I use. I’ll decide on the pool of questions to ask with my interview team based on what we need for the role (e.g. hiring a VP of Product would put greater emphasis on being able to mentor product managers, resolve resources, recruit, break strategy down into tactical roadmaps).

Lastly, I immediately (almost always the same day) summarize my feedback on the candidate via email to the interview team (after everyone has had a chance to complete their interview). I will often also score the candidate’s performance on the questions I was responsible for asking. In the end, we, the interview team, have a quick meeting, discuss the candidate, and make a decision.

I would love to hear reader responses on how I can improve my process, what I might be missing in terms of questions, and what tweaks I could make.

It should also be noted that I’m not sure I could reasonably pass my own interview process! But, hey, it’s all about surrounding yourself with smarter people.