Taran Bains

Reflecting on my time at Productboard

Good work, good friends, and good times

Taran "tearing it up" Bains • August 21, 2023 11 min read
An AI generated image of a person meditating and looking over a landscape

This may seem like odd timing, but with the recent resurgence of layoffs occurring in big tech, I thought that it was high time that I wrote a reflection piece at the first, and probably not last place, where I was a casualty of layoffs: Productboard.

This isn’t a hit piece, and I’m not going to sit here and gripe about how unfair and terrible Productboard was—they weren’t. Rather, I’d like to talk about my time there, the things I learned, and most importantly, the people I met along the way. So if you’re Hubert Palan and you’re reading this blog post, fret not, your company image is safe 😆.

Why I Joined

Without getting too into the weeds about why I left my previous employer (Mastercard) for Productboard, I’d like to get into the why around me joining Productboard. Besides the monetary benefit I was hoping to receive from switching jobs (which is a factor in any career move), I was looking to join a company passionate about the product that they were building, a company with an inspiring mission statement, and a company with a first-class engineering department—Productboard seemingly offered all these things!

If you visit their about us page, Productboard’s mantra is literally “We’re making products that matter, together.” That’s an inspiring mission statement if I’ve ever seen one ✅. This blog post by Deani covered the first criteria I mentioned; the company culture truly seemed to be one where people were passionate about what they were doing ✅. After I found Deani’s blog post, I perused the blog a bit more, and the engineering blog articles definitely seemed to indicate that these people were on the bleeding edge; I was sold and had to join!

Spoiler alert: I interviewed and got an offer (which I then accepted)! The cherry on top of me starting a new gig at Productboard—I was joining the company with two of my dear friends from my previous employer. My old manager joined as a staff engineer, and my other colleague joined as an intermediate software engineer. Even though I was setting out on a new adventure, I still felt somewhat comfortable on my first day because I had some friendly faces looking back at me 😊.

If you know your why, you can endure any how

The Things I Learned

I learned a copious amount while working at Productboard. Some of it related to interesting technology, and some of it related to non technical things such as office politics—all of it useful for my career. I’ll start the discussion with the technical things that I learned and later dive into the non technical pieces after that. Feel free to skip either section.

How to Manage Technical Debt

In my previous blog post about technical debt, I mentioned how I was utilizing NX to help implement a sort of strangler pattern in my current employer’s codebase—choking out old code with new code 😭. This pattern and its implementation are something that I picked up while employed at Productboard. Beyond grokking and learning about the technical implemenation with NX, I was able to absorb a wealth of information about the pros and cons of adopting the aformentioned strategy. I was able to learn why NX was adopted as a tool to help develop software at Productboard and the business case for allocating engineering resources to its implementation.

It’s all well and good to be able to show and sell the value of an engineering initiative to other engineers —that’s the easy part as you’re both already coming at the discussion from the same perspective. The difficult thing, which I learned at Productboard, is being able to craft a compelling case to other stakeholders like product owners, designers, and even the finance team! Of course, it always helps if you can prove that your engineering initiative can help improve the company’s bottom line and solve very real problems—in my case, the very real problem I am trying to solve is scalability.

Feature Flags Are Your Friend

Launch darkly home page image

Up until I joined Productboard, I had no real experience using platforms like LaunchDarkly for implementing feature flags inside of a codebase—I had no real need for them in any of my previous projects. Nevertheless, I am so grateful that I was exposed to this wonderful platform!

Feature flags give us the capability to not only run experiments and A/B tests with our software products but also provides us the ability to disable functionality almost at a whim. We used these flags not only for running experiments during my time at Productboard but also for managing the v2 implementation of certain key pieces of code. Indeed, having the ability to easily rollback to an old experience, to quickly roll out a segmented beta test, and to actively develop and view a new feature on a small subset of machines is tremendously useful when developing software.

Feature flags for the win!

Non-Technical Things

I would argue that the non-technical tidbits I picked up while at Productboard have had a greater positive influence on my career trajectory than any of the technical things that I picked up.

Imposter Syndrome Is Useless

As Ryan Holiday notes in his bestseller “Stillness is the key,” imposter syndrome is a nagging endless anxiety that you’re not qualified for what you’re doing—and that you’re going to be found out about it. It’s the evil twin of egotism.

Imposter syndrome is the unassuming evil twin of ego.

While imposter syndrome can be weaponized as motivation to start buckling down and to ensure that we are as prepared as possible for whatever obstacles come our way, I find that imposter syndrome is more of a detriment to my sanity and overall performance. In fact, Jordan Peterson has some sage wisdom reggarding this matter that I’ve tried my best to internalize. Dr. Peterson calls for allowing ourselves to play out our anxious fantasies in their entirety, but not stopping there. He calls for us to take it all the way to the end and to ponder what we would do if the worst case scenario were to befall us. For example, if I was worried about being found out for not being experienced enough to be a senior software engineer and was let go by my current employer, how could this scenario play out? Would I be unable to pay my bills? No; I have an emergency fund ready to go. Would I have difficulty finding a job? No more than the average person—being let go is nothing to be ashamed of. Would my family love me any less? No; the love of my friends and family is not dependent on my employment status.

I’ve found that the antidote to imposter syndrome is twofold. One must recognize that no one really cares about what anyone else is doing and that confidence is an absolute necessity. Confidence is not the same as egotism. Confidence is a quiet unshakeable belief that you’re a capable individual. Confidence is not viewing anything or anyone beneath you; it is a trust that you have in yourself. Remember steadfastly your experiences—the hurdles you’ve overcome and obstacles you’ve surmounted, they will be your fuel—and the fact that every problem can be solved. You. Just. Need. To. Think.

Optics Matter

Now this varies from organization to organization, but when it comes to optics, I’ve never worked at a place quite like Productboard. Slack was always bustling with new messages, people were regularly talking about what they were working on, and everyone gave updates almost every few hours on their initiatives. This is in stark contrast to other organizations I’ve worked at where Slack and Teams were seldom utilized for updates, and all the real conversations happened in private, not in public channels

Your reputation is what others think of you; your character is what you truly are. Reputations can be manipulated; character can only be developed and maintained.

There are pros and cons to both ways of working, but I’d have to say, and this is a personal preference, working at a place where the work I do matters more than how much I talk about the work that I do is definitely more fulfilling. Not everyone at Productboard posted messages for the sake of optics, but I’d be lying if I said nobody did this—optics was the name of the game, and you had to play it so that your livelihood wasn’t in jeopardy. However, there are pros to the optics approach! I was able to work on crafting well-thought-out messages and improve my communication skills—and emoji skills—via the written word. I became better at advocating for my time and confidently standing behind the work that I did; posting a message about a feature you released to 500+ people felt intimidating, but you grow accustomed to it eventually.

Who You’re Working with Matters

Let me preface this with not everyone is the same, and some would argue that they don’t really care if the people they’re working with become their friends; they may only care about the paycheque or they may only want to work with whatever the coolest tech is at the time. To those people I say, that’s awesome, and I hope that you find an employer that satisfies you and your needs! For me though, the layoff from Productboard gave me time to pause and reflect on what truly made me happy as a software engineer.

Workshopping with some of my good friends and colleagues

I can now say this unequivocally—the amount of satisfaction and enjoyment I receive from my place of work is directly tied to the people who are in my proximity. My last two jobs (prior to the current one at BestBuy) were the best jobs I’ve ever had. At Mastercard, I made lifelong friends, and even after leaving our jobs, we’ve remained close—we regularly get breakfast together, go on hikes/adventures, and when there’s a need, we help each other with matters pertaining to our careers. The tech we worked with wasn’t the latest and greatest, and we weren’t on the bleeding edge at Mastercard or Productboard, but damn, were the people that worked there (or at least I worked with) incredibly pleasant.

I’ve worked at jobs where I’ve had complete control of the technical decisions and basically could do whatever I wanted. If I wanted to use Svelte, Vue, or React, I had that autonomy. If I said we needed to rewrite an entire application because of some shiny new state management solution, I had that kind of influence. Despite this, though, those jobs were not my favorite places to work. I really began to appreciate and be grateful for the fact that I’ve gotten to work with awesome people. I made 5 lifelong friends at Mastercard, and I picked up a handful at Productboard—you know who you are. Thanks to Productboard for putting me together with these awesome, caring, and talented people.

Closing Thoughts

Layoffs suck, and to be honest, life sucks sometimes. However, there’s always an opportunity to look back, reflect, and grow from an experience; we only need to make the conscious decision to engage in this kind of behavior. I avoided doing this sort of reflection because I was in “go” mode after the layoff. I had to find a new job, find my bearings at this place, and lick whatever other wounds that followed my layoff from Productboard. This was to be expected—if there’s a problem to solve, time seemingly does not allow for reflection, and the priority is fixing the problem.

However, putting off reflection doesn’t mean not doing it at all. I’ve found my bearings at my current job (it took about half a year 😆), and I’m all resettled back into my life. Reflect when you can, for however long you need, and remember that whatever is going on in your life or whatever it is that you’re feeling, this too shall pass.