Farhan Thawar: Feedback, Speed, and Hiring at Shopify

How Shopify's VP of Engineering builds an environment where people move quickly, experiment with new ideas, and make impactful decisions.

Farhan Thawar Interview Shopify

Farhan Thawar is the Vice president of Engineering at Shopify and has previously held leadership roles at Helpful, Extreme Labs, Achievers, Microsoft, and Pivotal Software. 

In this episode of the Supermanagers Podcast, we dive into Farhan’s leadership experience at various notable companies and learn what leadership style helps Farhan crush his goals. 

Listen to this episode (or read the transcript below) to learn about how Farhan thrives in a sink or swim environment and strives to always be a leader that “unblocks”. 

1 Before we dive into our conversation, I would love to learn more about your long reading list and your reading habits. Can you tell us about your reading hierarchy?

I have opinions on what I like to call a reading hierarchy and the reading hierarchy trust, and I try to prioritize the longer standing reading from the shorter standing pieces. It basically means that however long something has existed, it will most likely exist for that much time going forward. So, if there’s a book that’s relevant for 20 years, it will probably be relevant for another 20 and if it’s been relevant for 100 years, it might be really relevant for another 100 years.

It’s this theory that long-standing things done with purpose will stand the test of time as opposed to things that are more fleeting. So, for me that typically means I should opt for blogs over twitter, magazines over blogs, and books over magazines. 

2 Who’s been your most memorable boss? 

I think there are probably different answers depending on where I was in my career. One thing that I try to do is optimize for learning. When I optimize for learning, I tend to gravitate towards bosses that have a sink or swim mentality.

Whenever I’ve worked for someone like that it’s been super fruitful because we both figure out where the limits are of what I can handle and what I’m able to spend my time working through which usually leads to creativity! 

3 Do you generally have the same leadership style? 

Yeah, I try to give folks space. My role is really to unblock, right? So, if I have very tactical feedback it’s either because we think things aren’t going well or I’m just trying to produce ideas versus trying to manage the team very closely.

What I’m trying to do is make sure people are unblocked. 

4 From what I gather, you have a lot of opinions about the word “no” and why leaders should use it wisely.

As a leader, you are expected to have a few bullets where you go in and say, “you know what, I’m going to step in and make the final call”. And the reason you want to only have a few is because you don’t want your team to get used to you stepping in.

You want them to feel like they have the permission and the freedom they need to try things and learn from those things so the bullets (“no”) should be used super sparingly.

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5 You’ve hired a lot of people in your career. You actually hired 1000 people in a 4-year period. How did you do it?

When we first started recruiting at Xtreme Labs, we had a pretty traditional process. We would have two or three one-hour technical interviews and that would inform us whether or not we thought the candidate would be a good fit.

The thing that I think was different was that we still valued speed. For example, all three interviews were scheduled so when somebody would apply the interviews were cascading. We really focused on speed, so people would get an offer the same day as their interview. I wanted them to feel that we move quickly and for them to realize that Xtreme Labs didn’t have a lot of red tape, and there isn’t a huge approval process that has to happen for them to get their offer.

Providing them with an offer on the same day really felt like we were showing them our culture during the recruiting process.

We met with some folks, it was enjoyable, they walked away with an offer, and we had a ridiculous 95% close rate. 

6 How is this translated to the way you hire at Shopify today? 

We have a different process and a different level of scale. Shopify has figured out that we want to ensure that we look at many other aspects of a candidate rather than just their technical background.

As you might know, Shopify has a “life story” interview. What we do during the life story interview is try to talk to people about their background in a way that helps us figure out what the interesting things that this person has done in their past are, and how they’ve reacted to these situations. This helps us remove any unconscious biases we may have. 

We also do pair programming as part of our interview process which helps us ensure the candidate is a good fit, while also ensuring we’re a fit for them. I actually spend a lot of time on this problem and I’m open to ideas.

Another element is the giant internship program we do at Shopify. We have around 400 interns this year and we provide offers to those who are graduating to come back to Shopify. 

7 One part that really sticks with me with your interview process is the constant experimentation. You almost treat hiring like a scientific method.

Yeah, and I think that there are so many experiments and things to try!

I get worried when start-ups or big companies try to follow some predetermined plan or formula. They aren’t really thinking of a customized plan or experience and are just trying to copy somebody, right? 

8 What are your thoughts on planning and prediction at the scale of Shopify? 

I think what’s really amazing about Shopify is how our values really enforce how we want to spend our time. One of our values for example is merchant obsession. If we have a long planning process that ends up having a team work on it, you have to ask yourself the simple question: is this going to be good for merchants? In doing that we were able to reevaluate how we can better spend our time to then give value to merchants. 

When COVID hit, Tobi went out and tweeted or went on the news and let everyone know that we cancelled all of our plans. We didn’t care what we said we were going to do, how much time we spent, or how much sunken costs we had accumulated because we instead wanted to focus on helping our merchants through a very difficult time. So, this shows you how we orient ourselves and allocate our time based on our values. 

9 One interesting thing you mentioned is the story with the famous monkey trying to get the banana. Can you tell us that story? 

Sure. So, there’s this experiment where you have four monkeys in a cage and there’s a ladder that leads to a whole bunch of bananas at the top of the ladder. What happens is that the first monkey climbs up the ladder and someone from the outside sprays the monkey with a firehouse and the monkey falls off the ladder. The monkey continues to try and realizes that he can’t make it up.

All of a sudden, the second monkey tries, and the other monkeys that are watching start to pull him down because they know he’s going to get knocked off by the firehose. So, then a new monkey tries and the monkeys that are watching continue to stop him because of what happened with the firehose.

Over time, you remove every monkey one by one until there are all new monkeys, none of the monkeys have felt or seen the firehose, but every time a monkey tries to go up the ladder, they stop them because they remember, or they have been taught by the other monkeys that you never go up the ladder even though they don’t know why. 

This exact outcome happens in companies all the time because somebody will say “never do this” or “don’t touch that” and without understanding why, you don’t question it.

So that’s why you always want to question everything. 

10 Do you have any final resources, tips, or words of wisdom that you want to provide managers and leaders who are looking to get better at their craft? 

I think my number one piece of feedback for folks is to write things down. I spend a lot of time writing things down and I think that it’s a really good exercise mostly because the writing is more important than the reading, right?

The fact that you wrote it down, or somebody said something that was interesting to you, or you figured something out based on something you read is really beneficial. For me, I like to write down my framework of how I want to choose opportunities. I think it really helps clarify people’s thinking. 

What I would tell folks is to come up with a short list of goals you want to work on for the year and if you can’t write it in a succinct way, it shows that you don’t really understand it. And that really forces you to reevaluate how you think about these things.

My advice is to write more because it helps you clarify your thinking. 

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