The Way I Work: Rashmi Sinha of SlideShare
Rashmi Sinha seemed destined for a career in academia. Born and raised in India, she earned her Ph.D. in psychology at Brown University and did her postdoctoral work in cognitive neuroscience at the University of California, Berkeley. But she grew tired of writing papers and yearned for the fast pace of a start-up. In 2006, Sinha left academia and launched SlideShare with her husband, Jon Boutelle, a software engineer, and her older brother, Amit Ranjan, a mechanical engineer. Since then, SlideShare, a site that lets people share PowerPoint presentations online, has become one of the most popular conference tools, attracting 50 million monthly users. The San Francisco-based company, which has 30 employees in the U.S. and India, has also attracted investors such as Mark Cuban, Dave McClure, and Hal Varian, Google's chief economist. Sinha, who is CEO, is a fan of rapid software development—and rapid meetings. During the day, she leads the San Francisco team in designing new features. In the evenings, she is on Skype, chatting with the rest of the employees in India.
With a start-up, I've learned that it's better to move fast. I'd rather we make a mistake, realize we did, and try something else instead of spending a lot of time thinking and not acting. If you spend too long thinking, you still might make a mistake, but you have invested so much time. And I'm impatient.
We have two offices, one in San Francisco and one in Delhi, India. There's about a 12-hour time difference, which means we're basically working around the clock. I work with my husband, Jon, and eight other employees in San Francisco. Amit is COO and runs our Delhi office, which has 20 employees, mostly engineers. When I wake up in the morning, their day is winding down.
Jon and I live in the Mission District, about 10 minutes from the office. Most days, we commute together. If I have a morning meeting somewhere else, he bikes or takes public transportation. I always drive. I tried bicycling, but my hair gets too messy.
I usually get to the office around 9:30 or 10. I think the space is cheerful. I chose yellow and orange for the walls—I hate that minimalist white and steel. I also deliberately chose an open office plan. Our first office was too big and set up with people facing one another's backs, which was alienating. We moved to a smaller office in 2009 and placed the desks side by side. You can just turn your chair if you want to talk to someone. I have a private office, but I rarely use it. I prefer to be in the thick of things. I usually work at a desk near everyone else.
When I get to the office, the first thing I do is look at my e-mail to make sure there are no pressing issues. I try to respond to most things immediately. It's something I learned from one of my graduate advisers. You'd e-mail him and he'd immediately reply, because, he said, "If I don't, I'm spending my time twice. Once when I see the e-mail, and again when I reply to it later on. And then in between, it's occupying mental space."
I never answer the phone or check my messages. I hate receiving random phone calls. I prefer to start a conversation by e-mail and then jump on the phone once I know what the conversation is about. Our office manager checks my voice mail messages for me when she comes in twice a week to stock supplies. She lets me know if any messages are important. People who know me well call my cell phone, which I do answer.
At SlideShare, we practice agile software development, which is an iterative way of writing software. Instead of writing reams of product specs and then building that over several months, we have weekly cycles. We make a plan at the beginning of each week, execute it, see how customers react, and then make more changes.
Every Monday morning, we start with a scrum meeting. It's like a rugby huddle—everyone in a circle. Each person has a few minutes to say three things: what you did last week, what you'd like to do today, and what you need from somebody else to do the work. Jon places a stuffed cow in the center of the huddle. Whoever the cow is facing goes first. Jon used to just point to people, but one day he grabbed this cow someone gave him. The scrum lasts 10 to 15 minutes, tops, and gives me a good overview of what everyone is working on. We have scrum meetings two or three times a week.
We work very closely with the Delhi office. We opened an office there because it was convenient. I grew up in Allahabad, which is in the north, and Amit lives in Delhi now, also in the north. It was a strategic decision, too. In India, most tech companies are in the south. Delhi has lots of good technical training universities—but most graduates have to go south to Madras or Bangalore to get a job. Having an office in Delhi meant tapping an untapped market.
I talk to Amit on the phone or on Skype every day—if it's morning in San Francisco, it's nighttime in Delhi, so he's at home. Most of the time it's, "Hey, what's doing?" or, "How's recruiting going?" We're looking to hire about 25 people by the end of the year. I've worked with recruiters, but the best employees find us. We usually hire people who already use SlideShare. That way, we know they'll empathize with our users.
To manage software development, we use a program called Pivotal Tracker that keeps us all on the same page. I always have Pivotal Tracker open on my computer. Every team has its own queue listing its assignments. You can see when someone finishes a task and the work has been approved. Both the San Francisco and Delhi offices use Pivotal Tracker. We also use Skype and webcams to communicate. When you can see each other, there's more of an emotional connection.
I typically like to keep my mornings free to do product conceptualization. For example, when we decided to do a mobile version of our website, I put together a team of five people, and we did a whiteboard brainstorming session in our conference room. There's less screen real estate on a mobile device than on a computer, so we had to decide what to keep, what to lose, and how to make it a simple and gratifying experience for the user. By the session's end, we had a spec—our designer took photos of the whiteboard and made a mockup. Then, we e-mailed back and forth, refining it until it was ready to roll out. I don't do the nitty-gritty detail work, but I have strong opinions. I probably annoy the hell out of my designers.
I always have index cards with me. I write to-do lists on them. I also mock up new features on the cards. Then I can just hand the card to someone and say, "This is what I want." I like using index cards, because I work on them anywhere—in a café, waiting on the street. I'll use one card for three to four days. When I run out of space, or the card gets crumpled, I copy over the important stuff to a new card. I carry the last two or three months' worth of cards in my purse before cataloging them in a box.
I talk with Tom Pai, our CFO, once a week. He focuses on the financial metrics. I'm more interested in daily usage metrics, like how many people are registering, how many users are upgrading to paid accounts, and how many people are sharing presentations with others. We track a lot of numbers—we each get daily e-mails with the stats relevant to us. We look for trends—if something broke, we want to catch it immediately and fix it.
I'm often out of the office in the afternoons, meeting with customers, advertisers, or people we're thinking about working with. I also meet with other entrepreneurs occasionally. A lot of people contact me seeking start-up advice. I try to meet them for coffee. That's my way to avoid having complete tunnel vision.
I get invited to speak at a lot of conferences, but I'm trying to cut back on speaking engagements. I don't have the time. It's also not my favorite thing to do. I support groups like Women 2.0, and I try to make time for the women entrepreneurs who e-mail me, but I get a bit tired of the constant "why aren't there more women in tech?" conversation. There are more women, but the same 10 keep getting highlighted. I get invited to talk about this on panels, but I prefer to do it than talk about it.
I try to go to India once a year, but my work is in San Francisco. Meanwhile, Jon, who grew up in Massachusetts, goes to India several times a year. He leads the technology team, and most of our engineers are in Delhi. It's so funny—Jon knows more about the trendy movies and music in India than I do. We both went around the holidays. I wish I could travel more than I do. The United States and India are both home. I miss the Mexican food when I'm in India, and I miss the Indian food when I'm here.
I'm a big tea drinker. In fact, I'm a little bit of a snob. I buy masala tea from Indian stores, and I have a teakettle in the office. In the afternoons, I'll have some tea and snack on a trail mix bar or sometimes M&Ms. We have a big container of M&Ms in the kitchen that our office manager refills weekly. On Fridays at about 5, we all start drinking beer, even if we're still working. It's a start-up, so you can do these things. Jon is in charge of selection—usually it's Anchor Steam, but we experiment with other beers as well. It's a nice way to end the week and shift to the weekend.
I usually leave the office around 7 and go home for dinner. Sometimes, I go out with friends or to the gym, but I try to be home by 9, which is when Delhi comes online. I do a check-in with the Delhi office—people ask me questions or we'll discuss specific projects. On Monday nights, we have a big meeting. The whole Delhi team gathers in its conference room, and I Skype in. But most evenings, I'm just online, and if someone needs me, he or she will IM me, and I can get on Skype. Otherwise, I'll be watching TV or doing my own thing. I turn off the computer before bed—if there's a really big problem, someone will call.
On the weekends, I like going hiking. Jon and I go for seven- or eight-mile hikes. I find it meditative—observing nature, decompressing, and talking about things on a deeper level. Sometimes we go to the wine country or Yosemite. We also read a lot. Jon likes nonfiction, but I love fiction. Jon's always saying things like, "Oh, I read this great business book; you should read it!" I'm like, "No!" I'm a little bit obsessive—once I start reading, I can't do anything else.
Jon and I are around each other so much that all of our friends ask, "How can you stand each other?" We don't have any "no talking about work at home" rules. Although it's true that we never quite get away from work, we also come up with our best ideas after hours. I might wake up, roll over, and say, "I was thinking that we could do this..." And he does the same thing. It's a shared passion.
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