31 min read

Episode 11: Business Operations

The super-powered generalists solving problems for all areas of the business.
Episode 11: Business Operations

There's a lot of talk within operations about specialists vs generalists but, today, we're going to talk about a field that I think of as super-powered generalists.

Business Operations, or BizOps as it's common called, is full of specialists that work across the whole business, usually on cross-functional problems that aren't owned by a single team.

It looks a little different in every company, but it's always an interesting role, and it's a specialty that I see popping up more and more across tech these days.

What exactly does a BizOps person do? How does the role change as the company grows? And how do you even begin to prepare yourself to jump into all different areas of the business?

We're digging into all these and more!

About Our Guest

Our guest is Stephen Levin, Head of Business Operations at Zapier.

Stephen started his career in data before a cold email to Zapier's CEO led him to growing his BizOps career alongside the growing company.

He's a thoughtful resource on all things BizOps and has seen firsthand how the role changes as a company grows from dozens of employees to hundreds around the world.

About this Episode

In this episode, we chat about:

  • What BizOps is and the types of problems they solve best
  • How the role of BizOps changes as the company grows
  • Why your CEO shouldn't be leading executive meetings—and how you can learn to be a better facilitator of them
  • What Stephen looks for when hiring for his own BizOps team

... and so much more!

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Show Notes

Stay in Touch



Welcome to Opsy, a podcast for people doing opsy work in tech. I'm your host, Caro Griffin. Every month I dig into what Opsy work really is by talking to an operations pro who has something really cool to teach us—in a traditional part of ops like HR or finance, or a newer specialty like no-code ops or marketing ops. Thanks for listening!

Caro Griffin 00:30
I'm here today with Stephen Lavin, Head of Business Operations at Zapier, a startup empowering anyone to automate their busy work without knowing how to code. Business operations, or biz ops as it's commonly called, is a fast growing specialty in the field of operations, and it's easy to see why. Operations pros are well pros at solving problems that are crucial to the business.

A lot of times these problems are in one area like people ops, marketing ops, and so on, and then there are generalists who kind of wear a bunch of hats. But BizOps are specialists that work across the whole business, usually in cross-functional problems that aren't owned by a single team. They're kind of generalists, they're kind of specialists, it's just really cool. And it looks a little different in every company, but it's always an interesting role, and it's a specialty that I see popping up more and more across tech these days.

I'm excited to learn more about it from Stephen because he brings an interesting background in data to the role and has become an expert in the space. So let's jump right in and hear how he thinks about business ops.

Thanks so much for joining me today, Stephen, excited to nerd out about business ops. I have all the questions for you.

Stephen Lavin 01:34
Me too.

Caro 01:35
Let's just start at the beginning. Why don't you tell us a little bit about your career path so far and how you got into operations?

Stephen 01:41
Sure. My career started really in the data analytics space. My first job out of school was doing aviation safety data analytics. Spoiler, aviation in the US is ridiculously safe, so you can't even study accidents, you just study sort of risky events or precursor events. But anyways, I always knew that I sort of wanted to get back into [the] entrepreneurial business side and really my passion for business stems even farther back into school days, where a friend of mine and I ran a tutoring business for a while and really just wanted to do something back in the business side versus aviation safety is very corporate, FAA-sponsored, government contractor, etc. And so I moved over into the data analytics world in a tech startup and then slowly moved my way back into operations or BizOps that I'm sure we'll get into more later.

Caro 02:40
Yes, absolutely. I love that you have such a deep background in data because I'm sure, again, we're going to talk about this later, but it feels like such a crucial skill for operations, but also for business operations, in particular. So I would love to hear more about how you think that background comes into play with your day to day and [how it] is helpful.

Stephen 02:59
Yeah, so this is a big win for me and my team. The way that I just tend to talk about it is that the biz ops team should be the best data person in the room if there's no data team member in the room. I don't expect us to sort of outcompete the data team at data, but I do expect us to be really strong power users, super users of the things that the data team sets up for us. That lets us think about the business in a very pragmatic, data-oriented way.

But in particular, something that our head of data and I talk about on a somewhat regular basis is that data tends to be an impartial sort of recommender, but they rarely own decision making. And, in biz ops, we are very specifically often the decision maker, the person in charge of execution, somebody doing something with that information. And so data's a really great place to start because it informs a lot of what you want to know about the business and the information that you might need in order to make decisions. But, practically speaking, you never have perfect information.

And so where you really shift into the biz ops world is a deep understanding of, yes, there are always trade offs, there's always imprecise information in your data and being able to say, "Okay, well, I think this is a 70/30 bet. So we should make that bet every time." And biz ops is able to evaluate that data and sort of understand it deeply, but then actually take it the next step and act on it, turn it into some sort of action.

Caro 04:26
I love the 70/30 bet, we should make that bet every time. I'm right there with you, playing those numbers. So, before we get any further, let's take a step back and define business ops. How do you think about it and its value to the team?

Stephen 04:41
Sure. So, I do have a somewhat repeatable answer for this, it's obviously something that comes up in interviews and things. But I think it's important to note that what biz ops is, in my opinion, changes over the life cycle of a business. The things that you're doing as the first biz ops hire, the only biz ops person, look quite different than the things that you're doing to sort of enable operations at a large scaled up company, and they both go by the title of biz ops. So take this with a grain of salt that it does evolve over time.

Broadly speaking, the way that I currently think about biz ops, is that we handle problems in one of two categories - either things that are so cross-functional that they don't fit neatly elsewhere in the business. So, an easy example of that kind of thing is annual planning, strategic planning, OKRs, NBRs, all your favorite acronyms. Those things have to roll up eventually to the CEO, but [the CEO is] not going to be the ones teaching people how to write a good key result or how to... They're not going to write the template to do the monthly meetings that you need to do in order to run the business, and they're not going to sort of be able to coach people through those items. And so the structure and operations of those planning cycles live within biz ops because they can't sort of live anywhere else. So it wouldn't make any sense for the companywide planning cycle to live in marketing, for example. So biz ops absorbs that kind of thing.

Another key example that we have right now is pricing and packaging, because it's another thing that is data-oriented, it's important to the business, but finance cares, marketing cares, sales cares, product cares, everybody has a stake in. And so it needs to live somewhere that sort of can absorb all of those stakeholders and work with them. So, that's the sort of hyper cross-functional piece.

And then the other piece is the one that actually applies much earlier and, in my opinion, forever, which is the most important thing that is under-resourced at the business at a given moment. That can really mean anything. We are a talented set of generalists that are able to apply those skills wherever in the business would benefit the most from one talented person. And so that can mean literally anything from sort of owning and driving a strategic priority to project managing rollout and sort of orchestrating behind the scenes to literal on the ground IC,individual contributor, work that just needs to get done.

There are some key examples from my time at Zapier where that has been the thing. And, in particular, I spent time as an individual recruiter. There was a moment during my time at Zapier where the recruiting team was down to two people, we were hiring three executives at the time, this was several years ago now. And so the two recruiters that were here had to continue the pipeline of all of the roles at the company that are important, support people, engineers, all the things that have pipelines and need to continue running forever. But an executive recruiting cycle's something completely different. And so we just didn't have anyone to run that executive recruiting cycle. So I was an individual recruiter.

Later, we had a recruiting team, but the thing that's missing was recruiting operations. And so I was able to step in and just help operationalize that team a little bit more. So, instead of being an on the ground recruiter, I was helping to orchestrate targets and expectations and prioritization and those types of things.

And so those are just two examples from my personal sort of step into this world. But we've had folks on the team work on projects in product, in marketing, in recruiting, all over the business, that wherever we find ourselves saying, "Hey, I just wish we had a little bit more horsepower in this area," biz ops can step in and help.

So that's how I think about biz ops at Zapier, at the current moment, but I do think it's worth pointing out that even my definitions are evolving as Zapier is growing. And one of the things that I am using as a framework right now is something that was written up by a group of folks who I have a lot of respect for called Operators Guild. They have a biz ops framework that actually incorporates a couple of key pieces. And so the way they define biz ops with the framework that they use is that you have cross functional execution, strategy and planning, and data and analytics.

So, breaking biz ops into those three pieces, they actually have an entire framework of how a biz ops organization could evolve across all three of those dimensions. And so, as we mature as a company, I am starting to evolve my frameworks in the way that I think about the team, because I do think that ultimately biz ops has to be extremely adaptable and serve the needs of the business at a given moment.

Caro 09:20
Yeah, absolutely, and those three buckets seem right on target. I'm definitely going to have to dig into that framework a little bit more. I feel like my definition of biz ops is kind of like that old adage, you know it when you see it. I was trying to define it for the intro of this episode and I was like, "I think Stephen would agree with this, I don't know, we're going to find out."

So. you mentioned obviously biz ops changes a lot at the company and the stage of the company. What are some of the biggest things that you've seen either in your own personal experience or kind of in general, the difference between maybe a biz ops person of one and a growing team?

Stephen 09:55
I really did evolve through this during my time at Zapier. And the set of responsibilities, like I mentioned, changes over time because you need to adapt to the needs of the business at that moment. And so when you're a biz ops team of one, you are often doing something along the lines of special projects where you're just trying to find the most important thing that needs to get solved right now and isn't being solved by anyone else. But, as the company grows, you have more and more people to handle, generally, things all across the business. And so you need to get more proactive about what are the things that I uniquely am the best to solve while still maintaining that flexibility of, "Well, this fire drill came up and somebody's got to fix it, so I'll go fix it." That's certainly a good marker mentally for people to think of you when there's something going wrong and they need someone to fix it.

Caro 10:51
Sounds like an ops person.

Stephen 10:51
Exactly. [Laughs]

Over time, I think it is likely in most organizations that you tend towards more structure and things like planning and rituals and sort of owning long-term or medium-term strategy, where in the earliest days of a startup or a very young company, those planning cycles and strategy phases just don't have the same time horizon.

For an early company, it's sort of fruitless to look out 2, 3, 4 years into the future when you've only been in business for a year and a half anyway, and so everything is much more just in time. But, as the company matures, and Zapier now at over 10 years old, you're starting to look out multiple years into the future. And so you need some more structure and a medium-term strategy and just pieces that you may not have in those earliest days. And often biz ops is a place to pick up those types of activities.

Caro 11:47
Yeah. Well, we're definitely going to circle back on that structure thing, because this is something that's been coming up a lot recently in the Opsy community, so I definitely want to pick your brain about that.

But to go a little deeper on companies with biz ops, do you think that... We're really focused, I guess, here at Opsy, people who work at tech companies or tech-ish companies or that wide definition. But do you kind of think everyone should have biz ops or that there's a certain type of company or team that makes the most sense to have the skillset?

Stephen 12:12
Certainly my world is the tech world, and so that's sort of the framing that I think about in general. However, I think more companies likely have people like this than call it biz ops. And part of that is just any company is going to have the person who solves the problems that come up when there are problems, that might be the person thinking out a year into the future and trying to forecast the business.

Ultimately, a lot of these responsibilities in a very small company end up falling on a founder type or owner or something like that if you're thinking about an SMB [Small Medium Business]. But, even at companies in a non-tech space, they're going to have planning cycles and cross-functional execution challenges, and somebody is solving these problems in every business. And whether or not you call it biz ops, I think, is less important than the fact that you recognize that you need to do strategy and planning, cross-functional execution, and potentially use data to inform your medium-term strategy.

Caro 13:12
Yeah, it makes sense. So, at Zapier particularly, you have two titles, you have Head of Business Ops and Executive Team Program Manager. I think I've heard you say the latter is kind of like a Chief of Staff adjacent role, but that you don't really use that title. Can you tell me more about that?

Stephen 13:27
Sure. So this is a little bit of an evolution of how I actually got my role, which is a fun story by itself.

Caro 13:34
Oh great, let's hear it. We love fun stories.

Stephen 13:37
About seven years ago now, I cold emailed Wade and said, "Hey, I think you need a biz ops person or a Chief of Staff. Here's what that means, here's why I would be good at it." And Zapier, at the time, was probably something like 50 or 60 people, and he emailed back, "I don't think I need that, but I liked your email. So let's talk anyway." And we talked for a while, turned out they were on and off hiring for things that kind of were in my lane, but not exactly. I actually got pretty deep into interviews for three different roles until I eventually was hired onto the data team.

So, I started at Zapier as our first marketing data analyst, but Wade and my boss at the time, the Head of the Data team, knew where I wanted to take my career. So, then, about a year later and two years after that original email, Wade came back around and said, "Okay, now I see the problems that you were describing two years ago, let's try it."

I moved over first into just a Special Projects role, like I mentioned earlier, where I'm just handling sort of whatever Wade's most important stuff is that he's not going to get to. And that evolved into this Exec Team Program Manager role, which as you alluded to… I wrote the JD, it's a Chief of Staff job, we just didn't like the title at the time. Again, now three or four years ago.. I think if we were to retitle this it's likely we use it now, but that was really trying to serve not just Wade, but the broader exec team and running the exec planning cycles and facilitating exec meetings and running the exec three-year strategy exercises. And so that really is a Chief of Staff-style role, where instead of only Wade being a stakeholder, it's now a broader executive team.

But what happened in that evolution is as I took on more and more responsibilities through that growth, every time I had to put something down, we kind of looked at that and said, "Well, we don't really want to put that down, so let's hire someone else to do that." And, so, that's how the biz ops team practically started. We would have some very specific thing that I would have done but didn't have time to do and would hire someone to do that. And then, knowing that oftentimes those things are cyclical, that sort of justifies the additional headcount needed for the next person. And then we would have some capacity to handle some number of problems.

So that is the evolution from reporting to Wade, to working more closely with the exec team, to starting the biz ops function to handle problems like this in a broader way than just one person can handle.

Caro 16:11
I love that it all started with a cold email.

Stephen 16:14
Yes. And there's a blog post about it, you can find it on Zapier's blog. You can actually see the email that I wrote to Wade way back when.

Caro 16:21
Okay, great. We'll have to put that in the show notes for sure. I'm a big proponent of everyone shooting their shot. So, send that cold email everybody!

I feel like your story is so similar to there's so many common themes in there that I hear a lot with ops people, is that you start in one thing and then you grow alongside the business and you take on all of these things. And I've been in a similar position where it's like, "I want to do that, but I don't have time for it. And the business does need it, that business need is there.” And so the bootstrapper in me is like, "That's the best way to grow. The need is already there, you're already hurting. So let's solve that pain point."

So, to dig a little bit more into the Executive Team Program Manager stuff, you mentioned a lot about executive meetings and planning and this is something that I feel like has become a real vocal pain point in the Opsy community lately, so I'd love to hear your thoughts about running effective meetings, particularly with directors and executives. I know that's a big question, so tackle it however you like.

Stephen 17:24
Yes, so there's a lot in there. I think one thing to think about is you really do feel eventually a point where the person running or facilitating the meeting can't really participate. And that is a good trigger point for adding someone like this to those meetings where Wade really wanted to participate in meetings but, when it's his meeting to run and facilitate and narrate, it's a lot more challenging for him to participate gracefully. And, in particular, as a CEO, if you come in too hot or too early, you can dampen other people's perspectives. And so using someone like me to facilitate the meeting and actually pull answers or commentary out of the rest of the organization or in particular, the rest of the meeting, before Wade has a need to jump in, can be a really effective way to make sure that we get all the perspectives on the table. And, so, I very specifically worked with a coach and some of the other execs at Zapier's coaches to learn how to better facilitate this type of meeting. That's a trained skill, it's not something that I think you just sort of naturally come to know how to do.

And so I'd really recommend, for folks that want to do this type of thing, think about it as a skill that you would build in the same way that you might build a data skill or a coding skill or any other skill that you need in a company. Facilitation, communication, those things are real skills, and they benefit from study and research and practice in the same way. And it can feel really awkward to practice. So I had, in some cases, external facilitators in a meeting first doing it themselves as an example, then in the meeting with me to sort of save me if I screwed something up or just watching over my shoulder or being able to coach me after the fact of, "Hey, I saw this meeting, here's something you did well, something you didn't do well," and to interrupt me if they need to. So, that training was a legitimately great skill building exercise, and I'm really lucky that Zapier was willing to pay to bring in those coaches and trainers and things like that for me to learn how to do a better job at this particular thing.

Caro 19:46
Yeah. I mean, that feels like it should be the obvious place all of our minds go, but I don't think training in that way is. And obviously it's great that Zapier really saw the value in that, because better executive meetings help move the whole business forward.

Well, I was going to say I don't know that you can even quantify the amount of value there, but I'm talking to a data person, so maybe you could. [Laughs]

Stephen 20:11
We can try.

Caro 20:12
We can try, we'll do that later.

So, you have these two roles, you're at a growing company, what does your day to day look like? Who do you work closest with in the organization?

Stephen 20:20
Oh goodness. This is a funny one, because if you ask me this in any particular month, it is likely to be quite different.

Caro 20:28
“At this moment,” we'll qualify it.

Stephen 20:30
That's right, I really think that's the name of the game though. So, right now, there's a couple of things that are often on my mind, but because we're growing the biz ops team, I'm really looking out at sort of the future of the biz ops org and understanding, setting vision a little bit for what the future could look like and what types of things do we expect to own in the long-term versus what do we expect FP&A or the data team or other cross-functional partners [to own]. Now that those organizations are better built up, what pieces do we expect them to take on as primary owners? And things like that.

So, just orchestrating a little bit more of the future of the biz ops team, we're really at an inflection point at this moment for my team. Because, for example, this will be the first time that we actively participate in an annual planning cycle as a team. So the team is still pretty new. We were generally the facilitators, but because our projects and work streams never lasted more than two months, participating in an annual planning cycle never made sense.

But now with the biz ops team's responsibilities set that has evolved and grown over the last 18 months, we're really in a place where we need to start looking out at a longer term, not just for the business, like we've always done, but for our team in particular. And, so, I'm doing documentation, thinking, collaborating with my team and cross functional partners to understand what we should expect the future of that to look like, and then largely helping to coach the team across a variety of projects and programs. There are a couple of things that biz ops is actually the owner and driver of at this particular moment, an interesting one for this audience potentially is we're working through our first set of legacy plan migrations.

Caro 22:05
Ooh, that is interesting in the best, nerdiest way.

Stephen 22:08
Zapier has 10 years of historical customers that have been left on legacy plans, and so we still have people who are paying rates that are 25% of today's current price point. And that's largely because they're really long-term customers, we wanted to leave them on a great deal, but ultimately eventually you have to sort of pull everyone up to modern price points for the value that you are delivering. And this is the first time we've ever done that exercise because Zapier's broadly been extraordinarily generous to just allow people to sit on those old plans for literally 10 years. But now it's a new exercise.

Everybody's familiar with the Netflix like, "Hey, your plan's going up," and, to some degree, it's easy when it's going from $12 a month to $15 a month, but now we're having to think through how do we handle people who are paying, again, 20, 25% of list price right now and how do we stairstep them out through the future and who do we just migrate now, who do we give discounts to, how do we sort of work through that backlog so that we can then turn this into an ongoing program where we don't have 10 years of planned tech debt built up again.

So, that is something that the biz ops team is driving right now, it's one of our sort of priorities. And so I'm thinking and working a lot with my team, with our build and marketing and support partners about how to get that done by the end of the year.

Caro 23:30
Yeah. It sounds like you're really going from being the biz ops individual contributor/maybe supervisor to really the manager of biz ops people, and you spoke about coaching them and everything. So, what's your favorite part of the role right now and maybe something you're challenged by or trying to upskill in?

Stephen 23:52
Ooh, good question. So, there's a couple of things that are interesting. One, that I'm not sure whether I did intentionally at the beginning, but has turned out nicely. And I think it's an interesting strategy that I am considering how to use going forward, which is my team right now is extremely bimodal in seniority. Meaning we have a bunch of folks who are very senior and extremely experienced, and then we have a handful of folks who are straight out of school, one or two years out of school and first job, second job kind of experience level. And there's not much in the middle [experience level] on our team right now.

I expect that middle to fill in as folks grow from the early career into mid-career, but it's been really fun to see and to give examples for people of, "Here's what a really senior, really effective great person looks like doing some of these things," and also be able to work with those folks a year or two out of school to say, "Hey, practically speaking, you're doing the same job."

The job is the same from a year out of school to 20 years into your career, but the expectations around how you deliver it, how much support you need, the likelihood of success of the programs that you're working on whether or not we give you something that's in the critical path for the business, all of that set of expectations changes in a massive way over 20 years of your career.

And so it's really interesting for folks to be able to see on one side, what does super power and super effective look like? And then what does learning new ideas, energy… there's a lot that you get from early career folks on the team, and I really value having the ability to interact. And, right now, I actually have direct reports on both sides of that equation. I don't know that that will continue forever because as the team grows you'll likely end up staffing more managers. But, for the time being, I really enjoy being able to work across those levels of experience because the coaching is completely different and the expectations of those people that they have for me is completely different. And so I'm able to flex not just in areas around the business, but even within our team sort of the needs that they have to be successful.

Caro 26:06
Yeah, absolutely. It's a rare role where the job really is the same, like you said, today and 20 years from now, and yet it's still interesting. You’re still at your core to solving problems and hopefully solving more and more interesting problems and more and more business critical problems… and if that's not a pitch for biz ops to an ops person, who is drawn to those things, I don't know what is.

So to take a step in another direction a little bit here, it sounds like back filling for other teams and other directors is something that your team does a lot of or does with some frequency. I imagine that can be quite a challenge. What have you learned from those tenures? And do you have any advice for people who may be trying to cover leaves themselves?

Stephen 26:51
Yeah, so this is a pretty interesting one. At a company growing as fast as Zapier and other hypergrowth, high growth tech companies, my observation is that there's always some number of people-related fire drills, whether that's because people leave the company or because somebody goes on parental leave or because somebody actually gets promoted. When you promote someone, you often create a really big gap because they were potentially the highest performing of the next layer of leadership. And, at a company that's growing really quickly, you can often figure out how to cover any single challenge, one person goes on parental leave, one manager gets promoted, something like that. But, as soon as you get stacked or peer vacancies for any of those reasons, things start to crumble really quickly. And so, when a manager and their manager both are vacant at the same time, or two leaders on a leadership team are gone at the same time, or something like that, especially with tech's relatively generous parental leave policies in a lot of companies like ours, you can create these holes that are there for several months.

And I think our observation was that for one month, you can just let everything run. But, past one month, there's enough decisions that need to be made and potential work stoppages and other challenges, somebody has to handle them. And when you have the stacked vacancy challenge, you really need to actually backfill it somehow. And so I was the first person to try to do this from a central seat when our Director of Data Analytics at the time, Alexy, who's the Head of our Data team now, he went on parental leave, and so I backfilled for him for three months which was an easy experiment.

Being able to do it on a team where I actually had functional experience, that made that more likely to be successful, but it was also a proof point that someone could come from a central seat and potentially fill in. And then we ended up doing it a couple more times in various ways, some good, some bad, but that thesis led me to actually hire someone for our team with an explicit expectation and mandate that they would be the person to backfill this type of role when it inevitably happens twice a year.

Caro 29:17
Oh my gosh, I want to have this person on the podcast next. [Laughs] I have so many questions for them, what an interesting role.

Stephen 29:23
[Laughs] She is amazing, you absolutely should have her on the podcast, and she would be able to give you a lot more deep dive of how her first tour went.

She actually just wrapped up about a month ago her first tour in a pure area where she did not have functional expertise, but she backfilled as a Director for that leadership team. So she's a biz ops person, program manager type, former consultant, generalist, and she just spent three months as the Director of Product Marketing. And she knew that she wasn't necessarily going to be able to sort of advance that team's career growth in a functional product marketing perspective, but she was able to do a lot of really interesting things in terms of how to think about the business, how to manage programs, because product marketing actually does a lot of program management, product management type material, cross-functional communications, stakeholder management, all of those sorts of general skills that are broadly applicable to everyone in the business. She was really able to help those people grow.

And she was able to just jump in, get enough context to be effective, and actually her tour there was viewed really successfully by even the marketing executive who was like, "She beat my expectations for what someone just holding down the fort would be able to do." Just holding down the fort would've been enough because those types of stacked vacancies can cause other personnel challenges where people then don't have a manager, so they don't feel fulfilled, and it can spiral pretty badly. And so just holding down the fort and keeping everyone happy and stable is sort of the minimum bar of success, but she was actually able to help those people grow and help the team reorient a little bit and make some sort of key decisions for that part of the organization that if there was just no one in that seat, we would've been way behind. And so that's been a really interesting experiment for us. I think it was a luxury to be able to get someone as good as [Yang] is in that seat to try this out. But at least in our sample size of one so far, it has proven to be a really interesting opportunity.

Caro 31:31
Yeah, super fascinating. And again, one of those things that maybe isn't the first guess or the first strategy to solve that problem, but a really interesting one. And it does make sense, my wheels are turning, I'm like, "Yeah, we have to do some kind of follow up episode or blog post or guide or something about this," because actually our first podcast guest, Megan Bianco from Scott's Cheap Flights did a tour as the VP of Engineering from the VP of Ops. And I was like, "I'm sorry, what?"

Stephen  31:55
Yeah, there you go. That’s an even crazier one.

Caro  31:57
And at a tech company too! And by all accounts was successful in just hearing the way that she approached it and the way that your team has approached it, I think it sounds like it's possible and something we should all consider when we're crossing those paths, problems, whatever.

Stephen 32:13
Yeah. There's even a way that I've thought about this a lot, that really a biz ops leader or a biz ops person will never be as effective as a true functional expert. There's a reason that we have specialists and people who do this job as their full-time job for a living, but the expectation for biz ops is that I can be 80% as good really quickly. And that speed and impact when you're trying to backfill a VP job, a Director job, those hiring cycles can be 90 days or longer, especially before you get somebody ramped up and effective, and being able to have someone that can just step in and stabilize things in the interim, it doesn't matter that they're not a career professional in that specific space if they can help the team manage and grow and just, again, make sure that it's stable and that people stay happy and motivated during that time. Because it is critical that you don't let it spiral completely out of control while that leadership hole is vacant.

Caro 33:15
Absolutely. And I think you're speaking to one of the most important characteristics of a great biz ops person, which is that need or ability to be able to get up to speed really quickly. And I know you're growing your team right now, and as manager of biz ops people, how do you, I guess, screen for that in new hires and also help train for that?

Stephen 33:36
It's a good question. There is something that I do look for specifically that I'm not convinced is an industry practice yet, and so it's something that I would recommend people think a lot about. But it tends towards early career folks as a recommendation, but I think it's broadly applicable across a large degree of biz ops folks, which is you look for people who have experiences handling whatever the problem is in some vein. And so maybe that's they founded a company in college or as a side project or things even as potentially silly as they ran a guild in World of Warcraft that performed in some way effectively. [Caro laughs]

A lot of those things you end up noticing who the people are who just solved the problem. There's a problem, I need to fix it. There's an organizational challenge, I need to organize it. There's a piece of paperwork that needs to get filed, I file it. And, even for folks early in their career, you can really show differentiation by having built or sold or grown something, even if it's really small. If you launch an app on the app store and it sells 10 copies, great. I don't need you to have crushed a business, made money, you can retire at 25, but I love to be able to see that you did something to differentiate yourself from all of the folks who just come out with 3.8 GPA and math major, economics major, strong grades and extracurriculars and what have you.

All of those resumes and backgrounds look largely the same, but the person who can say, "I built something, I grew something. I started a landscaping business and hired five people," that doesn't require you to be a sort of late career-type leader, it's just something that you could do with your friends early in your career or, again, as a side project or even in your business.

As you get later in your career, you can start to share these things popping up with actual career experience, which is how I interview for it in later stage careers. But people end up talking about, "Hey, I took that tour as VP Engineering. I stood up the sales function for a business that didn't have any sales people, and I sold the first hundred deals, and then I hired the first sales rep," that's stuff that you really can ask people to talk about, and you start to hear the patterns of the folks who are always the one who's solving that most important problem for the business.

Caro 36:09
It's interesting that this comes up because literally the last episode of Opsy was just all about this workplace operations and facilities expert, Cristina, her career in tech started because she describes it as she was just always the person raising her hand. She worked in restaurants, she worked in venues and planning concerts, and she just always raised her hand, and that's how she got office manager at Uber. It's just those things, and I think sometimes we put too much pressure on like, "It's got to be this really cool side project that's really successful," and like you're saying, "I don't care if you sold the app, that's a marketing skill, that's not what I'm hiring for." That would be cool, but it can be this smaller scale [thing]. It's not a binary of success or failure, you successfully launched something. You successfully scoped something, planned it, and executed it, and that alone… 90% of people don't get that far. So I love that that makes it into your kind of screening process.

Also, in this vein, what advice would you give to someone who maybe wants to transition into business ops?

Stephen 37:07
I do think that the answer I just gave is heavily related. Being able to differentiate your skills from the entire rest of the market is a thing that you need to figure out how to do. And sometimes your career gives you that opportunity, sometimes it's a side project, sometimes it's something you did in college, sometimes it's your previous manager had a kid and went on parental leave and you had to do something crazy, but it's a powerful mechanism to be able to document real examples of things that you did that were incredibly important for the business. That's a whole vein of work in biz ops, of just cross functional execution, get the things done, as I mentioned at the top of the episode, being able to solve the company's most important challenges is one key skill.

Where I think it can get more nuanced is at a company like Zapier, where biz ops is starting to become a more formalized process, you do have these other real skills that you need to develop somehow. And so we do a data Excel spreadsheet interview for our biz ops candidates that shows that you are comfortable for a couple of hours in Excel or Google Sheets, thinking about the business from a metrics-oriented perspective.

And so just that pure generalist that I was talking about earlier of like problem solver always is the one raising their hand, all of those things are important, but as biz ops gets more specialized at larger organizations, you also have to be able to do things like strategy and data and sort of your MBA-type skills. Now you don't have to go and get an MBA, certainly, but there's a bunch of free resources online that you can learn the frameworks that they teach in business school that will help you think about your business and other businesses in a more structured frameworks-oriented way. And so being able to think strategically to do the math around conversion rates and EBITDA and just thinking about the business in these metrics oriented fashions, that's the half that a lot of these pure generalists people who raise their hand all the time have not had a chance to develop. And so that will make it more challenging for you to get a job at a biz ops organization that is larger and more specialized because it tends to move in that direction as the company matures.

Caro 39:31
Yeah, that's great advice, because I think I've seen that firsthand, usually you have to pick between that generalist who raises their hand and this commercially-minded, data-driven, can work in Excel for a couple hours and really enjoy it. And so I think two of the gaps I always see are finance and data. And so figuring out how to upskill on those whether it's on the job or on your own time or in those side projects where you're running a landscaping business. [Laughs]

Well, one last question for you, obviously you are a professionally development-minded ops person just like a lot of us are, and so I always like to ask, what are you trying to learn this year? What would you like advice on? What should people reach out with if they can help with?

Stephen 40:12
Yeah. So my observation here is that planning and strategy and planning-type processes at most organizations fall into this vein of, "Meh, it was fine," as the bar of success. And so I'm really fascinated to understand if anyone out there worked at an organization that was like, "Yes, this is the right planning process," or "This went really well" or, "The way that we collaborate on go to market and build product and engineering really we planned it out, we executed, and we delivered just like that."

If there are people who have these success stories of a loved planning process, I would love to understand and hear about that because I really am sort of thinking right now about these planning processes in a way that is the least painful to get the stuff that the business needs, but that generally it's regarded as overhead. And I would really like to understand if there are folks out there who know or have seen exercises around strategy planning that don't feel that way. And so that's an open question to me, but I would be curious to hear an answer.

Caro 41:27
Yeah, that's a great ask. So, anyone who's listening, if you are that person, if you have those success stories in your back pocket, please reach out to Stephen. And then Stephen, let me know, CC me on that email actually. CC me so we can all have that conversation together, because I'm interested too, and I'm sure a bunch of us would be. So, on that note, thanks so much for coming and sharing all of your knowledge and getting nerdy with me. Appreciate it.

Stephen 41:52
Appreciate it, thank you.

Thanks for listening to Opsy. You can find resources and links from this episode in the show notes at opsy.work. While you're there, I hope you'll take a second to join our free community where we share resources and opportunities that help us all level up in our ops careers. Again, that link is opsy.work. Until next time, stay Opsy, friends!

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