Today is my last day at Pluralsight (1/18/22). When I reflect on my first few months at this company, I could never have foreseen my journey. Before coming to Pluralsight, I was a Principal UX Designer at GoPro, where I had earned 11 patents and dipped my toe into building products that utilizes computer vision and machine learning. I prided myself as an IC who liked running rogue and was only interested in the short game. I interviewed for a UX role at Pluralsight in the summer of 2017, got hired as the Product Manager for AI, but ultimately spent my entire tenure leading teams to build Discovery experiences powered by our Search platform. Definitely the long game, not the short game.
If my experience at GoPro was about exploring & validating novel experiences powered by machine learning, then my tenure at Pluralsight was about building a data platform to explore, iterate, and enumerate machine features; then make them available for use via APIs. I can say that now looking in the rearview mirror, but I didn’t know that coming in.
You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. Steve Jobs
Four and a half years ago, Search was an unsexy product that no one at Pluralsight wanted to work on. There was no assigned product team, no Bounded Context dedicated to what I saw was the core engine of content platforms. We were using a third party solution, Adobe Search & Promote. It was suited for marketing sites but not for a knowledge based search. There was also tech debt. I actually asked to be put on Search, because I was confident that it was one of the few foundational problems that mattered. I saw where the dots didn’t connect beneath the brand stories during those heady days of Pluralsight. The company had purpose but no thinking around information architecture. Four years ago, the web site was the epitome of Conway’s Law, and our org structure fed the mountain of unstructured data. I was the first team member on Search and over the next 3–4 years, I lobbied to grow our team from 1 to 21 so that we could begin to solve the myriad of Discovery problems, centralizing many of the previously fragmented discovery use cases under our team.
But I will save the case study of how we built Discovery at Pluralsight for another day. This post is to thank my team and all the unmentioned folks along the way who has helped me and my team in our journey. I have nothing but gratitude for Pluralsight. Someone had to believe in me and give me the space to create with possibility. There were many small kindnesses that added up to a lot.
To the Discovery team (Team Hawkeye) at Pluralsight, can you believe what we’ve built together? Remember when Adobe Search & Promote went down for 8 hours and the execs suggested a switchover to our new Frankenstein search? Remember when we didn’t know how to define or measure relevance? Remember when we built our first mini graph model? Remember when… To most people, Search is just a query box that returned results, but building a home-grown search was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to work on. None of us came to our jobs knowing how to build this product that grew into a platform. If we knew, I wonder if we’d sign up for it. Most of the engineers who joined the Discovery team were relatively young in their career. I often think had I gotten more senior engineers, we may not have arrived to where we are today, because our young team didn’t have enough experience to know how hard it was going to be. Thank you for jumping in the deep end with me and building a foundation out of nothing, literally vapor. We’ve all had to learn, invent, and create with possibility in the face of so much constraints with data. As Connor had so eloquently put it, “Search is the island of data excellence.”
Build an island of greatness and trust that the rest will follow. Joven Matias
From an innovation standpoint, I now understand why Discovery as a product was so gratifying to work on. More than any product experience, the UX of Discovery is created by engineers. It is the atomic data that provided the signals for relevance. Living through this and seeing how we rebuilt our data architecture scratched the itch for the information architect and behaviorist in me. You have all been patient teachers. I’ve always had too too many questions.
I’ve reflected on why this chapter of my career was so special. I had a college professor who told me that anything that is worth doing, is wicked hard. The journey of building something out of nothing, something that uncovers our blind spots, something that we are proud of, changes us. We leave Discovery changed. As Theo (our DevOps Engineer) said, “We find truth through friction.” We didn’t ooze positivity, but we show up for each other when it counts. I didn’t create the culture. You did.
There were a lot of firsts for me on this job. First time I held the title of Product Manager, then first time as a Director, first time leading engineers & data science folks, first time managing a team completely remote, and first time leading through so much organizational & operational change. Thank you for supporting me through all my firsts. I know they weren’t all shining moments. Thank you for putting up with all my guerilla warfare tactics and Game of Thrones analogies. To this day you still won’t let me forget that time I split up the team too soon. But hey, we got two additional engineers because of it. Thank you for enabling me to bring my authentic self as a leader. Before this, I didn’t know my brand of leadership. I didn’t feel like I fit. But advocating for you enabled me to find my voice, my conviction and values as a leader. Thank you for supporting me during my brush with cancer. And finally, thank you for the subscription to Master Class, but my years working with you have been the best Master Class of all.
I’m told by several people that I’ve provided a safe space for us to make big bets. But conversely, the team has continually upped the game. It becomes very easy to be the front woman for a group of brilliant and passionate people. You have been my safe community at Pluralsight and I’m sure beyond. I will miss you all greatly, but products are short, and our connection is long.
Ha Phan, Hawkeye Member 2017 -2022