A conversation with Coda co-founder and CEO, Shishir Mehrotra

I recently spoke with Shishir Mehrotra, co-founder and CEO of Coda, a new doc that brings words, data, and teams together. Prior to founding Coda, Shishir was Vice President of Product, Engineering, and User Experience at YouTube, Director of Product Management at Microsoft, and founding CEO of Centrata. During our talk, Shishir shared his tactical advice on effective leadership, prioritization, product launches, and creating impact.

Shishir Mehrotra, co-founder and CEO of Coda

On leadership, Shishir brings lessons learned at Google and Microsoft to Coda, especially those around fostering a culture of intense collaboration and interconnectivity. With the help of two rituals — Dory and Pulse — he designs meetings the way that designers design apps — with clear process, intention, and thoughtfulness (his full guide to leading distributed teams can be found here).

At Coda, “Dory” is a ritual named after the question-asking fish in Nemo that also inspired the TGIF ask-me-anything sessions held by Larry Page and Sergey Brin at Google. During any meeting, team members can submit questions they have to the doc’s Dory, and others can upvote or downvote the questions to collaboratively create a ranked list of priority questions that should be addressed. Instead of relying on the loudest voice in the room or the most senior person to speak first, the Dory democratizes feedback, giving all team members a voice, while addressing the most pressing feedback first.

Shishir also utilizes Pulse, an opportunity for employees to give their general feedback (“pulse check”) on their work, their team’s work, and the company’s work. Pulse responses are hidden at first to avoid groupthink and empower people to voice their true opinions instead of feeling pressured to agree with how others feel about a particular topic.

As a testament to the efficacy of these practices, when the company launched Coda 2.0 and introduced a pricing model, Shishir received feedback via Pulse that the pricing model was confusing and incentivizing the wrong behavior — a comment that might not have been communicated in a traditional meeting. After reflections with the broader team, he launched an updated model.

On prioritization, Shishir uses what he calls the “eigenquestions” framework to solve problems, which he shares more about here. Instead of focusing on finding the answers, the framework encourages you to spend time identifying the most discerning questions.

At YouTube, for example, Shishir and his team were deadlocked over whether or not the site should link out to third-party sites for select searches where YouTube itself did not have the best results. Instead of debating the link out vs. no link out question (which could be an endless debate built on random, surface-level, feature-based preferences), Shishir recommended they instead reframe the question around consistency vs. comprehensiveness (providing a consistent experience fully locked in the YouTube platform or providing the best search results, regardless of the source platform). Reframing in this way helped all team members better understand the fundamental issue at hand and have a more meaningful debate.

And when building a product at Coda, Shishir moves the team away from debating whether a particular feature should be developed. Instead, he focuses the team on the eigenquestion in order to make more strategic decisions with meaningful, principle-led prioritization.

On product launches, Shishir shares the pros and cons of staying in beta. For most companies, a public launch helps to get customers, investors, and hires. Coda, however, had critical mass in each of these categories before launch. Instead, they turned their focus to building a product that would focus the attention of the broader public — and media — rather than the company’s backers and founders.

In Coda’s very early days, Shishir asked a former YouTube colleague to test the product with his team of six people. While they used Coda productively for a couple months, they all churned in a single day. Losing 100% of Coda’s user base in one day was tough, but fortunately, the test team provided constructive feedback that motivated the Coda team and helped shape Coda into a better product.

On creating impact through Coda, Shishir aims to create all-in-one “documents as powerful as apps” that can be used by anyone, anywhere. Much like the transition from a Roman Numerals system to modern math, Coda strives to make building app-like docs more accessible, not restricted to engineers with specialized training. To help people share their ideas and discover content, Coda launched the Doc Gallery, where people can publish their docs and give it functionality like an interactive website (think of it like an app store for the best content and resources).

Shishir understands that, given the right set of tools and the right platform, there’s no limit to what the next generation of makers can create.

Chief of Staff at Beacons | Harvard alum | https://beacons.ai/jessicali