Harvard in Tech Spotlight: Yi Liu, Head of Insights and Operations at Gusto
I spoke with Yi Liu, Head of Insights and Operations for engineering, product, and design at Gusto. Yi studied engineering at Harvard and joined Northrop Grumman after college, where she spent 5 years building satellites for the government. She wanted to join a startup to work in a faster paced environment and see more impact in her work, so she went to get her MBA from Stanford’s Graduate School of Business. After getting her MBA, she joined Inkling in product and operations roles to build digital textbooks for iPads. After the company transitioned from a B2C to B2B model, she left to join Gusto, which was then a 50 person small startup called Zenpayroll.
Yi had met and worked with one of the Gusto co-founders, Tomer London, at Bump, an iPhone contact sharing company, before, and she had followed his journey since inception and through Y Combinator and beyond in building Gusto. Yi appreciated how customer centric Gusto was and how building for the long term was core to their mission and ethos. The company had found product market fit and was looking to scale, so Yi thought it would be an excellent time to join and be a part of their growth journey. When she first started, Gusto was a 50 person startup that just focused on payroll and did not yet operate in all 50 states. Now, they have 1300 employees and support companies nation-wide in payroll, benefits, and HR.
At Gusto, Yi first joined in leading the new customer onboarding team. Proving to be a versatile problem solver, she was then asked to build out their payroll operations team. When the department became too compliance focused for her goals, she transitioned to start the business insights and operations team, working closely with Gusto’s COO at the intersection of sales, marketing, and customer experience. Now, she leads the Insights and Operations team and works closely with Gusto’s CTO and CPO to help the engineering, product, and design teams at Gusto scale and stay agile for the future. This includes , working on strategic planning (and ensuring the high level goals translate into execution & results), performance insights & analysis, product incubations, and special projects (key initiatives that do not fall into any existing departments).
Yi shared her learnings over the years and advice for Harvard graduates who are interested in a career in tech. Her guidance focused on identifying and investing in your strengths, building customer relationships, and driving career growth.
IDENTIFYING YOUR STRENGTHS
Take a strengths finder test. All Gusto team members take the StrengthsFinder test to help them and their bosses and team members better understand their strengths. With this information, leaders are better able to assign projects based on their skill sets, capitalizing on everyone’s comparative advantages. Yi found her 5 key strengths to be learning, relationship building, achieving toward goals, analytics, and arranging cross functional teams. Her current role leverages all these key strengths.
Double down on your strengths. While our weaknesses are often the focus of feedback sessions, it is actually more valuable to double down on our strengths. It is rarely the well rounded people who create the biggest impact on teams or at companies. Rather, leaders should aim to build teams of people each with unique strengths that together make a well rounded whole. Be aware of your weaknesses but focus on honing and exercising your strengths.
PUTTING THE CUSTOMER FIRST
Understand your customers from a wide range of perspectives. Gusto looks at the customer feedback data (including their NPS score which has tracked in the high 70s), in depth strategic research on both existing customers and prospects, and organized customer counsels, especially around their power users (such as accountants) to collect interactive feedback.
Prioritize solving customer pain points. One of Gusto’s core principles is to always put the customer first. When the customer’s satisfaction comes in conflict with any other goals, the customer is always optimized for. While this can lead to short term sacrifices for Gusto, in the long term, customer happiness leads to more sustainable growth for Gusto as well.
EMPOWERING YOUR CAREER GROWTH
Reevaluate your career every 2–3 years. In the first year of a new role, you are focused on learning. In the second year, you become proficient. In the third year, you are likely starting to get bored, unless you move to a new role, take on different responsibilities, or move to a new company. In startups, where everything is incredibly fast paced, this journey can happen in 18 to 24 months. Intentionally reevaluate whether you are learning and grow toward your goals every 2 to 3 years to avoid plateauing.
Be transparent with your manager about your interests. State upfront what your goals are, what you hope to learn, how you aim to grow, and what you would like to achieve both in the role and long term. With this visibility, they can better support you toward these goals. When opportunities arise that are aligned with your interests, they are able to bring up your name, think of you, and share with you. They can assign projects that more effectively help you develop the skills you are keen to gain.
Develop cross functional relationships. Relationships matter, which was a hard lesson to learn as an engineering concentrator, but it’s important to form strong bonds with people both in and outside of your team and focus on establishing credibility and building trust with your colleagues. Look for opportunities to go above & beyond and show that you’re a versatile problem solver In this way, when opportunities arise to collaborate with other departments or even taken on higher level leadership roles, you will be first in mind.
Be constantly curious. During college, Yi learned to surf after spending a summer doing an internship in Hawaii. For her senior year engineering project, she designed a propulsion system for surf boards, which looking back, was one of her favorite academic experiences in school. Drawing seemingly non-intuitive connections between different fields (like engineering and surfing!) leads to some of the coolest projects and innovations.
Seek 1:1 mentorship. Engineering was a small department (with just around 30 undergraduates per a year) when Yi was at Harvard, so she was able to build close relationships with her professors. She realized early on the impact that 1:1 mentorship could have on her learning, and she has sought that out ever since in the professional world as well.