I met Deepa at Peakon’s beautiful new office just above the busiest shopping street in Copenhagen on a Friday afternoon in late July. The old wooden floor was cracking under our feet as Deepa was giving me a tour around their gorgeous new place. Peakon had just moved to their new headquarters a few weeks prior, with many of the rooms still looking pretty empty. Despite, the atmosphere in the office was nice and welcoming, just like my host.
It’s been several months since I first got introduced to Deepa and her work as a Director of Product over a cup of coffee. She’s been with Peakon, a people analytics startup that focuses on employee engagement, for almost three years now. Peakon is “all about creating a better workplace for employees and providing insights that help everybody to make better people decisions,” she explained.
And if there is one thing Deepa and I share in common, it is the passion for making a positive impact in the workplace.
From all the places Deepa has lived in, she chose Copenhagen as her home. “I grew up in India, but I have a Canadian passport and am half Malaysian. So quite a mix culturally and still not that sure where I belong to. But I'm very happy and intentionally living in Denmark, which is a place that I think is quite aligned with my values.”
I asked Deepa to share more about the journey that led her to come work for Peakon. “Product management is an interesting role and still there's not really like a direct path to finding it. So yeah, I've kind of found product management from being an expert for a product that I had been using for a number of years called Zendesk. And at some point they were like, ‘Oh, you seem to have a lot of opinions about our product. Maybe you should come and build it.’ So I did and that was a really great experience.”
For the most part of her career, Deepa has been working close to technology. She simply loves product management. “Mostly because I get to listen to so many different people and balance the needs of the business, the needs of the customer or the user in some cases. And being able to empathize and think about why are they going to use your product and what it can do in their lives, it's a really fantastic challenge.”
If there was one thing that Deepa could point to why she took a job at Peakon, it would be the product.
“I think it's something that many people can relate to. Almost everyone has had an experience in their work lives where they felt very disengaged, where they felt micromanaged, mistrusted, hurt. So it's the meaningfulness of it that is very immense to me. And to think that I could build something that would maybe protect somebody or give people even a chance to have a little bit more joy in their work and in their workplace, and create both more self-awareness, more awareness just in general, about something thatI think we struggle to talk about, it's just kind of wonderful to me.”
“I feel really lucky and happy that the market is interested in people analytics and in, you know, looking at people's feelings in a structured way,” she added.
Personally, Deepa likes to build teams and enjoys helping people grow in their careers. In fact, getting to lead without a lot of management or positional power is her favorite kind of leadership. “Also now that I have grown a team and am managing and hiring people, I feel a lot of responsibility to make sure that I can empower them and help them also progressing their careers as a manager.”
When I asked Deepa to elaborate more on what she had in mind with such leadership style, she shared: “Well, I like to think that we are all leaders. Hopefully, first of ourselves. I think even just leading yourself can be a tough challenge sometimes. And then of the people around us that we interact with. So I think everybody can and is a leader in some way. And management probably is more of like the org chart with the lines that are pointing to you. And I think in most organizations a lot of leaders exist outside of the org chart. I hope even if I'm a manager and even if I do have lines reporting to me, I hope that I will always be a leader outside of the org chart, too, because I think that's the one that counts more.”
“Not that you can’t really completely go away with management, and I'm not quite that naïve,” she continued. “But I think I prefer the non command-and-control style. I get to manage product managers and each of them, you know, they have a really deep understanding of a problem space and are empowered to make decisions and move that forward. And it's an interesting challenge to find the balance for me even in supporting them. And, yeah, giving them what they need to succeed. But also not being too involved or, you know, making them feel like they must consult me for everything, which they definitely don't need to.”
Coming from customer experience and now having entered into employee experience, Deepa admits that she is surprised by how little data companies actually have about their employees. “Like they know often so much more about their customers than they do about the people that are creating that value for their customers.” Still, she also sees this as an opportunity for companies like Peakon to provide insights that are going to help their customers reach their full potential.
Deepa believes there are many reasons why this is the case. First is the lack of technology and resources. Her other theory is that “the further that you get away from money, the less data there is. So the more you can attribute revenue to something, the more likely you're willing to invest in it.”
She explained further:
“So if you look at an organization, Human Resources or People seem to be I don't know why but quite far from revenue and therefore there's less investment. There's less willingness, like people will spend immense amounts of money on their CRM – but, oh no, we don't have a budget for our employee relationship management, right? It doesn't really add up to me.”
“Which is why I think the challenge of transforming people's feelings into numbers is a nuanced and difficult thing to be perfect at. Yet I still think it's worth doing,” she said.
In Deepa’s view, one of the challenges is that previously much of HR has been based on stories and anecdotal evidence. However, numbers can be powerful. “Because then you can sit in a board meeting and say, this is the number, and look, we can see it's going down along with our financial numbers. Right? So like somehow, you know, you need to make something concrete at some point in order to drive change or an outcome.”
On that note, Deepa thinks that we can learn a lot from looking at marketing tech, which in her opinion is ahead of the game when it comes to startups. “I don't know if you've watched Mad Man, but there's this idea of the marketing executive and it was very, you know, not data-driven. And now like if you go into any company, look at the Marketing team, they're pretty much living in their data and everything is quite connected to data-driven decision making. And I think that People Management or Human Capital Management will look a lot like that in the coming years.”
With that, of course, comes the question of data governance and ethics. “There's plenty of examples of either products or organizations that did not think about the societal impact of their decisions and also the pushback and, you know, now more legislation. And I feel a personal responsibility for this, too. I hope that most of those building technology around people do our best to think about context and how something could be used and what it could mean. But in many ways it is, you know, up to an organization and a culture.”
In these regards, Deepa believes that Peakon is only a mirror that is mostly just reflecting what is happening inside of an organization.
“I think that's a very powerful thing because, you know, it's like turning on the light; you can see what's happening, even if it doesn't always look good.”
Therefore, understanding the context and educating people on how to use such insights is key in her opinion.
I also asked Deepa whether she thinks people are well-educated in terms of how they can actually use, or should be using, HR solutions such as Peakon. “I think we have along ways to go here,” she responded. “But I do believe that as we make the product responsibly, we should make it basically a no-brainer, right? Like we should design it in a way where it is almost impossible to do the wrong thing,right? Because if you design a system that is making it quite easy for people to fail, then of course a lot of people will fail. For me, I think it's about designing a system where the majority of the impact is good.”
Furthermore, she explained: “I think most people do not wakeup in the morning and think, I'm going to go and, you know, be a tyrant. So I think most people want to be good and if you give them an environment that supports that, then they will. So kind of building that environment.”
“When I'm pragmatic, I think that our product is like tiny tiny grain of sand. But it's still there and there're a lot of other products, too. And like, yeah, we generally move forward. Maybe sometimes two steps forward, one step back. But I have to be an optimist. Otherwise, it would be it would be too hard.”
In creating an employee engagement solution, data protection is “table stakes” in Deepa’s opinion. “Like we wouldn't build something without it. I think a lot about software that even though it's not something you can physically touch it still almost has a personality.”
But building new technology also comes with other kinds of responsibilities. “Like the space, for example, round tables, right? There's a lot of research that says that sitting at a roundtable, people have more engaging conversations, people feel more included, often they talk longer, too. And I think a lot about that in the context of even a software product, the space that you're creating will impact how people feel inside it and maybe even how they react outside of it. So like I’m thinking about that responsibility of like, you know, we could build a square table in here, or we could put a roundtable in here. Let's put a round table because that's going to make people feel more connected to each other.”
“So kind of even the small user experience and design decisions I think are important. But like principles, really thinking about what it is you're doing and why you're doing it and building,” Deepa elaborated.
“We've definitely here in Peakon built ethics and principles and, you know, a framework by which to make decisions and to know what kind of trade-offs you should make in the user experience and product design.”
Collecting and then using engagement data, one also needs to take into account other issues, like data reliability and research bias. Deepa told me about the situations where managers would tell their employees to assign them good scores because that is going to impact employees’ bonuses. “And especially for vulnerable people, it becomes very very hard for them to be honest.”
“I can think of specific examples when you divide results by ethnicity in some countries, you can actually see very big differences in responses. I've talked to some of the HR leaders about that and they were like,we think this is because this group of people feels too afraid to be honest. We don't think that they're like way way happier because they’re Philipino, we think that they really need this job and therefore are not going to give us honest feedback. But then, as soon as they find something else, they leave.”
In Deepa’s view, “When you incentivize the wrong things, it can become very difficult to get honest feedback because there's such a strong pressure.”
But generally speaking, it is almost impossible to remove all of the biases from data, she agrees.
“As human beings, we are imperfect and we have biases. And that will also be reflected in the data. I don't necessarily think that is the end of the world and this is why I've really spent quite a bit of time thinking about what is, you know, we have our imagination of what is good and bad. But it's really much more about context. And of course like there are certain behaviors that are illegal.”
As a person who thinks of herself as someone with a “very strong sense” of what is right and what is wrong, Deepa admits that there are certain behaviors that she find completely intolerable. “But if I take myself completely out of the Western European context and look at, you know, a factory in Saudi Arabia, I think it's very naive or arrogant to apply all of the same standards and my worldview and my morality to that group of people into that environment,” she told me.
“And so I think having the humility to kind of take a step back and realize like there are many ways to live, we don't all need to be the same. And hopefully, for me, building something that can bring value to all of the different cultures and flavors is really the goal. Is not just to be like, you know, building something that's basically saying everyone needs to look and be the same.”
For Deepa, connecting people and ideas is what gives her the most happiness and can bring change in this world.
One of the first things that she built when she joined Peakon was a small section at the end of each survey where employees could see and compare their own overall engagement score. While conducting research about this potential feature, she found out there was fear among some companies that sharing information about employee disengagement would make those people want to leave their jobs.
“I think similar to the leader perspective, like leading yourself is the first step in life. I do think that we are all capable of defining our goals and our future, our path, and taking ourselves in that direction. And data and feedback can be a very good tool.”
Deepa believes that giving more information to employees is the direction where the future of HR might be heading. “I don't think we need to put all the pressure on a manager. If someone isn't in the right place, they probably shouldn't stay, right?”
As we talked about the positive aspects that engagement data can bring to employees, I couldn’t help but to ask Deepa about what she thinks about the fact that many employees today are being overwhelmed with data and all the work-related interactions that occur on a daily basis, constantly, both offline and online.
She agreed that this could be a real challenge. “I think everyone should disconnect and spend some time in nature. That's the only way I survived. Yeah, but there's definitely downsides. I don't think we can escape it. I think we have to learn how to manage it and how fast switch it off and how to set boundaries. Yeah,not just for others but also for ourselves.”
“So I think it's self-awareness and managing yourself. Because it's just like anything else, right? Like any strength is also a weakness and actually can be used for good or for evil. This is what Star Wars teaches us,” she added, laughingly.
As our conversation was approaching an end, I asked Deepa to answer one more question that I knew many of our readers would be interested in: If you were to give one advice to younger women who are just entering the space of tech, what would that be?
“Yeah, this is a tough one. I'm very cautious to give advice as I don't think that what has worked for me will work for other people and I also think we're all different individuals,” she responded. “Yeah, so probably it's like, do what you feel passionate about and be unapologetic about that. Because I think if you can do that then whatever you do is going to be pretty cool.”
For Deepa, “being yourself and not changing too much” has probably been one of her “biggest journeys to like make sure that I'm being true to myself.”
“Coming into tech or being in a very male-dominated area, I think for me the biggest learning has been, I've always assumed that everyone's smarter than me and it's not true. I mean, I don't think I'm the smartest person in the world, but I definitely have an opinion that is worth sharing and I don't need to be quiet and just listen. So I think like finding your voice and learning to use it in a way that is authentic.”
She thinks that women who are entering the tech world can be particularly prone to self-doubt and insecurity, more so than their male colleagues. “I see that young men can be very confident, or at least they can project very confidently, and that is not always correlated with their experience or wisdom or skill. And I think sometimes we can mistake confidence for competence.”
“I know in my early career, I was always like, I'm going to undersell myself in the interviews and then I will over-deliver when I get there. Like, I don't want to promise too much because what if I can't do it in that environment. And then, you know, over the years I've realized like, well, I actually always over-deliver and why am I under-promising? Why am I selling myself short? So kind of questioning some of that, like, why is this happening? And, do I even need to do this?”
However, Deepa is hopeful that the issue of getting more diversity into tech will keep improving. “Especially when I look at technology, I think we do need more diverse people and like your voice is important. So be as loud as you want because, you know, you probably have something important to say.”
Deepa is a Director of Product at Peakon where she works with the Product Development Teams and Customers to build software that helps organizations and managers make better people decisions. She has an MBA from the Danish Technical University (DTU), and studied Disruptive Strategy at Harvard Business School and InnovationLeadership at UC Berkeley College of Engineering. Deepa lives in Copenhagen and is passionate about promoting inclusion and diversity.