The importance of people in tech

August 1, 2023

Reflecting on a 12-year tech career, including roles at Netflix and Uber.

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The importance of people in tech

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In this episode, Dee Janssens, the VP of people at Wheely, a luxury ride-hailing app, shares her experiences working in the tech space for the past 12 years, including her time at Netflix and Uber. She discusses how she found her passion for the people element of a company and how working in the tech industry allowed her to be innovative and make a meaningful impact. Watch this episode to learn about Dee's journey and insights into the tech and people space.

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They key moments in this episode are:

00:01:11 Finding fulfilment in tech.

00:06:25 People roles and AI.

00:08:02 Legal employment legislation.

00:13:30 Working for a large corporation.

00:16:06 Retaining people leaders in startups.

00:20:13 Punishing the whole for one.

00:25:33 Scaling company culture.

00:28:12 Finding your niche in work.

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Read the transcript

00:00 Charles Brecque Welcome to the Tech Story Podcast, the place where we interview interesting founders and tech leaders at fast growing companies. Today, I'm very excited to welcome Dee Jansons on the show. Dee is the VP of people at Wheely, a luxury ride hailing app. Dee, thank you for taking the time for being with us. Thank you for having me, Charles.

00:21 Dee Janssens Please can you introduce yourself and your company? Yes, of course. So I am Dee. I'm not from London, only arrived in London about three months ago. I work as the VP of people at Wheely, like you said, luxury ride hailing, but also con chair service company. Company has been around for 12 months, but I'm relatively new. Like I said, I moved here three months ago. And I have been working in the tech space in the people team space actually for the past 12 years.

00:54 Charles Brecque Yeah. And I know that you've, for example, been at Netflix and other startups. So I guess being in the tech space and on the people front, what's been your favourite moment so far?

01:07 Dee Janssens I think my favourite moment has been very early on when I moved into this tech space, I've always been very interested in the people element of a company, but in more traditional companies that I've had the opportunity to work in, never really felt that I was at the right place where I could actually make an impact and bring something of value. When I had a realisation in my first tech company, which in this case was Uber, that there was a place for me being a people team member where I could actually do a really great job and do something that was out of the box and more innovative. And when you say out of the box as in compared to tech or? I would say out of the box in terms of not necessarily having to follow a rule book when it comes to the work that you do, which is I think a very touching element when it comes to the company that you have in terms of the legal aspect to the work that I do in the people space.

02:06 Charles Brecque Yeah, that's a topic that we will touch on. But we'll save for in a couple of minutes. Yep. And I guess you've moved to London from Amsterdam? Close to Amsterdam, yes. So what sort of brought you to London and what are sort of the differences that you've noticed so far aside from cycling on the other side of the road?

02:30 Dee Janssens So yes, I said yes to moving to London because of the job. It was a challenge that I really wanted to take on. I never really saw London as the city that I would end up living in. It wasn't necessarily the biggest fan when I was here in the past. However, the opportunity and the potential that this job offered me together with the combination of living in London for a certain amount of time made it all more interesting, which led me to be conditioned to pack up and go with the caveat that if I decide that this is not for me, it's a 45 minute flight and I'm back home. So the biggest difference to me is it's a really tough thing to answer. But I think what I like about it is that London is very vast. It's big. It's busy. But if you want to avoid the busy areas, it's really easy. And what I really like as well is that every element or every part of London has its own little vibe to it. So it is almost traveling from village to village if you go through the city instead of being one place that's very homogenous.

03:40 Charles Brecque The north, the south, the east, the west, the center is all very different. And we also were based in Oxford and then moved to London only in September. And it's so vast that every week discovering a new part. But it also means that it does take a long time to get from east to west,

03:59 Dee Janssens as you found out today. And since being in people and tech, what do you wish you had known before entering the space? What I wish I should have, I would have known before entering the space. I think what I would have liked to know is a better grasp of how people in the past have actually experienced interaction with the people team or an HR team. I didn't necessarily know that for a lot of people, any interaction with the team that I lead or a team that I've been a part of has been significantly negative for them. Whereas the approach that I tend to take in a lot of the companies that I worked for as well is that you're actually there for the individuals in your company, not necessarily representing the business. And that approach is very different. And it leads to now, eventually great experiences for both sides. But the initial approach sometimes can be relatively hostile. And I wish I was more aware of it so I could have better prepared myself. And I guess how do you sort of build trust with the employees that you are there for them and not for the business? I try to make sure that they understand that I'm here to listen to them. And I'm not there just to tell them no. If people experience things in their lives, either work or personal, there is something that a company can do to support them. And even if you can't, there is an opportunity to explain why you might not be able to do it. So I tend to, I hope that whenever I have a conversation, first of all, I listen, because people really, really like someone to listen. And then when try to find a solution, if I can't help them, I will work with them to find a different solution that they might be able to explore. But it's never a computer says no answer. And I hope that at least even though they might walk away not necessarily getting what they were looking for, that they understand why it's that's the case, and then hopefully have another route to take to find a solution to

06:10 Charles Brecque their challenge. I guess the key insight is that people is important. I mean, people are important in people roles. You can't automate it. No. And I guess in light of chat GPT and OpenAI,

06:25 Dee Janssens they won't be taking your job anytime soon. I don't necessarily think that just GPT might be able to take on the level of empathy and compassion that people need when it comes to personal relationships. So I'm not necessarily saying that it might not take a piece of my job,

06:43 Charles Brecque but I don't think it's going to take the whole job though. Yeah. No, I mean, I think at the end of the day, it's all about augmenting. And if it can help, you know, with processing data more efficiently than, than short, but you still need that human element to interpret and have empathy, etc. And you mentioned legal at the beginning as I guess, something that you'd interact with quite a bit through your people role. I imagine when employees come with requests, sometimes it might involve legal, but I imagine also when you're trying to create new things or scale into other countries, legal is a core element. So I guess what sort of your experience with legal as a VP of

07:28 Dee Janssens people? My experience with legal is, has actually been really great. And that is because I tend to work for companies in the tech space that have an element of innovation to how they deal with legislative issues and employment, legal issues, but also people, solutions. And I, the legal teams that I've worked with have a pretty good grasp of what that means in their case. So when you look at, like every country has pretty heavy legislation when it comes to employment, legal employment legislation, as you would say, and there is a whole rule book that you can live by if you want to do it exactly and according to what the law states. I find it extremely interesting to sit down with the legal individual or legal team and say, okay, this is what we officially should be doing. Is there a way where we can do it? And the outcome is either exactly the same or even better, but we find that approach that is more beneficial to the employee instead of just saying, well, this is allowed and this is not allowed. Like if there's anything that we can do that makes it even better, that is to the benefit of the individual involved, then I find it very interesting to go out and seek the way how to do it, where we are not crossing a boundary, not crossing a line, not breaking the rules, but don't necessarily follow

08:58 Charles Brecque the guide that exists either. So you're sort of using legal or at least legal advice to sort of navigate uncharted territory where maybe legislation says something, but based on what,

09:11 Dee Janssens how your business operates, it's ultimately creating new rules, new playbooks. Yeah. It's for me, it's their favorite sounding board to bring an ID to them and say, imagine that if we would get audited or we end up in a situation where we get challenged on our approach, do we feel that there's enough viability to what we come up with that we can actually make a case for it? And if that's the case, and if they feel that that does something that they can do, because there's always a level of reason within the legal space, then I'd love to explore and

09:47 Charles Brecque see what we can do to make it better. And a lot of the companies, well, you're at now and where you've been, they're international companies already present in multiple countries. How do you sort of, I mean, maybe tap into legal to ensure that you're also offering the same benefits or perks across your workforce or so that there is a common culture?

10:09 Dee Janssens What we're looking for in terms of making sure that everybody has a similar experience is not offering the exact same thing to everyone, because unfortunately, local legislation doesn't fully allow you to do that. As an example, when you say benefits and perks, retirement schemes are a really, I think, good example here, is that every country has different legislation around it. We want to offer a scheme that works for our employees, or they've all wanted to, but there is a difference. So in general, what we find is to find a philosophical approach around what it is that we want to offer our employees, even though what we end up offering is slightly different due to local regulation. But what we would never do, or what I would never do, is say, well, we'll offer this in this country, but we won't offer it in a different location. So either we roll out a benefit, a perk, a program for everyone, and then try to find as much common ground as possible, or we don't do it all. So the element of finding that either everyone benefits or no one benefits, it's the ground rule when it comes to designing these things.

11:19 Charles Brecque And I guess from this same angle of offering the same benefits, if it's possible, I guess, how would you treat, for example, and this maybe is getting too technical and you don't need to answer, but if, for example, you have consultants and employees, would you ever sort of try to

11:43 Dee Janssens normalise what you might offer consultants, employees, or will they always be treated as separate? I would say we try to treat them as much as we can as part of the team, which means that if we can offer it through similar channels as we would do our employees, I would definitely want to make that exception because I hope that they feel as much appreciated as employees do. If there's no way to do that for us, we would do it in terms of additional compensation. So we would make sure that even though they might not be benefiting from a program, there's additional compensation for them

12:18 Charles Brecque to maybe take it out themselves or decide how they want to spend the additional amount. That's great, great advice. And you're now at Wheely and you've worked at lots of great companies.

12:30 Dee Janssens Where do you see yourself in the next five years? And Wheely as well? Such a difficult question. I always say I don't know where I'm going to be six months from now. I thoroughly enjoy working in a tech space and I hope that I can be able to do that for a very, very long time, even though I sometimes joke if I'm going to do this in our 10 years. I don't know if I make it to my 80s, but it can be stressful. I really enjoy the very early stage and the phase that comes afterwards, which is the startup to scale up, more maturity, change aspect. So I'm hoping to be able to continue to work in spaces where there's still a lot that can be built and where a lot can be designed and where there's a lot of creativity available. I do not see myself eventually working for a really large corporation unless at some point I feel that I maybe want a little bit more structure to my life. And I say that now, but I get extremely bored whenever I get in that space. So five years from now, I see myself still working in the space that I do. Wheely, on the other hand, in five years from now is going to be, I think it's a very global company expanding into multiple markets. And if we continue where we go now, I see that being a very successful,

14:03 Charles Brecque being very successful. Best of luck. Thank you. And you mentioned the startup to scale up phase as a part that you enjoy in particular. What sort of advice would you give to founders going through that stage who might not have a head of people? Should they hire one? And what should they be looking out for?

14:28 Dee Janssens I wouldn't necessarily hire someone, but if you're going to go through this stage, I think you'd need to help. And every founder or CEO who believes that they can do it themselves, I think they have to be extremely mindful of the fact that it's not an easy job to do. And scaling a company in terms of people and being very mindful of the fact of the impact that a startup to scale up environment creates is the, I would not recommend to do it by yourself and get some help. You can either, there's great consultants who can do this for a living, who advise startup founders in multiple areas, multiple phases of the growth of your company. I do want to be mindful of the fact that if you do hire someone, in this case, every phase of your company that it moves into probably needs a slightly different experience. So there is people like myself who are great and excel in early stage and maybe startup to scale up. But once a company is relatively big or becomes relatively big or grows through an enormous stage of hyper growth, there is probably people out there who've done that before and can be great advisors. I do necessarily think that you should always count on your head of people or your VP people being someone that is only with the company for a certain amount of time. They are usually not the people who are going to grow your company from a hundred to 10,000 and then a 20,000 because that might be a process of five to 10 years and these individuals like myself

16:06 Charles Brecque don't stay at a company for 10 years. So I guess when you are building a startup, a lot of it is about trying to retain employees, but you're saying that for the people leader, you don't

16:18 Dee Janssens necessarily want to retain them all. I mean, if they can grow and they're willing to go through every phase and they can adapt and adjust because every phase is very different, then absolutely. But I don't necessarily think that the head of people in the tech space, especially at scale up and startup companies, are necessarily interested in growing a company and then remaining at a company where they're not necessarily being able to create the value and impact that they would like to do in the early stage. And I think that that's where the interest for many people like myself lies is once it's running, it's great. And then you might need to find someone who can retain it. I like that early few years where I can build it, build a blueprint, make an impact. And then once I'm done, I give it to someone who's probably more suited to bring it into the next

17:13 Charles Brecque phase. Fair enough. I mean, look, I've learned a lot and that's lots of advice. I mean, yeah, I definitely find people is one of the hardest parts of growing a startup because you need to attract the right talent. You need to onboard them, make sure that they're happy and can grow the company. And definitely not something that we've mastered yet. Definitely not something that I do by myself. But yeah, lots of great piece of advice. And since you're on the Tech Story podcast, what's your favourite tech product? It can be the Wheely app. I mean, I love the Wheely app, let's be honest, but I also love the Uber app. So yeah, it's my phone. I'm sorry. My whole life is on my phone. So yeah, no, it's extremely lame, but that's it. I mean, we've had maybe three or four guests who've said that their inbox tool is their favorite tool. You mentioned that you have a people over process approach to your work. Can you share a bit more about what that means?

18:19 Dee Janssens Yes. So people over process, at least for me, means that whenever you run into an issue, a challenge, need to come up with a proposal, you need to come up with a new design or implement a new program, you look at the impact on the people before you look at the impact on the business. Which means that if you're designing something, you're keeping the approach and perspective of the employee or the person first, and then deal with the impact on the business side later. And it means that you try to simplify it for the people and the process in itself is something that you can work on later. And that might be a little bit more work, but if the benefits are for the employee, you take that one instead of looking at it, what's the easiest for the business to do. And one thing that I also really much see as one of those things is most companies hire mature individuals. People are relatively capable of critical thinking. They know what they're doing. They make well thought out decisions. And every now and then there might be one person who is not able to either think critically, it's not as negative as it sounds, or maybe just tries to bend the rules to their benefit even more. But I would never want to, if there's 1% of your employee workforce who's not necessarily capable of taking the mature decision, I wouldn't want to punish the other 99%. So when you create more policies and processes around exceptional situations versus the actual general population that you work with, I think that you're taking the wrong decision. And 99% of the people do not have to be punished because one person wasn't able to follow a guideline. And that is something that is in, especially from what I know in other companies that I used to work for in my early career, is the opposite of what they do. Every time something goes off or something goes wrong and it might be one person, they follow, come up with a new rule to make sure that it doesn't happen again. But I think the repercussions of that are actually much higher and it allows for a lot less of a work environment where people are being treated as adults versus laying out a rulebook for them what they are not allowed to do. Instead, just tell them what they should be doing. And if we find out that one person's not capable of doing it, let's have a conversation with that individual,

21:02 Charles Brecque not the other 99%. Fair enough. And I guess what sort of examples can you share around the company decision which can affect the people and the business differently,

21:15 Dee Janssens depending on the approach? I mean, the very simple example is expenses, business expenses. Do we really need to dictate how much people can spend on a hotel room for the night? I think we can all make a pretty decent decision on what is acceptable and what is not acceptable. So let people make their decision, see if they make a decision that is acceptable. And if you see someone going off track, just making a decision that you question, that is maybe one that you want to have a conversation with, whether or not they find it reasonable to, like, this is very simple. What is the average cost of a hotel room in London? 250 pounds? Decent hotel, 250 pounds a night. Most people will not go above because they just need something simple. But if you have people who decide to, because it's company money, decide to book a room that's 500 pounds, that's the conversation to have. Everyone else, just fine. So spending the company money as if it were your own, instead of spending the company money to get as much out

22:23 Charles Brecque of it as possible. And that is something that most people that I've met would never do. I guess in this case, it's really important to, I guess, define the culture of the company so that the employees know how to think like the company if there are no explicit rules.

22:42 Dee Janssens So it's also just having a conversation and then relying and trusting people that they do what is expected of them. And I find that most people do that really well. We don't actually have to have that many guidelines around it. Just tell them the idea and they get the idea and they run with it. It's not even necessary to be, well, obviously, if you ever approach anything in this matter, you have to approach everything that way. Otherwise, people will start questioning what is it that you're trying to do. But if that was the approach that you apply

23:17 Charles Brecque to business expenses, it also has to apply to sick leave, whatever it is that you come up with next. And I guess in this case, I mean, do you still need company policies or is the company policy just do as you think is best or how would you sort of suggest a company takes steps in this

23:37 Dee Janssens direction? I mean, there's always a need to have policies, but I would just to make sure that there's also some boundaries in place in terms of what you as a company want or do not want to offer to your employees. But I wouldn't say that the policies contain extremely strict regulations and instructions on what is allowed and what is not allowed. So I would prefer to maybe refer to them as guidelines more than policies. But yes, obviously, there's always things that can't be done and you can outline those and hopefully people read it and deal with them when they don't. But very strict processes and policies is not necessarily what I would see as the most successful

24:25 Charles Brecque element of my work. That's a great answer. And I guess, yeah, the problem with policies is that they often are not read. So I guess, do you suggest doing like town halls or more having open conversations with the whole company to sort of convey them? What sort of activities would you

24:48 Dee Janssens suggest? Many different actually. And it's for me, more conversational than anything else. Lunch and Learn, town halls, introduction in all-hands sessions, really strong self-service internet pages where people can go out and find a lot of information by themselves and then escalate or come to an operations team if they have additional questions. But also have a very, very strong, very approachable people operations team in place that everybody knows, that are very physical, very visible, very present. And people know that if they have any questions, eventually, they can always reach out to that person because they know they'll get the support that they need.

25:33 Charles Brecque Yeah, to me, usually is enough. Great. Yeah. I mean, we do daily standups with the whole company because we're a small company. But as we grow, we're definitely looking at what other forms of meetings can we do where we can sort of preserve the culture as you grow and make sure that everyone is on the same page in terms of benefits or what they can or can't do, et cetera. And on the aspect of culture and scaling a company, do you think that the culture should stay the same?

26:15 Dee Janssens Should it evolve? What sort of tips would you suggest? Culture evolves. Every new person that comes in brings a new element that is influencing your culture, especially if you're a company that expands to multiple geographical locations where you end up hiring people with different backgrounds. Once again, the legislation in the market means that people might interpret different elements differently because they're used to a different way of doing things. I don't think that that's a bad thing. It actually means that your culture is constantly evolving, gaining new elements, gaining new experiences, and actually, just for me, it just makes things even better. But it is good to be very proactive in terms of realizing what that growth could do to the culture that you've so meticulously have been trying to create while not pushing that evolvement out of it while you're going through that experience either, because every single element in one way will positively or potentially negatively influence what it is that you're trying to do. But if you take all these new elements to it, it makes it even richer. And I think for me, that is what makes it so extremely interesting.

27:33 Charles Brecque Dee, I'm conscious of taking a lot of your time already, so I'm going to ask you the closing question we ask all our guests. If you're to give one piece of advice to an aspiring

27:45 Dee Janssens people leader or founder, what would it be? Network. Find us people that you believe have had great experiences, have built great careers. I know from my experience that people who work in this space that I do love to connect with other people who are interested. If you can join network, if you can join speaking opportunities, there are so many different types of companies and so many different types of approaches to the work that you can do in the people space. I think the more you learn, the more that you find where your niche might lie and where you hopefully can find out which work environment would fit you best. There's no fault in being or looking for something that is a little bit more traditional. There's no fault in working in an environment that is chaotic because it's just really early and it's something that you enjoy about the chaos. But the individuals who've gone before you have a great experience to explain to you why they enjoy being in a space that they're in so much. If you're trying to find your own little area where you think you want to end up in, the people that are doing this,

29:00 Charles Brecque they love talking about it, me included. Your network is your network, as one says. One thing I do like about London is the amount of communities that you can be part of if you are interested in learning about people, operations, or founders. It's the best way to learn.

29:21 Dee Janssens I know it's the best way to learn and since I'm relatively new to London, I'm still trying to build as much network as I can because my network is not that big here in London. Even for me now, even after 12 years, it is really interesting to step into new networks and meet new people

29:36 Charles Brecque in a different location than I have before. London is huge, so there are plenty of networks to join. Thank you very much for taking the time. Thank you for having me. Best of luck growing a Wheely. Same to you. Thank you.

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