Episode #1 - Sami Lavin, Operations Manager at Postmates

SamI Lavin, Part-time poker shark

SamI Lavin, Part-time poker shark

In this episode we interview Sami Lavin, an Operations Manager at Postmates. We cover what it looks like to work in Operations at Postmates, Sami's transition from an industrial supply company to a tech startup, and the magic of writing things down on paper. Sami also talks about her experience with the interview process at Postmates. 

Alma Mater: Washington University in St. Louis
Major:  Finance and Organizational Behavior

What is Postmates? (from Postmates’ website)
Postmates is the largest, most reliable on-demand delivery and pickup platform. Able to deliver anything from anywhere, Postmates is the food delivery, grocery delivery, whatever-you-can-think-of delivery service to bring what you crave right to your door. We’re the largest in the Universe with more than 25,000+ partner merchants, many of them exclusive, and we’re adding more every day. Every customer enjoys a curated and tailored experience, showcasing the very best of their city. Just enter your address, find something you like, and add it to your cart. Once you place your order we’ll forward your payment to the store and you can watch us zigzag through the city streets to bring your package to you.

Interview Recap

(Quotes may be edited for clarity)

To kick things off, Sami explains what she does currently in her role at Postmates.

“Operations for us is really about how can we grow as fast as we can and work as best as we can. It is primarily a lot of problem solving. It is primarily a lot of day-to-day problem solving. How can we make things run a little smoother in this area? Are there opportunities for us to improve our application’s interface or run a cool program with merchants to provide a great user experience?”

Sami started her career in operations at McMaster-Carr, an industrial supply company. We asked her about the differences and the transition.

“As different as they are, both roles really require the same underlying approach. At Postmates, it’s me looking at data and understanding how fast or slow things are going. At McMaster-Carr, it’s be watching boxes move through conveyors. Either way, you note down your observations and try to diagnose the underlying issue. Once you’ve done that, the solution is generally pretty clear. Then it’s just a matter of making sure everyone understands what the solution is and putting it into place.”

Sami also had the unique experience at McMaster-Carr to come in as a young 22-year-old manager of some people that had been at the company for 30 years and were literally twice her age.

“I would literally have to go to someone twice my age and say ‘you’re not performing or not meeting the standards. How can we improve?’”

We discussed how she prepared for some of these sensitive conversations she needed to have with her team.

“The number one thing is that you have to know your people. You have to know what they’re interested in, what they care about, and what do they do outside of work. You have to show them that you care by investing the time to get to know them. And once you do, a performance becomes so much more than “you have to move faster”. It’s more like “Hey, you know that family event that you were talking about? Is that still impacting you? Is there something we can do to make that better? Or is this something else?”. People aren’t robots. People are people. People who aren’t performing aren’t stupid, or lazy, they may just be acting in a way that aligns with the situation that they’re currently in. But I definitely had a lot of those conversations that went poorly and I had to reflect and see how I could do better the next time. There’s always an opportunity to reflect and grow. “

Most recently, Sami has been piloting a campus ambassador program to help promote the Postmates brand. She talked with us about how she recruited students and what she looked for when choosing ambassadors.

“Postmates has a ton of competitors. We're competing against Uber Eats, DoorDash, Caviar, and tons of others. And so the main thing we were looking for is someone who embodies our brand. They're going to be going out unsupervised and advertising Postmates. We can't just have this be any person, they have to love Postmates. They have to use it. They have to understand it and they have to be able to sell this product. And we could have just theoretically gotten anyone. And if they had converted people, we would have paid them. But we wanted to put our best foot forward with people who represented our brand. At the end of the day, our brand is what differentiates us.”

In addition to working with her direct team, Sami spends a lot of time working with the merchant account managers and the brand team. Merchant account managers handle the needs of the 25,000+ vendors that supply food and other delivered goods to Postmates delivery drivers. The brand team is responsible for putting on events and media promotions that will help build Postmates image.

“Last year, the brand team helped us work at Coachella, where we offered our pickup service to different merchants at that event. So the users didn’t have to wait in the super long food lines in a million degree heat while they were at the concert. They could just place the order on their phone and go pick it up when it was ready.”

Sami works in Los Angeles for Postmates at a satellite office with a small team while the headquarters is in San Francisco. She talked to us about the pros and cons of working away from HQ in the LA office and also having the option to work remote. Here are some highlights.

  • You get more freedom to solve problems independently and work with less oversight pressures because you’re not constantly being pulled into meetings

  • Since messaging and email is the main form of communication when you’re in a satellite office you are usually bombarded with more notifications and there’s a feeling that you need to immediately reply to show you’re responsive

To handle that rapid-fire communication, Sami sets strong boundaries to manage the notification overload.

“I would say my biggest rule is once I get home, I don't like to work anymore. If I'm in the office. I'm working, but once I get home, I don't want to have to pull my laptop again. We work enough hours as it is, I don't need to work more. And so I’ve set my slack notifications to turn off at night. I only get urgent notifications. When when I first started here, I didn't really know what I was doing. I was just at the mercy of whatever my boss wanted me to do. I just did it and sat there waiting for the next thing to come and was really worried about face time. But now that I've proven myself and I know what I'm doing and I know what's necessary, I do not care about how long my little green Slack dot is green for. You know, the other day I worked from home. I left at 3:45 to take my dog to the vet, and I wasn't online again until 8PM. And I worked another hour and then I stopped --in total, I probably worked a shorter day than I normally do. But I took care of all the things that needed to be done.”

How do you foster the most effective home workspace?

“That's a great question, because when I first started working from home, all I could do was keep staring at the TV and think, man, I could put on a TV show on and not work for a while and nobody would know.

I think the first thing that you have to do is you have to pick a spot. I only work in two spots. I worked from the couch or I work at the kitchen table, and that's it.  I also set rules, like you are not allowed to watch TV, or go on Facebook or Instagram or anything like that. It can be hard to set those rules and stick to them but over time it gets a lot easier because, you know, at some point work is more interesting than watching a rerun of some TV show.

Also, go get the supplies you need. I'm the only person in my office that uses a mouse, for instance, as opposed to the trackpad on my Macbook, and I feel like an idiot carrying a giant mouse around. But I know that it makes me work faster.”

On the hiring process at Postmates

“After my initial phone screen the gave me a homework assignment. They gave me a bunch of fake data to analyze and asked “How would you grow these markets as fast as possible in a three month period?” I looked at the data and proposed my recommendations based on the data and my understanding of the company.”

After the homework assignment went well, Sami moved on and had her final in person interview. She actually thought she did horribly in the interview coming out of it.

“I thought I bombed two out of the three [interviews] completely, and I left the day feeling like I certainly didn't get this job. And if I did get the job, I didn't know if I would take it. “

Sami goes on to describe how the interviewer was asking her some questions that made her think she wasn’t being clear enough.

“At one point in the interview, I remember my interviewer said “but wait, I don’t understand why you were doing that at all?”. You know, the interviewer should never really have to ask you, What do you mean by that? What does that term mean? You know, all of those questions are red flags that you're thinking to jargon-y or you’re in your own world when you should be thinking, how can I present this information so everybody, even a kindergartner could understand.”

But of course, Sami did get the offer and her boss had actually been quite impressed.

“I later discovered while at drinks with my boss, even though I thought I bombed my interview with her. They had loved me. They said I did a really great job, you know, so never be too hard on yourself.”

Wrapping up, Sami summarized her two guiding principles to success.

  1. Always go back and look at what you could have done better even when things were successful.

  2. Lean on asking questions if you have an issue or something is unclear. Don’t come in hot with assumptions and accusations. Start with a question.

Notes from the show