Kevin Gibbs created something you might use every day. Before founding workplace software company Quip and selling it to Salesforce, Gibbs created Google Suggest. We talked to him about building and running a company using the company’s own product, and the insight that made him a better public speaker. His answers are insightful and self-effacing – we’re really proud to bring you this instalment of How I Work.
Name: Kevin Gibbs
Location: San Francisco, CA
Current Gig: CEO, Quip, a Salesforce company
One word that best describes how you work: Pac-Man (I only do what is in front of me, and I forget everything else.)
Current mobile device: Pixel 2 XL
Current computer: MacBook Pro 15″ (so I can pretend to still write code)
First of all, tell us a little about your background and how you got to where you are today.
I got my first job in “technology” when I was in junior high school, around 1992. I wasn’t writing code, but I was working with a flatbed scanner, scanning documents for a lawyer. Each scan took about nine seconds to complete, and then maybe another 15 seconds to process on the computer, while I sat there and clicked the buttons on the mouse. I know exactly how long each scan took, because I can still replay the screechy sounds of the scanner in my head. This job really informed my desire to go to university.
After getting my BS and MS in Computer Science, I went to work at Google, where I got my start as a software engineer in the Systems Infrastructure group. I eventually went on to create Google App Engine (Google’s first “cloud computing” product), and Google Suggest. After eight years of running my own teams at Google, I got the itch to start my own company, called Quip, which was acquired by Salesforce a little over a year ago.
What apps, gadgets or tools can’t you live without?
I love (in no particular order) my Pixel 2 XL, my analogue watch and my Apple TV. I love my Pixel 2 because I live on my phone. I’m always on the go, but with my phone I’m able to see everything that is going on and still feel connected to my team with Quip. I love my analogue watch because when I’m not working, I really like to turn everything off and be completely offline. And I love my Apple TV because… I have two young children.
Kevin at his desk. Photo: Quip
What’s your workspace setup like?
I have a desk with a monitor and some trinkets on it, but honestly, I never use it. I should get rid of the desk. I do all of my work either on my phone or my laptop computer. My laptop is for high-bandwidth writing and commenting on documents. My phone is for consuming conversations and documents, and doing all the same work in a more constant, low-bandwidth way. I recently installed a time tracker on my phone, so I know that I spend about an hour a day in Quip (mostly work), an hour a day in email (work and personal), and an hour a day on my laptop.
What’s your best time-saving shortcut or life hack?
I know I’m going to sound like a shill here, but the answer is Quip. I run my entire personal and work life on Quip (we have an account switcher, so it’s easy to keep both halves separate). It saves me a tremendous amount of time. My wife and I plan our weekly dinner menus, our upcoming trips, what we have to get done this week on house projects. Then for those other eight hours a day called work, I run every aspect of Quip on Quip.
Members of the Quip team. Photo: Quip
Who are the people who help you get things done, and how do you rely on them?
As a CEO, the answer honestly is everyone. The people closest to me, who I reply upon the most, includes my executive team, Patrick Moran, Laurie Shedler and Alice Hehman; my team of product managers, engineering managers, and our head of design; and of course Amber, who provides executive support to our whole team.
I rely on each group differently. For the executives, I try to give them complete autonomy to run their organisations, and I see my job as helping to set goals and get feedback. For my product management and engineering management team, I rely on them to balance having a lot of autonomy, and – when we’re doing our jobs well – for them to function in a bit of mind-meld with me, in terms of what my product and management philosophy is.
That’s a lofty goal, but when it works, I think it means that we communicate frequently, but we are anticipating each other’s goals and needs.
How do you keep track of what you have to do?
I track my to-do list on a Kanban board in Quip. The categories are “Today”, “This Week” and “Later”. The design of a Kanban board sort of forces you to keep the total number of things you want to do small, like sticky notes.
I then have a 1:1 document in Quip with each person that I work with closely, pinned to my sidebar. Each document has a shared task list, which I find is a really direct way to make requests and follow-up on tasks. We can each add work or discussion topics to it. And I always know when there’s something new to discuss, since it lights up my sidebar with an unread dot.
What’s your least favourite thing to do, and how do you deal with it?
Honestly, writing and public speaking. (This was hard!) Any endeavour with a larger audience makes me fairly anxious, and I tend to dread it. I deal with it by remembering something my wife Page said to me, which is that public speaking is performance, and I am not a performer by trade. It’s natural that it would make me nervous, and that I won’t do a perfect job! That helps me remember to cut myself some slack and let go. Then I’m usually able to get into it and enjoy myself.
How do you recharge? What do you do when you want to forget about work?
I think I go either high or low: Exercise or zoning out. I try to exercise for an hour five days a week, usually right before work, and I’ve been mostly successful for the past two years. It really helps me reduce stress and get the positive vibes and endorphins flowing in the morning.
Then, after a long day at work and taking care of the kids in the evening, I like to sit down and watch an hour of TV. I wish the answer was “learn Mandarin” or “build an ML project”, but that’s where I’m at right now. Plus, we’re living in the golden age of television (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend or Please Like Me, anyone?).
What’s your favourite side project?
I love to cook and work on projects in the kitchen. So my favourite side project at the moment is making liqueurs and bitters at home. I started a big batch of nocino (Italian green walnut liqueur) last year, and it’s fun to check in on it regularly and see how it’s developing.
What are you currently reading, or what’s something you’d recommend?
I’m a huge science fiction and fantasy genre reader. I got started when I was eight or so I haven’t stopped. I am currently waiting urgently for Cixin Liu and Patrick Rothfuss to finish their next books.
Fill in the blank: I’d love to see ________ answer these same questions.
Elon Musk. Does anyone answer this question differently? I mean, seriously.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
Go with your gut.
We’ve asked heroes, experts and flat-out productive people to share their shortcuts, workspaces and routines. Want to suggest someone we should feature or questions we should ask? [contact text=”Let us know.”]