Uber product lead Daniel Graf explains Uber’s shifted approach to building tech

Uber’s Head of Product Daniel Graf thinks that the company’s recent problems may end up being good for the ride-hailing provider’s product development in the long term; in some ways, it’s brought collaboration to the fore in a company structure that previously preferred work being done in relatively discrete silos, walled off from the potential to do more by combining the efforts of the maps team with, say, the driver product team.

Now, however, Graf says there’s a lot of cross-functional work going on, and an effort to bring in members of other teams on product development not necessarily in their primary area whenever it makes sense to do so. Uber is fundamentally changing its approach to how it operates, Graf says, and that change might never have happened if it hadn’t had to take a good long look at its own business and practices in the wake of Susan Fowler’s sexual harassment allegations and Travis Kalanick’s ultimate departure as CEO.

Graf has been at Uber for nearly two years now, after joining in December of 2015 and originally heading up product for Marketplace at Uber, which handles trip pricing and related business. He then moved up to lead product across the company temporarily, before becoming permanent in the role as of March of this year. His background includes a long stint at Google, as well as a brief time at Twitter before making his way to Uber, and he seems genuinely pleased about the changes that Uber is undergoing in terms of its product direction after all the organizational changes.

“At the end of the day we’re a tech company and the focus has to be on shipping product,” Graf said in an interview. “Actually I think, especially in the last few months, we’ve done a really good job on turning the ship on that front.”

The changes are mostly to do with a shift in focus, away from the rapid growth and expansion that fueled Uber previously, and toward a more thoughtful evaluation of product — you can see the evidence of this in Uber’s willingness to roll back some of its less successful efforts, like its Xchange Leasing business, or the quick rollback of its altered driver destination limit when that wasn’t working out. Increasingly, there’s emphasis on deliberate action instead of just growth for growth’s sake.

“Internally, it’s exciting to see what’s happening,” he added. “We’re growing so fast, faster than most companies ever before. When you’re growing at this speed, it’s easy to forget what it means to work cross-functionally, to collaborate, to leverage each other, and I think that’s one of the big changes we’ve seen this year where teams are actually collaborating much stronger together.”

Graf cites Uber’s 180 Days of Change campaign as an example of that newfound focus on collaboration. The campaign, which sees Uber revamping its driver-side product and services over a half-year planned rollout, involved people from driver team, rider team, maps team and marketplace team all working together. This is not the kind of effort you’d have seen at the company before, Graf says.

“That’s the big change we’ve been going through,” he told me. “It’s so much more important than just ‘Let’s grow, let’s do a feature here and add a feature here,’ without really thinking holistically about the customers. You have to prioritize really, really carefully.”

NEW YORK, NY – MAY 21: Daniel Graf accepts a Webby award for Google Maps for iPhone at the 17th Annual Webby Awards at Cipriani Wall Street on May 21, 2013 in New York City. (Photo by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for The Webby Awards)

Uber’s growth is what prompted its strategy shift toward collaboration, according to Graf. The ride-hailing company has a number of different user groups now, across all aspects of the business, and it just wasn’t going to work to continue to work in mostly closed-off individual teams on each different product line and individual function.

“We can’t do anything in a silo anymore — it has to be super-collaborative. And this is a very conscious change,” Graf explained. “We did our strategic planning for the second half of this year, and customer obsession was our key theme, and customer obsession means you don’t develop for your team, you develop for your customer, and that means the rider, the driver, the eater; you do what’s right for them, and that means there are several people who chime in for this.”

We could read, almost every day a headline and be like ‘What the heck is going on at this company?’ Daniel Graf, Head of Product at Uber

In the end, Graf says in response to a question about how you build product at a company going through what Uber is dealing with, that cross-functional approach was a natural complement to the kind of introspection employees were going through anyway to process events.

“We could read, almost every day a headline and be like ‘What the heck is going on at this company? This is not the reason I came here,’ ” Graf said. “And this is why we spent so much time within [the] tech [group] in planning for the second half of this year, and had several tech all-hands where we all came together to remind ourselves why we’re here. We looked at our business numbers over the last nine months, they were growing, and growing — that was never the issue. So you’re looking at that, you’re looking at what’s happening in the world and what our products are doing, that actually was the positive side.”

It seems a monumental task to remain optimistic in the face of all that’s transpired at Uber, and considering its ongoing challenges with Transport for London revoking its license and a recent report that found its app contained code with the potential to record user’s screens, but Graf seems relentlessly optimistic, and even suggested its challenges might make Uber a better company in the long run.

“If I look where we are now, with Dara [Khosrowshahi] on board, with our product pipelines, with what we’ve shipped over the last few months with our business numbers, if I look at all this as a holistic picture, I couldn’t feel better about the company,” he said.