☕️ The Emotion in Product: An Interview with Irma Mesa

I interviewed Irma Mesa, Head of Product at KlickEngage and Founder of Cafecito (16 min read)

Homescreens is a publication about how we interact with our most intimate possession, our phones. Each week I interview founders and creators across industries and we reflect on the apps they use, how they’re organized, and their philosophy on notifications and mindfulness.


Irma Mesa is the Head of Product at KlickEngage, an EdTech startup that promotes social and emotional learning in schools. However, Irma wasn’t always in product — she went to school and earned her degree in psychology before making the life-changing choice to change the course of her career.

In her free time, Irma is hacking away at her startup Cafecito, which is connecting remote workers across the world and sparking interesting conversation over video. What follows is our interview, edited for length and clarity.

Jason: Let’s start off with a brief backstory about yourself. Tell me about your day job as Head of Product at KlickEngage and what you’re doing with Cafecito — I checked that out and it’s such a cool idea.

Irma: Thank you, I appreciate that! I've been in product for three to four years at this point. I came from a background in psychology, taught myself how to code, and ended up in a PM [product manager] role, loved it, and just transitioned to Head of Product about two months ago. So it's fairly new.

The app that I work for is a social-emotional learning app. Students in the classroom can take a survey and understand how their emotions are that day — Do they feel safe? Are they ready to be challenged? Do they feel excited? We have a logic that works in the background when they submit the survey that tells the teacher — hey, your student is in the purple group, or in the red group. Purple means that they're feeling good and they're ready to take on the day. But then you're going to of course have some students who didn't have a great morning. Maybe they didn't have lunch or breakfast and comes into class not feeling super great. The teacher can then intervene and help them out with the rest of their day. So yeah, very needed in this new world.

On the side, I'm working on Cafecito. So Cafecito today is sort of a virtual watercooler — we match people for coffee based on your interests. For the most part, it's used by engineers, freelancers, and product managers at the moment. You tell us when you're available to meet, and we take care of the rest of the process for you. We create an agenda, conversation starters, who you're going to meet, check out their LinkedIn, things like that so you feel really comfortable coming to the call. Then, you have a 25 to 30-minute break with them, which is a break in your day so that you're not doing work stuff — you're actually talking about other things in life. Today [9/2/20], we have about 500 members.

We track the emotion that you're feeling afterward as well. So, when you finish your call, you tell us, “hey, I felt happy.” I think it's my psychology background, I'm always thinking about emotions for some reason. Right now, we have 90% of our members reporting feeling happy or more productive after the call which is really cool. It’s a really great piece to show the value that it can bring. It's not transactional, it's more of a state of mind that you feel after the call.

So that's what I'm doing today. I want to take it as far as I can go, and reach as many people as I can. The more that I can help people feel better working at home, the more we can change the world and the stigma around remote work.

That’s super interesting. Is this [Cafecito] a project that you started during the pandemic, or were you working on it prior?

I was working on it prior to lockdown. I've been remote since 2017, so I actually tried to solve for myself this social isolation feeling back in 2018 just by meeting people one on one. And I was like — why don't more remote workers do this? Just get out and meet people and get out of the house. Then, I started working on it last fall as this matching tool essentially. I launched in March as a physical way to meet people in your town who also are working from home but quickly had to pivot that to a virtual product due to the environment. I'm glad that it was still early enough and still super small that I could make that quick transition. I don't think anybody noticed [laughs].

I forgot which podcast I was listening to, it may have been This Week in Startups, and they were talking about the difference working now and how they missed the water cooler talk and whatnot. A lot of people want that, so this is very much needed.

Have you had people that have been onboarded during COVID at your company?

Yeah, there’s been a few!

Think about that experience, think about being onboarded in a remote setting, to a team you've never met before. And now you have to feel part of the team. Right? We don't have that first day feeling of “let me shake hands with so-and-so because they’re my manager”, or “here's that salesperson I'm gonna really have to get to know.” I think that's another huge pain point that I’m hoping I can solve too.

How do you create an environment at work that lets people adapt from day one, starting at a company that's distributed? And right now, HR is scrambling to figure out what to do and how to make Jason feel like he can take on his work, and he knows what he's doing, and also know that he has a team supporting him. Even in the office, I think that was really hard to do, so that's another huge pain point that I see.

Personally, I'm hoping I can use the same technology that I'm using for Cafecito and apply that to create these connections between employer and employee.

Love it. Before we jump into your phone — you went to school and got a degree in psychology. Then, it looks like something happened in 2016 where you pivoted and went through Free Code Camp, started taking Udemy courses, and got into product. What was the catalyst for the change?

It was honestly by chance, I did not plan any of this [laughs] and thankfully, I love it! Growing up, I didn't know what tech was, I didn't know what coding was, or anything. I didn't have any role models in that space. So, when I taught myself how to code, I saw that as an exciting thing that I could do. I never was like, “oh, yeah, I can become an engineer.” It was just a thing I could pick up and code, put something on a screen, and share it with friends. Cool. It's gratification.

When I learned how to code, it made my transition into a tech company easier. I was able to show them that I had side projects that I had been working on, and I did customer support as my first tech role at a company and kind of experimented with a ton of different roles. One day, my coworker who was a PM, just left and my CTO was like, “Hey, Irma, you want to take this on?” I'm like — sure no idea what a PM is, but we're gonna figure it out — so that's been most of my life, just figuring out what's in front of me.

I love product, and if I can help anybody transition into product and help them understand if it's for them, that's another passion that I have — exposing more people to how awesome being in product is and how close you can get to the customer.

I feel like that background in psychology gives you such a unique perspective that most PMs don’t, that may have come from a more technical background. You bring that human aspect to it, it makes sense.

Let's dive into your phone. You’ve got a ton of cool apps to talk about, and you're one of the few people I've interviewed that has an Android phone. One app that I've never seen before is Pushbullet. What is that?

I love Pushbullet! You know how on your iPhone or Mac, you can just airdrop things to your other computers? So I can't do that on my Android as easy as I can do it in the Apple ecosystem, especially because my phone is Android and my computer's Apple. So Pushbullet literally lets me just drop a file, and it pushes it to my Chrome browser, or vice versa, I can grab a link from my Chrome browser and push it to my phone.

That’s cool, I didn’t know that was a thing. I see you have both Kindle and Scribd, what have you been reading recently?

Kindle, mainly because I end up renting books from my library online and I can just download to my Kindle for free, it's worked out pretty well. Scribd I downloaded it a while ago because it was a quick way to get into audiobooks, and I never had gotten into audiobooks before. I think I have both just for the differences. Do I rent a book? Kindle. Or do I want to listen to a book? Scribd.

When you're reading, what's your forte? Do you read about design, management, or are you reading fiction?

I wish that my reading list was way more fiction than it is right now. But for the most part, its nonfiction. It's a lot of This is Marketing by Seth Godin. A lot of startup-y books. I read The Mom Test a few months ago — that was really good, by Rob Fitzpatrick. I just recently read the New Startup Mindset by Sandra Shpilberg last weekend. I think those are my most recent books that I have gone through all the way. Do you like to switch between books? Because I do, but I’m not sure if it's a good practice or not.

No, if I do that I’ll just lose interest in two books instead of one. What’s a book that you would recommend to someone that wants to explore product management and if it’s a good fit for them?

I think the top book for this is Inspired by Marty Cagan. It's good for a beginner, I would say if you're already in product, you probably don't need to read this book. It goes over — what is a PM? How do you work with an engineering team? What is product at a company? Who do they interact with? What do customer interviews look like? It's very, very high level and touches on a lot of the different functions of a PM. So if you're getting into product, I think Inspired is a really, really great book to start with. It's one of the first books I read as a PM. I was like, “Who is this Marty Cagan and why does everybody love him?” And it's because he's really great at product.

Any podcasts that you listen to and look forward to every week?

Recently it's been The Daily by The New York Times. They talk about a really high-level topic as they do sort of a deep dive for 30 minutes. In the last five minutes, it's a quick dive into some top stories that are happening around the world. It’s a good morning routine.

I see you’re a fellow Notion user. What are you using it for? What’s your workflow?

I was reading through a past newsletter of yours and I think somebody else had mentioned that they had just recently switched over to Notion and moved their whole team there. So that's what I'm in the process of doing for Cafecito, I try to keep everything on Notion. I think getting people bought into Notion is a very interesting process, though, because it's different from Google Docs, and G drive, and all that fun stuff. So it's always sort of a challenge to go, “Hey guys, Notion is where our hub is.” So we're still working on that, and trying to figure out what are the best ways to store documents. And, what if we have user interviews that we just did — do we post that in Notion, or do we post that in Google Drive and just link it?

It's mainly for personal use, I’m currently trying to use it for Cafecito documentation: This is our mission, values, goals, onboarding. So if I onboard a new dev I can create them a quick Notion page with — here's who's on the team, here's how to contact them, here's our tech stack, here's the social media channels — things like that. I’m still trying to find my groove with using it on a team basis, but I know so many people who use it for that, so it has to work…it has to work somehow [laughs].

Do you use it for spreadsheets, if you do use Notion?

I use it for notes, and I use it for my side projects like this as a content calendar and CRM for everyone I’m talking to. Like you, I tried using it for task management and built a bunch of Kanban boards but abandoned them. I don’t have a great task management app right now. I see you have Trello, is that what you’re currently using?

I was using it for that, but it kind of was the same thing with Notion — maybe Kanban boards just don't work for my brain. I don't know what it is. I feel like checking things off works better for my way of working. But Trello right now is just for Cafecito, we plan all of our sprints in there. When we have questions following meetings, we just pop it into a card in Trello and we make sure we follow up on that.

I think for sprints and managing a dev team, and managing a software project, Trello works really well. It's super lightweight, it's free, and it easy to onboard people because there's no overhead. With JIRA, you have to learn what these filters do, what JQL is, and nobody wants to sit there and try to learn on their first day. Trello just makes a very seamless start with no overhead, which I think is my favorite thing about apps. Having a low barrier to entry is really important, at least for me, in becoming a heavy user. Seeing that immediate value from the moment that you open them is really hard to do, but I think you can convert a lot of people to core users if you can provide them with that gratification.

No one wants to feel stupid when they start. You have a folder that’s in between the shopping folder and messaging apps on the bottom row. I don’t recognize anything in there.

This is my — I guess you can call it a security folder. I have Nooie Cam, which is an indoor camera for your home. I can just pop it open, watch my dogs doing crazy things like ripping open pillows or chewing our chargers. So that one's cool. Arlo also does video cameras, but we just have a light that turns on whenever we're coming from the garage into our home so we're not running into things. And then Citizen which is probably my favorite app.

Is that the one that has like brackets and looks like an eye?

Yeah, it tells you all the things that are happening in your neighborhood around crime. So, if there is a shooting or if there's a robbery, you get an instant notification, like — Hey Irma, five miles away something happened.

Are they user-reported?

It is user-reported, yeah. They'll give you information like a suspected robbery is going on right now and update you in real-time with what's happening. If you're in the area you can record a live video and other people can watch what's happening. There was a house on fire the other day, and somebody was recording it live and you see the flames and the firefighters put it out. It's really interesting, it's a really cool app. It kind of makes you paranoid — is my house gonna be next? [laughs]

I’ll have to check that out, it reminds me of the Nextdoor app. We’ve got Reddit on the home screen, what are some of your favorite subreddits?

I’m mainly in the r/startups subreddit, or r/entrepreneur because of my current environment. They're all really helpful because there's a bunch of people that are doing it for the first time. There are also people that are not even in the software space that are putting together their first lawn care service or business and it's completely different. It kind of reminds me that people do start businesses in other areas that are not just tech.

Right, sometimes we forget that. With Slack, besides using it for your main job and Cafecito, are you part of any fun communities?

I'm in one called Out in Tech for folks that are LGBTQ+ in the tech space. They have a question of the day every day, and sometimes it’s a fun question, other times it's more of “how do you get your next promotion.” It’s super cool to see underrepresented groups sharing their own stories and just being around a community of people that are like you is always awesome. I try to check it every single day because it feels nice and cozy, which is weird, but you know there are people on there that are super nice and willing to help.

That’s very cool. How would you say that you handle notifications?

I'm very good about notifications, but over the weekend, I just like to let it all go [laughs]. I'm just not even here anymore. Like today, if I just started scrolling through this, there’s a bunch of things that I need to follow up on. I have to very much be in the mindset of going through notifications. I think it's its own little time block — like alright, cool — We're going to tackle phone notifications right now for the next 30 minutes.

Again, it goes back to your mental well being — is it actually the most productive thing to do? So that's something that I do a lot, to take care of my brain sometimes purposefully, and other times just because I can be lazy.

That makes sense. Were there any apps that you want to highlight that we didn't talk about yet?

There is one that my friend just told me about this weekend and I haven't actually used it yet. It's called Blind, where people post about their companies. I feel like it's sort of like Glassdoor in another format — It's anonymous. If I post something about a company that I worked at, nobody can ever track it back to me. You can essentially post about your experiences or read about experiences at different companies.

Oh that’s interesting and could be fun.

I just heard about it this weekend. They term it as an anonymous community app for the workplace. They want to break down professional barriers and hierarchy. I definitely want to get my account set up this week to just try it out and see what it's all about.

This has been great! Thanks for joining Irma!

Yeah for sure, good luck with this and have a good week!


Endnote

Thanks for reading my interview with Irma. Find her on LinkedIn here and be sure to check out Cafecito and take a break from your workday monotony!

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