Workplace

'The best meeting length is not a meeting.' A crypto exec shares his productivity hacks

RippleNet GM Asheesh Birla explains how he closes on job candidates.

Calendar

"Every quarter I encourage getting rid of as many recurring meetings as possible."

Image: Christopher T. Fong/Protocol

This is the second installment of Protocol’s Calendar Series, where we take you inside a day in the life of some of the world’s biggest tech execs: the meetings on their agenda, how they manage their time, their best productivity hacks and what they prioritize in a busy day. Read the rest of the series.

Asheesh Birla is the general manager of Ripple’s RippleNet, a decentralized global network of banks and payment providers that allows financial institutions to send money around the world using Ripple technology. He first joined Ripple in 2013 to lead development of its product suite. He started his career as a founder of a content management company that he later sold to Thomson Reuters, where he became the media company’s VP of Global Technology in 2005. In between Reuters and Ripple, he advised and led product design at a number of startups across Silicon Valley.

Birla and I got together over Zoom last month to talk about what was on his calendar on March 24.

His schedule has been edited for brevity and clarity.

6:30-7:30 a.m. | Workout w/ Nisha

I have two young boys, 9 and 11. And the one thing that has really helped me conserve time is having a trainer come to our house. Nisha is my wife. We start early because that’s before my kids get up. By the time I’m done training, I can help get my kids ready for school. They need to be out the door by 8 a.m.

8-9 a.m. | RippleNet leads meeting

This is my team meeting that we do once a week. It’s at 8 a.m. because we’re trying to balance a global organization. There isn’t a time that works for everyone in San Francisco, New York, London and Singapore, but this was the only time that wasn’t in the middle of the night for one group.

We try not to do status updates. I feel like it’s more efficient to just do that over email and send a doc out. These are usually meaty discussions. For example, this morning we talked about customer feedback and go-to-market, and that was the full hour. Then product marketing and really going through, “What is the field saying about what’s resonating with our products? What’s not resonating? What adjustments do we want to make to our go-to-market?” That was this week’s theme.

Next week, it will be crypto deep dives. Someone will bring something new that they’ve researched. That’s the first half hour, and the second half hour is usually a professor or an entrepreneur who is doing something in crypto who does a product demo. We had a professor from Australia who was doing DeFi research. We have the founder of Panther Protocol coming in to talk about zero-knowledge proofs, which is a new type of cryptography that allows you to keep data private, even though it’s on the blockchain. The cool thing about working in crypto is that a lot of things are out in the open, and some folks are more open to sharing because they’ve already started building in public anyway.

9-9:45 a.m. | Product + engineering all-hands

This is a quarterly all-hands. We do team awards for the engineers around a couple of themes. And then folks do demos on product features. And then we talk about our roadmap update. That’s on Zoom and is going to start moving to hybrid in the next couple of months. [To make everyone feel like they’re on an equal playing field in hybrid meetings], everything needs to be written in narrative form that is sent out ahead of time. And with presenters, we start with the folks that are remote and have them present first.

10-11 a.m. | Leadership staff meeting

This is our CEO’s leadership meeting. We go through pressing items that are impacting our company across the board. We start the meeting with a stand-up where we each talk about a big issue that we’re facing as well as a big win. It doesn’t even have to be work related. A lot of times it’s like, “I got two kids at home, and they’re sick. And it’s been challenging for me this week.” To develop a little bit of empathy for everyone and everything that’s going on. That is usually 15 minutes.

An example of a win I’ve shared is that we closed our numbers really strong for the quarter. I was able to give an update on how well we’re doing in terms of our volume goals for the quarter, and then I also announced that I made a big hire as well.

We also did spend a section of the meeting talking about how we can ship faster. What are the blockers? Is it resourcing? Is it a technical tool? Crypto is moving so fast that if you’re not keeping up to speed in terms of how you’re responding to customers, it’s a big issue.

11:30 a.m.-12 p.m. | ODL eng 1:1 (Conner)

Conner is our engineering lead for our flagship product called On-Demand Liquidity. Conner’s been here for six or seven years. I’ve been working at Ripple for nine, so we go way back. I like to keep really close to engineering even though my role encompasses sales and business development, things outside of engineering and product. But I spend more than 60% of my time with product and engineering to make sure that things are moving efficiently.

12-12:30 p.m. | Candidate sell call - VP of Payments

That was a position that’s been open for a couple of months. And we’re calling a candidate and closing that candidate, which I did. It’s a very competitive market out there. So, it’s getting out there and hustling and trying to close as much as possible. Given where we are with COVID, I’ve been doing more of these in person as coffee chats. In this particular case, I took this candidate out to dinner last week with a couple of others as well. I think that people like that sort of personal connection, so I’ve been doing a little bit more of that as things have been getting better on the pandemic front.

12:30-1 p.m. | Stablecoin strategy

With the product team and, in particular, the engineering team, [we like] looking at potentially new types of technologies that could help provide a better experience for our customers. And so looking more and more at stablecoins as a potential offering that would help improve the customer experience and scale faster. If this were in the office, it would be on the whiteboard brainstorming: What would the benefit be to the customer? What would the flow look like? What are the risks?

1-1:30 p.m. | Asheesh/Brad

I have a 1:1 with [Ripple CEO] Brad [Garlinghouse] at least once a week and then catch up at least one other time per week. I create an agenda ahead of time, send that over to him over email to go through in a structured format, and then I also just catch up with him on a personal front as well. I’ve been working for Brad for seven out of my nine years here.

Today, it’s going to be in person. But it’s been pretty much over Zoom for the most part during the pandemic.

1:30-2 p.m. | Candidate sell call

I like to talk to folks a little bit about Ripple, about how I think their career is going to jump-start by coming. I specifically talk to them about existing people that have joined Ripple and what they’ve done at Ripple, their career trajectory at Ripple, and those who have left Ripple and how well they have done.

I’ll show them examples of people like Conner that have been here for seven years. And every year, they’re taking on bigger and bigger roles, now leading our flagship product, but then other people that have been here for six, seven years that are running their own company, that are venture partners now, you name it.

2-2:45 p.m. | Customer call w/ Nium

This is one of our largest partners and customers. I get text feedback from [the CEO] about issues he’s having, new ideas. I like to keep in touch with what they're seeing in the market. Most of their customers are in Asia, a customer type that I am not as familiar with, given the geography, and so they’ve helped me connect with them as well.

3-4 p.m. | Work block

I like to write either strategy or thoughts that I want to clarify, or I’m researching something in crypto. So this is where I would read a white paper about, like, a new crypto project but really trying to go deep. This combination of reading something new on a topic in crypto and then writing about it is super useful for me. That’s how I digest information. Sometimes I work with people to turn that into a blog or a tweet. Sometimes it doesn’t go anywhere. But it helps me refine my thinking.

4-4:30 p.m. | Carpool

My sons play basketball and baseball. Thursdays, I run the carpool. So I’ll pick them up from school, and then I’ll take them to basketball practice. And then I sort of wait. With COVID, you can’t go into the gym, but it’s a good time for me to organize my thoughts. I bring my laptop in the car and work a little bit in the car while they’re at practice. But yeah, that’s balancing life as a dad.

5-6:30 p.m. | Basketball practice

It’s good to have a good community of other parents to do carpool for practices, but I don’t like missing games. I try to make as many games as possible. This weekend, there happened to be eight games between my two sons because they were playing in tournaments. So that was pretty crazy. But it really meant a lot to them that I made all their games. I can definitely see them looking in the stands for me.

8-8:30 p.m. | Brooks/Asheesh 1:1

Brooks is our SVP of Customer Success. He runs our global customer success team, and he’s in Singapore. So that’s a time that works for him. I’m trying to be more accommodating to other folks’ schedules. Brooks is part of that a.m. meeting which is really late for him. This is sort of a trade-off.

Rapid Fire with Asheesh Birla

Outlook or Gmail?

Gmail 100%.

Handwritten or digital notes?

Handwritten. It just helps me remember things. I don’t actually even keep this [gestures to note], but just writing something down will help me memorize it.

Eating on Zoom: Yes or no?

Drinking? Yes. But no one wants to see me eat, so I do not do that. I actually eat the same salad every single day. It arrives at home almost at the same time every day. So for the leadership staff meeting or a meeting that’s at noon, I will turn off the Zoom for the first five minutes if I’m finishing lunch and just keep the audio on. And then, when I’m finished, I’ll turn on my video.

Phone calls or Zoom?

I love mixing it up. I love taking walks. It’s been so beautiful here in San Francisco over the last month, and there’s something nice about not being on video every day. So I do at least one or two meetings that are just walking around the neighborhood with my AirPods and audio only. I love that.

Optimal meeting length?

The best meeting length is not a meeting. I feel like a lot of meetings in general can be done via a document update or an email. Otherwise, I like 30-minute blocks for a catch-up. If you’re talking strategy or brainstorming, one hour. Those things that are high-collaboration like working on a new idea I think are the ones that I’m trying to reserve for the days back in the office.

Do you ever do focus days with no meetings?

I’ll usually do half days, just blocks of time to write or work on a product document. But those are really hard to do. After my kids go to bed, it’s another good time around 8 or 9 p.m. My wife is watching “Love is Blind,” and I just catch up.

Do you keep a separate calendar for your personal life?

I do. I have three calendars: One that’s on the personal side, one that’s work and a third that’s just kids’ activities because I have to coordinate with our nanny as well. So between my wife, my nanny, my admin and myself, keeping all that in sync, you can just pool that. That’s why I love Google Calendar, to view and share that with people as well.

Your favorite productivity hack?

I have started using Asana to keep track of all the open items between myself and my admin. I think that’s been super effective. Having a Google doc attached to your direct message with your direct reports to just track items you want to talk about or discussion items throughout the week. So you just open that doc, and you can actually go in there and answer it in real time. And that makes the one-on-one sometimes not even necessary. All the open items are done async.

Also, every quarter I encourage getting rid of as many recurring meetings as possible. I feel like they’re sometimes there because of inertia, not because you really need them. And so during the cleanse every quarter, if folks want to add them back they have to legitimately justify them.

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