47. Akshay Verma of Duolingo

This episode of Dollars to Donuts features my interview with Akshay Verma, the head of User Research at Duolingo. We talk about being qualitative focused in an experimentation-driven organization, research team structures, team rituals, and sharing knowledge between researchers.

I don’t actually want to bemoan or belabor this concept of a room that we’re invited to or not. At Duolingo, I feel it pretty acutely just because we do have a lot of rituals and traditions at Duolingo around how product gets built. And it’s great. It works. It works really well. But, you know, I could spend a lot of time and energy going crazy, being like, “How do I get invited to these rooms?” and then get upset when it doesn’t happen? I actually don’t. I try my best, but I think our energy is probably spent elsewhere.” – Akshay Verma

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Steve Portigal: Welcome to Dollars to Donuts, the podcast where I talk with the people who lead user research in their organization. I’m Steve Portigal.

The other day I debuted a new client workshop on “Boosting User Research Impact.” We did this remotely, with me being in California and the enthusiastic participants in Europe who stayed late. One person used the excellent simile “It’s like I’m being asked to solve global warming” – in this case they were referring to the kinds of research request they get, but it highlighted for me how the team did such a great job at not spiraling into higher-level, structural, and less-easily solved challenges around having impact on stakeholders, but stayed within the framework I gave them, which was to consider specific, practical steps they could take before research, during research, and after research. There’s that cliché that asks, how do you eat an elephant? And the answer is one bite a time. These kind of frameworks turn an elephantine problem like having impact with user research into something more manageable. For this team, it worked very well to dedicate time and space for collaborating creatively in order to change the approach. We also looked at what’s already going well, and how to extend or expand that. In just a couple of hours they generated a number of new changes that they can prioritize and build from ideas into actual programs and practices.
I’d love to talk with you about the challenges your team is facing and how I can help.

Okay, let’s get to today’s episode with Akshay Verma. He’s the Head of User Experience Research at Duolingo.

Steve: Akshay, thanks so much for coming on Dollars to Donuts.

Akshay Verma: Thank you for having me, Steve.

Steve: I really appreciate getting to speak with you.

Akshay: It’s a total joy to be here.

Steve: So you are the head of user research at Duolingo, is that right?

Akshay: That is correct. Everyone’s favorite green owl and unhinged TikTok presence. Yes, that is true.

Steve: I want to know about those symbols a little bit too, but what is Duolingo?
Akshay: Duolingo is the world’s most popular language learning app.

Akshay: We recently expanded beyond language as well. We’re rebranding ourselves as a learning app. It’s also a bit of a video game. I think we really lean into the fact that it’s a really gamified experience. It’s a really fun, gamified way to learn a language or now you can actually learn math and music on Duolingo as well.

Steve: And the owl. I think I know about the owl, but explain the owl.

Akshay: The owl has sort of had a life of its own in the last couple of years and really made a wave on the internet. But yes, our icon, our mascot is a green owl. And somewhere about two to three years ago, our lovely social media manager, Zaria, started experimenting with TikTok and just had the owl take on a life of its own with a lot of really funny, really unhinged TikToks. And so now the owl is kind of like a celebrity. And actually there’s videos of the owl sometimes. They’ll be recording a TikTok in Madison Square Park or whatever, somewhere in New York. And it’s like a celebrity. Like people will come up to Duolingo and take photos with him. So he’s become a cultural icon, but he is sort of the shepherd. He shepherds language learning and learning through the app.

Steve: And his name is Duo.

Akshay: His name is Duo, that’s correct.

Steve: What does user research look like at Duolingo right now?

Akshay: Actually, we’ve been in a period of flux and change over the last year. I think a really exciting one, but a period of flux nonetheless. So user research right now at Duolingo looks like this. And I’ll tell you a bit about what it used to look like about a year ago to also provide a point of contrast. So we actually, about a year ago, moved from being in our product org to being in our design org. And I’ll actually contextualize this a bit further. Duolingo is a pretty small company. We’re about, I would say, 700, 750 employees total right now, which is fairly small. I used to work at Spotify, which I believe the time I was there was closer to 7,000 to 8,000 for comparison. And our product and design teams are around, let’s say 150 people total. And there’s eight people on the research team right now. So actually fairly good ratio, all things considered. But user research at Duolingo right now looks like we’re part of the design org. We’re still settling in, in a way. Change takes time. And so it’s been a year, but we’re still settling into being in the design org. We’re a fairly qualitative team, slowly moving towards being mixed methods. We do a lot of longitudinal research. We exist in a sea of experimentation. And so we have to think a lot about how do we coexist in a company that has a lot of A/B tests. And yeah, we’re just a really lovely, lovely team of people who are passionate about languages and about learning and around gamification. And we each kind of have our specialty and flavor that we bring to the team.

Steve: You said that your team shifted from reporting to product to reporting to design. What led to that?

Akshay: Yeah, a few things led to that. We had a bit of internal restructuring with certain individuals and people leaving and people joining. And it was a really good moment for us to reflect on where should research sit. And so part of it was just riding the wave of other organizational restructuring that was happening. And then this question around the industry standard alignment that research typically has is with design and the type of impact the team was having at least about a year ago and leading up to that moment was probably closer aligned with design. And so we kind of took that moment to try that out. And so I think it was partly just riding the wave of other moves and reorgs that were happening and then trying to think about industry standard wise, where should we be? I have a lot of thoughts on reporting to product versus design just at large. I’ve done both before. There’s pros and cons to both. I’ve reported to an insights function before that’s multiple insights disciplines, and that’s worked really well too. So I have some thoughts, but I think at Duolingo, it works really well for us to be in the design org.

Steve: You teased us with you have thoughts. I guess I want to hear what those are.

Akshay: Yeah, let me give you some context about the teams that I’ve been a part of over the last eight to 10 years. So I used to be on the lovely research team at LinkedIn where we reported into design and design actually reported into product. And so I’ll come back to that in a second, but I sort of grew up, so to speak, in the heyday of our field in that environment of being part of design and then sort of by extension being part of product. I then moved over to Spotify, which I remember back in like 2016, 2017, it was really pioneering in tech where research could fit in an organization. It was one of the first companies that brought together data science and user research, and then eventually other functions like analytics, engineering, and other related insights disciplines into one insights org. They’ve iterated on that model a little bit, but I was at Spotify in that heyday of my teammates were researchers and data scientists, and I would leave work streams and teams across both disciplines. I then moved over to this company called Gong.io, which is this sales product for, it’s an AI product for salespeople. And there I actually reported to our head of product. And so I was very, very closely intertwined with the product org.

And now at Duolingo, as I mentioned, I joined when we were part of the product org and we have since moved over to design. So I’ve sort of seen a bit of the design thing, the product thing, the insights thing. And yeah, you mentioned, not to generalize, but there’s definitely trade-offs in each one of those. And I think it is, not to give the researcher, it depends answer, but it does. It depends on the context of an org and it depends on a few things. It depends on what is the product culture? Is it a very experimentation driven company like Duolingo or Spotify, or maybe not so much like LinkedIn. Again, LinkedIn had a ton of experimentation as well, but I at least worked in parts of the company that were a lot more like strategic and forward thinking and new product building. So I think that really impacted the role that research could play. It also depends on a lot of organizational rituals, right? Like at Duolingo, we have a lot of rituals, like we have product reviews that certain people attend. We have different permutations of leads meetings. There’s a lot of stuff that’s organizational specific.

And so as a result, I think it just, it depends where you are, but generally if I were to generalize, I love being part of product. I actually love being part of product because I think it gives us a closer through line to actually make product impact. And I always say some of the best researchers are product managers who are secretly researchers. And so I think being part of product really helps with that. I felt that definitely at Gong, like I was in product leadership meetings. I was working really closely with my product managers and those were my key stakeholders. But I also like being part of design because if a company like, and Duolingo is a good example of this, if a company really wants us to make very visible, tangible impact on how a product looks and feels and functions and how features are designed, being part of design really, really helps with that. And so I guess this is my jumbled way of saying it depends and pros and cons to both, but I personally love being part of product. And then I didn’t mention the insights disciplines. I loved that long-term. I don’t think that works as well long-term. I don’t think being your own, own discipline that doesn’t ladder up to product or design is actually that effective.

Steve: Why is that?

Akshay: You know, I found that at Spotify, it was interesting because we had so many insights professionals. We had like 150 researchers, probably 400, 500 data scientists, which is crazy. We just had so much visibility, which was really interesting. But I found that since we didn’t report into product and we didn’t report into design, we didn’t have the same level of influence because our set of stakeholders were each other, which was great. But then I think we got lost in some of those rooms. We got lost in those leadership meetings with the rest of your discipline because the rest of our disciplines was just other insights folks. And so I think that was a big downside. I’m trying now to place myself many years back and think about the things I used to feel, but the lingering, I think impression I left Spotify with was again, love Spotify, a huge place in my heart for Spotify. I just think it was tricky to have impact as research, as user researchers specifically with being so disconnected from the other functions.

Steve: How does reporting structure shape the way you’re able to influence people?

Akshay: You know, part of it is very literal. Like I said, even just things like the meetings you’re a part of week over week, which permutations of team meetings or leads meetings or leadership forums are you invited to? Part of it is literally just that. It’s like if you report into X discipline, you will go to X disciplines set of meetings. And so I think that really shapes influence being part of a company, especially bigger companies that have lots of people where a lot of our job is influence and a lot of our job is fuzzy and it’s the people you meet and it’s the people you can have impact with. It’s truly just like, which rooms are you a part of and which rooms are you not? And frankly, reporting structures as silly as it sounds, like has a huge role in that. I think the other thing that’s a little bit more amorphous is the incentive structure that comes with it, right? The incentive structure for someone who’s in, and I’m no longer explaining to someone who’s three by using phrases like incentive structure, but you know, what are you incentivized for by being in a product org? It is shipping great product, making sure it moves metrics and continuing to do that, right? What are you incentivized for if you’re in a design org? Probably something similar, but from a different lens.

And so I think that really impacts our influences research as well. Like ultimately who is deciding what success is, it is the person who’s leading the org you’re in and whether that’s product or design, that’s going to impact that. So I think those are the two things that come to mind, one being very literal and one being a little bit more around what are you ultimately incentivized for? What is research as a discipline incentivized for or with rather? And yeah, what does our success look like as individuals and as teams as a result? Yeah. I mean, I think it’s possible, but again, it’s just, it’s so dependent on the person and it’s so dependent on the rituals that different teams have. And so I do think that’s possible. And I think that’s the classic conversation around having a seat at the table or being invited to the table. The things we often hear about is almost like tropes in our field, like researchers invited and we have a seat or we’re not invited. How do we get a seat at the table? And sometimes it’s literally that it’s like, which org do you report into? And as a result, are you invited or not? Of course, there’s always room for change. Of course, there’s always room for influence, but you’d be surprised you put people together to accomplish certain goals. And we exist in the structures that we are a part of in a company. And that typically ends up being the function that we ultimately represent or report up to or whatever it may be.

So yes and no, I do think there’s opportunity. And I’ve seen great examples of that at Duolingo, for example, because we have a bit more of a blank slate to work with, to be honest, because the research team is quite nascent. And so I’ve been able to experiment with like inviting us to certain again, rooms or meetings or whatever we want to call them that we haven’t been part of before to varying degrees of success. It’s not always been a slam dunk, but that’s not always the case, especially as you get more complex and get to the sizes of a LinkedIn or Spotify, which are like tens of thousands of people. And there’s so much chaos and complexity as a result.

Steve: In a company at the size of Duolingo, when someone like you invites themselves to different kinds of meetings, like you said, varying degrees of success, what does a slam dunk look like and what does a failure look like?

Akshay: I’ll share a recent example with someone from my team. One of the researchers on my team, it’s an area, you know, at Duolingo, we have three main areas similar to most companies, right? We have a learning area that thinks about all the learning content of Duolingo. So all the actual learning related material that the app offers. We have a growth team, which is pretty structured, which is similar to a growth team that you might imagine, which owns all the gamification mechanics, our DAUs, our daily active users, our top line growth metrics that we look at as a company. And then we have the monetization area, which thinks about our subscription. So the ways that Duolingo makes money. So everything from the purchase flow to what value to users we offer from our subscription, et cetera. So that was just a bit of context, but one of the researchers in my learning area, and this is a slam dunk example of, you know, over the years has built great relationships with leads. We typically haven’t been involved in, again, certain permutations of leads meetings, just because research historically has just never been invited.

And recently he mentioned, you know, he was part of a conversation with that group and they were talking about certain product ideas. And the team was pretty amenable to the ideas until said researcher was like, Hey, actually we have like years of data and research around this. And my perspective and intuition is this maybe isn’t the best idea. And we should maybe think of this in a slightly different way. And the team completely agreed and decided, actually, let’s pause on this new thing that we were exploring. And that to me was a slam dunk of like, Hey, we’re not typically in this room. We kind of are testing the waters and inviting ourselves in. And as a result, we can shut things down before. And I don’t even want to use the phrase shut things down because it’s more like, Hey, we can actually like redirect the team before because we have that knowledge and we have an archive of knowledge we have built over the years as a research team. That to me is a great example of like, right, incentive structures and, you know, how do we play a role in these situations? And then let’s think about like, what does, and I’m blanking a bit on your original question now.

Steve: You know, you said it could go well or it could go not well. There’s degrees of success.

Akshay: Yeah.

Steve: And so I was curious what going well looks like and maybe what going not well looks like.

Akshay: Yeah, I think examples of not going well. I think a lot of researchers will be able to relate to this, but this is for better or for worse, something we experienced quite often. Duolingo is a very experimentation driven company. Like that’s the bread and butter of Duolingo is we do a ton of experiments. And oftentimes we are involved in maybe the early parts of planning and experiment that we might run, which can sometimes be pretty laborious. That could take weeks and months of prep and experiment hygiene and analysis. And there’s been so many times me or my team have been parts of those conversations and said, this is not a great idea. And we do it anyway. And then a couple of months happen and what we kind of expected happens.

And I’m not here to like, I’m going to make sure that never happens because that’s impossible. Sometimes you have to let people do what they’re going to do. But that’s a sheer example of like, we are not involved early enough or we’re not involved period. And as a result, we will catch wind of something that we spent two, three months doing. And then a researcher on my team in a one-on-one will be like, had they shown me this, I would have told them exactly this three months ago. And that’s the downside of the, had they shown me this, right, is things just fall through the cracks if you’re not parts of those conversations. And yeah, so I think that’s an example that comes to mind of something I hear a lot. And I know a lot of researchers will be able to commiserate feeling like we’re not involved enough or early enough or in the right, with the right depth or at the right point until it’s too late. Or we never hear of things. And then we go, yeah, we can point to like four different studies we’ve done that would have probably like shaped how you’re thinking about this had you told us.

Steve: I was reflecting back a couple things that you’re saying. One is being in the room, is having that information…

Akshay: Exactly.

Steve: …is being aware of it. That seems like that’s the base. And then from that, you need to be able to, for lack of a better way of putting it, be listened to. And so in your slam dunk example…

Akshay: Exactly.

Steve: …that was a new sort of room to be in. That was new. But I think you’re also saying that the researcher in question had built relationships. Even if they hadn’t been in that room, they had relationships.

Akshay: That’s exactly right.

Steve: Coming to that room is not brand new. Everybody, they knew each other. And then when they made a recommendation or a suggestion, that was taken up.

Akshay: And you know, it’s interesting, just a meta reflection on this. I don’t actually want to bemoan or belabor this concept of a room that we’re invited to or not. I think all of this is very true. And actually at Duolingo, I feel it pretty acutely just because we do have a lot of rituals and traditions at Duolingo around how product gets built. And it’s great. It works. It works really well. But, you know, I could spend a lot of time and energy like going crazy, being like, how do I get invited to these rooms and then get upset when it doesn’t happen? I actually don’t. I try my best, but I think our energy is probably spent elsewhere.

You know, and again, this is sort of an existential reflection on it, but I don’t know if necessarily this metaphorical room is something that I think is like the biggest issue right now and for my team or anything, but I do think it’s an important one and it connects back to our conversation around reporting structures and all of the like company context that ultimately impacts these metaphorical rooms that we are a part of or not part of. But more to say, it’s funny talking about it because I’ve intentionally reflected to myself about how I don’t want to belabor this, especially as a leader of a team, because that’s a recipe for like a constant downward spiral. If you know, we as a team or me as the leader of this team is thinking a lot about just this idea of these rooms and the rooms we’re not a part of. Of course, I do think about it, but I catch myself being like, okay, no, no, no. How do I make best with what I have and slowly in part change over time?

Steve: And then what does that have to do with the rooms that you are in?

Akshay: Exactly and like over time, how do we focus our energy on that? And part of it, again, going back to a reporting structure, right? If we reported into product, you know, I would be in rooms that I’m not in now. That would be great. I would love that. But the downside is I wouldn’t be in a lot of rooms I’m in now being, you know, a design leader. So, you know, trade-offs there, but it’s a very literal thing that impacts the rooms you’re in or not.

Steve: And I think you’re saying that it’s healthier to focus on what relationships and what rooms. You and I are never going to say rooms again after this conversation. We’re going to be so sick of that word. The teams and the meetings where you are there…

Akshay: Yeah.

Steve: …and you’re trying to add value, it’s healthier to focus on what you do have access now to…

Akshay: Yeah. Yeah.

Steve: …and where you are working versus, gee, where you could be working.

Akshay: Yeah, exactly. And I, you know, I say that to a lot of people on my team or just a lot of other researchers a lot too, because we are a fuzzy discipline. We are no matter how much, you know, I think it’s important to like continually have the impact conversation and to be evolving our baseline of what good impact looks like and be able to measure it, you know, as tangibly as we can, but ultimately we are a fuzzy discipline. And so it’s really easy to get stuck in these spirals about, you know, what rooms we’re going to be a part of and what rooms we’re not. And yeah, you’re right. I’m never going to say rooms again after this conversation.

Steve: Sorry, everybody.

Akshay: But I always tell people, no, we got to, we have to make the best of what we have, but also recognize that like, yeah, we can still push for change. And that’s where I come in and that’s where, you know, we all play a role, but that’s where, you know, I do come in. But my method is slow and steady and seeing over time what works and what doesn’t and not letting myself burn out over the context of the company that I exist in. Right. Yeah. Think about it a lot.

Steve: You said a couple of times that, you know, you’re a qualitative team and an experimentation-oriented company. And even in the last things that you were just talking about, you said, “This is fuzzy work, but we have to measure impact.” How do you think about what impact looks like for the fuzzy work that you do in a company whose culture and thought process is oriented towards experimentation, A/B testing, and so on?

Akshay: It’s probably the number one thing I think about. And it’s true. I think one of the joys of Duolingo is that it is very experimentation driven. And again, I say joy because to me it is a good thing. I could probably be like, oh, my team, it’s so hard to be a researcher because we’re so experiment driven at Duolingo. But I don’t think that’s the case. I actually think there’s a lot of work we don’t have to do because we’re going to do the experiment anyway. And I love that because that frees up my team to work on things that aren’t so focused on experimentation. However, the other side of the coin there is it’s hard to show impact, right? If the impact is like, okay, what experiment did your research specifically lead to and what were the metrics that it moved?

A lot of my job has been actually changing our mindset, starting with my team, then moving beyond that to our design org and ultimately to our product team and ultimately to the company changing our mindset that, yes, that’s one form of research impact, but that is by far and away not the biggest form of impact. And so how I think about impact is really three things right now. I think the first is how can we add some context here? So we recently actually restructured the team a little bit where we have three key horizontal audience level work streams that map onto Duolingo’s three-year company strategies. So I sort of did this intentionally about three, four months ago where I was like, I think we just need something much more horizontal that ties very directly to our company goals where I worked directly with our exec team, shopped it around with other function leaders and made sure everyone was A, on board and B, felt excited about this. So as a result of that, the impact I see there is really long-term. It’s like, how do we actually shape our company’s thinking around these key goals by studying the audiences that they pertain to? And without talking specifically about what these goals are, a lot of them are audience focused. There are specific segments of our audience base and essentially not so much always just around growth, but around really creating value for that segment.

And so that to me was like, that’s what I need to do because guess what my team’s really good at? Studying audiences. So as a result of that, that’s the first and the most amorphous form of impact, the one that’s going to take the most time, but the one I’m being really intentional about quarter over quarter, making sure, Hey, like we have these three-year markers, five-year markers for the company. I want to be part of that conversation over the next three years. And it’s not all that my team is doing, but a good chunk of my researchers are now working on these work streams that align to those goals and the work streams are audience understanding. So that’s the first level of impact. I would say the second level of impact is beyond that. I still have at least one researcher working on each of those areas that I had mentioned, you know, the three big areas. And then we actually have some other areas of Duolingo as well, making sure that we have at least a person supporting the month over month, quarter over quarter needs that are very specific to these sub teams. And so that form of impact is still pretty like strategic and it’s still pretty high level, but it’s about like shaping the features that the team might be working on, iterating on those features.

Like an example for growth might be thinking about our gamification mechanics, short, medium, long-term, what does that journey look like? What else do we experiment with? How do we actually implement it in our monetization team? Thinking about, you know, we are thinking about our subscription offerings and the tiers of our subscription. So making sure that we’re helping the team in those conversations at the area level. So that to me is the second level of impact is like at the area levels, making sure we’re impacting how we’re thinking about feature development. And then frankly, the third, maybe the third and sneaky fourth is that what I mentioned, the experiments and the very tactical things. And that’s intentionally the third thing and not the first thing, because I still want that to be part of our portfolio. I still every quarter want to be able to say, you know, we impacted these X number of experiments. Either because our research directly led to them, or, you know, we played a role in them in some way. And of these, these are some metric wins that we had. But I want that to be like a pretty decently small size of our portfolio, because I don’t want to over-index on that, because that’s also a bit of a losing game I find is if you get too bogged down as a research team on like, which metrics did you move? That’s the most obvious way to show your impact, right? But I think it’s the hardest as well.

And that’s where you get in the game of like working backwards and some shoddy calculations around like, well, technically I was a part of this conversation. And therefore I moved this metric. And that’s where I encourage more of like, hey, this is a team sport, like we should be a part of these conversations, but I don’t want to get like, quote unquote, territorial about like what we impacted and how much like that moved metrics. And then relatedly, very tactical improvements. That’s sort of the bread and butter of like usability research. We don’t do a lot of it as a team, but I have two lovely full-time contractors who basically help keep our lights on. And so every week they have a full slate of features and concepts they’re testing, usually very tactical. The teams find a lot of value in it. I think it’s great. We can point again at the end of every quarter, similar to my experiment report, I can say, you know, we tested 13 features across the company and we made these very specific design changes, you know, and these have been implemented or these were put into an experiment.

And so that’s like my third and maybe fourth category is the tactical research and the experimentation impact. So that’s how I think about impact right now, company and strategy level, that’s the longest term and having specific work streams that align to that feature level. Again, helping teams dream up new features or iterate on existing features and helping unblock them at the feature area level and then experimentation and tactical impact.

Steve: For each of these three plus a sneaky fourth level of having impact, I’m wondering how and who and when, like, the decisions about what you’re going to spend time on doing. Yeah, could we talk through each of those and maybe hear how those decisions get made?

Akshay: So basically how do I staff my team to ensure that we’re covering those different layers of impact?

Steve: Yeah, and I guess the leading question part of it is, I don’t know, I have this thing about proactive versus reactive that I want to impose as a presumption in that. So, yeah, who’s working on it and where does the need for them to work on it emerge from?

Akshay: I’ll start with the first. I think that to me is it’s new terrain for us, but to me it’s really obvious. It’s, you know, we have these company goals that we talk about constantly. Like our three to five year strategy as a company. And so those to me are like, okay, if we have this other North Star as our company, I need to have work streams that align to each one of those. And so the need sort of arises at the top, right? It’s like, these are our North Star metrics. We constantly refer to them. We talk about them in all hands. You know, we have documentation around them. And so when I actually presented this to senior leadership a couple of months ago, that’s how I framed it. I’m like, hey, I’m trying something new. These are these new work streams. And actually they are all very, very neatly mapped onto our specific goals we have as a company over the next three to five years.

And so the need sort of arose in that I identified that and I was like, we need to do that because as I mentioned, a lot of these, actually all of them are audience focused. They’re about a specific subset of our audience. And so as a result, about half my team is staffed on those. And here’s the thing. It’s not like these are in isolation, right? Like sure, these ladder up to big company goals, but actually in the short, I would say in the medium to long term, they still will have impact in, I mean, they have to have impact for specific teams as well, because that’s how we get to these goals, right? As teams have to act against these things. And so it’s sort of this twofer of, you know, I want to help shape our company vision and strategy long term, but in the short, medium, long, in the short and medium term, these will also serve area level goals. And so that’s where the need arose, so to speak. And that’s how I’m thinking about staffing them in that, like about half my team is working on work streams that align to those goals. And then the other, you know, second category that’s, I think everyone on top of what they’re doing is still more or less aligned to an area. That’s the area that they represent. That’s the area that they have some context in.

We’re experimenting with some new staffing models, and I now have a research pod of a few researchers who’ll look across two areas, which we can dig into if you’re interested. But nonetheless, I think for the most part, people are aligned to areas. And so just because, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be working on things that quarter for that area. A great example is I have a researcher on my team who’s leading a work stream that has a lot of buy-in from our CEO. We actually meet with him regularly just to keep him updated on what we’re learning and what the next steps are. As a result, she can’t work on monetization, which is the area that she supports, but that’s okay because I made sure that like anything that’s like absolutely critical, we’ll find a way to resource. But I also make sure to set expectations like, hey, this quarter actually like X person is busy working on this other work stream. So I have to do this game of trade-offs. And as a result, this game of like working with stakeholders around the expectations around resourcing for the quarter or for the half or whatever it might be. Again, we have to work with a finite set of resources.

So I do the best that I can to make everyone happy. Not always possible, but you have to do what you have to do. And then the third is that’s the stuff I’ve tried to offload for my team. That’s where we leverage our contractors who work full time. And then the experimentation is like an added bonus. Like a lot of things can lead to experiment ideas. So we as a team just keep a pulse on that. And so that’s sort of like a byproduct of all the work that we’re doing. If possible and when appropriate, we try to move it to experiment ideas that we can implement.

Steve: I’m thinking back to your use of the term rituals to describe, you know, ways that organizations work together. And so within research, yeah, what rituals or practices do you have? You’re talking about sharing information and keeping, you know, track of the pulse of things. How do you all work together?

Akshay: Actually, very, very top of mind for me. We’ve been doing a bit of a ritual reset that I’ve been really excited about. I think one thing that comes to mind a few months ago, I was sort of observing. So we have a very tight knit team. We work really closely together. We have this is a research team. We have our weekly meeting where we keep in touch and chat about what we’re working on and commiserate over things and get to know each other. But I realized there’s so much up leveling that we were missing because we as a team weren’t looking at each other’s work nearly as often as we should be. And so I kind of had a bit of a mandate and I said, hey, if anything you are doing is going to get, and this is subjective, but more than a few eyeballs on it beyond our team and you’ll be the judge of how you want to define that, I want to make sure that our entire team does a round of crit for it.

So if you’re sending out an email at the end of a project that the whole company reads, which we do at the end of every project, we send out a TLDR email to this email list that has pretty much the whole company, I want to make sure that our entire team has a checkpoint to give feedback on it before we send it out. That’s been amazing. I’ve gotten so much great feedback about the feedback process just because it’s so nice to be able to connect the dots. And we were starting to miss that a little bit up until a few months ago. That’s a ritual I love. And that’s also true for things like absolutely if you’re going to have a share out report, like absolutely multiple checkpoints where the whole team looks at it. And I’ve just seen so much work over the last few months be up leveled, we’re able to connect the dots more, have more of a point of view. I mean, yeah, it’s just the nature of the more people can give, the more number of smart people that can look at what you’re producing and give you feedback on it, the better your work will be. So I think that’s a really lovely ritual that we have.

Another thing I try to do every quarter is these sort of zoom out weeks, typically to start or end a quarter where we actually get together and talk about these bigger provocations that we as a team want to pose for the company or for the product team or with as wide of an audience as possible. And that’s also an exercise in connecting the dots. And we had a really fruitful discussion recently where we tried to dig into the archives of our team’s insights and identified examples of great insights and not so great insights. And then dissected why was something great and why was something not? And then actually came up with principles of what we as a team think a great insight is. And I can’t recite it off the top of my head because I forget, but it was things like, actually, I’m not even going to try because they were lovely and great and I probably won’t do them justice.

But we as a team now have a shared definition of this is what a great insight is. And that can be an anchor and a bit of a rubric almost. It’s not so much a rubric, but just a bit of an anchor as we frame our own insights. And would it stand the test of like, hey, we defined that this is a great insight. Is this true? So I’d love to do those zoom out days just to dig back into the archive of our own team, think ahead. I have one coming up next month that I’m thinking about, and it’s going to be around impact. People think a lot about individual impact, so I think I’ll have everyone write an impact statement for themselves as individual researchers. Then zoom out one level. What is your impact on the team or work stream that you have been a part of? Then we’ll zoom out another level. What is your impact in the broader team that you’re a part of? Then we’ll zoom out another level. What is our impact as a team? Things like that. I love rituals like that because I think it’s so important to take a step back, zoom out, and also think about our past. I keep using this phrase of the context that we exist in, but I think it’s really true. So much happens in any given month at a company. People leave, people join, team. We have reorgs. We move to a new discipline. So I always want to make sure, let’s take stock of that and let’s make sure that we show up the best that we can in all of that. So that’s my intention with those rituals is helping us zoom out. What else?

And then we actually, we’ve been in a bit of a flux with joining our design teams rituals because we just moved orgs, like I said. So that’s been actually really fun for the team, having a new set of stakeholders that we are building relationships and rituals with. But I think that’s the stuff that’s really important and that’s the stuff I love to think about.

Steve: When you do those zoom outs or that example of what’s a good insight, how are you able to synthesize and align on that? I guess I asked that question with some bias that I don’t take it for granted that everyone’s going to talk about what impact is or everyone’s going to talk about what quality is and that you’re going to end up somewhere that’s not a giant mess on the wall. How are you collectively able to get somewhere with all this potentially personal and individual judgment disparate takes on things?

Akshay: You know, frankly, it is a bit of a mess on the wall and that’s the thing we have to be comfortable with, but pretty tactically, you know, just leaning into our skills as workshop leaders and strategists. So I do a lot of, you know, we’ll have a pretty collaborative fig jam board with these open ended questions and provocations. I’ll continuously remind the team, this is not meant to be a judging exercise or no one gets surprised for having the most number of great insights on the insight, great insights category. And so it’s a lot of like intentionality around, and I think this is a great thing about researchers. Our job is to make sense of mess. And so we do make a bit of a mess, but then I give us enough time to like distill that mess into whatever it might be. A principle of what makes a great insight or a set of three really impactful nuggets that we want to share with the whole company. That was a recent brainstorm that we did. And so it’s a lot of like, honestly, facilitation skills and more tactically using really, really intentionally designed FigJam boards.

Steve: Maybe you could take a fictitious or actual example and just maybe walk through some of the touch points in the process. I’m curious with the number of people and the sort of artifacts being produced, how do you work through group feedback? What kind of feedback are people getting and how do they structure that interaction to make it feasible and valuable?

Akshay: You know, right now it’s actually fairly unstructured, which I like. I’m all for structure where structure is needed, but this has been fairly organic and it’s been working really well. But tactically what that looks like is, like I said, I have a fairly loose, but still pretty clear definition of like, if you’re going to get eyeballs on it beyond this team, let’s go through a team crit because I want to make sure that we as a team are showing up in the best way that we can and also learning from each other. Right. So as a result, it’s pretty packed. We basically added an extra calendar slot every week where it’s just crit slots. And so we now have twice a week crit slots for just the research team. And there’s only eight of us and almost every week, all of those get filled up. So we’ll have anywhere from three to five people presenting different types of projects. Like I said, everything from a final report to a discussion guide to a survey set of survey questions that they have.

And we keep it pretty unstructured, but if we’re being really, really granular, what that looks like is we’ll have typically 20 to 30 minutes. The person will start with like, here’s what this is. This is the type of feedback that I want. Sometimes it’s literally like, I’m about to send this email out. Can you just like gut check, spelling, grammar, and like framing for me? Love that. Guess what? With eight smart people in a room, it ends up never being just that because we ended up getting into all sorts of other stuff as well, which is great. And that’s the good byproduct of this. And we will typically just have a live Slack thread. And so the person will be presenting and we will all just have a smattering of Slack notes to the person. And so they’re basically getting feedback and advice from many six, seven people as they’re presenting something, or sometimes it’s more discussion based. And then from there, sometimes it’s like, Hey, actually let’s do a follow up round the next time around if it warrants it. So it’s fairly unstructured actually, and it’s worked really well. And again, what I’ve liked is even just in a few short months of doing this, I see a lot more consistency in how we show up, especially for the high visibility things like a company-wide TLDR email with our insights.

But my favorite part is seeing people connect the dots, right? We’ve had people on the team who’ve been here for many, many years who have a lot of historical and organizational context that someone might not have. And as a result of this, they can then augment their insights or their perspective with that context or someone else might be working on a project that the other person’s not privy to and now they can connect the dots and uplevel their work that way. And so that’s my favorite part of it is also just making sure that the more dots we can connect, the more I think our team shows up as polished and as impactful. And so that’s been our crit ritual and it’s been really, really great to see the team just take it in strides and say that they’re learning a lot just from each other by doing that.

Steve: In terms of that connecting the dots piece, you know, you’re only eight people and it’s taking like lots of face time to get access to each other’s knowledge and put that in other places where it’s going to make the work better. And you’ve worked in research teams of different sizes and organizations of different sizes. How does connecting the dots work in a larger research organization?

Akshay: Frankly, it doesn’t. I, you know, again, loved being at Spotify, but the amount of times I would work on something and then realize months into a project that someone else at the other side of the org, far, far away from me had either done this before or was also working on it at the exact same time. And that was sheer, again, the sheer product of organizational design, the fact that we weren’t centralized as a user researcher, insights function. So it didn’t work to the same extent or you spend a lot of your time gathering context. And so we only have hopefully 40 hours of our work week. If we’re spending, you know, half of it building context, that slows us down for sure. And you miss a lot of context. So, you know, in larger organizations, it’s much tougher. I think it worked really well when I was at LinkedIn. We were a very tight knit research team as well. And frankly, I adopt a lot of the ethos of this like crit practice and making sure that we all stay connected, even as we scale and grow bigger from that experience. And again, it’s much more doable with a much smaller company and with a team of eight, but it’s just tough.

The more people you throw into an equation, the harder it will be. And so I think that’s what, as you scale companies and as you scale research teams, that’s where we introduce a lot of chaos sometimes and end up just like spending a lot of our time connecting those dots to varying degrees of success. So yeah, I don’t know. I think it’s tough. I think it’s just really tough in larger organizations.

Steve: You made mention a moment ago about a research pod. I’d love to hear what that is.

Akshay: Yes, this is hot off the press. But one thing I am experimenting with, with my team is, I mentioned we have the three key areas of our product org or rather of our company. And I only have so many researchers and so we’ve tried the embedded model and it works pretty well in some areas, but maybe not so much in others. And then on top of that, I also just have people matters to consider. I want to give people a fresh start. I want to, I’m a big believer in rotating to new areas after, especially after a few years of working on the same thing. I think fresh energy is really, really important. So I’m at this perfect confluence right now of trying to optimize who on my team works on what so that it’s a good match for them and for the area that they’re in. And then trying to optimize for the management structures I have on my team. And then also trying to optimize for just resourcing the highest priority needs across the entire company. And so I kind of dreamt up this research pod of three researchers who will look across two areas, two of the three key areas, and they will have a manager who’s responsible for building those area level relationships across both areas, fielding, prioritizing, kick-starting the right research requests. And then with the three researchers figuring out probably on a quarterly basis, who’s going to work on what.

And so it’s like a semi-embedded model where I as a researcher in this pod could spend one quarter working on one of the two teams and the other quarter working on the other team. I anticipate, this is again, very much hot off the press. I anticipate some of the concern around that will be, well, what will you lose by not being embedded and not being the go-to person for your product director to come to? I actually don’t think much because they will still have a go-to person as their point person, right? It will be the manager of this pod. And I still think you can build context over multiple areas, but what this actually helps free up is we can work on higher priority things. I think the sheer, if you’re aligned to an area, then you’re kind of beholden to what others that area need. But then this other area might need higher priority, just if we were stack ranking at the company level, what the most important things are. I actually think there’s more to be had by being able to work on higher priority things than being completely embedded in one area.

So it’s not necessarily the most revolutionary staffing model, but it’s a little bit different for Duolingo. And I anticipate there will be a bit of pushback and concern, but I’m really excited for it. I think it’s a really nice way to give people the opportunity to work across multiple areas, gain more context, gain more expertise, and then frankly, just be able to work on higher priority things. And so let’s see how it goes. Duolingo is very much like a, you are defined by the area and the team that you’re on. So this will be interesting. And I’m curious to see, maybe I’m wrong, maybe there won’t be any discomfort, but curious to see if there is any discomfort around like, oh, there’s not one go-to IC, individual contributor researcher supporting the area that someone’s working on. So that’s my research pod experiment.

Steve: Maybe we can switch gears a little bit to learn about how you found the field of user research.

Akshay: I love this question because I think every researcher has a really unique story to how they found research. And mine is a bit of a funny one. So it goes back to me studying Italian, which funny enough, you know, language, now I work at Duolingo, but learning a language was actually a really serendipitous way by which I learned about research, but studying Italian in college, and I did not know what research or design or frankly, even tech was. And my language instructor told me about a summer program in Italy.

And this was in the sort of heyday, early days of like IDEO, the d.school, sort of their like early days of research as a discipline. And I knew nothing about that, but it was in Italy. There was a summer program in Italy and it was about design thinking and prototyping. And I was like, this seems interesting design. I don’t know what design is, but I like the concept of design. And so I went, I did the summer program and it sort of changed my life because I learned about, you know, prototyping and research. And this again was in the like early 2010s. It was in the like early days of like the heyday, I say, of, you know, the d.school and IDEO. And I bookmarked that summer and I was like, I want to do this eventually. But then the more I looked into it, the more I felt like you needed a PhD. Again there wasn’t a lot of clear paths into UX research at the time, especially, I mean, it’s still true, but especially about 10 years ago, that was not the case. And then one thing led to another. I ended up working at a design agency, moved back to Italy and through the luck of it all ended up finding my way to the research team at LinkedIn. And so that was my journey, kind of learning about design and research and realizing, oh, I actually already do this.

A lot of my background prior to tech was in, you know, ethnography, sociology, urban studies, a lot of people-centered disciplines, but I was not approaching it knowing that like there was a field that existed in tech that could relate to it. And so when I, I still remember the moment I was like, oh, this is a job I can have. Like I can learn about people, but in the context of like a business or a product that seems too good to be true. And now here we are, I think it’s changed a lot. I think that ethos of like people-centered research teams has changed a lot for better or for worse. I still think at our core, that’s who we are. But I remember the cultural conversation around our field, especially about 10 years ago was like, that is the unique value we bring. I actually believe pretty wholeheartedly, like that unique value for us has changed a lot. Now we have to be much more like product strategists and designers, and we have to look across multiple methods and we have to be fluent in business metrics and experimentation and a lot of things, which frankly, like many years ago was not true, but I think that’s okay. And I think that’s good, but that’s how I found my way to the field.

Steve: Do you find yourself on the other end of those conversations? Like as you said, it’s still a field that’s hard to find its way into, but are you given your role or just things you do in the community? Are you exposed to people that want to join the field or people that are new to the field?

Akshay: Yeah, it’s funny because now there’s so many sort of feeder quote unquote academic programs or boot camps into this field, and in a way that was not true when I was joining. And I had the great privilege of meeting amazing mentors and people who took a chance on me. And I try to be that as much as I can, but as you can imagine, the LinkedIn inbox definitely fills up. But through hiring, LinkedIn actually hire, not LinkedIn, Duolingo actually hires pretty heavily from a student pool. So a lot of our, we have more people who have never worked anywhere but Duolingo than not. And so I really try to tap into that and make sure that we are getting really good talent that has never worked in research before and trying to be parts of talks and conversations and panels as much as I can. But it’s also a different time. I think the access, again, there’s all these programs now that are like trying to be feeder programs into the field of UX research for better or for worse, and similarly with design. So I think it creates a lot more supply and we’re kind of in this flux as an industry and as a field right now that I’m curious to see how that will shake out.

Steve: What are things you look for when you’re talking to someone as a prospective employee or even as an informational kind of conversation? What are things that stand out to you, people that don’t have research experience but that you think could be successful and do a good job at research? What are you looking for?

Akshay: By far and away, the main thing I look for is I think the like gusto and energy someone brings just to who they are. I think so much of our job is actually not research. It is influence. It is driving change. It is inviting yourself to those rooms that we talked about. It is moving those rooms. It is influencing those rooms. And I really look for that. I think that it’s tough because it’s a very, you know, sometimes difficult thing to measure and feel, but I look for that is like how much conviction can you bring to a conversation or a room? Because so, so much of our job is entirely dependent on that. And frankly, maybe this is the bias I have with my background that’s more in the humanities and the social sciences, but I look for people who are good people people, you know? People who are good at understanding people and which sort of relates to that first point as well. Being able to like tell interesting stories about people.

Again, that’s changing a little bit as I mentioned with just the evolution of our field, but no matter what happens, I think that’s what will set us apart as a field. That’s what also set us apart from other disciplines like data science is like we have to be able to pull from our expertise and knowledge as people experts. And so I look for that as well. And that can come in a lot of different ways. And you know, we hear this term curiosity and empathy thrown around a lot. I think it can be a little bit overused, but it relates to everything I just mentioned. And I think that sometimes just shines through. And so that’s really what I look for is like, can you move a room? Can you, you know, how much conviction and gusto do you bring to the way that you talk about work or you talk about a problem? That’s really important to me.

Steve: People that follow this podcast will have heard some interviews in the last couple of months that were previous guests coming back on and talking about what’s different for them or different in the field. In some cases, five years later, in some cases, nine years later. So hypothetically, if let’s say we were gonna have another episode of this together in nine years, what do you think we would talk about?

Akshay: Well I would love to be back in nine years. I think a lot of what we would talk about would be methodologies of years past that we don’t think about anymore. We would talk about, you know, how we exist in the structures of our teams. And so I’ll be specific about the first example. You know, I don’t think with the new tooling that we’re about to have and the new process changes that we’re about to have, we’re not like we probably teams aren’t going to be doing usability testing. Right? Like we can we’ll probably be able to offload a lot of that. And so I think we’ll talk probably very we would talk very specifically about those, you know, methods that we like don’t use or employ anymore and the things that we used to have to do that we don’t anymore.

A good example is I was reflecting today on how nine years ago I would go back and forth over email scheduling a participant interview and spend like a good chunk of my week literally just back and forth without Calendly. Just me, the researcher, scheduling people very manually and it’s changes incremental. So it’s hard year over year to be like, oh, things used to be so different. But if you look at it nine years later, it’s like, oh, yeah, we didn’t like we just didn’t have tools that could do that for us. And so I would imagine like nine years from now, that will probably be the case. Just a lot of the things and the processes that we have are no longer there.

I think the bigger question is, frankly, like. You know, we can have a lot of conversations as researchers. What is the future of our field? Where is this field going? But frankly, I think every discipline is having that same existential moment. This is not unique to us. Data science, product design, everyone is thinking about how is our job going to change? And so nine years from now, yeah, a lot of the jobs will have changed and a lot of the fields might be, you know, a lot of these jobs will probably. Will have to traverse, I think, a lot of different. I don’t know, areas of expertise to. Do meaningful work, I think. And again, reflecting back nine years, I think that’s also true in the early days of that heyday of, you know, the how might we as I call it, I reflect on that. I think I was told that as a researcher, I was supposed to be a little bit objective. I was supposed to like plant seeds and then let other people run with it. And now, nine years later, I tell my team, no, no, no, you plant seeds and then you water them and you run with it and you bring people along with you. But like you have to have a point of view. You have to run with it.

And so nine years from now, I think it will be probably even more extreme. So I’m curious to see how the like boundaries of what value we bring to a team or a company will be different. What new jobs don’t even exist yet. Like who are we partnering with? And you know, what are the types of things that people are doing at companies? Like I don’t even know in nine years what’s, you know, there’s all these disciplines I work with now or types of roles I work with now that weren’t there nine years ago. So yeah, those are some things that come to mind.

Steve: Maybe just before we wrap up, it’d be great to hear about something about you that’s maybe not about work that, you know, let us learn something about you.

Akshay: I always joke that my life is really lovely and it’s really simple because it’s mostly two things. It is Duolingo and it is techno. And again, that’s more a joke. My life is more than that. But yeah, a really big part of my life over the last many, many years has been being involved with like the techno community and basically, you know, underground dance music. The backstory of that actually goes back to I lived in Amsterdam about 10 years ago. And that’s one of the biggest hubs of, you know, underground dance music. And it sort of also changed my life in a way because over the years I’ve collected so many lovely deep friendships and a perspective on the world that comes with it, being able to travel the world with it. I pretty much spend my weekends and my evenings like digging for music and playing music and being inspired by music, thinking about the music scene here in Brooklyn. And so it’s a really big part of my life. And I remember I wrote, now it’s probably been eight years, but I’m going to regret drawing attention to it.

But there’s an article that I wrote on LinkedIn about how being part of that world actually made me a better researcher. I would probably, you know, cringe if I read it now, but it’s true. I think it was a lot about like shaping your perspective on the world, living a, you know, sort of alternative life in a way and being curious about people and philosophizing about people and problems. And yeah, I don’t know. I think a lot of that has translated very implicitly into my life. And I don’t know, I like being very open about it too. You know, that’s something that shapes me. And so is being a researcher and so is, you know, working at Duolingo. And so, yeah, there was a really funny meld of that where there was a meme of Duolingo last year going to this club in Berlin that I go to a lot. And I had like dozens of people at work and elsewhere being like, oh, surely you did this, right? Because this is the perfect meld of you and, you know, the two things that you love and represent. I did not have anything to do with it, but it was true. It was the perfect meld of that. So yeah, that’s a big part of my life.

And also just seeking inspiration from, you know, I love living in New York. I moved here really accidentally. I didn’t even want to live here. And I did. And it was one of the best decisions of my life. And now being really involved with like, yeah, just like finding inspiration from the city and being able to live in New York musically and artistically is really important to me as well. And I think, yeah, it totally feeds into my work as a researcher.

Steve: Why would you cringe looking at that LinkedIn piece now?

Akshay: It’s probably really lofty and like over philosophizing something, which, hey, that’s fine. That’s part of writing LinkedIn think pieces. But maybe I wouldn’t. Maybe I should give it another read. You’ve inspired me, Steve.

Steve: You’re describing a type of music that you like and that you participate in, but how does sort of being interested in something get to the point where you’re actually part of a community?

Akshay: Yeah. Yeah.

Steve: Like, you could list a genre of a thing that you like, and that doesn’t necessarily mean also that’s a community, but that seems to be a huge part of what you’ve drawn from it.

Akshay: It’s true. It is a very, very, probably the biggest part of my life, like I said, outside of work. You know, I think it’s, I tend to do this. I’m learning about myself over the years. I’m very good at focusing on just a few things that I love. And then I really ledge onto them and go really deep. And I mean, like decades long deep research is probably, you know, research is one of them. But when I got into this music, I remember feeling, I don’t even know what I felt, but I remember there was this universe of like terminology around this music that I knew I wanted to uncover. And then I spent many years living across the world and then finding wherever I lived pockets of people that were interested in that. And that was a beautiful realization for me, actually.

I lived in San Francisco when I worked at LinkedIn, which was actually a pretty, I loved LinkedIn, but it was a pretty low point in my life because I never really took on to living in San Francisco. But I remember like I found this little community of people who were into techno and who were into underground techno and like industrial techno. And that typically means they’re, you know, they’re throwing these parties or they’re throwing cultural events and you realize people are the same everywhere. And then I started traveling and I would go to, you know, Rome or Prague or London or wherever. And like, there’s always that community. And it was this beautiful realization that like people are more similar than we’re not. And then honestly, over the years, it’s the sheer number of hours you put into a thing. And so I’d put in a lot of hours into attending events and building connections.

And then when I moved to New York, it’s such a, there’s such a rich cultural scene here for anything, but certainly for techno and for underground music. And that was sort of what I launched onto. I mean, I moved here right as COVID was kind of starting. So it took me a while to kickstart that. But in the last few years, being able to just, yeah, it’s a sheer number of hours you put into a thing and then you realize that becomes your life. And I feel, yeah, just really lucky to like feel so much inspiration from music. And then actually it’s funny, yesterday I went to a friend’s quartet that was playing. And I felt like the same thing I felt about 10 years ago with techno, where I was like, I have no vocabulary to like discuss this with someone or to feel a certain way about it because it’s a whole universe of like, they were playing a piece from a medieval French, I don’t know, composer. And I was like, that just breaks my brain a little bit because I don’t even know what that entails.

And it’s funny because people probably feel that way when I ever start to talk about the intricacies of techno, but like, it’s similar, but so, so different. And it’s kind of beautiful to be at the start of something, not to say I’m going to go on a decades long journey to dig into that, but who knows? We’ll catch up in nine years and see. So yeah, it’s just frankly that it’s the sheer number of like hours you put into something and then the like feeling you get, I think you, you were always iterating on our lives and like the people or the situations or the things that make us happy. It’s true in work. You know, I’ve loved certain places I’ve worked at more than others or people I’ve worked with more than others. That’s obvious, you know, but it’s true. And over the years I’ve realized that’s been the one constant that like people that I’ve gotten along with or the situations I find myself in are happiest when they’re somewhere in that realm. And so as a result, I’ve now narrowed down my life to be like, Hey, I do the things that make me happy. And that’s a big part of it.

Steve: Is there a particular piece of music that is — that’s the one we would know you by?

Akshay: It’s hard to think of a particular piece of music, but recently I’ve been doing a lot of, I was just in Berlin and I spent like four hours at this record store, just listening to records because it’s such a rich country, you know, it’s such a rich city for techno. And I think where I’ve found a lot of inspiration recently is like old nineties, slower, what’s called like acid techno, which is just, you know, it’s the sound of, I don’t know, it’s hard to, again, I still don’t have the vocabulary for this stuff, but the sound is called acid and it’s this like really uplifting sound that just, you know, I collected a lot of records from that. And then this weekend, actually, I’m going to Detroit because that’s the real birthplace of techno and there’s a big festival that celebrates that. And so I’m really excited to get the flavor of, I love what’s called Detroit techno, which is a much more minimal, darker, more industrial, much more repetitive sound. But to answer your question, no, no particular music comes to mind, but genre wise, that’s where I find most inspiration is these days at least. And then, yeah, I think a lot of the, you know, the scene sort of also, it changes pretty fast. And so right now there’s this, you know, the people who are sort of at the top of the scene, so to speak, the people who play these big institutions are the ones I’ve been loving. And so, yeah, I don’t know, it’s hard to describe it without going on to like a full jargony journey, but yeah, just like back to the roots of like 90s Detroit and Berlin techno. That’s what’s been making me happy lately.

Steve: Well, thank you so much for coming on the podcast and talking about your two things, research and techno. It was great to talk to you, and yeah, we’ll pick it up again in nine years and see where we’re at.

Akshay: Yes, I will see you then. Thanks so much for having me, Steve.

Steve: There ya go, whaddya know, that’s the show! Find Dollars to Donuts wherever you get podcasts, and at Portigal dot com slash podcast for all of the episodes with show notes and transcripts. I would love love love for you to rate and review Dollars to Donuts on Apple Podcasts. Our theme music is by Bruce Todd. Today’s remix is by Trinity.

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