Dobility: A Career Conversation with Lawrence Li

What motivated you to join Dobility?
Our company was founded 10 years ago and I joined just under two years ago. I knew Dobility and its founder, Chris for more than four years before I joined; I'd always found Dobility really compelling even relative to other technology companies for a couple of reasons: (1) Dobility is a for-profit company but mainly a social enterprise, founded by a development economist to build tools that he and his peers could use to improve the quality of research and-ultimately-improve the impact international development interventions. (2) In an era of cheap capital and venture funding, I think that the autonomy and operating discipline that comes with being a small revenue-funded business is rare and valuable. Autonomy is really important for an organization in order to be able to live out your values.

How do you feel that Dobility conveys a sense of belonging amongst employees?
This company was founded fully remotely from day one, so it's really a mix of finding people who work well asynchronously. So as people who naturally tend to think deeply and communicate clearly, we rely more on long form emails than meetings than most organizations you'll encounter because our chances of meeting are limited by time zones. We have intentional meet ups for different groups to collaborate. We really try to go out of our way to make sure people have a chance to meet in person, both to foster informal relationship-building but also to create time to work on the bigger picture, less quantitative questions in person.

How do you feel supported in your professional development and growth?
I mean, to be honest, getting the chance to do this at all was a huge step for me. I spent the first couple years of my career as a consultant, and then basically a decade after that as an investor--most of that in technology. Thinking about one organization deeply instead of using a benchmark or seeking patterns at higher levels of abstraction has been a huge opportunity to grow for me and the chance to do that was a big part of what made me excited about joining Dobility. On top of that, I think we have built a really strong feedback culture.  Seeking out feedback and identifying opportunities to grow here were huge, but the role itself is the biggest opportunity.

How are you supported in maintaining a healthy work-life balance?
That's a great question and the honest answer is I think it's really hard; I’ve been surprised by how intentionally we need to work to actively prioritize work-life balance.  My voice is usually the one pushing in favor of taking time off, prioritizing personal life when needed, and general work-life balance. So, often you'll see an email from someone who's supposed to be "out of office" and I'll Slack them and say "go enjoy your vacation."  I don't think we've turned down a vacation request and we've even had people proactively mention "Oh, I can reschedule" but we push against that. I think the onus has been on us and on the management team to their direct reports to really push against the natural dynamic of a small team with a lot of responsibilities and many hats. I think we do a pretty good job of that partly because we all want that for ourselves, but also because this is a team that cares deeply about each other and everyone wants to provide that level of support.

In what ways do you make an impact with the work you do?
I love that question. I think the biggest impact that I think we have is on our users. We improve the quality and the security of data that's collected around the world, and that can feel very abstract but we have users start using our platform from pen and paper and suddenly they have years of visibility into the impact their projects have. When they want to analyze it a different way, it's all there and they can take a much, much more sophisticated view of their own operations. Or for example, we hear from users in conflict zones who use us for our end to end encryption capabilities, and we know that our software is helping to keep their beneficiaries safe from oppressors, so that’s a very tangible sense of impact we get to see. Internally, the biggest impact we have is probably typical for an organization our size--the opportunity for people to really develop.

What makes you proud to represent Dobility?
The biggest thing is everyone that has gotten to know our organization since I've been here, and I'm pretty sure this is true before as well, recognize just how nice and kind of a team and business we are. We brought in people to help in fractional capacity as consultants, advisors, coaches and that's always the first thing people say. I've had people coaching members of my management team tell me, you know, usually I talk to people who have more of an established management style but don't care about their team. The thing that shines through here is that the managers really care about the team and the team members know it.

How have you grown since working for Dobility?
People management is something where there's just almost infinite room for growth. Whether that's just basic human skills like developing empathy and communication skills or the opportunity to lead an organization as complex as this, across different functions with a dev team where I'm nowhere near technical enough to be conversant on the actual concrete problems they encounter. I think I've just learned a lot about how to try to hear people without necessarily being able to understand 100% how to be able to support them.

What do you wish you had known about the professional world while you were a student?
I've had a really fortunate career where I've fallen into some really interesting roles that have given me a great breadth of experience. I didn't consciously position myself for it, and that was probably my greatest weakness coming out of undergrad. It was really one friend who literally kind of twisted my arm to go to interviews for consulting or I would have taken an industrial engineering job that I had from my internships and co-ops without even interviewing. It was a recruiter who pushed me from consulting into private equity, where as an investor I got to see a wider range of industries more deeply. I guess I wish I had a better sense of how big the world is and how vast and varied the opportunities are; I would have done more of that exploration myself rather than relying on the kindness of others to help open my eyes.

What advice would you give to emerging professionals seeking their first opportunities?
The chance to see a lot is worth its weight in gold, whether that is joining the Peace Corps, seeing other parts of the world, or taking a job like consulting or investing where you naturally see a cross section of different types of companies. Take whatever role you have and make sure you use that opportunity to gain visibility. Early in your career you never know what your connections may lead to. I have the challenge of wanting to see everything and so I’ve gotten the question more than once in interviews of "How does this fit in" or "how is this the culmination of your story," and if it's not, how do we know you'll stay around. No one can predict how long they'll stay in one place but it's important to understand your own narrative and recognize that it doesn't have to be linear.

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