David Perrin

How are you using your creative talents to create a more equitable world. For David Perrin, his focus is on the world of nonprofit design. By day, David is the design lead at The Ford Foundation, and he works with an in-house team of editors, copywriters, strategists, designers, and developers. Outside of work, he’s an instructor with Social Movement Technologies, a nonprofit organization that provides strategy, training and campaign support to build people power and win in the digital age.

David gave me a breakdown about The Ford Foundation and what it does, and also provided a sneak peek at the variety of work the Foundation handles. We also talked about what fueled his background and his career transition into social justice, along with the challenges and opportunities it presents. David’s story is one of determination, self-reflection, and the power of using design as a powerful tool for change. Get ready to be inspired!

Interview Transcript

Maurice Cherry:

All right. So tell us who you are and what you do.

David Perrin:

So, my name is David Perrin. I’m an art director, graphic designer, and illustrator. I use photo collage as my current graphic style to help kind of portray complex issues pertaining to social justice politics. You know, in my off time…Black joy and Black culture.

Maurice Cherry:

How has your 2023 been going so far?

David Perrin:

It’s been going great! Busy. Done a lot of traveling. Soul searching. Got into grad school, started grad school right now, so currently in that…and yeah, just really gearing up for the fall. Just kind of heads down, I think, for the first half of the year. Took a lot of trips to go see friends and family and everything, and now I’m like kind of just hitting the ground running. So it’s been a busy year so far.

Maurice Cherry:

Well, congratulations on grad school!

David Perrin:

Thank you.

Maurice Cherry:

Where are you going?

David Perrin:

So I’m currently at Baruch [College] studying arts administration. So getting a master’s in that. I’m super excited. It’s really going to help me bolster my leadership skills in the nonprofit space, specifically around art. And kind of on the back end of this, I do want to get into teaching and being a professor. I really love the work that I do, and I think it’s just going to just give me a stronger foundation moving forward.

Maurice Cherry:

Nice. So I saw that you recently illustrated a children’s book. Tell me about that.

David Perrin:

Yes. “Amadou Goes To School.” So a friend of mine is Senegalese. He pitched the story to me a couple of years ago. At the time, the only person he knew that he would want to illustrate this book. And so the book primarily is about his experience, really through this character Amadou, and what the first days of school might look like with just dealing with just different cultures and just finding common ground and where people can kind of — or children, right? — can kind of see eye-to-eye on things and really just come together through that unfamiliar process of getting to know one another and stuff. So we’ve gotten a lot of just very just positive energy around the book. We’re working on a second right now. We’re hoping to make it a series.

This has definitely pulled me out of my comfort zone. I think, the last couple of years, I’m kind of undoing a lot of years of slight impostor syndrome and wanting to get into new spaces and things. And so slowly peeling back those layers and stuff. So this is definitely a project of love. Yeah. I really appreciate my boy Jonima Diaby who’s the writer on it. We’re heads down, trying to figure out what the game plan is. We want to do more readings in schools and get this out, you know, as the school year is kind of, I think, jump starting right now, as a matter of fact. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:

Was this your first children’s book?

David Perrin:

Yes, first children’s book. All original characters, content, all the things. Been drawing since I was in first grade, but to kind of do it in this platform…yeah, it was a little, like, nerve wracking. Finally, I think we released it last year, fall, and so, yeah, we’re gearing up, like I said, for the second book. So, yeah, just super excited to have it out there. And every now and then, I get a ping from a friend who just had a kid and they’re reading the book to their child, that type of thing. So I’m just happy it’s making the rounds. And like I said, I’m being able to touch my community in this way and…yeah, more to come.

Maurice Cherry:

Nice, looking forward to that. So you’re currently the design lead at The Ford Foundation. That’s pretty epic. Talk to me about that.

David Perrin:

Yeah, so I’m currently the design lead at The Ford Foundation. The Ford Foundation is a global philanthropic institution centered around the mission of social justice at its core with the goal of expanding equitable experiences for all. The organization is global. We have eleven different offices. We cover a lot of ground and a lot of work. And so it’s really exciting, simply put, just because of all the different bodies of work that we contribute to. As a designer, I feel like I’m kind of a kid in a candy store, if you will. Being able to work on all these different topics, to be able to work on so many different types of bodies of work is really cool. And again, to add a bonus of us being global and working with the different regions as well and seeing how the work touches just different parts of the world is also pretty awesome.

Maurice Cherry:

I want to go a little deeper on what you do, like your day to day. I realized when I just asked that question before, I was like, that was real open ended. “You work for the Ford Foundation. Tell me about it.” I just realized as I said it, but what does a typical day look like? Are you in office? You’re working remotely? Do you have an in house team? What does that structure look like?

David Perrin:

Yeah, so we have an in-house team. So currently our team consists of so we have a creative team and we’re on a broader communications team, right? So the creative team consists of two editors, two writers, copywriters, if you will, and then two designers. And then our broader team consists of strategists and web development folks. So we’ve got a pretty robust team, I think around like 24 folks. So that’s our team as a whole.

The work? Yeah, it’s pretty vast. We have a lot of grantees, so we do grantee profiles where we reach out to our grantees, bolster up some of the work that they’re doing on their end, create these grantee profiles, which then kind of get condensed into maybe a blog format or social media. We’re here in New York, so sometimes our program officers will make regional visits to some of the regional offices and vice versa. So constantly creating content around those visits and kind of like information exchanged. We have a video series. We get into video a lot. Events. The Ford Foundation, as a building, as an entity, houses a lot of events throughout the year. We also have a gallery where we do gallery showings. I think we have one on AI that premiered a couple of weeks ago.

But yeah, we support everybody. Our small team, we have a group of fellows on constant rotation of fellowships that kind of happen throughout the organization. A small bite-sized list of things that we could be working on, you know, on a day to day [basis].

Maurice Cherry:

So it doesn’t sound like there is at any point in time, like a lack of work, because it feels like there’s always going to be something coming in, whether that’s, like you said, new grantee profiles or maybe that’s seasonal type campaigns or things that you’re doing. It sounds like it’s just a constant stream of work.

David Perrin:

Yeah, our grantees are moving and grooving. They’re constantly giving us things to put out into the space, and again, to bolster up. And yeah, the organization is constantly going through these different rotations. Folks coming in and out, fellows coming in and out. I mean, I will say the summers kind of are like a safe period where folks…we try to give ourselves some time off, right? So we’re trying to create some work/life balance there.

Like I was saying earlier, in the fall, yeah, it kind of heads down. Right. So right now we just have a lot of things going in constant rotation. But the summers, we try to keep it a little open ended for folks to take off.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, I mean, I think it’s good to mention that because a couple of weeks ago I had Vasheena Brisbane on the show. She is…I’m going to butcher her title, but she’s like the director of communications for Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York.

David Perrin:

Got it.

Maurice Cherry:

Which is a pretty big church, pretty well-known church. And we sort of talked about kind of like how when you’re doing the type of design that maybe not is, I don’t know, product-based or software-based or things like that, sometimes it gets overlooked and sometimes it has like a stigma to it.

I’ve had designers on the show. I mean, I’m a designer myself, where there can sometimes be a stigma against church work or nonprofit work or things like that because it’s not as, I don’t know, glossy and sexy as like, advertising or software or anything like that. So I think it’s good to note that there’s just a variety of design work that you do with The Ford Foundation and that it’s all kind of pretty encompassing a lot of different types of media.

David Perrin:

Absolutely. For example, we have a 60th anniversary of our East Africa office happening pretty soon, and I’m making a stage design for them. Some of these are firsts for me; wayfinding stuff, banners that kind of take up full columns of buildings and things. Yes, to nonprofit work and some of this stuff feeling, tone wise, really, I guess to your point, maybe not as sexy as advertising or some branding studios and stuff like that, but still get the work done. And we should be held to the same standard as everybody else, I believe.

Maurice Cherry:

Right? I mean, you get the work in and it’s a variety of work. I mean, I think sometimes if you’re working with a company, particularly if you’re just a product designer, you’re kind of doing the same type of thing day in, day out, you don’t really have a chance to kind of stretch yourself creatively. And it sounds like even though you’re the lead and you have a team, there’s always going to be something new and different coming down the pike for you to work on.

David Perrin:

Absolutely. I mean, yeah, we try to keep it interesting too. We’re also trying to push ourselves with our grantee profiles. We want to do more original artwork, original photography…really meet our grantees where they’re at and bolster the work up to, like, a New York Times or The Atlantic. We are really striving for just a higher standard of design and design thinking and reimagining of what this work can look like. We just went through a brand redesign. Yeah, I think it embodies some of these newer ideas and trends in the design community. So I think great design is accessible. Just because it’s nonprofit doesn’t mean “doesn’t have to be stale, doesn’t have to be all these things.” It could really be as energizing and exciting as anything that we see out in the private sector.

Maurice Cherry:

What’s the most challenging part about your work?

David Perrin:

I guess even going back to my days at Dēmos, sometimes visualizing some of this work because it’s so nuanced, right? I’m thinking on when I was working at Dēmos, this racial justice think tank, right? Like coming up with visuals for ending the filibuster, right? Like, what does that look like? It’s not a very tangible thing. You can’t just throw that into Google and a bunch of images are going to pop up. And so, yeah, for some of these more nuanced, more sensitive topics, right? The Supreme Court ruling on abortion, what does that look like? That creates an approachable tone, right? It’s so sensitive. What does that look like? What’s the tone that we want to strike with that? We deal in some pretty heavy topics. And so I think that’s always a difficulty in trying to establish a tone of empowerment, but also making clear what’s at stake and what’s actually happening in the space without being, I guess, disruptive or disrespectful. We do want to respect all the imagery and our grantees and the people involved. These are real issues, and so there’s a lot of sensitivities around that and we want to just be mindful as much as possible creating a message, but also, again, just really thinking on the communities involved in the work. So, yeah, sometimes there’s not always a balance. And so it’s tricky sometimes coming up with how to really set that tone and make sure everybody is fully represented in the right way.

Maurice Cherry:

And I would imagine aside from that, because you’re dealing with different cultures, you’re dealing with different just…topics and mores and things like that. So you’re always having to sort of strike that balance between, of course, something that’s going to be visually and aesthetically pleasing, but then also is going to work for the context that it’s being used. Like, for example, you mentioned doing this conference in East Africa. I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t style that, like, you would do maybe an event in Silicon Valley. Like, it would just be a different type of thing, I would imagine.

David Perrin:

Absolutely. And to that point, and I’ll probably touch on this a little bit later, but yeah, bringing folks in, getting the right feedback. We’re very much in touch with the folks in that regional office, and they sent us, like, a mood board, right, to kind of help guide us on some principles and some rules of the road, right? Some things that they wanted to stay away from, as far as stereotypes, and I’m very appreciative of that. I want everybody, people that we are speaking behalf of trying to grantees, who are trying to bolster communities, all that to really come to the table, right? And really help us, guide us as designers and visionaries, so that we’re not misrepresenting the work at any point. It’s a fine line, but always, always here to hear from folks, like, what they want to see in the visuals, and what’s empowering and what makes sense to the work.

Maurice Cherry:

Now, along with the work that you’re doing at the Ford Foundation, you also teach you’re an instructor with Social Movement Technologies. How did you find out about them?

David Perrin:

At my time at Dēmos, I was still trying to get a handle on what organizing work looked like and felt like. And so my director at the time, I guess Smt, had kind of fallen into her inbox. She encouraged me to take the they had a Certificate course right on basically design tools for graphic designers in the organizing space. Right. I took the course. I learned a lot, met up with a lot of great designers, and just kind of got to hear the stories and just kind of be alongside of other organizers and grassroots folks, researchers, people who aren’t designers, that just wanted to learn and to help their organizations out in any capacity, in the design capacity and everything. So, yeah, it was just a really good learning experience overall. And so after the program, the head of the program reached out to me and asked if I wanted to be an instructor, and I jumped at the opportunity. I haven’t turned back. And so, yeah, I feel fortunate to be in a space again, to be on the other side and to kind of help usher in just this next class of folks year after year. It’s been very rewarding, for sure.

Maurice Cherry:

What sort of topics are you teaching?

David Perrin:

We’re starting from the ground up, right? So just teaching like, basic typography, color palette, mood boarding, brand guides, visual tone with photography, sourcing animation, illustration, whatever. We can kind of really pack in during the time that we have. We really try to pack it in. And yeah, we’ve created a pretty decent formula as far as pace goes. But yeah, we really just try to give people the building blocks on what to really think about when thinking about brand and how to start. Right. So really, like I said, from the ground up. And putting this against folks are limited resources too, and giving them a lot of open source material that they could use to kind of just get started. Like Photoshop. Adobe sometimes can be a little inaccessible, can be a little daunting, right? So we really just try to meet people where they’re at and help bolster their skills so that they feel more confident talking about visual identity and what to really think about when it comes to strategy for the organizations.

Maurice Cherry:

How do you sort of balance this teaching work along with your 9-to-5 work? Because it sounds like The Ford Foundation work is already a lot to do.

David Perrin:

It is. Full transparency, right? Like a couple of years ago, I was on the more teaching end of this and now I’m more of supportive…more of like a supportive role, looking at students’ work and being able to kind of guide them on next steps and things. So more of like a small group kind of feedback session type of thing. And I try to do my best to really prepare folks as far as next steps and help them again, just try to meet them where they’re at, whatever the desired needs are at the time.

Maurice Cherry:

Now let’s kind of, you know, change it up here a little bit. We’ve talked a lot about your work, you know, your teaching as well. I do want to ask more about Dēmos, but before we get to that, let’s learn more about you. I know you’re currently in Brooklyn, New York, but you grew up in Miami, is that right?

David Perrin:

Yes. So North Miami Beach, to be specific. But I have a kind of a very roundabout story.

My parents are both from Jamaica. I wasn’t actually even born in Florida, but that’s where I spent most of my time. So born in Texas, moved to North Miami Beach, where I think I did maybe, I don’t know, preschool to maybe the top of first grade. From there, moved to Michigan, spent a couple of years in Michigan, moved to North Carolina for a couple of years after that; each stop, like, averaging about three to four years, landing back in Florida, moving to the panhandle, going to the high school in the panhandle, going to college down in Fort Lauderdale. I spent some time in New York and all that. That mixture. And then finally moving to Brooklyn, where I’m at now. So that’s just a little bit of that journey.

My background as far as a creative kind of started in first grade, drawing dinosaurs and things. I was really involved with Jurassic Park and stuff. Then kind of moved on to Dragon Ball Z, anime, all that stuff. In high school, when I made it back where I made it to the panhandle, I went to a collegiate high school where I was basically taking collegiate classes with college students. There I was able to kind of dig in on artwork in a very specific way, right? So I’m doing live paintings and live drawings with models and sculpting, taking guitar lessons and all these things, kind of almost making up for some of these moves, right? I moved around a lot, so I wasn’t able to really hone in on the artistic side of me until I had a couple of years at this collegiate high school where I was able to kind of lean in, more specifically.

Graphic design really doesn’t start to take, I guess, even a role until I moved to Fort Lauderdale for college, where I’m studying accounting, of all things. And I was kind of doing that in the background. I was a part of a fraternity. I’m making flyers, diving in photoshop a little bit, but not that much. And then eventually after college, I worked in nonprofit worked on the nonprofit side in accounting for a little bit. I told my parents straight up after college because they’re Jamaican. So they’re like, “hey, you got to be a doctor, lawyer, business…something.” Like, you got to make it make sense type of thing. You know what I mean?

Yeah, I told them after a couple of years of doing the accounting thing, I just said “the arts.” I was like, I don’t know what it’s going to be, but I’m going to be in the arts. And so I think around the time of maybe my second year of working in accounting, my sisters were getting ready to go to SCAD. They had made the jump, right? So they went to UCF down in Orlando, and then they wanted to go to SCAD. And they kind of propelled me. I’m like, well, they get to go to art school. I’m the bigger brother. I’m like, I want to go to art school too.

So I start doing some research. SVA is high on that list. I decide kind of then and there, I’m moving out of state. I’m going to New York. I create this portfolio, like, to this day, it amazes me because, like I said, I don’t have the most artistic background. Like, I’m drawing, I’m dabbling, doing little things here and there. But yeah, I cobbled together this portfolio for them of these sketches here and there, and some of these Photoshop files and things that I made along the years, and they accepted me.

And so, yeah, right after the acceptance, a buddy of mine was heading up to New York. His parents were moving up there. I moved up there with him, and I started taking night classes, continuing it at the School of Visual Arts. So by day, I found an accounting job on the nonprofit side. Again, by night I’m at SBA taking classes and things to try to make ends meet. But also with this battery in my back of “I need to make it,” they were very upfront with me when I got to SVA. They were like, “hey, you have a cap. You have a financial cap, and so you have a limit as to how much government support you’re going to get.” I think I had my back up against the wall kind of going in, and so I felt like really, really had to make it. But I also knew that from early on that I wanted to get into social justice work or work that’s community based. The commercial thing really wasn’t clicking for me, even in my early inceptions of learning about graphic design and typography and all the things a lot to think about.

But that was kind of like the early beginnings of design for me and school and everything. Fast forward and I eventually make my way to Dēmos, where I’m working on all these issues pertaining to racial justice, voting rights, I’m blanking on climate change, all these different buckets of work, and then eventually make my way to Ford. That’s the long…that’s the abridged version, but yeah, here we are.

Maurice Cherry:

So I saw, you know, and that you kind of — I guess, I don’t know, maybe skipped over this a little bit — but we can talk about it. I mean, you freelanced a bit in 2015 and 2016. And then after that you were working — this is before Dēmos — you were working at AMC Networks as their lead graphic designer. How was that experience? Because this is before you sort of went into the nonprofit space with Dēmos and now Ford. What was it like at AMC?

David Perrin:

Early beginnings was cool. I get to work for a big brand, right, and I finally get brand recognition. Brand recognition is such a big thing in the design community. It’s really like who you work for. If you don’t work for a big brand or something, it’s like your social capital is really low. You know what I mean? So I felt I got to kind of finally step into that a bit. And so, yeah, early stages of that job was really cool. But things started to kind of turn for me around, I think, like 2016, a little before 2016, just seeing how the politics kind of permeated through the workspace.

Early start’s great, met a lot of great folks, learned a lot. Working with a big organization of that size being able to kind of dabble in between different channels and meet people from different teams and things. It’s a full on learning experience. But like I said, toward the end, I had to make a change for my own moral benefit.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, I figured when you said “it was cool”…that sounded a little bit loaded. I was like, okay. I think sometimes you have those experiences where you hope it’s going to be one way and then they’re kind of just throwing everything but the kitchen sink at you, especially if it’s at a place like you said, that has that name recognition.

I can say this now because I don’t work there anymore, but back when I worked at Fog Creek Software, which later became Glitch, Glitch was sort of known, I think in the 2018 to 2020 space, as being like this really progressive software company that’s sort of doing these things. But internally? Whoooo! I mean, I had several different titles. I even had personal slights with management. And then I became management and then they didn’t want to train me as a manager. There was like a lot of stuff that happened. I mean, I don’t want to go too much into it, but I mean, also, I’m not a big fan of really trashing places where I used to work. I mean, it’s in the past, like move past it, but I know what you mean because sometimes that name recognition does mean a lot. I mean, it’s something that I think now people are even finding out, especially if they’ve been laid off in the past year from a company that used to have better reputation. Yes, I’m talking about Twitter. They might be finding it a little difficult, I would say probably in the market to maybe get placed somewhere because that name now has I mean, despite the work that they might have done there, the platform is almost in the dirt at this point. So, I don’t know.

It’s a tricky thing, I think, for designers, especially with career mobility and trying to make sure that you’re doing work that is important, that means something to you, but then also unfortunately means something to other people once you get out in the job market again.

David Perrin:

Absolutely.

Maurice Cherry:

It sucks. It absolutely sucks. I just want to put that on the record. It sucks.

So after your AMC experience, you start at Dēmos. How did you find out about them? I mean, I’m sure you probably knew about it just in terms of general consciousness, but that’s a big shift from something like AMC to nonprofit.

David Perrin:

I think at some point, like I said, 2016, it’s like I made a pledge to myself, right? I was just like trying to manifest it was before I even knew what social justice meant. Organizing. My view of that space was still tied to places like the NAACP. I did the NAACP Youth Council growing up. And so I’m thinking, “man, I can’t get a job in this. Like a design job.”

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah.

David Perrin:

My view is just so small, and so I’m applying around. I’m on these job boards. I applied to Dēmos twice, right? They took a while to get back to me. I think just because of internal processes and things like that manifest. I manifested it, it happened, and I ended up there. Everything else in between, I have no idea. So I really thank my lucky stars on that one. Trying to listen to a kid like me in my pitch to get into the space because, yeah, none of my work really reflected that. I’m coming off of entertainment, right? So how does this translate into that type of thing? So happy that they took a shot on me.

Maurice Cherry:

And, I mean, it sounds like it really paid off just for you in terms of solidifying yourself in this particular realm, because now you’re at The Ford Foundation. So clearly your experience at Dēmos must have been pretty transformative.

David Perrin:

Me being the lead, the only designer on the team, I got to experiment. Shout out to my director at the time. She really let me spread my wings on what was possible kind of under the organization. We just got a new president. We just redesigned the website. I kind of used that as, like, a proxy to pull new fonts and new colors into the new body of work. I used that kind of like the template to create what our reports would look like moving forward and what art might look like on the site. I kind of just hit the ground running. Folks just let me know they saw one collage. They were like, “oh, this really resonates. Let’s do this again.” And it was just kind of like rinse, wash, and repeat. And I felt like a lot of the stories that we were telling, the organizations that we were uplifting, the communities that we were talking about, really internally, for me, really embodied the work that I wanted to be doing. So I was really appreciative for just having so much floor to experiment, just really build up this tool of collaging and talking about the work in a way that I feel kind of brings people to the table.

Dēmos can be wonky at times in how they put out their reports, right? They crank out these lengthy 10-page, 15-page reports and things. But, yeah, you want to bring folks into the room and bring it to the table and everything. So I felt I was able to do that with what was them and just rich copy. I mean, we’re talking about really good research that’s done, so things based, in fact, organizations based in reality. And so, yeah, it just kind of gave me a firm leg to stand on. But I did at times miss kind of the allure of an AMC or a bigger brand, right? I feel like I’m working on all these things for an organization that maybe didn’t have the biggest digital footprint out in the space, in the nonprofit space, in the organizing space, think tank space, they are pillars. But outside of that, it’s kind of like (sighs). But love the work, though, nonetheless.

Maurice Cherry:

And a lot of your design work has this basis in social issues, which it sounds like is definitely something that’s really important to you. You mentioned 2016 being sort of this nexus point for you. Why do we need more designers in the social justice space?

David Perrin:

Well, because of the work. The work is we are talking about communities that are on the margins, right? We need folks that represent those communities in this space because I think the work presents itself very differently. You know what I mean? And so, yeah, when you’re not attached to these communities, I think you’re detached in a way. And yeah, I feel like these opportunities should be given to the folks that, again, are from these spaces, that are speaking to these spaces.

Sometimes that’s often not the case. Some of these jobs are low paying. I’m also going to advocate for more pay for nonprofit designers. I’m also going to ask for more of a leadership track or a track to leadership in the design space on the nonprofit side. Yeah, designers are kind of left out these conversations, right? And we’re such a big and pivotal part of the work and how it’s represented outside of the organization and into these spaces. Using Dēmos as an example, we’re making work to put in the hands of policymakers. So like, it’s transformative, right? You’ve got the right policy into the right policymakers hands. I mean, you know, government is slow, but you just don’t know what can happen putting these things in the right hands and stuff. So really important work across the board.

I do want to see more BIPOC designers like instance in the space and also being able to maintain a life in this space. I don’t think it’s temporary, right? Like, we love this work just as much as everybody else. We definitely should have more of a space to live a sustainable life, to create this work over time, you know what I mean? I should be able to retire, working on the nonprofit side, that type of thing. And everybody else should too. Making a huge push for that, for the grant makers, the foundations, policymakers, whatever, for them to really create that budget line item when you’re creating those grants, like, really try to build out more of a creative team. I’m advocating for designers, but more creatives that exist in the space. There’s a lot of people that want to do a lot of great work again, [they] deserve to make a living.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah. And to your point, they deserve to retire too.

David Perrin:

Absolutely. 1000%. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:

I had Cheryl Miller back on the show for episode 500. And I remember…I think we might have said it in the interview, but we definitely talked about it afterwards about how there’s no retirement plan for designers. And I was like, well, I kind of get what she was saying, but I think in the grand scheme of, like, if you’re a designer today, unless you work for, I don’t know, maybe like a big tech company or something like that, you kind of end up going from job to job. Like, the life and career of a designer is not as structured as, say, a doctor or a lawyer or something like that, or even something more blue collar, like an accountant or something like that, where you could be somewhere for X number of years. I mean, I think just in our lifetime job security, to be somewhere for four or five years is admirable. Whereas my mom was at the same job from like ’74 to 2016. It was an easy thing. And she worked in STEM, she worked in biology. But we were talking about how there’s no retirement plan for designers, which really got me to thinking, what would it look like to retire? Would I just have to keep working and doing gigs until I’m dead? Or what does that look like? Which is morbid, but a reality. Especially like…I’m in my 40s, so it’s a reality.

David Perrin:

Yeah. These are the things that I’m also thinking about, right? Longevity in design, resilience in design. And yeah, I want to figure out what the answer to that is sooner than later. It’s not a magical thing. It’s a process that should also be, again, rewarded with stability at the end of the day, just like everybody else.

Maurice Cherry:

Absolutely. What keeps you motivated and inspired with your work?

David Perrin:

I mentioned the Master’s program earlier. I really want to teach. I really want to teach BIPOC students what this world looks like, the possibilities of a designer. Try to, again, just build a bigger, broader community of future thinkers. And so, yeah, I’m really just, primarily, I want to do this for this next generation coming about. I feel like my design journey? Happenstance, right? I mean, a lot of work, right? A lot of grinding, all these things. But, man, I would have loved to have even this book — “The Black Experience in Design” — I would have loved to have this at 16 or like an earlier age. Who knows what life would have looked like for me if I had just a couple more years? Just being able to get a better grasp of what design is, the possibilities. That’s what keeps me up at night and wanting to really get to that space and just social justice in general.

2020, 2016, like the pandemic, like these inflection points, it really shook up democracy in a way to where you could, you know, scratching your head. Like, what does democracy even mean? What does liberation even mean in this country, specifically and abroad? Yeah. And what does that look like from a design standpoint? What are we going to do to kind of help maintain the steady rhythm of just organizing and getting people together. These are the things that I think about is what does the future look like for this space? How do we contribute to it? How do we keep it fresh? How do we keep feeding it and keeping it energizing and inclusive and bringing more people to the table and bringing them in? That’s why I’m calling for more nonprofit designers to come into this space and share their expertise from all different points of life, because we need it. There’s a lot of noise out there, politically and everything. And yeah, we definitely need the support.

Maurice Cherry:

Do you have, like, a dream project that you’d love to do one day? It could either be through The Ford Foundation, it could be a personal project…anything like that.

David Perrin:

Yeah. So through this medium of collage, I want to do murals. I see a lot of vector art murals, painted graffiti, all these things. I think of…I think his name is, like, JR. Artist. When I first came to New York, he had a lot of just big murals, right. With his collage work and everything. And so, yeah, we have a piece at The Ford Foundation. So that’s been a dream of mine, is like yeah, to be able to do a big collage piece on, you know, one of these walls in the area. So I’m constantly driving around and being like, “man, like, a mural would look really good here.” That type of thing. Also just more editorial work in general. I’d love to see my work in [The New York] Times or The Atlantic, that type of thing. So I’m kind of moving and grooving about. Yeah, I want to be able to kind of be on everybody’s radar and be able to tell those stories for those publications and murals and things like that.

Maurice Cherry:

Where do you see yourself in the next five years? Do you think it’ll be doing that kind of work?

David Perrin:

Absolutely. Yeah. I want to have a couple more of these Amadou books under my belt. We do want to make this a series. Yeah. Some murals and eventually, like, teaching. Like I said, I want to be at a school, ushering in that new generation of thinkers, communicators, and mentorship. I really want to give this stuff back to my community in a way that feels impactful and meaningful, and I want folks to come back around and ask me questions. I want to be the design elder. I’m putting that on myself, that type of thing. Anything I can do to just build my community up in the ways that I think are going to be positive moving forward in the realms of design, artwork, that sort of thing.

Maurice Cherry:

Well, just to sort of wrap things up here, where can our audience find out more information about you, about your work and everything? Where can they find that online?

David Perrin:

So I am on Instagram under my artist’s name, @dpicting, right? So my name is David Perrin. So DP, right? So D-P-I-C-T-I-N-G. So using my first initials. And then I-C-T-I-N-G. So that’s @dpicting on Instagram. I’m online at dpictingstudio.com. Also dpicting.com on the website. Yeah, I’m working on want to get an exhibition out there of my artwork. I’m working on After Effects as well, trying to create more moving collages and things like that. So that’s a slow and steady process. So that’s going to be coming. So show coming soon. Yeah, you can find all the updates and things on Instagram, on LinkedIn as well. I’m on LinkedIn. David Perrin. That’s where I’m at. Right.

Maurice Cherry:

Sounds good. David Perrin, I want to thank you so, so much for coming on the show. First of all, I just love the work that you’re doing at The Ford Foundation. The Ford Foundation already does so much great in the world, so much philanthropic work. And when I was doing my research and I was like, “wait a minute there’s a brother that’s leading all this.” That’s when I was like, I had to get you on the show to sort of talk about that. I mean, I think it was one thing, of course, it was great for you to talk about your history with working and doing design with social justice issues, but also kind of, I think, giving folks the opportunity to see that you can switch career paths and stay true to yourself. Certainly you sort of started out, like you said, doing this accounting work, and then you kind of wanted to work at a design place that had a big name. And then 2016 happened, which I think was a nexus point for a lot of people, not just designers, but a point to have them think, “well, how can my work make more of an impact?” And now you’ve done this work for Dēmos, you’re doing this work for The Ford Foundation. I hope that others will hear your story and realize that this is something that they can do. Nonprofit is a space that they can go into and that they can often find success. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

David Perrin:

Thank you so much for having me. Yeah, super overjoyed. Thank you.

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Maya Gold Patterson

What a difference a few years makes! When we first had Maya Gold Patterson on the podcast back in 2016, she was a product designer in Chicago. Since then, she’s moved out west and has held down design leadership positions at two of the most well-known tech companies on the planet — Twitter (now X) and Facebook (now Meta). And after a recent stint as VP of Design at Riverside.fm, Maya’s facing one of her biggest challenges yet: quitting her job and embarking on a journey of self-discovery and career exploration.

We caught up and talked about her recent decision, and about how it’s left her feeling about Big Tech and about her future. But we also spent time looking back at her tour of duty at Facebook and Twitter, and she spoke about the lessons she’s learned, the products she’s built, and the importance of making choices that align with her personal goals and values.

Maya is proof that taking a chance on yourself is never a bad idea, so if you’re feeling burnt out or unsure about your career direction, then this episode is a must-listen!

Interview Transcript

Maurice Cherry:

All right, so tell us who you are and what you do.

Maya Gold Patterson:

Hi, Maurice. I am Maya Gold Patterson. I’m a designer and I recently quit my job on a good note. I’m doing good, so it’s good. But what I do traditionally is product design and I’ve worked in big tech companies — Facebook, Twitter — and small tech companies. Riverside, a startup most recently, has filled up most of the time of my career.

Maurice Cherry:

You know, you dropped this on me, like, the day before we were about to…I mean, first of all, I’m always excited when someone decides to quit their job because I just feel like that’s just such a great opening up to new experiences and new opportunities and stuff like that. And we’ll get to that, we’ll talk about that. But I’m just curious so far. Leading up to this, how has the year been going?

Maya Gold Patterson:

The year has been rough. Oh my gosh. Well, it’s been highs and lows. It’s been yoyos. So just to give a little bit of context, like starting out the year, I’m a new mom, maybe not as new as I was at the start of the year. So my son is eleven months old. But at the start of the year, I was on maternity leave, but supposed to come back and I was supposed to come back to Twitter, where Elon Musk had recently acquired the company while I was on maternity leave. So that was kind of terrible. I was dealing with post weaning depression, which people don’t talk about often. It has to do with breastfeeding and all of that, and then using all those emotions and trying to figure out what was next for me, I was doing job hunting and soul searching, and so that was a rough start to the year. But then I met these two incredible founders, the founders of Riverside, and we had some awesome working sessions, sort of informally, that escalated into a full time role as a VP of Design, in which we all knew it would be kind of an uphill battle. They were based globally, so it was going to be a ten time zone difference between me and them. And yeah, so I was waking up at like 5:00 a.m. to get on calls between 6:00 to 11:00 a.m., essentially. And at first it was really working and I was really excited. And eventually, for a lot of reasons, it wasn’t right. And I’m like, smiling while I’m saying this, not because of what has happened there, but because of the state that I’m in now. I’m so excited for the next half of my year and the six months after that, but the first leading up to now, it has been rough but also amazing and incredible. And to watch my son grow up and I just turned 30, there’s a lot of newness and experience and learning that I’m taking in, and I feel like it all just sort of, like, came to a head in the last six months.

Maurice Cherry:

Wow. Well, congratulations on your son. That’s amazing.

Maya Gold Patterson:

Thank you.

Maurice Cherry:

I’ve done the ten hour time zone thing, too. The last company I worked at was headquartered in San Francisco…or co-headquartered in San Francisco and Paris. So I would sometimes have to meet whatever was happening in the West Coast. But then we had people, I think as far out as, I want to say as far out as India, maybe not that far. I know we had people into Africa, we had people throughout Europe, but it was roughly like a ten time zone kind of gap. And it’s rough, it’s hard. I know remote work has made it so we can work from anywhere, but time zones are time zones. And it’s rough.

Maya Gold Patterson:

Yeah, it is. It really is. And the most challenging thing, honestly, wasn’t for me, like, getting up early. I had already learned how to not sleep so much with the baby, so he trained me well for this. But it was the type of impact that I know I want to have on a company and on a product and for customers through my design work was just super challenging with that time zone gap and the nuance of what I was dealing with in comparison to what I had come from. Like at Twitter, we were all remote. That was the nuance. Everyone was remote versus in this scenario, at Riverside, I was the one that was remote and everyone was local and they were locally ten time zones away.

Maurice Cherry:

Oh…wow.

Maya Gold Patterson:

Right. So there just would be a lot happening. A lot happening that I would never just get to pick up on in terms of context and decision making. And it’s a startup, so it moves fast. And so there’s only like that three hour overlap where I’m actually getting to meet with the team and different people at the company. And so if a lot of that time is spent just catching up, when is the time spent to do the work? And it was tough to find that rhythm, honestly, but everyone was really committed to it, so I commend us for that.

Maurice Cherry:

When you were last on the show, this was November 2016. We were talking about this a little bit before recording, but you were a bonus episode because we ended up doing this right after I think it was the week Trump was elected in November 2016. And I went back and revisited that conversation and listened through it. And you mentioned talking about when you’re nervous about something or there’s something that you want to do that you’re not sure is the best thing, you kind of have this knot in your chest of nervousness. Did you have that feeling when you decided “it’s time for me to quit, it’s time for me to move on”?

Maya Gold Patterson:

Yeah, I did, but yes, for two reasons. One was because I genuinely really liked working with everyone I was working with at Riverside. So it was hard to come to the decision. Like, I needed to walk away. So just deciding to walk away gave me the ick. It was really difficult. But also the other part of me quitting was me committing to not taking another full time job and to not interview. And that’s something I’m even just exploring within myself, like what I really mean by that. But I really mean it. I’m committing myself right now to a year of not just jumping into another tech role, and that’s a statement to make for myself. I’m always the one to go and figure out what the Plan B is. So if I were to quit and then go to the next thing, I wouldn’t be that scared and that nervous, but I’m quitting and not immediately jumping back into Big Tech or any type of tech. I’m kind of exploring a bunch of different paths. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:

When you emailed me yesterday, you told me that you were pulling the plug on Big Tech and that is something that you’ve wanted to do for a few years now. What does pulling the plug on Big Tech mean to you at this moment?

Maya Gold Patterson:

I’m such a drama queen. I am pulling the plug on Big Tech right now because it was taking too much of me, and I’m at a time where I need to invest in myself and explore myself a bit more. So I don’t know if I won’t even be as ignorant to say I’ll never go back into tech. That’s probably unlikely, but right now it’s a no. So that means I am going to start turning down interviews that I was ramping up on and being clear with them and hopefully leaving on really good and open terms with those hiring managers that wanted to take a chance on me. And it’s nerve wracking, right? Because I got into this, and I don’t know if I touched on this in my first interview. I cringe listening back on myself, but I was a self-taught designer, and I was a Midwestern girl. I didn’t have a lot of exposure to what Silicon Valley was. So to decide to walk away from something when you’ve built so much progress and you’ve put in so much work for the last ten years, like putting in so much work to make it to where I’ve made it. To then say “I’m going to walk away.” I don’t know what it looks like, if people will open, receive me again if I want to come back. And I had to decide that that was okay with me. If that ended up being the case, that was okay with me, and I will figure it out.

Maurice Cherry:

Well, yeah…I mean, when you were on the show, you were in Chicago, you were a product designer at Trunk Club, and I think it was maybe about six months after that is when you ended up leaving and then going out to California to work there. And as you mentioned, you’ve worked for two of the most well known tech companies in the world. You were at Facebook, which is now Meta. You were at Twitter, which is now just a single letter X. How was your time at Facebook? Like, we actually met in person in 2017 for the first time. Revision Path did that event here in Atlanta with Facebook.

Maya Gold Patterson:

Oh, that was so fun. I almost forgot. I was like, “I know we’ve met in person,” but I couldn’t remember what was the context.

Maurice Cherry:

You surprised me because you had came up to me over like, “hey Maurice.” And I was like “who is this?” because we had only talked on Skype. And I was like, you didn’t look like your photo. You had short hair then.

Maya Gold Patterson:

Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:

And the photo you sent me, you had like, this long, curly hair. I was like “oh, oh…okay. yeah.”

Maya Gold Patterson:

I know, the hair will really do a number on you. How was my time at Facebook? My time at Facebook was awesome. Oh, my goodness, like, I would not be where I am today without Facebook and the unique experience I had at Facebook. So the way that I transitioned out west, first of all, I wanted to be in Silicon Valley to start with, but I wasn’t ready for it. I didn’t get any job offers originally, but I found a really cool company in Chicago, so that was really good for just arming me with the tools to eventually try again for Silicon Valley. It did happen really organically where I was recruited into Facebook. I hadn’t reached out yet. I was preparing to. Dantley Davis, who was a deep mentor of mine, and I’ve worked with him now for many years. he found a piece of writing that I did for AfroTech that went, like, semi-viral at the time. That was “Five reasons why UX design and Black people go together” or something like that.

Maurice Cherry:

I remember that. It was on Blavity.

Maya Gold Patterson:

On Blavity. It’s not Afro Tech. Yeah, this is at the time, you know, when UX was still kind of fresh to people’s minds, like, what that even meant. I guess he saw that. He saw a couple of other pieces that I had done, and he was like, “yo, you interested in, you know, my team?” I was like, “I’m interested in anything. Please. Yes.” And I really wanted to work at a social media company, so I got the experience of working for a Black director, first of all, so that’s already new. A Black director that was really pushing the culture and doing so in an authentic way. Awesome experience. My direct manager was also Black, which is already…it’s a bit abnormal than probably your typical Facebook experience. And then there were not a lot of Black people in product at all at Facebook. But because it was so big, there were tens of thousands of people even just having 1% of us, there was a lot more than what I came from in Chicago, which was like, I knew one person who did UX design that looked like me in Chicago. So now I had access to incredible women and men who came from experiences like mine and cultural contexts like mine that were IC6’s and 7s and 8s and directors. And I’m like, oh, my gosh, and people are getting money and things are happening, and they’re talking in different languages, and you’re immersed in this incredible culture because Facebook Design, I really feel like, was leading a lot of the sort of education on what design organizations could look like and best practices. They were putting out a lot of content on Medium. Julie Zhou was, like, doing a ton on Medium and, like, I would religiously read everything that she put out. Like, I just felt blessed to get to work within this in the space that I had dreamt about.

I learned a lot, technically. Like, I was up against and working with some of the top prototypers who became good friends of mine, top visual designers, top strategic thinkers and storytellers. And I got to sort of see through their own craft, okay, what of this do I like to do? What could I be good at doing? And then they also sort of taught me how to implement that at scale through working with cross functional partners like PMs well, PMs and engineers I was already used to working with. It was working with people even bigger than that that really impacted the full customer experience that I first got to immerse myself with. So that was like, product marketing managers and data scientists and a formal user research team, like all of those people that are so important to the product you put out that I got to be introduced to at Facebook. So that was super cool. The offices were super fly. First of all, this is when Facebook, they were giving money, so they relocated me from Chicago to theBay. So they moved my car. I remember these movers came into my apartment, packed up my house, and set me all up.

Maurice Cherry:

Wow.

Maya Gold Patterson:

Yeah, really nice stuff. I don’t know how else I would have moved to California or afforded it. I mean, the offices were just super luxurious. They had seven, ten, I don’t know, fifteen different cafeterias and vending machines filled with Apple products and just ridiculous type of stuff. And then you were expected to travel around the world to sort of meet the customers that you were building for. So you’re flying like first class, essentially, to these different countries that I probably would have never been able to visit. So you’re having all expenses paid by Facebook to go learn and do research, do the thing that you like to do. It just…it was a really fast and fun time. That also was really challenging too, because, again, not a lot of people that looked like us. Sometimes the decisions that the company made was not vibing with, and it was a huge ship, and you’re ultimately like a cog in a bigger ship. And I definitely made impacts in the way that I wanted to, but not as fast always as I wanted to, or in the way that I wanted to do it. And that ultimately led me to start looking elsewhere.

Maurice Cherry:

Were you working out of MPK 20 out of Menlo Park?

Maya Gold Patterson:

Yes. So I started there right when they opened MPK 20, I think like a year or two prior to me joining. It was really new.

Maurice Cherry:

I was out there, oh, I remember it was October 2016 because Facebook was doing their design lecture series and they were supporting Revision Path. And so I was like, “well, I would love to do some interviews on Facebook’s campus.” I was like, joking, like, “ha ha”, you know, “we could do it. And they were like, “okay.” And they paid for a first class ticket, flew me out, flew my equipment out and everything. And I remember going to the building and just…it’s kind of hard to describe how tremendous the scale of just that one office was.

Maya Gold Patterson:

Yes.

Maurice Cherry:

Because it has like this…it’s almost like an indoor track or like a loop where you can sort of walk around the whole building and yeah, they have all of these different cafeteria stations or food stations or whatever, and people’s desks are just kind of out. Like, it didn’t feel like a cube farm at all. It just felt like almost like a department store. But people worked here in a way because it was just that big and massive.

Maya Gold Patterson:

I had a love/hate relationship with it because to actually do work in that office was terrible, but like, there’s so much going on and there were so many people, and open floor plans are just really ridiculous for the creative process sometimes, because everyone just comes up to you and they’re just looking at…you know, it’s just obnoxious. But yeah, the lifestyle of Facebook at that time was…I don’t know what it’s like now, but it was really cool, at least for someone who was like 23. I think I joined when I was 23. 23, I had no responsibilities…

Maurice Cherry:

Oh, yeah, you were living it up.

Maya Gold Patterson:

I was living it up! I was like, “yeah, I’ll be here all day, all night, whatever.” You’re taking the shuttle. Because I lived in Oakland, you would take the shuttle with the WiFi. The shuttles for Facebook are like the most beautiful Greyhounds you’ve ever seen in your life. Like, not actual Greyhounds. And oh my, you do all your work, get in at 11:00 [a.m.]. I remember the first day I showed up like 9:00 [a.m.] and no one was there, which is the opposite of Chicago, where if you were there at 9:05 [a.m.], you were in fucking trouble. Sorry, you’re in trouble. This was not the case. People were showing up late in their flip flops and sweats, which I didn’t love, but whatever. And then they leave on their shuttle at like 3:00 [p.m.], and they’re just living it up. Yeah, it was good. And we did some really…I got to work on some really cool stuff. The best projects were working on like a Fenty Beauty AR project and working on Facebook Music, which included some AR stuff and really cool effects, and just the whole vibe of it was, like, really fun, honestly.

Maurice Cherry:

We’re talking about one building when we say MPK 20, but it’s almost like a town. It’s almost like Facebookville in terms of the scale, and there’s even an internal transit system to get you to different buildings and stuff.

Maya Gold Patterson:

Free Uber.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, I was so blown away. That was also, I remember, because you know Tory Hargro, We know Tory Hargro.

Maya Gold Patterson:

Oh, yeah, yeah.

Maurice Cherry:

Tory was giving me a tour and we had went to the Instagram building and he’s like, “Oh yeah, you know, this is the Instagram building where we do Instagram,” and they had these little stages as soon as you walk in the building where you gold take pictures for Instagram, he’s like, “oh, yeah, give me your phone and I’ll take some pictures for Revision Path’s Instagram.” And I didn’t have an Instagram for Revision Path. I was like, “oh, yeah, I don’t have Instagram.” And I’m saying that in the Instagram building. And it was like you could hear a pin drop. Needless to say, I was on Instagram by the time the day ended. But the scale of that place is just so massive to think about. And yeah, I could see how you were saying you felt like just a cog in the whole ship of everything, because it’s huge.

Maya Gold Patterson:

It’s huge. And Facebook was definitely a place driven by data, and it was pretty top down. Like, they say it’s bottoms up. Yeah, you could decide your roadmaps with the PMs and such, and that’s a skill that you learn. And there are certain initiatives that I got to be part of that definitely influenced what we worked on. But your impact, which translated to, okay, your performance review, which happens every six months, which is tied to your bonuses, whether you’re going to get promoted or not, your impact is tied to data, like, what metrics did you move? And so that kind of started to incentivize not kind of it incentivized everyone to work in a way that was really not necessarily what I defined for myself as building the best user experience always, or even the way in which I like to go about product development. And so the promotions felt real good, the raises felt really good, the equity refreshes felt really good. But over time, it’s like, I want to try something else. I want to try something else just for now.

Maurice Cherry:

So you made the jump over to Twitter, and that was right before the pandemic began, is that right?

Maya Gold Patterson:

Yeah, my timing is just really interesting, so I coincide everything that I do in my career with major stuff happening out in the world. Dantley had moved to Twitter maybe like two years — I can’t remember — prior to me joining. He was pitching me on a team, or rather an opportunity area that he thought I might be good at. Now I’m fresh off of what was like the Facebook Sharing team and then the Facebook Watch team. So Sharing is a really ruthless team to be on at times at Facebook because it’s always the most impactful to the bottom line, but it’s really hard to get the metrics up. And again, Facebook was oriented around metrics, so if you can’t move the needle there, it just was really stressful. So I was really burnt out by consumer facing sharing products, like Creation products. So that’s like creating things on a newsfeed, creative things in any sort of social media app. And this opportunity that he was describing sounded like Sharing to me. It wasn’t Sharing, but it sounded like some of that same sort of stuff, but it was vaguely like, okay…”we want to build something in audio, we don’t really know what it is. The team needs that sort of design vision and design strategy and some of the velocity that you probably would bring…if you’re down.”

I was like thinking about it, and Twitter I loved as a consumer. Twitter was my social media of choice. I had always loved Twitter, and I built a really strong design network on Twitter and found a home there. I never was interested in joining the company because I had heard through the valley, it’s just very white. The way things were run. Didn’t feel really fresh and innovative and they weren’t shipping a lot of products. I pride myself a bit on being able to ship products. That always was my sort of thing as a designer. I don’t get stuck in la la land. Like, I really will deliver something by the end of it. And with Dantley moving over there, he was changing the culture along with some other bigger cultural changes too, happening at Twitter. He’s like, “no, things are changing, and we’re hiring talent too, to help with those changes.”

I ended up taking that role.

It was incredible. Twitter was really incredible. I joined Twitter in January 2020. I went to their One Team. It’s called One Team, which was a time where everyone across the globe gets together in person to have this big conference that was in Houston. It was like the first week of January, or second, and it was lit. Oh, my God. Oh, it was so lit because Twitter was just that sort of more hippie tech company, you think Jack Dorsey versus Mark Zuckerberg. It just had that sort of vibe. And then they really leaned into, quote unquote, “the culture.” There was like Black people doing stuff. It just was cool. We were there partying and hanging, and the vibes were just right from start. And it was a much smaller company than Facebook. So I’m going from I think when I left Facebook, it was like 40 or 50K, at the time, employees, and Twitter was like 7,000. So it already felt much smaller, easier to navigate. We get back from One Team. I’m working with my team, which is three guys that were jamming on a very ambiguous scope of audio. And then we are about to head to a user research session in, I think, Houston actually, again, and I get a call to say to cancel my flights because Twitter is going to shut down, probably. Twitter was the first company, I think, in tech to shut down and go remote when 2020 happened. So I get that call. I had to cancel my flight. And I remember asking, I was like, “it’s not going to be that long, right? We’re not going to be locked up for that long, right?” And they’re like, “I think it’s going to be a bit” and I’m thinking to myself, okay, three weeks to say I never went back into the office again. Like, three years later, and only three months in was, yeah, I just wouldn’t have expected that. So from there on, it was like a fully remote position. And we were all working remotely, everyone in the globe, obviously. But yeah, my entire time at Twitter was remote, which was interesting. It was really important to have that one team experience. So I think that made me feel much better about the situation.

Maurice Cherry:

And now one of the products you were working on while you were at Twitter ended up becoming Twitter Spaces. We won’t go into that. You actually did a whole episode with this podcast I produced called Happy Paths. I’ll put a link to that if people want to hear about your journey with sort of helping to build that product. But there were some other features that you worked on as well. You worked on voice tweets, is that right? Some other things as well?

Maya Gold Patterson:

Yeah, I worked on voice tweets, the first commerce/sort of beta approach which turned into a whole organization. And then I transitioned from Spaces because I was just ready for something new. And I was working on our crypto — sort of like very ambiguous crypto space — I was second trimester pregnant at the time. A couple of months prior to that, Jack Dorsey left. They let go of Dantley and a couple of other really important leaders, Kayvon, and those two really were the ones that were driving a lot of the positive change on the product side. So Twitter was quickly corroding from my point of view. And I also just didn’t care about work like that because I cared about my baby and myself and whether I was going to be able to deliver. There were bigger questions I had for myself, right? Yeah. But I did get to work on a couple of interesting things by the end of it, like some interesting concepts for crypto, but those didn’t really get to see the light so much. And then a couple months after that, Elon bought the company and the rest, I guess, is in the news.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah. I mean, it sounds like with all these sort of things changing as quickly as they were, it sort of kind of put that idea in your mind that it might be time for you to go then as well, right?

Maya Gold Patterson:

Yeah, for sure. And I think Spaces was such an incredible experience. voice tweets and Spaces really were like a one-two punch together. I loved the team I was working with and I loved how we built that product and even how we approached it. Everything just felt so good. But it was really hard too. There was some really not cool stuff that went down as well. And we went from a team of three, four to a hundred, and I realized I just didn’t like that part of the job so much. Maybe in the future I will, but the scaling to an org, I did not like it. Well, I didn’t know why fully I didn’t like it, but I knew I didn’t like it in the context of this bigger tech company where you have the KPIs and the roadmaps and the vision planning, like all that stuff. And it just was a lot of politics. And so I was really burnt out after Spaces and needed a break. And honestly, with all the drama that like, I got that, like people really weren’t checking for me after Jack Dorsey and them left because no one knew what their job was. Everyone was running around with their heads cut off. And I was like, “well, I’m pregnant. I’m just going to lay up.”

Maurice Cherry:

Well, it sounds like it was also just a big career shift in a way, because you had went from being an IC as a product designer. It sounds like you were mostly an IC while you were at Facebook and then at Twitter, you’re now, like, managing a team. You’re on management. How did you approach that shift?

Maya Gold Patterson:

Yeah, that’s good context. Just to be super transparent, when I joined Facebook, I was IC 4, got promoted, was about to get promoted, left before that and went to Twitter, and I still was on the IC track. I went from staff to senior staff. So that’s just like going up the IC sort of career ladder. And during that senior staff transition, which I think translates to an [IC] 8 at most companies, that was at the same time that Spaces had gone live as a beta, the company decided, “okay, it’s our number one priority. Maya, Alex, Remy, all the people that were like, the leads of the team, what do you need to make this make product market fit?” And that included bringing on a lot more designers. And so there was a point where I was getting coaching from Dantley, where I was telling him, I was like, “I don’t know how to do this.” Like, I’m not a manager, and I never went into management at Twitter. It wasn’t my goal. But he wanted me to essentially move into a design lead role, which was undefined at Twitter at the time, even though they were starting to try that out with me and a couple other designers. And he was like, “you’re essentially like the mass editor of Spaces, and you need to orient the team, the design team, to be able to create the product that we all see could happen.” So I internalized that, and I also knew for myself what type of culture and environment I wanted to work within, and that mattered to me. So while it wasn’t my actual manager, I wasn’t a manager. I also paid a lot of attention to the team culture, and I worked with my direct manager, and he was awesome. He gave me a lot of support in doing this. I worked with him to sort of set a culture and different activities, put those in place so that the team could not only create the best product, but it felt good getting there, ideally, even though the pressure was high. So, yeah, going from being the sole designer to leading seven designers — super talented designers, too — that was an incredible learning experience. But, man, that was really fun. Really fun, really hard.

Maurice Cherry:

Well, it’s good that they sort of were also kind of giving you the sort of support to support that team. Like, they didn’t just say, “okay, now you’re leading. Good luck.” It sounds like you sort of had help and support along the way, as you were kind of navigating all of this.

Maya Gold Patterson:

Yes and no. So I got the support and I definitely got help. But it usually happened at a major junction point where I just completely was burnt out. One of the ways in which we even realized I needed so many more designers than I originally thought. I remember a new design director leader in the industry, Halli, had just joined. I had never met him. Big fan of his Twitter presence and everything he did with Ueno, they had just been acquired. He and I were going to sit down and have a conversation. Spaces was like…oh, my God. I was just so stressed out by it. And I couldn’t figure out how to essentially meet the leadership team’s ask, which was like, “okay, figure out how to do all of these things and what resources you need.” I just didn’t know. And he and I get on a call — and he’s so good at reading people; he and I had never met — and he was like, “how are you?” And the most embarrassing thing happened. I just started bursting out crying to this man that I’d never met before. It was, oh, my God, it goes against everything that I want to be. I’ve cried twice in front of people at work, and I always hate myself afterwards, but I could not help myself. I was so distraught. And through that, that’s when we really got to the essence of what I needed, and that was more support, more designers, and then also the sort of go ahead from design leadership. Sometimes people are really…I find that managers and leaders sometimes are really nervous about saying, “no, this designer is who you need to listen to.” Usually they’re like, “oh, everyone’s opinion is sort of like, equal, and the best one will come out.” But that’s not always true. Sometimes you need a decision maker. And so it was a combination of getting those resources and being everyone explicitly knowing, like, Maya is the decision maker. That empowered me to really lean into that role and then sort of transition in that situation.

Maurice Cherry:

And so now, after Twitter, you joined Riverside as their VP of design, which is where you were most recently. I know you were only there for a short amount of time, but can you just sort of sum up what it was like there for you?

Maya Gold Patterson:

Yeah, yeah, yeah…and even why I chose it.

So after leaving Twitter, I was curious still. I had some questions about my career. Like I mentioned, I had gotten to a pretty senior level of IC path, but I had been leading a team of designers. Several managers of mine had pitched the idea of me going into management. I knew that I wasn’t really that interested in doing it at a big tech company, just based off of what I was witnessing was the role of a manager. But I was curious about it, and I kind of thought that at a startup maybe that would be the way that I could both still keep my hands in the product making and product strategy and all of that while also getting to trial management. So I thought that this VP role would be like the sort of best of both worlds and I probably downplayed the challenges.

I knew it was going to be challenging to work in the ten time zone difference and I knew even just the cultural differences might be a challenge but I wasn’t too concerned about that type of stuff. But yeah, that ten time zones and even just the nuances of the startup world, right? Like I’m coming from big tech into startup world. It is different. Even though Spaces liked to brand itself as a startup within a big company, no, it’s still different. It’s really different.

What I really loved about Riverside is that they just moved really fast, but from a place of curiosity they would always be observing what’s happening out in the world and where their competitors are moving. And they weren’t afraid of scrapping a roadmap and just redesigning one or reprioritizing it. Sometimes we did that probably a little bit too much and I think honestly through our work together we started to get a little bit more consistent with our priorities, and that was great. But some of that even was a bit of a headache to just navigate just how rapidly things could change in terms of priorities.

What I found with Riverside was people were really just genuinely down to create and hopefully create a really solid product for customers. And I know everyone says that, but I don’t know…people just seem to be really curious to do that and really open to receiving wherever that idea gold come from. So they’re all taking a bet on me too. I’m in L.A. and they now have this new leader who’s all the way over here and they kind of have to listen to, like, they kind of embraced that with open arms and that was cool. And I think the startup world in general, I really am still fascinated by. But one thing I learned was I probably want to be…to create it myself. I have so many skills at this point and I have a way of working where actually startups aren’t that different from big tech companies. If you have a boss, the boss is still the boss and what their vision is and how they want to do work. That is the way in which you have to do work. That’s not a bad thing. And it wasn’t even bad how Riverside did it. It just at this time in my life, I was realizing that’s not what I’m looking for. Like, I was actually trying to get away from that sort of, I don’t know, like company-first mindset. I want to build something. I want to build something. I don’t want to push forward something that’s already been built.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, I mean, that sounds like a natural progression, though. I mean, going from these larger companies to smaller companies, but you’re gaining more and more experience just as a designer, as a person, you’re just gaining more experience. So I feel like that’s a natural progression.

Maya Gold Patterson:

Yeah, I hope so. It’s a messy journey. I think it’s even messier now that I’ve pulled the plug on big tech, apparently. But I think it’s going to shake out to something really beautiful, hopefully.

Maurice Cherry:

I think it will. I mean, one of the beautiful things about this show and having done it for so long with these conversations, it can kind of show people that your career path isn’t always a linear thing. Like, it can have ups and downs and highs and lows, et cetera, as long as you kind of at least have a sense of what it is you want to do and where you’re going. And it sounds like you’ve kind of weathered that in your own career.

Maya Gold Patterson:

Yeah, 100%. Oh, man, you hear it when you first start out. One of my best friends who originally was just a colleague of mine, she just would always tell me, “your path and your journey is your path. In your journey, you make the decisions that are right for your career.” And at first you’re like, “oh, yeah, of course.” And you kind of can get taken away in the career paths that these companies have sort of set out. Like IC 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, then you go into VP and then you go into C-suite, or you can start your own. There’s these very set paths of what success, quote unquote, should look like. And they’re attached to money and they’re attached to potentially notoriety and all those things. And what I found myself doing was going through that path, making a couple of choices that were uniquely Maya, but not enough. Not enough of those uniquely Maya choices and ones that only I could answer.

I think, you know, you really have to put in the hours and the effort. Like, the last decade of work was really important to get me to where I am today, where I feel comfortable being comfortable and confident being like, “actually, it’s a no right now. Right now I need to go do something different.” And I believe in what that difference is. And I have the skills to go approach that difference and turn left on this path instead of turning right, even though right is maybe what everyone else would naturally say I should go. And I think when people are able to do that — and what you and I were talking about a little bit earlier — was just like, I think a lot of us, a lot of millennials, and definitely people, you know, and other generations, too, are just kind of waking up and realizing, like, “oh, I don’t know if I want to do this path in the way in which it’s been laid out for me. I don’t actually know if I believe in this work for 30 years and then get to go do the thing that I love to do or that I want to explore within myself. I don’t even know if I love to do it because I haven’t been able to do it.” Do I want to wait until I’m 60 to do that? Do I need X amount of money to be able to go do that? I think what I’ve been doing, what I decide to do, is figure out what those constraints are that I’ve applied to myself; what I’m missing to be able to go and do that self-exploration through my career path. I don’t know. And then see, I guess, where the cards land after it. I’m now not willing to wait until I’m 40, 50, 60, I guess, to go figure it out. Like it needed to happen now. That’s what I learned.

Maurice Cherry:

So when you look back at kind of the experiences that you’ve had, you look back at your career, and I would say even, like, looking at what the current landscape is now in tech and design — I should say we’ll put tech and design together — what do you think it means to be a designer these days?

Maya Gold Patterson:

What does it mean to be a designer these days? I feel like designers are typically multidisciplinary, like the best designers are, but there is a singular part of their design skills that they can get paid to do or paid really well to do. And so we kind of lean into that. But I’ve seen people, whether they’re product designers or really honestly, outside of product designers, like interior designers, stylists, just creators in other ways. I’ve seen when they leave their corporate structure, and they just take that bet on themselves because they’ve put in the time and the work and gotten the network and gotten the resources that they need to go do that, amazing stuff blossoms.

So what does that mean for design? I think design is still messy. As messy as it was back in the day, it’s still messy now. Yes. We have more understanding as an industry of maybe the different types of designers, like what exists and what types of design work we need. But we’re not yet good at helping designers blossom in a variety of design skills. Like, are you going to be a tech designer? Are you going to be a graphic designer? Are you going to be an agency designer? Are you going to be a fashion designer? It’s very limiting. There are people that push outside that box, and what I assume is happening is they’re finding some interesting happiness and making stuff that can be really impactful on the world in a unique way. I’m kind of hopeful that that same thing happens to me. I don’t know if it’s actually their reality or not, but that’s what I’m interpreting.

Maurice Cherry:

Are you where you kind of want to be at this stage in your life? Maybe that’s an easy question. I don’t know.

Maya Gold Patterson:

Yeah, I am, actually. That’s why I think I was comfortable walking away, right? And what does that mean?

So for me, honestly, since I was a little girl, I knew that I wanted to be successful and that meant money and being able to do whatever I wanted to do. So having the financial means to be able to do whatever I wanted to do, have a loving partner, have a family, probably. And so by choosing this career path and then going all in on it and having a lot of luck along the way, I was able to sort of achieve enough to be able to check the boxes on a lot of my childhood dreams. And I think because that happened, I’m now in this state where I’m like, “so then why am I still doing that? Why am I still in the rat race in that way?” One good answer is I need healthcare. My family needs healthcare. But honestly, again, we tucked away a good amount of money and it’s not enough for us to just retire retire, but it is probably enough to stop, get out of the rat race, look at it from a different vantage point and maybe go invest in ourselves or myself. Me and my husband are both on our self-employment journey now, and kind of see where it shakes out.

And corporate America is always going to be there. That’s like the backbone of this. You know, I don’t know if I’ll be able to enter back into big tech shiny roles when I’m done with this self-exploration, but I’ll be able to feed my family. And I think being able to distance myself from the keeping up with the Joneses mentality enabled me to sort of make that call. And a good example of this is like, me and my husband bought a house and that was like a really proud moment for us. And I remember one of the things that happened after we bought this house was like, a lot of people were like, “oh, this is your starter home. You’re going to move into a bigger house immediately.”

Maurice Cherry:

Wow.

Maya Gold Patterson:

I know! And they didn’t even say it coming from a bad place at all. At all. I understand why they said that, but I just was like, “wow, shouldn’t we just be satisfied with what we have?” Because I immediately started thinking like, “okay, yeah, I need to go get like, a bigger tech bag so then I can go get the bigger house.” And I’m like, “I don’t want the bigger house.” Like, I have enough house problems. I have enough house problems with what I have. And I like my home. I like designing my home. Like, I don’t need more. So because I’m in this space, I’m like, okay, so then I don’t need a job that has these super high dollar signs attached to it and benefits and stuff. Like, maybe I will in the future. Maybe my son or myself or our health will require it. Okay, then we’ll saddle up and go do that. But if right now my family doesn’t need it and it doesn’t bring us ultimate joy, then I’m not doing it. I’m not going to do it.

Maurice Cherry:

I’d be interested, like even, you know, I think you’ve sort of alluded that you were kind of taking a year off in a way — I’m using air quotes here — but you may not even want to go back into big tech after that. I’d be interested just to kind of see what your priorities are at that point.

Maya Gold Patterson:

Me too. Yeah, I leave the door open on big tech just because I know myself and I know also how beneficial big tech can be when you need it, and maybe there’ll be a right time and right place for it. But this year for me is definitely not going to be a sabbatical. I actually don’t want that right now. I think I’ve done a lot of resting and rebirthing and actual birthing over the last two years. I’m just, like, ready to go after it. Me and my husband talked about it actually yesterday. I want to balance my time really well, where we’re explicitly saying, “okay, if no money comes in, that’s scary, but okay, we’re just going to do that. That’s fine.” If you’re spending your time investing in your passions, that maybe could lead to making money. And then so, like, the first six months, I’m hoping is just investigating what I like to do, how far I can go with that sort of sorting out can it make me any money, and if so, how much? Okay, out of those five things that I might want to do and could maybe make me money, let me pick one that actually, like, is drawing me. And now if I really invest all my time there, what would happen? That would be maybe the next six months. Can you tell, like we’re type A, so we’re planning already. Very structured, in a very structured way, but that’s kind of how I see it going, is like, I want to go and I want to maybe reopen up my vintage shop. I want to maybe go and start some stuff with my husband. I’m going to do some design advising on the side because I’m interested in that and I have friends building cool stuff and I know a lot now, so maybe I can be helpful, explore all of that, see what feels good or not. I can say no at any time because I’m not beholden to anyone but myself and my family. And then hopefully success to me would be like, by the end of the year. I’m not rich or anything at all, but maybe I found a business that just speaks to me or is mine and I’m loving and also could earn enough for us to continue letting me walk this path. That would be incredible if that happens, but I don’t know if it will.

Maurice Cherry:

Well, there’s one project that you started recently called Recshop, is that right? Tell me about that.

Maya Gold Patterson:

Oh, man, that was a really cool project with my brother. So I love all things vintage, so I love vintage clothes, vintage cars. My dad was and still is as a DJ. He was, like, a DJ in the 80s. So he spun vinyl and we always grew up with a ton of vinyl in our house. And recently me and my brother have been getting into it and we decided to open up a record shop. Honestly, it was just like a creative passion project to have. And I think after shutting down my clothing shop, I was looking for that again. Quickly we realized the used record shop business is just not a business and it just wasn’t sustainable. And I had just had a baby and it was just like too much. So I think I want to do more of that type of stuff, though, because it teaches you so much. I learned about that business and there’s unique problems for the customer in that business. That was a learning, and even just what I enjoyed about it or didn’t. And it was a cool outlet. Like, we got to design a brand and a customer experience that was all about music and curating these really important pieces of artwork to the American music landscape. We got to curate that sort of stuff for people; that was really cool. And so maybe I do a couple more things like that that sort of get me closer to understanding what my actual purpose is.

Maurice Cherry:

What do you want your legacy to be? And again, I feel like asking this now is maybe a bit premature because you’re right off the heels of quitting. You’ve got this freedom. The rest of the year has opened up to you. But have you thought about that?

Maya Gold Patterson:

I had not thought about that until you asked it a little bit before the podcast. But it’s such an important question. I do know from a gut sense what legacy for me, and I think my husband shares this, but one of the drivers of me quitting and quitting tech for a little bit was just I want my legacy to be the imprint that I have on my son in the type of woman I’m proud of and he’s proud of me for being. So I want him to see that he can make radical choices that are okay and can be honored and enable you to be your best self. And best self means like, showing up as a better partner, a better mommy, a better…just individual in general, making choices that go against the grain if it means it’s right for you is okay. That’s the type of legacy; like him approaching those intersections of life head on and not being scared of that and really having that sort of gut sense of like, “no, this is right for me. I’m going to try that. I’m going to work hard. I’m going to go try that. I’m going to go do something kind of crazy and feel good about that because I know it makes me a better man.” That’s the type of legacy that I think about. And if I leave some cool projects in my wake as I do that, that’d be awesome too.

Maurice Cherry:

Well, I feel like that’s a good place to wrap up, but I guess before we do that, is there anything that you wanted to talk about that I didn’t ask you about?

Maya Gold Patterson:

No. I think though, if anyone’s doing some cool work in any cool work, honestly, I’m obviously open. I have some free time, believe it or not. So I guess I would just share that. Maybe I’ll leave my email for people to reach out directly if they’re working on anything cool, especially any cool collaborations in the vintage space, any cool design product startup stuff. I’m just here to sort of understand what people are trying to do and see if there’s some synergy, and if not with me, then maybe with somebody else. So I am open and more accessible than ever, I would say, right now. And yeah, just leave that.

Maurice Cherry:

Okay. Where can people find you online?

Maya Gold Patterson:

I know that’s a good question because I kind of am off socials, but my accounts exist. So I’m on Twitter @mayagpatterson, and then I’m on Instagram @mayapatterson. I’m not super active there. Maybe I’ll become more active. I don’t know. We gotta see, but usually there.

Maurice Cherry:

I feel like we’re sort of at this time where people are maybe trying to wean themselves off of social media.

Maya Gold Patterson:

Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:

I don’t know if it’s…well, I think what it is, honestly, is that Twitter has lost its damn mind. And then all these other Twitter clones kind of popped up, and folks are like, “oh, well, now I’m on Threads, now I’m on Spill, now I’m on Spoutible,” and I’m like, I’m not going to be in six different places. I’m going to wait like a year and see if any of these still exist. And then maybe I’ll see like, okay, if I decide to migrate to somethin, because people have asked that about Revision Path. They’re like, “well, why isn’t Revision Path on Threads?” I’m like, “well, I’m squatting on an account, but I don’t think I’m going to ever really use it.” But we’ll see how things work out.

Maya Gold Patterson:

I know. It’s interesting. It’s in a really interesting space. I don’t know where it’s going to net out. I think because I’ve worked in social media now for a bit, I know that it’s not good for us. I know mentally it’s not good for us. And so that’s why I had to make the call for myself to quit smoking, which is like quit social media. Realistically, when you have a small business like you do, or any sort of project, using social media is really one of the best tools you have to get your work out there and make connections and stuff. So I think now I’m going to have to probably re-investigate my Instagram or something like that. But yeah, it’s just yuckily…I don’t know, it’s just not good for us to be consuming people’s lives in that sort of way that frequently. And I know I feel much better since I’ve been off. And when I do go on, it’s like through my desktop for like five minutes. I don’t think that I’m going to be on Twitter for much longer, which is so sad because like I said, I loved Twitter, but I don’t believe in anything that’s going on there. So I probably got to delete that, I guess Threads is kind of left or Spill.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, I’m going to just wait and see. I mean, I talked about this on another episode, but I was like back in 2006, 2007, a bunch of Twitter clones popped up and there was like Yammer, there was Pownce, there was Jaiku… there were a bunch of them. And then within like a year or two’s time, they all either looked at other markets — like Plurk is, I think, huge in Taiwan — or they got bought out by a bigger company and then got closed down, or they just shut down. I don’t wanna…I think the way I said it in the last interview, I said, if Elon Musk is the problem, I don’t know if Mark Zuckerberg is the answer.

Maya Gold Patterson:

Oh, I know that’s right.

Maurice Cherry:

So maybe there might be just an option to divest altogether.

Maya Gold Patterson:

Maybe I think that there should be. I actually have thought about this as like a potential project, but more on that later. But yeah, get ourselves out of it. You know what I’ve been doing though, instead of scrolling? You know what I’ve been spending my time doing recently?

Maurice Cherry:

What’s that?

Maya Gold Patterson:

I’ve been going to the public library.

Maurice Cherry:

Okay!

Maya Gold Patterson:

I’ve been going to the public library, which is an incredible resource that is actually inspiring and gives you a lot of content for free that is not destructive to your mental wellness and health. And it’s been so…I like go there regularly and check out books and I spend so much time reading now, it feels really nice. I would encourage people to do that.

Maurice Cherry:

You heard it folks; support your local library. Maya Gold Patterson, thank you so, so much for coming on the show. One. It’s just great to have you back on the show, but then also just to have seen your glow up over the years, to see how you have grown as a person, as a designer, I mean, I’m going to be really excited to see what is next for you. And I’m so glad that you were able to come on the show, especially on the heels of such a big life change, to talk about sort of what that means in the greater context of your career and everything. So thank you so much for coming on the show.

Maya Gold Patterson:

I appreciate oh, thank you, Maurice. And thank you for creating this safe space. I mean, I am so happy. Like, you’re essentially the first place that I get to even share this news with. So just thank you for that and being always so warm and open, keep doing what you’re like. Your type of energy is what this world needs.

Maurice Cherry:

Oh, thank you. Thank you.

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit is a strategy and design firm committed to designing a more inclusive and equitable world. They are always looking to expand their roster of freelance design consultants in the U.S., particularly brand strategists, copywriters, graphic designers and Web developers.

If you know how to deliver excellent creative work reliably, and enjoy the autonomy of a virtual-based, freelance life (with no non-competes), check them out at brevityandwit.com.

Barney Abramson

It’s been amazing to see so many Black design communities pop up since I started Revision Path, which is how I found out about this week’s guest — Barney Abramson! Not only does he have years of experience leading design teams, but he’s also paying it forward by helping out the next generation of designers through mentorship and consulting.

We talked about how he’s adjusted to working through the pandemic, and spoke a little bit about his day job as the lead designer for an energy company. Barney also shared his story of growing up in the Dominican Republic, moving to the United States as a kid, and then making his way out to Vegas to kickstart his career not just as a designer, but a writer as well! Barney’s energy and passion for design is infectious, and it really shows that when you do good work, good things happen to you!

Transcript

Full Transcript

Maurice Cherry:
All right. So tell us who you are and what you do.

Barney Abramson:
Well, my name is Barney Abramson and I am a graphic designer and creative manager. I currently manage the creative team for an energy company here in Las Vegas. And prior to that, I worked at international game technology for about 10 years. IGT is a multinational gaming company that produces slot machines and other gaming technologies. That’s my official work.
Nowadays, everyone needs a side hustle. So I do some creative consulting work on the side. I work with organizations and entrepreneurs to solve creative problems, anything from brand development, personal branding, digital campaigns, photo, video shoots, and speaking engagements. So that’s my official work. The rest of the time I spend it doing a lot of writing. I write about my experience as an Afro Latino, creative in corporate America. And due to my writing, I’ve met hundreds of young black designers and creatives. I am now starting a mentorship program, which is kind of my next venture. So I stay pretty busy.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I see. That’s a lot. Well, I feel like nowadays you have to have two or three things. One because inflation has raised the price on everything. I don’t know about you, but here in Atlanta, everything is 10… Not 10 times, at least 10% more expensive. So you kind have to have something on the side to bring more money in because everything just costs more money. So with everything that you’re working on, how’s this year been going so far, how’s the summer been going?

Barney Abramson:
It’s been very busy. I had maybe two or three weeks during the summer where things started to slow down, both on my day job and on my side work. And I thought, wow, look, everyone’s kind of taking a break. And I thought the economy not doing so well, that it was going to be as slow from now on, but the last two weeks, everything just kind of ramped up again. My company recently went through some sort of a proxy fight and that got cleared up. So everyone’s back to business. So quite busy with work, with side work, with writing. And also with just meeting with a lot of people. I enjoy having just one-on-one talk. So I do that quite a bit. So I keep myself pretty busy.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. Let’s talk a little bit about your day job work. I really want to get more into your writing and your mentoring. Because I think that’s probably more exciting to talk about, but we all got to pay the bills. So talk to me a little bit briefly about the work that you’re doing with this energy company.

Barney Abramson:
So the company that I work for, it’s a natural gas company. They service over 2 million customers in California, Nevada and Arizona. I am the kind of lead designer. They don’t have traditional titles like art director and creative director. So my title is kind of funky, but I am kind of the senior lead designer in the company. And I manage a very small creative team.
The majority of our creative work is typically outsourced. I would say probably 75% of our work gets outsourced to a whole bunch of creative agencies that we work with. So my typical day really starts with just going to meetings. I have huddles in the morning, typically at 8, 8:15. I meet with the marketing team, although they don’t call it marketing. Again, they have weird titles here. We meet with the marketing team, kind of get all my answers for the day, any kind of projects that are the standstill.
That’s kind of where I get all my answers and try to move things along. And then I go into other meetings throughout the day, the next kind of part of my day, it’s really around providing creative direction. So whether I’m providing creative direction to my video crew or my graphic designers or a particular agency, that’s working on a project. That’s really like a big chunk of my day. And then really the third part of my day, really around me doing actual creative work. So I still do a lot of graphic design work. So my day is kind of divided into three big chunks. It doesn’t all happen in that order. It’s kind of mixed in, but if I had to break it down, that’s kind of what a typical day for me looks like.

Maurice Cherry:
Sounds like it’s pretty busy kind of going between those different parts of what you do, like management then you have some hands on work as well.

Barney Abramson:
Yeah. Making the leap from a graphic designer, which something that I did for many, many, many years, I’ve been a manager or in a kind of creative manager role, the last seven or eight years. And the big difference really is the amount of meetings that you have to go to. I go to meetings all of the time and it just really takes up most of your day. So it’s more about relationship building and making people feel comfortable coming to you with work, and then delivering that work to your team. That’s kind of what I spend most of my time doing. And then I get a little bit of time to be creative and work on creative projects, but it is quite busy.

Maurice Cherry:
How has it been working remotely through the pandemic? Did you run into any challenges with that?

Barney Abramson:
I personally enjoy working from home. I thought of myself as, I wouldn’t say a social butterfly. I think that’s too much. But I don’t have an issue with people. I don’t have an issue making friends and things of that nature. So I always saw myself as a very social person, I guess, is what I’m trying to say. And then we all came home and I found myself very isolated at home, but I loved it. I like my setup at home. I like being close to my family. I feel like this is a true work life balance where I get to go to a meeting, deal with something at home, come back, do some design work and maybe do an errand real quick. And I just really enjoyed it. Some of the challenges that I think in the very beginning really was around my setup, not having the setup that I had at work at home.
That was one thing, making sure that I had all the tools that I needed to do my work. But I think my work at IGT kind of trained me to work remotely because at IGT I had a very remote team. I had six designers and a photographer, and some of them were in Reno, which is eight hours away. Others were in Moncton, Canada, others were in Peru, London, Germany. So it was a very broad, diverse team. I only really had two designers in Las Vegas with me. So I was used to the kind of remote aspect of it. When we all came home during the pandemic, it was nothing that I found difficult at all. So I enjoyed it. I am now back in the office three days a week, and I miss being at home all the time. I really do.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, I’d imagine there might be some advantages for getting in the office, if anything, just kind of a change of environment, but I know what you mean by liking that setup that you have at home. I’ve been working remotely actually. I’ve been working remotely since 2008, so I’ve been working remotely for a long time. One because I had my own studio and I had a distributed team. So I could work with people from all over.
But when I got back into working at companies, all the companies I’ve worked for over the past five years have been very remote first or remote friendly. I think the last time I was in an office for a job was… My goodness. Maybe 2019, I think, might have been the last time. Yeah, I think about it. That was the last time I was 2019. So it’s interesting now, because I’ve had folks on the show who have completely started their career now working remotely, because they might have just gotten out of school or something. And so this is all they know, it’s this kind of remote setup. So it’s interesting to see how companies are going to try to, I guess, change with this new environment and everything.

Barney Abramson:
I’ve seen this hybrid kind of approach with my work now three days in the office, two days at home, it’s kind of a setup and most people are kind of in and out, and you would think it’d be destructive, but it really isn’t. I think that the same, if not more work gets done this way that I’ve noticed.

Maurice Cherry:
What’s been the most challenging part about the work that you’re doing now.

Barney Abramson:
I think the difference for me from my previous job, just because I was there for so long, is that a lot of the work that I do now is work that’s being done through working with agencies. I love working with agencies. They bring just a different energy. They bring a lot of ideas. They tend to think way outside the box. So I do love working with agencies.
But previously I really enjoyed having a creative team, keeping everything in house and really being the sole owner of a project from beginning to end. I think what happens now is where I am involved in the beginning, conceptualizing the idea and providing it to the agency through a brief, but then they kind of go on their own and do their own thing. And then they come back and I’m the in between person providing creative guidance and kind of driving the idea the way that it needs to go. But it is a bit different. So I don’t know if it’s a challenge, it’s just a different format that I wasn’t used to doing so much work outsourced, but I do get to work with amazing talented people and I do learn a lot. So it’s kind of like a double edged sword of sorts.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. You’re kind of being that intermediary in a way.

Barney Abramson:
Exactly, exactly. So before I thought we had… Obviously working internally, you have… Things can be done a lot quicker. You can control the pace and the direction of things on a daily, if not even a minute by minute pace. Typically working with an agency, there’s a process you have to follow and it tends to be drag along. Agencies love to drag you as long as they can possibly can. So you know how that goes.

Maurice Cherry:
That is so true. And I mean it’s for, I think a number of different reasons, but I definitely I’ve been on the agency end of it. And currently with where I work at now I’m on what you’re end is. You’re the vendor, so to speak, working with them. So I know what you mean.

Barney Abramson:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s kind of switch gears here a little bit. I know that you grew up in the Dominican Republic, so I’d really love to hear what was that like. Growing up there, did you get exposed to a lot of art and design and everything as a kid?

Barney Abramson:
That’s a great question. Because I never really thought about it that way. I feel like growing up in the Dominican Republic for me was very traditional to all the experiences that I’ve heard. I think that I was always a creative person and my dad was also creative. So he always helped me and provided all the tools that I needed to explore my creativity, but it’s not something that I saw around me. I didn’t see people around me drawing or sketching or painting. Although the island is completely full with amazing artwork, architecture and painters and you walk down the streets and you see all these paint vendors selling their amazing paintings. So in a way I did, well, I was exposed to that, but I think that my creativity, it was very internal. My sister’s not very creative. My brother’s not very creative. I don’t know anyone in my family that’s very creative.
So it really was a thing that maybe my dad just kind of passed down to me. Maybe. I don’t know. So yeah, I mean, growing up in the Dominican Republic was not the easiest. Obviously I had a really… As a child, you see things differently and I had a great childhood and I loved living there and just being outside and playing and doing all the things that kids do back in the day. We definitely grew up very poor. And so it was a struggle for sure, leaving there. I did not live in the nicest environment or have the nicest things. So when my dad saw an opportunity, my mom and dad saw an opportunity to bring us to the United States to provide better education, a safer environment. And I also was not a very healthy child. I had surgeries and heart issues and asthma eye issues.
So my dad’s like, I need to get this kid out of here. I feel like coming to the United States was kind of heaven set for me personally, but also for my family because it really provided all the opportunities that we have now. So I love my experience living in the DR. I miss it. And I go back when I can, but I do see what my father saw. Now that I’m a dad I see my kids. And I can only imagine living in an environment that wasn’t safe, at least where I was. I didn’t want to give the impression that the Dominican Republic, it’s an unsafe place, but I did grow up very poor. So it was not the best environment. So I could see how my dad kind of saw our situation and wanting to come to the United States and why we ended up here.

Maurice Cherry:
And so you moved here when you were 10 years old. Was that a really big culture shift in general?

Barney Abramson:
Oh God. Completely. So I moved here and I actually moved here during the wintertime. So it was like, end of February, April. And I remember getting out of the plane and my breath was everywhere and I was like, oh my God, I’m smoking. Look at this breath. But again, my parents, they came to the United States first, probably about a year before we all came. My brother and sister. Which is very typical, at least back then parents would come, kind of get situated, get a job, get an apartment. And then the kids would come later. So when we came to the United States, my parents kind of were somewhat settled. But again, it was a struggle. We were poor in the DR and poor in the US as well. So I recall my parents working multiple jobs. My dad literally worked every job imaginable.
He worked at a mill. He worked at McDonald’s. He worked at a nightclub. He was a bouncer. He did everything to keep our family afloat. And my mom did as well. I think my mom worked at McDonald’s for 19 years. So that part of it wasn’t easy. But what was easy was that we lived in a small town called Lawrence, Massachusetts, that at the time was literally 40% Dominican and 40% Puerto Rican. So living in Lawrence, Massachusetts and living in the Dominican Republic was essentially the same thing.
Everyone spoke Spanish. Everywhere you went was a Spanish store owner or vendor. So as long as you were within those four miles, you were kind of safe and protected and you felt like you could do or go anywhere. It wasn’t until I believe, college that I realized, oh my God, America’s really different. And I realized that there was quite a bit of a culture shock leaving my kind of safe environment of Lawrence. So really wasn’t until college where I realized how different the world was. And I struggled there as well for quite a while, until I was able to figure things out.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, before you ended up going to college and we’ll jump into that. When did you know that design was something that you wanted to say. Because you said you kind of didn’t really see it back in the Dominican Republic? Did you have an experience or something while you were in the states that kind of put you onto it?

Barney Abramson:
Again, my creativity was something that I felt like I always had in me, but never something that I thought that could be something that I could do professionally, I guess. So even in high school, I remember taking art classes only because I wanted to be with my friends and things of that nature. It wasn’t something that I thought I could do professionally. I actually wanted to be a video producer. I wanted to be in video production and in high school and even in college, I studied video production because I thought that’s what I wanted to do.
And the reason for that is because my dad, again, one of his side jobs, my dad had a local TV show on the local network. And I used to go with him. I used to do the camera and stage setting and then I was doing switchboard and I did a little bit of everything. So that’s what I really thought I would end up doing. And it really wasn’t until college that I found my passion for graphic design. And I mean, I can get into that if you want, but it didn’t happen naturally for me it was almost like I was at my wits end and I said, okay, what’s easy for me? And I’m like, oh, designing is easy. So then I went that direction.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, we can get into it, but I’ll say before we get into it, there’s nothing wrong with leaning into your strengths? If that’s something that you’re good at, why not?

Barney Abramson:
So I didn’t know that. And sometimes we fight against the things that come easy to us. And also being from an immigrant family where you feel like you have to be something great, you have to be a doctor or lawyer, something amazing because you have this expectation on your shoulders. So I think that was my motivation to do something bigger or at least my perception of bigger at the time. So when I went to college again, it was a big experience for me, a culture shock that I didn’t expect. Literally speaking English all day long was so hard for me. I felt very isolated and I didn’t know anybody. And I really didn’t feel welcome. It was a obviously predominantly white school in some tiny town. Bridgewater is a very small town that when driving into Bridgewater State University, there’s like cows and farms and everything.
So it was very secluded. It wasn’t a city or anything like that. So I was very isolated. Didn’t feel like I belonged and it wasn’t… So of course my grades of were affected by that. And I believe my GPA in my freshman year was 1.7. I was on my way out. And it wasn’t until I found myself, I think my second semester I was really given the speech. If you don’t get your grades up, you’re going to lose your financial aid, you’re going to… So I knew that I had to figure something out and I joined one of those multicultural clubs and they had Latino club, and Afro M club and Cape Verdean club. So I literally joined every club imaginable and I started making friendships. And then I started finding my own tribe. But with my grades, I didn’t know how to get my grades up. I just couldn’t figure out what I could do to get my grades to be better.
So I thought, “Hey, I could take an art class and I know I’m going to get an A.” So I took painting and I took sculpture and literally took every single art course that was available to me. And by my sophomore, maybe mid sophomore year, I had an advisor basically approach me and say, “Hey, why are you wasting your time in a communications major?” Or I think I was still doing video production. So she was like, “Why are you wasting your time in a communications major when obviously your talent and your passion is in design?”
And I literally did every single thing this lady told me and I started working in the art studio. I started taking more graphic design courses. I changed my major to fine arts. And then eventually, obviously everything kind of made sense. So my grades started going up and I kind of found my passion. It didn’t come easy. I was kind of hardheaded. But I was glad to have someone kind of guide me in the right direction.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, it’s good that you ended up going into that direction because like I said, leaning into your strengths, never a bad idea. And once you got it, that was sort of your ticket. So tell me about what the program was there. You mentioned this sort of taking all these different courses. What was it like?

Barney Abramson:
Yeah, so God, I really jumped all over the place. I think I started my college experience as a communications major because I wanted to be in video production. Then I went into psychology and then sociology. And then eventually into fine arts. So I have a fine arts degree. I actually ended up having a dual major in communications and fine arts because I literally had enough credits to do both. But I took the fine arts program at Bridgewater State University an amazing school. Great program. Had amazing experience there. I learned basically all the basics to be a fine arts student. And then I concentrated in graphic design because I like computers. And I also like to be creative and I thought graphic design just kind of made sense to me. And I had a great experience at Bridgewater and I ended up with a dual major in communications and fine arts, with a concentration in graphic design.

Maurice Cherry:
Do you feel like it really helped prepare you once you got out there in the working world as a designer?

Barney Abramson:
Oh man. So I feel like in school I learned theory of design and maybe… Obviously I took a lot of painting and sculpture classes and drawing and pencil drawing. I took a bit of everything. So in a way I had a bit of knowledge of everything. So that was great. And then also the graphic design program was great. But it really wasn’t till… When I got my very first job, I didn’t feel like I knew all the things that I needed to know. I think what helped me was that one of my jobs, what I worked at in college, one of my jobs working for the art studio and I worked for the computer lab. And my job was to install Photoshop and install illustrator. And if anyone was having any technical issues, I’d be the tech guy fixing things. And then I also became a teacher’s assistant.
So during a graphic design class, if anyone had a technical issue with the software, I would come in and help. So I kind of self taught myself how to use Photoshop Illustrator and all that. And now this what 20 years ago. So programs back then are not as robust as they are now. I did feel like a lot of the technical stuff I had to learn myself, but using my creativity in a better way was kind of really taught by teachers. I really didn’t find myself learning practical stuff until I had my first job. And I realized, oh my God, now I know what I’m doing. And my first boss was great. He really knew that I was very green and really kind of eased my way into corporate America, I guess you could say. So I was prepared, but I felt like there was a lot to learn afterwards.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I’m trying to get a sense when this might have been. I’m guessing this was probably… And correct me if I’m wrong here. It sounds like this was maybe around the mid 2000s, maybe.

Barney Abramson:
So I graduated in 2002, so my first kind of real job.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. I was trying to try to sync it up because I was like, we’re probably right around the same age. So I’m thinking during that early time in the internet and the web. You really have to kind of learn it yourself.

Barney Abramson:
There was no experts. There was no YouTube or 1 million videos and boot camps and other ways to learn.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, there was no YouTube.

Barney Abramson:
There was none of that. I mean, we were still using exacto knives to cut things and glue them together and pasting things together. I mean, we were really encouraged to sketch everything we did, which some people still do that today. But we were forced to sketch first. Then bring that into the computer where now a lot of folks just start right on the computer. So you really did have to teach yourself what you were doing.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. That early time was a lot of just self discovery, especially if you were doing stuff on the web, a lot of view source, and you’re just sort playing around kind of trying to figure it out, et cetera. So when did you end up making the move out west?

Barney Abramson:
Oh gosh, that’s a long story, but I moved to Las Vegas in 2004. So very quickly after my first kind of job out of school, I ended up moving here to Las Vegas. And I attribute that to my wife. So this is a long story. So I guess I’ll tell it. But I actually got fired from my first creative job. And a lot of it had to do with the fact that I wasn’t prepared to be in a corporate environment. I never had the experience from anyone else, working in an office environment, all the jobs that I had prior to working in an office I worked as a landscaper and I was a painter and I even worked at a nursing home washing dishes. I just didn’t have the experience from my people in my life or my parents, unfortunately. So going into a corporate environment was very different for me.
And I didn’t realize that for me, at least back then. I think now things are a little bit different. But I didn’t realize that I needed to what people call now code switch. I needed to be a different person at work than I was at home. And eventually that got me in trouble at work. And I ended up being fired from my first job. This is something that I was very embarrassed about my entire career. And now I find myself talking about it all the time because I simply just don’t care anymore. But I did have that experience. So when I left that job, I went into… I thought, what can I do to give back to my community? So I started working at a local, a youth counselor type of program. I can’t remember the name. It’s called Valley Works. And it was like, if you’re unemployed where you would go get a job.
So they had a youth program there and I worked with dropouts and high school dropouts or folks that wanted to get their GED or they wanted to get into college. I would find programs to help them. So that was the kind of job that I was doing. Obviously not something I was prepared for. Again, Lawrence, Massachusetts was a very… It’s a ghetto basically. So the problems that I was encountering were much bigger than something that I could handle. And I thought, okay, I’m going to need to find my way back to my passion.
So around that same time I met my wife. She lived here in Las Vegas. She had a family member that worked at a gaming company who was a graphic designer. He introduced me to my boss back then and she basically said, “Barney, if you move, I’ll give you a job.” And I literally came back to Massachusetts, packed my car and drove my ass back over here. And sorry for swearing.
But I drove across state, came to Las Vegas, got my second creative job working for Progressive Gaming. And that’s kind of my introduction to the gaming industry as well. It was great. I started working, I tried to repair some of the issues that I had in the beginning of my career, I guess. It was a great job. I worked there for about five years before the company eventually went out of business, but I had a great experience. And it’s really where I started to learn a bit about my skills and myself and becoming a bit more confident.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m really glad that you’re telling this part of your story because I think it’s something that maybe designers now that might be ready to come out of college and start their first gigs need to know about. But I think it’s also something that is extremely unique for our generation. In that our parents, whether they were, I would say from this country or not, they have not had the same experiences when they were going on to the workforce than we have, because of technology. Going into technology and going into this environment where so much of what is being just uncovered is happening on such a rapid basis. It’s one thing about having to just learn on the job, what it is that you have to do. But also you sort of said, you weren’t trained for this or you weren’t prepared for this. None of us were. None of us were.
We were all kind of going into this blind, trying to figure out, especially for us that went to the web and went to design. What do we do? Because we don’t know. There’s no blueprint to follow. I remember my early career, it’s funny, you mentioned getting fired. I got fired from… So I graduated in 2002. I walked in oh three and I was working at the Woodroof Arts Center, which is this big arts facility here. The symphony there’s a art museum and stuff like that. I was working there selling tickets, got fired on my day off.
Because one of the other cashiers was stealing money. As she blamed it on me and I got fired, whatever. But then the job I worked after… Every job I worked after that was customer service. Because I couldn’t get a job with a math degree. I majored in math. I couldn’t get a job with a math degree. So I was telemarketing for the opera. I lasted there a day. I went there for an eight hour shift. They played Boyz to Men, I’ll Make Love to You on a loop for eight hours. Oh my God. And I just said, I can’t do this. I went home and mailed my stuff back to them. Y’all can have this. I’m not coming back. But after that I worked a customer service job at Autotrader for roughly about a year, got fired from that. And I remember my mom being like, “What are you going to do? You’re doing all this…”
Because she knew that I was into design and stuff. I would tell her that I went to Barnes and Noble and copied these books. And I found this cracked version of Photoshop. And I started playing around with designs, teaching myself how to use it. But it was always a hobby. And she’s like, “What are you going to do? You have a degree, but you’re playing around on the computer. You need to find a job, a real job.” And I did. A few months after that I got my first design gig. But I know what it’s like in your early career, trying to find your footing and just not feeling like you’re ready yet. I totally understand what that’s like.

Barney Abramson:
Absolutely. I can relate to that 100%. It really was like the wild west for a while. For us it was tough. It sure was.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I mean I think it’s one thing to not know because of just the industry and how it’s changing, but then you add race on top of that. That adds a whole, just other layer to it. Every place where I worked, I wasn’t like the only black person, but I was one of few black people there. And then it’s like, you can’t mess up because they looking at you crazy. And it’s a whole… I get it. I get it.

Barney Abramson:
Well you’re the example. It almost feels like they took a gamble on a black person. So here you are. And now you have to represent for everybody else, you have to be on your best behavior. So everything… I mean a lot of it is, but a lot of it is really true mean. Especially then did feel like they were taking a gamble on you. And you had to really do everything perfect so that weren’t embarrassing yourself and everyone else. So the pressure was, it was a lot. I mean obviously new England, not the most diverse place in some areas. So I definitely worked for a lot of jobs where I was the only black person in the team or the department. And at times I was the only black person in the entire building. So it was tough.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Let’s talk about your work at this gaming company. That was sort of your first foray into all of this. Tell me how it was. How’d it go?

Barney Abramson:
Yeah. So my work in gaming started at Progressive Gaming. It was smaller gaming company, they developed games and also manufactured slot machines. That company eventually went out of business. And the company that bought that company, Progressive Gaming was IGT. So I didn’t transition from one company to the next, but when Progressive Gaming went out of business and IGT kind of bought some of their assets within six months, I was now working at IGT. So the two companies kind of blend into one in my mind, I guess. But my start at IGT and working for the gaming industry was very different. Obviously it was just a whole different world. Moving to Las Vegas was different as well. So I was experiencing a lot of things, but I was in my twenties. So I kind of enjoyed… Obviously living in Vegas I enjoyed that.
But enjoyed the challenge at the time. So I was your typical junior designer. I sat in a cube pretty much doing graphic design work all day long. I reported to the director of marketing. And a lot of my job was really creating sales sheets and things of that nature, very boring stuff. But one exciting part of my job was doing trade shows. So the gaming industry, the way that they sell their games and their slots and their new technologies is by going to this multitude of gaming shows all over the US. So I got to travel and really design for multimillion dollar sets. So we were doing from video design to designing walls and features for the booth, was something that I loved doing. And I did a lot of. I was almost like a designer, an event kind of planner person, because I would also work a lot of this trade shows.
As time went by, I moved from the events part of things, and I went more into the branding. Our company was going through a major rebrand after 30 years of having the same logo and brand, they decided to reinvent themselves. They wanted to go from a manufacturing company into a technology company, mostly because they were not just making slot machine and manufacturing them. They were also developing games and different technologies. So this company had three or five gaming studios that… So we had hundreds of game designers in our building. But I’ve always kind of worked in a marketing environment. So when games were being developed and this company was developing, I want to say 50 to 100 games a year, it was our job to then create assets, to make sure that those games were going to be sold. So whether it was assets for the web, for sales, for social media, we would create all those assets.
So that was kind… I did that for a while. And then eventually I became a manager and I started managing a creative team. And like I said earlier, I had a very diverse creative team. I think actually I had the most diverse team in the entire company. Something that I was very proud of having, something that I strived for and I was able to make it happen. I had a Japanese designer, had a Mexican designer, two or three Filipino designers. I had designers in Peru, in Germany and London and Canada. So it was a very diverse team. Even in age. My youngest designer was 24 and my photographer was like 55. So managing such a diverse team in age, in culture and also location was a big deal for me. And I really thrived at it. It was probably the best time of my life being in our director at IGT for that time. So yeah. I don’t know if I answered your question, but that’s kind of my experience in the gaming industry and in working for IGT.

Maurice Cherry:
Now you worked there for… I mean this time period is almost a decade, so you really got to work and also see how the design industry grew from where you started to where you are right now. When you look back at that time, what did that time there really teach you?

Barney Abramson:
Gosh, I mean, what I remember the most is the evolution of gaming. So some of this gaming… And the thing is gaming for slot machines have a lot of somewhat similar to other games that we play, obviously, on different platforms. But I remember how in the beginning, a lot of the games were developed with very poor graphics, very low end graphics. I think GIFs or very small JPEGs picks was the only thing that they could use at the time. And I remember the evolution from static graphics to animated graphics that just blew my mind. The first time I saw a slot machine that stopped and then the character started doing something, I thought that was kind of revolutionary. And it’s funny because the gaming industry has been at the forefront of that development of creating digital games with other companies. And it’s not seen that way, but if you think about it, gaming companies employ thousands if not millions of designers, game designers I mean.
So watching that evolution of going from static to animated, to then full blown graphics that we get now, and some of the animation that’s created looks like real life. And it’s amazing. So being part of that, seeing the change in the industry from using Quarkxpress to obviously now Creative Cloud, that was a big, huge evolution that I think a lot of us are thankful for. So there was quite a bit of things that changed during that time. And gosh, I don’t know. I can’t think of anything else at the moment.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s funny. You mentioned just that change with slot machines and stuff. I feel like mobile gaming has also really changed a lot over the years. I see some mobile games now that are pretty much graphically on par with what you would see from a console. And I think part of that is just the technology in the phone has increased greatly. I mean, I didn’t get my first cell… Well, I got my first cell phone when I was in college, but it was a Ericson GH 68. I had a Nokia too. I had a Nokia after that, but it was like a T9, you play Snake on it. You know what I mean? It wasn’t something that was as advanced as modern day smartphones are. It’s just amazing to see how technology has increased. And as technology has increased, design has kind of gotten better. So that’s been a kind of good path to follow.

Barney Abramson:
It sure has I think that design now, I mean, I see what some of this, even first year college graduates are doing, and it’s just mind blowing and it’s like, wow. I could never imagine having that skill back then when I graduated, it just blows me away.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Barney Abramson:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m curious. What is the design community like for you in Vegas?

Barney Abramson:
To put it mildly it’s nonexistent. I can’t really say that there’s a graphic community here. There’s an art community that has been around for a while. And there’s an art district that has been growing quite significantly in the last couple years. But when it comes to tech or design, it lacks significantly. I mean, I’m not part of any graphic design or design or even creative teams or meetups or anything like that.
They’re far and few in between. And so there’s not very much of that. Vegas, it’s a transit city where people come, they try, they give it a shot and they leave. So folks don’t stick around very long. So that sense of community’s not really there. It’s funny, because I’ve been saying this since I’ve moved here like 17, 18 years ago, I’ve been saying that and it hasn’t really changed since. I feel like people here tend to be very isolated, thank God for the internet and Slack and other platforms that it’s kind of where I get to meet people and communicate and talk to other creatives.
But I don’t see that here. I was actually talking to someone recently about creating some sort of group. Because I’ve seen, and I’ve met a few designers that are moving into the city and they meet me through LinkedIn and some of my writing, they kind of reach out to me and through my mentorships and we all talk about creating something because definitely it’s missing.

Maurice Cherry:
You should. I mean, if that void is there and you’re looking for it definitely create it yourself. I mean, that’s what I did with Revision Path. There wasn’t any sort of design podcast I was talking to black designers and so I made it and almost 10 years later here we are. But no that’s interesting, because when I think of Las Vegas and I think of design, I don’t necessarily think of graphic design.
I would mostly think of maybe, I don’t know, interior design, I guess because there’s hotels and casinos. I mean, I just wouldn’t think of Vegas as a design city, but yet so much of Vegas is an experiment in design. The strip, the huge signs, the fake monuments and stuff there. Building an Oasis like that in the middle of a desert is a design experiment. So I would imagine that there has to be something there, but I would say if you haven’t found that community there and you’re looking for it, make it yourself, make it yourself.

Barney Abramson:
Well, you heard it first here. That might just happen. But you’re right. There should be a design community here. There is. I’m sure there is. They were just all kind of spread. And there’s really, again, not that sense of community doesn’t exist. So folks tend to stay on their own and seek out other places for their outlets. So yeah, it definitely is needed here. It’s funny you say that, that you wouldn’t think of Las Vegas as a big design place. Because part of the reason why I moved here was because the design industry in Boston, in New England was very competitive at the time. And I felt like, wow, I felt, again, it could have just been me, but I felt at the time that I really needed to sharpen my skills to compete for jobs and things of that nature. And when I moved to Vegas, I realized, “Oh my God, I’m the big deal here.”
Someone like me, I had so many options to work for… Whether it was casinos or gaming companies or other things. I really felt like I had choices to make. And there was so many choices out there. And I would encourage people all the time. I remember encouraging people, man, just come out here, you’ll get a job like this. It’ll be so easy, especially coming from somewhere else. So that was kind of part of the reason why I felt like, when I came here, everything was so much easier for me because there really wasn’t that competition.

Maurice Cherry:
I know there’s big college out there. UNLV is in Vegas and I believe there’s a AIGA chapter there. I want to say there’s been one there for a minute, but yep. Have you interacted with them?

Barney Abramson:
I have not. You’re actually the second person that brings that up to me and I feel ashamed that I haven’t been part of the AIGA a and I’m making plans to become a member and attend. I have not, seeked it. I can’t really tell you why. I just really haven’t hasn’t been in front of me for me to engage with them.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I mean, I’m not mentioning it as you should seek them out. I’m not saying it in that way, but normally when I’m thinking of any big city in the US, my first thought for design community would be to think about, is there an AIGA chapter there or is there a big school there? Because I figure a big school would have an art department or a design department and maybe they’ve got a student chapter or something there. So I feel like that community’s probably there. You might just have to really either one seek it out in those places or just create your own or both. I mean, I think either of those options is pretty good. I mean, even with AIGA, I was a member for several years, I did stuff at the national level. I did stuff at the local level. I always say the chapters per city are always kind of different.
They’re never going to operate the same from city to city, the different chapters. But I’d say if you want to seek them out, see if it’s good for you, if it’s welcoming. I mean, I know that AIGA now is trying to do a lot more around building community now that it kind of seems like we’re coming out of the pandemic. And so people are starting to have events and stuff again. Also now for the first time in the organization’s history, there’s a black man that’s the executive director. And I know him personally, Benny F. Johnson. He’s been on the show before. So I know that he’s trying to do more things to really one bring in more diversity, but also just help with more community in other places. So I’d recommend seeking it out. I’m not a shilling for AIG here, because I am not a member, but I’m just saying it’s an option.

Barney Abramson:
No, thank you for bringing that up. Like I said, I think you’re the second or third person to bring that up to me. And I actually had their page open from a couple days ago because I was looking at some of their certificate programs. I kind of said to myself like, wow, I’m surprised that I have not joined or kind of seeked them out. But I think I will.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I know the certificate programs I think are fairly new. I want to say those are fairly new. They’re really trying to, and this is to their credit. Because I’ve known the past few executive directors. To their credit they really are trying to become more of an agency for the modern designer. I think when a lot of people, maybe even 10 years or so ago thought of a AIGA, it was very much art school, art gallery, white gallery wall.
It was for a certain type of designer that got into design a certain type of way. And oftentimes that was not very diverse, just in terms of race or ethnicity. And I feel like now they really are trying to encompass the modern designer because now within the past 10 years, there’s UX design, there’s product design, there’s experiential design. Now even writers are considered designers and some organizational structures because you have a content designer or something. So design is so much more than just the visual or at least the visual in a artistically representational sort of way.

Barney Abramson:
Exactly.

Maurice Cherry:
And AIGA is old. AIGA is over 100 years old. They got to get with the program. They got to get with the time. So to their credit, they really are trying to modernize. But I think even something that big, especially with as many chapters as they have, it’s slow. The change is slow. But I think those certificate programs and I know they’ve done portfolio festivals and stuff. They’re starting to move in the right direction to their credit. I’ll give them that.

Barney Abramson:
I have to say the way that you articulated that makes so much sense to me because it’s exactly how I felt about them. And I just didn’t know that. And now that you say it that way, I think that was part of my hesitation. I remember going to their website years and years ago to look at contracts, or ways to handle being a freelancer and things of that nature, for resources. But that was the only way that I remember using them, but you’re right. I think that they are kind of reinventing themselves and I enjoy the change. So I’m going to have to look them up.

Maurice Cherry:
Outside of work you do a lot of mentoring. Talk to me about that.

Barney Abramson:
So the mentoring really came about due to my writing. So earlier this year, and I think the pandemic obviously gave all of us time to slow down and really rethink what you’re doing. And I really had epiphany, I guess you could say. But I started thinking about my experiences and a lot of the things that I never really talked about getting fired for my first job or being rejected by a mentor. These are things that I felt like maybe there are other people that are going through these experiences. And I remember also during the pandemic joining a lot of Slack channels. I think we’re part of some of the same channels for the black designers and Hugh and Techaria and things like that. So I started having more and more conversation with folks. And so then the beginning of this year, I kind of decided, hey you know what, I’m going to start writing more and I’m going to start telling a bit more about my story and I didn’t really have a plan.
I just thought I’m just going to make a post and see what happens. So I did and I started posting and the reaction was very… I got a very big reaction, mostly from young black and brown designers and creatives kind of reaching out to me, which encouraged me to write even more. So for the last four or five months I’ve been posting and writing almost like every single day, whether it is a Medium or LinkedIn or on all of the Slack channels that I’m part of.
And that like I said, I’ve met dozens, if not hundreds of young designers that relate to my story have gone through the same issues that I’ve gone through, either struggling or could use the guidance. So that’s where I then open up my calendar and say, I’ll just open on my calendar. I get a Calendly account and everyone that I would talk to, I say, “Hey, if you want to book me for 30 minutes, we can have a chat. It could be about design. It could be about any issues you’re having at work. I could review your portfolio. I could check your resume. I mean, whatever you want to talk about you can have me for 30 minutes.”
And that just kind of exploded. And before I knew it, I was having several meetings a week. If not several meetings a day, my wife is marriage and family therapist. So she actually sees clients from home. So because of the type of work she does, it became very natural to me to meet with people and talk to them about things. And I felt probably the last couple… The last month or so I felt like I should make this into something real and not just kind of a casual thing that I was doing online. So I started putting together this mentorship program it’s in its infancy.
I’m literally I’m… As I’m talking about it, I’m thinking of what I’m I’m going to do. But I do want to create a mentorship program. I do want to open up my story and myself to be able to guide and give advice. Again, I don’t know everything I don’t pretend to or everything. I usually start my sessions by just telling my story and using that as a vehicle to talk about the things that I was able to overcome and how I was able to overcome them. And it just really resonates with the people that I talk to. And then typically there’s a lot of Q&A going back and forth. And then we continue our chats online through Slack or LinkedIn or other channels. So that’s kind of how it started. And that’s where I’m at today. I have my website that I just started building and I’m piecing the program together. My wife is helping me with the program. So I hope to before the end of the year, have this mentorship program fully ready to go.

Maurice Cherry:
I really love that you’re doing that, by the way. I mean, using your story as a way to mentor and help out the current and the next generation of designers, that is so inspiring. And it’s really interesting to hear that it came from your writing. As you started writing about these different experiences that you’ve had, that it sort of opened up this new avenue to you.

Barney Abramson:
And you know who actually encouraged me to write. I think it was, I saw, we both know Cheryl D. Williams… Miller, sorry. She Dr. Cheryl D. Miller. I saw her talk. I can’t remember where I saw her speak, but I saw her speak once. And she talked about the importance of writing and documenting and telling your story. And she just really inspired me. And I’ve told her this many times that she just started something in me that I didn’t think I had.
I actually never thought I was a good writer. If I’m insecure about anything, it’s my writing. But I felt like if as long as I was telling it from my point of view and I was being honest and real that people could take it however they want. And if we want to talk about it, then let’s talk about it. Because at the end of the day, I want to create conversation and I want to engage and not… I’m not here to put anybody down or be controversial. I just want to, again, tell my story and allow folks to learn from it and engage me and let’s talk about it.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, you’re the expert of your own story and of your own experience. And I love that Cheryl was an inspiration. I remember when I had her back on the show, this was years ago. And it’s funny about the writing, because I found her, I won’t say found. It wasn’t like I discovered her anything, but I found her or I discovered her, I should say through a book that she wrote. She had wrote a memoir on and it was for sale on Amazon. And that’s how I ended up reaching out to her to come on the show because I had been doing research about this thesis that she wrote back in the eighties and how that got turned into this article for Print magazine. And it spurred the symposium with AIGA and then there’s just this gap from 1990 to whenever, and I was like, okay, where did she go?
And then I found this book and I reached out to her and was like, I would love to just tell your story. Because I don’t think anyone has and it needs to be heard. And then it kind of has taken off from there. So I always stress the importance of writing to designers. I mean we had for a few years through Revision Path, we had a design anthology of writing called Recognize. We did it from 2019 to 2021. We didn’t do it for too much. The pandemic kind of killed it. I’ll be completely be completely honest there. But we had a different theme every year and then people would submit design writing towards that theme. So the first year’s theme was space. The second year’s theme was fresh. And then the final year of the theme was reboot. And so like I said, the pandemic killed it.
People I think were just so busy thinking of just survival honestly, that submitting to a writing anthology was the last thing on their minds. But we did manage to publish two volumes. One was through Envision and got published through their website. And then the second one, we published through A List Apart. So I always am stressing the importance of writing to designers because writing, I think just teaches you how to one structure your thoughts, but also to explain yourself and your process to other people so they can see your work as you see it.

Barney Abramson:
I couldn’t agree more. It’s something that I feel like I finally learned it recently. And when I talk to young designers, it’s literally the first thing that I tell them to do is start writing today, start expressing yourself, start telling your story, start articulating and becoming a better communicator, whether it is at work or for your personal. You need to start learning how to communicate better because it really it’s the only thing that’s going to take you from a designer to something else. So maybe you like to be a graphic designer, but if you want to be a manager, if you want to be a leader in any kind of way, you have to learn how to communicate better. And writing is a great way to start. So I’m glad that we think the same because I say that, I think almost every mentoring session that I’ve had, I’ve brought this up.

Maurice Cherry:
Start a blog, write case studies about your work. Anything just to open up that other part of your brain I think is just super important for designers in general.

Barney Abramson:
I see that a lot in when you see someone’s portfolio and it’s just like, oh great graphics. And it’s amazing. And I’m like, oh, that looks great, but it’s but what’s the backstory. What am I looking at? Why am I looking at this? Another thing is when you design something, practice articulating what you’re creating so that it can… It’ll make better sense to you, but it’ll also make better sense to the people watching it. So, I mean, some art is meant to be seen, but I feel like in our industry, or at least as a graphic designer, for me, it does help a lot to be able to articulate whether in writing or speaking your vision and what you’re trying to accomplish.

Maurice Cherry:
There’s this really great piece that you have on Medium called how to attract, hire and retain black creatives, a five step strategy. Just from the title alone I’m thinking, I know so many recruiters and hiring managers that need to read this because they’re always coming to Revision Path saying, “Oh, we’re trying to find black designers. We can’t find black designers. Where are they?” And it’s like, I should tell them, go read this piece by Barney Abramson about how to do it. Because you’ve laid out the strategy. And I think that comes from your experience too. The time you’re working in the gaming industry, even the stuff that you’re doing now with the energy company, you’ve done this, you’ve built teams. So you know how to do this.

Barney Abramson:
Exactly. And it’s funny that you say that because it’s exactly where this piece came from. It was because of the amount of people that were coming to me partially because of my writing, they were coming to me asking me the same question. Where do we find black designers? We’re trying to build our teams. How do we find more people of color? And I got that question over and over. And I remember one evening I was on Twitter. I made a post and I think it was a CEO of an agency wrote to me saying, “Oh my God, I would love to know more. Do you have any advice?” And I’m like advice and I never really thought about it. Maybe I have to put something together. So then I wrote this list.
Well, here’s 10 things you could do today. So I sent them the list and then I thought, okay, well maybe this list needs to be… Like, I wouldn’t even think about this, let me just throw it out there. So I kind of shot this list around in my Slack groups. I think Cheryl was one of the folks that gave me some guidance on it. And then I said, okay, well now I need to make it…. Now it can’t just be a list. Because I’m not providing enough information. So now I need to flush it out.
And so that’s kind of how it started. It started literally from folks asking me the same question they ask you. Conversation on Twitter, kind of sparked the initial list. And then I felt like I needed to flush that out. And I literally spent three months putting this together because I wanted it to be right. I did have some help with the writing because I’m not the best writer when it comes to long form like this, but I’m really happy with it. And I’m glad that you find it useful.

Maurice Cherry:
Right now with where you are in your life and in your career how do you define success?

Barney Abramson:
Man, you have the best questions. I am glad you said that because I had always had… In the past, I’ve always defined success with a money… A particular kind of a financial thing to it. I needed to make this much money work for this company to be successful. I mean, again, this is years ago. I had this idea that by the time I’m 30, I need to make $100,000. That was my big goal. It was a thing that was going to make me happy. And I feel like when I was able to reach that goal and when I was able to be at a position that to me felt I should have been happy. I had a creative team, I was highly regarded in my company. I was kind of making the money that I wanted to make, but I just was not happy. I felt like the stress of getting there and the stress of me trying to climb the ladder really got to me.
And I got to a point where even my health started to have effects. I just was not working out for me. And I realized that I needed to find success in other things. So for me, success is I find more success and more happiness in my writing and in my mentorship than I do in my paycheck. I love my paycheck. Don’t get me wrong, and I need it. But I find more happiness doing the things that I love and when I’m giving back. So I think for me, success is when I find myself in a place that I’m giving back and I am helping people, helping black and brown designers get out of rut or get out of a difficult situation at work. That really is what makes me happy more than anything else.

Maurice Cherry:
Where do you see yourself in the next five years? What kind of work do you want to be doing?

Barney Abramson:
The next five years, I definitely see myself. Well, I always had this vision of starting my own creative agency. Again, I do a lot of consulting work and freelance work for companies and entrepreneurs and other ventures that I do, on the side. But I do want to formalize that into something else. I would love to have an agency kind of like a boutique creative agency of my own, something that I’ve kind of started and stopped throughout my career.
And I feel like I’m getting to a place where I think five years from now, if I can launch a creative agency, I think it would be a success for me. The other thing that I would love to see come to fruition is my mentorship and my mentoring program. I would love to have that up and running with seeing and talking to hundreds of designers and also bring other senior folks like yourself and others to be part of something big like that. So that’s where I see myself in five years from now.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, just to wrap things up from here, where can our audience find out more information about you, about your work, about your writing? Where can they find that online?

Barney Abramson:
Yeah, so the best… Really where I spent most of my time writing and communicating and meeting new folks, it’s on LinkedIn. I think LinkedIn, the last couple years had really kind of reinvented itself and I’ve seen just an influx of people coming to the platform, maybe I’m wrong. But I just noticed that during the last maybe year or two, just this influx of new young energy coming to the platform.
So I find myself on LinkedIn, quite a lot writing. I actually host a blog on LinkedIn, which it is identical to my blog on Medium. So Medium obviously is another place that you can find me. I have my website, Barneyabramson.com where you can… Again, my website’s on the construction, but if you want to reach out to me, send me an email. That’s really the one stop shop where you can find me, send me a note and then see all my other social channels. Another place where I’m very active is Slack, where are the black designers that’s I’m on there all the time. And Techaria is another group and Hugh’s another group that I spend a lot of time in. You can definitely find me there as well.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. Sounds good. Well, Barney Abramson, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. I think one, just your story of coming to this country, getting interested in design and really finding your own way is something that I feel like a lot of our audience is going to be able to really empathize with and relate to. Because design is something that is for everyone. And even the ways that we get into it, whether that’s through formal ways like school or cultivating a hobby or something like that. I think what your story proves is that design is really something for everyone and that you were able to carve out your own path and really kind of define success for yourself and find a way to give back to the next generation, which is really great to see. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Barney Abramson:
Thank you, sir. It’s a pleasure. Thank you for having me.

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Husani Oakley

With over 220 million worldwide subscribers across over 190 countries, it’s hard to imagine pop culture without the media juggernaut that we know as Netflix. But how do they manage to distribute and create so much, while also maintaining a top-class user experience for so many people? It’s thanks to geniuses like this week’s guest — Husani Oakley.

Husani talked about stepping into his role as Director of Creative Practices during the pandemic, and shared how his team helps define the art and science of great creative work at a huge scale. He also spoke about how his previous stints as CTO of online investment platform Goldbean and CTO of advertising firm Deutsch NY helped prepare him for the biggest role of his career. It takes a lot of work and nuance to create experiences for global and local audiences, and Husani is the right person to make those experiences happen!

Transcript

Full Transcript

Maurice Cherry:
All right. So, tell us who you are and what you do.

Husani Oakley:
My name is Husani Oakley. I am the Director of Creative Practices at Netflix.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s a pretty big title. I was going to ask what all has changed since you were last on the show, which was in 2014, you were Episode 40. That’s a long time ago. Tell me more about this new role in Netflix. It sounds exciting.

Husani Oakley:
Well, it was a very long time ago. That’s a whole two jobs in a global panini ago. That’s quite crazy. I hadn’t realize it was that long. Yeah, so my role at Netflix is in a group called Product Creative Studio. It’s a new role, even though Product Creative Studio isn’t necessarily new. We’re part of a team of people that are responsible for launching titles on platforms, so all shows all movies, whether they are Netflix originals or our non-original content that ends up on the platform globally. Everything is related to how those titles appear on platform. Everything from the descriptions, the synopsis that appear when you’re looking for something to watch to the tagging that appears. But specifically the art and clips and trailers that appear in the rows when you’re on the Netflix home page and when you’re on one of our titled detail pages.

Husani Oakley:
That’s the sort of work that’s done on my side of the organization. And my department and thus, my role specifically is looking at that work from a creative perspective, less than an operational perspective. And trying to figure out ways to make that work the best possible work for our members. We really want that art and those trailers and those clips to stand out and give you enough information as a member to let you decide whether this is something for you when you’re going to hit play and watch. We present you that evidence.

Maurice Cherry:
And I mean, it can be overstated just how big even Netflix has become in the past seven years. I mean, it really was something that was largely, I remember back then, I feel like it was mostly largely just for the United States or maybe for the Americas. But now, I mean, it truly is a global platform, not just in terms of reach of members, but also the content that it offers. I see trailers every week from content that’s in Spain, that’s in Italy, that’s in Nigeria, that’s in South Korea, everywhere.

Husani Oakley:
That’s what is both I think amazing to see from the inside. And then as a member to also experience from the outside that our content is we are a global company, our content is global. The way we create that content is global. But by global, I don’t mean from one location and spread throughout the world, it’s not one to many. It’s really many to many.

Husani Oakley:
Squid Game, I think is a great example that came out of South Korea for South Koreans. It was so great. Everyone on the planet ended up watching it. But the way we think about this global scale and reach, it’s almost like every area has its own Netflix. And the beauty of the platform is that content from those little Netflixes can be seen by members of Netflix as a whole.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, you started this role last year. How was it to start something this big during the pandemic?

Husani Oakley:
I’ve got to say I was really scared. I was really scared to start during the pandemic. The role I was coming out of, I’d been in for a couple of years, so I knew everyone I worked with. And then we went into the pandemic and so, you’re on calls all day, every day with people, but you know them because you’ve known them before everything changed. I was really scared about the ability to form relationships with my peers, with my bosses and certainly, with the team that I lead only over a screen. Without having any indication of when the relationships could be built outside of just from behind the screen. I was terrified. If I am, to be honest, I was excited and terrified really, really because of that. But I have to say, this is the largest company I’ve ever worked at.

Husani Oakley:
And from day zero, and the fact that I say day zero gives a hint as to my dev background. We started zero. From day zero, I was impressed by the level of craft and the level of thoughtfulness that went into, not just starting, but the interviewing experience. And then starting, and then the onboarding experience. All of this with me sitting in my home office, having stepped into an Netflix office once in my life for maybe 30 minutes. I was terrified, but after really getting into things with folks who were aiding me along that interviewing and onboarding journey, that fear really went away and I was just able to embrace it.

Maurice Cherry:
What does your team look like? Who are some of the people that you manage?

Husani Oakley:
My team has, I was going to say some of the most brilliant people at Netflix, but that wouldn’t be fair because everyone in Netflix is sort of scary smart. And that’s I think a thing a lot of people say outside of Netflix like, “Oh, the folks in Netflix are really smart.” People in Netflix are really smart. I mean, back to this starting at day zero and how all of those interactions were clearly well-thought out and well-defined. The thoughtfulness is almost the hallmark of what it feels like to interact with these folks on the outside, I’m sorry, inside the company.

Husani Oakley:
My team is interesting because the team itself is new, but the people who are on the team are not. They’ve been in Netflix for an average of five years, four years and maybe. And so, they have such a deep understanding of not just the culture and sort of how we operate on a day-to-day basis. But the relationships with cross-functional partners across the globe. One of my amazing practices leads spent a lot of time and working with our APAC region. And has deep relationships with the folks there. So, they’re really able to bring to me the new person, this rich library of knowledge, which is incredibly helpful.

Husani Oakley:
Now, my folks come from varied creative focused backgrounds, creative strategy, art direction. Some from entertainment. Some from outside of entertainment. Some from marketing and advertising. But they all share a passion for TV and film and a passion for telling stories about TV and film. We tell stories about stories. I say that my team, with apologies to the late great Stephen Sondheim, I say that creative practices focuses on the art of making art. Inside of Netflix, I think that’s really important.

Husani Oakley:
We have these amazing editors and producers and strategists and designers spread across the planet, building out stories about stories, designing the art for our titles, cutting the trailers and clips for our titles. And because my team has experience doing that actual hands-on work, they are able to use that experience. And like I said earlier, use the rich knowledge of all of the cross-functional partnerships that they come to the team with. And elevate the work that our stunning colleagues do to represent titles on platform. I think I’m the luckiest person in Netflix with my team.

Maurice Cherry:
I remember from other people who I’ve had on the show before Netflix, they me that Netflix mostly hires mid to senior career people. You have to be at least kind of five years in to start at Netflix. There’s no “junior.” I’m using air quotes here, but there are no junior positions. Everyone kind of starts at a high level because you’re really in one way expected to kind of hit the ground running.

Maurice Cherry:
But to your point about how global and cross-functional, it is, I mean, you’re trying to deliver this consistent experience across hundreds of thousands of customers. And then Netflix is so unique because it’s a tech company, but it’s also media. And I just know from working with tech startups that try to do media, that’s often like mixing oil and water.

Husani Oakley:
Yeah, it’s hard and it’s also really worth putting the effort in. I think the space in between art and science is somewhere that I’ve spent my career and Netflix has spent its time existing like playing in the space between. I think if you are and I’m really talking about companies that I think I could argue this for really strong creatives as well.

Husani Oakley:
If you are solely focused on the art side, certainly in the medium that we’re talking about here, in digital. If you are focused on the art side, you’re missing out on the abilities and capabilities that are possible if you lean into the science side. But if you just lean into the science side and you don’t have the art, then you’ve got math. And I say, and then you’ve got math knowing, Maurice, what just like in college sounds silly. But I think you’re a great example of what I mean in this combination of art and science.

Husani Oakley:
There is such something that builds upon each other and allows things to build and move and merge. And I think that’s a fascinating place for a brand like Netflix to be, I think from a brand tone perspective, but from the day-to-day perspective of Netflix employees. And I hope that that experience for our members comes across. We talk a lot about our members all the time. We are member centric. We care so much about the member experience.

Husani Oakley:
Also, we are members too. I make this thing with my team in every other weekly status meeting, “What are you watching on Netflix right now? Let’s talk about it a bit.” Because at the end of the day, we’re focused on a lot of the science stuff, but it’s science for a reason. It’s science for the art and that’s just a fascinating space to play in.

Maurice Cherry:
The interesting thing really also with Netflix is it’s become just so ubiquitous within culture, writ large. I mean, of course you can look at the idiom of Netflix and chill and stuff like that. But with Netflix being such an early player in streaming and the rights with so many other streaming services, Paramount Plus, HBO Max, et cetera. There’s all these sort of affordances and things that they’re inheriting from work that’s been done in Netflix around how do we structure the UI? How do we provide a good user experience?

Maurice Cherry:
And it’s so interesting to watch conversation about streaming services on Twitter. Because one thing that I’ve found probably within the past couple of years, and I’ve noticed this, is that content, there are so many streaming services in places for content to land. And I mean, I’m using content in a broad sort of way to describe video. But I’ll watch 10 trailers and it’s almost negligible, which platform they’re on. It could be on IIB. It could be on Amazon Prime. It could be on Netflix. It could be on IMDB TV. It could be on a number of different platforms and stuff, but what sets it apart is that kind of experience of how do I use the app?

Maurice Cherry:
People talk all the time about HBO Max’s, the app. People say they’ve never seen an app that hates their users like HBO Max or I use Paramount Plus. And actually, Paramount Plus is the one service I’ve stopped using because the interface I found lacks the features that I would see on a Netflix or a Disney Plus or something for basic things that Netflix kind of pioneered, like Watch List and favorite-ing and ratings and stuff like that.

Husani Oakley:
I’ll tell you the secret. The secret is this amazing collection of smart people that work for Netflix that are spread across the globe. Just a little while ago, you talked about the level that we hire and you said, I think, the common thought is that folks are expected to kind of hit the ground running. And I’d say yes and no to that. So, I’ve been at Netflix are about seven and a half months and I think it took me about seven months to even understand anything.

Husani Oakley:
And the ongoing internal joke is, “You should spend the first year just soaking up information, understanding things, but we hired you because you’re great.” But your greatness at what you do, you need the information, the context about how we think about problem solving. How we’ve solved problems in the past, who people are and what they do and what they’re good at. You need some time inside before you’re really able to use the skills that you’re walking in with and apply to these sorts of very difficult problems that we are spending 24/7, 365 across the globe attempting to solve for our members.

Husani Oakley:
I hope that that effort or it’s funny. I was going to say, I hope that effort is clear to members. What I actually hope is that it’s not clear to members. I actually hope that it’s a magical experience that you sit down, you grab your remote control. You go to Netflix and you look, there are things that you want to watch.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s effortless. The experience is so seamless across. And I have to say, across a number of different platforms. I mean, I probably think like my toaster probably has Netflix now. It’s on every game console. It’s with every smart television. It’s on every smartphone, like yeah.

Husani Oakley:
Yeah. We have an amazing partnerships team that works in a lot of those sorts of situations and they’re just great. You should be able to enjoy this content where you’re at. Whether you’re sitting on a flight and you’ve got your iPad with you or you’re on a train and you’ve got your phone with you. You’re sitting on your cell phone, it’s a television, you’re on a laptop or you’re in the kitchen making toast. We briefly want the ability for you to be entertained because that’s our job.

Husani Oakley:
And I think there’s a huge responsibility in entertainment brands and the folks who, who work at them, certainly at brands as large as Netflix, and with such a global footprint. There’s responsibility in the driving of global culture. And so, you see this a lot or you saw this a lot during the pandemic. I think even more so than pre-pandemic. Life is hard and you’ve had a really difficult day, a difficult week. There’s family stuff. There’s work stuff.

Husani Oakley:
There’s the state of the world, in general. And what we want you to do, what we want to be able to do, what we focus so much time on, on an effort on allowing you to do easily is to sit down on your sofa or in front of your laptop or in front of your toaster, grab a remote. And for 43 minutes, for 60 minutes, hopefully for longer, you are able to take the weight of the world off of your shoulders and immerse yourself in a story. And live in that story and watch all of that story if you want or stop and sort of reemerge back into your life and do some more things and then come back and reemerge yourself in that story.

Husani Oakley:
That is an awesome responsibility that we have. And my team, because we are supporting the folks who make and the processes by which we make this creative work that represents titles on platform, we’re the front door and the last door to those moments of joy. And that’s what I tell my folks to, that’s what they focus on, that’s what we focus on. That’s why we are here at this company to focus on giving members moments of joy.

Maurice Cherry:
And I have to say, the way that Netflix has sort of expanded in the early 20-teens with not just expanding globally, but then also expanding into original content. The development of original content sort of further kind of lets Netflix seep into the culture in that way, because as it expands out more, now we’re making your own shows. Because there’s a lot of, or I think it’s probably is still this way.

Maurice Cherry:
You have all this platform hopping of old shows and movies and stuff. Particularly, I think with a lot of NBC properties and stuff like The Office, it was on Hulu. Now, it’s on Peacock. Now, it’s on this. And it’s amazing how people will follow a platform for a show that probably hasn’t been online or is still in syndication or something like that. But Netflix now moving forward with their own content as they also expand their global footprint, at the same time, huge. That’s huge.

Husani Oakley:
Yeah. There’s real power in that. And you only get to those sorts of insights and then execute on those insights and then continue to execute on those insights with more insights and do that at a global scale. The only way to do that is with stunning colleagues. It’s the only way.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. To that end, what does a regular day look for you? Does that exist?

Husani Oakley:
Nope. There is no regular day. Well, there are constants, let’s say. And maybe it’s almost like what does a week generally look like? And there’s things that happen in any given week are totally different. I said to someone, I said to a colleague the other day, “There’s never a boring day here is there?” They just sort of looked at me and they were sort of laughing of like, “Yep, no, no, no. That just does not exist here.”

Husani Oakley:
In any given week, I think like many people, we live on video chat. So, I’m on video chat a lot, but the conversations are so different and so rich and meaningful. Remember the days before everyone worked at home? And you might have eight meetings a day, but only three of them were really important. And the other five, you could of phone it in sometimes. Apologies to my previous lawyers who may or may not be listening to this.

Husani Oakley:
You could be with your phone checking Twitter under the table, that kind of moment. Not that I ever did such things clearly. It’s sort of the opposite of that here. So, if I’m on 10 calls, each of those 10 calls, is the most important call that day. And there were pre-reads read for those calls. There was prep work done. There was active participation in those calls.

Husani Oakley:
So, I think in any given couple of days or a week period, I’m having, it’s a really a collaboration session meeting with my team. My team, we don’t call them status meetings because it’s a waste of everyone’s time for all of us to sit on a call and go round robin and people tell me the status of their projects and initiatives. That’s a waste of their time. I think it’s disrespectful to their time. They can send me an email. They can update Slack.

Husani Oakley:
They can also do what they do because I trust them to do it because they’re the best people in the world to do this job. I don’t need to hover over them. So, we take an hour every Monday and collaborate on things. We’ll take a moment to celebrate on the latest content that we’re all or some of us are into. And then we really get into sort of the nuts and bolts collaboration, because these folks do have different backgrounds and different perspectives, different experiences.

Husani Oakley:
And because we’re a little a bit spread out and it’s a new team. It’s not as though we have spent so much time physically together. So, this moment is where you can start learning about each other and what each person kind of bring to this collaboration moment. I do also have a weekly status, also it’s less of a status. It’s more of a big thing that’s going on with my peers and the person that we report to. And we’re thinking of sort of bigger picture, strategic vision and what are the priorities for this year and next and how our cross-functional partnerships are doing.

Husani Oakley:
But a lot of time for me is spent watching Netflix. And I’m just smiling ear-to-ear when I say that. I watch a lot of Netflix. I watch Netflix during the day. I said to my mom, when I started, “I get paid to watch a lot of Netflix and that’s pretty damn cool.” And I’m watching as a member, but I’m also, I’m watching to gauge where we’re at creatively with title representation on platform. Does that feel right? And if it does, how can we do that not once, but twice but 5000 times. And then next year, 10,000 times. And then the next year, 30,000 times. So, there’s a lot of focus on getting content in.

Husani Oakley:
There’s a lot of task forces that are, we’re really big on cross-functional partnerships and cross-functional relationships. So, I’m on a couple of handfuls worth of internal working groups and task forces focused on all sorts of issues and initiatives and challenges to solve. Maybe there’ll be a meeting in that. And one person from the taskforce is going to present a deck or a super long memo about the latest findings from a test. And we debate them and we dissent openly and give feedback about what we’re talking about in these conversations openly.

Husani Oakley:
This is kind of what my life is these days. I watch TV a lot and I talk a lot. Which is for a person who talks a lot and watches TV a lot when he is not working in Netflix, that’s kind of a dream.

Maurice Cherry:
What would you say is the most challenging aspect of this new job?

Husani Oakley:
I think maybe the most challenging and the most rewarding, the most rewarding is being able to work with colleagues across the world from completely different cultures and perspectives and backgrounds. And then I think one of the more challenging parts is coordination of the working with amazing colleagues from across the world.

Husani Oakley:
Time zones are a thing. It’s always going to be painful for someone. I mean, it’s either 8:00 AM for me or it’s 8:00 PM for me. It’s certainly when I’m working with colleagues on the literal other side of the planet. And trying to coordinate that with super busy schedules ends up being more challenging than you kind of think. “Oh, send a calendar, invite us all. Fine.”

Husani Oakley:
But our days are so dynamic. They change all the time and these meetings run long and maybe they run short. And then there that’s a company town hall. Trying to keep schedules in that space when there are so many dependent time zone dependencies, it ends up being a significant challenge and maybe that’s a challenge for me. The old school Netflix folks do this with their eyes closed. I’m still catching up and trying to figure out kind of the best way to handle that.

Husani Oakley:
One thing about that, when we have sort of larger meetings, larger department meetings, or all hands in our part of the organization, we do those meetings twice because of time zones. So, if you’re presenting in a meeting and you’ve got a couple hundred people on a call, for me, I’m in those conversations all the time. I’m presenting in those quite often. I’ll have one at 7:00 PM on a Tuesday and then I’ll have the exact same meeting the next day at 10:00 AM, but just with different participants, but I’m saying the same thing twice.

Husani Oakley:
And there’s a challenge in that sort of human communication moment. Sometimes, I feel a little bit like I imagine a politician feels giving a stump speech. And they’re, “Okay, hello, Rapid City.” And they’re like, “You’re actually at Albuquerque.” “Oh, sorry. I was in Rapid City yesterday.” That sort of when you say the same thing a number of times it starts to become rote.

Husani Oakley:
And I think that would be unfair to our colleagues in our various locations across the world. So, trying to keep that stuff fresh to get their excited unique perspectives is also sort of challenging for me sometimes. But you work through it, you work through it.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, when we had talked back in 2014, I know we’re talking now about Netflix, but I want to kind of go back to really track the progression to how you’ve gotten to where you are now. Back when we talked in 2014, you were fairly new, I think CTO at this FinTech startup called GoldBean. Tell me about that experience. How was it?

Husani Oakley:
Oh, GoldBean. Oh, wow. It’s funny how the perception of time is so malleable and the past two years feel like 30 years. So, really thinking back to the GoldBean days, it’s amazing. I’m watching right now there’s, there’s like what? Three or four prestige TV series about well-known startups happening right now. I don’t know what they’re called, but there’s the Uber show. That’s what I call them at home. There’s the Uber show. There’s this there no show. There’s the Uber show.

Husani Oakley:
I’m watching all of them at the same time. And I just, I laugh a lot when there are moments that they are talked about in these shows that I remember. Like begging for funding, a launch day, getting your first non-direct connected customers and that sort of thing. GoldBean was a blast. It was a massive learning experience. You’d wake up on a Monday morning and you’d think I am right. Our product is right. Our brand is right. Everything, we’re making the right decisions. We are so smart.

Husani Oakley:
And then by lunchtime, you’re like, “Wait, no, actually we don’t know anything. What the hell have we done with our lives?” Then it might change. It might go up again by dinnertime. That sort of emotional rollercoaster. That I think is inherent in startups. I guess when I think back on the GoldBean era, that’s one of the things that’s top of mind to me, that riding that rollercoaster.

Husani Oakley:
So, GoldBean, I was so lucky to co-found GoldBean with a former colleague. She was actually a former boss, truth be told. And we were, you have colleagues, boss or not, you’re close in, and when you’re working together. And then time goes by, you both have different jobs, different parts of industries. You don’t talk again. You drop each other notes on Twitter or LinkedIn. One is a Merry Christmas and Happy Birthday kind of a thing.

Husani Oakley:
I was so lucky to reconnect with her and have the opportunity to build something from nothing. And to think about all aspects during that building of something from nothing. Where it’s not just the product, not just the tech of the product, but the design of the product, the brand, but the brand values. And how those brand values would be expressed through visual design, but also through our own behavior in the marketplace and how we raise the money.

Husani Oakley:
Really all of that coming from a core set of brand values, which is really about, could we have a financial brand that didn’t just focus on straight white dudes? How do you take that kind of a phrase and express it in design and express it in the tech and express it in product design? Solving those challenges was so much fun.

Maurice Cherry:
And you were kind of going back into the startup world then, because prior to that, you were at Wieden and Kennedy before you were at GoldBean?

Husani Oakley:
That’s right. That’s right. Yeah. My career has been startup, ad agency, startup, ad agency. At a certain point, it was like startup, startup, startup, startup. Oh, no. Ad agency. I’ve kind of, I’ve lived a lot in both of those worlds, yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
And I guess, to follow that pattern after this startup, you were at an ad agency. Right after that you were at Deutsch New York. How did that opportunity come about? Because you were at GoldBean for a good minute.

Husani Oakley:
Yeah. It’s a funny story, and I think it was like four or five years at GoldBean. And we did the typical, it’s sort of like the typical startup life cycle. Even though there were all of the roller coaster at any given day if you kind of zoom out from that, there was the typical, “Have an idea. Ooh, that’s a good one. Let’s bootstrap it. Let’s make it. Let’s raise some money. Well, let’s raise some money. Oh, wait. We’re a woman and Black gay man as CTO-led financial technology brand.”

Husani Oakley:
So, we’re raising money and raising money and raising money. I continued that for a very long time before going on to the next part of working on a startup. But we got to the point, I guess, near the end where we had a lovely relationship with a company that ended up buying the GoldBean.

Husani Oakley:
I was having drinks with an old colleague from my Wieden+Kennedy days who for maybe a year or so, she was at Deutsch New York. And she had been trying to for a year to get me to talk to folks at Deutsch. And I kept saying, “No, I have a job. It’s called a startup. Ever heard of it?” I was sort of getting snippy about it after a while. But she was a friend. We finally had a moment in a bar where I knew that, “Hey, we’re actually going to be wrapping GoldBean up soon. Fine. I will talk to your precious Deutsch New York people. Fine.”

Husani Oakley:
And so, she did an email introduction to some folks there. And one conversation with a person who ended up becoming my Deutsch collaborator and then personal friend, one conversation, I was sold. I was excited to join Deutsch specifically because of the people. It’s always about people for me. The culture was much around, “Hey, here’s the thing. Let’s figure out how to do that better.” And that really, really kind of called to me.

Husani Oakley:
It’s funny. Where did we, where you and I spoke at a conference together in Atlanta, what was that?

Maurice Cherry:
That was How to Design Live in 2016.

Husani Oakley:
Wow, 2016. I remember standing on a stage there and I know this happened. I hope there’s not a recording of it. I stood on a stage and I said something like, “I will never go back to advertising.” And the crowd sort of giggles. And I’m like, “No, I’m serious. I will never go back to advertising.” Fast forward two years, I’m [crosstalk 00:32:43]. So, never say never, I guess.

Maurice Cherry:
What are some of the things you worked on?

Husani Oakley:
Deutsch work was and is focused on helping brands through inflection points. There’s a product launching, there’s a major change in company leadership and now there’s a new brand tone or value or look and feel of something. But no, I think the specialty of Deutsch was finding those moments of change and developing coms around those moments of change and to support those moments of change in the eyes of a brand consumers.

Husani Oakley:
I think a good example, some work that we did for, for AB InBev. The world’s largest brewer. Speaking of global scale, AB InBev has got it. I was going to say we designed and built an app called Hoppy, but that doesn’t come close to kind of what the project was. That’s what I loved about the work at Deutsch. It wasn’t just the what is the tactic that we’re leaning in on. It’s why is this tactic important? What larger program in an inflection point for a brand is this tactic a part of?

Husani Oakley:
For AB InBev specifically, it was around really wanting all of their employees to have a deep, deep, deep appreciation of, and understanding of beer. And I think that might sound a little silly sometimes, like “Well, it’s a brewer, how do they not understand and love beer?” But at a brewer, there’s a lot of employees. That’s just the folks in the brewery. You got sales people, you got marketing people, you have operations people, you have number crunchers.

Husani Oakley:
And there was a real desire by the heads of AB InBev to internally have every single AB InBev employee be educated about beer. Be able to champion beer and what beer could do from a cultural perspective like throwing people together and having sort of moments of meaning in people’s lives, who work at AB InBev. And how could every employee of AB InBev share that passion for beer to their friends and family and so on and so on.

Husani Oakley:
So, one of the tactics that we came up with was called Hoppy and it was an app, internal only. It has since gone public on the web, I believe, but it was an iOS and Android app that essentially gamified education. And we took a lot of cues from how people use their phones when they’re not supposed to be at jobs. Really wanted a little bite size content. AB InBev has a super competitive internal culture and we leaned in on that in some of the gamification as well. So the idea was, if you log into Hoppy, you read some bite size content about beer, and it’s all different sorts of courses. And from beer history to beer science, to the making of beer.

Husani Oakley:
It was very specifically about beer, not so much a sales tool for AB InBev brands. No. It was about beer. You read this content, you interact with these little games then you would get quizzes. If you answer the quiz, you get a badge. Every badge comes along with beer coin. Yes, I know. Every time I would say it then and said it now is I cringe a little bit. I won’t take up too much time complaining about crypto and my thoughts on that. But the idea was giving the AB InBev employees again from the super competitive internal culture a thing to compete with. We built leaderboards, not just in the app, but around offices.

Husani Oakley:
We allowed managers to create what we called Beer Code, C-O-D like a QR code, QR code. You go into an admin system, you make a beer code and that beer code could be for an extracurricular meeting you were having with your team or a happy hour that you wanted your encouraged your team to show up to. You’d make it, you’d print it, you’d stick it on the wall. Every employee that walks in, they log into Hoppy as they’re walking in, they scan that code. They get some beer coin. They move up in the leaderboard.

Husani Oakley:
All the content could always be refreshed and it was all very beautiful. And there’s this amazing design that the super talented product design team at Deutsch New York created. That sort of deep, deep, deep brand integration coming through via a digital tactic for employees. That’s the sort of work that Deutsch did and does. And it’s work that I, years later, am still super proud of.

Maurice Cherry:
When you look back at both your time working at GoldBean, which was a startup and working at Deutsch New York, which is an agency. When you look at those two specific experiences, what unique skills do you think you’re able to bring now to your work at Netflix, which is in a totally different space?

Husani Oakley:
The ability to tell a story succinctly, last answer to your question, notwithstanding. You know what I mean? Taking super, super complicated concepts and distilling them down to their essence, not 30 slides, but two. But when you are the digital per person in a non-only digital environment like a big ad agency. And anyone who is in that position sort of understands and I think even folks who are sort of new areas of larger older companies will understand this, you run out of time in a meeting.

Husani Oakley:
You run out of time in a pitch because your part of the pitch is like Slide 38 of 50. I’m sorry. Your part of the pitch is Slide 38 out of 40. And by the time you get to Slide 37, you look at the clock and it’s almost time and all your colleagues are looking at you like, “Okay, you had a whole lot to say when you practiced this pitch, but now you have seven seconds to say it because we took too long to say our part. You don’t have time anymore. Go.”

Husani Oakley:
When you experience that over a career, my ad agency career of being the digital person in these sometimes, non-digital native environments, you get really good at taking 30 pages of really complicated stuff and distilling it down to three sentences. It’s a skill that has come in handy at a place like Netflix where things are so and so cross-functional, and cross-functionally complicated. Cutting down to the essence has really, really served me well.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, from what you’re able to share, I mean, you’ve already shared so much about Netflix, what would you say is probably the most surprising thing that most people don’t know about Netflix?

Husani Oakley:
Netflix employees pay for Netflix.

Maurice Cherry:
Really?

Husani Oakley:
We pay a subscription, just like everybody else. And listen, I got to say when I got the message, when I logged in Netflix one day and I saw that my subscription price went up, I did have a second of a gasp. I did have a moment of like, “Hey, wait a second.” Then I remembered that I work there. Yes, we pay for Netflix. I think it’s actually really important that we pay for Netflix. We are members, too and when you pay for something, even if you work at the place that makes it, even if your work is available on it, come at it from a different perspective. It’s much more than empathy for members when you are a member.

Husani Oakley:
We, too, are sensitive to price changes and know that they are done with respect. We too are excited by content. We too are sad and disappointed when our favorite show isn’t renewed. And really being, having that perspective in the product, as expressed by, “I’m paying the same price everybody else is paying,” I think really gives us a strong, strong perspective when we are working on things that are potentially challenging or difficult.

Maurice Cherry:
That is wild. I didn’t know that you all were paying for Netflix. I mean, ooh, interesting. Okay. So, yeah, when those prices go up, you all feel it, too, so I guess that’s a little bit of empathy out there for folks who didn’t know that. How have you changed since we last spoke here on the show seven years ago?

Husani Oakley:
I think I’ve realized what I’m good at. I don’t always know what I’m good at to be, to be fair. But I think I’ve kind of narrowed down what I’m good at and I’ve embraced what I’m good at. And that is living in the space between art and science and leading teams creatively in that space between art and science.

Husani Oakley:
And I think earlier parts of my career, I sort of fell into this in between space. It was never a conscious intentional choice to sort of be in the middle. But I started out way back in the day as a dev, but I was a creative. In my day job, I’m writing code and I just happen to be the one of all the devs in whatever place I was at, at that time, that could have a conversation with designers or creatives. And really understand their perspective and then translate that perspective.

Husani Oakley:
And in the startup world, that was a superpower. I didn’t realize that that was a superpower. And in the agency world, again, it was a superpower I didn’t quite realize was a superpower at that time. And I think as I’ve matured as a human, as I’ve grown as a leader, and I think as I’ve grown as a creative, I’ve understood that as being a major tool in my tool belt and I recognize that it’s a tool in my tool belt. I know how to wield it. And I knew how to wield it back when we first spoke. I think, I didn’t know how well I actually could wield it and I think I’m really doing that now.

Maurice Cherry:
Are you where you wanted to be at in this stage in your life?

Husani Oakley:
Well, listen, having gotten started in my career in the dot-com boom, I thought by now, I’d be retired on a yacht. The yacht would be called the Husani. It would have my face on it, giving the middle finger to everybody as I go from port to port, island to island. Living my retired before mid-40s amazing life. That didn’t happen. It took me a little while to realize that wasn’t going to happen.

Husani Oakley:
But you know what? Yes, I am. I have always wanted to be in a place professionally and personally where my passions for storytelling can have an impact on more than a handful of people and a lasting impact on more than a handful of people. And it’s been a long road. I’ve been doing this for a long time, but I am certainly now in a place where my creative ideas, my creative leadership and the wielding of the in-between art and science tool can really have an impact on the lives of hundreds of millions of people. And that’s what I’ve really always wanted and that, I feel like I have that now.

Maurice Cherry:
Do you have a dream project that you would love to do someday? I mean, it honestly sounds like this work that you’re doing on Netflix is kind of, I mean, I’ve known you for 20 plus years. But this sounds like the pinnacle of where you are in your career, but is there more that you want to do like bigger dreams and aspirations?

Husani Oakley:
I want to write a Broadway musical.

Maurice Cherry:
Hmm.

Husani Oakley:
All I get is a “Hmm?” Wow. Wow.

Maurice Cherry:
No, no. What would it be about?

Husani Oakley:
You’re difficult. Oh, I don’t know. I don’t know, but I want one. Look, I discovered a love for musical theater when I was a super, super young kid and saw Sarafina! on Broadway. It’s up to Google what year that was because I really don’t remember. I was super young. And then my love for musical theater was cemented when I became obsessed with Little Shop of Horrors in the late ’80s. And it’s just sort of grown and been there ever since on the wall that I sit in front of when I’m on video chat all day, every day.

Husani Oakley:
I mean, there are a bunch of pieces of art and some things that are meaningful to me. But on one side, there’s a Star Trek poster. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Best film ever. Then there’s also a stylized drawing of the logo of Miss Saigon because that show has had big impact and meaning on my taste in theater and understanding of the interplay between words and song.

Husani Oakley:
And I don’t know what my show would be about. But I would like to before I leave this planet to whatever comes next, write a show and hopefully have the same sort of impact emotionally on people that the work that I love so much has had on me.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, you’re in New York. If there’s any place to write the next Broadway musical, that’s it. All you have to do is get Netflix to give, I don’t know, Lin-Manuel Miranda, a project or something. Find a way for you all to work together and make that happen. I mean, seriously, because I mean, Netflix has, I mean, we’re talking a lot about Netflix because you work there. But just to kind of talk about more with their expansion, they’ve gone into games, they have a book club.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m surprised that they haven’t went into theaters. I know Amazon did that with their Amazon Studios. They bought, I think it was Landmark. I think it was Landmark theaters they bought that chain or they wanted to buy it or something. But I’m surprised there’s not brick and mortar Netflix theaters. I’m pretty sure that’s probably somewhere down the pipeline.

Husani Oakley:
We do own one theater. Hey, here’s another maybe thing that people don’t know about Netflix. We own a theater in New York, a movie theater.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, nice.

Husani Oakley:
Yeah, the Paris Theater. It’s a beautiful old landmark theater and there are screenings. It’s open. It’s a public, it’s a theater, it’s a movie theater. You can buy tickets and see a movie there. The Power of the Dog was there a couple of weeks ago. There’s something happening there tonight with Judd Apatow. That it’s open to the public as in you could buy tickets like everyone else, but yeah, we own that theater, which is a lot of fun.

Maurice Cherry:
Aside from the musical, what is it that you want your legacy to be?

Husani Oakley:
One of my early pre-career claims to fame, such that it is I had a first amendment related lawsuit with my high school in the town I grew up in. And back then, I really wanted to leave behind a changed world. There are a million and one things wrong. If I could change four of them, no one ever needs to know my name. No one ever needs to know that I was the person who changed those four things as long with those four things got changed.

Husani Oakley:
And I guess I’ve gone from then, I’ve run startups, so I’ve been at companies big and small. I’ve done all of this stuff. I’ve spoken on stages. I’ve been around the world. All of this stuff. And I think all I still want to do is change for things on this planet for the better. And so, the people who come after me don’t experience those four things of the million things being wrong as wrong.

Maurice Cherry:
One thing I didn’t even touch on that we focused on your work at GoldBean and Deutsch, but you’ve also done a fair amount of civic tech work in these past seven years. I remember vividly you being invited to the White House, Obama, not Trump, invited to the White House. Can you talk about that a little bit?

Husani Oakley:
Yeah. I was invited to the White House twice. Let’s just be clear.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Husani Oakley:
And so, the first invite was the Obama administration understood the importance of inclusion. And there was a group of LGBTQ senior technology executives invited to spend a day at the White House and put our heads together on the problems that plague our society and humanity. So, of those million and one problems that I acknowledge exists in the reality we live in, could we take 15 of those and solve them. What do we think would be great, great moves to protect against climate change? How can we think about employment and unemployment certainly, in the tech sector, since we were folks coming out of the tech sector.

Husani Oakley:
And that was just a fascinating moment, an amazing experience I’ve developed lifelong friends from that moment. Then it actually then led to the next moment later that year, and it was 2016, I believe. Yeah, it was 2016 because the last time was actually post-election, that election. It was around, “Okay. We made some really good strides in that first summit around digital and technology employment outside.” Thinking about it as not just being an issue in the major cities, but they’re really being huge opportunity outside of the coasts and the major cities.

Husani Oakley:
Now, there are smart key people outside of just New York and LA. Shocker, I know. How can we spread the unheard of in human civilization wealth that has been generated by the internet and digital to technology, IT in general, outside of just those centers from a jobs program and continuing educate perspective. We were worried that with the election having gone the way it did that any strides that we’d made. We had folks from the department of labor involved and a lot of the conversations we’ve had in that first summit, our assumption, a safe assumption, was that all of that was going to get thrown in the trash.

Husani Oakley:
And so the second time, a bunch of us got together at the White House was around, if we can’t ensure that it’s not going to get thrown in the trash, how can we on the outside of being in the executive branch continue kind of driving these initiatives? So, it turns out that continuing to drive those initiatives were one of a million problems caused by that guy. So, I think we all then found ourselves really busy from that date, I mean, through forever now, because the fight against fascist never actually ends.

Husani Oakley:
But yeah, I think when this technology was new, we didn’t know what it could do. A lot of us were naives in thinking that it was all a net good and connecting people was always in that good and base core infrastructure. Technology was always in that good because it didn’t have intention and then over time we learned that that’s not true. And now, we recognize that high AI biased, high moderation on social platforms a big issue, high identity on social platforms a big issue.

Husani Oakley:
I look back at those early times and think about how naive a lot of us were, myself included, about what these technologies would do. And so, now, I think those of us who remain in the space and certainly more so folks that are new to these spaces have a responsibility to use these tools for good and not for evil. An active good, not just being neutral. Technology is not neutral.

Husani Oakley:
That’s a responsibility we have as creatives, as technologists, as creative technologists, as humans, as Americans if that’s what we are. We have these things on our hand, we got to use them right. So, focusing on the betterment of society is it’s clearly, perhaps never far from top of mind for me. Now, actually, my little sister is running for Congress. I think we share a lot of similar perspectives on the need for being involved in the government of the world that we live in.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, Husani, just to kind of wrap things up here, where can our audience find more information about you, about your work and everything? Where can they find that online?

Husani Oakley:
On Twitter, I am @Husani Oakley. On Instagram, I’m @Husani. And if you can’t remember any of that, I’m at husani.com on the web.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. Sounds good. Well, Husani Oakley, I want to thank you so much for coming on this show. I mean, as I sort of mentioned earlier in the interview, we’ve known each other for such a long time, so I already knew this was going to be a great interview. But really getting to hear you talk about the work that you’re doing with Netflix, the fact that you’re able to take the talent that you have and be able to apply that across a global scale with a company like Netflix, I feel like this is exactly where you need to be right now. And I’m excited to see what the next thing will be. I hope it’s the musical. I’ll be there. I’ll buy a ticket for the musical if it happens in the future, I’ll be there. So, thank you so much for coming on the show, man. I appreciate it.

Husani Oakley:
Thank you, Maurice. A blast as always.

Harrison Wheeler

If you’ve been a longtime listener of Revision Path, then you probably already recognize this week’s guest, Harrison Wheeler. Along with being a senior design manager at LinkedIn, he’s also a podcaster with his own show called Technically Speaking. (And I’ve been a guest twice!)

Our conversation started off with a peek into life at LinkedIn, and he talked about working and managing remotely, as well as about how he’s changed as a manager over the years. We also talked shop about podcasting, the metaverse, the future of design in business, and Harrison shared some of the best career advice he’s received. I love checking back in with guests and seeing just how they’ve grown over their career, and Harrison is proof that hard work and dedication pays off in the long run!

Transcript

Full Transcript

Maurice Cherry:
All right. So tell us who you are and what you do.

Harrison Wheeler:
Hey, Maurice. My name is Harrison Wheeler. I am a senior prog design manager at LinkedIn, and I’m going on four and a half, five years. Time flies.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Welcome back to the show, man. It’s good to have you back.

Harrison Wheeler:
I know. Yeah, we were just chatting beforehand. It’s been what, almost four or five years since I … No, it’s been longer than that. What I’m talking about, I’ve been at LinkedIn for, like I said, almost five years. So it’s almost been like seven years.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. You were at Base when we last talked, which is now part of Zendesk, I believe.

Harrison Wheeler:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
But yeah, it’s been a while. So we definitely got a lot to catch up on in terms of your career and everything.

Harrison Wheeler:
Yeah. It’s funny. I’m trying to think. I think I might have been in Chicago or had just moved to California back when that was recorded.

Maurice Cherry:
You had just moved to California.

Harrison Wheeler:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Harrison Wheeler:
Oh, man.

Maurice Cherry:
How has 2021 been for you? What did you learn about yourself over this past year?

Harrison Wheeler:
Look, if 2020 was rough, so I think I’m a glass half full kind of person. So I will say that 2021 definitely felt like a bit of emergence out of that. Just looking back, I mean, a few things. And so I think really being unapologetic in terms of just turning things off and making time for myself. I think making time in the space for yourself is super important for that. I think, additionally, we all know this, but your voice matters. And I think probably it’s a bit of a reflection in terms of where I’ve grown and the position and the role that I have within my organization, within the design community. It’s important to have that voice and then also give back. Perspective is very important. And I will say many things have also accelerated within the last couple of years.

Harrison Wheeler:
And so when you think about how a lot of the workforce is now, like tele commuting, what sort of constraints does that create? Are we creating opportunities for people to get in? Are we also conscious of some of the effects of the work that we do? And so how can we bring more consciousness to the work that we’re doing, to the decisions that we’re making on a day to day basis?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I think really also with this past year, because … and I want to say this partially because of the vaccine in a way. It’s really thrown workplaces in general into a bit of a learning moment in a way. Because of course in 2020, when we didn’t have the vaccine, everything was like, we’re going to move to remote work, we’re going to do this. And then the vaccine comes and then offices are like, well, I guess maybe we can start going back. And then the variants come through and they’re like, well, maybe you should stay at home. There’s been this weird push, pull. Of course there’s been the creation of these hybrid schedules, but I still think companies are trying to figure out what they’re going to do next and they’re not doing well at that. But I think that’s to be expected because this is so unprecedented.

Harrison Wheeler:
Yeah. I mean, I’ve had a few thoughts on that. I’ve had an opportunity to at least exercise what the hybrid concept is like. And just reflecting, again, over the past couple of years, I think we’ve seen a lot of evolution, at least from a design perspective, the tools that we use. You have the online multiplayer, you’ve got tools like Loom where you can do asynchronous video recordings. Obviously Slack is a big part of it. Having soundboards or sound rooms as a way of communicating without necessarily needing to be on camera. I think the list really goes on in terms of how remote work has been optimized. But the moment that you step into an office, it is a relic of where we left off. And so there is a gap there.

Harrison Wheeler:
And so, one of the things that actually I’ve been thinking about is, how does this play a role in the design rituals that we have. Not necessarily from a remote perspective, but when we have folks in an office and then we have folks on camera. Because there are some really interesting nuances. Like, we’ve all had pretty good high fidelity cameras at home, but the moment you’re in an office, you now see someone in three dimensions. So maybe their voice sounds different, maybe the audio is a little bit distorted. Folks might not see what’s going on in the chat. Folks might be having side conversations. Some of these things aren’t new per se, but now we’ve got a more equitable type of situation that we need to be considerate of. And so, how can we build in process, practice? How can we ingrain it? I think for me, how do you think about that at scale? And so, there’s a software component, there’s a hardware component and then there’s also just the general human to human communication component. So yeah, it’s really interesting, man.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. It’s funny now that I think about that, because when the pandemic really started, I was working for a company that was very much remote first. And they had an office and I had been to the office. I don’t even remember the last time I was in their office, maybe 2019 I think. But that was three or four jobs ago. Since then, now I’ve worked at a number of different companies in remote positions with people who I’ve never met, who I’ve had to work with oftentimes across very wide time zone births to try to get creative work done. And yeah, it’s a change, it’s a big change. And just trying to adjust to it, making sure you’re getting the best work out of people. Of course, I think, one, with being sensitive to just the general overall global issue that we’re going through with the pandemic. But also, it’s going to be a different kind of thing when you meet them in person. At the other places, I’ve not met a single one of my coworkers in person in over a year.

Harrison Wheeler:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Harrison Wheeler:
I think it’s truly fascinating, that social component. I think on the show, I don’t know if I had gone to this point yet, but a lot of the engineering team that I was working with was based in Poland. And so I think we hadn’t developed ways to communicate. Technology wasn’t there, so the ways to communicate were extremely difficult. So then you really had to see and visit somebody to understand their body language. But I think now, we’re so good at communicating with each other. I think seeing each other in the flesh it sort of like, oh, how do we compute this now?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I’m running into that a bit now because the place where I currently work, we’re split between San Francisco and Paris. And so I’m working with Europeans in the morning, working with the US folks in the afternoon trying to … And it is all very much a sync. I mean, I’m right in the middle. So when I start my day at 9:00 AM, it’s the afternoon already in Paris and it’s still early morning in San Francisco. So I have to try to juggle how I work now based on that, because we’re not all on that same eight-hour block.

Harrison Wheeler:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
When you think about 2022, are there any certain resolutions or goals that you have that you want to try to accomplish?

Harrison Wheeler:
Oh, resolutions or goals. I would probably say I need to do a better job at taking a vacation. I’ve been saying that for a long time, but I think this past couple of years, I think from a mental health perspective, haven’t been easy. And I don’t think it’s been easy for most folks. And so again, I think be able to create that time and space where you can reflect. You don’t need to, you can also be in the moment. You don’t have to necessarily reflect. But I think we need to just create the space. That’s how I recharge. I’m doing a lot of really awesome stuff with my podcast, Technically Speaking. So I’m looking forward to really expanding that. I know we’re going to get into that a little bit later. But I would also say like, move a little bit more. Really be conscious about getting movement in. I mean, I’m in meetings all day. And so going for that. Walk around the block, heading on the bike, lifting some weights. In some way, shape or form, committing to that every day.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I want a vacation. Well, I think I need one certainly, because the last time I was really out on a plane somewhere was February 2020. I just haven’t went anywhere because of the pandemic. But now it’s, I’m feeling it now. I need to disconnect on a beach in another country somewhere like nobody’s business.

Harrison Wheeler:
You’re in the hub, man. I think you can fly anywhere in the world from Atlanta.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, that’s true. I’ve just been wary of it because … I mean, you’ve been seeing all this stuff with people fighting on planes and stuff. I’m like, I’m not trying [crosstalk 00:12:33]. I’m not trying to get caught up somewhere having to try to go somewhere. But we can’t because back in 25B, they’re [dooking 00:12:41] it out. Like, come on, you’re holding up everybody. We are all trying to get somewhere.

Harrison Wheeler:
I mean, this is a sad state of affairs. But it’s sad when airlines have to take away the alcohol because folks can’t handle themselves in the air.

Maurice Cherry:
Wait, have they taken away the alcohol on planes for real?

Harrison Wheeler:
Oh, yeah. I think now, probably around mid-December, early January, I think some airlines are looking at bringing it back. But yeah. Folks were getting lit.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh my God. Wow. I didn’t know it was that bad. Geez.

Harrison Wheeler:
Oh, yeah. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Hopefully we can get it together, but I don’t know. Humanity has been … it’s been a very interesting experiment of humanity over this past year or so. Just seeing how folks have acted, especially with these vaccines. We’re not going to make this political, getting into it, but it’s been a lot. So yeah. When you were last on the show, which as we talked about was way back on episode 140, you were at Base, which is now part of Zendesk. And since then, you’ve went on to LinkedIn where now you are a senior design manager. What has your time at LinkedIn been like.

Harrison Wheeler:
Wow. Yeah, this is great. I love reflecting on this. So I mean, look, I want to maybe touch on … maybe we can give a brief overview of what Base was. Because I think a lot of times I get a lot of questions in terms of, what attracted you to LinkedIn? And I also get questioned around, yo, it’s been five years. And tech speak, five years, man, you’re an OG at that point because the average length of folks is usually around two years at a job. And that number is probably going down over time. I mean, we see that there are so many opportunities out in the market these days. But when I started at Base, I was a manager for basically a 300-person startup. And so my design team at the time was around five directs on the product side, one on marketing. And then I reported up directly into the CEO and then eventually the chief of product.

Harrison Wheeler:
And so I think for me, that was an amazing experience. I got to really build something from zero to one. I got to experience what growth looked like. Had some really amazing experiences being able to go to Europe and create lasting connections with folks back on that project. I think for me when I was looking … And I wasn’t even looking, to be honest, Maurice. I think I’d probably taken a moment to sit down and understand, what is the general experience that I want to have? And I think for me, I was pretty simple. I want to be able to have impact in the organization on the product and eventually grow a team. But most importantly, I wanted to have the support to grow as a manager. I didn’t really have the tools, in my opinion, to lead with confidence. And I will say that what attracted me was the fact that there was a good amount of folks that were experienced and seasoned from a managerial perspective. The company had a lot of amazing programs to help foster that connection.

Harrison Wheeler:
And on top of that, there were folks that I’ve been able to meet that have also played a big role in my development. And of course, I’ve had some awesome coworkers. I think in terms of the opportunity, so right now the team I’m on is called LinkedIn marketing solutions. And so if you aren’t familiar with our enterprise products, there’s obviously the flagship product that most folks on LinkedIn are on. It’s where you post, that’s where you see jobs, you’ve got the feed. And then we have really four different product areas. Sales navigator, so that’s usually for sales folks. We have LinkedIn talent solutions for our recruiters. And sometimes you might get those inboxes from recruiters trying to hit you up for a new gig. We’ve got LinkedIn learning and then we got LinkedIn marketing solutions. And so LinkedIn marketing solutions is really our ad platform and one of the fastest growing lines of … actually, I think it is the fastest growing line of business at LinkedIn.

Harrison Wheeler:
And so for me, I have had an experience very similar to a startup because we’ve seen a lot of growth in terms of folks using our product. A lot of growth in terms of the team growing. And also, the acceleration of our experiences from a maturity perspective. I think going in, LinkedIn was around 15 years old. So I think most people would be like, oh, man, that company is old, 15 years. But over the past four years that I’ve been there, we’ve invested a lot. And honestly, it’s evolved like night and day. It’s been really fun to be a part of that ride, because I know that I’ve had some part in doing that. Being able to have that impact for me and seeing that growth was really core to my decision-making there.

Harrison Wheeler:
And look, I mean, when you’re in the tech game, I think it’s important to understand really … on top of the work, understand what are the things that are going to help bring value to your life. We all know that over the past two years, if you’re working in tech, going into the office, not having benefits, not being able to focus on your physical and mental health as a part of that package, you know there’s somebody out there offering better. Right?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Harrison Wheeler:
That’s the beauty of the situation right now. And for me, I can confidently say there’s not really too many companies that would offer support in that way any better than LinkedIn. And so honestly, that’s really kept me around.

Maurice Cherry:
And I mean, you came on at the time … I think it might have been right around the time that LinkedIn was bought by Microsoft.

Harrison Wheeler:
Yeah. So I came in actually a little bit after that.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Harrison Wheeler:
But I believe the acquisition had happened earlier that year.

Maurice Cherry:
So even with that, I mean, you’ve got that big tech juggernaut behind LinkedIn. So I’m sure that in terms of just like, I think one job security, but two also just the … Like you said, if you’re in the Bay, probably just if you’re in tech in general, you’re always looking to try to level up. I mean, that’s a great place to do so.

Harrison Wheeler:
100%.

Maurice Cherry:
Can you talk a bit about what you do as a senior design manager?

Harrison Wheeler:
Yeah. I get a lot of questions around, what does IC growth look like? What does a manager growth look like? And so, as I mentioned before on my team, I have eight designers … excuse me, seven designers, one manager. And then soon I’ve got two roles opening up. So for folks listening and you’re interested, definitely check out the job listings. But it’s really interesting because I think a lot of times when you think about managers, the people side of things. But honestly, for me, I think about, how can we create an organization that is really based on outcomes around how we approach design? And so a lot of that is making sure that my team has a time and space to thoroughly think through their problem space. I’ll give you an example of a few initiatives that I generally work on.

Harrison Wheeler:
So number one, we’re working really hard in terms of trying to really double down and protect our design rituals. And that’s from our weekly standups to our feedback. How can we give better feedback? How can we provide even safer spaces for feedback? How can we make sure the process is inclusive for everyone on the team to have a voice and be able to scale that in different areas? How are we thinking about what growth paths on the team look like? How can we be consistent in terms of creating expectations? How can we create different opportunities and modules for designers to have a better understanding about the situations that they’re in? So as they have the autonomy to really start to lead projects, they’re equipped with the proper tools to have the right conversations to be able to say no, and also understand when to prioritize.

Harrison Wheeler:
And so those are just a few of them. Obviously, there’s the planning side of things, there’s the performance review side of things. But ultimately, how can we also think about having more of a thoughtfulness in terms of thinking horizontally? So as I mentioned before, we’ve got the flagship experience, we’ve got these four other enterprise experiences. How can we bring some of that goodness or how can we bring in some of the initiatives that they’re working on into some of the things that we’re trying to achieve. And so a lot of that is honestly, I think, fairly similar regardless of the size, the organization that you’re at. I will say, LinkedIn, being that it is about an 18-year-old company now, there’s around 13,000 employees globally. There’s a little bit more conversations that you’ll have to have, but I don’t think that’s any different from most organizations this size.

Maurice Cherry:
And so, with the team make up like it is, I mean, do you get a chance to really work one-on-one with designers or are you mostly working more with upper management and leadership?

Harrison Wheeler:
Honestly, it really is a mix. At least for my designers that are my reports, we do have our one-on-ones. So we do have an opportunity to go through individual designs. We do have opportunities to really think about what growth looks like. As I mentioned before, we have rituals that I always attend. So if I can, at least. And so that is our design reviews, our standups. Those are the things that I really try to do. I try my best to make sure that our team is equipped, like I said, to be autonomous, to be able to work with their teams. Because I am not able to be in every single situation. Also, my manager isn’t available to be in every single situation all the time as well.

Harrison Wheeler:
So there’s a bit of that. There’s a lot of back and forth at least from a leadership perspective as well. And so, we have a growing design organization. We need to also understand at least as a manager too, that whether it’s coming from product or inch, that we’re not only managing down to the team, but also managing up and giving our executive team visibility. We might be working on vision work and so I might be a little bit more involved there working with other VPs or directors involved in that as well.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, speaking of design management, when we had you on the show back in 2016, you were a design manager at Base.

Harrison Wheeler:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
How would you say you’ve grown as a design manager since then? I mean, is it different in this larger organization or what’s changed?

Harrison Wheeler:
Yeah. I mean, 1000%, I’m a totally different manager than I was back then. There are times where I’m like, if I could take situations back in the day and pair it with what I know now, I guarantee you the outcomes would be totally different. And so I think a lot of times when I started out is like, you’d read all the books or you have this idea of what a manager is supposed to do and you try to be like. Or at least for me, I can’t speak for other folks. I had this misnomer that I had to be right. That I had to know what I was doing. That it was important that people knew that I knew what I was doing, when that was not the case.

Harrison Wheeler:
And I think really coming to terms with like, hey, I have no idea how this is going to turn out, I think for me became pretty transformational. And then I had a moment too where I had an opportunity to have a professional coach, shout out to Brooks. He was actually on one of my episodes on Technically Speaking. But the sessions that I had with him really changed, honestly, my mindset on being a manager. And a lot of it really came down to understanding when to have conversations and how to have those conversations. A lot of what we do as designers really comes down to communication. And sometimes it might not be comfortable, it might be uncomfortable. But usually when you do feel that, you’re usually at a crossroad. There is a decision that needs to be made. And on the other side of it, it’s going to be beneficial no matter what.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). And I would say, it sounds like you at least had that … and I’m not saying you didn’t have this at Base, but it certainly sounds like you’ve had support to grow at as a manager while you’ve been at LinkedIn. You haven’t just been winging it. I say that to say, I’ve been in design management situations where it was very clear I was winging it. The company was not really trying to offer any support in that area. But these were startups, it’s not an established company like LinkedIn. But it sounds like they are invested in your growth as a design manager.

Harrison Wheeler:
Yeah. Yeah, 100%. And I think one thing, you asked what I do on the day to day. But there are definitely things that I look at in terms of, how can we evolve as an organization? And so those are things that we’re constantly chipping away. And I think having that north star and being able to have your team align on that, I think does help quite a bit in terms of making sound and constructive conversations and decisions as well.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, have you encountered any other black design managers while you’ve been … not necessarily at LinkedIn, but just in your career in general?

Harrison Wheeler:
You mean as far as being my manager, or?

Maurice Cherry:
Just in general.

Harrison Wheeler:
In general. Honestly, I will probably say, not since I’ve been at LinkedIn. How should I phrase this? I will say that there are a few that I’ve known and heard of from afar, but I will say I haven’t been able to personally meet any until I was at LinkedIn. And we’ve seen really a lot of growth in terms of representation as far as black folks go at the manager level. And so I think that’s been really, really special. Because I think for me, it just felt really inaccessible in terms of meeting other black design managers. And so now to have that presence where I work, I think is extremely special to me. Because I always think about, the first manager that I’ve had technically was my mom because my mom had hired me to do web design at the elementary school that she worked with. And so I always tell people, my mom was the first black manager that I directly had. And I think what was really interesting, the lesson in that for me was, I was able to reflect on this.

Harrison Wheeler:
I was like, my mom literally advocated for me in terms of making a budget. And then on top of that, she gave me the space to grow. It’s funny when you think about the lessons in some of these areas in your life that you don’t really think of until you are a lot older. And so I don’t know. That for me was really groundbreaking. Because I think in the discussion that we had in terms of that growth piece, you mentioned something around black designers need to have the opportunity to fail. And I think it’s so important to have representation as a black designer, as a black design manager, because now you can actually discuss these things. You can fail, you can have mentorship within your organization. And we all know this, that the representation numbers are extremely low. I think it’s really special when you can have a community like that to support along the way.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I mean, it’s interesting. Even as I’ve done this show over the years and I’ve talked to people from other organizations and such, it’s still pretty fragmented when you think about other black design managers or even just … Someone had asked me, oh, is there a professional group of black designers that I can join? And I was like, well, not really. I mean, you could join the organization. And I have to preface this because I don’t want anyone from OBD coming after me. But look, I’m not saying the Organization of Black Designers is not doing great things. What I am saying is that for current black designers that are in the industry, they do not know that you exists. So I can mention, like for example, I can say AIGA. Or if you are regional, I can say, well, there’s Bay Area Black Designers or there’s I think Black Design Seattle, I think is what it’s called or something like that.

Maurice Cherry:
There are some regional groups, but a national organization kind of thing. It’s still pretty fragmented. I mean, there are shows like mine and shows like yours, which of course we’ll get into, that I think do a good job of highlighting who we are and what we’re doing out here. But it’s still, for I think the average designer, it still is pretty hard to find that community.

Harrison Wheeler:
Yeah, it is. It is. Yeah. And I will say it’s probably even more complex given how fragmented it is. It’s actually even harder to find, as you mentioned, because consistency is key. And so even over the past couple of years, I’ve seen things pop up, but then really quiet down. And so it’s not only finding the group, but it’s making sure that it’s active. Right?

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). Absolutely. I’ve certainly run into a few that have been in that same fashion. They start up one way and then it just dies out. It’s a marathon, it’s not a sprint. It takes a lot to keep those things going. So then just in terms of initiatives and things, are there any particular initiatives that you’re involved in at LinkedIn?

Harrison Wheeler:
It’s real funny because I go back to … I was thinking or reflecting on the first episode that we had. I think for me being a black designer in tech, it felt like a sense of accomplishment. I mean, it definitely was. Coming from the Midwest, really trudging along and just taking risks, not knowing what’s on the other side and not necessarily having those perspectives. I think it was definitely something to celebrate and to be able to do this. But I think that quickly went away because at the end of the day you’re still one of, who knows? Hundreds, thousands in an organization.

Maurice Cherry:
Right.

Harrison Wheeler:
And so in the moments around Trayvon Martin. And it was tough, it was very isolating. And I think not having a community to be able to go to or at least just talk it out, I thought was, I don’t know, it was very isolating. And so I think moving into LinkedIn, I didn’t want to go through that again. I’ll put it like that. You know who Renee Reid is? Shout out to Renee Reid.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Yeah. Tech Wrap Queen, of course.

Harrison Wheeler:
Yeah. Tech Wrap Queen, check it out. So we actually joined LinkedIn actually the same year. So myself, her and George Hay, shout out to George, we actually got together and we were like, we should put something on. We should try and create some representation within the organization. We should also have some external representation to let folks know that we’re here. And so we started with a lot of small things. I remember Renee was really passionate about having a week during Black History where the cafeteria served food from all over the African diaspora. And by the way, LinkedIn, I mean, we don’t have cafeterias right now because it’s kind of … Well, we do, but it’s not operating in the same capacity. LinkedIn has some bomb food. I think if you’re ever in the Bay Area, if you ask somebody which tech company has the best food, LinkedIn is definitely up there nine times out of 10.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Harrison Wheeler:
And so what they cook tastes pretty good. We got together and designed the LinkedIn [nberg 00:33:15], that’s the LinkedIn logo. I designed that with the kente pattern and we got those printed. And so whenever LinkedIn showed up, we showed up for sure. AfroTech, we came in deep with the kente cloth pattern and people were like, this is what LinkedIn is about. And one of the most amazing things about it is that it resonated with black folks all over the country. But LinkedIn has global offices around the world. So we had folks down in Brazil repping the LinkedIn kente nberg. So I think it was really great to see that movement. And then we had a little bit of a coming out party about three years ago during the week of AfroTech, the second week of AfroTech, where we had designers come to LinkedIn. And we just chuffed it out.

Harrison Wheeler:
We had a panel with research and design and we basically called that black by design. That was really a big moment for us. And it was great because we got to show people what design was like. Inside LinkedIn, people had an opportunity to see what we look like and what we were talking about. And there was a relational piece to it. And then we also eventually made hires from some of the folks that attended. And so here we are, we’re strong. I think 15 plus folks, it might be even more, but we started out being only three of us. And so it’s been really great to see that evolve over time. And over the past year, we’ve been doing a lot to really organize and really keep it growing. Because obviously we want this to keep growing, whether we’re at LinkedIn or when we move on. They call that the next play.

Harrison Wheeler:
And so we have really three pillars that we focus on. So we got a set of folks working on growth and retention. And so that’s really around, how can we keep folks in? How can we provide opportunities for people to grow outside of their traditional day to day job? We have another pillar called brand building and community. So that’s when we go out and we have these happy hours. So when we show up to events like AfroTech, this is when we have an opportunity to really be able to not only push some of the amazing initiatives that LinkedIn is doing, but also elevate the folks within the group to the community. And then we have a third pillar called product experience.

Harrison Wheeler:
And so actually a couple of weeks ago, we had a presentation around company pages that we invited black creative businesses to join. And so how can we elevate our products to benefit the black community and also learn about how people are using them, and bring that feedback directly into the product. So it’s been really fun to see that evolve. Really be able to create a space for our members to be able to kick back, talk about anything and everything, and go live in the Slack channel. So it’s been really great to see that evolution over time.

Maurice Cherry:
And I would say this is a testament probably to the longevity and the structure of LinkedIn, that you are able to have such a robust employee resource group like that, that will allow you to do things that directly touch the brand. A different version of the logo. I mean, that’s a lot just in and of itself because that’s something that goes out globally, like you said, across LinkedIn in a number of different countries.

Harrison Wheeler:
Yeah. Look, I will say, I mean, it’s been a journey, but definitely shout out to the exec team that supports us. We have two executive sponsors. I’ve had an opportunity to talk with other folks within the company that have been super supportive and be willing to work with us and iterate as we go. And I think with that kind of mentality, that’s extremely empowering in allowing really that expression to be able to happen. And so it’s really been, honestly for me, I’m humbled. I’m honored to really be able to be a part of creating that platform where … I was thinking of this. To some folks, this is their first experience in tech. I mean, that’s mind blowing.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, switching gears here. Of course, we’ve mentioned before about your podcast, Technically Speaking. Which is one big thing that’s changed since you were last on the show, is you do podcasting now too. So why don’t you tell the folks here about your show and what it’s about?

Harrison Wheeler:
Yeah. Well, look, man, I mean, I kind of touched on this a little bit earlier, I think. We both touched on this. I think the representation in the industry for black folks is fairly small. Still small. Very small. I shouldn’t even say fairly small. And I think what’s important is like, I think a lot of times when we tend to see each other, we always ask, what’s your story? How did you get to where you are? I think at least in the product design space, I thought that was extremely important to really be able to provide a platform for. I’ve been considering this for a while, but I honestly think a lot of the events from last year really was a bit of a catalyst to move that forward.

Harrison Wheeler:
And so to be honest with you, I didn’t think I could do a podcast. I think I’d asked people so many questions on how to do it and I for sure was procrastinating much of the time. But yeah, I went ahead and did it. And honestly, it’s been a game changer for me to be able to meet so many people and have many different perspectives. As much of a tool as it is for folks that are listening for them to learn, it’s been a tool for me to also learn about their stories. I think the production element of the podcast is also another area that I’m always striving to improve and learn on and iterate. But yeah, I think … let’s see, I mean, we’re about a year and a half in, almost 10,000 downloads throughout the lifetime, within a year and a half, which I think is a huge milestone. And I think we’ve recorded around 38 episodes.

Harrison Wheeler:
So yeah, man, it’s been fun. And look, you’ve been an inspiration along that journey as well. I think we’ve mentioned this on the episodes, but it really meant a lot to have you on the show, especially during San Francisco Design Week. Because I can remember when we were chopping up before the show, I was like, man, we got to get you out here and do something. So we still need to do something live at some point, but that’ll be post pandemic.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. What has podcasting really taught you? I mean, you mentioned the thing about people being able to tell their own stories, but have you gained any personal insight from doing this?

Harrison Wheeler:
Yeah. I think some of the personal insight, again, it’s like this weird perfectionism thing. Some of it I’ll also go into where I was coming in the Base. When I was going in my last job, it was definitely a career pivot for me. Moving from a more graphic design oriented web design career into product design. And so I didn’t really have the vernacular to be able to express design concepts, research concepts, et cetera. And I think for me, I have this idea of what an archetype of a designer was. And honestly, that could really go to hell at this point in time because there isn’t an ideal archetype for a designer. And I think a lot of the folks that are on the show are at a point where they’re having the same kind of realizations.

Harrison Wheeler:
But I think you’re seeing this evolution where people are really starting to prioritize their own ideals and beliefs, which I think has really been … I think to be able to have folks that have been in the industry for a while, but then on top of that to see that as the starting point for the younger generation, I think is an amazing learning. And I’m super hopeful that that can transform a lot of how we think about the folks in the industry who we’re solving for. And understanding that some of the things that we’ve perpetuated for years and years are extremely toxic and we need to move past that. But we also need to evolve in a way. We need to have these discussions, whether it be to tear it all down, whether it be to reform some of these things. But we need to be having these discussions followed up by action. And I think a lot of these storylines can really help people understand what that angle is in terms of moving in that direction.

Maurice Cherry:
Well said. Well said. I mean, podcasting for me, I think, has been something really which has given me a deep level of, not just introspection into people’s processes, but also how they come to the decisions that they do in terms of their career and the work that they do and everything like that. Have you found that there’s been a bit of a common thread among your guests?

Harrison Wheeler:
No. I think there are some folks that have definitely done the linear approach. I think there are some folks that have figured it out along the way and had a very meandering path. And so I think that’s what’s important. There’s not one way to do things. Did that answer your question?

Maurice Cherry:
Oh yeah, absolutely. It did. Now, you talked about LinkedIn and even venturing onto these different spaces, like you’ve mentioned with black and design. And one thing that LinkedIn did recently was that they participated in AfroTech world, which was like a metaverse essentially. It’s like a conference in the metaverse. Now, I know you told me that you didn’t get a chance to attend that, but what did you hear back from how that experience was?

Harrison Wheeler:
Yeah. This was the second year that AfroTech had done the metaverse thing. So for folks that aren’t familiar, AfroTech world is a conference. I think they had 10,000 folks buy tickets, I think 7,000 showed up. But it’s a global conference where folks talk about a lot of different topics around technology, design, engineering, product management, venture capital, all that. And so the experience is in a virtual world and so you could basically dress up your avatar, you could network with folks, you could have one-on-one meetings on a beach, in a jet ski, on a boat. It’s whatever you want to make it. And so I think a lot of folks were excited at the concept because you could have folks have an experience together without physically being in the same place. I think definitely it is just novel. It’s great to see it at a very large scale. I don’t know, I’m super curious to see how it’s going to evolve over time. Were there some other conferences doing something in the metaverse as well?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I went to one last week. And for people that are recording, we’re recording this early December. But I went to one at the beginning of December from this company called Tech Circus that was called Enter the Metaverse. And they had an online component, but you could also, I think, attend inside the metaverse that they set up for the conference. And so there were all these panels about just all the different things dealing with the metaverse. The economy, virtual wellbeing, real estate. The founder for Second Life was there and he gave a really great presentation. There was this guy, I think he works for Microsoft in Berlin, and he gave this really just overarching talk about, these are the things we need to think about when we talk about the metaverse. And it’s given me so much to think about with like, there’s all this talk about how the metaverse is going to be the future of the internet and the future of the workplace. But then hearing people talk about it in this conference, seeing the reality that the current metaverse is. First of all, there’s no one metaverse, there’s multiple metaverses. And-

Harrison Wheeler:
Metaverses. I don’t know.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Metaverses. The multi-metaverse, I guess. But there’s dozens to hundreds of them and that we’ve actually already experienced some versions of metaverses, even though they haven’t been called that. And the one that they pointed to most that got me was Foursquare. So Foursquare circa 2010. Because what it was is that you had this information layer of data layered on top of real world maps and things like that. You could get these badges that were not really NFTs but were because they could really only belong to one person or certain people. And it’s interesting when you think about the concept of Foursquare badges.

Maurice Cherry:
They’re kind of like these prototypes of what NFTs are in a way. Because for this metaverse conference I went to, they were like, oh, everyone gets a free NFT. And I was like, what do I do with that? They sent me an email like, here is how you claim your NFT. Okay, and do what with it? But the NFT was issued. They issued it through something called a POAP, P-O-A-P, proof of attendance protocol. And so it essentially was a badge that said you attended this conference at this time. And I’m like, oh, I can’t do anything with this.

Harrison Wheeler:
No.

Maurice Cherry:
But it’s, I guess, good to have. They were like, oh, well, you can connect it to your blockchain wall. And then they just lost me after that. I was like, I don’t know what to do with it after that. But-

Harrison Wheeler:
Look, I will say this, I’ve been dabbling into it. So I think what’s really interesting about this is, for one, the Foursquare thing really blows my mind, but it totally makes sense in a way. And I think if you’re going to learn about the metaverse, you should understand how the blockchain plays a role in it, where the NFT plays a role in terms of maybe something that you get to keep that identifies that you were there or not. I think it’s all extremely fascinating and it seems like even I haven’t heard of it, like the proof of attendance. But even that is super fascinating. Because now you can think of, I always think about it like this. It’s like when we were growing up, if we went to a basketball game or we went to a concert, we had a paper ticket, we might frame it.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Harrison Wheeler:
Right?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Harrison Wheeler:
And now everything is like a digital thing on your iPhone or your Android device, and you can’t really do anything with that. And so I think nowadays it’s like, huh, if I go to a concert, I have a token or I have an NFT from it. And maybe if that’s tied to Ethereum or whatever digital coin, then that can be valued over time. I think it’s really interesting that you’ve got this economy. It really adds another layer to like, hey, who are you? Oh, I’m famous on the internet. Because yeah, we were talking about this before, you got people that can make $300,000 in a week, millions in a month just selling NFTs online. Never do a gallery show. Not in a museum. I think it’s super fascinating.

Maurice Cherry:
The other part that’s super fascinating too is, for many people, the entry point into the metaverse are NFTs, like we’ve mentioned. But what I saw from this conference with there being these multiple metaverses is that there’s a huge problem with interoperability. So there’s all these metaverses. But if you buy NFT, for example, and it’s locked to a particular metaverse, you can’t necessarily … Or it’s minted with a certain metaverse, I guess that’s the terminology. But you can’t use it with another metaverse. And they were like, oh yeah, it’s like if you go to Foot Locker and buy shoes, but you can only wear them in the store. And so they’re thinking of like, well, what are ways that we can tie some intrinsic, real world value to an NFT to make it more of a lucrative thing?

Maurice Cherry:
But I mean, this conference touched on land ownership in the metaverse, it touched on things about digital wellbeing, cultural appropriation. Because one thing with being in the metaverse is that you’re represented by an avatar. But these avatars, well, of course we’ll, I think just like regular avatars that we see in terms of profile pictures and things, are not wholly representative of the diversity of body size and gender expression and race and ethnicity. You know what I’m saying?

Harrison Wheeler:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
And what I saw from looking at all this was like, oh, this is a huge opportunity for POC designers or particularly black designers to really try to get in on the ground floor of this and find a way to carve a niche in. Because I could easily see how we could get left behind in some digital divide sort of way. I mean, the fact that Facebook has renamed itself to meta, to subconsciously … And that was the other thing that I thought was great. Is that everyone on the entire conference was just shitting on Facebook. They were just like, what meta is doing is insidious. Because people are going to think metaverse and think that Facebook is the-

Harrison Wheeler:
Brand association.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Brand association. They’re going to think that they are the company that is the underpinning of the entire metaverse, when that is not the case. And the other thing about how even experiencing the metaverse is not something that you necessarily have to do through a $300 VR headset or something like that. So it was such an interesting conference. I’m going to have to go back and listen to some of the different talks from it. Because it really got me to thinking about, well, what is our place going to be in this new internet or whatever that they’re trying to call it. Because another portion of this was, how do we make sure we don’t carry over the issues from the current internet into the metaverse in terms of trolling and all of that sort of stuff. People don’t have any of this stuff figured out.

Harrison Wheeler:
No.

Maurice Cherry:
By a long shot. And the actual infrastructure for it can’t even support everyone like the internet can largely support people. Maybe hundreds of users per server. Some workplace metaverse situations can maybe only support about two dozen people. It’s not a revolutionary thing, by far.

Harrison Wheeler:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
But people are throwing enough money at it that it almost feels like it’s a possibility. It reminded me a bit of the Million Dollar Homepage during this one particular talk. And for people that are listing that don’t know, back in the day, there was … Actually, I think the Million Dollar Homepage is still up. You went to this site and people basically bought pixels to be represented on the page. I think it was like a dollar per pixel. And so the goal, I guess, of it was to have a webpage that was worth a million dollars. But there were people in one of the talks that were buying up plots of land in a metaverse for thousands of dollars. This one person bought a 300 square meter plot of land for $10,000 in one of the talks. And I was just like, what are you going to do with that?

Harrison Wheeler:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
You just had $10,000 sitting around one afternoon in the metaverse like, you know what? I’m just going to buy this plot of land. What are you going to put on it?

Harrison Wheeler:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Who can visit it? It’s abstract in that way where you’re like, this doesn’t make any sense. But there are so many smaller companies that are trying to get in on this before the “brands” get in on it. I.E, a Facebook/meta.

Harrison Wheeler:
Well, I think Nike or Adidas actually, they’re launching their own concept of a metaverse. So it’s already starting to happen.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, it’s already starting to happen. And it’s definitely at a point where, like I said, I can feel like we could be left behind in that. So I don’t know. One thing that I’m going to try to do this year on the show is bring on some designers that are doing NFTs, just to try to get the audience that listens to the show up on like, what is it and how can we get involved? Because I see it. I was in this conference and I was just like, I can see the future and we could very easily be left behind. Because the fervor around the metaverse reminded me so much of late ’90s, early 2000s internet. Before internet advertising really became a big thing and companies trying to figure out, well, how can I conduct business on the internet?

Maurice Cherry:
Now it’s like, how can I conduct business on the metaverse? The same conversations, you just swap out internet for metaverse. How are we going to work on the internet? Email, what is that? Now it’s like, how are we going to work on the metaverse? It’s the same conversation, different times. And I’m just like …

Harrison Wheeler:
I don’t know if anyone’s seen it, but there’s this old clip of Bryant Gumbel talk from the Today Show.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I know the exactly one you’re talking. It’s Bryant Gumbel and Katie Couric pontificating about email or something.

Harrison Wheeler:
Yeah. That’s going to be this episode. What is web 3.0 in NFTs, in blockchain, and all of that.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Harrison Wheeler:
I hope there are entry points where the barriers aren’t as expensive as it is right now. Because I think for me, I’ve been dabbling.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Harrison Wheeler:
I’ve been trying to explore, how do you get an NFT project off the ground? I’ve bought a few NFTs myself. And for anybody that has bought an NFT, having to do the wallet thing and then the gas fees, it’s not cheap. And so-

Maurice Cherry:
Right.

Harrison Wheeler:
… to even get in the game to play, I think it still requires a decent amount of capital to really participate. So I hope there’s a bit more development, like you said, and ways for folks to get involved before the massive wave that folks are talking about actually happens.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I think it will happen. Because honestly, again, thinking back to early 2000s, one of the things about, well, how are people really going to get onto the internet? Oh, well, you can use a personal computer. So people were thinking about things like that. But then there were also any different number of web enabled. Like smartphone devices, you had BlackBerries, you had Treos, you had Palm. I’m really dating myself now. But you had all these personal things that were like, oh, we can get on the internet. And on this little device that’s in the palm of my hand. Things like that. So, oh, man.

Harrison Wheeler:
The World Wide Web. I think we were still calling it the World Wide Web back then.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. We very much were still calling it the World Wide Web. So it’s happening. It’s happening, but-

Harrison Wheeler:
It’s the meta wide verse.

Maurice Cherry:
And speaking of web 3, I think that’s another thing. Because back then, this conversation was happening around the time prior to web 2.0, because web 1.0 hadn’t really been named as such. But web 2.0 really came about with the advent of social media and user generated content. And now with web 3, it’s decentralized, it’s the blockchain. And I’m actually going to a web 3 conference in January. I think it may have passed by the time this episode airs, but people can definitely look it up. I’m pretty sure there’ll be more web 3 conferences in the future. Because I’m like, I want to know where we are going to get in on this.

Harrison Wheeler:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
So much of what we’ve done now has been steeped in web 2.0. Like, where do we get in on this next thing?

Harrison Wheeler:
Yeah. It’s real interesting that you talk about that. You mentioned Second Life and Second Life was around before web 2.0. And this is the same story. We are now at a point where the ideas and technology are now at a crossroads. They are finally intersecting. And so I always think of, we were talking about the Palms and the Treos, but then once we got processors and graphic interface that were fast enough, then that’s when we got the iPhone. Right?

Maurice Cherry:
Yep.

Harrison Wheeler:
And so, this is another one of those moments where the price of headsets are significantly cheaper than they were before. Now we’ve got this blockchain technology, we now have these different currencies that you can use in these different worlds. And so it feels like everything is there.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. With metaverse and cryptocurrency and all of this starting to mesh together, I can see where it confuses a lot of people. But also, this is happening. It’s not a, oh well, maybe. No, it’s happening and it’s happening right under our noses. I mean, this sounds almost apocalyptic in a way, but it’s happening. It’s happening and it’s either you need to figure out where you fit in in this or you get left behind.

Harrison Wheeler:
Or you’re going to be the 50-year-old on TikTok.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Or you’re going to be like my mom who is completely tech averse. And it’s like, I give her a cell phone and she turns it off until I have to tell her when I’m calling. Like that sort of thing. Because, I don’t want to get tracked, I don’t want them tracking me. I’m like, okay. But it’s getting to that. I see it getting there. And yeah, I could even see smart phones starting to do more with VR and AR and mixed reality, which we’re even starting to see with Google. Google has their maps that layer their own way. Finding on top of what you view out in the camera. It’s happening.

Harrison Wheeler:
It’s happening.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s happening.

Harrison Wheeler:
Yeah. No, it’s definitely happening. I think in the tech sense, it feels like that moment when the iPhone came out, if folks can remember. People see what the possibilities are, people are doing a lot of experimentation. People are okay if it works and if it doesn’t, and I think that’s the way to do it. It doesn’t necessarily have to work. I think it’s good to see folks really doubling down to really push the boundaries. And so I will say, for anybody listening that is well versed in all of this, definitely tweet myself and Maurice and let us know if we are getting the solid good grasp on it.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Please do. I don’t want to be sounding crazy out here, but I also want to make sure we’re informed because we both have our respective audiences too. We want to make sure that people are being informed about what this next thing is because it’s coming. And we either need to find a way to become a part of it, or once again, just get left behind with it.

Harrison Wheeler:
Yep.

Maurice Cherry:
To that end, we’ve discussed all of this. What do you see as the future of design and business?

Harrison Wheeler:
Oh, that is a million dollar webpage right there. I have many thoughts on this. We’ve been working from home for the past couple of years, so I’ve had an opportunity to really do a bit of introspection and really thinking about the conversations that we’re having. If we reflect, again, when I first started working in tech, when I first started doing web design, when I first started doing graphic design, I think the foundations and the way that we approach the craft, I think those foundations really still exists. But I think in terms of what we need to be conscious of to create inclusive environments, whether it be around make ups of team, we had talked about the different working spaces that people are in, thinking about what the consequences of design decisions are. Shout out to Ron, he actually just did a talk on consequence design. I think he was also a guest on your show, Maurice.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh yeah. Ron Bronson. He is cool. Yeah.

Harrison Wheeler:
Yeah. So I can keep going. We talk about equity, we talk about bias and whatnot. The list of things that we have to be conscious of, even on the business sense of things, research. I mean, I could keep going. I personally do not think a single designer is going to be able to comprehend all of that. But it is also very important to the work and central to the work that we do. And so moving forward, the industry itself, and that’s not just design, but we’ve got to say, hey, look, some of these things are not just in the discipline of design. We should be having design. We should be thinking and all encompassing about the elements that play a role in design across different business areas. This means your CEO should understand it. This means your product managers, engineers, they should understand it.

Harrison Wheeler:
How can we bring these types of things into the schools that they’re working at, into the conferences that they’re going into, because it’s a lot to put on the shoulders of design. And I think that if folks can really understand what the value is, we’re seeing a lot of growth now, I think the growth of the industry could honestly double. Most people you talk to, they’re always like, man, we need more designers. I’ve never heard of a situation where it’s like, we got too many designers.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s true.

Harrison Wheeler:
And so I think it’s really important for our industry to start really transforming the discussion there and thinking about design as an afterthought. If we’re still talking about design getting a seat at the table, I mean, that’s some web 2.0 stuff. Right?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Harrison Wheeler:
We got to have organizations that are design centric. And so that’s where I see it going. I mean, I think whether it’s on the metaverse, whether it’s on web 3, virtual reality, augmented reality, the way that we operationalize still to this certain point needs to be the responsibility of everybody. And so I think that is where I see design going. I know that’s not a super trendy answer, but I think organizations really do have to do a better job of just thinking design is a service. I think there are some companies that are doing really great things, but I don’t want that to necessarily think that the industry as a whole is evolving. So yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
What would you say has been the best career advice that you’ve gotten?

Harrison Wheeler:
I don’t know. This is tough. Because I think some of the best career advice I’ve had is super simple, it’s the matter of me executing. But yeah. I mean, I think honestly, it really comes down to asking questions. Being curious, asking questions. And I think the question piece is not necessarily in a place where you are not in a normal onboarding sense, but questioning why things are the way that they are. Why are they the way that they are? Because I think we’ve operated so long in a world where we don’t question those things and we have to deal with the consequences. And the consequences may directly, indirectly affect us. Or we are around a bunch of folks that don’t care. And that in itself is already destructive in its nature.

Maurice Cherry:
Where do you see yourself in the next five years? What kind of work do you want to be doing?

Harrison Wheeler:
You’re bringing out all the hard questions. To be honest, I have not thought about that. So we have the former CEO or co-founder of LinkedIn coin this term called tour duty. I’m not one for military terms in a workplace environment. I think that’s extremely unhealthy and anxiety inducing, especially just given, again, just how crazy the past few years have been. People are definitely feeling it.

Maurice Cherry:
Right.

Harrison Wheeler:
But I think the idea around is really being on a path of, I don’t know, learning, a journey. And I think for me, I mean, I talked about this before. I think being able to transform an organization to be able to think about design, kind of like how I had mentioned in the question earlier. For me, that’s the mission that I’m on right now. And it’s great to really see the progress of it. In that sense, I don’t know what’s on the docket five years from now. I would love to lead the team. But I will say that I also get super excited about Technically Speaking. Moving into technically the third calendar year of the project, I will say that I’m looking forward to just iterating on it. So definitely more guests, more episodes. I’ll be introducing some writing, a lot of really cool mini project on that. So definitely stay tuned. That’s on technicallyspeakinghw.com.

Harrison Wheeler:
I’ve really started to look back at some of my older work. I think for so long I had this thought that my writing wasn’t good enough. And so I’ve been bringing back a lot of things that I’ve written down in notebooks or in notes or in slide decks that I never presented because I didn’t think it was there or somebody told me it wasn’t all the way there. I was like, man, this stuff is really good. And so I might have a book that comes out. I love talking about management. I love talking about how it can be more conscious around the things that we’re doing. I love having discussions around different tactics you can have. Because in my journey, I didn’t really have much of that.

Harrison Wheeler:
And so, I would really love to have something that the next generation of managers can have in their toolkit. And they don’t have to use it, but at least it helps them start to think about ways they can do things that are authentically them, that represents their nature and really helps build a healthy community around what they’re doing.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, just to wrap things up here, where can our audience find out more about you and about the show and about your work and everything online?

Harrison Wheeler:
Yeah. So you can look at my random tweets on Twitter, twitter.com/H-M-W-H-E-E-L-E. And then for the show, it’s called Technically Speaking, so that’s available wherever. Technically Speaking with Harrison Wheeler. So that’s available wherever you listen to podcast. And then on social media, if you follow Technically Speaking HW on Instagram and LinkedIn you should be able to find us there and at technicallyspeakinghw.com. So just remember Technically Speaking HW and you should be able to figure it out. And of course, you can find me on LinkedIn @harrisonwheeler. So feel free to connect. As I mentioned before, I’ll be looking at hiring a couple of roles. They should be up by the time this episode is live. So feel free to reach out if you’re interested. And of course, we’re always hiring designers, design managers, researchers, project managers, product operations, all that. So definitely check out the job listings on LinkedIn.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, like you said, companies are always looking for designers. Right?

Harrison Wheeler:
100%.

Maurice Cherry:
Harrison Wheeler, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. It’s been, I just have to say from a personal standpoint, it’s been so great seeing your growth and your progression since we first met back in 2016 up to now, and just how much you’ve managed to do. I mean, in your personal career and especially what you’re doing at LinkedIn, but also now branching out into podcasting and really putting that message forward and opening up more opportunities for other people to tell their stories. I think it’s such a natural extension of just the amount of patience and I think thoughtfulness that you bring to your work. So I’m excited to see what you do certainly for the next five years. And again, thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Harrison Wheeler:
Appreciate you, Maurice. Have a good one.

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Brevity & Wit is a strategy and design firm committed to designing a more inclusive and equitable world.

We accomplish this through graphic design, presentations and workshops around I-D-E-A: inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility.

If you’re curious to learn how to combine a passion for I-D-E-A with design, check us out at brevityandwit.com.

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