Jonathan Patterson

If you’re a product designer that’s been thinking about striking out on your own in 2024, then Jonathan Patterson is a name that you need to know. As a freelance senior product design generalist, he knows all about rolling with the changes in the industry, and about what it takes to stay competitive.

Jonathan and I spoke not too long after his presentation at AIGA Detroit’s IXD2 event, and he talked about the various projects he’s worked on in the fields of healthcare, education, and AI. He also shared his personal journey growing up with a passion for drawing, transitioning from traditional print design to digital products, and explained why he made the switch to full-time freelancing (and what he’s learned along the way).

Hopefully Jonathan’s story and his work inspires you to carve out your own path for your career!

Interview Transcript

Maurice Cherry:

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

Jonathan Patterson:

All right, so I guess I’ll give you the elevator pitch. I’m the invisible hand that crafts the products you rely on daily. Often we don’t know who’s behind the things we touch and interact with. And I mean that in the virtual and the physical, you know, whether it’s the buttons you click to play your favorite podcast or the home screen of a service that you subscribe to, I design and make sure everything is where you expect it to be and make it look good in the process. So I’ve got a BSA in visual communications from Kendall College of Art and Design, which is essentially graphic design. And over the years, I’ve slowly morphed my interest and my focus to kind of like pace or sometimes exceed where the industry is headed so I can stay competitive. But these days, I’ve moved completely into product design generalization. So instead of having one focus like user experience design, I do all of the skills that are closely related to design that launching a product or service usually requires.

As a full time freelance product design generalist, my goal is to really have a variety of skills that when you total them up, they make what I have to offer kind of more comprehensive and fine tuned than anyone who’s just doing one part of the product design stack. So, Jonathan Patterson, two decades of experience, first podcast interview. Let’s go.

Maurice Cherry:

Looking back at this year, what are three words that you’d use to describe how 2023 has been for you?

Jonathan Patterson:

I would say revolutionary, difficult. Well, this is not a word or more of a phrase. Kind of par for the course.

Maurice Cherry:

Okay. How has it been “par for the course”?

Jonathan Patterson:

Par for the course. Meaning there’s always something changing. Nothing stays the same, which is especially true in technology. Right. And I think any business owner, which as a freelancer, full time freelancer, I certainly look at myself as a business owner. But there’s always a challenge to contend with. So par for the horse means while we have certain types of challenges this year, there’s always a challenge to contend with.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah. Well, the only thing constant in the world is change, as the saying goes. And I think those three words are a really good way to sum up 2023. I think for a lot of people.

Jonathan Patterson:

Yeah. Everywhere you look online, it’s people posting about the tech layoffs and their job being downsized or eliminated or can you help me get a job? That’s what I’m seeing a lot of.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah. Do you have any goals that you’d like to accomplish for next year, like any resolutions for next year?

Jonathan Patterson:

I think one of the things that I’ve been sort of indexing on is just starting something, I suppose, of my own on the side. Now, while I have a lot of different fun side projects that I’ve done here and there, I think that’s probably one of my objectives for the upcoming year, is to start something maybe that is more official outside of the full time freelance product design work that I do. It could be a product or service. I have many ideas about what those could be. I keep a running list of things that I’m considering and just ideas that I’m vetting. I think that’s probably one of the focuses that I will put some thought around soon.

Maurice Cherry:

Now, you just did a talk recently. There was an event in Detroit called IXD2 put on by AIGA Detroit. Shout out to Carlos and the folks there. Tell me about the event. How did it go?

Jonathan Patterson:

It went well. That was a first annual, we’ll call it…it’s called IXD2, which is the interaction design Detroit conference, and it will be held annually. So I actually talked about how to stop ghosting your side projects and basically I gave five tips that I’ve used to kind of see my projects from start to finish. So it was actually a whole day of different speakers and panelists and workshops. So mine was towards the end of a twelve hour, probably around their day. But it went good. It was well received. It will continue into the coming years, as far as I understand.

So I’d be excited to go back or I was a speaker this time, but if I’m not a speaker next time, or if not involved next time, I’ll certainly be happy to attend it.

Maurice Cherry:

Now, was this a new talk that you created?

Jonathan Patterson:

It was, and it was relatively in short order too. I think that between the time that I came to understand that they were interested in perhaps putting on some type of event like this, and the time the event actually occurred was just a matter of a couple of months. So I kind of last minute put together some ideas and the presentation ended up coming together. I probably would have talked about something else besides how to stop ghosting a side project. But again, due to the time constraints, it’s just like, okay, well, let me see what I can do that will perhaps resonate with people. And as I also come to understand, I tend to try to get feedback from people after I do a presentation or a talk or something like that, just because it’s always good to be sharpening your skills wherever you can. One of the things I heard was that people liked the variety that my presentation provided. There was a lot of, as you might expect from the title interaction design.

There were a lot of presentations and talks about processes and user experience specifically into the weeds of those types of things. Mine was a bit more general and sort of lighter. So I heard that people like that kind of component of my presentation. And I’ll also say for anybody who perhaps is listening to this and who saw that presentation, that I did put a lot of emphasis on the design of the presentation itself, because so often I find that, and this is just an easy thing for us designers to fall into for some reason, that when you’re doing a presentation, you don’t necessarily design it to your best ability. Rather, you’re just so focused on the content that you sort of let the design go by the wayside. And I’m like, okay, I can’t let that happen this time. This is specifically a design conference, so I’m definitely going to make sure that I put equal focus on what I’m saying, what I’m presenting, as well as what it looks like. So the design, it’s kind of contemporary.

It’s of the times. Lots of interesting typography and visuals to look at us designers are a fairly fickle bunch. We like things to look pretty. So I’m like, okay, this is going to look pretty cool.

Maurice Cherry:

Do you do a lot of public speaking at conferences?

Jonathan Patterson:

I wouldn’t say a lot. I’ve probably presented just a handful of times. Really. I can count in one hand probably the number of times I presented, but I’ve had some local colleges who will ask, like accelerators or programs that colleges have that are related to product design or design will ask me to come and talk to one of their classes or something like that. So I’ve done that a few times. I was part of another AIGA event a few years ago before COVID where I talked about or I presented a case study that was the theme of the event, was like, case studies and case studies projects that you’ve worked on. So I presented then, which was a few years ago, and then, like I mentioned just a few weeks ago, with this most recent one. So not a lot, but I was happy to hear that.

Some of the feedback that I also got recently was that someone said that my presentation flowed very smoothly and they got the impression that I did it all the time. I’m like, well, thank you very much. That’s probably the best, most flattering compliment that I feel like I got this evening. So I was happy to hear that.

Maurice Cherry:

Nice. I mean, I hope you get a chance to give that talk at other conferences. I mean, you put that much time into designing it and you’re getting this great feedback, like take it out on the road.

Jonathan Patterson:

Yeah, you know what? Somebody else mentioned that. I think if the opportunity presents itself, I might do that.

Maurice Cherry:

So let’s talk more about you being a freelance senior product design generalist. You had mentioned that before. I was like, that’s a mouthful. That’s a lot. And according to your website, as well as what you just said, you are the invisible hand that crafts the products that you rely on daily. And you’ve been doing it for such a long time. I mean, almost 13 years. That is super impressive.

Jonathan Patterson:

Well, thanks. Yeah, I’ve worked in all sorts of industries on all types of projects. Early in my career I worked with on a bunch of apps in the education space that taught kids how to write or do math. I also worked on a project for the brand pull ups where I did a lot of UX and UI for an app that parents use to potty train their kids. Let’s see. Some other memorable projects that come to mind are product designed for a healthcare startup. This is akin to like Angie’s list for healthcare workers. I did iconography for OkCupid, where I created dozens of icons that reflect the interest and the characteristics that people show on their dating profile.

I did data visualizations for Brighthouse Networks, which was bought by charter Communications or Spectrum Charter, I believe. But more recently I’ve done work for this company called the Standard, which is this wellness and social networking app. They’re kind of still in this amorphous phase where they’re establishing their value proposition. I’ve helped this company called True Anthem. They’re out of California and they have this AI powered social publishing tool. And basically the gist of it is that large scale content publishers like the Associated Press or Reuters or NBC News give their social teams access to this dashboard where they can automate their social media posts and understand all of the analytics around what content performs the best and when to post it and where to post it to. So it’s this dashboard that integrates with all the popular social networking platforms. You know, Facebook, X, Instagram, et cetera.

Last, I guess I won’t forget to mention Ford. I’ve helped them on and off over the years. I’ve worked on their website, helping to think through different visual concepts to present features and promotions. I’ve also done a lot of work on what they call the build in price section of their website, which is the part where you customize a vehicle that you’re interested in buying. And that area of the site in particular is in constant flux, and they go through many iterations to push out even the smallest of changes. So I’ve helped with the UX and the UI there, as well as, again, lots of iconography for that section of their website. Yeah, I mean, that’s kind of the overview.

Maurice Cherry:

Now, you’ve mentioned a lot of different clients here and a lot of different sort of types of product design work that you’ve done. What are the best types of clients for you to work with?

Jonathan Patterson:

You know, I work on B2B and B2C types of projects. I tend to find the B2C ones a bit more, I guess, compelling to work on because the tone that you take in terms of the writing, the UX writing that you do for it, any kind of light copywriting that I might do, don’t get me wrong, I’m not a copywriter, but any of the. I think just the way that you approach a consumer is very different than the way you approach, like, a business product or service. Now, I definitely do both, but I think I probably get a little bit more fun out of the B2C ones. They’re just more room to, kind of…I feel like those apps and services are a bit, just more entertaining, if you know what I mean.

Maurice Cherry:

Is there any type of work that you want to do in the future? Like dream projects, anything like that?

Jonathan Patterson:

You know what, I have always been of this mindset too. I’m like, okay, it could be fun to work on in the entertainment industry specifically, maybe for some type of celebrity website or something like that. But then the more I think about it and the more I see how other industries work with certain types of media, I would imagine that it’s probably a more difficult ask to do some of that work quicker turnarounds, probably projects that you imagine might go a certain way, maybe don’t, because you’re answering to maybe people who have. Maybe my idea of what it’s like is totally different than what it’s actually like. I’m starting to think that that might be the case. So in the past, I’ve always thought that maybe I’ll work on entertainment stuff, but maybe not. I think what I have going for me now, which is a variety of types of work that come my way, is a great kind of mix because at times I’m working on very UX heavy work. Then, at other times, I’m working on very UI heavy work, and I think just the mix of projects is what keeps me most interested. It’s almost like you never get bored.

Maurice Cherry:

So you like to have that variety, it sounds like.

Jonathan Patterson:

Yeah. I think that’s one of the main draws to freelancing, is that you get to pick the types of projects that you work on in the mix. So if you’re ever feeling too much of something, you can say, okay, well, this next inquiry that comes in, I won’t take that, I’ll take this other thing, because my plate’s full in that other area. So, yeah, that’s definitely a plus.

Maurice Cherry:

One thing that we’ve been talking about on the show pretty regularly over the past two years is kind of how a lot of this new tech is encroaching upon the creative industry. Maybe encroach is not the right word, but it’s starting to infiltrate into the tools that we use, the way that certain businesses now offer new services, et cetera. I’m curious…with what you do, have you seen any trends or changes in the industry, particularly as it relates to AI or generative AI or something like that?

Jonathan Patterson:

Generative AI pretty much seems like it’s working its way into everything. ChatGPT has all of the, like, DALL-E and all of those types of services. Photoshop, just typing in something and generating it on the spot. It is totally changing the way that we work, the way that I work. Like many People, I think that we’re in this phase where we’re just trying to understand how do we make our businesses kind of bulletproof against some of these new technologies. I think at times people have this idea about, or this feeling that, okay, I can’t wait till things get back to how they were. They’re not going back. This is kind of like we’re here now. It’s just going to kind of keep on happening, and I don’t want to say get worse, but there’s going to be kind of more of this need to reinvent yourself, to come up with ways to stay marketable and relevant.

Maurice Cherry:

I mean, have you been using it any in your wor, or…

Jonathan Patterson:

No, I use ChatGPT for sure now. I tend to have it refine my work. So if I’m writing something, whether it be some text for a website or for anything, I like to use ChatGPT to refine my work instead of just be the kind of creator of it. I’ll say that one phenomenon that I do notice is that I tend not to recognize my writing. If chat GPT kind of manipulates it too much, and I think that might be, like, a phenomenon that people may start to realize. I’ve experimented with it, for example, commenting on a blog post or some type of medium article that I saw, where I’ve experimented with using ChatGPT to write my response haphazardly, type something out, pop it in a ChatGPT, have it, rewrite it, make it sound good, and then post it. Then go back and read it. Like a month, two months later, I’m like, okay, did I actually write that? I don’t remember writing that.

So that’s this phenomenon that I’m noticing with ChatGPT. So I use it, and I’ve learned to. Obviously, it’s still fairly new, or I’m new to it, but I try to use it more sparingly so that the work is my work, and I recognize it as such. But in terms of design work, not as much there. I’d say more in the lines of text. Right. I don’t feel like the image generators are exactly up to kind of the level that I would want them to be at. They’re helpful if you want to maybe change something small in an image, but they all had this overly smooth look.

If you try to generate an image from scratch, I’m sure that’s going to change in the future. But for right now, I don’t use it extensively in the kind of visual work that I do. It’s just not capable.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, we’ve had folks that have come on the show before that say they use it kind of like as a mood board or as inspiration. Like, it’s a great way to help spin up ideas. If you have maybe some ambiguity on where to start, it can kind of give you a nudge in that direction. But there still has to be discernment from humans, of course, the ones that are going to be using that stuff to decide how it should be used, if it should be used at all, if it should be changed, et cetera. So it seems like you have a pretty kind of discerning nature about how you use it.

Jonathan Patterson:

Yeah, most definitely. It’s going to change quickly, I might add, too. I think that there’s always this kind of impression that, like, oh, this is far off. Well, technology is kind of exponential in many ways, so while it’s not there yet, it’s probably going to be there faster than I expect. So I guess fingers crossed. I’ve got a little bit more time to be employed.

Maurice Cherry:

Well, let’s kind of switch it up a little bit here. We’ve talked a lot about the work that you’re doing. But let’s learn more about you, about the person behind the invisible hand, so to speak. You mentioned before we started recording you’re in the metro Detroit area. Is that where you’re from originally?

Jonathan Patterson:

Yeah, I’ve always been in this area. Went to school in Westland. I had a class in graphic design. I was, I guess, early on, though, I was kind of always interested in drawing by hand. That’s kind of where it all started, drawing on paper. Mortal Kombat characters. I remember when the Lion King came out, I got a computer. Then I started drawing in, like, Microsoft paint.

Lion King characters. Yeah. So I grew up in Westland or which school in Westland, rather. Then I went over to the Grand Rapids area for school for my degree, and after I graduated, came back and started working at this. I worked at J. Walter Thompson, which is this worldwide advertising agency. They have offices all over. So I was working on regional advertising campaigns.

That was technically an internship, but it was after I’d graduated and I was actually making money and working on projects. So it’s kind of strange, but that was an internship. It was after I graduated. So I did that for a year and then I started working. Once that internship ended, I worked at this full service ad agency, which is again, in the metro Detroit area, and I was doing all types of things. Any creative task that came through the agency, I had my hand in it. So they were full service. They did out of home, digital, print, radio, TV.

So I was the senior art director there, and I did that for about six years, and I decided to kind of break off and do my own thing.

Maurice Cherry:

Well, before we kind of get into that, I want to just kind of step back a little bit to talk about your time at Kendall, because I’m sure if you sort of had this sort of talent as a child where you really were drawing and into this sort of stuff, and then you wanted to pursue it enough where you went to school. Do you feel like your time at Kendall kind of prepared you for getting out there in the world as a designer?

Jonathan Patterson:

I do think it did. Again, things are constantly in flux. Right. Stuff that you learn. I was in college in 2004, so obviously things that I learned back then are not necessarily relevant today. But for the time. At the time, yes, it did prepare me. Now, that said, I did find that I had to, or I’m the type to push myself to learn new things.

So even though I did feel like some of the courses and things like that, I learned a lot, but I didn’t think that they were challenging me as much as I could challenge myself. So I would take it upon myself to kind of just do whatever I could to be learning new things and challenging myself. It’s a great program. I learned a lot there, but learning is never done. You have to constantly learn new software. Things that the programs that we were using back then practically don’t exist now, just things that you were doing then, just not relevant. So for the time, it was great. But I know much more now than I did back then.

Maurice Cherry:

No, I mean, that makes sense. I mean, if you were in college in 2004, I’m just thinking, sort of, what design tools were out there. I mean, I think everything was pretty much Macromedia or Adobe. This is before they, I want to say 2004 is before they merged, because I distinctly remember using fireworks, like right around that time. And I remember Dreamweaver first being Macromedia, Dreamweaver before it became Adobe Dreamweaver. But just in terms of like, I’m thinking, yeah, software and things like that, there’s so much changing in visual communications during that time period. I think also because, and maybe you saw this when you went out into the world after graduating, but companies were then starting to realize how to have a visual presence online. Prior to this, companies were still sort of trying to figure out, well, how do I get on the Internet? Should I be on the Internet? What should that look like? And by this time, like mid-2000s, companies are starting to figure it out.

They’re starting to sort of see how they can represent themselves or represent their brand or their product or their service online in a visual way.

Jonathan Patterson:

Yeah. So when I was in college, it was technically graphic design, so I only had, if memory serves one, maybe two. Two classes. Honestly, I think it was one class on web design or anything like that. So all of my other things were print focused.

Maurice Cherry:

Oh, wow.

Jonathan Patterson:

I did learn Quark, but I actually never used Quark outside of school, at least not to any degree. It was always indesign. Indesign was like coming on the scene right when I was going to school and graduating and things like that. So all of my education was really centered around print design. I had a couple of typography classes and Photoshop classes and of course all of your core studies, design fundamentals and all of those art history classes and things like that. So I used GoLive, which doesn’t exist anymore.

Maurice Cherry:

Oh, man, I remember GoLive. Oh, you just took me back with that.

Jonathan Patterson:

You know what? Their program was nice work, though. I loved the fact that it was like designing in Photoshop or Illustrator in the sense that you could lay something out on the canvas, then it turns it into the design. Honestly, I only had one Web design class, and it wasn’t until after I started working at that agency, after my internship, after college, where I really started doing more digital work and web work, everything else was like, up until that point was very traditional, advertising based. And that’s actually one of the reasons I did kind of make the switch to full time freelance, is because I’m like, okay, I want to specifically work on digital products, websites, apps, experiences, things like that.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah. During that time, as you mentioned, you were kind of studying a lot of stuff with print. That’s another thing, is that the web was sort of changing from, I say, in the early days, it felt like a lot of the web was just taking whatever was in print and directly putting it on the web, whether that was a scan or whether that was a table based layout or something. And so it sort of limited, I think, a lot of expression that brands or companies could have. But then I’d say right around, not even too long after you graduated college, like 2005, 2006, things switched over to CSS, and then you could now float things across the page and change alignment in these ways that broke you out of this grid based kind of print format that I think a lot of early design was in. And it allowed you to sort of really kind of go outside the box with different types of design and things of that nature. So to me, it does make sense to freelance during that time, because if you’re working at a company, and I just know this because I did work at a company, when that happened, it is so much hassle to change things internally after you already have one set of processes, whether this is how it’s always been done or this is how we want to do it, as opposed to when you’re a freelancer, you can change on a dime if you need to. You can just focus on a specific type of product or a different type of service, but you can adopt and change, do things much quicker than larger companies or larger firms or agencies can.

Jonathan Patterson:

Oh, yeah, most definitely. And I think that you need to be able to do that. Right. I’ve had the kind of luxury of being able to experiment with. All right, so what interests me? What are people asking for? What are people reaching out to me for? And I have a lot of interest in terms of the design space. So while that may not work for everybody, it worked for me because back in the day, I had people, independent app developers, for example, making their first app for the iPhone and they need somebody to design it. That was kind of how I got my intro into designing for iOS was app developers reaching out to me saying they needed some design help. I’m like, this is fun.

Let me try this. So I did that. So my degree is in graphic design, but due to my wide range of interests, I have been able to kind of explore working in all aspects. And one of the things I’ve done is transition some of the skills that I’ve learned that apply to other design mediums into more marketable skills. So, for example, an ability to use Adobe illustrator very well and make cool looking icons, well, how that looks today for me is I use this program called Blender 3D. I wouldn’t call myself like a 3D artist. Rather, I’ll call them illustrations because I’m not focusing on how to make something technically accurate for 3D printing or for the architecture space,.right?

It’s more like, how can I add on this medium to enhance the product design work that I do, right. So if I’m creating a website or something like that, or an app, and it needs some cool animation or content to be designed that we want to manipulate, when the user hovers their cursor over it or taps it or something like that, that’s kind of where my skills come into play. So I try to develop this skill set of deliverables that can all work together.

Maurice Cherry:

Now, when you look back at your time at Quill, I know that was sort of what you mentioned prior, before we talked about Kendall a little bit. You wa ere there for almost six years. You were their senior art director. What sort of was the impetus for you to start your own business?

Jonathan Patterson:

Yeah, well, and to be clear, too, so I was the senior art director, but they were, we’ll say, a small to medium sized company. So it’s not that we had a ton of people there. So the reason that I decided to leave is what you were asking, is that right?

Maurice Cherry:

Well, I guess you could say that. I mean, unless that was sort of part of the reason for you wanted to start your own business, was that you wanted to leave.

Jonathan Patterson:

Well, I’ll say that I was just maybe starting to Plateau at the company. Maybe there wasn’t enough kind of upward opportunity. And again, I also wanted to focus exclusively on digital products and services versus having to work on prints and radio and broadcast. Also, I feel like I was capable of executing the types of experiences myself that the firm’s clients were looking for. So as is so often the case, pay was also starting to become an issue. And in the end, I felt like I wasn’t making enough as I could make, and I didn’t see much evidence that that would change. So that said, I did learn a great deal about the ins and outs of how to run a business. One of the most important lessons I got to see firsthand was how clients don’t hire you simply because you’re good at what you do.

They hire you because you’re capable of doing the work and you’re a likable person. You seem like you’ll be fun to work with. But the agency was, again, small to mid sized. So in a sense, I kind of, like, shadowed the owners, and I was able to learn how to talk to prospective clients and write proposals and run meetings and all of the other things they don’t teach you in college.

Maurice Cherry:

I think that’s fair. You get to a point where you feel like you could do this yourself or you could maybe do it better and you strike out on your own, and that’s what you did.

Jonathan Patterson:

Yeah. Well, again, too, people were. It made it easy because people were reaching out to me in my personal email and saying, hey, can you help me with this? Can you help me with that? I’m like, okay, well, maybe I should try this.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, I completely understand that because that’s the same way that I started my business. I was working at, at T and honestly hated it and just really felt like I could do better. I felt like I did reach that plateau where it’s like, I don’t know if this is going to get any better for me anywhere else. There were other issues there, too, just in terms of the staff, but in terms of just your personal fulfillment as a designer, I knew that I could be doing better work than this and could possibly be getting paid better, but this can’t be. The high point of my career is having a 15 minutes lunch break on a twelve hour shift. I can’t do this. Right.

Jonathan Patterson:

Well, I will say, though, too, at the time, it was in college, I was working at retail jobs, and that’s never fun, especially as a design person. You want to be doing work, that’s like, what you’re going to school for. So when I got that job, for the time that I was there, it was generally like, okay, this is where I need to be. I worked hard. It wasn’t that I wasn’t making any money, I was making good money. But I’m like, okay, I can make better money.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, totally. I get it. I 100% get that. How were those early years?

Jonathan Patterson:

Of business freelancing, early years of business. They were good. I would say that back then, I found myself working on a lot of smaller projects. Right. Projects that can be completed in a couple of days or a few hours versus these days. It’s like, okay, it requires a week minimum, or several weeks or several months. So back in the day, it was a lot of like…there were times where I’d be working for seven days a week.

I’m like, okay. I’d start getting stressed out because I’m like, okay, too many small projects, constantly working. I was making enough money, but the problem I had back then was too many small projects. Once you start running out of time to work on them, then you get stressed. So as the years have ticked by, I’ve slowly kind of expanded the scale of projects that I work on. And sometimes there’s some ebb and flow there, right? It can be very busy. Sometimes it can be a little bit slower. But I would say in general, the scale of the projects have changed over the years.

Maurice Cherry:

How do you approach a new project? Like, say you’re working with a client or something comes across in your inbox? What does that intake process look like?

Jonathan Patterson:

I think probably the more interesting part would be like, maybe my creative process. So it kind of starts with just asking a bunch of questions and understanding the problem to make sure I’m solving for the right thing. Suffice to say, there’s this extensive fact finding, goal setting, and planning process. But maybe the creative process is a bit more, I’d say, unique or just my own. It starts with taking inspiration from everywhere I watch movies. I think that medium inspires my creative process a lot. I think it’s so different from product design that it makes it easy to come up with an original idea based on a narrative that I saw. I think probably the most compelling creative ideas come from the mixing of unexpected connections that you can make between topics that are not already connected.

It’s almost like the magic comes from bringing those two concepts together in a novel way. But I try to take inspiration from everywhere and bring that work into the product design work that I do. In addition to that, I think, of course, surfing the web daily, you just come across things that naturally will someday work their way into inspiration for a project that I’ll work on. So I keep like, boulders of interfaces and websites and illustrations and animations on my desktop to kind of just refer to. I do consider myself in the business of selling ideas, so I’ll say this. Too often clients are eager to spend a budget if you hit them with something that kind of strikes their imagination, and having my go to folders that I can inspire myself from is a good starting point. So, actually, one of the things I’ll do to jump start a creative process or get a project off the ground and up and running is kind of like, after I have a meeting or a phone call with a prospective client, I will send them this preliminary or kind of like cursory email with some creative ideas, and that’ll get their wheels turning. And then the next thing I know, I’ve got them asking me to send a full proposal.

And then we’re often working on a new project.

Maurice Cherry:

When you look back over, I don’t know, let’s say, like the past, we’ll say five years, we’ll roll the pandemic into this. What would you say is the biggest lesson that you’ve learned about yourself?

Jonathan Patterson:

Biggest lesson I’ve learned about myself. I don’t know that I’d learned anything new. And maybe that’s because I’ve been freelancing for way before the pandemic started. Everybody was kind of like, clamoring when it all went down, getting their office set up, trying to understand how to freelance or work remotely. I’m like, I’ve been doing this for ten years at the point that the pandemic started. So that was easy for me. I felt like…I’m like…I’ve been social distancing for ten years now. I already had everything set up, my billing software, my processes were in place.

I was able to experiment with different ways of working with clients. Do I work with them on a retainer? Do I work with them on a fixed price? What’s my rate? Do I sign NDAs ahead of time? Or do I never sign NDAs? That was one of the things that I’m getting a little off track, but I think maybe a little bit relevant. I think that I very much enjoy the. Am thankful for the fact that I was able to see what works and what doesn’t work, which is different than working for somebody else. Right. When you work for somebody else, they tell you what you can say in your email to the client. They tell you how to Bill, they tell you the process that you have to structure your files through. Those are all things that I got to do my way or just trial and error.

I think there’s something to be said for the ability to see what works and what doesn’t work for yourself.

Maurice Cherry:

Right?

Jonathan Patterson:

Again, I guess that wasn’t new to me, but that was something that I imagine a lot of people probably started to get wind of when the pandemic hit. And what they learned about themselves is probably some of those things that I had learned up to that point.

Maurice Cherry:

But you’ve been good. You’re good.

Jonathan Patterson:

Yeah, I’ve made all the mistakes. I think that one of the things that I have learned over the years was that not everybody communicates the same way. I think that I have a very. In the past, I probably was much more direct than people that people tend to be like, if I have a question about something or if I just legitimately think that the client needs to hear some particular feedback, I would just say it. But I learned that, okay, sometimes you can’t just say it. You have to ease them into it. And that’s something that you can’t if you’re working for. I guess to bring my sharp point to this idea, it’s like when you’re working for somebody, they tell you that you can’t say this when you’re working for yourself.

You can try it and see what happens. And I certainly did that. So I made all the mistakes, but I think I’m better for it.

Maurice Cherry:

I got you. I feel you. Okay, so what are sort of the next steps of growth for your business? Like, where do you want to take it?

Jonathan Patterson:

I want to take it. I think that I have always wanted to remain in, I guess, a small business. Like, I don’t have any employees, and that’s by design. I think with employees comes other headaches. Right. You have to make sure that, well, I don’t know. I don’t have any employees, but I’m just guessing. It’s like you have to pay for insurance and all of those other things.

Many more expenses, overhead. It’s just a much different, kind of, like a ballgame. I feel like I would be managing people more than I am doing work, which is what I do now. When clients reach out to me, they’re looking for something to get done. I think my business is, I’m happy with kind of where it’s at. I’ve helped other clients of mine who say they’re like, oh, I wish I would have gone your route and not hired employees and just stayed small. So many fewer headaches to contend with. I had an attorney who I did work for who told me that.

So, yeah, I think just based on my experience and things that I’ve heard, I think it’s just as easy to stay small.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah. Where do you kind of pull strength from? Like, what motivates you to keep doing this work?

Jonathan Patterson:

Well, I’ve always been a creative person. I think creativity can manifest itself in many ways. Right? So while I don’t think I’ll do product design forever, I will always be in the creative space. So, for example, I used to play the piano for many years. I took classes in school. I took them outside of school. My mom hired somebody to take me to get lessons from. So I’ve done music oriented endeavors.

I’ve, like I mentioned, had an interest in drawing by hand. I then kind of transformed that into graphic design. Now I’m in product design. So I will always be in the creative space, in the digital space. I think there’s so many foundations to design that are transferable, right? So all of the foundations, color, scale, contrast, repetition, light, texture, those things can apply to interior design, print design, furniture design. So I very much see that I will be in some creative space now. Which one? That is in the future. I’m not sure for the time being it will be.

It’s going to definitely be product design. But I think in the long term, I could see myself going into something probably in the fine art space, right. I think my career, for the most part, up until this point, has been commercial design. Right? It’s about how to sell a product or a service or get somebody to take an action based on. It’s less art. Granted, there are a lot of visual components to the work that I do, but at the end of the day, it’s not art because we’re selling something or making something or convincing people or educating people on why they want to buy a service or a product versus art or a personal expression that is more about self expression. Right. So you think of sculptures or paintings or woodwork or something like that.

So I think in the future, my interest will probably be more in the focus on things that are not, like, consumer focused.

Maurice Cherry:

Okay. Where do you see yourself in general in the next five years? I mean, I know we kind of talked a little bit about where you want to take the business, but when you look in the future, based on where you are now, what kind of things do you want to be doing, especially with.

Jonathan Patterson:

I’m very interested to see all of our AR and VR experiences start coming into play. I know that there are a lot of mixed reviews on how that’s going to look in the future of the metaverse and all of that. Personally, I’m interested in working in that space. I think it’s just going to be so new. Right. A lot of the work that we do in UX and UI design today for screens is there are many design patterns and tried and true methods to pull from. I’m interested in establishing and working in and setting up kind of new paradigms and principles and patterns for devices that are upcoming.

So I’m very excited about the Vision Pro. When that comes out, I’ll probably start to tinker around in that space. I’ll have to give me one of those when it comes out, start designing. And I do imagine maybe a similar kind of pattern as to what I experienced before, where if I’m offering services that are tailored toward developers who are creating products for vision Pro, they probably need some design assistance with it. So that’s kind of me keeping up with the times. It’s how can I tailor my services to be in demand and where the market is going? Which is one of the reasons I actually had an interest in three D. One of many reasons I’ve had an interest in 3D in the last few years is because I saw or I read that these types of experiences are coming and I want to be able to be able to create assets and just work in this space. So yeah, that’s an area I’m very excited about is VR, aR, that type of work.

Maurice Cherry:

Well, just to wrap things up here, where can our audience find out more information about you, about your work? Where can they hire you? Where can they find all of that information? Online?

Jonathan Patterson:

Definitely at my website, which is jonathanpatterson.com. I am on X – @jonpatterson_. That’s J-O-N underscore Patterson, of course. Linkedin.

Maurice Cherry:

All right, sounds good. Jonathan Patterson, I want to thank you so, so much for coming on the show. Thank you really, for kind of diving deep into your business and kind of exploring why you do what you do what you do in terms of services and things of that nature. I think it’s important, especially now at this time, when people, for one reason or another, might be out there trying to find their next path or like what the next thing is that they’re going to do to really sort of see what someone who has been out here doing this for a long time is doing. So they can maybe look at how they structure their work or their business. But I think what you’re doing is great. I know you mentioned something about sort of having the work speak for itself and being the invisible hand. I’ll tell you that once you start speaking, that kind of goes a little bit out the window.

Yeah, I know, because the work doesn’t have a mouth, you do. So it’s like, as you start getting out there and speaking more. And I think certainly as people really see more of you, as well as the work, you’ll take off for sure. I mean, certainly what you’re doing now is really great work, but I’m excited to see where you go in the future. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Jonathan Patterson:

Yeah, well, thanks for having me.

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

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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.

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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.

Kevin Tufts

Kevin Tufts is the real deal when it comes to tech and design. With over two decades of experience working across a number of companies in the Bay Area — Lyft, SendGrid, and Twilio, to name a few — he’s now a product designer at Meta working on their Creation team. So believe me, we had a LOT to talk about.

Our conversation begin with a look at the current climate inside Meta (pre-Threads, FYI), and he gave some thoughts on where the company is going as it approaches its 20th anniversary. From there, Kevin talked about his path to becoming a product designer, and we took a trip down memory lane recalling the early days of web design and what it was like working during such rapidly changing times. He also spoke on what he loves about product design now, and how he wants to help the next generation of designers through mentorship.

Kevin’s secrets to success are simple: seize opportunities for growth where you can, embrace collaboration, and remain flexible. Now that’s something I think we could all take to heart!

Interview Transcript

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

Kevin Tufts:
I am Kevin Tufts. I am a product designer currently working at Facebook, and I live in San Jose, California.

Maurice Cherry:
How has this year been treating you so far?

Kevin Tufts:
I’d say personally the year has been pretty good. I am grateful to be employed and obviously you’ve seen in the media that Meta has had several waves of layoffs, unfortunately. So all things considered, I feel pretty grateful. Feel pretty good, but a little anxious. I’m human, so it’s definitely some wild times not just within Meta, but the tech ecosystem as a whole.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Do you have any plans for the summer?

Kevin Tufts:
Plans for the summer are going to be pretty chill. So one of my side hobbies is I’m an avid cyclist, so I’ve been doing bike events from beginning of April up until just a couple of weeks ago. So this summer I think I’m just going to chill, stay local and got some family stuff happening. I got some folks coming into town, so should be hopefully a quiet summer.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. That’s good. Is there anything in particular that you want to try to accomplish this year, like for the rest of the year?

Kevin Tufts:
Yeah, there’s some kind of like more career-oriented things that I want to sharpen up on and that’s with mentorship and maybe doing more design oriented workshops where I’m teaching kids from different backgrounds but mostly from people of color how to use design tools and how to get into product design as a whole.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I think that’s a really good thing, especially now when I’d say I feel like over the past two or three years we’ve started to see a lot of the younger generation, like Gen Z and younger are starting to look at tech more as a viable opportunity for them to go into for their career. So that’s a good thing. I hope you get a chance to do that.

Kevin Tufts:
Yeah, looking forward to there’s a couple of avenues and programs that I’ve been working with here in the Bay Area that’s been awesome. So yeah, there’s some big things on the horizon for me personally.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Talk to me about the work that you’re doing at Facebook. Like, are you working on a specific product there?

Kevin Tufts:
Yeah, mostly working within what’s called Creation, and that’s the organization that handles a lot of our creation tools like Reels and Stories. And so for me, a lot of my work swirls around Stories, so I get to touch everything from the gallery to the Stories composer, just the experience itself, which has been pretty cool. And then I also work across Facebook, Lite, iOS and Android. And I call that out because most people that are listening, that are here within the US. May not be aware that we have such an app called Facebook Lite, but it’s a stripped-down version of the app that runs on Android and it’s a popular app in kind of like more developing nations.

Maurice Cherry:
So like if you’re using, say, like, I know there’s this terminology of a dumb phone as opposed to like a smartphone, but like a phone that’s not maybe always connected to the Internet.

Kevin Tufts:
You got it. Yeah, you nailed it. So there’s different flavors of that where you can go into low data mode, and then you’ll see almost just a very plain Jane. Just a few images and some text, just a stripped down version of the core app.

Maurice Cherry:
What does your team look like that you work with?

Kevin Tufts:
Team is pretty big, so within the organization there are different pillars that handle different aspects of the experience. I’m on the Creation Growth team, so we run tons of design experiments. It’s a really fast moving, fast paced.org, can be challenging, but really fun because you get to try all types of different unique design directions that you wouldn’t necessarily try in other product spaces around Meta. And we have quite a number of designers as well.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, what does a regular day kind of look like for you? Are you working remotely? Are you back in the office now? What does that look like?

Kevin Tufts:
Yeah, I’m working remotely, and just recently, like most companies in the Bay, we have a new return to office policy. So a lot of us will be continuing to work remotely. And some of us that live here in the Bay are going to be going in three days a week.

Maurice Cherry:
So you would have to be going into the Menlo Park office then?

Kevin Tufts:
Yeah, that’s my closest office.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m trying to place the Bay geography. How far away is that from where you’re at in San Jose?

Kevin Tufts:
Yeah, it’s about a 20 minute drive. 25 minutes? I mean, it takes a while because of traffic.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Okay, that’s not that bad. That’s not that bad at all. Yeah. The last time I was in San Francisco was in God. Oh, that was 2016, actually was 2016. I spoke at Facebook, and I remember it took…oh, wow. I think it took an hour to get from San Francisco to Menlo Park. And I was thinking, “people make this commute every day. This is a lot.”

Kevin Tufts:
That sounds great compared to doing like an hour and a half or two hours if there’s an accident.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I want to approach this part of the conversation rather gingerly. I feel like there’s a third rail that I really don’t want to touch with regards to Facebook. But what’s the mood like there right now? I mean, as you mentioned, they’ve been in the news recently because of conversations around the metaverse. The Meta Quest 3 just dropped fairly recently, and then right after that, Apple dropped their AR headset. Yeah. What’s the mood like at Facebook overall?

Kevin Tufts:
I think because of the frequency of the layoffs, you know, we went into the end of last year with the first big wave, and then we just had the two more recent ones. People, they seem to be resilient, but a lot of us are kind of reserved and really just a little numb because all this stuff has been in such close succession, right. So ultimately everyone is just kind of moving forward and performing their duties as they always would. I think a lot of us are just trying to like, ride this out because we know that it’s going to be challenging for at least quite a few number of months before the dust truly settles. After every large layoff at any company, then there’s always the trimmers that you experience, right, because you’ll have a series of reorgs, so then you have to ride those waves. So that’s kind of where we are right now. But for the most part, everyone is pushing forward and we’re now into roadmap planning season. So it’s like our minds are occupied with just trying to plan for the next half.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, it can be a very odd place to still work somewhere after a layoff. Sometimes you have I guess the best way to call this, or the best thing to call it, would be survivor’s guilt that you’re here when maybe a team member has left or someone else you knew at the company has left. And then especially when these kinds of things happen in succession like that, it can almost kind of feel a bit like you’re walking on eggshells, I guess.

Kevin Tufts:
Yeah, in some regards it’s exactly like that because this is also impacting our performance reviews, right. So a lot of us engineers as well, you’ve been working on a project or maybe you’ve been reordered. So now the work that you had going on, you had to drop it midstream to go pick up something else from someone else’s team. And yeah, it’s chaotic and so there’s the stress of like, hey, how is my performance review going to look? That’s just kind of like where we are. It’s like you can only worry about what you can control. And I guess we’ll cross that bridge when we all get there.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Now for those of us who have been online for a very long time, when I say that at least 20 years or so, we remember when Facebook launched. Facebook launched in the early 2000s, like 2003, 2004…I think right around that time. And we’re now about to come up on Facebook’s 20th anniversary, which is wild to think of for an Internet company. What do you think, like Facebook’s place is now in this kind of modern internet era that we’re in?

Kevin Tufts:
Well, obviously we’ve tried to well, I shouldn’t say try, but we’ve entered the VR space, so I don’t see that going away anytime soon. But I think what we’ll start to head is maybe putting more development and focus into AI things as everybody is sort of racing to get there wherever there is. So we may have more of a shift towards AI oriented experiences and less attention on the metaverse and then obviously just kind of moving forward with the ultimate goal of just having a totally connected planet. Right. And what I noticed between the US. And just working on things that will be tested in other countries is that here in the US. The way the media spins things is that Facebook’s dying. And it’s really just kind of how the media frames things. But it’s not. It’s like the popularity of the app hasn’t really dipped and it’s actually increasing outside of the U.S. market. And then within the U.S. market, there’s quite a number of unique things that I think we’re going to be able to latch onto and really just kind of like shock the general public.

Maurice Cherry:
Sort of reminds me of that saying about the reports of my death are greatly exaggerated or something like that. I think Mark Twain said that probably. I mean, with a company as big as Facebook that has a global reach like that. I get what you’re saying about the media, like tech media here or even the more mainstream outlets here will make it seem like, oh, Facebook is this big dying site. But Facebook is still the number one website in the world. And the world is a big place. It’s not just the U.S. I mean the U.S. media scene, the U.S. tech scene, et cetera. Facebook has not only just Facebook the social network, but Instagram and WhatsApp. And there’s other apps and things that are out there in the world that are heavily used. So to say that Facebook is dying feels kind of premature just because it has a reach that eclipses so many other products, so many other companies. It’s a lot bigger, I think, than we might think that it is based on what the media might say it is.

Kevin Tufts:
And we don’t think about a lot of the other sub-products. Right. We have Groups, which is the communities based product within the app. It’s extremely popular messenger. We’ve got our foot in so many different pools right now that it’s really just kind of like the media, the U.S. focused media that’s always basically picking on the company.

Maurice Cherry:
Right. And I mean, folks that have listened to this show for any period of time know I am not a Facebook fan. I’m not going to say I’m a Facebook hater, but you can’t knock the fact that Facebook has…it’s got its reach in a lot of different places across a lot of different products. And so just the social network itself is not the entirety of what Facebook is about.

Kevin Tufts:
That’s right.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Kevin Tufts:
And I never thought that I would be working here. And now that I’ve been here almost three years, I could definitely see both sides of the coin, especially in terms of how the media positions things, but also rightfully so. We have a huge trust deficit that we’re continuing to try to improve. But it’s a hard mountain to climb, especially after the ways of layoffs that we’ve just seen. And some of the initiatives that the integrity teams have been cut. It’s tough, it takes time, and unfortunately things move faster than we can react to.

Maurice Cherry:
And some of those things are not even in Facebook’s control. Like the things that happen with workforce reduction and things, a ton of tech companies are doing that because they’re looking at the economy and seeing is the country going into a recession? So they’re trying to sort of react and pivot to what might happen. Like they’re trying to forecast the future here. So I think the longer a tech company and I’d say this is any company, not just tech companies, I think tech companies are specific in this case because they span so many different industries outside of just like software development or whatever. But the longer a tech company sticks around and almost feels like the more issues people will find with it one way or another, the companies are going to mess up. They’re going to inadvertently say something or inadvertently do something or maybe purposely say something or do something. Like the longer a tech company sticks around, it feels like…I’m a Math guy, so if I think of the duration of a tech company as like the limit of a function, it’s like as the limit approaches zero, or wherever the end of the company is, so to speak, things are going to happen. Things are just going to happen because social media influences culture and that influences technology. And so what might have been good five years ago is no longer good now. And if there’s one thing that’s going to be constant, it’s change. And I think when a tech company sticks around long enough, unfortunately they’re going to possibly come up on the short end of the stick when it relates to that.

Kevin Tufts:
Yeah, definitely. Absolutely.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay, enough pontificating on my part.

Kevin Tufts:
Love it.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s turn this back on you. Let’s learn more about you and about your journey as a designer in tech. I want to really take this back to the beginning here. So talk to me about where you grew up.

Kevin Tufts:
So I was born in Cleveland, Ohio, the town and city known for LeBron James and it’s river catching on fire in the 1970s and terrible sports. Right. So that’s where I was born and right around the time I turned like eight or nine is when I moved to Southern California. So I have a big group of large group of family in Ohio, and then I have a family based in Southern California between the L.A. and Orange County area.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. Were you exposed to a lot of design and technology growing up?

Kevin Tufts:
Yeah, so I was fortunate growing up that my dad, he was a computer guy, so I had a computer in the house growing up, which is completely rare, especially for the 1980s. So my dad, coming out of Vietnam, he was in a program that taught him how to work on mainframes. So when he got out of the military, he ended up landing a job in downtown Cleveland at one of the it’s really just kind of like a storage company, I guess you would say. I remember going to work with him and one computer took up the entire room and there’s these big reels and tapes. Yeah, I’ve always been exposed to tech stuff. And he was also like a big science fiction guy. And between having a computer in the house and then playing games at the arcade at the mall and just really watching science fiction flicks with him, there’s no surprise that I ended up doing what I’m doing today as for a career.

Maurice Cherry:
Now you went to Cleveland State University where you majored in design. I’m curious, before that, did you know that design was something that you really wanted to study?

Kevin Tufts:
Yeah. So by the time I went to Cleveland State and it was a total fluke because I moved to Ohio for other reasons. And while I was there, it looked like I was going to stay for a few years. I just come from Southern California and went to Ohio and got myself enrolled in university because I wanted to make sure I didn’t have any huge lapse in time to get my education out of the way. By that time, I had already been doing freelance things. Like, I was pretty much thinking I was going to be a print designer around that time. So the late 90s, probably around like ’96, ’97 is when I had thought, “okay, yeah, I’ll get into graphic design.” At the time, I didn’t even know it was called graphic design, but I was always the kid at high school doing the hip-hop flyers, a lot of flyers for open mics raves. So it was like the starter. The inkling of me being coming to designer was back in those days doing like bootleg flyers.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, those early print days back then were something else. Just the amount of creativity that you had, even though the medium itself was sort of fairly limited, I mean, that was a lot of fun.

Kevin Tufts:
Yeah. Do something like really weird on the computer and then print it out. And then I would take some markers and then do something on top of that so it’d be like this multimedia flyer thing. Cut stuff out, paste it on and then xerox it again like at Kinkos. All that kind of stuff. Using QuarkXpress.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, man. QuarkXpress. I just had someone on recently and we were sort of talking about those early days with like PageMaker and Quark and trying to figure all that stuff out because I remember Quark specifically because I used that along with PageMaker to design my high school newspaper. And the instruction manual that it came with could choke a horse. That thing was huge.

Kevin Tufts:
And you had no one to read that stuff.

Maurice Cherry:
Nobody was reading through all that. This is way before online documentation. I mean, this thing came with a brick of an instruction manual that you had to go through. And I’m like, I have to know all of this just to use the software. It almost didn’t feel like it was worth it.

Kevin Tufts:
Right. Oh, wow.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, while you were in college, you were also a working designer too, is that right?

Kevin Tufts:
Yeah. So I went to college, I was probably in my mid 20s, so basically I thought I had the world figured out because after high school, I didn’t go straight away to college. And that’s when a lot of my high school friends and people around me were just getting hired out of high school to just do HTML and build some wacky website. So I followed that path. And then when the.com bubble burst, it was a hefty smack in the face of reality. So that’s kind of like, what got me into Cleveland State. But by that time, yeah, I was working for E-Business Express, which is a web hosting company. So I was very fortunate. I was already kind of knowing my destiny, what I needed to do, where I wanted to go. And then I was also, like, in practice where other students in the class were just kind of like, figuring out what Illustrator is or Photoshop.

Maurice Cherry:
E-Business Express is like a quintessential 90s online business.

Kevin Tufts:
Right?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Exactly. What kind of stuff were you doing there?

Kevin Tufts:
I started off as a Linux server admin, so I wasn’t even doing, like, design stuff. But what I was doing that was valuable was because it’s a web hosting company is now I understand how things work behind the scenes, like how websites function. So I had that foundation of, like, I guess you would say webmaster at that time. That’s what it was considered. But yeah, just understanding how DNS works for www, your web domain, registering names, taking servers offline, like, really heady stuff. But I enjoyed it. It fulfilled, like, a side of me that I really like to tinker and explore things, and just being a Linux admin that it did it for me. But then it also gave me access to kind of like host my own little microsites and really just enable certain things on the server that people just don’t have access to. Right. Or if you’re designing a website, you’re certainly not thinking about uploading things on the command line and just really kind of Star Trek stuff at that time. That’s how I treated it.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, I mean, also the thing back then is a lot of that stuff around web hosting was very opaque. Like, you almost had to be a command line or a terminal coder to know how to really get around, because the graphical user interface, or the GUI, I guess what we called it back then, like, the GUIs, were just not super user-friendly to that point. So you did have to know maybe how to telnet or how to or use a Linux command in order to change the permissions on a directory. Like you couldn’t just click a button or something to make that happen.

Kevin Tufts:
That is a great point. Yeah, in the early days it wasn’t for everyone. You definitely had to have some technical prowess in order to upload a file or to get your web address, like get it all working, pull up a page.

Maurice Cherry:
I remember I was in high school in like the late 90s, and I remember even doing FTP stuff and being told at the time…I think maybe one of my teachers that told me was like, “oh, so you’re hacking, you’re a hacker now.” I’m like, it’s not hacking, it’s just FTP. But because they don’t see any graphics, all they see is just code. Because you know, this was like right before The Matrix or right, Matrix came out in ’99. I remember because I was a freshman in college, it came out in ’99 and yeah, all that stuff about FTP and oh my God.

Kevin Tufts:
Yeah, it was crazy, right? It’s like the only context the common man had was like some science fiction movie and then you think about it…it’s really like quite simple stuff.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, in hindsight, when you look back at it, it definitely is simple stuff. But yeah, during that time, just knowing how to do some of that sort of stuff, like people thought you were like a magician or something. You can make a website, you can put a picture of yourself online. How do you do that? And even what does online mean? Because the concept of being online in the 90s, like mid to late 90s, is such a different thing than now because social media didn’t exist. So for you, do you remember what that time was like for you?

Kevin Tufts:
Yeah, it was a whole new world and it felt like there wasn’t much online to look at. But I do remember like in the early days you had to work hard to make friends. So forums were real big, the IRC channels, so forums and chats, so AIM or Instant Messenger, Yahoo Chat. I remember all those different worlds and rooms and just whatever your interest was, you would just go out into that forum or chat, find your folks and then it was just kind of like not even instant replies, especially in the forum. You go in there, you chatted up, and then maybe 24 hours later you got a response. A lot of that stuff was amazing. I remember downloading my first video and it was a clip of a race car. It was like a drag strip. It was a 30 second clip. And I think it took like an hour and a half, maybe even two hours for that 30 second clip to download so that I could watch it over my 56K or whatever the modem was at the time. But yeah, it was just such a cool adventure and tinkering around with HTML and doing all the corny stuff like making the animated tickers. It was the Wild, Wild West, and I loved every bit of it. But it definitely took some patience. And you had to work hard for anything that you wanted to do on the Net.

Maurice Cherry:
Going back to E-Business Express for a minute, I mean, you worked there for almost eight years. When you look back at that time, what do you remember the most?

Kevin Tufts:
I remember that it really helped me understand how the web functions and everything that’s needed for standing up a business. Because E-Business Express also specialized in helping medium, like small to medium sized businesses get set up online to sell. So it also gave me experience working within the realm of e-commerce. And then while working there, I worked there for eight years. And part of that was because the first few years I spent doing Linux admin stuff before I moved into becoming a full-blown just web designer for the company. So I’d switch roles, and the back end of my tenure there is what gave me experience with design, working with clients. So working more in, like, an agency style format is where I cut my teeth, as I guess you’d say, a traditional Web designer before moving into product.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, let’s talk about that shift. After E-Business Express, you’ve kind of started your career as a product designer at DotNetNuke, which now is known as DNN. How can I explain DotNetNuke? It’s a content management system. I have minimal experience with it. I worked with it briefly at WebMD and just thinking, like, how could someone make software so convoluted and confusing?

Kevin Tufts:
Well summarized.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Tell me about your time there.

Kevin Tufts:
Yeah, so the company is very unique because, as you said to CMS, and we had a lot of big government contracts, and there’s some educational institutions as well. And it was I’m trying to think of how to compare it maybe like a behemoth compared to WordPress. WordPress was really easy to get up and running. But there is a large community for Net Newt and primarily ran on Windows. So then you’ve got the IIS crowd of folks that are into it. So you got the engineer side, a lot of developers that supported the community. And then you also have the support side because there’s a lot of folks that were spinning up businesses around, like installations and helping you get up and running. On DNN, we also had those services as well. And then for me, it was awesome because it was my first foray into product thinking and product design. So when I worked at the company, we had, I think, three designers. Two of them were in marketing, I believe. And it’s just one product design person that did everything. It was like the jacket of all trades, but it. Was really cool. This is the first time getting experience with a design system where at that time we had a sticker sheet. So working in that capacity and then also working on product features. So where I’ve kind of come from more or less building websites that are catering to businesses to sell online now I’ve moved into kind of like more enterprise software. And a lot of the nuances of working within these product spaces and different product features and how to plan accordingly and doing a light amount of user research to the community, things like that. So kind of like an entry level crash course into product design.

Maurice Cherry:
Now. Was it a big shift from E-Business Express? I mean, you’re going from this web hosting environment where you said you were in the back half of your time there doing design to now focusing on product, which I feel like during that time, if we’re talking like, the early 2010s, product was still kind of a new ish sort of term in a way. Did you know what a product designer was when you started there?

Kevin Tufts:
No, because I think around that time also, we were still seeing on job listings, UI/UX. We were seeing like a myriad of job titles that meant the same thing, like visual designer or UI/UX and product designer. So when I moved out to the Bay Area, I had to kind of wrap my head around like, okay, I’m seeing these titles, but the job description is just a product design role interaction designer even. And then the description would be nothing more than just, like, a product design role. So, yeah, it took a while to kind of figure out what the companies were looking for. And then also, what did that mean? Like, what are the job functions that are necessary for me to be successful?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, there was definitely a shift in the industry right around that time where web designers, graphic designers, visual designers just suddenly started becoming product designer, UX designer. And, I mean, that’s something even I’ve encountered now. Like, if I tell people I’m a designer, I feel like nine times out of ten, they’re going to think that means a UX designer. And I’m like, oh, actually, I haven’t done UX design. Maybe not in the way that they’re thinking it, but I feel like that shift just kind of happened. Was that something that you noticed also?

Kevin Tufts:
Yeah, I did notice. It naturally sorted itself out because prior to that, I guess in our era, we kind of came up around the time where you’re expected to know all these different things. You had to be a visual designer. Also, Flash was pretty big too, so it’s like you had to know Flash and then programming languages, right? There are all these things. And I was also a front end developer at E-Business Express, so I did a lot of the integration work as well. And when I came to the Bay Area. I still had that mindset that I had to be a jack of [all] trades and know all these things. And then I was noticing that there are actually specialized roles now. Like, no longer are we living in a day and age where they’re expecting you to be a webmaster. Like, I hated that term and seeing that, it’s like you have to know Java. JavaScript, there was all these back end languages that were on our job description roles. When you just want to use Photoshop.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. When I worked at AT&T as a designer, I think my title was just web designer. But we were doing web design, we were doing graphic design, we were doing front end design because we had to, of course, actually build the whole thing from scratch. And this was at the time when layout switched from tables to CSS. So you had to learn that with all the different cross browser compatibility, especially with IE6. And yeah, we had to know like, a little bit of Flash. Actually we used…oh my God, do you remember Swish? Yeah, Swish was like “Flash Lite”, I guess. It wasn’t made by Macromedia, which Adobe ended up buying, but it was a totally different company called Swish, and it was a more, I guess, sort of user-friendly interface to make Flash animation. But we had to know Flash. We had to know a little bit of Java, and I mean, like actual Java, not JavaScript. Ironically, we didn’t have to know JavaScript, but we had to know Java because we would do these web audio applet things and so we had to know how to troubleshoot the applet. So this is one position, graphic design, web design, Flash, Java, and you’re also sometimes doing some debugging of other people’s stuff. It was a lot into one particular title, and I feel like now that’s five different jobs at a company. After your time at DotNetNuke, you worked for a lot of other companies out in the Bay Area. You worked for — I’m listing off here — Workday, eBay, SendGrid, Twilio. And before Facebook, you were at Lyft for a short period of time. When you look back at those positions collectively, like, what stands out to you? Do you remember any particular things?

Kevin Tufts:
Yeah, I remember at DNN had an amazing time there and I felt like that was the kickstarter to my official tech career in the Bay and just getting my feet wet with engineering teams because we had a team of roughly like 100 engineers or so. And so that was the first time going from like a small web shop where there’s three developers and they’re within arm’s reach, to now I’ve got to talk to engineering leads and have these presentation reviews. So that was kind of like the world that I was living in at DNN.

And then when I moved over to Workday, that was my experience into the world of enterprise software and really how to work within the confines of a design system. Coincidentally enough, I worked on the internal tools team, so that was really unique to be on the team that has to essentially vet and take in requests from other product areas, different components that may need to be built or reviewed to see if there’s any efficacy to having engine spin up resources to bring to life. And then also working across different time zones. So Workday was amazing. And having to work with engineering teams in Ireland, and I’ve also got a couple of trips to Europe out of that as well. So can’t complain with that. The design culture at Workday at the time was growing, so design hadn’t been around at Workday for too long before I got there. I think maybe like a couple of years at the most. So we had a young but super talented design team that was working at Workday at that time, research, I want to call that out as well. So we did have a few research partners that were at Workday. So that was my first time interacting with research, other than me standing up some guerrilla survey or just doing kind of like personal research. My own living from Workday.

So I left Workday and went to eBay. And eBay was awesome because I met some incredible people and I’m still friends with a lot of them to this day. eBay was just a special time in my career where I was able to again, work at a massive company, work on different product spaces. And also, I’m an avid eBay user, so I came in with some personal knowledge of how the product works because some people that work at eBay, they don’t necessarily use the product. I’d say the same thing is probably like for a meta as well, right? Which probably is problematic. But I actually used the thing that I worked on, so that was really cool. Several opportunities to travel throughout Europe, mostly Germany, and eBay was close to home, so I didn’t have that long commute, like a lot of folks in the Bay Area. So that fulfilled my mood, was incredible back then.

And then transitioning from eBay, this is where things get interesting. So I ended up at a company called SendGrid. And SendGrid is kind of like an API communications company, more around the email marketing space. Really powerful tool. A lot of companies use it today. It’s kind of like the rival to Mailchimp for anyone that’s not familiar with SendGrid. So if you know Mailchimp, that’s basically what SendGrid is. And SendGrid was acquired by a company called Twilio. So that’s how I ended up at Twilio — through an acquisition.

When the acquisition took place, SendGrid had a very mature, young, but mature design organization, and Twilio was engineering centric, so they really did not have design. And I think literally there may have been like four designers, four product designers there at the time of the acquisition. Funny story. I’d actually interviewed with Twilio before the acquisition, maybe like a half a year prior to that, and got an offer. Decided that wasn’t quite where I wanted to be in my career because I wanted to go somewhere that had a mature design organization and I didn’t want to go somewhere where it’s just you kind of have to fight for your seat at the table. So I’ve seen some things at that time during the interview process that the folks were incredible, they were great, but I’m like, maybe I’ll pass. So I ended up going to SendGrid and I kid you not, on my first day, my first day in the office with my team and our first team meeting, we got an announcement to basically shut our laptops and we need to receive some news. And the news was that we had been acquired by Twilio. So the company I ran from was the company that ended up acquiring. They got me anyway, so I was the most expensive hire ever.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Kevin Tufts:
Yeah. So to wrap things up, Twilio was just an interesting time. PDs were basically working across like anywhere from 4:00-9:00 p.m. At a time. I think I had eight that I was reporting to. So it was pretty chaotic, but at least you were shipping work like, daily. We didn’t have enough design resources. And also it was challenging because I mentioned that Syngra had a mature design culture and organization. So when we came in with a lot of our process oriented things and checkpoints with design briefs, which is necessary, especially in large, fast moving companies, we were trying to get the company to slow down so that we can improve the quality versus just kind of like PM coming up with an idea and ends just building it. And if it doesn’t work, oh well. We wanted to kind of move away from that mantra and more towards being design led. So tiny bit of friction around there, but ultimately they’re getting to where they need to be. And Lyft, I know I’ve done such a tour of duty here in the Bay Area.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I was going to say.

Kevin Tufts:
Finally — it’s going to stop now. But Lyft, I would say Lyft was a cherry on top for my career. It fulfilled so many things that I had been looking for, where I want to move fast, ship quality work, have a mature design organization, and a mature design system. Right? You don’t ever have to worry about what’s real, what’s not real, what’s in flight. Our design systems team at Lyft, product teams, everyone was just incredible to work with. And so I worked on the community safety team. My short stint at Lyft and the team that I worked on was unique because we got to wedge ourselves in between different product spaces without actually being a full-fledged member of the team. So I got to work on the Driver app and the Rider app. And then there’s some kind of like, unique things around the rental car space, which is Fleet, so there’s a lot of interesting work. And because it wasn’t a massive company, you could move fast. There was a researcher embedded on my team, so it was almost like bi-weekly we were testing things, and I just loved it. So I didn’t have to worry about the design system. Inevitably, when you’re working on the thing, sometimes you’re not working with a system that’s flexible enough to adhere to your needs and what you’re trying to solve. But while working with Lyft, I didn’t have to worry about all that. I just worried about the experience itself and everything else just fell into place.

But the pandemic is what got me to Meta. So when the pandemic hit and no one was going anywhere, no one’s driving, no one’s riding, I’m watching my colleagues, like almost weekly, like different goodbye emails that are going out. And it was a wild place to be in the year that everything seemed to have melted down. So out of self-preservation, and a need for not legit thinking the company was going to go over, I ended up making the jump over to Meta.

So I’ll stop there. And that’s the whole transition to where I am today.

Maurice Cherry:
No, like you said, that is quite a tour of duty. One question I think that really stands out among all of that is, like, how have you seen product design change over the years? I imagine from company to company, it’s probably fairly similar because you’re working on software products. I guess you could say Lyft is software, but it’s transportation as well. But how have you seen product design change over the years since you first started?

Kevin Tufts:
The tooling. I would definitely say, in terms of ease of collaboration, that is one of the biggest things that I’ve seen change. And then the tooling itself. So now that we’ve got these robust prototyping tools, it’s so much easier to demonstrate the design and the experience that you’re working on without having to know some hardcore programming languages. Like, back in the day, it was like you had to know JavaScript or jQuery just to maybe animate a dropdown, right? Or you may have had some ideas around something fancy that you wanted to do, maybe you wanted to have a side drawer appear on a website. But in order to do those things, you had to know a programming language or just mock it up in After Effects, which is also tedious. So I would say just the sheer volume of tools in the collaboration space and prototyping is just incredible.

Maurice Cherry:
There’s another podcast that I produce — I’m not going to mention the name of it — but there’s another show that I produce, and one of the things that we have been exploring through that that I feel like is also relevant to our conversation is like, just how much the browser has become a tool in and of itself. Like, the browser used to just be about presentation. You made a website or something like that, you put it online, whatever. But now, as the browsers have gotten savvier, as different frameworks have been created and such, the browser itself is such a tool to the point where there are services now that only exist in a browser. They don’t exist as standalone software, like an executable file or something like that. Like Figma, you can do full fledged graphic design all within your browser. And like, ten years ago, that would have almost been unheard of.

Kevin Tufts:
It is mind blowing to do that in a browser. Like, through Figma, you’ve got these other tools like Webflow, and trying to think of some other ones that are out there canva I mean, it’s just totally jealous of the new designers, by the way. Every time these tools come out and I have to interact with them, and I’m just like, wow, I really couldn’t use this back in the day when I had maybe 100 buttons that I need to make a change on it. I had to go touch every hundred, you know, component.

Maurice Cherry:
Listen…modern designers will never know the pain of cross-browser compatibility. They will never understand how much of a pain in the ass it was to try to get one design to look the same across different versions of Internet Explorer and Firefox and Opera. Oh, my God.

Kevin Tufts:
Safari. Safari behavioral things. Yeah. [Internet Explorer] 6 through 8 were probably like the nightmares. Six and seven, for sure.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, for a while. I know. There was, like, a whole cottage industry around basically browser emulators. Because if you were on Windows, of course you couldn’t really use Safari. You’d have to use I mean, the Windows version of Safari you could use, but it didn’t even render the same between Windows and Mac. And so you had this software that you’d use that could hopefully reliably look the same between everywhere, and you had these little HTML shivs you had to do to make certain properties work. It was man, it was a jungle out there. It’s only like ten or so years ago. It was wild. Yeah.

Kevin Tufts:
Not that long ago, when I was at E-Business Express, we bought a dedicated iMac for that very reason, so that we could run all the browsers on the Mac to see how they were responding as well. It’s like, I don’t miss those days, but I am so grateful that I got to experience it.

Maurice Cherry:
Right? No, absolutely. Because, I mean, I think there are certain skills, I think, that you build because of that, like being able to really debug and even to sort of refactorize your own code that you’re doing, because you know that if you do it this other way, it’s going to look bad in this browser. So now you sort of learn all these little eccentricities and stuff like that. So now things are pretty standardized between the browser, I feel like, and I haven’t done front-end in a while, but I feel like things are pretty standardized now between the modern browsers like Edge, Safari, Chrome, Firefox are pretty much going to render things pretty much the same.

Kevin Tufts:
Yes. And I think a lot of it’s like the proliferation of frameworks like the CSS frameworks have helped out with the consistency as well. Right. The browsers have the support built in for a lot of the neat CSS tricks that you can do. But then also a lot of people have adopted these frameworks that have that stuff built in as well. So it just really speeds up the design and development process. And I could say, like, for people that are front end developers and they’ve moved over to just being a designer, it’s always been easier to communicate with your engine partners too. So when you need to go into engineering meetings as well, it’s always refreshing to communicate in their language as much as you can. Right. So it helps you out that way as well, career wise.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, you’ve said that there’s no better time to be a designer than now, and I feel like we may have kind of talked about that a little bit now, just with tooling, but expand on that for me. Expand on that thought.

Kevin Tufts:
Yeah. So let’s say FigJam, the collaboration tool within Figma. It has really opened up my world where I could send people just a design, like an early design. They can go in there, they can comment, or we can comment, live the collaboration aspect, especially in the remote world. Obviously we’re not all in the same space, but it has been world-changing to get early buy in through Figma, through sharing a link and even doing research. The tooling for research has been a lot better over the years. The last ten years, it’s improved greatly. And so speaking to that, yeah, I’m all about collaboration tools because we have to do a lot of virtual brainstorm sessions or design sprints. And without having that mechanism, I’m not sure where we would have been today. We could have probably been doing design sprint in Google Sheets or something like that, right? Which would be terrible. That has just been world changing for me in terms of just building more momentum and getting buy-in.

But also with prototyping. I’m a big fan of prototyping and I do remember the days of struggling for weeks and weeks through using JavaScript and jQuery to do something relatively simple or maybe I had an idea that’s kind of elaborate but do not have the technical skills to pull it off. So prototyping in Figma, Origami and some of the other tools that are out in the market today. It’s like you spend maybe an hour or two going over some tutorials and then all of a sudden you’re off to the races, making a really immersive, native-feeling prototype that you can view on your phone and even share it. So that’s why I kind of like saying, I’m so jealous of all the folks that are becoming designers now because they’ll never know the pain of taking days or even weeks to do something really simple and sometimes it just ends up being like a throwaway thing.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I didn’t even touch on mobile. But you’re like, absolutely right about that. I mean, mobile is another thing where a bunch of different environments across different smartphones are going to render things differently. That’s a whole other part I didn’t even consider. I’d say also just education back in the day a lot. I mean, this stuff was really online. We were all just sort of reverse engineering and looking at View Source code and trying to figure stuff out. And there were books that came along eventually because some people might have been a little bit ahead of the curve, but you couldn’t really go to school for this. And now you have like, Treehouse and you’ve got General Assembly and there’s no short share skillshare. There’s YouTube videos. There’s so much stuff now around education that just did not exist when we were trying to learn design back then. Especially if you were self taught. Like, if you were self taught, you really were self taught because there were not even just these educational platforms to help you to figure this stuff out. You really were doing a lot of trial and error.

Kevin Tufts:
Yeah, great point. I don’t know how I could even forget that because that was a huge part of my life and career and I felt like I took a long road to get to where I am because of that fact. Back in those days, there were very few tutorials online. You could find some Illustrator tutorials. Shockwave. I’m trying to think of some other Macromedia products. That ColdFusion. Fireworks. Yeah, you could find some really remedial tutorials out there, but that was about it. And so those early days, I had to go to a bookstore and look at design magazines. I think Computer Arts was a godsend coming from publishing [in] the UK. But yeah, that was it. It’s like you go to a bookstore and you get all these design books and then I would get some programming books just to see what’s going on. But like you said, maybe you found a website that was cool and you got to go view Source and like, okay, what’s going on here? And then you try to break it down.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Kevin Tufts:
So, yeah, all this stuff that we have, like, access to education and just these online schools and I love it. I’m here for it.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I remember back in the day I used what was it called? Dynamic Drive. Do you remember Dynamic Drive?

Kevin Tufts:
No.

Maurice Cherry:
So Dynamic Drive was the site that basically just had code snippets. Like, they didn’t really give tutorials. They kind of told you how to implement it, but say you wanted to make it so someone couldn’t right click on your website. Right? Yeah. You could go to Dynamic Drive and find the code. Snippet copy it, copy it, paste it between the head tags, and then all these different no one could right click. Yeah, they really tell you how it worked. You just were like, oh, this can do this. There was a lot of trust, I’ll put it that way, that you weren’t putting something malicious in your site. You would just, oh, copy, paste that and…oh, God, what’s the other one I used to use a lot that was sort of more educational based that’s still around now called…W3Schools. Yeah, that’s right. W3Schools. And I remember because I was also teaching design at the time, this was like, what was this, 2011, 2012, maybe? And I remember telling my students, like, don’t use W3Schools. They call themselves W3Schools because it was www. But I think folks also confused it with the W3C, which is the Worldwide Web Consortium. And I was a member of their Web Education group. And they would tell us, do not tell people to use W3Schools. It is not sanctioned by us. It is not our thing. But it was also still teaching people. It was teaching me how to use some of this stuff. But I would have to tell my students, don’t use W3Schools. Think of it as a reference, but don’t just copy and paste stuff from W3Schools and then turn it in as homework, because I’m going to know that you did that, because I do that, so don’t do that.

Kevin Tufts:
Oh, my goodness, man. Yes. Absolutely. We said dynamic drive. I wasn’t even like it didn’t even ring a bell. But I remember using them to get a script, to do the animated cursor. It had all the types of weird, just weird things. It was almost like the dollar store for scripts.

Maurice Cherry:
Not the dollar store! That’s a very accurate piece of comparison there. Back when HTML…I think it was called DHTML back then. Yeah. Oh, man, what a time. What a time.

Kevin Tufts:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
What advice would you give to someone out there who’s they’re hearing your story, they want to follow in your footsteps. What advice would you give them?

Kevin Tufts:
You know, as you’re trying to figure out what aspect of design you may want to focus in? Experiment, try it all. And as we were just talking about, there’s so many resources online where you don’t even have to pay a penny to try something out, right. But really just be curious on how things are done, whether it’s processes related to product design or maybe how to run a design sprint. There’s so much, and you’ll kind of eventually find your way. Some people generally know, like, hey, I’m not a great visual designer, but they want to get more into the UX of things. Right. And that’s great too. So it’s all about kind of like, figuring out your career path and what your passions are, what your strong suits are.

For me, I love product design, but I’m also really heavily into micro-animation, so I lean towards these prototyping tools. But yeah, it’s like, sky’s the limit. It’s kind of like the advice that I would give them informal training. Like, if you are able to get into a good school that has a great product design program, that is awesome. I know Carnegie Mellon has one. Tufts University has, like, an HCI class. I think most big universities these days probably have some facet of, like, a product design class, but then don’t also have to go to a giant university for this type of an education. Like we already mentioned, it’s all right there online. Just use the resources that are available to you.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, I noticed that the URL to your website is pathstraightforward.com. What does “path straight forward” mean to you, like, in terms of your life and your career?

Kevin Tufts:
Yeah. So I was trying to have a domain name that sounded relatively cool. And at first, I’m like, this is not going to have any type of esoteric meaning or anything, but really, it just summarizes the journey that I took in order to get to where I am today. Because it was really long. It was hard, but I knew that I had a plan, and I just kind of stayed focused on the journey and the path moving forward, and that’s kind of what’s got me here. And I still have a long way to go.

Maurice Cherry:
Where do you see yourself in the next five years? I mean, you’ve mentioned this kind of tour of duty that you’ve had around the bay at these different companies and such. What does the future look like for you?

Kevin Tufts:
So there’s a couple of things. I think I want to start to move more towards design systems because I really do enjoy working with my design systems partners. And so over the years, I’ve had a number of contributions to different systems that are available. But between that and mentorship becoming, like, having a stronger influence in mentoring younger designers, I mentioned that I was involved in a program here in Oakland, but it’s really impactful when people can have someone that they can talk to and get directional advice for their career. So I want to have more of a stronger influence in mentorship circles.

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

Kevin Tufts:
Yes, you can reach out to me on LinkedIn. So it’s LinkedIn.com, and it’s my first and last name, Kevin Tufts. So feel free to connect with me. I am always willing to have a coffee chat with anyone that’s curious about my background or just really general questions about design and my website since I’ve been employed for so long. I’ve kind of taken down a lot of the work there, but also there are some social links in there. You can reach out to me on my website and contact me directly.

Maurice Cherry:
All right, sounds good. Kevin Tufts, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. I mentioned this prior to us recording. We have a mutual colleague, Kim Hutchinson. Now she was Kim Williams when I first interviewed her, but Kim sang about your praises. She was like, “you got to get Kevin on the show. He’s such a cool guy. He’s such a good guy.” And I can tell just from this conversation, like, she’s 100% right. You’re down to earth. You know your stuff. And anybody that I talk to that has been around since the early days of the web that has built stuff from scratch is, like, automatically cool with me because, you know, the trenches that we’ve had to go through to still be…I would even say relevant. I want to say that. But to go through the trenches, to still be working and doing what we do now after 20 years is amazing. And I think you certainly built a fantastic career for yourself, and I’m really looking forward to seeing what you do along with the mentoring track and everything.

Maurice Cherry:
So thank you for coming on the show.

Maurice Cherry:
I appreciate it.

Kevin Tufts:
Maurice, thank you. And I really appreciate you having me on the show. And it is awesome that you’ve got a platform that you can expose different types of people from various backgrounds. So, yeah, man, kudos. I appreciate it.

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.

Whitney Robinson

Maternal healthcare has always been in a precarious place here in the United States, but thanks to this week’s guest, Whitney Robinson, we just might be on our way to solving it in our lifetime. She brings her skills as a product designer and builder of things — as well as a mom — to help transform maternal health for Black women.

Our conversation began with a look at her current project, The Renée, and we talked about how work and life have changed for her over the past couple of years. She also spoke about growing up in North Carolina and attending Duke University, turning side gigs into full-time work, and shared how she measures success at this stage of her life. Whitney is a prime example of how you too can use your skills for the greater good!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Whitney Robinson:
Hi, I’m Whitney Robinson. I’m a product manager/designer of things.

Maurice Cherry:
How has the year been going for you so far?

Whitney Robinson:
I’m struggling a little bit with managing homeschooling. I have four kids. Projects… I know. And they’re homeschooled. I’m a new homeschooling parent. And then the things that we heard about in the news. Like the power dynamics that have shifted in homes as women and have become more of caretakers. And so it’s just a lot and trying not to be a statistic and all that kind of stuff. So I do feel like there’s been quite a bit of pushing for me this year. But I will say too, that I’ve definitely, this has been the year that I’ve realized I’m doing too much, and how do I do less, and doing less is okay. Yeah. So the year has been just kind of push and pull and just kind of realizing what I need to let go, where I need to just let the ebb and flow of life do its thing.

Maurice Cherry:
How is that process going, like learning to let go?

Whitney Robinson:
I raised by baby boomers, you don’t let go. You keep pushing, you keep going, you keep doing it. You have to have all the grades and the check marks. And so the letting go has been really hard, but I’m thinking more about, I’m thinking about what is my impression on my children. What does that look like? And I want them to let stuff go. I’m telling them all the time, just let it go. And so it feels real hypocritical when I realize, but I’m all over here and I’m stressed or I’m trying not to be stressed because I am holding on to this little bit of money for this one thing. Then I’m like, “Just let that go. It’ll free your mind up to do all the other things you do.” Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
I can tell it’s a struggle. I mean, in general, I think it’s a struggle for a lot of people, but from your position, I can see also how it’s definitely a struggle when you have sort of homeschooling on top of that too.

Whitney Robinson:
Yeah. And I’m learning that too. And there’s a reason why, there’s so many shifts happening right now, especially around our culture as people, and even the homeschooling. I come from people who are like, your kids, aren’t going to learn … A school building is the best place for them. And I’m kind of countering that. Like, oh, what does that mean? I can’t educate my kids or I have to assume that it has to be someone else? And I do see both sides, but I’m mirroring, I’m doing a lot of mirroring and I’m just … Anyway, this has been a very hyper intensive inner inspection time for me.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. If you don’t mind me asking, how old are your children?

Whitney Robinson:
Yeah, there is that. So eight, seven, five and two.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, wow.

Whitney Robinson:
Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s a dynamic range. I mean, you’ve got certainly the oldest, that would be, I guess, let’s see. Eight, you’re kind of fourth grade I think, something like that.

Whitney Robinson:
Third. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Third, fourth grade.

Whitney Robinson:
Homeschooling them means grades are a thing, but you are teaching them higher levels because you’re one on one so much. But I think if they were in a school system, it’d be third grade, second grade, kindergarten and preschool, or not even, maybe daycare or something.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Whitney Robinson:
Yeah. It’s a thing.

Maurice Cherry:
Do you have any other big plans you’re trying to accomplish this year?

Whitney Robinson:
So I’m new to the West End and it’s the Blackest place I’ve … Well, Durham was Black, but that’s not Black anymore. That’s where I’m from. That’s where I’m coming from. I’ve been in Durham most of my life, but this is probably the Blackest place I’ve lived in a very long time. So moving here was one big move. And then the next thing I want to do, I mean, I’m in tech and I just feel like I need to have a super opposite outlet. And so I’ve been asking around for a space to rent to have a plant shop with knick-knacks from estate sales of Black home where people come, sit, chill and just be. No airs. It just feels good. Smells good. That kind of vibe. That’s what I’m trying to do. I would love to do it in the West End if possible. So we’ll see.

Maurice Cherry:
The West End is, oh God, the West End is such an interesting neighborhood in Atlanta. One, just because of the history. But it’s also one of the few neighborhoods that hasn’t been, I guess, completely gentrified yet.

Whitney Robinson:
That’s what I hear.

Maurice Cherry:
When you think of like Cabbagetown, Reynoldstown, especially if you’re thinking Bankhead, which is now all, quote unquote, west midtown for the most part, the West End has largely managed to keep its, I want to say Blackness, but we’ll just say it’s managed to keep its idiosyncrasies. There’re certain things about the neighborhood, certainly, which I think in the next five years will change. I think the mall is probably going to be the biggest change. I think it’s already been bought out by developers or something, but I feel like that’s going to be the next. Once the mall changes, that’s going to change the whole neighborhood. Because I remember living in the West End when they put those condos up on, well, now it’s called Lowry, but it used to be called Ashby, but they put these big, huge condos up, I want to say maybe about 15 years ago or something.
And I remember when they first went up and I was like, “There is nobody that’s going to pay $200,000 to live in the West End. That is ridiculous. That will never happen.” And people moved there, which surprised me because I’m like, that CVS wasn’t even there. There was nothing there. I think the CVS came when the condos came, but I was like, “There’s what? Hong Kong City.” There used to be a place on the corner called Gut Busters. I think Gut Busters then became something else. Now it’s Mangos. Whatever. Nothing on that corner seems to live very long. Mangos for some reason seems to be an outlier. But there’s nothing about that downtown West End area that really screams high commerce, right?

Whitney Robinson:
Right.

Maurice Cherry:
Especially not that would support a kind of, quote unqoute, live, work, play condo space that was built there. And I remember they had all these little shops right there in the lobby and then I just saw them all close down and I just saw all the prices going lower and lower, and lower. I don’t know who lives over there now, but I feel like the West End has largely kind of kept most of the neighborhood pretty Black. Although I think if you go maybe two or three streets back, like People Street back there, there’s $500,000 houses back there. It’s wild.

Whitney Robinson:
So the houses on, and again, I’m new. So I’ve learned that the houses on People Street are kind of highly sought after and being right here at the park, we’ve noticed just the change in a year. It’s a weird conversation too, because we also, I use this lightly, but we are changing the pricing of the houses even around us because we bought into the neighborhood when things are kind of high. But what we’ve heard is that too people were like, “Oh you all are Black. Oh thank God.” It’s been like, okay, good. People won’t get mad at us because we know that us moving in, that change something. We are aware of that.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. What are your work days kind of looking like right now?

Whitney Robinson:
I’m a flower child. So I kind of do things how they come at me. I can pivot very quickly. And that’s what my work days look like. Because the kids are here, I tend to do some instruction with them until about noon. And then I will jump on a call or two. I have some consulting clients right now. And so I will work with them. I’ll do some of my side projects, but the kids are always in the mix. So if people are like, “What’s going on in the background?” It’s, “Hey, I’m homeschooling. I have kids around me constantly.” So my workdays have really forced me to be, it’s like I’m not in a cubicle and I’m not in a very quiet space. So has really forced me to be very focused in those moments that I have quiet time. But also teaching my kids to be respectful of other people doing stuff. You can’t just run around and rip and run all day.
So often while I’m working too, I’m watching them from my window because they’re outside a lot. And so like, “Okay, you all go outside.” So I’m very much a hybrid pivoting type person. I’m moving around. I don’t have one place I sit in. I’m on the front porch. I’m in the yard taking meetings. I’m all over the place. But not in a bad way. It actually really works for me. And I try to shut down by the time I pick the kids up from orchestra. And so by then it’s like, whatever. And then at night sometimes I’ll do a little bit of work, but I try to really just, I try to shut my brain down.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I think that that skill of being that flexible is something we’ve all really picked up. I mean, one, during the pandemic because of remote work, but we’ve also just had to pick it up because now we have to do so many things from one place. Like home is now the office, is now the gym, is now the schoolhouse, is now a number of different things. So it sounds like that’s a skill though that you’re kind of acutely aware of and you’re able to tap into it.

Whitney Robinson:
It’s one of the skills that I sell in my consulting. I mean, who better than to do disaster reliefs on the drop of a dime than someone like me. I can think through a lot of things coming at me at once. And I really enjoy that though. If it was too buttoned up, it would feel boring to me.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s talk about The Renée. Tell me about The Renée.

Whitney Robinson:
I love The Renée. Not just because it’s mine, but because it’s solving a really big juicy problem in the world. We talk about tech. There are so many first world problems in tech. And so The Renée really centered around, and it started as an experiment. Why are we still having conversations around Black maternal mortality? Really I’d had four kids at that point and just became a [inaudible 00:12:50], had no idea. And so at the top of 2019, I said, “I’m a product manager. I know how to solve things quickly. So why aren’t we doing the same in maternal health?” To me, it just felt real ashy. What’s going on? Are people just talking about it to then move on until it becomes hot topic again? So anyway, what I would typically do with my team, I did a bit of, I guess, lack of a better term, user experience research.
I went to people who were directly connected to the problem and I started hosting jam sessions. And so everyone in the room for the most part identified as, I mean, you had to be Black to get in the room, but identified as Black women who had experienced pregnancy some way, somehow, whatever that is. Five to seven people. And really it was, I would facilitate a co-design session. People would share stories, collaboratively they would identify pain points, joy points, solve them, create for them. I mean, absolutely beautiful. So that gave me goosebumps for many reasons because that first one which happened in Durham was not what I thought it would be. I thought, “Oh, something very tech enabled is going to come out of this.” But actually what came out of it was very spiritual and human. And so I stepped away from that like, “I bet the system ain’t seeing us at all, if this is the type of solutions that we want.” Right?

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm.

Whitney Robinson:
And so The Renée just became this tour of jam sessions. I don’t go into a place unless I’m invited. Not because I’m so cool, but because I didn’t want it to feel like this outside reaching in approach to looking or having this conversation with locals. Like, oh, here’s this person from Durham coming to tell us what we need to do. I didn’t want it to be that way. So everything about The Renée and the jam sessions have been, I guess, lack of a better term, asset informed. We understand trauma is in this space. So everything looks and feels good. So we wouldn’t host them in a conference room. It had to be a vibey spot. It could be in someone’s house. Everything is very lean and the overhead is very low. But the impact of these jam sessions were very actionable insight into what Black women were experiencing and asking for.
So I went around the country doing this right before the pandemic. I had a queue, there was some press. Fast Company wrote about, it said something like, who is this UX girl or UX person, I forget what they wrote, having hackathons within maternal health. And then that’s when my project blew up. And so I had a queue of maybe 16 places. We could go into country. We could go in towns. We could go in cities. People were just saying, “Hey, I just want you to come to Milwaukee.” And so it goes on the list. Sure. And so we went around doing those. Pandemic, obviously ended it. So I did a few virtual ones. My last really, well, the one that most people probably know is I did one with Stacey Abrams.
And then kind of decided that I definitely hit a point of saturation. Meaning, I was just hearing the same thing over and over again. And then it became, what is The Renée? Which is what you’re asking me. So I decided, we operate as this lab, almost research and development. We have our ear to our people. We know how to listen and facilitate these kind of spaces, but we can also create what they’re asking for. We can make products or services, or experiences, art installations. We can do whatever for what people are asking for. And so that’s The Renée. It’s kind of a vibe.

Maurice Cherry:
I love that you describe it like that. I mean, first of all, if there’s anyone that knows how to make a way out of no way, out of any way, it’s Black women. Point blank period. And I love that you refer to The Renée as a lab. It’s a space for discovery, for experimentation, for fleshing out hypotheses and things like this. You’re not explicitly calling it a company or something that may have specific deliverables. I love that it’s a lab. It’s a place to experiment.

Whitney Robinson:
Absolutely. And we don’t talk disparate. I know I mentioned disparities, but that was how I kind of came to like, “Whoa, this is a problem.” But we don’t do like, oh, you all going to just die. We hear that so much. That is actually a tool that can be used against us. That goes into, again, why we don’t, everything we do feels … I tell people if you think about the Soul Train and what it did for our people in its time, that’s what I want The Renée to be. Is that people can look to us as this kind of cultural boom within maternal health, because maternal health sounds boring. It doesn’t sound sexy at all.
But what if The Renée has an impacts like Soul Train and kind of creates these offsprings all over the country? There were many Soul Trains, even in my hometown. And it’s just putting out Black culture in maternal health. And that’s why I get goose bumps when I talk about this because I don’t know everything. And even though I’m a mother of four, I’ve learned very quickly that my experience, I’ve had home births, my experience is very unique to me. And watching people design and experience with strangers, shows why it’s important for Black folks to be at the helm of their healthcare. Is just, is a different vibe than traditional healthcare or the system.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm. No, absolutely. I mean, and I’m speaking broadly here for Black people in the United States. I imagine this may be different in other countries where listers might be at. But here in the US, I mean, Black people do kind of have this mistrust of the medical system of healthcare. Whether you think about something like Henrietta Lacks or you think about, honestly, even Serena Williams. We’re talking right around the time where she’s speaking of retiring and she’s been very public about the issues that she’s had to go through with her health, with having her daughter and everything. And social media has also really helped to elevate a lot of experiences of Black women, Black people in general, but Black women specifically around healthcare issues and how we are different, Black women are different, Black people are different. Even now to the point where you’re just starting to see Black medical illustrations. It’s 2022.

Whitney Robinson:
That’s what I’m saying. And this is a crazy laugh. Not a funny. For me, I have skin in the game. [inaudible 00:20:08] children that I can either say, “Oh well pray and I hope that the system you enter into will be better.” Now, I’m a believer in prayer. But I mean, I can’t sit and I personally, Whitney, I believe this is connected to my life’s work. I feel very uncomfortable waiting or hoping that someone else will fix this thing. And it’s also why I say to people, I’m not interested in dismantling what’s out there right now. Because even if I was told, hey, let’s say, I don’t know. The president was like, “Whitney, you’re now over healthcare. Change it.” My feedback would be, “Yeah. But it’s still going to have essence of the experimentation on my people.” The conversations we’re having right now are because the system was absolutely designed to do what it’s doing.
And that’s why it’s working the way it’s working. I would love, Black people can, and I’ve seen it, design their own, quote unquote, system. And I don’t even know if we know what that looks like, because it feels like it would be a daunting task. But I have seen it happen in small spaces. I mean, no oversight, no red tape. Oh, Whitney, we need grants. None of that. Give good food. Make people feel welcome, warm, see them as human and give them space to share. You’d be amazed at the commonalities from one part of the US to the other. It’s so hard to talk about without being in it and watching it happen to say, wow, this is the connectedness of Black folks. It’s really beautiful.

Maurice Cherry:
How has The Renée changed since you founded it? You mentioned you’ve shifted to these virtual sessions, but are there other ways that it’s changed?

Whitney Robinson:
Yeah. So I actually, like I said, it was just an experiment to see what would happen. There have been so many iterations of it. So the jam sessions led to, I created a web application using no-code tools because who has the time. One of the things I heard a lot was support. Support how, no matter where I birth, how I birth. If we can feel supported, it’s a game changer. And so I learned from all of these conversations what a good support system looks like. So we put our web application out in the world for people to use to answer what Black women were asking for. I want to feel supported and I want to know how to build good support systems. Another thing that has changed, especially during the pandemic as healthcare has definitely changed. A lot of virtual things have come to the forefront. Quite a few university based hospital systems have reached out to us to say, hey, help us solve our Black problem and tokenize.
And I know it’s a thing. And so I never saw that coming. I did not. I really went into this thinking like, “Oh, purely, this will be some kind of tech thing.” Not maybe totally tech, but did not see the opportunity to actually work with healthcare systems. So I’ve collaborated with MIT, UCSF and a wearable technology company, and have had conversations with Penn, Duke, several. And so what it has, now I’m on edge a little bit because when you put something out there, very optimistic about what Black folks can do, when these kind of players are coming in, your delivery has to be buttoned up and so sharp. Going back to beginning of our conversation, that’s not very buttoned up, is not really my style. But I am having to think about, you know what? I want to be as big as Google.
I want whole municipalities and employers and whatever, who are like, we really are invested in seeing our Black mothers and Black parents have better experiences, help us to create whatever we need to internally to do that. I want The Renée to do that. So I think during these last couple of years, especially, I’ve gotten a bigger picture. I want to think about the future and not just the present. I want to think, what do I see? How do we see a Black design and led maternal space in the future? And what does it look like to then build based on what we see in the future?

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s go more into that. What does design within kind of maternal healthcare, reproductive justice, what does that look like? Paint a picture?

Whitney Robinson:
Yeah. It looks slow. By slow I mean, it’s not really built on efficiency. And so we’re in a system right now that is graded, we’re not in a system, but healthcare in many ways. So I have to be clear. I’m not a medical provider, but just working in the system and with people in the system and having conversations. We’re looking at a system that is built on efficiency and their bottom line, whereas where we’re going will feel more like tender, loving care. It will feel like, oh, you just spent two hours with me to talk about my dog and now we can get into my healthcare. People want to feel the connection and the recall, and the consistency with providers. So for instance, one of the challenges in kind of, I guess, traditional maternal health is that you may not always have the same doctor, but when you’re talking to Black folks and what feels safe, it’s a consistency of care.
It’s oh, I’ve had this person kind of walk with me throughout a process. I think we will begin to look more like the midwifery. Honestly, we talk about, oh, we want to go back to the good old days, but this is a space that I do think the future probably will look more like what we used to do. So that’s why I said slow. It will feel consistent like what a midwife would do. They are your person. Your appointments are hours long. You can call, text whenever you need to. They come to you. It feels like a whole wraparound care. It is high touch. The success is you having a good experience. Your outcome sometimes you can’t gauge. But what if success is the experience of the person? And that’s what I believe Black folks are asking for. I want you to care about not just saving me and my child. I want you to care about my experience throughout, from beginning to end. Think of it as a flow. All of the touch points in between are intentional. So that’s where we’re going and that’s what I want to help build.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, just hearing you talk about this sounds, I can’t quite put it into words. It’s a very warm feeling. That’s what you want to have. If you’re not feeling well, if you’re sick or something, you want that kind of convalescent sort of care. And I think certainly our current system doesn’t work that way. It’s very cold and in efficient in many ways. We’re not even talking about insurance and stuff. But yeah, I like that slow, I guess, feeling or that slow experience that you mentioned. It’s more about, I guess, taking the time, building that rapport and making sure that people have a good experience. It’s not just about the care. It’s about the experience with the care also.

Whitney Robinson:
Definitely. And I do think it’s colorful. Just think about, again, going into a hospital or something, very harsh, bright lights, white walls, white lab coats. When I was having my first home birth, my grandmother told me, “That’s beneath you as a Black educated woman to do that.” But she was born at home. So this is an intergenerational conversation also, because let’s be honest, there’s a little bit of keeping up with the Joneses that happened to us. Oh, white women are doing this so we should do this or they’re saying it’s safe and so that’s the safest place for us. And then there’s this spiral.
And so my grandmother saying that to me, with all of her sass made me realize too, oh, this is not just one sided. Like, oh we can’t just look at hospitals and the providers, but this is generational. So many of the conversations too around birth experiences of older generations were covered in shame. And so those things were not shared. And so this new, or this system that is going back to really the things that granny midwives and doulas do constantly, it’s a part of their service, we are basically going to that. That’s what I would love to see because I believe, I’m banking on that being the care that people are asking for, that people want.

Maurice Cherry:
What other kinds of projects are you working on? You have The Renée, before we started recording, you mentioned you’re also doing something called Product Groove as well. What other projects are you working on?

Whitney Robinson:
Yeah. Just know, I grew up on funk. My first concert was James Brown. It is a very heavy thread in my life the way I was raised by my parents. And so Product Groove really, I wish someone could do an imagery of a record for it. The imagery in my mind is we have so many, I have worked with so many first time or non-technical founders of color specifically who have an idea and they go and hire a dev shop. And then by the time they hire me, I’m like, “Ooh Lord. You about to have to refinance your whole house just to pivot.” So Product Groove is just a natural kind of iteration of the work that I’ve been doing with founders and companies. I love to just focus on non-technical and first time founders of color and helping them build strategy.
So it’s a support coaching product strategy type thing. I mean, to be corny, it’s helping you get into a groove. It’s helping you understand like, who’s your customer? And I have an idea, but should I really build something on it or is it just good for me? That happens a lot. People will discover a problem, but really they just, they’re the only one that cares about it. I want to help founders not make costly mistakes. And so it will be in cohort style, group sessions couple times a month. And I’m definitely asking people, I ask people to be committed to it financially and with their time, because what I am really good at is helping people build strategy, roadmaps, understand their people, understand research, things like that.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s kind of switch up a little bit, switch gears here. I want to learn more about kind of your origin story. Some of which I know because we’ve actually had your sister on the show before, but we can talk about that. But tell me about where you grew up and what was your childhood like?

Whitney Robinson:
Yeah. I grew up in the country in the sticks when the neighbors, you couldn’t see them. I grew up playing outside all day, which is why I raised my kids the same way. No matter the weather, they’re outside. So I explored a lot. I was bored a lot. My sisters were my best friends and too because my mom was like, “You go to school, you come home.” That’s it. And so my parents played records all the time. People came to our house for drinks. So I just remember growing up, it was a very funky environment. And so my parents being very stylish people with high standards and also just really hard workers. I didn’t think of myself in lack and that’s not even just monetary. I knew that I could think through anything. I wasn’t taught to fist fight or anything.
I was taught, if you can think through this, you can get through it, period. So I went to a very rural country high school in North Carolina and then I ended up at Duke. Actually let me back up. I ended up at Carnegie Mellon for pre-college, two pre-college programs. I think that’s when I realized, Ooh you a nerd. I was doing gaming and stuff back in, I don’t know, 20, God, before I went to college. So early 2000. And then went to Duke, which was a shock. It was a culture shock to me.

Maurice Cherry:
How so?

Whitney Robinson:
I was top of my class in high school, but I came to Duke feeling like the bottom. And imagine a place where there’s an academic rigor and not that many Black folks. And then I chose computer science, so I was the only, only, only, only. I always said that if I went back to Duke and I gave feedback, I would, maybe it’s in the past and just let it go. But there was so much kind of leaving, so much of the work was team based and computer science and I was left out sometimes. People would just be meeting and not let me know. I was reprimanded for things and I was like, “Wait, how are you all doing that?” But I tried so, so, so, so hard. So would I do Duke again? Yes. But I think I would realize there is a fight in me that I did not realize.
But the good thing about Duke is I actually started in VR and I built … Duke had this six sided cube called the die and you enter it in and you are in an immersive space. So I started doing game design and character and asset design, and 3D. And that was fun. And so I created a simulation. Of course, it was a runway with a dude in an afro and bell bottoms. It was just a thread in my life. But you walked in and you saw this guy walk away from you. He turned around, he came back, his clothes changed. And so Duke really did though push some of the envelope for me when it came to the way that I approached things. The look and feel, and the vibe. I also walked around with an afro. I was one of the only people that was wearing a natural and I wore bell bottoms. I was just a nerdy person.

Maurice Cherry:
And I mean, was that uncommon on Duke’s campus?

Whitney Robinson:
I think so, because I think, especially in the Black population, I think people came from so many other cities, like New York, Atlanta. I’m a Southern girl raised in the sticks. And so I do think there was a bit of difference. I don’t think it was, people were pointing at me or making me feel bad about it. But I do think I kind of [inaudible 00:36:14].

Maurice Cherry:
You just felt different. Yeah.

Whitney Robinson:
I felt different. Yeah. I think I brought a different type of energy.

Maurice Cherry:
I know exactly what you’re talking about. I felt that way when I went to Morehouse. I too am from the sticks. I’m from Selma, Alabama. And when I first got to Morehouse, I did a pre-college thing too the summer before graduation. And it was so funny that that summer because, first of all, I couldn’t leave Selma fast enough. I was like, “Oh, it starts in June. I graduate at late May. Let’s go.” I was ready to go. There was that aspect of it. But also I graduated top of my class in high school and then I get to Morehouse and it’s like meeting, at least in my program, meeting 20 other people that are just me, at least in that way, where they were top of their class where they’re at and now they come here and it’s from all over the country. In some cases, I don’t think it was in our program.
It was maybe in an adjacent program because they put us in a dorm with, I think, two other programs. So we all kind of co-mingled with each other. But there were people there from other countries that I had only heard about in school. I had never known about meeting people from the Virgin islands or from a country in Africa or from Haiti, but they were there and it’s like, “Oh, I’m learning about you all in person,” and stuff like that. I know what you mean about that kind of weird country [inaudible 00:37:38]. I had an afro in college. And what was interesting for me is I came in, and because Morehouse is a all male school, my mom is a seamstress and my grandmother is a seamstress. So they taught me how to sew and do everything from a really early age. So when I came in already knowing how to wash clothes, how to iron, how to fix a button, how to sew a hole in a sock.
That was a weird opportunity for me to get to know other people in the program because something would happen and they would know what to do. “Oh, I got a hole in my sock. Oh I lost a button.” I will say, “Oh I can sew that back on.” “Oh, you don’t know how to iron. I can do that. I can show you how to do that.” Or they wash all their clothes and they all come out pink or something like that.
I was like, “Oh no, you got to separate. You can’t put the whole box of laundry detergent in there. You have to just put a scoop or something.” Teaching them how to read the tags on the laundry. And they’re like, “How do you know this stuff?” I’m like, “You all didn’t take home-ec?” They didn’t take home-ec. But it ended up that sort of weakness, I guess, at least what I perceived as a weakness ended up being a strength. Because then I ended up getting to know other people and I felt like I was more supposed to be there as opposed to just kind of landing there because of my grade. You know what I mean?

Whitney Robinson:
Yeah. I do know what you mean. I mean, when I graduated, woo, I had a sigh relief because I just felt like I graduated by the skin of my teeth. But now years, years later, almost 15 years later after graduation, the thing that Duke does get you is in the door. It’s almost like you sacrifice your mental health to get to the door. And for me it feels like the tech world, there are some people that graduated with me that were early Facebook. We were those people. And so I think went from tech bro culture for me to tech bro culture. I really knew how to navigate it when I graduated.

Maurice Cherry:
And you’ve held a number of product roles at some pretty well known tech companies. You were at Abstract for a while. You were at Hire Runner, just to name two of them. But you’ve also kind of always had your own entrepreneurial ventures on the side as well. You had Freshly Given, you had Charles & Whitney. Why was it important to kind of always have something on the side like that?

Whitney Robinson:
Yeah. I like to think about, anytime I took a full-time gig, that was the side.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, okay.

Whitney Robinson:
The reason why I say that is because I am an entrepreneur at my heart and sometimes my husband and I are like, “Okay, look, we got to pay some bills around here. We have one, two, three, four kids. Just get a job.” So he or I would do that. We bounced and done that over the years. Yeah. But the thread, again, has always been, I mean, if you look at my LinkedIn, I’ve basically worked for myself for the majority of my career and have jumped on other teams or consulted with other teams throughout that time. Freshly Given was the only one that was way left field. That was a leather, I found discarded leather in a country town in North Carolina and decided, why would people throw away leather? What if we can reintroduce leather back into commerce? And so that was that project and that lasted for a while. And that was really fun until I started having kids. One day, I’ll pick it back up.

Maurice Cherry:
It kind of will always be there.

Whitney Robinson:
It’ll always be there. And that’s why I’m like, we talked about this at the beginning. That’s why I’m becoming more okay with letting stuff go knowing that life is short, but there’s also this long game. I get up in five years and maybe I’ll do it even better or maybe it doesn’t matter. I’ll be picking it back up and I put it down for whatever reason and that’s okay too.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s a good thing about having the freedom to do that. But also it just adds to your overall body of work. You’ve done this thing, you’ve done it for a certain amount of years and you’ve decided not to do it anymore. And people may feel some kind of way about it. But if you want to pick it up later, you can. And if you don’t, you don’t, because you know that you have the capacity to always come up with something new.

Whitney Robinson:
Absolutely.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. How have you sort of built your confidence over the years as a creative professional?

Whitney Robinson:
A lot of talking to myself in the mirror, honestly. A lot of prayer. A lot of realizing that people have been here before. I have to be careful, and maybe other millennials can relate, I have to be careful because we do live in a time where people are, “Oh I have an idea. I’m putting it out there. I’m making millions of dollars. You all can do that too.” It is okay for just in my confidence to realize, Whitney, oh, you’re wrong. That’s okay. Or again, people have done this before. It sounds cliche, but you stand on the shoulders of so many people who are now cheering you on. When you feel like you’re the only person doing something, for me, it feels like, woo, daunting. But when I look at myself as a byproduct of generations of people, then I’m really arriving on the same equipped.
I’m not lacking. I’m not a disparity. I’m not what other folks say I am, other folks who don’t identify like me or whatever. I am who all these folks who came before me said I am. I am the combination of their work and their prayers and their rest or their lack thereof. I have to have those moments with myself because I do it a lot as a mother too. Oh, you’re just not doing it well. That’s the craziest thing to think that as a mother I’m not doing well when I give it, I don’t want to give it my all because then I’ll be burned out. But I give it a really good effort daily. And so yeah, it’s those moments where I realize, ooh Whitney, you doing okay. You good.

Maurice Cherry:
That just gave me goosebumps talking about that kind of, I show up on the scene prepared, that just gave me goosebumps, because you’re right. I mean, so much of what we do is, at least I think now as adults working now, it is the byproduct of our parents, our grandparents, other people in our community praying for us, pushing us on, supporting us. We have what we need to succeed. And so even sometimes when that imposter syndrome can creep up, it’s just good to sort of have that, to know that, you have that conviction that you know that you’re prepared. Oh God, ooh, that really got to me.

Whitney Robinson:
I do think that as we have a lot of conversations about being woke and the things that were pressed upon us about ourselves that were not true when we first arrived in the US, how much of that is this continual thread in our lives. And again, that’s why I like to look at that and say, ooh, who told you that you aren’t supposed to be here? Who told you that? Think about where that came from and keep moving forward.

Maurice Cherry:
What keeps you motivated to move forward these days?

Whitney Robinson:
I’m really, really excited about the future. When I look at my kids and I see even their ability to create very beautiful things. My children love snakes. I am very afraid of snakes, but they love snakes. They pick them up in our yard now that they know how to identify them. And they just fiddling. Imagine, it’s great. They are frolicking with snakes all the time. I only have one girl and the rest of them are boys and even, you may have an assumption that she would be … She’s a ringleader. So I’m really optimistic about it because I can defer my fear so that these little folks can pass me.
At just the age that they are right now, they’re already doing more than I could even possibly think I would be doing. I have an opportunity, not only to raise a generation of people, but in my quiet time, I do see us winning. I see Black people winning and I do like the shifts around our bodies, our minds, our culture that we are collectively happening. Because these are the things we look back on and say, oh, that generation of people did what we are living, we are able to do now.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. It’s funny, I talk about that sometimes with my friends about, we’ll say we don’t really feel like sometimes we’re adults or we’re kind of adulting or whatever. And it’s like, we are the adults now. We are the ones that are doing … It’s funny. I think about, and I don’t mean this in a lofty way, but just to kind of use the show as an example. When Revision Path got put into the Smithsonian in 2019, I was dumbfounded that it happened, partially because I had been working so hard. I had really been working on it since 2015. That’s a whole other story. But it happened and then the very next day at work, my boss, he was the CEO of the startup I was working at, this white dude, just gave me the worst professional dressing down I’ve had in my career.
I was just at the top of, I was like, “I feel like I reached a career high and now you’re like, oh, let me shoot him down to this point.” And it was funny because in the time that it happened, initially I didn’t even really celebrate it. It happened in June or July, I think of 2019 and I never really got a chance to celebrate it. And then I went to Harvard in October for the Black in Design Conference that they have there every other year. And that felt like my victory lab going to that. And so many people that had seen me work on this throughout the years and had seen me do it that were just like, “You’re doing a good job. Congratulations. How can we help out?” That sort of thing.
That’s just a night and day kind of experience. I don’t know if what I said even related to what you just said, but for some reason when you mentioned that, that came to mind right away of … And I’m not just me, but more so we are now in the point where we are making the history, we’re doing the historical things. And it may seem like a day to day thing, but people are going to look back on what we’ve done in 2070 and be like, “Wow, this kind of stuff was happening back then.” So that sort of, it helps me to think that the work that I’m doing is not in a vacuum and that it’s part of a continuum.

Whitney Robinson:
Yeah. And I like to call them cornerstones. I think that those moments, whether they’re great or not, are cornerstones for our lives. And by cornerstone, I mean they often have some kind of inflection point and that is, but then collectively your entire life. For you, for instance, Maurice, your entire life is a cornerstone in the history of this country, your family. And so I think that if we look at it that way, it’s the day to day nuances you realize are collectively coming together to do a thing. And even just, like one of the things I am working on right now related to The Renée is around, is this kind of photo journalistic tour of the south capturing Black women in spaces of thriving so that our cornerstone during this pandemic, especially is that they were dying more. But you see these people in, I don’t know, Alabama are thriving and they Black. These are the things that I do think about in my life for these ups and downs.

Maurice Cherry:
At this stage of where you’re at in your career and in life, how do you define success?

Whitney Robinson:
That is ever changing but I would say, yes, right now, if it reduces my stress levels, it is successful. So if I don’t have an adverse reaction to it, so meaning I feel real good about it. Not that it’s easy, but it doesn’t feel like it’s weighing heavy on me unnecessarily, then I consider that success. So at this point, even projects that I join or people that I help. If I get that initial inkling of, hmm, girl, this ain’t it. I walk away and that feels like success. It’s listening and acting immediately without the fear of, oh, but don’t you need that? Or what if? I am not a fearful person and so I need to remember that my angle in life is, again, that I’m not behind the eight ball. That I am a person who will attract many opportunities, but not all of them are for me. And the things that are successful or lead to success for me are the things that create a space where Whitney can live and feel free within myself, within my community, within my family, all of those things.

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

Whitney Robinson:
I want still be in the maternal health space for sure. And by then in five years, actually the analogy that I tell people, going back to the Soul Train, if we get to the place where people see the pregnancy and everything at the beginning and the end as a Soul Train line, and we’re all supporting each other as one person goes down, that’s what I want. If our narrative shift gets to that point, oh my God, that would be incredible. But I want to continue to be in this maternal health space. I want providers, folks to look at us as a force. And so I’m sticking with this for a while. I want it to be creative. I want to dibble and dabble in the arts and be creative. Do new things that people just did not expect could come out of this space for us. So that’s five years. That’s what my career … I want The Renée to be my full-time, full-time

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

Whitney Robinson:
Yeah. I’m obviously on LinkedIn, which is Whitney Robinson. Right now I have red lips and an afro on my profile pick. And then The Renée. And you can email me about anything at The Renée because I absolutely love email, but The Renée is the, so T-H-E, -renee, that’s R-E-N-E-E, .com. And you could find me at whitney@the-renee.com, but the website is the-renee.com.

Maurice Cherry:
Sounds good. Well, Whitney Robinson, I want to thank you so, so much for coming on the show. Since we’ve connected back in, what was that? 2018, 2018 when we met at XOXO, I’ve always felt like you’ve had this, there’s this presence about you. And I think people have to maybe, I hope they can feel it from the interview, but certainly when I first met you in person, you have this presence that like the ancestors are walking with you in everything that you’re doing. And even this work that you’re doing around maternal healthcare, hearing you talk about it with such passion and conviction. I’m so excited to see what you do in the future with this. I want to walk with you as you make this happen, because I really feel like you are on the right side of something here. And I hope that people, when they listen to this interview, they can feel that because I certainly do. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Whitney Robinson:
Thank you for those words. And I am very appreciative of this opportunity.

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Jeff Jean-Baptiste

I became familiar with Gusto several months ago through my last gig, and I was so pleased with the user experience that I had to find out who some of the folks were behind it. And wouldn’t you know it — one of them happens to be a former 28 Days of the Web honoree. Meet Jeff Jean-Baptiste!

After a quick check-in to see how things are going, Jeff talked about his role as a product designer and gave some info on his behind-the-scenes design work at the company. From there, Jeff shared his origin story of growing up in Miami, how anime became his gateway to art, and talked about his interest in architecture and how that drives his current design focus. He even gave some insight into the Orlando design community and talked about finding success at this point his career.

For Jeff — and for all of us, really — anything worth having is worth working hard towards. So get out there and make it happen!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Jeff Jean-Baptiste:
Hey, so my name is Jeff Jean-Baptiste, a designer focused on just building great thoughtfully crafted experiences for people, just software that works.

Maurice Cherry:
How has 2022 been going so far?

Jeff Jean-Baptiste:
Oh man, 2022 has been actually pretty amazing. I mean the backdrop of a lot of things happening in the world for me personally, is worked out pretty well, both professionally and in my personal life, my wife and I, we closed on a house so that’s going to be our first home, so that should be done in a couple months.
So that’s pretty exciting and, yeah, work it’s been pretty magical. Just the things that I’m doing is pretty exciting. I’m still very much so happy at my current role, and we’re doing a lot of great things that I’m looking forward to building on.

Maurice Cherry:
So what is it that you want to try to accomplish for the rest of the year? Do you have any sort of plans that you set forth at the beginning of the year that you want to try to do?

Jeff Jean-Baptiste:
Yeah, I’ll talk about the two things. One on the professional side, I would say one thing I’m trying to get better at is becoming a better storyteller and I can get into more of that later as well. But yeah, that’s one thing, it’s a part of my goal is just can be able to tell a more cohesive and better story about when you’re designing products.
There’s always this the customer aspect and the pain that you’re highlighting and how you’re the things you’re designing, how it solves their pain. So I believe that’s one of the best ways people communicate and I’m a big, big movie buff. So I love stories. I’ve also started to read a lot lately and it’s just the way that stories are told. I feel like it’s an awesome communication method and I want to get better at that.
And first personally, in my life, I mentioned earlier where we’re close on the house, so that should be happening soon. So yeah, just ready for that whole process to be done and then going to be booking some time to relax. So we’ll be going on a cruise in a couple months and just out in the open sea. And that should be cool.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Take it now before the next global health scare happens, if you can try to squeeze it in there, I’m curious about this storytelling. Are there certain resources or things that you’re looking at to try to help increase your storytelling skills?

Jeff Jean-Baptiste:
I haven’t looked at anything specifically. I just follow certain folks that I think are great story to. There’s a lot of people at my Gusto that are really great at this, and I’m actually being mentored right now by somebody internally in product who’s just trying to build that muscle a little bit more. And then, yeah, I think I’ve taken some cues from folks internally and then as well as I think Twitter is a great place for resources.
If you follow the right folks, there’s a lot of good nuggets of information there, but just trying to hone that skill a little bit more just through actually doing it myself. That’s I think is the biggest part of it is as I’m presenting design work, I’m really cognizant of how I am delivering that message and trying to communicate. So I’m actively doing that work as well as taking in some of his other external information as well.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s talk about your work at Gusto. You’re a product designer there and you started last year. Is that right?

Jeff Jean-Baptiste:
Yeah. Yeah. It’s almost been a year now. So in September I started. Yeah. So I started last year. Yeah. I’m going to working on a zero to one team and basically just a part of Gusto that doesn’t exist yet, which is specifically around HR tools and we’re building things like performance management and also some other things around HR tooling for customers to help develop and retain their talent at their organizations, which is super relevant right now in this environment with recruiting and everything and layoffs.
And I’m learning in real time, just seeing everything happening and also looking at my work and how I’m trying to help other businesses to try to develop and retain being a really big piece of that, their talent and how we can support that. But Gusto has been super great. It’s really great when you interview with a company and oh, you sell these mission and values and everything and you align with those things. And then after a few months at the company, you’re like, “Okay, something don’t match up.” But I found that.
I thought that I’m still like, wow, it still makes sense. It’s still relevant. And everyone is still what they sold me was true so that’s always good. It’s been quite the experience. I’m learning so much at this scale up and everyone around me and how we collaborate cross functionally is just awesome to work with these folks. They’re super talented. And it’s just an honor to work for a company. That’s doing some great things with some great folks.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s actually, that’s really good to hear. I can tell you just from the end-user perspective, I first encountered Gusto last year at the current place where I’m working at. They use Gusto for payroll and all that sort of stuff. And the whole experience is so friendly and inviting-

Jeff Jean-Baptiste:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
… which for HR software is a feat to accomplish because most of that stuff is like, “Oh, I’m only going to go in here to file time off or whatever.” It’s not user friendly. It doesn’t spark joy to use Marie Kondo’s phrase it. It doesn’t give you those feelings of like, “Oh, I actually want to poke around and see what’s on these other pages. The illustrations are fun. The color coordination is great.” I mean, again, from the end-user perspective, I like it a lot.

Jeff Jean-Baptiste:
Yeah. That’s a big part of what you’re beat against those as well. It feels likely human. You talk about these friendly aspects of it. It’s a delightful experience. It’s easy to use. And yeah, typically HR software is not that, right? It’s not sexy. It’s not-

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Jeff Jean-Baptiste:
… doesn’t make you want use it. It’s not approachable. Yeah. Design has been a big part of Gusto’s DNA since the beginning that one of the first hires of Gusto and when they were a startup 10 plus years ago, it was a design hire. So design has always been a big part of Gusto’s DNA.
And we’re continuing that we have a big investment in design and being led by Amy, our chief design officer that speaks volumes to where, “Hey, at the highest levels we have advocacy for design.” And her leadership is she’s bringing that influence to conversations at those levels as well in our strategy and direction in our vision.
So we don’t have to fight for that seat at the table. It’s already there. It’s all right now design, shows what you got let’s make this happen.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s really good. I think for a lot of tech startups, at least maybe it’s just the ones I’ve been at, but certainly there’s others that I’ve seen where design is always this afterthought. It’s something that maybe they’ll bring a designer on or they’ll have a few freelancers.
But you can tell the focus is really on just making sure that the product works and adding new features to it. Design tends to be a bit of a… We’ll get to it kind of thing. It’s very utilitarian. So it’s good to hear that for Gusto, that design is really at the forefront of everything that y’all try to do.

Jeff Jean-Baptiste:
Oh yeah, totally. You hit the nail around here what you said, design have this afterthought a lot of times, and it’s a strategic part of building a product, thinking about design. It’s not just that fresh coat of paint you do after you build something, right? It’s from the beginning talking to customers, learning about those user problems, and distilling that down to the root problems and finding a thoughtful way to approach that even that is part of design way before even start putting those pixels out there and start delivering mocks to the engineers and stuff like that. So it starts really, really early on before any code is pushed. So yeah, design being like this thread that’s followed throughout, even from the end of delivery of the designs. And that’s what we try to practice, keeping that spirit of design, being at the forefront of everything that we do. And that’s super important. It really shows in the product, right? So that experience that end-to-end experience, you can tell, “Hey, this has been designed,” not like, “Hey, we just layered something on top of something that was probably just strictly technically engineering led or something.”

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm. Talk to me more about what the team looks like? You’re on the product design team. I imagine. Is it for a specific feature of the app? Talk to me more about that.

Jeff Jean-Baptiste:
Yeah. So we broke it up in these segments and I mean, an employer segment. So we focus on all of our customers, our business owners who are using Gusto to pay their employees and ensure them and use HR tooling for performance management and all that. And my team specifically, we’re working on the HR side and our mission is to help customers develop and retain their talent.
So my team is made up of myself, I’m the designer and I have a PM counterpart. He’s actually a hybrid a PM engineer, which is pretty amazing. He actually was a pretty strong, strong engineering leader in our team. And he actually started this PM rotation. And now he’s diving into that world and it’s been awesome to work with someone that has two sides of that coin there.
And we also have about four or five other engineers supporting this team. So our team we’re pretty much building those HR tools. We have that part of Gusto’s space expanding, Gusto’s portfolio past, just the payment and the ensuring benefits and side of things going into that HR tooling space. So yeah, we’re super excited to bring that part of Gusto to our customers.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, is this your first time working remotely for a team like this?

Jeff Jean-Baptiste:
No, actually my remote professional journey actually started in my previous role at AdventHealth as a huge experience designer so that was the beginning of the pandemic. This is right around what? January 2020, somewhere around there. And a couple months into that, I was about a little bit over a year or so in that role, when I got into doing remote work for the first time, when they sent us home, they were like, “Hey, take your laptops and everything.” And being a part of AdventHealth, that’s a large health system.
So there was a lot of need, as you can imagine for us to deliver some digital experiences, to help with some telehealth type of things we’re working on at the time. So that was a pretty accelerated, but a hyper learning time for me on both the product, working on a product side for designing those products for app health and as well as, “Hey, now we’re in this remote world.” How do we work, right? And just learning that you have to be really intentional about remote work to make that work. And communication is one of those big key learnings there during that experiences.

Maurice Cherry:
I think a lot of companies definitely had to come to terms with that very quickly over the past couple of years. But for me, it’s been interesting. I’ve worked remotely since roughly about 2009, late 2008 was when-

Jeff Jean-Baptiste:
Wow.

Maurice Cherry:
… I started, but I’ve been working remotely because I had my own studio for a long time. And then once I got back into the quote, unquote, “workforce,” at the end of 2017, every gig that I’ve had after that has been remote first. So even with times where you’ve had to still go to an office or for something like that, most I say 90% of the work that I’ve done over the past five years has all been remote.
And it’s interesting seeing now how companies are trying to adapt to that, particularly in environments where that in person collaboration one was so key. But I would say also when it comes to looking for talents, a lot of these companies, if they’re in New York or in the San Francisco, Silicon Valley, et cetera, they’re used to looking for design talent right where they’re at.
And now with the pandemic and people being able to work remotely as they are. I feel like that probably does a lot for decentralizing design talent. What do you think about that in this current environment?

Jeff Jean-Baptiste:
Yeah, I think just being forced at a mass level to work remotely, I think a lot of employees, right? So as I sees, we realize that, “Hey, I can still do this work from home and I’m actually enjoying all these other benefits that comes with that, right?” So obviously I don’t have to commute to work. There’s all that stuff eliminated. You save some time, but then also on the business side of things, you realize that there’s more focus on your outcomes versus your outputs.
I feel like there’s a new type of lens being put onto what are actually the employees producing, what are the actual outcomes of that experience? And I think just realizing all these different things and some of the advantages, and obviously there’s some disadvantages around communication and being more intentional about that. But I think it levels the playing field in a way. Now we’re looking at it from a perspective of, “Hey, I can hire anyone from anywhere in the country.”
They can do that work from home, right? And then we have to think about how do we strategically compete now on this level because now that someone like myself where I’m in Florida, so Gusto in California and being able to work remotely, there’s obviously a distribution now of talent across the entire country. So I think it switches the conversation a little bit less about location and proximity to some of these more bigger tech hubs in New Yorker, San Francisco.
And it’s now strictly focused on the talent itself. What are they producing? What are the outcomes? What impacts that come with these specific candidates when we’re talking to them? So I think, yeah, it’s pretty much leveling that playing field, but now I think another shift in that is around now that it’s a level, in a sense we’re looking at talent, that bar is getting more competitive as well.
So I think that’s an interesting dynamic that’s happening, but I think it’s a good one. I think on both the company and the talent side of things, everyone’s looking at the things that matter more. So at the end of the day, it’s about the outcomes, the impacts that you actually have as a designer, as an engineer versus your outputs. It’s like, oh, I can see you doing things in the office. And generally these office of conversations and things it’s easier to hide.
I feel like when you’re in an office setting versus remotely like, “Hey, we’re strictly measuring based on,” Like, “Hey, what can you actually tangibly impact to the team in the business?” There’s more of a focus on those things now. And especially in this time where we’re contracting a little bit in the markets, right? So companies are doing layoffs and they’re trying to save money, right? So they’re looking at like, “Hey, do I have the right people to support my company for the next 10 plus years?” Where do I need to strategically invest in talent? And where is waste?
Unfortunately, there is a layout since things happening because people might have over hired, right? During previous years and didn’t foresee some of this economic type of turmoil going on and everything with the market and the economics of this country. But yeah, it’s being very strategic about who you’re hiring and there’s a more to focus on individual impact.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, absolutely. I mean, I know that there were certainly a few companies that during the pandemic, they really became unicorns in a way. A lot of companies really leaned on them. And then now that culture is changing. As people are starting to get back out there, more travel, offices in some places are reopening, et cetera.
Now it’s like, “Oh, we need to scale back because we can’t support the level at which we’ve grown or they haven’t found an effective way to, I don’t know, I guess pivots to that, which is just business. That’s just how business goes. But to what you said earlier around about how this new environment means that you can pull talent from anywhere, it does strip away a lot of the…
I would say trappings of work, a lot of social trappings of work before I’m saying this we’re back in the old days, but it was more about showing up to work at a certain time and you hang out after work and you get to know people. And I mean, that stuff is great. But then when everyone’s just reporting in a Slack team, it strips away all these ways that you try to be so overly social that it’s like, “Okay.” What about the work that you’re doing-

Jeff Jean-Baptiste:
Right.

Maurice Cherry:
… is the output of the work? What we need? Or are you just nice to have around?

Jeff Jean-Baptiste:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
That whole thing about, I feel like, and I don’t know how true this is, but I feel like that whole excuse about a culture fit gets weakened a bit now, because of this new environment.

Jeff Jean-Baptiste:
Yeah. I totally agree with that. That culture fit is definitely weakened in a sense, right? One of the interesting thing, I don’t know if you saw this, but with remote work as well, a lot of companies have able to become a lot more diverse. They saw Black employees have risen some of the percentages there. It’s pretty interesting to see how it’s that decentralization of talent, someone who’s in a specific part of the country.
That’s not willing to move to the west coast to work for a specific company but they’re available now, right? So now I can hire that person and companies have actually become more diverse now being able to do that in remote. So there’s a lot of different changing dynamics. And I think for the most part, I think it’s a net good.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I think so, too. What would you say is probably the most challenging part about the work that you’re doing now?

Jeff Jean-Baptiste:
Oh man, the challenge that I would say the work that I’m doing now, well on one side of it, the remote side of it as well, communication, I alluded to this earlier. That’s one of the keys to being super successful in a team, right? So being able to communicate effectively, but as far as the work itself, we’re taking on a new challenge, right? So Gusto historically has been more on the payroll and benefit side of things and we’re doing a lot of learning and talking to customers and trying to figure out what are the hardest challenges they’re facing right now in trying to engage and retain employees.
And what’s happening right now with folks that are doing layoffs and things like that. It’s very hard to try to get ahead of that, right? In case as an employee, but also on the business side, if you’re not doing layoffs, then employees who decide to leave for another company, how do you even get ahead of something like that? We talk to a lot of customers who try to understand those pains and how do you develop people internally too?
So it’s a super interesting space just working. It’s working in people, basically it’s people management and that’s a super hard thing to work in as well. Just how do you look at these relationships between companies and employees and try to help these companies retain these folks?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I think now certainly with us now being roughly three years in with this, there are people I’ve had on the show who have started their career in a remote position. And now they’re moving from remote position to remote position. And the difficulty that I see some of them with is that the job changes.
But I’m still in the same place because it’s from home, they’re working from home and it’s like, yeah, you can set those boundaries and close that laptop and such. But that separation is just so hard to have between a physical office and your home. Everything is condensed into one space.

Jeff Jean-Baptiste:
Yeah. It’s hard to make that separation for sure. And even every day I just get up and close my laptop and then I turn around and the TV’s right there. I’m just like, “Okay.” It doesn’t really feel like you’re actually disconnected sometimes. But I have done a lot of freelancing actually for a very long time since being in college and I’m actually been used to it to some degree.
So I’d have a day job as doing a design and going into an office, but then I’d also do freelance on the side where I’m actually working at home and helping folks with doing their websites or whatever at that time. So it was in a… I was prepared for this moment and I think that’s why I leaned into it so heavily.
As soon as I got tasted remote, I was like, “Oh yeah, this is me.” And I literally was looking after my last role. I was like, “Hey, I got to find something that was that’s remote first.” That’s what I want. I know that’s where I’d be comfortable.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, for me, the main way to have that separation is to… And I mean, this is a luxury, I think to even say this, but to have two separate machines, my main machine at home that I work on is a windows desktop. And my work machine is a MacBook pro.
So it’s completely different for me at the end of the day, I close my laptop, I put it in the closet one, so I don’t have to see it, just I don’t want that visual cue, but then when I’m getting ready for the next day work is right there. So it’s like, “Okay, take the laptop out, plug it in. I’m at work now.”

Jeff Jean-Baptiste:
So you not only have that physical separation and actually being able to see it, but then you also have a different operating system.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, exactly. It’s completely different operating system, different peripherals. I’m like, “Okay.” I have to really separate it that way. Because back when I had my studio and I’ll talk about your freelance work too. But back when I had my studio, I would tell people, “Yeah, I can work half days all the time, any 12 hours I want.” I would just stay on the computer, working, working, working, because there wasn’t that separation for me. I was doing work and non-work from the same machine.

Jeff Jean-Baptiste:
Yeah. I will say that. So I’m the type of person where time can run away from me. I can be working and then I can forget that I need to quote, unquote, “clock out, right?” So my wife tries to pull me my desk. It’s like, “Hey, it’s past five. What are you doing?” One thing I’m excited about. Like I mentioned earlier, I’m working to be getting a house soon.
So I will have a dedicated office. So right now I’m in this, it’s an office/space that we used to watch TV. But when there’s more of a separation there, I can intentionally walk out of here and be like, “All right, works done.” Now I’m going to live my personal life.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. You’ll love it. I’m telling you just having that separate space. That is great.

Jeff Jean-Baptiste:
Yeah. I’m looking forward to it.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. So let’s switch gears here a little bit, learn more about you and about where you grew up. You alluded to college and studying design and I want to get there eventually, but let’s go back. Tell me about your childhood were you kind exposed to a lot of art and design and stuff growing up?

Jeff Jean-Baptiste:
Yeah, I would say I have been exposed to a lot of art and design in very subtle ways. I grew up in Miami, Florida as where I was born. And at the time, I used to watch a lot of cartoons. I loved cartoons and I used to just try to redraw different cartoons. Of course, during my time, Dragon ball Z stuff like that. And I used to really do a lot of comics myself. I could try to basically create comic book series. I actually came up with one, I think in middle school. I even distributed it out and tried to sell some.
And so I was always super into drawing and art and design, and I was just always trying to find creative outlet. I was more of a house like nerd. So I’m looking into doing things on the computer. I didn’t even start doing anything digitally until later, but I was very much so thinking that, “Hey, I’m going to be an artist or something like that when I grow up or whatever.”
And then when I got to high school, I started looking at really, how can I really make a career out of this? And that’s when I started contracting a little bit on the creativity side and looking to what actual careers are out there. And I looked at being an architect basically. So I did enrollment for architectural drafting while I was in high school, which I came out with an architectural drafting degree actually out of it.
This was basically me doing half my time in my senior and junior year at a trade school to earn that certificate. And then after that, I went to USF for college and major in architecture. And I was really convinced in that was what I was really going to do first of my life. And I tried to put myself in this box where I was like, “Hey, I can only make money doing something that’s serious, right?” I have to be an architect-

Maurice Cherry:
Uh-huh.

Jeff Jean-Baptiste:
… that’s the only way I can create, I can express myself creatively and I still love architecture. I still love it. But I quickly realized when doing that coursework that I was mainly interested in the purely aesthetic side of just… I know if you ever seen concepts of different buildings and things like, “Oh, if what nature was integrated into certain structures and we could live in harmony with nature and these different wacky building styles.”
I was doing stuff like that and doing in that course and architecture and I was less interested in stuff like building code and stuff like that. So yeah, about halfway through that, I was like, “This is not for me.” I was lost for a little bit honestly. I was like, “I don’t know what I’m going to do.” But I think around that time I pledged five days Sigma in college.
And one of the things that I had to do for my coming out show, well I took it by myself, was we needed a flyer and I actually made. My first flyer that I ever made was actually created in a combination of PowerPoint and Microsoft paint, so that was my first flyer, yeah. And then I was like, “You know what? That was cool. I enjoyed that.”
And then I sat down for a summer and was looking like, “Hey, what’s the actual industry standard tool I can use to make something like this.” And that’s when I taught myself Photoshop. And after that was the bullet train to just creating endeavors and doing things for people, just designing flyers that started off with that and then doing logos. And then actually guys started doing websites for people.
And that’s when I started to see the light, right? I was looking like, “Oh wow, I can actually create these really cool websites for people and make them look really nice and people will pay me for it.” And I was doing freelance while I was in undergrad. And then I was still searching like, “Hey, I want to do this professionally.”
And that’s when I started taking jobs, doing graphic design. I took a job at a local. There was a Gyros and Subs locally in Tampa, Florida. And I did all their marketing. I did their menu and I did some work on their website, their email marketing. And yeah, I took a series of jobs after that, just around design and web design and started doing marketing sites.
And yeah, then after that I actually got exposed to doing product design and UX design. When one client basically asked me, “Hey, can you do an app?” And I was like, “Sure.” I will say yes to everything and just figure out with the layer. So I’m like, “Listen, I already know.” And sometimes I’ll tell them straight up. I was like, “I don’t know how to do this, but I’m going to figure it out.” Yeah. That’s why I took this deep dive into learning UX myself.
And I was like, “All right, I need some formal structure around this.” It’s not just something I could just pick up. I have to know how to think in this way and how to solve a specific problem and approaching it from these different ways. I took this Interaction Design Foundation as this online type of classes that you can take basically different modules.
And that’s where I formalized my education around UX design I was like, “Hey, how do I apply some of my creativity and get some more of this skills on the side of UX to really understand having user-centered problems and really solving it from these really thoughtful ways and using user journeys and end-to-end flows,” so that was how I really started to formalize my education around it.
And from there, that’s why I started taking jobs from different companies doing product design eventually got to… I feel like AdventHealth was my first true rigorous cross-functional experience. I was working with product design, but I did along the way, I’ve learned so much from different companies out at Sodexo for a few years, doing graphic design there. And I got a little bit of exposure to doing some product design and I just wanted more of it. So I just started to align myself more and more with doing UX. And, yeah, here I am today.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, I think it’s really worth mentioning that you cut your teeth on product design online. It wasn’t through a traditional four-year course or something. It was because you already, I guess, built an interest through your natural talent and curiosity and the work that you had been doing, but to then find a program online and then use that to level up to the next stage of your career, I think is something that probably a lot of people listening can get inspired by.

Jeff Jean-Baptiste:
Yeah, I think the most beautiful thing about. I think a lot of careers in product, there’s a lot of these unconventional pathways and especially in UX, I’ll hear different stories, very similar to mine. You don’t have to actually go to these specific design schools and stuff like that. There’s other ways that you can get there. It’s really just aligning your passion and just being able to apply yourself. Because if you’re going to do take a path like mine, you have to really want it.
So you got to be really committed because it’s not easy to pretty much teach yourself, stay focused because all this stuff was self-paced, right? It’s all out of my own passion, wanting to learn more. I was hungry for that knowledge. If you have that core part of like, you can definitely chase that in these different paths. But if you need more structure, then yeah, I would definitely say, “Hey, go to design school if that’s for you.”
But I know for me that was… I probably would have gone to a design school and like that, but I did not even have the exposure. I even to know that was out there. So I had to make due with what I had at the time. I was like, “Okay, well I’m already three years in here at USF. I wasted a couple years doing architecture. I know I want to do design.” Then I see that I can still probably get hired for doing design without having a full design degree. So I was like, “You know what?” I mean, I got a degree in information architecture, which did a lot of web design things, but that was actually supportive of it as well in my skillset.
So yeah, there’s these very unconventional pathways you can take, but just find what works best for you and get after it. But I think just having that exposure earlier, the better, if I would’ve had that, my path would’ve been much different, but I found a way eventually. So it worked out.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. And I mean, you found a way, but also as you mentioned, you had that discipline to do it on your own. A lot of these courses they can give you or they do give you the information, they lay out a path for you, but if you’re not going to actually follow it and take it, then it’s for nothing.

Jeff Jean-Baptiste:
Exactly, exactly. Just have that focus. If you’re going to like just be intentional about everything you do. If you know that something that you really want, just go after it and just stay focused. I think over the next few years, I think just the fact that information is so plentiful now. You imagine 15 years ago, all these resources weren’t even out here and then go even further back.
It’s just so democratized at this point, but now it’s going to be the difference makers, the people who want it versus the people who are just doing it like, “Hey, just so nice to have. And I’m half in half out.” So yeah, it’s going to be… We’ll see that separately time plays out so.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I mean, I’ve been around long enough. I can imagine. I know because I was there. I remember 15 years ago. It definitely was not like this at all. I mean, hell even I would say maybe not even 10 years ago, you started to have some of the beginnings of some things you had, I think the beginnings of a general assembly or a tree house or something, but what you also really just had were things that people cobbled together of different snippets of code and things of that nature you had like, “Oh God, I’m dating myself.”
But you had dynamic drive. You had W3 Schools and stuff like that in lieu of something that could be more, I guess, official like a general assembly or a tree house or something of that where you could actually go through a more formalized career thing, almost like school, because you would have an instructor of sorts or someone that’s at least looking at assignments and giving you feedback in that way. It’s self-governed but at least you have that expert authority to help you along the way.
Prior to that, you just put stuff together and hope for the best. You really were like. I hope this works or there was so much experimentation back then. And I don’t know if the web really encompasses a lot of that now because so many things or productized and there’s design systems and such that everything is pretty rigidly locked into certain systems in order to scale.
And of course, to bring in designers and engineers and writers to all work together. But one thing that the early web definitely had, was a lot of just creativity-

Jeff Jean-Baptiste:
[inaudible 00:37:35].

Maurice Cherry:
… just people experimenting, just people making things up. And I feel like that same feeling is why a lot of folks are interested in Web3 right now.

Jeff Jean-Baptiste:
Mm-hmm. I think so.

Maurice Cherry:
They want that or they’re trying to get that feeling of freedom back that the early web had and granted Web3 encompasses a number of technologies. It’s NFTs, it’s crypto. It’s a number of stuff. And I feel like a lot of what’s reported out of it is largely very negative, but to be fair, it was like that when the internet first came about.
Like everyone was not hopping to get online. It was a lot of skepticism about what is an email address? Should my business be online? How do I make this happen? There was a lot of skepticism and granted, eventually people got over that hump. I think Web3 is probably a little different in this accord because of aside from just the learning curve in terms of figuring out all these different terms and stuff, which again, very similar to before, it’s also just the cost. I mean, I would say back then personal computers were, I mean my God, I got my first personal computer in whoo ’99, 1999 it was a Pentium 3. It was 500 megabytes. Maybe not megabytes, maybe it was 500. It probably was 500 megabytes.

Jeff Jean-Baptiste:
It probably, it might have been.

Maurice Cherry:
It might have been. Yeah, it might have been.

Jeff Jean-Baptiste:
It might have been without so much more computing power in the palm of our hands. Actually on my wrist right now, probably-

Maurice Cherry:
Right, right.

Jeff Jean-Baptiste:
… computing power.

Maurice Cherry:
Back then you could play solitaire, but now you could easily do that on your phone or something like that with an app. But I say all that to say that even that was a bit of a curve for a lot of people’s like, “Can I afford a computer in order to do these things? Can I afford?” Well, there actually wasn’t high speed internet back then. You had dial up, but you had two lanes, you had a slow lane and a fast lane. That’s what they colloquially called it.
And then eventually you had DSL and then cable and now high speed is fiber optic, et cetera, and stuff like that. But I see a lot of those parallels. And then I notice just how design is very much following those parallels as well. So I wonder in the future how Web3 is going to impact a lot of what we know now, even typically as product design, because product design is very much within a two-dimensional space.
But it’s also a lot of the interactions and the patterns and stuff are for a level of computing that we’ve had around roughly for the past 15 to 20-ish years. Once people start jumping into augmented reality, virtual reality, the metaverse and stuff like that brings up a whole new host of interactions and scenarios and problems as well, so-

Jeff Jean-Baptiste:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
… that’s interesting.

Jeff Jean-Baptiste:
I think it’s a lot of unlock. Yeah. I think it’s a lot of unlock that’s going to happen in the next few years. I think definitely what you touched on with augmented reality. I don’t know if you had Annie Jean-Baptiste here on the show but, she works at Google and I saw something recently with basically just allowing folks who deaf people, folks who can’t hear like to wear these glasses essentially. And they can basically see on the glasses, the words that are being spoken, written out in the glasses from there, they can see the words, right?
So I thought that those were one of those magical things that can be done with technology. And when things that are changing with having some of this spatial computing happening with augmenting your reality with adding another layer, basically into your environment, I think that’s yet another frontier that is yet to be designed for a lot of exciting things. I think as it technology matures, that’ll be really cool to touch upon.
And yeah, I’m excited to see where things go. I do like experimentation just generally seeing folks going to the NFTs and doing all these different things. I think everything happens in a cycle and things have become very strict and there’s a lot of rules and everything fits into a box and this might be another frontier where things are starting to expand a little bit and there’s a new space to start to design for.
And there’s the rules aren’t set in stone yet. So until that happens, there’ll be a lot of experimentation and folks are going to be going in a lot of different directions. So I’m excited to see where things go. I’m pretty optimistic about technology usually. So I’m definitely open to seeing and talking about those things too.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. So you’re in Florida, you’re in Orlando or right near Orlando. How is the design community there? Have you found a lot of that there?

Jeff Jean-Baptiste:
Oh yeah. There’s a design community here. I would say basically on the UX side, there’s a downtown Orlando UX. This is actually a group that my former manager at AdventHealth, he organizes that group and it’s pretty small. It’s pretty small. That’s one of many design, little meetups that happen here. But I wouldn’t say the design community is that big, but it is growing.
There’s also a small VC startup community here as well. There’s a lot of little startups that you might not have heard of, but then are stealth mode that are happening here. I think there’s a lot of just between some of these major Florida cities. I feel like there’s a lot of cross-pollination that is happening folks that are in Miami, folks that are in Tampa, folks that are Orlando.
There’s a lot of networking that are happening between folks there, because I think there’s a lot of little bit of proximity there, but I think there’s going to be definitely just a lot bigger community of designers and folks doing product here in Orlando. I mean, especially since the people can be remote now, it’s like, “Oh, well I can move to Florida.” I was like, “Cool.”
So Miami is super expensive, but Orlando is getting there, but they’re not the worst. So this is my open invitation to folks that come to Orlando. I think it’s pretty great community and it’s growing. So yeah, interesting to see where that goes.

Maurice Cherry:
And you talk a bit there about that startup scene. I think we know when folks look at the south. I mean, I think they can, I don’t know how much of Florida they really leave out. Well, I know for example, back in the day.

Jeff Jean-Baptiste:
But Florida is not like a south-

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I mean.

Jeff Jean-Baptiste:
… if you don’t include Florida at all. I’m like,-

Maurice Cherry:
I know it’s tricky.

Jeff Jean-Baptiste:
… “I think [inaudible 00:43:54] southern,” but sure.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, it is tricky because I don’t know. Maybe let’s say from Mississippi to Georgia. Well, so all going further, let’s say Mississippi to North Carolina, a lot of that, of course, people think of as the south. And then even when people think of tech or design, a lot of that gets left out unless people are thinking about Atlanta.
I remember just even 10 years ago, people would talk about what’s going on in design in the south. And they wouldn’t even look at Atlanta. They’d just look at Florida. They’d look at what’s going on in Miami? What’s going on in Orlando? And there’s six states that you all are missing. They’re like, “Yeah, nothing’s really going on there.” I guess, they thought we were just all barefoot blowing on jugs or something.
There’s technology here. There’s design here, which people now are taking note of, particularly as it relates to diversity. But again, the way that things are changing in just a number of different years and now with people being able to work from anywhere because they have remote work, you’re starting to see, I think you’re starting to see these talent centers even shifting.
I was reading today about how folks a lot of people are working out of Mexico City and the locals in Mexico City are go away. It used to be good here. And now y’all work from home. People moved here and you drove the cost up and you acted stupid like go somewhere else.

Jeff Jean-Baptiste:
The techies are ruining the scene.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, it wouldn’t be the first city, right?

Jeff Jean-Baptiste:
Right.

Maurice Cherry:
But what you’re starting also to see that point of decentralized talent is now work from home means work from anywhere. There’s people at my current job that, I mean, they are like jet setting. They’re like, “Oh, I’m in Hungary this month. Oh, this month I’m in Memphis, Tennessee. Oh, this month I’m in Mexico City.” And they can work out of those places because they can work quote, unquote, “From home,” which people are taking to me from anywhere.
But I think companies now are even starting to try to restrict that because what if you work from, I don’t know, what if you work from Cuba? What if you work from Russia or something? If you’re working from maybe a place that’s not so politically stable, what does that mean? So it’s opened things up, but then I think it’s also probably generated some different issues also.

Jeff Jean-Baptiste:
Yeah. I think that some of the companies are out there are finding some strategic ways to still give that flexibility with you can work from anywhere. I think Airbnb had something recently around, “Hey, you can even work at a different country for a set period of time.” You’re not going to be there for the whole year or something, but you can go to different countries and work from there for a month or something.
I forgot what the timeframe was, but there’s different things like that. And those companies that are going to be setting some of these different policies, that’ll be flexible and that they’re going to make sense to folks. So when you look at them, you be like, “That makes sense.” And also that’s really attractive. I like that model, folks are going to start picking those companies over others.
That’s a competitive advantage when you look at it from this 10,000 foot you’re looking at, “Hey, what are the companies that are being super restrictive? What are the companies that are the most flexible with this? And with that fits with my way of life.” I think all of this is going to be a journey of alignment. Everyone is looking for what is that company you able to do for me? And what the company is looking at for talent is like? What are these specific folks able to do for my company?
So that I think is on both sides, space, you had journey of alignment. We’re trying to find that equilibrium. We’re not there yet. I think everybody’s learning, but there’s going to be a lot of folks stumbling along the way as we’ve been seeing for a little bit now. And when we find that place to meet, find that middle ground to where things work, people will be making those choices. And they’ll be that clear separation of folks who are doing remote well and folks who aren’t doing remote well. And I think it’s going to play out.

Maurice Cherry:
I think so too. I mean, even now for job seekers, that’s now a consideration. It’s like, “Oh, well what does the remote work policy look like? Or can I work from anywhere?” Or even if you’re able to work from anywhere like some hybrid situation. Because some people do want to have that option to go into an office, but-

Jeff Jean-Baptiste:
Absolutely.

Maurice Cherry:
… it varies now. And I think companies have to try to realize that now with the pandemic, things have changed. It’s not even so much that things have changed in terms of the fact that people aren’t working in offices, but workers expect more flexibility now with where they work-

Jeff Jean-Baptiste:
Right.

Maurice Cherry:
… and that’s something that is… That’s a big paradigm shift.

Jeff Jean-Baptiste:
Yeah. It’s been proven that it work can be done from anywhere and that you can still deliver product right from anywhere.

Maurice Cherry:
Right.

Jeff Jean-Baptiste:
And companies are seeing some advantages of that too. And we’re just trying to find our way, I think, with some of the shortcomings of remote. So I think having that hybrid model is what’s there to stay is, like some folks might still want to go to the office. They have that option. Cool. They’re in proximity of some of those epicenters, the New York, California have those options, but then you’ll also have that talent pool that are fully remote as well.
But I think it’s still important that these teams can still come together. At Gusto, we still like find these moments that, I’ve only been there for about a year now, but we’ve already come together twice. I went to San Francisco to do an onsite with my team and I left that feeling super energized for sure, meeting my teammates for the first time and us going out and doing some activities and team building exercises and my team building, I just mean just going to have fun going have dinner, stuff like that.
But those times were pretty fun. And we’re actually looking forward to in a couple months, I think in October, I’m going to go to Denver, we’re going to do another onsite there. So yeah, so still coming together for those special moments with your team, I think is a good balance. If you have a fully distributed team being able to do that a couple times a year, I feel like that works pretty well in my experience right now. I feel like it’s a good balance.
Everyone loves how structure is so far right now. And I think that’s where companies are trying to find where that what makes sense for their company and then what also works for employee engagement. So I think everyone just finding their way with that and finding what’s the right balance? What’s the right cadence of meeting up together? Those are the teams they’re going to win.

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

Jeff Jean-Baptiste:
Well, I think success is definitely going to be defined by your impact at the end of the day, you on two fronts, right? So impacting those interpersonal relationships, the folks that you’re working with around you, people remember how you make them feel, right? So how they remember working with you? So I’m trying to also level up how I communicate? How I work with folks? Being able to include folks in things that we’re doing on our team and then also leveraging business impact as well. I think that’s another big key part.
I think of leveling up in careers in general is just being able to tie back what you’re doing to the goals of the business. So I think alluded to the storytelling piece as well. I think that’s another big part of that is just being able to tie that back to, “Hey, here’s the story that we tell about our customers. Here’s the opportunity that I’m trying to unlock with their pain and then how this translates to how the business can thrive by helping customers.”
So yeah, I’m just trying to tie all these things together. Be a good person, be a good human at the same time. I think it’s very much so about how as well, how you get to certain places in life and also professionally? I think those things do matter and how the impression that you leave on folks? So I’m just trying to do things sustainably and make sure that I’m having that impact along the way and growing.
I consider myself a lifelong learner as I’ve taught myself a lot of things, but there’s a lot more that you can still learn. And I’m just trying to take in as much information and trying to level up as a designer from different avenues, even beyond design, trying to getting to learn more about product. I’m trying to understand the technical engineering side and how to work better with my engineers as well.
So it’s a learning process, but I think if you’re challenging yourself every time to do better and learn more, it’s you don’t do 1% better, you do a little bit good every single day, 1%. And you’ll start looking back to a year, be like, “Wow, I made so much progress.” It didn’t feel it at the time, but damn I did that.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. What advice would you give out there to people that are listening to your story and they want to follow in your footsteps? What would you tell them?

Jeff Jean-Baptiste:
Yeah, I would say be hungry, just be hungry for learning, be hungry to solve problems for people because that’s what these companies are looking for. At the end of the day is aligning your passion like, “Hey, I can do X, Y, and Z really well.” And then a company’s looking for that, but then also you want to align to their… You want your values and motivation to be aligned to that company as well.
So just try to make sure you have the baseline like, “Hey, I have the skills now let’s look at some of these other quote, unquote, “Soft skills.” Like how’s my communication? How’s my storytelling?” Those parts are harder to master, but with practice, you’ll get there. But I think just at the end of the day, I think that talent bars is going up for designers.
And I think what’s going to be a big differentiator for designers that are starting out as well, is being able to pair their design skills, being able to augment their design skills with storytelling and business strategy, because companies are really, really looking for that and making sure you can tie back what you do to those things. It’s just going to be crucial.

Maurice Cherry:
That reminds me a lot of the words of Douglas Davis that we’ve had on the show twice now. He’s the author of a book about-

Jeff Jean-Baptiste:
Business ticket of design.

Maurice Cherry:
… yeah, exactly. It’s about making sure that you’re able to bring those things to the table because in terms of visual design, and this is pandemic aside, your visual design skills are a dime a dozen. And honestly there’s probably always going to be someone that could do it for better, cheaper or faster. If you’re able to bring some advantage to the table, along with your design that’s what’s going to be the differentiator like you said.

Jeff Jean-Baptiste:
Yeah, yeah. I read that book and I remember that as well. That was a key unlock for me in my mind. I was like, “Wow.” There’s a lot of folks who have great design craft and it’s great to look at it. You can look all over dribble and see all that awesome design, but none of those are solving business problems. Most of them, anyways, they’re just there for aesthetic folks.
Just look at it for pleasure, but actually what does it solve when you look at business at the end of the day, that’s what you’re there to do. They hired you to produce these outcomes for the business. There’s a goals that they’re trying to attain. And I think as designers, we of heard, “Hey, design wants to see the table.” All right, we’re at the table now. Yeah.
Now, at the table, you got to be able to have that business speak. You have to be able to tell that story and be able to tie these things back to business outcomes. So yeah, I think Douglas Davis book is excellent read. I would definitely recommend every designer to read that. And then yeah, I’ve done some work as well in trying to level up my business skills and design and trying to pair that impact and was great at Gusto too, we did a workshop with designer fund as well to talk about that and learn more about how you can bring that business impact into your work and tell that story?
So it’s definitely something that we think we invest in ourselves and our designers at Gusto so that tells you a lot about how important this is? The business cares about leveling up their designers to understand that so that’s super important.

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

Jeff Jean-Baptiste:
You know, I’m at this crosswords where you think about a designer or any profession where you’re an IC and you think the next step is logically going into management or people management. I never saw myself in people management and I’m not sure that I do, but I know I do like to be able to mentor folks, mentoring a designer, I guess.
So right now, and it’s super rewarding to hear their experiences and how they’re approaching network. And I’m starting to get more comfortable with that type of work. But I could as much see myself as still being an IC at a higher level in the future, as well as maybe dialing into people management, because I think there’s some rewarding work. It’s very different work. It’s not like, “Oh, I go to people management, I’m going to get on a promotion.” It’s a different level of work. You’re in the people business. You’re there to empower the folks that report to you and help unblock them to help them to develop.
So I think that’s a way of being able to be that resource for other people and just being able to pass on knowledge that you have and to help others grow. I think that’s awesome. I think at the end of the day, if you have a passion for helping people as designers, that’s what you’re doing, but going into people management is another way to do that as well.
I’m empowering and helping someone else to help other people and help unblock them as well and guide them. So that might be a path for me, but we’ll see, I’m still learning and I’m very much so in IT space right now, but we’ll see what the future holds. Maybe we’ll have a podcast in the future. You can ask me again.

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

Jeff Jean-Baptiste:
Yeah, I’m on Twitter mainly. Twitter is my jam, but also I’m on LinkedIn. Those are the main two places that you can connect with me. You can reach out, you can DM if you have any questions and I’d love to talk to people. I love to chat. I’m pretty open. So yeah, just hit me up on there.

Maurice Cherry:
All right, sounds good. Well, Jeff Jean-Baptiste, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. I think what really comes across to me as you describe your story and even the work that you’re doing right now is that there’s this energy and there’s this passion for what you do that really, I think shines through. It’s one thing, like you said, to be able to roll with the punches with the way that the current environment is going.
But the thing that sets you apart from other designers is what you’re bringing to the table. And I think more so than just your design skills and your business skills, you’re bringing yourself to the table. You’re showing up as a very personable, energetic person. And I think people will be able to really feel that from this interview, they can get that sense of this is who you are and this is what you bring to the table. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Jeff Jean-Baptiste:
Maurice, thanks so much. I just want to say this was awesome time talking to you and yeah, I think what you’re doing is well for the design community and Black designers and practitioners and engineers at large has been great. This is a show I’ve actually listened to way back and earlier in my career. So I would attribute a lot of my success to this podcast. So thanks.

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