Manny Ikomi

Photo: @queerjay

I love that Manny Ikomi has adopted a philosophy of “lift as you climb” as it relates to his career. Manny works as a UX design consultant for IBM iX, but he’s also a design educator and even streams some of his personal web development and UX projects on Twitch. It was great chatting it up and learning about how he balances his work with community outreach.

We started off diving into Manny’s journey from discovering interactive design and UX, to hitting a career ceiling and pursuing further education. Manny also spoke about teaching at his alma mater, his aspirations on working for public sector institutions, and his podcast Gay, Geeky + Tired. Hopefully Manny’s story will inspire you to make a positive impact in the world!

Interview Transcript

Maurice Cherry:

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

Manny Ikomi:

So my name is Manny Ikomi. I’m a UX designer at IBM currently, and also recently, I am adjunct faculty teaching an interactive design course at Bunker Hill Community College.

Maurice Cherry:

Nice. How’s your year been going so far?

Manny Ikomi:

So far, it’s been a bit of a whirlwind. I think there’s definitely been some really good ups and some really low downs. But at the end of the day, I think the net ending of that is still growing and succeeding in the things that I want to do so far. And there’s still more to come, I guess. So, still with a lot of optimism, it’s been going well.

Maurice Cherry:

How would you say you’ve grown and improved over the past year? Have you noticed anything in particular?

Manny Ikomi:

So I started at IBM in June of last year of 2022. That first year was like a little trial by fire because of the project that I was working on. But I also had access to a lot of really great mentors; people in my network, both inside and outside of the company. And so professionally, I think there was just such an immense growth in that stretch zone, that I like to call it, within my first year. And so now that I’m a little bit over a year in, as of June of this year, I’ve kind of, like, leveled out. The honeymoon phase is a bit over, and I’m kind of just like doing the thing now. Things that I thought maybe I wasn’t capable of, like a year ago. I guess I’m capable of now — teaching being one of them.

I think probably most recent, a little bit of recency bias. But teaching has been something that has been on my mind to do for a little while, ever since a professor of mine kind of planted the seeds, like when I graduated from the college that I’m teaching at now, which is another story. But it’s been a really great experience so far, like, teaching IBM only like four weeks into my class. It’s my first time teaching ever, and for the most part, it’s also been going really well on top of just working at IBM and doing other things. And interestingly enough, there’s also a lot of overlap between some of the work that I’m doing now and some of the things I’m doing for my course this year has been definitely a year of growth and stretching and learning and teaching. So sometimes teaching also is a really great way to learn. So it’s been really great.

Maurice Cherry:

Nice. Let’s talk about your work at IBM, specifically IBM iX, where you work, like you said, as a UX designer. Tell me more about that.

Manny Ikomi:

So yeah. IBM iX. So IBM, for those of you who maybe don’t know, because they’re not as recognized, I guess, of a brand anymore, especially for younger folks, it stands for International Business Machines. It’s a very old company. There’s lots of history. They hold a lot of patents for things interestingly that I learned about. Most notably, I think, like the magnetic stripe on credit cards is something that I never realized that they had essentially invented. And so they’ve been a very large technology company for a very long time.

And over the years, I think they evolved from more like hardware and stuff. And then now they do mostly software and consulting, so they have their own cloud offerings. And then I’m in the Consulting part of the business. And then iX, which stands for Interactive Experience, is a smaller bubble within IBM Consulting. And what I do there as a UX designer, I guess, like all of us will say, it depends. It depends on the project, it depends on the client. Because ultimately I’m considered a consultant as opposed to an in house designer. So I don’t necessarily work on IBM’s cloud services and software and products.

I actually work on clients of IBM who come to the company and say, “hey, we need UX designers for this”, or “we need design services for some sort of initiative”. And through that, I’ve really gotten to do a whole bunch of stuff, particularly within my first year, I could be doing anything from contextual inquiry and design research, traveling to clients on site doing observational research, typical, like user interface prototyping, working in Figma, doing demos and things like that. Usability testing, enterprise design thinking, which is kind of like their methodology around design thinking and how we deliver design services. Yeah, I’ve pretty much done, I think, the whole gamut of user experience, design and really just design in general. I’ve really expanded my view, I think, kind of going back to the other question about how I’ve grown. My view of what design is and how it works and what I do has definitely been a lot more expansive beyond just the tangible artifacts and things that we make.

Maurice Cherry:

Well, it sounds like your day to day work is pretty varied then. Like you said, you’re either researching, you’re doing site visits, et cetera. It sounds like there’s a lot of variety in the work that you’re able to do.

Manny Ikomi:

Yeah, there definitely is. And some of that is for better or for worse, I guess, because it turns you into a little bit of a generalist, which some people have opinions about. But I think at least at this point in my career, because it’s a little bit more earlier on, it’s good for me to have that kind of exposure and growth opportunities to try and do different things, especially when the risk is low for me personally. Right? Yeah, I mean, I get to work on a whole bunch of stuff. Most recently, the project that I’ve been working on is a little bit more on the strategic end and getting a local state government to actually adopt some of IBM’s design thinking methodology, which really kind of lines up to what I was talking about earlier, about teaching people about design now as like an adjunct faculty instructor. So there’s also been some really interesting overlap and ways in which I’m now delivering design that I never really considered possible up until recently. So that’s been interesting. But yeah, it’s been a really great growth and learning experience so far.

Maurice Cherry:

I kind of want to talk a little bit about that generalist part that you just mentioned there. I know there’s this book by David Epstein called “Range”. I don’t know if you’ve heard about it.

Manny Ikomi:

You know what, it sounds familiar now that you say that. I think I might have saved a sample to my Kindle at one point and never ended up buying it.

Maurice Cherry:

But it’s called “Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World”. And it does sort of make the case for why generalists are…they’re really sort of sought after in a way. I’m curious though, because you do so much, are you finding there’s a particular part of UX that you prefer over others?

Manny Ikomi:

Yeah, that’s something I’ve been kind of thinking about a little bit lately ,and I guess due to the fact of my generalist nature, it kind of goes beyond just design and also into web development too. And so this area that I’ve been kind of occupying, at least not necessarily within IBM, but just in general as I upskill and just learn different things. I’m also like a self taught front-end web developer and so I’ve been thinking a lot about the intersections of experience, design and web development and the opportunities there for people who have that kind of hybrid skill set and can really, I guess, specialize in there. Despite considering myself a generalist in some ways, I specialize in others. So the areas that I think I’m really liking the most is research.

There are things that I’ve learned about design research and psychology and humans and their behaviors just from watching them interact with designs that I’ve made or others that I just find so fascinating that just kind of lends itself to my own just like innate sense of curiosity and wanting to learn. But then there’s also, interestingly enough, the complete flip side of that, which is like the more logistical, I guess, x and y’s ones and zeros codes and things like actually developing and building the things that I design in some tool and actually making it a real thing, because that’s kind of where I started. And that’s how I really transitioned into the work that I do now, is I started as a graphic designer and then I became interested in web design and then I would create these web designs, but I couldn’t actually put it on the Internet and have it be a website.

And all kind of roads, basically, no matter how hard I tried to avoid coding, were just like, basically “if you want to do it, you got to do it yourself.”

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah.

Manny Ikomi:

So I learned coding through that and then now it’s just kind of been a skill that’s really stuck with me, I guess, along the way. It’s not a skill that I get to use or a muscle that I get to flex all the time, but it does surface in some other interesting ways, especially when it comes to collaborating with other developers and just thinking a little bit more logically about the designs that I’m creating and their ability to be feasibly implemented. So I would say between the design engineering part…so that kind of hybrid of making a design and actually being able to build it, but also some of the user research aspects of it and strategy, which I guess is kind of everything, but also specifically at the same time.

Maurice Cherry:

Well, I think it’s good to have that sort of generalist, I think, sort of mindset as well as skill set. I mean, back in the day when the Web was really just first starting to become something, everyone sort of had to become a generalist in some way. Like you designed it, you had to code it, you had to slice it up, et cetera, and put it on the Web. Of course, now it’s so interesting with companies because it seems like companies want specialists and yet when you look at their job descriptions, what they really want is a generalist that has a specialization. So they kind of want that…what do they call it?

Manny Ikomi:

T-shaped.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, like the T-shaped designer or whatever where you’ve got this broad set of skills. Like, I saw something for this company; they wanted like a social media manager, but then they also needed them to be a graphic designer and they also needed to know motion design. And I was like, those are entirely different things. What you want is a designer. It sounds like you want a designer that has social media experience, but they were like, no, we want a social media manager, but then you want this person doing motion design. I don’t know if that’s also just a byproduct of how messed up the job market is right now, but I’ve seen a lot of that.

Manny Ikomi:

Definitely, I’ve seen a lot of it.

Maurice Cherry:

What are some of the projects that you’ve worked on that you can talk about?

Manny Ikomi:

For a lot of reasons, obviously, I can’t talk about a lot of details. Probably the level to what I can say is the first project that I worked on while I was at IBM was basically in the realm of safety. And so the idea was that people who were working in a manufacturing facility could record and take pictures of safety violations or safety issues that they might find and then be able to report that through a system that we developed. So the application of actually reporting and observing safety issues, and then like a whole process and chain of people involved essentially like a service design around people on the front end actually recording issues, and then all the way in the back end, actually analyzing issues and doing some predictive analytics and things like that. And then the most recent project that I’m on right now with a local state government is basically helping them adopt human-centered design thinking processes and methods and frameworks. And the way that IBM does that is through their enterprise design thinking framework, which I’ve come to really like and appreciate. It was one of those things that I wish I had known about as a student and definitely kind of opened my world to the possibilities of what design can be and how it can manifest itself, I think. And then ever since then, it’s kind of just become this thing where I’m like, “wow, it’s more than just the artifacts that we make.”

It’s also the way that we think and how we convey our ideas to others, how people interpret our ideas. And it’s really just kind of expanded my view, I guess, of what it is. But yeah, those are probably the highest level I can get with those two specific projects. The first one I was on for just under a year, and that was pretty much the majority of my entry level experience, getting hired into IBM as an entry level professional hire. And that first project was really great. I had a great team that I worked with. I got to travel a little bit as part of it, and it was a really great experience. There were parts of it that were challenging, definitely, as with any project or design engagement. But ultimately I’m really thankful for that first project and the people that I got to work with and I’m hoping to reach out to them again the end of this year to just kind of check in and see where the work has gone since I’ve left the project.

And then this more recent project that I was talking about in terms of design adoption, that one just recently kicked off like a few weeks ago. So we’re still in the early stages, but the team is also looking really great to work with and so far it’s been great. So the work has just been very varied and interesting and every time I just feel like I’m learning something new or learning something different about design than I thought was ever possible, like maybe like two or three years ago. So it’s just fascinating.

Maurice Cherry:

Now, you talked just a little bit there about one of the projects having predictive analytics, which of course makes me think about sort of this current era that we’re in of artificial intelligence and machine learning. And there’s a number of different sort of cutting edge technologies now that have clearly bled into the mainstream that I think have been going on for a while, like AR, VR, et cetera, but now they’re becoming mainstream sort of things.

How do you see UX evolving with these new technologies?

Manny Ikomi:

I haven’t put too much thought into this. I think, obviously you know, obviously the glaring kind of observation here is with generative AI, right? And like ChatGPT and OpenAI and all this stuff that’s come out recently. I think ultimately, at least in the specific realm of generative AI, it kind of offers an opportunity to actually augment the work that we do as designers. And in some places, I guess, yeah, it will replace some jobs, but I think ultimately it will also kind of augment the way that we do work. And there are products now that are out that kind of help user researchers find patterns in their interviews and the transcripts using AI and things like that that are just really interesting. So there are areas where AI is kind of like enhancing the work that we do and allows us to kind of augment the work and be more productive. Things like AR and VR. I actually haven’t had too many experiences with, not really even in college. However, the Apple Vision Pro device that was announced by Apple earlier this year, I thought that was really interesting and had a bit of a rabbit hole of thoughts around that in terms of experience, design, and how.

For the longest time, a lot of our designs for user interfaces have kind of been at least for digital user interfaces have been kind of confined to these rectangles that you’re probably looking at right now in these screens. And so with AR and VR experiences and mixed reality with products like the Apple Vision Pro, it’s kind of like it allows us to step outside of those bounds, really, of that rectangle screen that we’re so used to designer for. And it really opens up a lot more possibilities for a lot more intuitive and natural interfaces for us that maybe we just have not developed even usability patterns for yet, or rules of thumb for. And so I find that like a very interesting area that’s kind of opening up. I imagine there are much more qualified people than me to talk about that, but it is something that I’ve been thinking about, especially since technology, it’s kind of hard to stop progress in that sense. And so as experience designers, I guess we’re also kind of well positioned in the sense that almost everything is an experience and almost everything is designed in one shape or another. I think we’ll end up having a hand in it and potentially not only just consuming the technology, but also producing ways for people to interact with it too.

Maurice Cherry:

I mean, I think, as you mentioned, the way that the technology is rapidly advancing, I mean, I feel like this time last year, companies were just starting to kind of test the waters a little bit to see what they could do. And now I think within that past year, every major tech company has made some sort of announcement about how they’re using AI or they’re using like a ChatGPT or some sort of generative type of new technology in the work that they’re doing, almost kind of shoehorning it in in some mean. Let’s just talk about the obvious — Google Search. Google Search now will bring up AI stuff right along with these SEO-optimized results that will come up in your regular search engine results page, and it’s a little difficult, I think sometimes to be able to discern what is good with that and what’s bad with that. Like, I think everyone’s trying to sort of race to find how they can use technology, how they can make it work without really stopping to think, is it necessary? Do we have to do this?

Is it just a competition thing? Like business competition? Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. I mean, I feel like after a while we’ll start seeing appliances that have AI. We already have stuff like smart fridges and smart toasters and stuff, but I don’t need my toaster to have ChatGPT or whatever, just toast the bread. I mean, that’s an extreme case, but you know what I mean.

Manny Ikomi:

I totally get what you mean. I think that’s where I have the negative sort of perspective on AI particularly, is really with any sort of emerging technology, especially for these really larger tech companies, like IBM included. it’s kind of like the rat race to figure out who’s going to be able to monetize it and make the most revenue with the technology and kind of have their moat. So to speak. In that case, that’s where we end up with like, oh, let’s just slap AI on everything and see what happens. Without really, to your point, stopping to think about the impact, whether it’s positive or negative, to the people that AI is being deployed on, in the same way that it can be a really immense help and benefit to society in some case, it can also be very dangerous. And I don’t think companies are really incentivized right now to really think about it in that more ethical or social impact lens because that’s just not going to make the money. And that’s the way the world turns, essentially, right?

Maurice Cherry:

So there’s this startup, I’ll say it now, I was thinking about if I should even mention this, but I’ll go ahead and say it. There’s a startup based out of Seattle that does like AI text to speech. Essentially they cloned one of the host voices of Planet Money for NPR and did like a whole episode with this person’s voice and it sounds pretty mean. You know, I think there are still going to be certain eccentricities in the human voice that humans will be able to discern, but of course the models are getting better for it and things like that. But they’re one of the few companies, the company is called WellSaid Labs. They’re one of the few companies I’ve seen that actually has like a code of ethics behind the work that they do because it could be so easy for someone to use their service that they offer use that technology for extremely nefarious purposes.

Manny Ikomi:

Right?

Maurice Cherry:

But they actually have a code of ethics behind about what customers do with that technology and how they even plan on implementing and using it, which I would like to see more companies if they’re going to be implementing. These features I would like to also have them talk about, like we said before, those ramifications of what it means to include all of this. And who is it really serving? And this is something that we saw with, like, Bitcoin and with Web three and all this sort of stuff, where the use of all this generative AI also uses a lot of natural resources, which is something that I don’t think we regularly would think about because computers have been such an ever present just an ever present sort of thing. But I remember I was reading something I want to say, I don’t know, a couple of days ago about how Microsoft’s water usage or something has increased by 30% because of the fact that they’re like using AI within oh wait, I’m looking at it now. AI usage fuel spike in Microsoft’s water consumption, it spiked 34% because they’re using it in all these other types of programs and stuff, which you would think water, why water? But it takes more servers, space and power to do all this AI stuff, which means it has to be cooled in some way with air conditioning. It’s all tied in, so it’s not really happening in a vacuum. I would just like to see more companies talk about the ethics behind why they’re doing what they’re doing instead of just rolling out innovation after innovation that I guess we’re supposed to OOH and awe over in some fancy presentation.

Manny Ikomi:

Yeah. My perspective is obviously kind of biased because I work for IBM. But recently, with the whole Watson X announcement thing that you may or may not have heard of, I think part of it, and IBM does, I think. Have pretty decent programming and ethics and training around the use of AI, because that’s kind of like, one of our strategic areas that we’re trying to be leaders in. And so the whole rollout for Watson X was kind of centered around three different areas. There was Watson X AI data and then governance. And governance, I think, is really that part of it that kind of talks about making sure that it’s responsible and transparent and explainable. And then we also have even like an enterprise design thinking course where the methodology for design thinking is tailored around.

Like if you want to implement AI and you’re using a design thinking framework or initiative to do that, there’s also training that’s kind of specific to that as well. That kind of goes into some of the what is the ideal outcome or impact that we want to have, and is AI really even necessary for that in the first place? Right, so it wants you to think about those things. Now, in my personal experience, have know deployed AI in some way with IBM? Not really. So I haven’t actually gotten the chance to user these learning materials, but I think at the very least, they’re there as a resource for us employees to use. And it is in IBM’s interest for us to be very smart about the user of AI because in some ways we are kind of seen as leaders or innovators in that space. There is definitely an aspect of companies need to have more ethics and intent around how they’re using AI, where it gets deployed, what the impact is, who’s using it, who’s being affected by it. I think I would like to see more from that from every company, IBM included. But from what I’ve seen so far, I think at least at a programming and learning level, IBM seems to be very aware of that.

And it’s also from a risk and compliance perspective because we’re mostly operate as a B2B or enterprise to enterprise business. Privacy, security and compliance are things that really large businesses that IBM really care about because it kind of is what amounts to their risk and being litigated against. Right. And so when we deploy AI for a client that uses IBM’s technology, we do have to have a certain amount of ownership over what the technology does and who it impacts because we’re. Like, the designers and deployers of those things.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, we all have to, I just think, be a bit more cognizant of the usage of these tools and what they mean and what the greater sort of impact of it is. But I think we’ve nerded out enough about that. So let’s kind of shift the focus here and talk more about you. Let’s learn more about Manny. Tell me about where you’re from.

Manny Ikomi:

I’m mostly from the Boston area. I grew up mostly in towns called Saugas and Malden, and a little bit in Revere. And that’s kind of like, known as, like, the North Shore area of Boston, I guess you could say. But I’ve pretty much lived like, within 20 to 15 minutes outside of Boston for my entire life. And I’ve worked around the same area pretty much my entire life. I went to school around the area pretty much throughout my entire life, too.

Maurice Cherry:

Now, growing up, were you always kind of interested in technology? Was it something that your parents kind of tried to get you into?

Manny Ikomi:

I would say I’ve always been interested in it. I think what led me to becoming a designer and my interest in it was that combination of being able to merge my creative interests and creative outputs and curiosity with more technical implementations and things like that. I remember in high school, I went to a vocational high school for context. So we had kind of like vocational programs as part of the regular high school programming.

Maurice Cherry:

Okay.

Manny Ikomi:

And so that’s kind of where I got my first taste of, like, I can be creative and make something and have it be like a physical, tangible thing. And I just thought that was so cool because, one, I was really bad at drawing, even though I was trying to be creative. But I did find that I had an affinity for things like the software and tooling that was available in the computer labs that we have. The shop was called Graphic Communications, by the way. So that’s kind of what led into my whole six years at a printing company and things like that. But that’s really where I started to develop that interest for the combination of creativity and technology. Although at the time the technology was printing, not as we would think about it, I guess today from a UX standpoint.

Maurice Cherry:

Let’s talk more about Bunker Hill. Of course, you mentioned earlier that you are a teacher there, which we’ll get into, but that’s where you started off in college. You went to Bunker Hill Community College, majored in graphic arts and visual communications. Tell me, what was your time like there? Do you feel like it really kind of prepared you?

Manny Ikomi:

Bunker Hill was kind of interesting because I was kind of facing some, I guess, conflicting realities. That was actually a very huge period of growth for me, I think, relatively to where I’m at now. If I really reflect on it so with Bunker Hill, I think the programming that they had there at the time was pretty good. I think from a design perspective, it was definitely skewed more towards those kind of typical graphic design programs where your first year is kind of like your foundation year, you’re required to do a whole bunch of drawing and painting and kind of like more artsy stuff. And then in your, I guess, second year of the Associates program, that’s where you start getting into more specific studio level courses around typography, which is where I think my trajectory in design kind of started to skyrocket when I finally recognized the importance of it and my ability to influence that as a designer. Now that’s always the one thing I tell people if they learn nothing about design is Typography is like 90 or 80% of the stuff that you need to know if you want to become a designer or at least design something well if you’re not formally trained as one from there. I spent quite a few years there because I was a part time student and then I was working full time at the Print Shop, and that was mostly because I couldn’t afford to go to a full four year institution. I didn’t really feel comfortable with the idea of taking out a whole bunch of student loans.

And although I had pretty decent support from my parents, it wasn’t something that I also felt like, I guess I didn’t want them to be fiscally responsible. I don’t really think we were in a position to do that, especially at the time that I was doing community college classes. So it was really just kind of me like, finding my way, figuring it out. When I first started there, I tried to take twelve credits worth of courses and work full time at the print shop, which lasted maybe all of like four to six weeks before I was, this is definitely not going to work because that was just a lot. And then finally I found like a good balance between two classes a semester, which ultimately ended up requiring me to go twice as long to finish my associate’s degree. So it actually took me four years as opposed to two, but for the most part I was able to go through community college without any loans whatsoever, which was extremely helpful to me. Now I’m thanking myself much later in the future for being smart enough to think about that during that time because I had to be so, I guess, independent in that sense and really think about myself and my needs and ultimately my own personal finances. That’s kind of where I started to really think about my personal finance money, what success meant to me, becoming more financially literate in the decisions that I was making and the impact that it might have on me later.

Learning about debt and compound interest and investing and all those things. And luckily I made a lot of really smart choices during that time to the point where now, financially, I’m doing things less so out of fear, which was kind of like the original motivation for me to do that because I didn’t want to be broke. And I had some minorly traumatic experience around involving money and things like that when I was growing up. So it kind of started from that place of fear. And then now that I’m finally in a place where I feel much more well established, much more secure, not only in my professional life, but also my personal life and just who I am, those things are more so. They’re not top of mind for me and I don’t have to obsess about them, but I have enough of a foundation to think about it more as an opportunity rather than a risk, if that makes sense.

Maurice Cherry:

No, that makes a lot of sense. I mean, college is a transitory time for a lot of people for a lot of different reasons. And for you, you were going to college and working at the same time. Tell me about how you sort of balance that.

Manny Ikomi:

I was not very good at it. I guess work-life balance, I guess, is something that I’ve always kind of struggled with a little bit. It originally stemmed from like, I always need to have something to do. I always need to be busy, I always need to be productive. And that was kind of a very unhealthy way of thinking about it because I was kind of motivated by that fear of not having money or opportunity. But the way that I balanced it was thankfully the company that I was working with at the time, they were actually pretty supportive of me going to college and doing what I needed to do. So there were some days where I had class during the middle of the day and they had no problem with me leaving the office to I was working in the office five days a week for that job. They had no problem with me leaving work to go to class for like four hours and then do what I needed to do to get my degree at Bunker Hill. And so that was really helpful because it gave me a lot of autonomy and really, as long as I got my work done, it really wasn’t a big deal for them.

So that was like a huge help. And I know a lot of people just don’t have that sort of opportunity or luxury. That being said, they definitely did not subsidize, nor were they in a position to help me subsidize my education, but it definitely gave me, I think, the flexibility I needed. And then it was really up to me to just be very good about time management, make sure I was keeping up with my assignments, making sure my work obligations were taken care of. Sometimes that required really long nights. Other times it required really early mornings. I wasn’t as much of a social butterfly, or I didn’t really get to do all of the social things that are part of a college experience that people might want or be accustomed to. I didn’t really have a dormitory experience.

There were sacrifices in that, but I think ultimately I came out better for it, and I would definitely do it again if I had to. I just might be a little bit more forgiving with myself in terms of working myself too hard, I guess you could say.

Maurice Cherry:

Trust me, you missed nothing about the dorm experience. There’s nothing about that you have missed. I don’t know if you have siblings or not, but you’ve missed nothing. Consider yourself lucky.

Manny Ikomi:

Yeah. It ended up working out, I think, a little bit, because once I transferred to Lesley and finished my bachelor’s degree there, although I didn’t get the full know experience there either, I did end up, you know, slowly making friends throughout the entire college experience who did have the dorm life. And we did go over each other’s places and play video games and hang out and do homework together. And not all of them were from the same college. But Boston is…there’s a lot of college-level institutions here, so I got to do some of that. But I guess you’re right. I didn’t really miss much, either.

Maurice Cherry:

I feel like Boston is a pretty extremely diverse college mean. Of course, you have the well known colleges like MIT, Harvard, et cetera, but then you’ve got, like you said, Lesley, you got Bunker Hill. There’s other universities in and around the sort of Boston metro area, so it makes sense that there would be a lot of commingling like that. Yeah, I mean, Atlanta, in a way is sort of like that, too. I mean, I went to Morehouse and there were opportunities where you would, of course, hang out with students from Georgia Tech, from Georgia State. Spelman is right across the street, Clark-Atlanta is right across the street. So you’re just all kind of commingling together. I mean, Atlanta really is a big college town. I don’t know if a lot of folks realize that it’s a pretty unique college town because the number of HBCUs we have, but it’s really a big college town, so you have all these opportunities to meet people doing all sorts of things at all sorts of different places.

Manny Ikomi:

Yeah, I never really thought of ATL like that, to be honest. I think one person who I met was from the Savannah College of Art and Design, which I think is in Georgia, if correctly based out of Savannah, Georgia.

Maurice Cherry:

We have a campus here in Atlanta, too, right? Yeah. And you mentioned this kind of before we started recording, but one of your professors at Lesley was actually a recent guest on Revision Path.

Manny Ikomi:

Yes. So, yeah, shout out to Shanae Chapman. Ever since you reached out to me and I discovered the podcast, I’ve definitely gone in and done my due diligence. And I just think what you’re doing is really cool again. And it’s really kind of surreal, actually, I think, to kind of be part of this in the same way that they were, knowing that some of those people I either looked up to or I learned from or had some sort of influence in my life, personally or professionally. And we’ve also had some other IBM designers on the podcast as, like, I listened to a couple episodes way back with Oen Hammonds and Shani Sandy, who are both, like, design executives at IBM still. Yeah, it’s kind of a very small, interesting world, I guess, as we were speaking earlier. But, yeah, it was a really full circle moment.

I haven’t talked to Shanae in a little while, but recently we did kind of have a bit of a go back and forth because she was interested in the talk that I had done earlier this year. But, yeah, I just think it’s really cool and it’s honestly kind of an honor to be doing this right now.

Maurice Cherry:

I’m kind of…I have a question about sort of…I just kind of want to go back to your college experience for a bit because, like we said before, you were working and you were going to college at the same time. What made you want to continue your studies in design? Because it sounds like you already had — if I’m wrong here, please correct me — but it sounds like you had a nice kind of set up because the company was very flexible about you going to class and still working for them. It sounded like they really supported you. What made you want to continue your educational career?

Manny Ikomi:

Yeah, so that was a combination of quite a few things. I think, for context, the company that I worked at for six years, it was a small, family-owned business. We weren’t like some large…we weren’t like a Vistaprint or anything like that. And although it was a really great experience, I think I hit my ceiling there in terms of growth and opportunity relatively quickly, probably in hindsight, within the first three years. But the reason I stayed was, like you said, because of that flexibility that I really liked, and also the pay was decent enough to get me through college, do the things that I needed to do, have a little fun on the side. It was good for what it was.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah.

Manny Ikomi:

And then I think as I started to become more interested in things like interactive design and user experience and things like that, that I really didn’t even know existed as career paths, really, I kind of stumbled upon them by virtue of learning how to code and kind of self teaching myself that stuff on the side. Hill I was working there. I just basically hit a ceiling there. And then when COVID happened. I graduated Bunker Hill in the fall of 2019, and I had applied to Lesley. I had got my transfer papers, and thankfully they had a matriculation agreement, which made it really easy for me that they just take your associate’s degree, no questions asked, that the credits all get applied where they should, and you start as a junior in their bachelor’s program. And at the time, I was reluctant about doing it because it was going to require that I took out student loans, but I did get a really great scholarship. And the fact that they took all of my credits was really huge, because when I did the math, financially speaking, it actually made it lower cost for me to go there and do the program that I wanted than, say, to transfer and go to a state school like Salem State or Mass Art were probably the other alternatives that I looked into.

So even though the sticker price of Lesley was a lot higher, it was actually going to be net cheaper because of the scholarship that I got. And they took all of my credits, which some of the other colleges may not have been willing to do.

Maurice Cherry:

That’s great.

Manny Ikomi:

Yeah. And so from there, that kind of made the decision really easy for me. And then when COVID happened, the world blew up in the spring of 2020. I actually decided to take a gap for like a semester and then start in the fall of 2020. Of course, when I had planned to do that, I didn’t know COVID was going to blow up the entire world, but thus it did. And so in some ways, I actually kind of avoided that initial shock to my education experience, because, like everywhere else in the world, everyone was trying to figure out how to do virtual class instruction if they’ve never done that before. There was a whole bunch of new challenges that happened as a result of that. And so I kind of skid by those for the most part.

And then when I started in fall of 2020, I was still working at the print shop. But because I was working at the print shop remotely now, because it just wasn’t safe for us to be in the office, still, I was able to do Lesley full time and work remotely for the print shop.

Maurice Cherry:

Okay.

Manny Ikomi:

And then in 2021, in January, because my hours and income from the print shop was drastically reduced just because business was slow and it was really tough time for everyone. And so, thankfully, I had prepared for some of this. Because going back to financial literacy stuff, I had prepared an emergency fund and kind of knew, worst case scenario, I would be able to make it through college for the most part, even if I wasn’t working a full time gig. And I could just find maybe some freelance work and stuff on the side. So in 2021, I decided to leave. I put in my notice. I left on really great terms with them overall. Actually, recently, I ended up asking them to do some print work for me for a side thing with IBM.

But, yeah, from there it was just like full steam ahead with Lesley. I was like, I just want to get my education done. Out of the way. I know interactive design is the area that IBM interested in. I know it will somehow bring me to some interesting path with coding in some way. And at the time, I didn’t really know what user experience was until a particular studio course that I had, which just so happened to be with two IBM distinguished designers who were my faculty and they were the ones who ended up asking me to apply, like, a year later when I was a senior into the role that I’m in now, essentially.

Maurice Cherry:

Oh, nice. I was going to ask how you sort of came across IBM with the work that you were doing, but it sounds like you already had this kind of support system in.

Manny Ikomi:

Yeah, I think it really started kind of like, way back in vocational school because I had a pretty good technical understanding of the tooling and the software and some of the processes for design in terms of the tactical aspects and visual design, working in hind design, all that stuff. And so for me, the real value that I got out of college was the networking, the mentorship, the one on one time. And a lot of the theory and history behind design was most valuable to me, so I could really focus on that rather than trying to struggle with some of the tooling and learning new methods that I was already familiar with. And so when it came time to really work on projects, the technical aspects of doing the design work and making the artifacts and deliverables was actually relatively easy for me. What I was most challenged by was, like, the strategic parts of it and kind of training myself to think like a designer, not just make pretty designs.

Maurice Cherry:

I hear you. Okay. And now, let’s talk about what you sort of mentioned before about teaching at Bunker Hill. I feel like that might be an interesting experience to go back to your alma mater years later and now teach. What made you decide to go that route?

Manny Ikomi:

It’s definitely been a full circle moment that I’m still kind of, I guess, pinching myself for a long time ago. So when I had graduated from Bunker Hill in 2019, a professor of mine who I developed, like, a really great relationship with while I was there for four years, she asked me when I graduated. She said, when you finish your bachelor’s degree, I would love for you to come back and teach the college. And when she said that to me, I was kind of like, what? Because I was like, I just never really considered that as a possibility before. And then ever since she said that, I have kind of noticed getting really positive signals from people that I might be good at doing that. And so over, like, I guess it was kind of like a self-fulfilling prophecy in a way, where if I found it interesting and I thought it was nice, maybe it would happen. I maintained a relationship with that professor for quite a while, and even while I was going through Lesley and doing things, I would always go back to the college and even before I got the role there, do design crits with some of their students and provide networking and opportunities and portfolio reviews, things like that, to kind of give back.

And earlier this year, I had went to a design conference. It was like the first in-person design conference I got to go to since COVID kind of unleashed everything she had just so happened to be there. The professor ended up asking me to teach, and we were just kind of, like, catching up a little bit because we hadn’t talked in a little while, but we email back and forth every once in a while, and she had told me, like, hey, we have adjunct positions opening. We’re looking for people to teach certain courses. I want you to apply, basically. And even still, I was kind of like, well, I’m still just barely my first year into this role at IBM. Am I really even qualified or ready to do this? I was hoping, I think, realistically, to get another maybe four years or five years or so in the industry and doing more practice as a practitioner. But I kind of just kind of said to myself, self, take your own advice.

Like, if the opportunity presents itself, just apply and see what happens, just like I did with IBM. And so, long story short, it was like the worst that they can say is no. Right?

Maurice Cherry:

Right.

Manny Ikomi:

So I applied. I did the interview, I did the teaching demo, and then, yeah, now here I am. So I’m only teaching one class. It’s Wednesday evenings, which works really well with my schedule, considering I also tend to go into the office on Wednesdays, and it’s right down the street from my office pretty much too. And the topic that I’m teaching is interactive design, which is kind of right up my alley since that’s what I studied in college, and now that’s what I’m doing for my job, pretty much. So the stars aligned, I guess you could say.

Maurice Cherry:

How’s the teaching experience been so far?

Manny Ikomi:

So far it’s been, I think, a net positive. I think the teaching aspects of it, working with students, kind of like digging back in some of my own archives and coming up with my own content and assignments. I also spent a lot of time reaching out to some of my own professors and also students that I went to Bunker Hill with and at Lesley as well and kind of doing my own design research. I kind of just approached it as like, well, if I was to design a student experience, I just kind of treated it like any other experience design project, except my users are now students. So approaching it with that mindset kind of really helped me. And from there, I think the parts of it that I like are really going well as far as in class instruction, working with the students, providing feedback on their work. I think it’s probably one of the most valuable things I got out of my design education is like, getting critiques and feedback from other people and getting that other perspective on your work that you might not otherwise get if you’re trying to learn by yourself. And then the parts of it that I don’t like so much really are kind of like the more logistics and administrative stuff around it.

I really struggled with grading in the first two weeks to kind of figure out, like, I probably need a rubric. And then also the learning management system that we use isn’t the most user friendly thing either, which is kind of meta hilarious in a sense because I’m trying to teach my students how to design interactive systems like that. There are parts of it that are bad that come with the good, but I’d say overall it’s been going well. And despite currently maybe potentially having to fail one student if they don’t show up next week, it’s been going overwhelmingly good, I think. But ideally I would like to make it to the end of semester without failing anyone. I definitely did not set out to do that when I started teaching, so it’s kind of unfortunate that they’re just not participating or engaging. And I certainly don’t want to make any assumptions as to why they’re not doing it or assuming that they’re a delinquent of some kind because they may have things going on as a student that I just don’t know about and probably never will. But I did try to make an effort to reach out to that person and be as supportive as possible, as opposed to being punitive and penalizing, despite having to uphold the rules of my syllabus in the classroom and things like that.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, I was an adjunct for two years. I think I taught for two years. It’s 2012 through 2014, I think. I taught a web development course to business majors, and it was a BIS course, like business information systems. And I get that struggle that you’re talking about, like, you go into it. Well, for me, I think the Virgo in me wanted to be like, “hey, this is all wrong.” Like, the way that you’re teaching. I remember going to the dean, like, the first week saying, “we are setting these students up to fail if this is what we’re teaching them, because this is not what we use out in the real world.” Like, if this is what you’re teaching business students, they’re going to go to a company and get laughed at, or they’re going to try to apply for a job and no one’s going to hire them.

And I offered to redo the whole rubric. I’m talking about the grading, the tests, the lessons. I was like, “I’ll redo it and make this into my course that I think they should have.” And they were like, “okay, it’s fine. We don’t care.” And also in that same vein, yeah, you go into it not wanting to fail anyone, and it’s going to happen. It’s going to happen. It’s one of those sad eventualities, and it’s because, oh, how could I put this and I don’t mean this in a derisive way, but students will always try to get one over on their professor. They always will. It doesn’t matter how old they are or anything. They will always try to get one over on their professor. They will give you all kinds of excuses just out of everywhere as to why something did get done, why something didn’t get done. In this case, the syllabus is your friend. The syllabus is the contract between the professor and the student to say, if you’re in this class, these are the things that you have to do in order to succeed in the class. And we had office hours. Students would come to office hours and would wonder why. And it’s not that office hours were included in their grade, but then they would come at the last minute, like, “oh, well, can we meet on this day?” I’m like, “well, that’s not my office hours. “My office hours are on the syllabus because I’m also a working designer, so I can’t go out of my way.” You want to help the students because you’re their teacher, so I get that.

But it’s going to be an inevitability that you’re going to have to fail someone. Students are going to go cry bloody murder to the dean or to whatever, because you’re not fair. You’re a bad teacher. They’re going to leave bad reviews. It’s going to happen. It’s going to happen.

The best thing that you can do is to follow your syllabus, teach the students that are receptive, because there’s just going to be some people you’re just not going to reach. Because I’m assuming you’re doing this in person. Yes, there’s just going to be people that you’re just not going to reach. I think ours was a mix of in person and online, and the online students were the worst. I mean, copying straight from Wikipedia. I’d run it through TurnItIn and get 99% plagiarized. I’m just like, oh my God. And they would swear to you up and down that they wrote it. And it’s like, “I can look at the quality of your written posts in the forum and tell that you didn’t write this. Don’t lie to me.” But it’s one of those things, unfortunately, that’s just going to happen.

Manny Ikomi:

Yeah, it’s interesting that you say that because one of the things that I had done that I had conversations with some people about when I was developing all the content, because the college basically kind of they didn’t really direct me on. Basically, it was like, here’s the course description. Here’s a sample of a syllabus that’s been used previously. Make it your own. So I had a lot of academic freedom, I guess, in that sense of being able to develop the materials the way I wanted to do it. Because, like you were kind of saying when I took this very same course when I was a student, it was not very good. One of the courses I actually took ended up being so bad that I actually went to the dean as a student, complained about the course, got a refund and then still got the credits for the course.

Maurice Cherry:

Wow.

Manny Ikomi:

But I was also a fairly advanced student because I had already had prior experience. I had already kind of known some of the things that were out there that were happening. I also spent a lot of time investing in my learning and education outside of the classroom. So I was very aware of where the college was doing well and not doing so well at the time. And so now coming back into it, I kind of had the same mindset of like, there is no way I’m doing it this way, I’m going to do it my way. Which ultimately creates a lot of work for me in terms of having to come up with all the content and things like that. But it’s also just been kind of like an interesting way to think about my design skills in a different light in terms of designing for instruction and learning as opposed to making profit off of people, I guess. Yeah, so that’s been kind of interesting.

And then on the topic of plagiarism, one of the areas that I talked to people about is, like, using generative AI. I kind of went into it with a mindset of, like, I would rather students use it and use it liberally and experiment with it and not be afraid of it. But come to me with questions because I think ultimately, if I was to put in my syllabus, there’s no use of generative AI allowed one. It’s really hard to detect whether someone’s using it or not, unless, to your point, you’ve kind of gotten to know them a few weeks in. You can kind of see where people are at and kind of what they’re capable of to a certain extent. Right. But for me, it was kind of just like, I know. And I told them on the first day, I was like, when we were going over key parts of the syllabus, I was like, I know that you are going to use generative AI probably whether I allow you to or not.

So just use it, but be conscious of how you’re using it. Cite your usage of it when you do, and provide documentation to me so that I can see how you’re using it. Because there may be parts like kind of we were talking about where it could be harmful or misleading or maybe it’s not giving them the right information that they need and things like that. So that’s been kind of an interesting thing to also navigate. There are a few students who I suspect of using generative AI without disclosing it according to the rules of our syllabus. But for now, I’m kind of letting it slide, mostly because I just haven’t gotten that sense of familiarity with where they’re at and being able to tell one way or another. And I also have seen the negative effects of accusing students of plagiarizing their work or doing something that they are capable of that you just don’t believe. And that can leave a really lasting and poor impression on students because I remember experiencing that once a little bit where because I was working at the printing company, I had access to all kinds of printing equipment, tools, materials, and quality paper, quality design.

I also did a lot of prepress. And so I knew what it took to design something and actually have it be printed in a way that is high quality. And for one of my first projects I did that, I tried to pull out all the stops, like my work let me use what was available. And when I brought in my project, I remember they didn’t believe the work that I did was really mine and that I actually bound the book, printed the book, designed it, and did all of that. And although it wasn’t as relevant to the conversation on generative AI, I still remember that to this day and feeling like, well, if I’m in a student in this scenario who’s really excelling at their projects and doing to the point where you don’t even believe the work is mine, then why am I here, right? You know what I mean? So I try to be very careful about who I accuse or not of using it. And I think ultimately at the end, if they are going to use generative AI to essentially cheat their way through my course, they’re not going to get the return on the educator investment that they’re putting in. So I think ultimately it all ends up in my favor anyway, but the initial impact of that may work in their favor in the short term.

Maurice Cherry:

I’m glad I didn’t teach in the age of AI. I’m so glad because I can only imagine now that it’s and I mean, that was sort of a thing that came up a lot as sort of a stopping point for educators. Like, I think maybe about a year or so ago when Chad GPT really started to become used more commonly was in educational spaces. Professors really being like, prohibiting it, of course, but then also curious about it because the work is sometimes actually kind of good.

And yeah, it’s like if a student is going to mortgage their future away by using generative AI, why are you in school? Why are you even doing it? I mean, I taught business students, so these weren’t even design students. So maybe I came into it with a little bit of a bias because they really were just like, “look, this is an elective. I just need to take this so I can get my business degree and go get my MBA or whatever.” They didn’t really care about design. And not to say that I wanted to make them care about design, but I also didn’t want them to think this was going to just be a cakewalk for them.

Manny Ikomi:

Right.

Maurice Cherry:

Not to say I made it hard on well, I might have made it a little hard on purpose. I would kind of change the course as things went along because like I said, I came in and I really wanted to change things up. I would edit it from like, semester to semester. I would change some things up. And I remember this one student who I failed three times. Not on purpose. I didn’t fail them on purpose. What I’m trying to say but they failed the course three times, and it was because I would change the course slightly, like change certain things, and they would keep using the same homework and materials from the first time that they failed the course.

I would change the nature of the assignment, and they would just turn in the same thing. I’m like, did you not read what the assignment was? Why would you turn in something that’s completely different? Just…students.

Manny Ikomi:

Oh, my God, that’s so funny. I hope a year or two from now, when I’ve hopefully taught this class again, more in the future, that I don’t have students like that because I am a very patient and lenient person, and I often see the big picture of these things, I think, more than my students do. But I really hope I don’t get to that point because that’s when it’ll really start. Like, the shade will start coming out and…are you for real for real? You’re just gonna submit the whole same thing? I really hope I don’t get to that.

Maurice Cherry:

I don’t think you’ll get to that point. Again, you’re teaching design students, so they want to be there for that for the most part. I think you’ll be fine.

Manny Ikomi:

Yeah, it is a requirement. And one of the things that I did on our first day was do, like, a little intro survey to kind of understand where they’re at in terms of their interest in the topic of the course, but also how many hours they’re working outside of the college versus how many credits they’re taking. Mostly to make sure I’m saving students from the mistakes that I made when I started college, because I had no idea what I was doing. But it’s also just good contextually for me to know a little bit about each individual student because that may be one reason or another why they aren’t participating as much or miss a few deadlines here and there and things like that. So it’s good for me to have that kind of in mind here and there.

Maurice Cherry:

Nice. Now along with teaching, along with your work at IBM, you not only stream on Twitch, which I really want to get into, but you have a podcast also. What made you decide to kind of branch out into these other forms of media?

Manny Ikomi:

The way that I describe it to people is…I just like making shit and putting it on the internet. Oh, sorry, I don’t know if I’m allowed to swear, but…

Maurice Cherry:

Oh, you’re fine, you can curse. It’s fine.

Manny Ikomi:

So that’s really kind of the mindset that I guess I kind of approached it with is just, I just want to make stuff and put it out there. Well, I guess I’ll start with, I don’t know, should I start with streaming or the podcast? Which one do you want?

Maurice Cherry:

Let’s talk about streaming first.

Manny Ikomi:

Okay, so for streaming, the way that it kind of happened is during the pandemic, like at the height of lockdown and quarantines and things like that, we were all stuck inside for the most part. And originally I had started as a viewer on Twitch like most people do, and I would primarily watch people play video games and they were mostly within the queer community. I am a gay man for context. I don’t know if I talked about that yet, but yeah, I’m queer as fuck. And I just started watching queer streamers on Twitch who play games and I started playing with them and then I forget what it was that really kind of crossed me over in terms of the boundary of going from Twitch to entertainment, but now as a way to learn more about web development and design, because there are a few of us that stream about design on Twitch, myself included. And then there’s also quite a few and quite a bit more people who stream web development and software engineering within the software and game development category, which is typically where I stream as well. And probably like a year into being a viewer, that’s when I started to think about, well, I’m stuck at home, I’m doing some freelance and consulting work here and there, I’m doing my own thing. Let me just start like a co-working stream and see what happens and just share my work.

And then, because I had been so embedded in the Twitch community and the streamers that I had watched some of which who were still very much my good Judys, as I like to say to this day, even outside of streaming. One of them actually, coincidentally ended up living down the street from me during parts of the COVID quarantine, which is also hilariously coincidental. But those people from the queer gaming community really gave me the viewership that I needed and that initial push of support to become a Twitch affiliate. So that’s basically at the point where you can monetize your stream a little bit, you can have subscribers make emotes and do things like that. That happened within the first two weeks of me streaming and everyone was just so extremely supportive despite having little to no idea what my content was or what I was actually streaming because I was streaming my design work and some of my process. And then one thing led to another and probably now I’m a little bit more removed from that kind of like queer gaming part, but I still do participate in some of the communities and lurk in some streams here that I like to support here and there.

But then I started to really find more of the software and game development community and all of the streamers, and now some of them are also like my friends. I met some of them at TwitchCon last year for the first time, which was really great, and actually this year, later this month or in October, I’m going to TwitchCon again and we’re actually going to do a panel about programming on Twitch. And so I don’t have a significantly huge viewership around my stream or anything like that, but the people who do come and who hang out and who stay, whether it’s other streamer or viewers that I’ve had for years now, some of them have been subscribed to me for over, like, three years. And I’m like, oh, wow, this is crazy. Thank you so much for your support. And some of those people still to this day have no idea what I do, but they just support me and who I am and what I like to share and put out there. And so it’s been a really interesting and net positive way of putting myself out there. Kind of like how you’re talking about in terms of building my personal brand, I guess you could say.

It’s kind of taken on, I guess its own thing, I guess. I definitely don’t do it as much as I used to just because now that I work full time and IBM doing my own course, it’s really hard for me to stream on a regular basis as much as I used to. And so as a result, my viewership and other metrics have kind of gone down since the kind of height of my streaming career, if you want to call it that. But I still do it for funsies and I always did it for fun and I never really cared about the metrics anyway because all I really just wanted to do was just make stuff and put it on the Internet. And so streaming just happened to be the lowest barrier to entry, coincidentally enough for me to do that because when you’re live, you’re live. It’s not like a recording like this where maybe we could potentially edit out some things or something like that. For me, it’s like what you see is what you get. And also, at the same token, I don’t have to worry about editing, I don’t have to worry about scripting or being like a perfectionist on it, which kind of can take away the fun because sometimes I do have that nature about my work.

And so for me, it’s a fun way to put myself out there to share what I know. And also it’s part of the reason why I think I’ve become a bit of a better public speaker, why IBM more willing to engage with public speaking opportunities, do things like this. And also people have learned things from my stream, which kind of goes back to the whole you might be a good teacher someday. And so people on my stream have literally told me like, oh, I’ve learned so much from you, or thank you so much for your feedback on my work, or something like that. And it’s just become a really positive outlet, I think, for me whenever I get to do it, just not as frequently as I used to.

Maurice Cherry:

Is there like a big web development community on Twitch? I mean, like you said before, there’s obviously gamers and such, but it sounds like there might be a pretty big community there for web development.

Manny Ikomi:

Yeah, I would say so. We’re relatively unknown, I would say, in terms of the grand scheme of Twitch, but there are some people who have an upwards of an average of 200 viewers and there are some people who have upwards of 1500 viewers when they’re live.

Maurice Cherry:

Wow.

Manny Ikomi:

And they could be doing anything from coding in Rust or building a silly website with animations and things like that. One of my really good friends, mewtru, I think she’s like the perfect example of how you can be a streamer and a content creator and have fun and just like, she’s just really awesome. And I met her through streaming and we’ve kind of become good friends since then. And we’ve always been supportive of one another despite not really even knowing or meeting each other up until Twitch last year. And so, yeah, it’s just interactions like that with people, whether they’re fellow streamers or viewers, it creates a community around what we’re doing. And even though I’m a designer mostly by trade, I still kind of, I guess, hold my own in terms of programming and web development. And my stream is kind of unique in the sense where I add a design lens to things from that. Again, how are you talking about the design, engineering and hybrid perspective that I think a lot of people in the category may not have except for a very small handful of us.

Maurice Cherry:

Twitch sounds like one of the rare places online now, like in 2023, one of the rare places where you can really carve out a niche for yourself. Because with things like Instagram and Twitter and things like that, a lot of stuff is very algorithmically driven. And it feels like, at least from what you’re telling me, Twitch is really more community based in that way.

Manny Ikomi:

Yeah, I mean, that’s actually perfect because that was going to be like my next soapbox to get on. When it comes to creating content on Twitch is…the way that I frame it to people is Twitch is kind of unique as its own brand of social media, like you were kind of thinking about earlier, because it has kind of its own unique culture, to be quite honest around it with emotes and chat and how people interact with the streamer while they’re live. There’s also the kind of aspects like you were talking about around community where people who are creating content on TikTok and YouTube and podcasts and even blog articles, any form of media that you put out there. A lot of it is a one way interaction and a lot of people do it with the goal of building an audience that then they can later monetize. But with streaming on Twitch specifically, what I found is that what you’re really doing is building a community because discovery and algorithms and search on Twitch kind of suck, to be quite honest. That’s why a lot of people don’t really know there’s a whole community of us out there. But for the ones that do know and for the ones that discover us, they tend to stick around and they tend to support what we do, even if they may not like all of the content that we stream.

When I first started streaming one day out of the week, on Sundays, I would just stream League of Legends, which is a game that I like to play for fun with some of my friends. It had nothing to do with the content that I streamed two days a week during the day when I was coworking and things like that. But for the people who wanted that, they came and they stuck around and then when I was streaming other stuff, sometimes they would still come and hang out anyway. And so it really builds on that two-way interaction that I think a lot of people don’t get from other social media platforms that Twitch is really good at enabling. And in hindsight, it also kind of really aligns with, I guess, desire, you could say, to have a two way interaction with people and not feel like it’s just a transaction of like this post or subscribe to my newsletter and things like that. It really is a two-way interaction and I’ve created some really great friends out of it, some of which have helped me with the course that I’m doing right now, some of which I’ve helped with their content and vice versa. And it’s really created a nice little community around what I do, even if my particular streamer and viewership isn’t as strong as it used to be, I guess.

Maurice Cherry:

Interesting. There was a time when I was thinking of doing a live show via Twitch for Revision Path. Like I was thinking of doing Revision Path Live like one day a week. This was before the pandemic. If we manage to get the resources to be able to do it, I would love to try to branch into doing something like that because like you mentioned, it’s a totally different sort of dimension in terms of reaching people and then also in terms of communicating.

Like this conversation that you and I are having will be edited. If it was live, it could be a totally different thing in terms of where the conversation goes and what we talk about or anything like that. So I’ve been thinking about it, I’ve really been putting a little bit of thought into it, if we are able to do it. I’m kind of working on some things behind the scenes just in terms of securing funding for the show and stuff. So I would love to do a live thing maybe like once a week or something as sort of a supplement to the podcast because the podcast has been such a constant thing over the past ten years and we’ve had blog articles here and there. We did a literary anthology for a couple of years and I would love to sort of add a different sort of component to Revision Path. But yeah, Twitch sounds like it could be it.

Manny Ikomi:

That’s great. And honestly, it may not even have to be Twitch. It could be another live platform. I mean, obviously if you want help with that, definitely feel free to reach out to me. I could probably help you in some way or another. One of the things that just in hindsight that I caution people about is there are some people who maybe come from other platforms and they’re trying to diversify their viewership, their audience and things like that. And one of the mistakes that I’ve seen and that people make, what they tend to do, especially if they come from YouTube, is they still treat Twitch like an audience and not a two-way interaction.

And so what you get is people streaming their content and talking into the void, but they’re not interacting with chat, they’re not engaging with the people that are there. And that’s where I think a lot of people tend to maybe fail, I guess you could say, or not get the results or outcomes that they want out of streaming. And mostly it stems from, I feel from my very limited anecdotal evidence and observations that the reason is because a lot of them just aren’t used to that mindset shift, whereas for me it just kind of happened naturally because I started my content creator journey on Twitch. And so now when people come from other platforms, it may not, I mean people in general tend not to convert between one platform for another. So if you have a really strong audience in one type of media or platform, like the podcast for example, it’s going to be really hard to get people to move over to something else and that’s universally regardless of which type of social media or interaction you have with your audience. But it is challenging and it’s especially challenging for people to go into live streaming on Twitch for that reason I believe too.

Maurice Cherry:

No, that’s good to know. I mean, like I said, if I did it, it would be a supplement to the show and also honestly for scheduling it would be so much easier. I think it will be so much easier but in the future we’ll see. But since we’re talking about podcasting, you also have a podcast that you said you started kind of during the pandemic.

Manny Ikomi:

Yeah. So that kind of ended up just starting as kind of like an inside joke between me and a really close friend of mine, Kevin, who’s my co-host on our podcast Gay + Geeky and Tired. Hashtag ad. And we started, you know, during the height of the pandemic amongst all the other content creation things I was doing for fun. A lot of times the way I would socialize with my friends during the pandemic was through discord and with my friend Kevin in particular, we would have a group of us, some of us, I met my friend Kevin while I was in college, which was part of Know ancillary college experience. And so a lot of our friends would just joke with me and him about how we should make our own podcast and how we talk about so many things around current events and pop culture and queer culture and society and things like that. And so particularly music and gaming are like two kind of key areas that we tend to talk about a lot. And at one point I think we were kind of just like “should we do it? Should we do this? Is this for real? Should we really make a podcast?” And then long story short, we did. We ended up releasing the first episode, I think on my birthday in June of 2021.

It started as Gay + Graphic and Tired because initially, well, we’re kind of both in the design trade but he more approaches it from like an architecture perspective where I’m more user experience and so we thought that would be a cute title and then we ended up changing it to what it is now. But we talk about all kinds of stuff. I just explain it to people. It’s like we just talk about gay shit. We do it very casually. It’s very unscripted, unfiltered. We come prepared with some topics; we tend to rant a lot. It’s a little all over the place and you probably won’t like it, but for the people that do, and some of them have come from my twitch audience as well, they listen to it whenever we release an episode because it is something we do for fun and something we don’t really monetize.

We have had some spurts and lack of consistently or consistency around posting, especially recently now because of my adjunct role and the kind of demands that both of our jobs now require of us. But we are looking into getting back into it and for the most part we’ve been putting out episodes pretty consistently now since then. So we don’t really have a posting schedule or anything at the scale that you’re doing with Revision Path. But again, it just kind of started as one of those things that we wanted to do for fun and we still do it for fun and probably will until we don’t want to anymore. That’s what it is.

Maurice Cherry:

Now have you found that that sort of helped you out in a similar way that Twitch streaming has in terms of communication?

Manny Ikomi:

I think so. I would say Twitch definitely moreso because there is kind of like you’re talking about that multisensory experience of like you’re visually there talking to people and then they can obviously hear you because it’s a video format. I would say, with a podcast, because we have the luxury of being able to edit it and because they can’t see us. There’s aspects of it that outside of the technical parts of learning what it takes to produce a podcast a little bit and some tips and tricks here to edit audio and understanding what that process looks like. I’m not, like, an audio engineer or anything, and I’m sure your editor could probably do way better than I can at editing our pod, but it’s just one of those little technical skills that I’ve always just been able to pick up really quickly just to do something and get it out there. And nobody really complains about our audio, so I think it’s okay. And outside of that, I would say I’ve definitely gotten more personal growth and value out of streaming. But for the podcaster thing, I think it’s also just half of it is just an excuse for me and my friend to get together on Discord and just talk a bunch of crap.

So it has had value but in less, I guess, tangible monetary ways.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, it’s more like it’s a personal thing. It’s cathartic. I got you. Okay, what does success look like to you at this point in your career?

Manny Ikomi:

When I was listening to some of the episodes with some other people, I figured this one was coming and of course I did not prepare a very well-worded response. I think success is a really tricky word and the way that I tend to think about it and the way that I frame it to people is that success is different for everyone. And for me, it’s not necessarily tied to a monetary amount of money or becoming a millionaire or doing anything like that. I think ultimately my idea of success is being able to have a positive impact on the world and the people around me, whether that’s in small ways or big ways, whether I become some notable designer, Lord, someday or something, I don’t know, I don’t care. But just being able to have a positive impact with people, preferably through my profession and personally, and being able to do that sustainably, I think. So although money is not like a motivating factor for me, it is just a reality of the world that we live in. And there are certain ways, like when it comes to the lifestyle that I want and the flexibility that I want and the security and things like that, to where money does play a role in it. But it’s not necessarily my sole motivator, I guess, like kind of going back to the key takeaway that we were talking about, it’s really lifting as I climb.

I think it’s just been something that especially ever since I got my job at IBM, it’s something that I take maybe a little too seriously. Because I recognize that there is an immense amount for someone like me who is a queer black person who may not have had the most affluent upbringing, but somehow managed to have this beautiful story of overcoming adversity and all that stuff. There are elements that I still recognize are due to elements of privilege in some way because it’s on a spectrum. And so there are privileges that I’ve had, there are opportunities that I’ve had because of that. But there are also ways that I may have been disenfranchised or oppressed, whether internalized myself or externally.

And so lifting as I climb is kind of a way that I like to give back and uplift people in ways that I can, where I have the power and privilege to do so. Like, one of the ways that I try to do that is, right before coming on the podcast, someone who I’d went to college with at Bunker Hill actually reached out to me and said, like, “hey, I saw you posted about consulting opportunities at IBM. I want to learn more about your role and what you do and how to apply and things like that.” And although I’m not in a position to hire them outright, I can at least meet with them, give them feedback on their portfolio, give them some advice, insight into what it’s like, and really just mentoring people. And that brings me joy, that brings me satisfaction. I feel like I’m helping people. I think that’s why I also like teaching so much. It’s a way to just be successful, but also make others successful with me as I go. I guess. Does that make sense?

Maurice Cherry:

If it makes sense to you, it makes sense. It makes sense. It makes sense. I’m not messing with you. If you didn’t get into UX, what do you think you’d be doing?

Manny Ikomi:

Oh boy. To be honest, if it had started the other way around, I probably would have been a web developer. It’s probably the closest alternative, I guess. And then maybe my roads would have crossed elsewhere into UX design later on. Probably, like, out of the wild the answer would be maybe working somewhere in a nonprofit or in healthcare or in the public market somewhere like either, again, teaching — maybe not teaching design — but teaching in some form or fashion design. And it’s just something that’s been with me that I known I’ve wanted to do in some fashion or another ever since my vocational training in 9th grade. And that kind of hyper fixation and just knowing what I want to do that early has really propelled me to go really far, at least relatively to people in my age group, I guess you could say.

So I’d never really considered alternatives outside of maybe becoming a web developer and leaving design or potentially becoming a teacher. But all of those things still include design, I guess, in some way, now that I’m doing both of those things.

Maurice Cherry:

Where do you see yourself in the next five years? Like what kind of work do you want to be doing?

Manny Ikomi:

One of the things that I’ve been thinking about recently, aside from my craft and that intersection of design and engineering is just putting my design skills and knowledge to work in places where I feel like it aligns with my values. And so I’m trying to move towards, at least within the short term in some way, moving towards doing more consulting projects and gigs with public sector institutions, so education institutions, colleges, local and state governments, healthcare providers, things like that. And I want to do that because as close as I can get to, I guess, public service, while still very much maintaining what I do as a designer and being able to bring value there in terms of inclusive design where I can add intersectionality and a lot of those things, like socially, that some people don’t always get the opportunity to bring to their work or maybe just aren’t to because they don’t represent or have the identities that intersect in the way for the people that they’re designing for, I guess. So I guess it would be being a design consultant in some shape or form, working with local and state governments, educational institutions or healthcare.

Maurice Cherry:

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

Manny Ikomi:

Online I basically compiled if you want to know where I am on the Internet, basically just go to mannyikomi.com/links. It’s kind of like my own IBM a web developer, so I’m going to make it myself version of Linktree essentially. And that just lists all of my links to places where I show up online, including my blog, my stream, my podcaster, my portfolio is also there on my website if it’s even vaguely up to date. Yeah, I would say mannyikomi.com/links will take you to anywhere I am on the internet that you may also be.

Maurice Cherry:

Sounds good.

Well, Manny Ikomi, I want to thank you so, so much for coming on the show.

I think one for talking about your story, talking know, just sort of what you’re working on and even what you’re teaching and everything. I feel like you’re kind of at this point in your career where it’s all going to start to come together for you like in the next few years. I feel like it’s all going to gel. I’m listening to what you’re doing now and that it sounds like kind of what I was doing back in the day. Like I was trying to do all these different things and creating stuff and putting it online. I feel like you’re at that point where it’s really going to start to come together and gel in a really positive way and I’ll be really excited to see what you come up with when that happens.

So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Manny Ikomi:

Thank you so much for having me. This was fantastic. I’m just so obsessed with what you’re doing. I think this is great and maybe hopefully one day I’ll have the kind of impact that you’re having right now on the community. I think it’s really cool what you’re doing. So thank you so much for having me. This is really an honor to be here.

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

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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.

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Shanae Chapman

Sometimes in life, you’ve got to do what you can to make the best out of a bad situation. For Shanae Chapman, that meant using a bad post-graduation job market to launch her own agency, Nerdy Diva. Now she’s setting her sights on bigger goals and doing what she can to help others achieve success in tech and design.

We began by talking about how Shanae started her agency, and we discussed the current state of AI tools and the changing landscape of UX research and design. She also spoke about growing up in St. Louis, attending college, and shared how she used her collective work experiences to dive deeper into the world of UX. For Shanae, hard work and motivation have been the keys to her success!

Interview Transcript

Maurice Cherry:

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

Shanae Chapman:

I’m Shanae Chapman. I am the CEO, founder, and managing director of Nerdy Diva, a consultancy that specializes in UX research and design and training services and building community for people of color in tech.

Maurice Cherry:

Nice. How has 2023 been going for you so far? Any special highlights?

Shanae Chapman:

Yeah, it’s been an up and down journey. So in addition to having Nerdy Diva as my business the past five years, I also typically worked a day job in tech as well. And I went through a layoff, as many people did earlier this year, and just have been processing, going through layoffs and thinking about what’s next in my career and in my business and getting support for myself, and then also sharing those resources out with the community.

Maurice Cherry:

I know last year there were just sort of this huge wave of layoffs from tech companies and it felt like, a little bit, that wave had sort of abated because you hadn’t heard about it much this year. But people are, unfortunately, still getting laid off from companies. So I’m really sorry to hear that. But you have now, kind of…your full focus is on Nerdy Diva, is that right?

Shanae Chapman:

That is correct, and I’m very excited for what the future holds. I’m currently working on a partnership with LinkedIn. I’m teaching a design course that will be released hopefully in Fall 2023.

Maurice Cherry:

Oh nice. So hopefully by the time this comes out — this will air in September; right now we’re recording it a bit earlier — but maybe by the time this comes out, then it’ll correspond with your course.

Shanae Chapman:

Yeah, it’s going to be exciting. Definitely going to be out in Q3. Later in Q3 or maybe early Q4 this year.

Maurice Cherry:

Very nice. So let’s talk about Nerdy Diva. You mentioned you’ve been doing it now for about five years, how did you get started with it?

Shanae Chapman:

Yeah, I have always done freelance projects during my career. I’ve been working in design in some way and fashion for the past sixteen years and started out as a college student taking design classes at St. Louis University and learned the basics of graphic design while studying from professors who were working in the field and who had businesses and were also teaching as adjunct instructors. So that was a big insight for me to see that, oh, people can have their own businesses, do design, be creative and teach. And that’s something that really stood out to me and led to me trying it out myself as a 19-year-old saying, “you know what, I’m going to see how I can do this.” And I would go out to small businesses in the area and go to campus departments and ask if people had any design projects that they needed help with and that’s how I started my career.

Maurice Cherry:

Now I’m looking at the Nerdy Diva website now and it’s great that you have your values, you’ve got your mission, vision statements, stuff like that. How has business been going so far?

Shanae Chapman:

It’s been an interesting year. I have seen more of the teaching and training projects come in, like the LinkedIn course that I’m working on currently. And there are some other organizations that I’m in talks with about teaching and training on design and research. It’s been a little slow on actually doing the design projects. I think there’s a lot of economic instability at this time with a lot of companies. The layoffs persist. So the layoffs have been going on throughout this year across design, and that brings in a lot of unknowns and a lot of uncertainty about what’s next. So something that I’m doing is reaching out to organizations that we may not always think about who need design as well, like our government agencies and our nonprofit organizations who may also need support and design.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah. With the way that the economy has gone now — we’re kind of recording this right now, near the beginning of some companies, like fiscal year — I think at this time, companies might start thinking like, “oh, well, what could we possibly spend money on this year?” But a lot of places are still just kind of waiting to see how the economy will bounce back, if the economy will bounce back. I know in my case, I was laid off last year and what it felt like was that companies really were just seeing what other companies were doing and just following suit. So in some ways, it wasn’t about, “oh, we need to cut back to save money.” It’s like, “well, if all the other businesses in our sector are cutting back, then maybe we need to cut back too.” But in that respect, it’s kind of been a bit of a good time if you’re freelancing or if you’re doing contract work, because companies might be more apt to do something short-term than long-term.

Shanae Chapman:

Yeah, and it’s good to have options. It’s good to have multiple streams of income and being a freelancer, but then going the step higher to that and incorporating your own business. And I’ve had my LLC since 2018, incorporating my LLC, and then being able to take on projects and design projects where I’m able to work on that, but also have the opportunity to hire contractors and interns who also get opportunities to be creative and to grow as designers and grow their careers. That’s really empowering and really something that is rewarding for me as a business owner.

Maurice Cherry:

So what does a typical day look like for you now?

Shanae Chapman:

There are no typical days, but generally I’m checking my email from people who are potential partners and looking at ways to get more visibility for the work that we do on design and training and connecting more recently with the local chamber of commerce here in St. Louis, but also growing in Boston, which is my second home. I went to grad school in Boston and Northeastern University and started my career in design and technology and the corporate level in the Boston area. So being able to connect more with the businesses there and definitely taking advantage of opportunities for minority owned business contracts and contracts for women business enterprises. And I think that’s something that’s really important for design businesses to also get those certifications so that we have those opportunities that come up.

Maurice Cherry:

Was it difficult for you to get those for your business?

Shanae Chapman:

It’s a process. So it’s definitely something where you have to do your homework and do your research. And for me, it’s something where I’m still in that path of finding all of the resources and tools to get certified in Boston. And I think it’s definitely worth it because it opens up more doors for you to have bigger clients and take on bigger projects. And for me also, that sense of being able to work on projects that impact everyday people. So being able to work on civic tech projects is something that is really important to me. And having those opportunities come in…yeah, it’s what I want to do. So being able to work on the things that you want to do and not just that you have to do, definitely is a game changer.

Maurice Cherry:

Now, you talked about civic tech. Are those like the best types of clients that you want to work with or do you have kind of a broader set that you’d normally like to work with?

Shanae Chapman:

Yeah. Definitely looking for more opportunities to work with government agencies, city level, state level, around building up more intuitive resources for communities, whether that’s increasing the usability of websites and apps for services, whether that’s helping people find information who are looking for ways to get around the city, as with transportation or for healthcare resources, being able to connect people to the information and tools that they need to have a positive quality of life. That’s something that’s really what I want to focus on in the work that we do. So design for good, using technology for good.

Maurice Cherry:

Now, I know a lot of Black business owners, especially those that kind of work, I guess you could say, in the DEI space — I’m using air quotes around that. But I found a lot of Black business owners kind of had a bit of a bump during the summer of 2020 when companies were pledging like, we’re going to work with more black businesses or BIPOC businesses, et cetera. I’m curious if you’ve noticed any trends with your clients over the years.

Shanae Chapman:

Trends in terms of what?

Maurice Cherry:

In terms of the type of work they’re looking for or types of services, things like that. Are you finding that as time has progressed that clients are asking for different things, wanting different things, stuff like that?

Shanae Chapman:

It kind of stems back to something earlier in this conversation about the budgeting. So there’s still a need for design and for training on how to do design, especially equitable design. So I run a two-hour workshop on designing anti-racism, and I use the EI and anti-racism frameworks in that workshop and apply it tactically to how do we use this to create more inclusive and equitable designs. Whether that is UI, whether that is using voice technologies, whether that’s using AI and understanding what it means to have representative harm and allocative harm in technologies, and how can we design more equitable solutions that are not harmful? So I think the need is still there, but it’s a factor around the budgets. Who has budgets for these projects? And I can’t speak to the industry as a whole because I’m not privy to all of that information. But I know for myself, it’s tougher to find more businesses that are able to have the budgets that can sustain this work long-term. And I think that’s something that needs to be addressed. Like, if this is really important, then this work needs to have adequate budgets in order to support the work going forward.

Maurice Cherry:

Now, you talked just a little bit there about AI. Are you using AI now with any of your clients or any sort of AI tools?

Shanae Chapman:

I think it’s something that has potential. I think design and AI can form a partnership where we’re using AI to help with some of the more tedious things, like copywriting, for example, but also thinking about the data that goes into those tools — is it secure? Is the information that would be okay to share publicly, for example? And also during the critical thinking of determining if the information from the AI tools is equitable, is it sharing information that is actually stereotypical and being able to see that and address it? So it’s something that I think has a lot of potential, but we also have to have checks and balances with it. And going forward, working with clients who will use AI, I think that’s something that is really important to continue having those discussions about not just using the tool, but being observers of it and also being able to step in and make changes if it’s not producing what it should in an equitable way.

Maurice Cherry:

I’ve encountered some clients, I’d say probably within the past year or so, that have been…they like AI because they feel like it’s sort of like a magic machine to them, like they can put in a question, get out some sort of answer or something like that. But like you said, is the information equitable? And honestly, which tool they’re using, it matters in terms of what the information is that you’re getting out. Like, if you’re using just, like, the base [ChatGPT], I think it’s version 3 or 3.5 or something like that. Its corpus of knowledge only goes up to, I think, to like, September of 2022 or something like that. So it’s not like completely up-to-date and even how it puts it together. It’s sort of just like grabbing information from a whole bunch of different sources and sort of like, smashing it together to say, “hey, this is what I think you want based on the query that you’ve given me.”

Of course it’s AI. So it’s not thinking about it, but depending on the tool they might be using ChatGPT 4.5, which is supposed to be up-to-date and brings in current search engine data and stuff like that, but AI is getting kind of added into so many different tools. It’s getting added into search, it’s getting added into even like Google Docs and Word and stuff like that. So I agree about the checks and balances. I think it is being kind of implemented really fast and that we’re not taking time to think too much about the ethics of usage and the ethics of using what you get from it, just sort of, on its face. Like, I agree with what you say about it being sort of a good jumping off point or a starting point, but it shouldn’t be the answer.

Shanae Chapman:

Yeah, definitely. And I think that’s a big misconception that many people believe that AI tools are factual, they are the truth, they are the end all, be all, and that’s not the complete story. So knowing that these are tools that have been created and have biases and have bugs and have issues that are still being worked out, understanding that and taking that information with a grain of salt, so to speak. So I think there’s still a lot of miseducation about how far along the industry is with AI because we’re really just getting started and there’s still a lot of risk. And security is another big issue. Like, taking data and not crediting the sources happens as well. So just being aware of that is something that I encourage folks to think about.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, I know, especially from educators that I’ve talked with, it’s been a big thing because students will use it to write papers or pull in information and research. But like you said, there’s no citation with it. And even if there is a citation, citation may not be correct because it’s pulling all this stuff from different parts and just sort of spitting something out that might look like it’s right doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the right thing.

One of my good friends — my best friend actually — he works at Ohio State University. He’s a professor and he was talking about how one of his students has submitted a paper and it had all these citations from, I think, like the University of Chicago Library or something like that, but none of those citations actually existed. Like, he followed up behind the student and contacted the library and they were like, yeah, none of that stuff is here. But apparently ChatGPT said, “hey, we pulled this from these sources from the library.” And maybe part of that was maybe a fraction of it, but not the entire thing. So it is dangerous, I would say, not so much in its usage, but moreso, I guess, in how humans are using it. Like if we’re just taking it like we said at face value and not changing it at all or fact-checking it, like you said, just assuming that it’s right is not good because it’s most likely not going to be.

Shanae Chapman:

Yeah, definitely. And I read a story the other day of a college student who got reprimanded from a professor who thought that they had used AI to create their paper because it was so well-written, but the student actually had not used any AI tools to create their papers. So now they’re getting dinged because the professors are having a hard time differentiating between when is AI being used and when is it not being used. So it’s a tricky place to be in right now as educators and as students as well.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah. Where do you want to take Nerdy Diva in the future? Like, what are your future plans?

Shanae Chapman:

Yeah, I definitely want to continue to grow. And I mentioned civic tech earlier. So one of my goals is to complete all of the certifications that are necessary MBE/WBE and do work with City of Boston, City of St. Louis, City of Chicago, working on projects that impact everyday people and being able to use technology in a way where we’re able to share information throughout our communities and share knowledge and create more resources and more equity and also continue to grow. My presence as an educator. So very excited for this partnership with LinkedIn. First course will be complete by the fall of this year and excited to continue to make more courses with LinkedIn around design and research and emerging technologies.

Maurice Cherry:

Now let’s kind of switch gears here a little bit. We’ve heard a lot about your business, but let’s learn more about you. Tell me about where you grew up.

Shanae Chapman:

Yeah, I grew up in St. Louis, Missouri. So I grew up in a working class family. My mom was a teacher’s assistant, before she retired, for over 32 years. And so education was very big in our family. My dad was a care mechanic and very hands on and was literally solving problems with all kinds of vehicles, and it was a lot of turning lemons into lemonade and taking what you have and making the most out of it. So those are some of the things that I have carried throughout my life is being able to see the good, find gratitude, be able to think quickly on my feet and keep learning and trying new things and being able to take inspiration and finding out how to walk in new paths and being able to be open to new opportunities. So that’s something that has stuck with me. And St. Louis — if you haven’t been there — very much a midwest city with Southern influences, so a lot of rich cultural heritage with music, a lot of blues and jazz has come out of St. Louis. Scott Joplin [the] composer; very famous in these parts as well, and a lot of appreciation for good food and breaking bread with family and friends and getting to know people and sharing what you have even if you don’t have a lot. So those are things that I still hold dear and that’s still part of who I am now.

Maurice Cherry:

Were you exposed to a lot of design and tech stuff growing up? Was that something you were around a lot?

Shanae Chapman:

You know what, I was not. So my parents were not technical folks and my parents divorced when I was younger. So just definitely being a young person, dealing with that experience of going through ups and downs and challenges, and what always inspired me was creativity. And I would see that with the art classes that I took in school and reading books and learning about new places and new people and cultures and just having the ability to learn how to use computers and new technologies as they became available at school were things that opened my eyes. Like I’m old enough to remember when we first got the big iMacs in elementary school and they had them in elementary school and taught us how to use those, and that was like top tier computers back in the day. Yeah, just being able to see that and having the Internet go from dial-up what we had when we were growing up, where you had to either choose to be on the phone, the landline, or be on the Internet, you couldn’t do both at the same time. So thinking about that and then seeing how things have evolved and now we have these fiber optics and we have such high speed 5G networks and it’s complete changes just in my lifetime of being 35 years old. So just being able to see that and see it as a user but then also now as a designer, being part of creating what those systems do and how other people get to use them is pretty cool.

Maurice Cherry:

Now you talked about going to St. Louis University and you said you took some design courses there too, is that right?

Shanae Chapman:

I did, yes.

Maurice Cherry:

Now you majored in communications. Was this just kind of part of the program?

Shanae Chapman:

In general, design courses were part of a suite of electives that you could choose as part of the communication degree. And that’s something that I highly encourage people who have opportunity to choose their own electives, to choose something that is creative, choose something that you may not have thought about studying before. Find that as a resource for you to test out if you want to get involved in something. So at least you can say, “oh, I’ve tried that and I know it’s not for me,” or in my case, “I’ve tried that and yes, I want more of that.” So the design course is important, my electives and once I took a class and had the opportunity to use Photoshop and saw how you could use design to convey messages and meaning. I knew that it was something I wanted to be a part of and just kept taking more electives and ended up doing an emphasis in communication technology overall.

Maurice Cherry:

How was your time there?

Shanae Chapman:

There were pros and cons of that experience for me. I had a really good experience learning about design and communication and public speaking, had some excellent professors and adjunct instructors who really valued sharing knowledge and helping students grow as people. So that was really empowering for me. I met a lot of friends there that I’m still close to to this day. And I worked on campus in the business school in the entrepreneur center. And they were at that time working on a beta project for Black business owners where they were building a facility in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr…or Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in St. Louis, and they were working with Black business owners to help them get their businesses ready for moving into this space. So I got to see these Black business owners come in and talk about their businesses and work with the university’s resources and learn what types of challenges they face and what types of tools are helpful for them. So I got to see, like, okay, they need accounting software. Oh, they have questions about hiring. Oh, they have questions about financing. I got to hear those questions, solutions during that process, which was really educational for me as someone who had seeds of, like, “oh, I might want to try this entrepreneur thing.” But some challenges were being at a PWI — predominantly white institution — and not having that sense of feeling known and feeling a sense of care, being in some classrooms where I was the only Black person in the room, and being asked, like, “what is your opinion? What is the Black perspective on this particular opinion?” And this is something where I, as a 19-year-old, educating my classmates and my white professor as to “this is my perspective. This is Shanae’s perspective. This is not the perspective of all of Black America.” So being able to stand up for myself and share that knowledge is something I get from that experience. But it definitely was challenging and [I] definitely had some hard days.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah. Colleges can be one of those sort of interesting places. It’s like, on the one hand, you mentioned, yes, try to seek out these more creative courses and things like that, but sometimes, just depending on the school, you often are put in these other sort of trying environments and situations. I can imagine that had to be pretty tough to deal with overall, though.

Shanae Chapman:

Yeah. And then just being broke. That’s the thing about college. You have no money all the time.

Maurice Cherry:

When you graduated from St. Louis University, what was your early career path? Did you go right into trying to become a designer, or did you sort of kind of have to get your feet wet doing other stuff first?

Shanae Chapman:

I wasn’t able we were in a recession when I graduated with my undergraduate degree, it was 2009. So again, there was economic instability and it was really tough for me to find full-time work just in general, not even design. It was just tough to find any full-time work, being a college graduate and not having corporate and industry experience yet. And those were really tough times. And I went to my school after I graduated. I went back to the university and went to career services and did career counseling. And that was the first time that I had the opportunity to talk to someone about the shame I felt and not being able to find work immediately after graduating. And it opened up perspectives for me to hear someone say, like, yeah, “of course you would be frustrated, but understand that this is not you, this is the economy. This is competing with people who have more experience and maybe more education, who have connections. There’s other things happening that are outside of your control,” and being able to take that in as information and understand that, “okay, I’m okay, I can keep going.” And it’s not a situation where I’m doing things wrong and something’s wrong with me. And being able to have that support was really helpful. And that’s something that I definitely highly encourage folks to do.

Like, talk to someone if you’re having tough times in your career. Everyone’s had tough times. There’s definitely been times when I’ve wanted jobs, I didn’t get them, or there’s times that I took jobs that I know were not for me ended up leaving. So being able to have those conversations and also get some perspective because our careers are great, they help us support ourselves and take care of ourselves and our loved ones and do purposeful, meaningful work. But your career is not the only thing that you have going on for yourself, and being able to have some perspective about that is helpful too.

Maurice Cherry:

Oh, I am so glad that you said that. I’m so glad you mentioned that because I think a lot of folks need to hear that, especially now. Especially, I think, if you’ve been laid off over the past year. And this is not to say that I feel like — and this might be a controversial statement, so rock with me here if it gets a little out of hand — but I feel like particularly in BIPOC communities, particularly in Black communities, we’ve kind of been sold this fantasy about getting into tech and it being like the solution to everything. Like, you’re going to get that good tech job and you’ll be able to pay off your mother’s bills or get your grandmother something. And I mean, yeah, you can do that with what the salaries are. But I think what gets wrapped in that is sort of your self-image is so intrinsically tied to not just the work you do, but where you work, that once you lose that, it ends up being this huge hit to your self esteem. Like, who am I if I don’t work for insert big tech company here? You know what I mean?

I really feel especially, like, oh my God, you said you graduated in 2009. Right around that time, I want to say it was like between maybe 2009 and 2011, there was this big push about getting Black folks to go to Silicon Valley. It was like, “go to Silicon Valley. Be the next Mark Zuckerberg.” CNN even had this whole special about folks like going to Silicon Valley and they had like a house and everything they were working out of. It was part of their Black in America series. And I think it was good to see that sort of like, upward mobility and prosperity. But then you had a lot of organizations that came about that were just sort of selling this notion that you get this big tech job and you’re set, you’ll be able to live the life of your dreams once you work for Facebook or Amazon or Google or whatever. But then it’s like, when you get laid off from there, then what?

And I think people need to hear this right now. One, because of all the layoffs that are happening, but two, we’re in this weird economic period now, just like back then, in 2009, and that there’s this uncertainty. It’s hard finding full time jobs. I know a lot of people that have been out of work now three months, six months, up to a year, and it’s really messing with them. They have the skills, of course, to do the type of work that they do, but it’s so tied into their self-image of like, “well, how am I a good person if I don’t work at this company, if I’m not doing XYZ?”

Shanae Chapman:

Yeah, those are all good points. And I was reading Essence magazine the other day, and one of the women they interviewed, she mentioned that titles are rented; your character is what stays the same. And I was like, “girl, yes. A word.” That’s important. The titles are rented, but you’re still the same person. You’re still creative, you’re still a problem solver. You still know how to bring things together from different parts and bring them together in a meaningful way and create something that has a beautiful outcome. You can still do that no matter if you at Microsoft or Google or wherever. So you still have those skills. And I think that’s something that we forget about, that it’s not just about having the name recognition. It’s about who you are. Who do you show up as?

Maurice Cherry:

Titles are rented. I love that. And that is so true. That is absolutely true. Because who you are or who you were at one place may not be who you are somewhere else.

Shanae Chapman:

Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:

Now, in 2012, you started out as an intern at Red Hat. And then after that you started working at IBM as a UX/UI testing specialist. Given kind of the background that you had before starting there, like, what drew you to UX?

Shanae Chapman:

Yeah, so I was in the tech industry because my master’s degree is in informatics study of information systems and there is some overlap with UX. And like, I took UX courses as well, classes and understanding how to evaluate and how to audit for usability. So I learned those fundamentals as part of my master’s degree program and found that to be really interesting because that combines design know how. So having some graphic design, web design background, web development background, but then also understanding the psychology piece on how do people use systems and tools and how to prevent errors and how to help people get unstuck was also something that was enlightening to me. And then the technical side of it and understanding, “okay, you want to build something, how do you actually know what’s possible, what’s feasible, what could you actually build?” And being able to use the things I’ve learned in my master’s degree, that was more technical to bring that together as well.

So I applied to so many internships and entry level positions and interviewed for Red Hat and everything was in person at this time. So interviewed had presentations about why they should choose me and just waited, just waited and then heard word back a few weeks later that I was going to have this offer of this internship. And for me, it was the most money that I had made up until that point at $30 an hour to be a summer intern. And I thought, “this is great, this is great.” Now I get to start my career in tech using what I have learned in school and being able to have this big name at the time — all into the big names — have this big name on my resume as well. So it was a starting point for me. And I learned a lot. I learned a lot about how large organizations work and didn’t know before I started there that there’s so much people involvement, there’s so much. And you think about design and technology, it’s like, “oh, okay, you just kind of do your own thing.” No, that’s not how it works. When you actually work for a company, you have so many meetings, you have so much collaboration, you have so much discussing what gets designed, what gets built, understanding analytics and behaviors of trends and patterns. And there’s a lot of this back and forth and seeing that for the first time and being engulfed in that. Yeah, just definitely it was a sink or swim situation and had to learn quickly how to pick things up and just had to be unafraid to ask questions. So I asked a lot of questions and did really well in that internship. And that was a good starting point for me to move forward into other positions in technology.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah. And some of those other places that you worked at. I mean, I was looking at your LinkedIn, I was like, you have gotten some great experience.

Shanae Chapman:

Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:

Kronos, The MathWorks, Akamai Technologies, Boeing, SmartBear, most recently HashiCorp. When you look at those experiences as a whole, collectively, what do you remember the most? Like, what do you pull from when you look back at those experiences?

Shanae Chapman:

Every place I’ve gone to, I learned something new. I learned something new about what I wanted in my career. I picked up some new technologies. I studied many places. I was also offered certifications, so I would take the time to do the work to earn those certifications. Just investing in myself. And I think that’s important.

Everywhere you go in your career, you should be learning and you should be earning. And that’s something that was also important to me as I continued to move up in my career, that I had to learn how to negotiate my salaries and benefits and RSU stock packages. And these are things that I didn’t know about. Again, my mom was a teacher assistant. My dad was a car mechanic. They didn’t have those types of conversations, so I had to lean heavily on the people that I trusted.

I’m in a chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers. And so being a part of that chapter when I was in grad school and after grad school in Boston helped me a lot to understand how does this all work. So leaning on people who have been through these situations before and getting outside of my comfort zone and learning how to negotiate by taking webinars and in-person trainings and bringing that into conversations and not being afraid to have difficult conversations. For me, it’s a pattern of going to each step and going higher, learning more, growing, taking in knowledge, sharing knowledge. And that has been something that has evolved over time.

So that now I have this career where I’ve been in technology for the past eleven years and have learned a lot about cybersecurity, have learned about data analytics, have learned about creating tools that scientists and engineers and developers use, but also can take that skillset and also apply it to creating tools for healthcare or for community systems or for knowledge sharing, for education. So being able to take that information and translate it for different audiences, I think that’s something that’s really important and crucial.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, because I would imagine each of these different companies are serving different–I mean, one, different just audiences based on what they do. But like you said, as you’re going on, you’re learning more, you’re earning more, et cetera. But also the industry is changing. How have you seen UX kind of change over the years in the industry?

Shanae Chapman:

It ebbs and flows. So there’s times where UX is really top of mind and people want to bring in researchers and designers and everyone’s looking for that sense of building the right products. And then sometimes you get into situations where it’s a more “let’s build something first and see how it goes” and take a step back from actually doing the proactive work of the research and design and getting the feedback. And I think that’s where we are now.

So we’re in a place where people are tighter with their budgets and they’re trying to get the UX research and design in multiple roles. So product managers are now doing product discovery and research, and developers are doing some discovery and research, and it’s getting to a place where they’re trying to combine roles across different teams. And I think that it squeezes out having people who are dedicated to UX research and design. And I think there may have been a big push earlier on for people to share that, oh, anyone can do research and design. And I think that was overemphasized because it takes away the credibility and it takes away the practice of having the know how and the education and the experience to do quality research and design. Like, sure, everyone can go to Figma and create something quickly, but being able to actually create something that’s meaningful and that’s impactful and that takes something complex and makes it intuitive is not something that just anyone can do.

Maurice Cherry:

Now, with the work that you are doing with UX, does that also extend into voice or even AI stuff? Are you finding any sort of changes with the UX industry in those cases?

Shanae Chapman:

Yeah, I think there’s room for UX to work with these tools. So working with voice, working with IoT, working with AI, and there’s definitely experiences that go beyond the interface. So the experience when you are speaking to Siri, for example, and what is heard and what’s transmitted back, that’s an experience also. And I think that UX has a benefit of having that awareness about human centered interaction and human centered design to be able to help teams understand how to make seamless and frictionless experiences, whether there’s an interface or not.

Maurice Cherry:

Now, what advice would you give to someone that’s listening to this podcast or hearing your story and they want to start their own UX career? Maybe they’re like a fresh grad out of college, or maybe they’re like in the middle of a career change because they’ve gotten laid off and they want to go into something new. What advice would you give them on getting into the UX industry?

Shanae Chapman:

Yeah, I think there’s a lot of kind of get rich [quick] schemes out here where people are saying many pathways and not to put down boot camps, because some boot camps are sharing quality knowledge and it’s a step for some people to get some education and start their career. But if you do a boot camp, don’t let that be the only time that you are educating yourself.

UX is a career path where you have to continuously learn. And if you don’t want to have to keep learning every day, every year, then it’s not going to be a good career for you. You’re not going to find it enjoyable, you’re not going to find it to be that get rich quick scheme that you thought it would be so you can’t learn everything about UX in six weeks and then be an expert. It doesn’t work like that because you also have to have the lived experience, you have to apply it, you have to make mistakes, you have to learn from those mistakes. And it’s really powerful when you as someone who’s new to UX, partners with someone who’s senior and you can just observe how they do their roadmapping, how they talk to clients, how they collaborate with product management and engineering, how they set themselves up for success with their research and design process. So being able to give yourself grace and being able to be patient as well is something I would share. Many times people think like, “okay, I want to just do things quickly,” but just because it’s quick doesn’t mean it’s right. So those are my two cents.

Maurice Cherry:

Who are some of the people that have really helped you out to get to where you are now? Like any mentors, any peers, or anyone like that?

Shanae Chapman:

Yeah, so definitely have had community of mentors and sponsors over the years. I’m mentioning National Society of Black Engineers, previously Boston chapter, was a big resource for me. So being able to connect with other Black people in technology and some people were developers, some people were product managers and there were a few other designers there as well. And being able to share experiences working in corporate and working on teams, building software, building tools that millions of people use across the world, and being able to share those tips and lessons learned and also learn about financial literacy from some of the events that they had. Also the AAUW — American Academy of University Women — they had a lot of salary negotiation trainings when I was earlier in my career that helped me out when negotiating. And also just friends and people who take the time to listen in when I’m having a bad day when things are hard. And having your tribe of people who you have in your back pocket when things are hard is essential. So being a good friend and staying connected to your friends is something that’s really important as well. And making that time to do that so that you can show up for your people and that they can show up for you.

Maurice Cherry:

What’s bringing you joy these days?

Shanae Chapman:

I have really enjoyed learning new recipes. So I like to cook and I like to bake, and my husband is very happy to be the person who’s taste testing. Yeah, so that’s bringing me a lot of joy. And reading as well and thinking about ways to grow Nerdy Diva that are not just focused on technology. Some are thinking about creating a children’s book and a comic, like an anime book as well. Yeah, just thinking about some of these creative ideas and exploring what’s next.

Maurice Cherry:

What would you say, like, you’re still in the process of unlearning?

Shanae Chapman:

For me, that’s unlearning the need to say yes to everything and being okay with saying no, being okay with setting those boundaries for myself on my time and my energy and practicing putting me first and what I need first. And that’s unlearning the habit of putting others above myself. And I think that’s really important to remember that you have needs and you have to take care of your needs also.

Maurice Cherry:

Now, what do you want kind of the next chapter of your story to look like? Say it’s five years or so from now. What do you want to be working on? What kind of things do you want to have done? Stuff like that?

Shanae Chapman:

Yeah, I want to continue to do the things I’m doing now and just continue to grow those partnerships. So I really want to continue to share knowledge on platforms like LinkedIn and other edtech programs for people who are getting involved in design and technology and want that to be a place where people are able to see someone who has some representation that looks like them, who they don’t often see in those spaces. Talking about design and analytics and technology and being able to share that knowledge. Also want to continue doing design work for government agencies and communities and be able to create more jobs and opportunities for contractors and interns as well.

Maurice Cherry:

All right, well, just to kind of wrap things up here, where can our audience find out more information about you, about your work, about Nerdy Diva? Where can they find that information online?

Shanae Chapman:

Yeah, you can find Nerdy Diva at nerdydiva.com, and we are on LinkedIn and Instagram as well.

Maurice Cherry:

All right, sounds good. Shanae Chapman, I want to thank you so, so much for coming on the show. I think what I’ve gotten the most out of this and what I hope others get out of it, too, is that there’s no substitute, I think, for hard work. There’s no substitute for putting in the work to get to where you are, to sort of put in those hours to get to some level of mastery or information. Because what it definitely sounds like I’ve gotten from your story is that you’ve had these experiences, you’ve worked at these different companies, and now you’re gaining that knowledge and putting it into your business and using that to also kind of give back through the work that you’re doing with, like, civic tech or even with these courses and things like that. I’m going to be really excited to see what comes next for you in the future. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

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Tiffany Stewart

While the World Wide Web has evolved tremendously over the past couple of decades, it can still feel like we are fighting an uphill battle when it comes to accessibility, even though this push for accessibility has existed since the first set of guidelines created by the W3C in 1999. Making the Web more accessible is a benefit to everyone, and Tiffany Stewart is working hard to make sure that happens.

Our conversation began with a discussion on her work at Thomson Reuters, and she shared how she got into design systems and accessibility. Tiffany also talked about moving to the U.S. from Jamaica as a teenager, attending college in Mississippi, and spoke on what prompted her to shift her focus from engineering to UX. Thank goodness we have future-thinking designers like Tiffany Stewart to ensure that we have a Web that we can all use!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Tiffany Stewart:
Hi, my name is Tiffany Stewart. I’m a senior UX designer specializing in digital systems with a focus on accessibility. And yeah, that’s me. Very much a blurb and just really passionate about accessibility and UX.

Maurice Cherry:
How’s the year been going for you so far? How’s 2022?

Tiffany Stewart:
Oh my gosh, 2022 has been a blast and then some. I bought a house.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, nice.

Tiffany Stewart:
Right. I am officially now a homeowner and I am in the process of building out my office. So I went and bought the IKEA cabinets and I attached them to the wall and I’m painting and I’m sanding and breaking out the miter saw. That is my life at the moment.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Tiffany Stewart:
Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s a huge accomplishment. Congratulations.

Tiffany Stewart:
Thank you. It was a lot. The process was a lot because I think it was right before the interest rates went up, so it was just like, “Oh my gosh, I have to hustle and get this house before everything just goes to pop.”

Maurice Cherry:
Well, that’s such a big accomplishment already for the year. Is there anything else that you still want to try to accomplish before 2023?

Tiffany Stewart:
I have so many, but I think for the immediate goal for me is to see this Black Panther movie that’s coming out this year, the second one, the Black Panther. And then on my professional work and getting my design system up and running to a point where it’s doing what it needs to do and folks are able to use it in a meaningful way. So yeah, those are my big ones for the end of the year.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. Let’s tap into a little bit about the work that you do. You mentioned you’re a senior UX designer and you’re working at Thomson Reuters. Talk to me about that.

Tiffany Stewart:
I think they initially hired me as a contractor to work on one of their products as a regular UX product designer. And then once they heard about my previous work on a design system prior, they’re like, “Oh, we’ll just move you over to the design system side so we can get that up and running and you can help facilitate that process.” And I was like, “Okay, cool.” And so I shifted into that particular space. Design system tends to be more, because I think not many people know what design system designers do. It’s more of a space where you’re looking at applying concepts across the board holistically for several products and several teams and spaces. So my day to day is really thinking about, “Okay, how do I apply the concept of warning across a design system so that all of the products are consistently representing warning in a way that’s meaningful and consistent?”

So my day to day is that, making decisions about what our colors are going to be and how they’re going to be expressed and just setting all of that up so that the designers can build their products relatively quickly because all of these decisions are already made for them. So they can already just bring those into play. And then working closely with the accessibility team, which I’m very excited, the first time I’ve actually ever had one. Usually, it’s just me doing it by myself. But we do have a dedicated accessibility team at TR and they’re amazing to work with and we just make sure that the DS is accessible as possible, that our products are accessible as possible. So that’s my day-to-day.

Maurice Cherry:
Tell me more about that accessibility. I’m curious, what does that look like at a news organization like Thomson Reuters?

Tiffany Stewart:
A lot of it is making sure that we are meeting WCAG requirements. We’re making sure that within the code itself, everything is labeled with the correct ARIA labels, that the DOM is in the correct order, so that when you are tapping through with your headings, everything gets represented semantically type of thing. Making sure that people who are using screen readers are able to get their news in a way that is accessible and meaningful to them. Because I think most people when they think of accessibility, they think, “Oh, I just have to match the color contrast ratio of 3:1 or whatever it is at the time.” But no, it’s actually making sure that the code works, that someone who is a purely keyboard user can tab through, everything makes sense when they tab through, they can read things, whether they are blind or otherwise situationally disabled.

And so we meet with the accessibility team regularly. My particular specialist that we work with is Yvonne, hey Yvonne. And then I think on the other side is Fariel. So we meet with them regularly. There’s a whole team of them, they’re amazing. We reach out, we ask questions, we pair and make sure that the code matches as well as the Figma files match so that all of our products in theory, leave the board fully accessible.

Maurice Cherry:
It sounds like that’s a lot to do from day to day. What does your regular everyday job look like?

Tiffany Stewart:
It is a lot of pairing. So I will pair with devs, I will pair with like I said, Yvonne on accessibility. And then it’s also a lot of research to make sure that we are meeting the use cases that are given to us by the various teams that we work with. And then figuring out those solutions for how do we solve their problem, but make it agnostic to a design system because it can’t be really specific. The teams are usually responsible for the more specific work that they do in terms of the workflow for their particular product. But from the DS side, it’s more of a super relatively agnostic approach to how can I apply, what does a header look like in an agnostic way that everybody can just pull from the DS and use. Modify here and there. But for the most part, this is generally what a header should look like and where things should go and it is accessible because we’ve already sorted out that when you tab through, it’s going to go through here, here, here and here.

Maurice Cherry:
And just to be clear, a design system would be different from say a brand guide or something because it seems like because you’re applying this across several different products, there’s just going to be different, like you said, situations or use cases where you may not be able to apply it directly, but maybe some elements of it. Am I getting that right?

Tiffany Stewart:
Yeah, that sounds about reasonable. Now brand does sort of inform a lot of the things because we can set those colors and that typography and some of the spacing as set colors within the system. And then if you are that brand and you are on the brand team, we at least have those in the system so that you can pull them if you need to. Those decisions are already made. So your H1 is in whatever font with whatever spacing that’s already set in the base token work. So whenever the engineers go to code it, they don’t have to worry about it. That H1 is always going to be that H1.

Maurice Cherry:
Got you. What’s probably the most difficult part about what you do?

Tiffany Stewart:
Probably convincing other designers that accessibility is the thing. That is probably the hardest thing. Now, I will say that my coworkers and my teammates at TR, we’re all very passionate about accessibility, so it’s not so much a problem there per se. But I’ve worked with other designers before or other strategists or other brand folks who are just… It is pulling teeth to get them to do the bare minimum of a contrast check on a color or a button or trying to understand that there are people… Is there a focus state that’s set? What happens if you try to tab through? Because a lot of sites will break. I think in my example at the State of Black design talk, I was just trying to buy a book from a website, but just using my keyboard and it completely failed. And so I wasn’t able to check out.

So in my mind, if we’re making a use case for it, which I don’t generally like applying to accessibility, but if you do need to make a use case or a business use case for it, you’re preventing people from buying your product by not making it as accessible as possible. It’s easy to throw away accessibility, I think because people as a very general rule, and I mean very generic here, seem to be willing to ignore people with disabilities or having a disability in general. You hear all these stories nowadays of airlines who are completely throwing away people’s wheelchairs or people not allowing the dog for the blind user in this space because of whatever. There’s a level of disposability there that I personally don’t enjoy and I don’t like seeing it. And more so too, if you’re looking at the numbers in the U.S., a good majority of the people who have disabilities do tend to be Black and brown people. So then I’m doubly more so like, “Oh no, no, no, we have to get into this.” We absolutely have to get into this.

Maurice Cherry:
And accessibility is one of those things that has definitely increased in importance over the years. Not just because more and more people have gotten on the web, but there are now more and more ways of experiencing the web that is not just through a standard computer monitor. There’s laptops, there’s smartphones, there’s smart watches, there’s probably a toaster out there that can get online. There’s all these different ways now to access information on the web. And granted those use cases are important, but also just as you mentioned, just differently abled people will have different sorts of things like vision requirements for high contrast or colors or even the alt text that you put on images is I think almost remedial accessibility and that’s still something a lot of people hem and haw over.

Tiffany Stewart:
Oh my gosh, they will fight you down. They will absolutely fight you down. Or they’ll produce this interface that has no contrast whatsoever. And so you’re just guessing at this point as to what is happening on that page? I don’t know. Because I think the new thing now is everything is light and bright, so there’s no borders on anything and everything just fades into the next one. And it’s very pretty aesthetically, I will give it that, but unfortunately it’s not really usable by everyone. And I think often people forget that by and large, when you make something that is accessible, that is usable by everyone, everyone benefits. Everyone benefits there. Like the grab bar in the bathroom, I am not disabled. However, the amount of times that I have slipped on the conditioner and that grab bar saved my life. You know what I mean?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Tiffany Stewart:
And it can look cute too. So yeah, it’s just accessibility works literally for everyone, so why not just do it?

Maurice Cherry:
Right. And accessibility also makes sure that as many people as possible can experience what it is that you’re putting on the web.

Tiffany Stewart:
Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
I remember back in the day, we’re talking this is early 2000s, maybe even before that, when websites would have those badges that are, this site is best viewed an Internet Explorer 6 on a desktop that’s 1024 X 768. It was almost like a bouncer at the door telling you, you have to be this old to get in or something.

Tiffany Stewart:
Yeah. Well, no, it’s a matter too, because I think what people don’t include in accessibility when they are thinking about the digital part of it too, is that they don’t include access. Not everybody has access to the best monitor, not everybody has access to the fastest processor and not everybody has access to a credit card. When we make everything credit card only for the longest time, I think before a Venmo and a PayPal came into the play, it was just the people that don’t have a credit card or don’t have that level of financial literacy don’t deserve to buy things. What are we saying when we don’t include that as part of the conversation around access and accessibility?

Maurice Cherry:
And I would say one thing that is also, I think made accessibility more important is the increase of multimedia on the web.

Tiffany Stewart:
Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
We’re recording a podcast. This podcast will have transcripts for accessibility.

Tiffany Stewart:
A transcript? Yes, thank you.

Maurice Cherry:
Videos with captions-

Tiffany Stewart:
I was going to ask.

Maurice Cherry:
And things like that.

Tiffany Stewart:
Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
We’re starting to see it be more and more commonplace now that the media that we consume is not just what we read, it’s also what we hear, what we see. Even smart speakers and devices, you have to talk to them in a certain way in order to get back what you need. All of that is a factor of accessibility.

Tiffany Stewart:
Yeah, no. I think they just released a study maybe day before yesterday that Netflix was saying that the good majority of their users that have subtitles turned on are not blind or deaf.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, there’s some shows I would watch with subtitles. I used to watch Scandal with subtitles just so I can make sure I can catch everything.

Tiffany Stewart:
Yes, I keep mine on. Yeah, I know because I’m like, “I don’t know what’s happening.”

Maurice Cherry:
Another thing that it’s good for, and this is not so much accessibility, but if you’re watching foreign language programs, to have subtitles in a different language. For me, it can help with learning a bit of the language because you know what they’re trying to say and what you hear, your mind connects those things together. But even with accessibility, there’s bad captions out there.

Tiffany Stewart:
Oh my gosh, I live for those.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s a whole thing.

Tiffany Stewart:
I need to make a website that’s just bad captions. Because they’ll be like, “Pop music playing enthusiastically.” And you’re like, “What, where did that caption come from?” The descriptions are great, I love it. Yeah, yeah. No.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Tiffany Stewart:
But I’m just glad that they’re there at this point because like I said, people don’t think about those things a lot of times.

Maurice Cherry:
And we’re talking about now accessibility in a largely, I don’t want to say 2D context. You might see where I’m going here, but there’s been all this talk about Web3 and the metaverse, and you want to talk about inaccessibility? It’s inaccessible even for the average person because, it’s not only about what you can hear or see, but just to get it… And maybe this is a tangent of accessibility, but you have to be watching on a certain device that costs a certain amount of money and you’ve got to have a high speed internet connection. There are other barriers that I think people might not look at as accessibility that does factor into accessible web experiences.

Tiffany Stewart:
Absolutely. I talk about it all the time. I’m like, “So let’s talk about the actual experience part of this. How am I meant to experience this when I don’t have access to any of these things?” Maybe your point is to gatekeep, I don’t know, maybe. Because that’s usually the argument that will come up too, is that like, “Oh, well those people are not my target demographic.” And I’m like, “Run me by again, what exactly is your target demographic?” Because every demographic has someone who may or may not be disabled. So I’m not really sure why. Again, it just plays back the disposability of people with disabilities. So it’s stressful to me. I get annoyed all the time.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Let’s switch gears here a little bit. Let’s learn more about you, about your origin story. I can tell you’re very passionate about UX and about accessibility, but I’d like to get a sense of where that came from. So just to start off, where’d you grow up?

Tiffany Stewart:
So I am originally from Jamaica. I moved here when I was about maybe 14, 15. Don’t ask me about the numbers. It was a long time ago. And then moved here. And the immigrant family story, my options were either engineer, doctor, MBA. My career choices were very narrow based on that particular set of criteria, which to be fair, I gave my mom her engineering degree so I could be left alone. Right? But everyone in my family is either a physician or a NASA scientist in my cousin’s part. So we’re all pretty diverse in terms of our applications to STEAM and STEM work.

I was actually going to be a surgeon at one point. I was attending NYU as a bio major to do that. But I think working with my mom in terms of listening to her talk about medicine as it’s in medical practice as it functions today in the U.S. and really hearing the stories about how people with disabilities or even older people are treated in the hospital system. I was like, “I can’t sit back and not say anything about it.” So I think I got a lot of it from going to work with my mom and seeing how people were being treated within the medical space. And even being handed their prescriptions and they couldn’t read it or they had to fill out online forms and they didn’t know how. And I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to fill out online form via a hospital, but it’s usually a very bad process. Nothing is readable, any of those things. Don’t even ask them about a language option for you.

So going through all of that and watching my mom do it and then getting into the digital space and then understanding and linking the two was probably what drove most of my passion for accessibility.

Maurice Cherry:
From what it sounds like, just based on life experience, that you had this early desire to get into this, but then you also just said, I gave my mom her engineering degree. I want to talk a little bit about that. You went to undergrad, you went to the University of Mississippi and majored in electrical engineering. Did you have an interest in it or were you just like, “This is what I need to do to get my family off my back?”

Tiffany Stewart:
No, no, no, no. I did. I really, really did. So back, oh my gosh, my mom is going to be so mad. So I dropped out of NYU, to which my mother was livid and that’s fair. But then I dropped out of NYU because the company that I worked for at the time had given me a promotion and wanted to send me out to California to train their engineers on a particular ticketing system that we were using for our IT program. And so while I was out there, I ended up switching jobs and then my job was basically what they call a client support specialist is what they called it. And I was basically a liaison between the engineering department, project management and the sales people and customers in order to get them moved into their co-location space, set up their routers, all of that extraneous good stuff.

This was back before when we were doing network address translations and you had to do a letter of justification in order to get IPs because they thought that the IPs were going to run out. It was a whole thing. It was pre 2000, so pre Y2K, they were very concerned about these things. So I did that. But then the Dotcom Bubble essentially burst. And so a lot of us in Silicon Valley got let go. And so I came back and I was like, “Okay mom, I’m ready.” So because of that work that I did with that ISP, I determined that I wanted to build computers because I thought that was fun. So I did electrical engineering specializing in computer engineering. So in theory, I could build you a badass circuit. So yeah, that’s how that happened.

Maurice Cherry:
But you had the interest in it though. That’s the important part, right?

Tiffany Stewart:
I am of a person who I like to take things apart and tinker. I like to work with my hands. Like I said, I’m building the shelves in my office. So miter saw, table saw, planar, let’s go. And I’ve always been that person. And then I’m also an only child, my mom’s only child. So she was very much of this is broken, you need to figure out how to fix it because I have to go to work. So I was like, “Well, got to figure it out.” But I’ve always had an interest in it and it was fine. I enjoy taking things apart. I’m a very curious person by nature. So I’m always fascinated about how things work, how things are put together. And you’ll see, you see me use the phrase all the time, “Oh my God, that’s fascinating.” Because I’m generally, I am that person.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, no, I understand. I went to college and I majored in math… Well, no, let me roll that back.

Tiffany Stewart:
Yes, math major.

Maurice Cherry:
I first majored in computer science, computer engineering because this was turn of the century, like ’99, 2000. Started college in ’99 and I had been already dipping my toe into web design with Tripod and Angel Fire, GeoCities, reverse engineering view source websites and stuff like that. And I thought, “Oh, if I become a computer engineer, I can design a website,” because I didn’t know. I had not heard of what a web designer was or if that was a thing. And I that first semester, I was taking courses in I think it was intro to computer programming, learning C++. And I was like, “This is not HTML. What is this? How do I make a website with this?” And I’m going to my advisor and telling him what I want to do. And my advisor, Dr. Jones, he was like, “If you want to do this internet stuff, that’s just a fad. If you want to get into that, this isn’t going to last. That’s not what we do here.”

Tiffany Stewart:
Oh no. Okay.

Maurice Cherry:
He’s like, “We don’t do that here.”

Tiffany Stewart:
But I will say they are teaching you the backend part of it. So they just completely tossed you over for the front end. But they gave you the backend part.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, but again, this was-

Tiffany Stewart:
You had that Java stuff too.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh yeah. And this was ’99. Our lab had Sun Microsystems and SGI Machines and stuff like that. So this was still very, very early in the web/internet days. And he was like, “We don’t do that here. We’ll teach you assembly, we’ll teach you C++, but if you want to do this web design thing, you might want to change your major.” And so the next semester, I changed my major to math. And then that’s just what I ended up getting my degree in. I like math, but people are always surprised with me being a designer that I have a math degree. I would imagine people are probably surprised you as a designer have an electrical engineering degree. They’re like, “How does that work?” For me, math teaches me how to think. Yeah, go ahead.

Tiffany Stewart:
Yes, that’s what I was going to say. I think for engineering, it teaches you how to identify a problem and think about the steps needed to solve the problem. So engineering for me teaches you how to think about problem solving, which as a UX designer, that is pretty much all that we do is problem solve. How do we get the checkout flow to work in such a way that they actually finish checking out? What are those steps? And if there’s an error, what happens? So going through all of those steps and iterating on that process by testing every time. It’s very much an engineering mindset, I think.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. And I know with math, the thing I think that struck me at one point learning math in college was that, “Oh, there are some equations that have either no solution or infinitely many solutions.” And that blew my mind at the time because I was like, “Wait a minute, I’ve been taking algebra and trig and calc and all these things.” They resolve to something. And they’re like, “Well, there are often going to sometimes be equations that don’t make sense, that are not going to have a solution or they’re going to have an infinite amount of solutions.” And so when I say it teaches you how to think, at least for me, it teaches me how to take something I may not know and process it and break it down. The steps of writing a mathematical proof to me are the same steps to writing a research paper, the same steps to writing a proposal for a client or a statement of work. It’s the same logical flow of take these elements, prove this thing, therefore this, all of that.

Tiffany Stewart:
I used to love those.

Maurice Cherry:
I look back at some-

Tiffany Stewart:
I was that weird kid in class who loves doing the geometric proofs. I’m like, “Oh, I’m going to show you that this is a right angle. Let me break it down right quick.”

Maurice Cherry:
I looked back at some of my old stuff. I found my thesis from, god, 20 years ago. I found my thesis recently that I wrote in college on sigma algebra and measure theoretic entropy with the existence of Lie groups. I have no idea what any of those things mean now. But I’m looking back at it and it’s just symbols and letters. I’m like, “I used to really know this. I don’t know it now.”

Tiffany Stewart:
Yes. Listen, I stopped because with electrical engineering, especially at Ole Miss, they were like, “We can’t let you do a math minor. You’d have to double major do EE and math.” And I was like, “Listen, after differential equations, I’m good.” It was differential, discreet, all of that. And I think after those classes is when you start getting into the theoretical math where they just don’t use numbers at all. It’s just theory and proving that this process works.

Maurice Cherry:
My last year and a half because I majored in pure math and my last year and a half, it was differential equations, it was topology. And my teachers, great teachers, but absolute sadists. They would be like, “I’m going to give this test and not everybody is going to pass this test.” Or they’ll say, “Well, these last two questions are only for my top students.” And there will be infinitely just wild stuff like, “What in the world? When am I ever going to use this?” I’ve never had to use anything with differential equations, ever. I love it though. The thing is, I went into math because I love it. I love to do the problems and solving and all that sort of stuff, which is a lot about what design is. It’s about solving problems, different kind of problems, but you’re still solving problems. And math teaches you those steps and ways to think and consider in a way that… I didn’t go to design school, so I don’t know, but I feel like it teaches you that logical way of thinking through something that perhaps design school may not.

Tiffany Stewart:
Yeah. Because I think for me at least, it felt like design school was more about the psychology of things. So understanding color theory and understanding that different colors make people feel a different way than other colors do. So it’s more so about how these things make you feel more so than anything else. And so it was the engineering part that taught me the problem solving and then the design part that taught me the aesthetic piece. Is that the word?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, the aesthetic piece. Yeah.

Tiffany Stewart:
The aesthetic piece Of it, and how things make you feel.

Maurice Cherry:
I totally get that. Yeah. Because for example, if you put red text on a blue background, yes, that’s going to be really jarring.

Tiffany Stewart:
I will fight you.

Maurice Cherry:
They won’t go together. But then mathematically, I know it’s because of the frequency of the color red against the color blue causes your eyes to do this weird jump shift. It’s really tiring to read that. So I’m like, “Okay, that’s why it doesn’t make sense.” I’ll always be trying to think of the reason behind the feeling instead of just going with the feeling, which I don’t know, maybe if I went to design school, I’d have more of that, “Oh yes, these colors, they mesh. I get it.” As supposed to being like, “Well, this makes sense because of some other reason.” But you end up going and majoring in design after you got your degree from Ole Miss, you went to Mississippi State and you majored in graphic design. Why did you make that switch?

Tiffany Stewart:
Well, because I wanted to be an animator. Funnily enough, I think they had not updated their website at the time. So Mississippi State was like, “Oh, we have an animation program.” Because I really wanted to do graphic design for film or design for film. And so I was like, “Oh, I can combine my problem solving with design if I become an animator and do that.” That was a thought process in my mind. I don’t know why. So on their website, they hadn’t updated it. And so I enrolled and got in and I was super excited and they were like, “Oh, we no longer have that program. All we have for you is graphic design, good luck.” And I was like, “Huh? Okay. Well let’s try it and we’ll see.”

But then I think at the time, maybe it was more so print focused than anything else. So I could tell you all the things about the GSM of paper. We did watercolor photography, all of those things. One of my favorite classes was 3D design. And so that’s when I spent most of my time in the wood shop. The instructor at the time, I think he was a famous furniture designer, but he was teaching us how to build things by sketching it out, thinking about from a 3D space perspective, how something would look and then we would have to build it, build it, build it. So did some sculptural work. It was great. Oh my gosh, that design program at Mississippi State, I loved it. It was great.

And then they also allowed me to pair with video game designers they had. And so I was doing design work for that too. So it was a good time. Even though it wasn’t necessarily an animation program, I learned a lot from the graphic design program at State. I will say that.

Maurice Cherry:
That sounds like a lot of fun, actually.

Tiffany Stewart:
Oh my gosh, it was so much fun. And I’m still friends with a lot of people there. And the people that left that school went on to do amazing things. I think Tim is out here designing the graphics for Roku. Let’s see, there’s another young lady, She went on to work at Gensler as an architect. So the class is good. The classes are really, really good. And some of the students that came out of there based on the teachers that we had at the time were just amazing, amazing folks to work with.

Maurice Cherry:
Do you feel like your background in engineering helped you out in any way when you were majoring in design?

Tiffany Stewart:
Yes and no. It helped me figure out how to approach thinking about what I was going to do if I needed to put together a logo per se. I knew, I’m like, “Okay, this is the result that I wanted. What are the steps to get there?” So in that sense, the planning of how to do it was helpful. However, engineering is very much, I like things to be symmetrical. There’s always those projects that we had to do that were you had to make something asymmetrical. And I did not enjoy that because my brain just refused. And I think that just came from the engineering side. It was like, “No, it has to either be in order or it has to be on a scale of some sort that I can understand like 2, 4, 6, 8,” that type of thing. I can’t have you jumping around all over the place in the design. It makes my brain not work well.

So it does both. And more so now with the digital side of things. Like I said, it mainly applies to the problem solving part of it where I’m like, “Oh, okay, if we want to get this result. How do we apply that concept in a way that scales on a DS?” And I can do that through my engineering thinking, coupled with my design thinking.

Maurice Cherry:
So once you graduated from Mississippi State, you’ve got your design degree, you’ve got your engineering degree. Did you go right into UX design after that?

Tiffany Stewart:
No. I actually got a job at a church. It was one of those big churches, biggest churches in Austin, Texas. And I basically was doing everything. So I was doing all of their print work, so designed magazines, all of their photography. So I was a photographer. And then I was also responsible for building and maintaining their website. So it was a full on, you’re the only person here, you have to do everything type of moment. And I learned a lot from that job for sure. Yeah, printmaking and printing things is no joke. Web work is no joke. Because I think at the time they only had access to, what is it, WordPress? So that was the medium that I was working with. And WordPress has its own caveats. So putting all of that together and making sure everything got out on time every Sunday, I learned a lot. I learned a lot.

What I remember the most is we had to print magazines because the rector at the time wanted us to put out a monthly magazine where we interviewed various people from the church. We had to take pictures of everything and there was whole thing. So I was like a Vogue Magazine editor with the big old board where you put things up and your articles are there, and you pick what pictures and you basically art direct that whole entire process. But then after that was done, assembling them in this giant InDesign file and then sending that to the printer because we had a dedicated printer room. And figuring out how the printer worked, troubleshooting all of that, and then actually printing it, trimming the edges, cutting it, mailing it. I actually ended up sleeping at the office doing a magazine run. It was a good time. Yeah, yeah, yeah. It was a good time.

Maurice Cherry:
You were truly a webmaster.

Tiffany Stewart:
Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
Doing all of that. I especially tip my hat to you about the magazine thing. The last gig that I worked at, we put together a quarterly magazine and that was a lot just to try to get it out the door, hopefully every three months. I can’t imagine every month. How big was the magazine?

Tiffany Stewart:
It wasn’t very big. It was a very… I want to say how many sheets as I’m looking through my paper. Maybe like 24, 32.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. That’s still a lot though-

Tiffany Stewart:
So it wasn’t too bad.

Maurice Cherry:
To try to pull together every month.

Tiffany Stewart:
Listen, my main thing was because people would submit photos and the photos that they would submit, I’m like, “This cannot be printed. It’s entirely too small.” So then I’d have to schedule a photo shoot and run out there and retake all the photos and then run back. But the church had money, so we did what we had to do. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Tiffany Stewart:
It was a good time. Like I said, I learned a lot because it was literally only me. So I was responsible for all of it. From the rooter to the tooter, as they say.

Maurice Cherry:
As they say.

Tiffany Stewart:
Yeah, as they say, the rooter to the tooter. And so it was just picking the font, understanding how the typography was going to be laid out in an enticing way on the cover page. Figuring out how the table of content should be displayed, what was the concept and theme for the magazine. And then making sure that we got all the articles and everybody returned their corrections on time. And then making sure that we had the correct paper in stock and making sure that the printer didn’t jam. And then after all of that, running it through the cycle of getting it mailed out to the individual households that were part of the membership was a lot.

Maurice Cherry:
That alone is a job. The fact that you were doing that on top of web stuff, on top of graphic stuff. My hat goes off to you because I’ve had those positions before where you’re doing all the things because you’re the only person that can do all the things.

Tiffany Stewart:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Tiffany Stewart:
Yeah. It makes you indispensable to a point, but you get serious burnout after a while because it was one thing after another. And I think a few minutes later or a few months after the choir director left and the choir director was responsible for printing the Sunday brochures. So after he left, guess who was responsible for printing the Sunday brochures?

Maurice Cherry:
That was you.

Tiffany Stewart:
Mm-hmm, yep. I was at that job all the time, actually slept there. And one would not think that of like, “Oh, you’re just a graphic designer at a church.” No, no friend.

Maurice Cherry:
No.

Tiffany Stewart:
No, no friend.

Maurice Cherry:
I’ve done church work before. Because sometimes what will happen, and I don’t know if this happened maybe in your case, but sometimes what will happen is that your obligation to your job ends up getting wrapped up in some level of religiosity where it’s not just the work that you’re doing for the church, but you’re doing the work for God.

Tiffany Stewart:
None of that, fortunately that was not. They were very nice. I want to say the church was Episcopalian. And I just was like, “Mm-hmm, Mm-hmm. This is great. I’m very happy for everyone involved. Yes, exactly that.”

Maurice Cherry:
Right.

Tiffany Stewart:
Yeah, yeah, yeah. I feel like maybe if it had been, for lack of a better word, a Black church, that might have changed. Because I feel like there’s a level of guilt, I find.

Maurice Cherry:
Guilt? Yeah, that’s what I was going to say.

Tiffany Stewart:
I know, I’m trying. How do I say this nicely? But there’s a level of guilt that only Black churches because-

Maurice Cherry:
I hear you.

Tiffany Stewart:
Because they’ll be like, “Oh well, your grand mama Marlene.” And I’m like, “Oh no. So now I have to do this flyer.”

Maurice Cherry:
I empathize with that a 100%. Oh my God. Okay, yeah.

Tiffany Stewart:
Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. Especially if your parents or family members or members of the church too. It’s just like, “Yeah, no, I’m absolutely going to just have to make this flyer and make Miss Martha look good.”

Maurice Cherry:
So after your work at the church is when you got more into, I would say digital design. You worked as a product designer and then a UX designer, which is what you’re doing now. Was it a big shift to go from doing all the things at the church to now just focusing on product or focusing on UX?

Tiffany Stewart:
Honestly, no. And I think that’s because the church in its way of making me do everything, prepared me for the slightly, and I do mean slightly, slightly less work of being a product or UX designer because I’m only focused on one thing at that point. I’m not focused on doing everything. So it was a breath of fresh air because I was like, “Oh, okay, I can just focus on the digital. I don’t have to worry about the magazine and whatever and whatever, whatever. I can just do the digital.” And then it also helped that I worked for a luxury travel agency. So I was just staring at beautiful pictures of hotels all day long and being like, “I will go there some day. Absolutely.” But yeah, no, it wasn’t too bad at all.

I think a lot of my experience with my work in print actually helped with my work at digital because they actually also did print magazines, but I was responsible for the digital version of it. So since I already knew how to do all of that work from the church, it was like, “Oh no, no, this is good. This is great. I can do this.” And I think the engineering team had already set up a pretty decent templating system. So at that point it was basically just making sure that all of the digital stuff was set up in a way that I could just very quickly upload it to the web what I needed it to, whenever they needed to release a digital article. And on my side, it wasn’t a set thing. So we only had released maybe one or two articles a week. And so it was just basically sourcing photos and making sure that all of the digital stuff was set up on there.

It wasn’t until they decided to end the print half or move the print half and mainly focus on digital in terms of booking flights and booking hotels. Then that’s when it was like, “Okay, so now we’ve shifted to the user experience side of things.” Because before, it was a lot of really just allowing consumers to just read articles based on our recommendations for things. And so it was very narrow in that sense. And then when it came time to book things, then it became, “Okay, so how does our booking thing work? How does search work? What is the experience if someone were to try to book a flight?” Is it that it goes to the travel agent or can they book directly? And what did the steps look like for that?

So that’s where it shifted is that that last piece of the UX of completing a full entire process to get that booked result versus I’m just serving you up an article on the best restaurant in LA type of thing. Does that make sense?

Maurice Cherry:
No, that makes sense. And I think for people that are listening, I feel like at least nowadays, UX and product tend to get conflated in a way. There may be subbed out one thing for another. So I’m glad that you were pointing out what the differences are between those two.

Tiffany Stewart:
They do both carry an aspect of user experience in the very basic sense of how is a user meant to experience reading an article on restaurants versus how is a user meant to experience a checkout flow for booking a flight? So they do share that in that regard. You could use them interchangeably, I don’t think anybody would be mad. However, I do have friends who are product designers and I think they call them industrial designers now. I remember they’d be like, “Oh, I’m applying for a position for a product designer.” And I’m like, “Ooh, that’s not what you think it is, friend.” So it also depends on what the company defines a product designer or a UX designer as well in the job description. And so a lot of my industrial designer friends were like, “This is lame, we’re the product designers, not you guys.”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Tiffany Stewart:
So, yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
What gives you purpose to keep doing the work that you do?

Tiffany Stewart:
So I follow several people on Twitter who are in the disability activism space. And while I don’t comment per se, them sharing their experiences fuels me to make the web better. The internet is not going anywhere as far as I know. I would love it if they made it a utility, but I digress. And so I want everyone to have an equitable experience on the web. I want for, or I would like to be able to help that further along, whether it’s being passionate about making sure that there’s a contrast and the code is right and whatever.

But I want the web to be as equitable as possible. Because a lot of times when folks don’t have access to these things, people’s lives are in danger. No one talks about that side of it. But if all of a sudden you’re saying access to government grants and access to COVID vaccinations can only be achieved by going to a website, how many people are you cutting out with that one decision alone? Especially if the web is not accessible enough to accommodate everybody. And so following these women and their work in that space really fuels me to make sure that I champion it on my end as best as I can.

Maurice Cherry:
How do you work to stay your authentic self throughout your career? certainly I think when people hear this interview, they get that you’ve got a bubbly personality and working in tech and then working in design and working in tech in news. I would imagine you encounter a lot of different types of folks, we’ll just put it that way. But how have you worked to stay your authentic self?

Tiffany Stewart:
Antionette told me to, I think you’ve interviewed Antionette Carroll?

Maurice Cherry:
Oh yeah, I’ve had her on the show. Yeah.

Tiffany Stewart:
Yes. Yes, yes, yes. So she used to come hang out at the house whenever she would come in for South by Southwest and we would have these long conversations about the work that she was doing in design equity. And she’s amazing and she’s also another inspiration. But Antionette was like, “Listen, you have to be authentic in your work all the time. You just have to be.” And I said, “Okay, yes ma’am.” I just did what she said. I trust her and she’s an amazing human. And I do find that it is helpful because people then know what they’re getting from you. And I do tell people in front. I remember teasing my poor boss. I was like, “Are you sure you want to hire me? Because you were getting this mouth along with the hire, so I need you to be okay with that.” And he was like, “No, no, it’s fine. Please, by all means, bring your authentic self to work.”

And so I appreciate that about my bosses at my company. They’re very much supportive of that. And I have not run into a situation, because sometimes they’ll say that and they don’t mean that. But I have not run into that thus far here.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s good.

Tiffany Stewart:
So I’m very grateful for that.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Tiffany Stewart:
Very grateful for that.

Maurice Cherry:
#AntionetteTaughtMe.

Tiffany Stewart:
Listen, that could be a series in and of itself. My goodness, I miss her so much.

Maurice Cherry:
What is the best piece of advice that you would give to somebody that wants to follow in your footsteps? They’ve heard your story, they want to be like you, they want to be where you’re at, at that level. What would you tell them?

Tiffany Stewart:
Stay curious. Be curious about everything. How everything works, how people feel about things. Be observant. Watch people, watch how things function. You would be surprised what you can learn just by looking at a thing and being like, “So what was that meant for?” We always used to joke that there’s these products out there that the designers built them for one way and then the users use them in a completely different way and you’re just like, “That’s not what that was meant for.” But even that is some semblance of feedback. So just observing and being curious and watching and learning. Stay learning. Stay curious and stay learning. Never stop learning.

Maurice Cherry:
To that end, where do you see yourself in the next five years? What kind of work do you want to be doing?

Tiffany Stewart:
I feel like at the moment, my big thing is I’m planning on having my mom come live with me. So learning more about accessibility in terms of interior design and home design and making sure that everything is set up for her to live comfortably if she chooses to come live with me. So just furthering my experience in accessibility, but just applying it to different things and seeing what that looks like. And then whatever I learned, share it with everybody who asks or didn’t ask. Y’all gon’ get this accessibility on today, as I say, often.

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

Tiffany Stewart:
I tend to keep a low profile, but I am on LinkedIn. You can find me there. I am on Instagram, but I don’t post often. I am a lurker, as it were, one of those things. Those are my two spots that I’m usually-

Maurice Cherry:
What’s the Instagram name?

Tiffany Stewart:
Elemango.design. It’s from an old graphic design project that I did for my senior year at university.

Maurice Cherry:
All right.

Tiffany Stewart:
But yeah, elemango.design. Elephants and mangoes.

Maurice Cherry:
I thought that what it might be.

Tiffany Stewart:
My two favorite things.

Maurice Cherry:
It sounded like that’s what it might be elephants and mangoes.

Tiffany Stewart:
Elephants and mangoes. My two favorite things. Yeah. Yeah, yeah. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Awesome. Well, Tiffany Stewart, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show.

Tiffany Stewart:
Thank you.

Maurice Cherry:
Thank you for sharing your story. It sounds like you’re someone that is just passionately curious about a lot of things and you had the opportunity to be able to really go into a lot of places with your career. Engineering degree, then doing design and then doing all these other things. It sounds like you’re someone that is always trying to keep on the pulse of what’s next. And I think of course, with accessibility being such an important topic to our world right now, I feel like we’ll be hearing and seeing a lot more from you in the future. So thank you for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Tiffany Stewart:
Thank you. So lovely to do this. This is a lot of fun. So yeah, no, I appreciate it very much. Thank you.

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Kevin Hawkins

The good thing about design is that if you have access to the right opportunities, your talent can really take you places. Take this week’s guest, Kevin Hawkins, for example. While he cut his teeth in the Washington DC design scene, for the past few years he’s been working in Europe, including his current role as global UX director for Glovo in Barcelona, Spain.

Our conversation started off with learning more about Glovo, and Kevin shared some of the rewarding bits and some of the challenges of his work. He also spoke about how his parents inspired him to be an entrepreneur, designing in DC and San Francisco, and how a trip to The Netherlands influenced his decision to work in Europe. Kevin’s story is a great example that when you take a chance on yourself, you will never lose!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Kevin Hawkins:
Hello, I am Kevin Hawkins. I am the global UX director at Glovo in Barcelona, Spain. I manage a team of designers, researchers, operation specialists, content writers, and it’s about a 90-person team working on global food, grocery and everything delivery, in about 25 countries.

Maurice Cherry:
And I should also mention that you also live in Spain. You’re not just working remotely because of the pandemic.

Kevin Hawkins:
Correct, yes. I’ve lived in Barcelona now for just over six months. I moved for this job, and it’s been going really well.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, nice. How’s Barcelona?

Kevin Hawkins:
Super hot. The heat wave has been roasting Barcelona, but it’s also the time of year where they have neighborhood festivals. So it’s been super nice to get to know the city and see it come alive, but also see all the tourists sweat in the sun.

Maurice Cherry:
So aside from this move, how’s the year been going in general?

Kevin Hawkins:
The year’s been going really well. A lot of unexpected changes. I was previously living in Amsterdam, so it’s been a lot of big changes; another move for me, a new job, a new house, a new language. So it’s been a year of change.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s talk about the work that you’re doing at Glovo, where you mentioned you’re their global UX director. Talk to me about Glovo.

Kevin Hawkins:
Yeah, so Glovo, if people don’t know, it’s really big in Europe, Northern Africa and Western Asia. We don’t have a presence in North America, but we used to have a presence in South America. It is essentially if you were to combine DoorDash plus Uber Eats plus a little bit of FedEx. We are a delivery logistics company that started out doing food. We do groceries, we do appliances. We’ve started doing COVID tests. Essentially if you want anything in the city, we deliver it, we schedule it, we get it to your door. And we operate in 25 countries and just recently merged with a big group. So now we have about, let’s say, total, a couple billion orders a year that we handle as part of Delivery Hero.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. How has business been going during the pandemic? I’d imagine probably pretty well.

Kevin Hawkins:
Yeah. This is one of the kind of outlier industries that did really, really well. As everyone started ordering from home, we ramped up. We were one of the first in Europe to start scheduling at-home COVID tests, because we could deliver you the test, but we can also deliver you the test with a nurse or someone to actually administer the test. So it was a really good time for us to launch new features. I only joined in February, so I came in on the high wave of all this growth, really trying to use that extra momentum and the profit margin that came with it to really invest in big things to keep that momentum going as people go back into the world and things open back up.

Maurice Cherry:
Tell me more about the team that you’re overseeing.

Kevin Hawkins:
The team is my favorite part of this job and favorite part about the entire company, honestly. So Barcelona is the capital of Catalonia, which if you know anything about Spain, the different groups and factions, they fought for a while. There’s distinct cultures, so it’s different than Madrid, it’s different than Valencia or other areas of Spain. Very humble, very sweet, very down to earth people. The founders are both from this region, and it’s very much seen in the culture of the company. And so I really love the people. The roles that end up reporting into me are typically design and research, but also design ops, research ops, localization and internationalization teams that handle our translations and cultural differences, as well as the content writers and little bit of program management.

Maurice Cherry:
What does a sort of typical day look like for you?

Kevin Hawkins:
There is no typical day, I will tell you. So I am the highest ranked design person at Glovo. I report directly in to the chief product officer. So my typical day is a mixture of diversity and inclusion and hiring practices, meetings, making sure that research plans are adapted to different countries, dialects and languages. I have one-on-ones with five different heads of UX. Generally, I’m talking to a software account manager about renewals or new feature development, planning a research trip, or as part of my work with an employee resource group, we are planning an event or sharing new guidelines or new fact sheets to inspire the company to be more inclusive.

Maurice Cherry:
I was just about to ask you about that. You head up this ERG called Colours at Glovo. Tell me about that.

Kevin Hawkins:
Yeah, Colours of Glovo is a really fun part of the work I do. So the employee resource group is dedicated to diversity and inclusion as well as cultural differences related to ethnicity, race, and a lot of the nuances that happens within countries or within cultures. So generally speaking, we have ERGs dedicated to Pride and women’s inclusion and disabilities, but our ERG tackles all of the gray areas, the really specific things regarding operating as a company that has a bunch of gig workers. How do you handle the issues felt by the couriers, who are often immigrants? How to be adapt the product to be mindful of cultural differences and sensitivities in Western Asia and the Middle East and Northern Africa and Islamic countries? How do we modify for language, a number of things, delivery to women in homes where a man can’t enter the home? The number of things that comes through the ERG is super fascinating, and we help the company navigate these kind of differences and choices.

Maurice Cherry:
Do you think Glovo will take off in the US? Is that a plan, to expand into this market?

Kevin Hawkins:
As someone who was born in America, I definitely think about this a lot. I don’t think we will. We have a really successful strategy, which is based on being number one or number two in all the markets we operate in. Given the intense competition of Uber and DoorDash and everyone in the US, I think it would take a very dedicated expensive effort to come in and be number one or number two very quickly. So I don’t see it happening in the near future. But now that we are part of Delivery Hero group, we are in the top three delivery companies globally.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I would imagine if Glovo were to expand into the US, you’d have to contend with Amazon. And they’re just everywhere, I mean, ubiquitous. I’m surprised, I know they used to do food delivery. It’s funny, they used to have Amazon restaurants or something, but I guess they just decided to give that up. And now they just do, of course, package deliveries, they do grocery deliveries, et cetera. But for what you’re mentioning with Glovo, it sounds like this FedEx, Door Dash, Uber Eats kind of hybrid sort of probably covers some gaps that maybe something like an Amazon wouldn’t cover.

Kevin Hawkins:
Yeah, we have a couple of things people don’t expect. There’s a really famous feature from the very beginning of the history of Glovo called Anything Picture, or in Spanish, [Spanish 00:09:21], which is you actually describe what you want to receive and the courier will go out and get it. And that means you could say, “Hey, I need two pillow cases and a pillow from Zara home.” Zara Home isn’t a partner of Glovo, but this courier has a credit card and can go into the store, buy it, expense it to you and bring it to your house within 25 minutes.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow, that’s pretty good. That’s pretty good. That reminds me of … Oh my God, I’m trying to think of … Do you remember Webvan?

Kevin Hawkins:
Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh my god, it reminds me a little bit of Webvan, from back in the day. I don’t know if they were that exacting, but I like that feature. That sounds really cool.

Kevin Hawkins:
Yeah, there were a couple concierge apps that came out back around then. It was like Cleveroad, and there’s some older ones that are no longer existent, because the margins were terrible. And trying to accommodate random requests at random times always became very challenging. But it’s cool because we still have that part of the app, because it’s the oldest feature, people love it. And when it works really well, I mean, it’s a moment of absolute customer delight.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. We have a place here in Atlanta called Zifty. And Zifty has been around probably since, oh my God, maybe 2003 or something like that. They’re like the pre-Uber Eats or pre-DoorDash or something. If you wanted to get something from a local restaurant, depending on where your zip code was, they could get it for you. But also, they had a little grocery store. So if you needed to get toiletries or aspirin or whatever, you could get that along with your food, and they’d sort of bring it all together. I think they might have taken a bit of a stumble during the pandemic.
Well, one, services Uber Eats and such came about, so now you didn’t have to use Zifty. You could use any of these other services, which were cheaper. But the thing with Zifty is they were really good about trying to make sure that all the drivers were paid a livable wage, all that sort of stuff. They weren’t trying to undercut your own tips or anything like that, as maybe a similar type service might do; not naming any names, but you know what I mean. They might not try to undercut them on that sort of stuff. I don’t know how well they’re faring during the pandemic, because they stopped doing the grocery stuff, because I think just the possibility of transmission of COVID. And so now it’s just restaurants. But they’ve expanded into a mobile app.
I’m curious to see how they weather it through, because they’ll be coming up on 20 years next year. And it’s amazing how they’ve managed to weather the storm as society has changed. Because I think in the beginning people were like, “Wait a minute, the only thing I really would order delivery would be pizza or maybe Chinese food.” And now you can get pho, you can get sushi, you can get pillows, like you mentioned. You can get anything now via delivery.

Kevin Hawkins:
Yes, exactly. The thing that we saw really spike during COVID was what we call quick commerce. So it was these brands like Gorillas or Getir, in some cases even grocery stores, directly offering what was 10-minute delivery for things. And this is what led to the same rat race that Amazon triggered when they launched one-day delivery. All the retailers have tried to scramble to get three day, two day, one day, same day, few hour delivery, sparked by this kind of, “Oh, that’s possible.” So then people find use cases they didn’t normally have.
In our space, it was quite literally the grocery store companies and these quick commerce companies pushing food, because food was always, “We get it to you.” You have companies that have couriers like us, and then you have some restaurants that have their own drivers, like notoriously Domino’s. And we merged them together.
But then you had products that were committing to $10 or a 10-minute guarantee and you get your money back, which is significant pressure on the logistics company, because you don’t have staff. People are volunteering. They get online when they want to get online. It can rain. You might be in a hilly city like San Francisco. The number of variables were endless, let alone things being out of stock. So we had to contend with this really, really heated race. Getir raised a billion dollars almost in funding, which is an unheard of number for a company that just started. So it was a really fun time for the industry.

Maurice Cherry:
It also sounds like, I think you mentioned this earlier, but you are also delivering COVID tests too. I don’t know of any other services really doing that.

Kevin Hawkins:
Yeah, I think it took a long time, but I think Uber eventually decided to start letting you schedule COVID tests with CVS, and then perfectly scheduling to pick up and drop off. But that was the closest I’ve seen on the large scale. We were actually delivering tests and then also delivering practitioners who could administer the tests, because it was just a perfect remedy. We started doing supply-based delivery. So if you were ordering an appliance, we’d have an installer; you’re buying a TV, we have an installer. Imagine everything from Best Buy, they have that service called Geek Squad where they come and install things. It’s just timing and scheduling of a person to arrive with goods. So we were like, “We sell goods, we deliver them on time, why couldn’t we deliver a person with them?”

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. So it’s sort of also like a TaskRabbit in there too.

Kevin Hawkins:
Yeah, a little bit, as long as we could estimate the cost before, because TaskRabbit, there could be overage. We didn’t really get into that. We have a single transaction, single promise, single sale. It was applicable to many, many things.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Now you mentioned the team being the best part about what you do. What would you say is the most difficult part?

Kevin Hawkins:
I mean, it’s also the size, the scale. The differences within the markets that we operate in is probably the difficult part. Whenever you come up with what you think is a simple solution or that makes sense, it is never going to apply equally in Portugal as it will in Kurdistan. It never really makes sense the same in rural Nigeria or rural Kenya as it does in downtown Barcelona or in a very dense three-city country like Poland. When you have urban sprawl, when you have a six-language barrier, when the couriers or the partners speak completely different languages than the average customer, these complications, these nuances, these details makes the work for the team really complicated and also makes funding and prioritizing research … I would say fun, some would say complex.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Now, you’ve served at a number of different companies. You’ve even worked internationally before, which we’ll get into a little bit later. I want to take things back to the beginning and sort of talk about your origin story. Tell me about where you grew up.

Kevin Hawkins:
Yeah, I don’t get to talk about this too much, but I’m originally from the Washington, D.C area. So my first home was in the city, and then we moved back and forth between Rockville, Maryland, Silver Spring, Maryland, and back into the capital. And I spent pretty much all my time in D.C., with a lot of travel with my dad, who is from the military, and then my mom’s family, which is African, from Liberia. So we spent time flying back between the two continents, but also just around the US at different military basis.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, nice. First generation. I like that.

Kevin Hawkins:
Yeah, exactly.

Maurice Cherry:
Did you have a lot of exposure to art and design and stuff growing up?

Kevin Hawkins:
Yeah, so my mom was a nurse and then broke away from the family expectations going into medical because she wasn’t happy, and became a fashion designer. And that was a big inspiration for my ability to problem-solve and really understanding when people say they want certain things but what they really want is something else, which is of course a big skill for designers. And then my dad was in the military but then left and became a labor rights attorney, and was really working with a lot of politics and advisory, and also had his own business. And so I was always surrounded by creative thinking, problem solving, a lot of politics, a lot of public relations. And it always made me think about, what if I did something similar to this? And I ended up helping them build their websites and their marketing collateral. And that’s really how I got started.

Maurice Cherry:
When did you of know that this was something you really wanted to study and go into, as a kid?

Kevin Hawkins:
So, that happened really early. I think it was probably as early as 10. So when I was super young, this is like seven or eight, if you went to school in the States especially, you know had to get a book cover and you had to get a binder cover sometimes, because you had even and odd days in middle school. And all your textbooks were either rented or they were really expensive, so you wanted to cover them to protect them, maybe sell them back later on in the year.
And my mom and I came up with the scheme of making the coolest covers. And so we had a little business called Cover Me Cool. And I essentially would be the model at school, and people would ask questions, and then you would sell them. And that got really big, and we ended up going to a trade show. We talked to me to Mead and Five Star, we got a patent attorney involved. It was my first [inaudible 00:18:29] really getting involved in business. So by 10, I had sold a company and had understood a bit of the politics of trademark law and copyright law, and decided I wanted to be more on the creative side of business. But definitely my teeth wet, and was really excited to do more independent design work.

Maurice Cherry:
So you had your own business and sold it by the time you were 10?

Kevin Hawkins:
Yeah, I would say sold is a nicer version of this. Ultimately, we couldn’t afford to scale and license NFL prints and everything. And someone [inaudible 00:19:06] buy from us. And we said, “Obviously, that sounds great.” So we sold. Sometimes I think about what would happen if I hadn’t, but I think ultimately, it was a great learning lesson.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I mean, look, an exit is an exit. And the fact that you were able to sell off the business and still keep going, that’s a great thing. I say this of course as you are a child, but that’s great that you are able to have that experience really early on that way. So given that, did that sort of put in your mind, this is something that you really wanted to do as a business, was design?

Kevin Hawkins:
Yes. I still wasn’t sure what discipline within design, so this is when I started looking at school differently. I used to be very anti-school. I was very good at primary school. I really hated tests, so I didn’t really the process of going to college. But then I was like, “Maybe I can be excited by the idea of web design,” and what they were calling new media back then, because I was like, “Oh, this is not traditional. This is not just marketing collateral. This could be service design. This is marketing automation. This is branding.” It always had a bit more to do with the business than just the service provided. And I liked that, and that’s how I got started.

Maurice Cherry:
And now speaking of school, you did end up going to the Art Institutes for a while. You studied web design and interactive media. What was that time like?

Kevin Hawkins:
It was really intense. So my family, I’m the child of divorced parents, and so money wasn’t always consistent. So me having these jobs where I was doing websites and making templates on WordPress and stuff like ThemeForest and all this was a great revenue source for my mom and our household. And so when I went to school, I had a job already, and I was still working full-time doing marketing and creative service stuff for nonprofits in Washington, D.C. And I was like, “Oh, okay. So I really like my job, but I should go get certified and get a degree and get some kind of accreditation for it.” Ultimately, I ended up learning more from my job than I did from school, and that’s ultimately why I ended up leaving school.

Maurice Cherry:
I feel like that’s a lot of the case when it comes to design, I think particularly design … And I’m just sort trying to place this in terms of timeframe. If you did this anywhere in the early 2000s, I feel like that was totally okay, because a lot of schools didn’t really have curriculum that spoke to web design, visual design. Maybe they had advertising or communication design, or you went to a for-profit school like the Art Institutes and you learned stuff there. But a lot of what you learned, because of how the industry was moving, was just being hands-on. You learned through working.

Kevin Hawkins:
Yeah, certainly. I learned a lot more always from learning from people I looked up to, people who wrote books or spoke or were generous with their time, or just people at the workplace who were willing to teach me or delegated work they didn’t want to do. Whatever way it came to me, I was able to take these opportunities and find a way to make myself passionate about it.

Maurice Cherry:
And now after you left the Art Institutes, you worked at a lot of different places. And I won’t go into all of them, but I’ll list off just a few of the more prominent places where you’ve worked, which is Chase. You’ve worked at Capital One, Gap, the Brookings Institution, PwC, EY, many others. When you sort look back at that time, because you were sort of contracting from place to place, talk to me about who that Kevin Hawkins was. Who was he? What was he thinking? What was he trying to accomplish back then?

Kevin Hawkins:
I never intended to go to any of these companies and leave. I think that’s one of the things that millennials get blamed for, the whole job hopping fad. I ultimately always wanted to stay, but I just had a lot of, let’s say, self worth from my mom and the way she raised me. And whenever I dealt with workplace discrimination, ageism, racism, any of these things in the workplace, I always said it would be better for myself and my career for me to be happy at work than to … I never saw going through discrimination and oppression as earning my dues. So I found new places or I worked on startups or I made enough money making websites for people to give me a month or two to find a new job.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s a powerful statement there, and I think it’s something that … I don’t know, it’s interesting, when you think about people in their early careers, is that whole pay your dues sort of bit. I get that. Look, I got a Black mama too. And she certainly was like, “Sometimes there’s things that you have to do that you don’t want to do to get where you have to be.” And I understand that to a fault. I get that there may be some things where you just have to learn it, this is how you learn it. But if it’s like you’ve said what you’re putting up with these pervasive isms at work, racism, sexism, et cetera, why stay? You’re not winning any awards by staying, you know what I mean?

Kevin Hawkins:
No, exactly. And that wasn’t always the reason why I left. Sometimes new opportunities come, sometimes you start to stagnate or you stop learning. I always say either you’re there to learn or to earn, and sometimes there’s other motivations like a passion or a mission that aligns with you. But when you’re not learning, when you realize the industry is getting bigger, it’s getting very profitable, the work is extremely valuable, it’s being tied to massive growth and revenue, you also want to start earning more. And because I came in without a degree, I was originally second-guessing myself. So my whole tactic was I’m always more valuable in the interview phase than I am two years into a company. So if I want to make up for the money than I’m not earning by not having that degree, it makes more sense for me to take opportunities when people present them to me, than to trudge through the interview process and promotion panels, with the people I’ve been working with for two and a half, three years.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay, you just raised something interesting there I want to touch on. So you did go to the Art Institute, you got an associate’s degree, right?

Kevin Hawkins:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
So even though you had that degree from an institution that someone could look at and say, “Oh, you must be a designer,” did that still not help you throughout your career to have that as sort of a … I almost want to say a status symbol of sorts?

Kevin Hawkins:
No, honestly it wasn’t looked at the same way. The Art Institute doesn’t have the prestige of a Corcoran or a SCAD or a RISD. In addition, I got into web design and I was doing a lot of user experience, information architecture, HCI work. So they didn’t see it as directly relevant. I got a two-year degree but I didn’t take the final exam and do the official ceremony. So I always had to send in transcripts versus the official diploma letter that comes from the university office. And I didn’t really care. I was really happy that I made that choice to leave, and the work spoke for itself, more often than not. But then there would be companies, especially as I got higher up in D.C. or in New York that just would look at nothing else. And California and Europe started getting more and more attractive.

Maurice Cherry:
Interesting. I’m just curious about that, because for example, I don’t have a design degree. I did go to college, got a degree in math, and then started out as a designer, even though I just picked up design in my spare time. And even now at this stage in my career, I’m at least 20 years out from my first design position, me not having a design degree I think is still looked at some places as like, “Oh, well, you’re not really a designer,” despite the fact that I’ve run my own studio, have all this design experience in other companies. They’re like, “Yeah, but you don’t have the degree.” And I feel like companies sometimes still place way too much emphasis on that.

Kevin Hawkins:
Certainly. I mean, I can tell you the number of jobs where I actually got to the final round … I even have jobs where I was given the offer, and then it was rescinded because they hadn’t checked which degree I had.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, man.

Kevin Hawkins:
And I thought that was insane. Some of these companies had public stances on articles and in Forbes, “We don’t look at degrees anymore. Degrees are not a requirement for most of our jobs.” But the second design started getting a seat at the table, design was informing P&L, it was informing business strategy partnerships, they started really looking at designers, especially when you go into UX, as part of the business organization. Sometimes you reported in to COOs or CMOs. And they ultimately saw it as flywheel effect, that you invest in UX, you get customers happy, they buy more, you have more customers, which is great. But at the same time, we’re still always interviewed based on portfolios, you’re based on references, you’re based on the work you’ve done in your past. So why is the degree so important, when you spend 80% of the interview looking at work done?

Maurice Cherry:
Right. No, that’s true. That’s very true. I remember vividly when I got … it wasn’t my first design job, but I was working at AT&T as a senior designer. And it was one of the campuses here in Atlanta. And pretty much everyone else on the design team not only had a design degree from the Art Institutes, but they kind of all went to the same classes and stuff together. It was very much a pipeline from this school to this company, which I think may be why some companies look at that, and think, “Oh, well, if you’ve come from this school and you have this degree, then you can automatically meet maybe this baseline level of work.”
But when I tell you I was designing circles around those jokers at AT&T … and a lot of them paid me dust because I didn’t have a design degree … and these would be other Black designers too, wouldn’t even talk to me. And so when it was time for me to leave, I was like, “I’m out, I’m out. I’m gone. Peace.”

Kevin Hawkins:
Exactly.

Maurice Cherry:
And so I 100% understand the want to get at a company and you want to be there, and it just doesn’t work out. And it’s not anything that has to do with you. It’s company culture stuff, it’s all kind of other stuff. And it’s like if you don’t feel happy here, why stay?

Kevin Hawkins:
Exactly, exactly.

Maurice Cherry:
And what I noticed from just doing research, you also had your own things that you were doing throughout this time. So you weren’t relying just on working at these companies to, I guess, fulfill this creative want that you had. You founded other companies, Pipevine, QReview, BravoScore. Talk to me about those. It sounds like you were pretty busy.

Kevin Hawkins:
Yeah, I’ve always had this, and I think it’s probably from watching my parents be in jobs they weren’t super happy about and then watching them start their businesses parallel to their work, so I always thought, “Oh, that’s a thing you can do.” It isn’t like you have some contract where you are enslaved to one employer and you need to tell the employer you’re going to leave before you do work for a new employer. I always saw that small businesses are often started alongside full-time jobs.
And I said, “I do like what I do for a living, and ultimately, I see myself advising business. I see myself advising product directors and program managers. And this is what they use to determine budgets and this is what they use to determine expansions and launch strategy. I can do that. Why shouldn’t I launch something as a UX designer with the background that has worked also in research? I can validate a problem. I can talk about size of the market. I can talk about who is addressable within the first version of the product that we release. I could do a pitch. I can definitely do this.”
And I started looking of course more and more at San Francisco and startup companies and how they got their start. And you’re like, “Cool.” Designers, I personally think … this is even before Brian Chesky and Airbnb … because designers, I think, are better startup CEOs. They pitch things, and you want to listen; they’re beautiful, if they do their job with communications design very well.
And I said, “Let’s start some companies.” And I had no idea where to look. And I ultimately looked to people who were already that passionate founder visionary type, and they didn’t know how to build great user experience. They didn’t know how to collect email and newsletters and do a landing page and build up momentum before it launched. And I partnered with them as their technical co-founder because I knew enough code, enough front end, enough design to be dangerous. And they were the business, finance people.

Maurice Cherry:
So you really got your own business education in a way, too, by running these businesses and working with them.

Kevin Hawkins:
Yeah, certainly.

Maurice Cherry:
I like that. I definitely can empathize with that. I’ve always had my own thing on the side, wherever it is I was working. And I’ll tell you what’s interesting, some of these new startups, and I know this just from working in startups in the past five years … And I don’t know if a lot of them have them, but the ones that I worked in always had a clause that you had to disclose anything else that you were doing outside of work that might … I don’t know if it might conflict or whatever, but they just wanted to know that, “Well, what else are you working on that’s not the 9:00 to 5:00 job?”
And sometimes I would answer and sometimes I wouldn’t, because it’s really none of their business, because none of the places I worked for had any sort of relation to what I was doing, which was this podcast. But I find it interesting now that companies are like, “Yeah, what else are you doing to try to, I guess, I don’t know, capitalize on your time?” I know there’s this whole thing now about quiet quitting. And I hate that term so bad because it’s really just about setting boundaries at work. It’s not, whatever, I don’t know, 19th century Industrial Revolution thing you might be thinking about with quiet quitting. I just hear that just, I hate that term.

Kevin Hawkins:
It does hurt me, honestly. It’s like, okay, either it’s disengagement or it’s just the phase before someone gets fed up. But it’s not disingenuous to be tired of bad conditions or being undervalued or underpaid or outgrowing opportunity. If you feel like life is taking you a different direction than your current employer, there is always going to be the phase before you quit. And that isn’t called quiet quitting, in my opinion. That’s just called really assessing your worth, your value, and your future.

Maurice Cherry:
I might get in trouble by saying this. Part of me feels like that the media is a little bit complicit in this, because I really am only hearing this from Business Insider, Wall Street Journal, stuff like that, that are talking about quiet quitting. But I feel like it’s also retaliation to a lot of workers, at least here in the States, now realizing the power that they have with unionizing. And so they’re cutting down on this whole quiet quitting thing, because I mean, at least in some of the places I worked, that quiet quitting, I’m using air quotes here, were the seeds to start unionizing. That was the fertile ground for people to start thinking about, how can we campaign for having better work conditions, et cetera? And they talked to a union rep, and now we got a union. Like I worked at Glitch, and we unionized, shortly before they laid most of us off, but we did at least have that happen. And I want to say that the fertile ground for that was a lot of people just being sort of fed up with how certain conditions were.

Kevin Hawkins:
Yeah. And honestly, businesses will always have, let’s say, a fiduciary interest in not wanting people to unionize, because it’s easier to manipulate and get what you want as a business, for your shareholders, or even for yourself, when you are dealing with individuals. It’s also why the whole idea of people knowing what everyone makes is dangerous to businesses, because then you know if you’re getting paid less, and you know if they value that same work at a higher value. Some of these things are solved in some places in Europe, and it’s still the same battle. I have to deal with lots of cultural differences, and this is one of them. A lot of the teams and companies I work with and some of my peers in Spain and Portugal deal with this, which is, I think it’s quite positive, but it is tricky, that our employees talk to each other about how much they make. If we do a market adjustment and someone was adjusted more than someone else, it definitely comes up much quicker than you think it will.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. So you were running these businesses, you were working at these different places. It sounds like you were doing a lot here in the States, between all of that stuff. But eventually you ended up moving, you moved to Amsterdam. What was behind the decision to do that?

Kevin Hawkins:
Yeah. So I moved to San Francisco for four and a half years, and I was really happy out there, but I really couldn’t see myself building life in terms of buying a house, starting a family, with just the cost, the income disparity, the homelessness crisis, and really just it’s quite out of touch, if you stay in certain bubbles. And I always had a really good balance. My family is quite mixed, African, Filipino, American. I see different classes within America and other countries on a regular basis. And so to juxtapose the comments and things you would hear in Silicon Valley with the reality of most of the world became a bit frustrating. And I said, “Am I really doing myself a service, spending all of my money, all of my energy just trying to survive in this city, or maybe I go back to D.C., or maybe I finally go and try out Europe?”

Maurice Cherry:
And Europe ended up winning.

Kevin Hawkins:
Europe ended up winning; winning at a very interesting time, who got elected-

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, that’s true. That’s true. Yeah.

Kevin Hawkins:
… safety of Black people in America. I mean, a number of things, right? And so I was really happy to be able to go and visit. And then once I was able to secure a job that was able to sponsor me and keep me there, it was a big sigh of relief that I exhaled, because it was just such a significant upgrade on my quality of life.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. So you ended up working in Amsterdam, you were working at booking.com. And then now you’re here in Barcelona working at Glovo. I’m just curious, I mean, this is from the dumb American perspective, so forgive me here, but is it easy moving between countries like that in Europe?

Kevin Hawkins:
No.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, okay.

Kevin Hawkins:
No. I really wish it was simpler. Honestly, the visas don’t transfer between countries. So we were just talking about the whole degree thing. And I won’t talk too badly about my new home country, but I had a high qualified migrant visa in the Netherlands because I worked in tech, and they wanted more tech workers. And I made good money and I brought lots of job opportunities and revenue by having a high-funded, well-run company be headquartered in your country. But that same visa wouldn’t transfer to Spain, so I had to requalify, do background checks in America and in the Netherlands, do fingerprinting, do a degree certificate, all these things all over again, as if I hadn’t just lived four years in Netherlands and bought a house. I considered myself European at that point, but that’s not how it works.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. And you’ve been now in Barcelona you said for about six months?

Kevin Hawkins:
Yep, about six months.

Maurice Cherry:
What is the design scene like there? Have you sought it out or have you found it there?

Kevin Hawkins:
So there are probably around like 2,500 startups. Glovo isn’t definitely in that top group of the biggest. We’re a unicorn. But the design scene isn’t as large, of course, as a London, which is massive, or as an Amsterdam, which is definitely a tech hub, but it’s very warm, I would say. The UX community in Barcelona has big players like HP and Amazon who are directly our neighbors. As Glovo, we’re in a neighborhood called Poblenou, which is the tech hub. But then you also just have to factor in the culture.
There’s a lot of illustration and animation in the UX and design community within Barcelona, just because of the culture is so rich in architecture and detail and craft. The community is very warm because the city is very warm, and people are generally happier, in my opinion. And they have beach meetups, and there’s a thriving tech scene that’s definitely growing. And it’s really fun to be there at the moment where it’s blossoming. It’s definitely going to surpass, in my opinion, some of the bigger cities. The only key difference is that pay in the south is lower than in northern Europe, which models very similarly to pay in the South of the US versus New York, for example.

Maurice Cherry:
Interesting. How would you compare the design community to, say, the one in Amsterdam or in D.C.? Was that something that you thought about as you went to these different places?

Kevin Hawkins:
Yeah, certainly. I think that I always think about diversity of groups and communities. And D.C.’s definitely a melting pot. Amsterdam’s a melting pot. Barcelona is one of the largest cities in a region of Spain, and therefore it’s not Madrid, it’s not the capital. The tech that’s there isn’t one industry, like the military or government or FinTech. And so it’s a lot of people from completely different backgrounds, a lot of immigrants from other Spanish-speaking countries or from Latin America or Hispanic America, like Brazil and Argentina. And so, there is this really interesting new kind of perspective that you get. A lot of the competition or comps we talk about at work like Roppy and companies that don’t even operate on the continent, because of the backgrounds people have and the different kind of work they’ve been doing. And it’s really cool. I still do all of my work in English. And I’m still able to navigate the community, and the community’s very open and friendly to expats. They often speak three languages. And it’s a very vibrant, different community, but I really enjoy it.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s good to hear that they’re friendly to expats. I had always been curious about that sort of thing. I mean, I’ve been considering … at this stage where I’m at right now, as we’re recording this, I am currently, we’ll say, between opportunities at the moment. And look, I’ve been in the US for a long time. I’m from here, whatever. But I also know that the skills that I have, I’ll look for the types of positions that I do, and most of them are in Europe. None of them are in the US. And I’ve thought about possibly maybe doing it, like, oh, just visiting or something. Part of me is like, maybe I’m a little too old to do that. Also, I’m close to my family that’s close to where I live here, and I don’t want to put an ocean between us. But it really sort of sounds like you’ve found a way for yourself throughout your entire career. You didn’t have one set path that you really were trying to follow. You just of went where your passions led you.

Kevin Hawkins:
Yeah, I think the only thing that’s been consistent has been I wanted to be a C-suite executive. I think that’s something that my family makes fun of me for, from being a kid. I used to be called the governor. I probably am still called the governor [inaudible 00:42:23] family because I always projected these long-term visions, five-year plans, “We’re going to do this.” I was always rallying people towards a mission or a goal. And so I’ve always known I wanted to be in a leadership position, but as I got into design, I didn’t really see one. So I was always trying to navigate my way into learning new skills, because I wasn’t in the business area, I wasn’t in operations, I wasn’t in marketing, I wasn’t in the area that had C-suite positions.
And I said to myself, “If I’m ever going to get there, it has to be the story of the receptionist who learns all the skills by being around all the people in the business and eventually become COO and then CEO.” So I told myself, “I’m in design, there’s no direct ladder to that role, so I’m going to have to get close to the marketers and close to the engineers and close to sales and close to legal, and really understand the in and out of every business I worked for.”

Maurice Cherry:
And now you’re in the C-suite now. Would you say that’s sort where you’re at now with Glovo?

Kevin Hawkins:
Almost, yeah. I mean, no one else above me does design work. I report to the chief product officer, but I am solely responsible for all the budget for design research, content. It’s about a 90-person team and growing. And so it does feel like I’m almost there. I think the one thing that would get me there would be a VP of experience position or, very few companies have these, but a chief design officer.

Maurice Cherry:
How have you worked to stay your authentic self throughout your career?

Kevin Hawkins:
It actually is easier to answer than I thought it would be. It has been teaching. So I never did it with the intention of keeping myself grounded, but I always felt and was making time to mentor people into the industry. I have some close friends now who came from program manager jobs at NASA or were teachers or bankers, and now they’re in UX or in different areas of tech. And I always found it really, I don’t know, just thrilling to show them how transferable their skills were or show them that you have a passion to make apps, and yes, app companies and companies in general fail at the 90% mark, but these are the skills you need to be able to validate your assumptions and listen to customer feedback and iterate quickly and fail fast, and get them into positions where they either were launching their own companies or working in UX or in different tech roles. And that is what led me to eventually teach a class on data visualization at Georgetown University and then start teaching in general UX courses, design thinking courses, sort of about six years of me teaching now.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, nice. So you’re teaching. Is that something you’re also doing now in Barcelona, or are you’re just working at Glovo?

Kevin Hawkins:
I am just working at Glovo. I was working with a bootcamp in Amsterdam called Growth Tribe, but now that I’m in Barcelona, I’m looking for new opportunities, mostly by partnering with the department with local universities, Ironhack in Barcelona, building an apprenticeship program, which I feel like is really missing in the industry; when we talk about not enough junior positions, at the very least, people should be teaching and bringing in people who are early career programs and apprenticeship programs to build that pipeline for juniors.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I find a lot of companies now don’t really want to talk to people. When it comes to positions and stuff, they’ll make sure that the, I don’t know, applicant tracking system does all the work. They don’t really want to talk to you or interview or get to know you unless you pass through those hurdles and stuff. But that apprenticeship part certainly is something that’s missing. I feel like that’s something that has been identified throughout the years, and a lot of companies just haven’t tried to make that a part of what they do. I mean, they still have take-home tests within interview processes, so I feel like having an apprenticeship, it might be a little bit too much for them to handle at the moment, but I would like to see more of that kind of stuff too.

Kevin Hawkins:
Yeah, I think there’s always a scapegoat, whether it be time or team maturity. But having an intern, having an apprentice, having a really early junior requires that same level of consistency with how the department or organization is run, with also there being clear career paths. But then in addition, having someone actually be responsible and given credit for molding the mind and techniques of a new person in the industry. And I think because of the number of operational admin and HR-related aspects of this that are not in place at most companies or are always in some state of shift, they always want to say, “Oh, we just won’t do it,” but then at the same time will complain about why it’s so expensive to only hire seniors or why the [inaudible 00:47:06] maturity isn’t great when none of your team has any experience mentoring people.

Maurice Cherry:
I know I certainly hear it from … I’ve heard of that, companies I’ve worked for, where they’re like, “Oh, we can’t find any good candidates,” or they’ll put out a listing and get 300 resumes and then not look at any of them. I don’t know. Hiring in itself is broken. And I may be speaking from a bit of a jaded place at the moment, because I’m looking for work. But that’s something I’ve noticed though throughout my career at places I’ve worked, where designers, it really is that thing about you have to know someone. It’s really hard to just come in right off the ground floor to get into some companies. But that’s pretty sad.

Kevin Hawkins:
Yeah, I would agree. Design is becoming like real estate. Everyone has to get some comfortable shoes and go door-knocking and cold-,calling and there’s tons of doors being slammed and phone calls being hung up on. And especially with any kind of recession, it gets really tricky. The majority of my career, I would say, post- the engineering marketing design stuff I was doing, was in 2008, 2009. And obviously, it was the worst time. But I came in super humble, obviously didn’t need a ton of money. In terms of what people were expecting for the top of the band for certain positions, I was undercutting them, because I was there to learn. At the same time, I also was keeping all of my expenses super, super low. That is impossible anymore. The market is insane. The cost of inflation has gone up just for living in places. And we’ve all talked about this ad nauseum at this point, about whether people should be paid living wages or not, which is an obvious answer.
And design has, and tech in general has been such a savior for some people because it has been rapidly growing in income, and people are making great salaries and new positions are being formed in leadership, and there’s career paths. But then when it doesn’t have respect at companies, you can look at Fannie Mae for example, you see whole divisions being cut or companies no longer investing in UX. And it really shows you that we have to, not just because we find it interesting, you have to develop these other skills, you have to develop these networks. And that awkward phone call or email or walking up to a random person at a conference feels like a luxury we can ignore for a lot of the time. But when it comes down to it, those are the people and the connections that have saved me most at times when I didn’t have a job or went to a new country or got laid off or in one instance got fired.

Maurice Cherry:
What’s the best piece of advice that you’d give to someone that they’re hearing your story and they want to follow in your footsteps? What would you tell them?

Kevin Hawkins:
I would say, and this is going to be a quote, because I love quotes … I want to get this quote correct. “So it is literally true that you can succeed best and quickest by helping others to succeed,” which is a quote by Napoleon Hill. And it’s just me being generous with my time. It’s me taking random phone calls for Brazilian graphic design students at 12:00 PM when it’s their 5:00 PM, so that they can ask questions, how to go from graphic design into UX. It’s me going to a Lesbians Who Tech drink in D.C. randomly to see if anybody’s there because they’re looking for a technical co-founder or they don’t know how to do something. It’s just me volunteering at design critiques or UX speed dating, where you’re giving people advice quickly or you’re answering questions in a Q&A.
I think these things are the things that we can always make time for. Ultimately in the moments when I didn’t have a job, I did more of them, because they build connections and there is a bit of a bias or an interest for me to make connections. At the same time, it’s what keeps me motivated and inspired and keeps my spirits high in the lowest moments, is the people who I’ve helped or the people who use me as a reference or call me when something has shattered their world. But for me, it’s something I’ve done 10, 15, 20 times, and can easily walk them through how to navigate it.

Maurice Cherry:
Do you feel satisfied creatively?

Kevin Hawkins:
In my current role, yes. I think I haven’t been for a little bit of time. I’ve been a director now for three years. I was a director at a small company and then I was in management but not a director at Booking. And at Booking, I was extremely, extremely happy. And then the recession hit, and that was ultimately why everything fell apart and I left. And I was looking for about a year and a half, almost two years for another place where I could see myself being home. And Glovo definitely is that. But the director role is less about designing mock-ups. It’s more about designing career paths, designing a culture, designing product marketing and employer brand.
I’m building the team I wish I was on, I’m building the kind of company culture, onboarding practices, promotion processes that I wish I had in my career. And then I’m also building myself up to hopefully be an inspiring speaker and leader and even better teacher. And I look up to people like Bozoma Saint John, who was the former CMO of Netflix, and in that kind of realm, always looking to share more knowledge, invite more people into the room at a seat at the table, and just constantly question the norms we see.

Maurice Cherry:
I would say you’d make a great public speaker. Have you been looking into doing some more of that?

Kevin Hawkins:
Yes, every chance I can get.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. Where do you see yourself in the next, let’s say, five years or so? What do you want the next chapter of the Kevin Hawkins story to look like?

Kevin Hawkins:
This has gotten trickier ever since I moved to Europe, because I think the answer used to always be some version of fame or being CXO, chief experience officer, at a thing or a really notable household name globally. But now it really has to do with about being … like I’d rather be really, really important at a small company for people who really need our services than to be just another person in a role at a very large company with customers who don’t really feel any passion towards our product.

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

Kevin Hawkins:
Yeah, so I’m most active for work things on Twitter, which is @KevinHawkinsDC. And then on Instagram, @KevinHawkinsDesign. Same thing on LinkedIn, Kevin Hawkins Design. I’m often posting about work we’re doing, public events. I do quite a bit of public speaking both in the US and in Europe, so I have several talks coming up this fall, but I’m mostly sharing work-related things, things tied to my business, and how I’m developing myself and my team on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Maurice Cherry:
All right, sounds good. Well, Kevin Hawkins, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. Sort of like I alluded to earlier in the interview, I can really tell that you’re someone that has continually throughout your career, throughout your life probably, really taken a chance on yourself. You know the skills that you’re able to bring to the table, you know what you’re able to do. And instead of waiting for an opportunity to come to you, whether it’s starting your own business or moving to another country, you are taking the chance on yourself to further your own career and further where you are in life. And I think that’s something that’s super inspiring for anyone right now to really hear. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Kevin Hawkins:
I really appreciate the time. I really love the show. Big fan. I think that everyone should reach out to whoever they want to talk to and learn from. And like you said, take a chance on yourself. And you’d be surprised, the odds are in your favor.

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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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