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Yao Adantor

The thing I love most about doing Revision Path is that I’m able to talk with people doing truly amazing work, and I get to share that conversation with the world. Such is the case with this week’s guest, Yao Adantor. Along with being an avid product researcher, he’s the founder of two companies: a technology service firm called Analog Teams, and Research Bookmark, which has been dubbed “the Google for UX researchers.” And that’s not all!

We talked about how 2022 has unfolded for him so far, including his UX research work at Bolt and how he balances his time between work, his companies, and his growing family. Yao also spoke on how companies are feeling the need for UX researchers, and from there he shared his story about growing up in Togo before coming to the U.S. and being a record-holding track and field athlete. We also spoke about his work as a professor at MICA, and how he’s working on achieving work/life harmony with everything he has going on right now. If you’re looking for inspiration to begin your next project, then this episode is definitely for you!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Yao Adantor:
My name is Yao Adantor. I am a product researcher. I’m a founder. I basically build and help people build products that resonates with people with the way to use that product in their own lives and how it improves their quality of life. That’s what I do.

Maurice Cherry:
How has 2022 been going for you so far? I know you told me before we started recording, you just came back from a couple of trips.

Yao Adantor:
Yeah. 2022 has been… It’s a long year, but in a very short amount of time. This always happens to me where the year starts off and I’m like, “Oh, it’s January. There’s time.” And then all of a sudden, we’re in the middle of the year, and it’s another one of those years again. So far, it’s been really fruitful. I have two baby daughters and they’re both under two, so we’re seeing that growth into this new year, as well as just this whole post-pandemic. And I’m saying post because hopefully we’re over everything, being able to see people in person again and the changes and the growth that have been happening in our lives. So overall, it’s very blessed year so far. Can’t complain.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. And you also started a new job this year. You were UX researcher at Bolt. How’s that been going so far?

Yao Adantor:
Yeah, absolutely. I actually started Bolt on Valentine’s Day, so there’s a love story there. There’s something interesting that always happens. When I go back out in the market and I’m like, “Oh, I’m looking for a new work,” it seems like the first thing I apply to, no matter how many interviews I get and offers when I get back, the first thing I applied to is always what gets back to me. And it was actually a conversation with one of my colleagues there now, Corianne, and out of her, conversation with her, her energy just seems so cool, calm, and positive, and I’m like, “Maybe I want to work with this person.” So it’s been really good there. It’s been interesting because Bolt is a startup and a unicorn and all of this, whatever title they associate with it. We’ve been going through our ups and downs as well there, but overall, it’s been really good. I really appreciate working with the team, which is really refreshing for me.

Maurice Cherry:
Tell me more about the work that you’re doing there.

Yao Adantor:
Yeah. I’m a product researcher at Bolt. We build checkout technology. So one click checkout, making sure people can fulfill their checkout experiences or buying stuff without any pain points. What I do on my day-to-day is help our product teams, our project managers, even our developers understand and get direction on how to build for our users.

Yao Adantor:
Again, building product is a interesting thing. Usually, companies will hire, and same thing with Bolt and that’s really no dig at them, will hire researchers later on after they grow, after teams have been established, and so forth. And which then we’re playing a backend game. We’re trying to catch up and get in front of the roadmap. So what I do oftentimes has to do with clearing and bringing light to some gray area, some dark area’s path that we haven’t built in before when it comes to user understanding. How are users going to take to this? How have they taken to it before in the marketplace? Can we build something that truly satisfies their need? And do we understand how to do that? A lot of what I do is talking to users, establishing the right questions with the PM, setting objectives, and going to get answers that can actually help the company grow and build products that impact the market.

Maurice Cherry:
What’s a regular day look like for you?

Yao Adantor:
Oh man, I wake up early. I try going to sleep early as well. But I wake up early, probably around 6:00, 6:30. My oldest daughter wakes up pretty early, so that gets me up. I’m off to giving them a bath, changing, and making sure that we have some good breakfast before they head to daycare. So the first part of my day is actually just with my family. I try not to look at my phone because I know by the time I wake up, there are messages and all types of stuff in my mind. That’s the first part of my day.

Yao Adantor:
From there, taking them to daycare and then I’m heading to training. Usually, I can get a good training session and work out or run before a lot of people wake up. And this is really my saving grace because it helps me get through the day, even kill. That’s the first half of my day.

Yao Adantor:
The teams I work with are usually on the West Coast, so by noon, everyone is getting up and working. I’m already probably working with some of my colleagues that are on the East Coast, and it’s ramping on. Now, you’re talking to people. We’re figuring out questions. “Hey, we’re running this research. Are we doing this?” “Hey, how many users are we talking to?” “Hey, what’s the hang up on this?” “Oh, can we find out something about this?” So my whole day really, essentially, the daytime is a web of communication. It is trying to relay information, understand what people need, understand what I need, and move it on like that. That’s a 9:00 to 5:00. And I’m executing, trying to deliver on stuff. And in between that, at lunchtime, I may have a meeting for Research Bookmark or something or Analog on my lunchtime.

Yao Adantor:
And then we get to the afternoon where my day, it’s really fast. I got to go pick up the kids, get them back, spend enough time and some good quality time with the family, and get back to work probably until midnight or 1:00 sometimes, depending on the time of the year. And then I’m off to some reading, some praying, and sleeping. That’s usually what my days are like.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s a full day.

Yao Adantor:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
You said earlier you go to bed early, and then you turn around and say your work until midnight. Come on.

Yao Adantor:
That’s early sometimes because there is so much to do. In my ideal, in the dream world, I would like to go to sleep at 9:30 or 10:00. I’m an old man. I just have old man style. I like to go to sleep very early, so I’m working towards that. But most of the time, completely honest, it gets to midnight. These are the busy times of the year. Not busy times of the year, I can probably make 10:30, 10:30-11:00, when I’m not too crazy busy.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay, all right. When new work comes in, because you say you’re doing all this communication, it sounds like you’re active almost at every step of the project. Is that right?

Yao Adantor:
Yeah, I try to be. When new work comes in, it usually comes through probably project management, product management. And we are building a mature practice where we have intake forms, and we try to get people to get in line, but not in a bad way. Just so we can organize ourself. So work comes in, we take it from there, look at our backlog, and see what is the most important work, especially when we’ve been reshuffling and looking at how we reorganized to really help the company. And from there, I take it into, “All right, let’s start breaking out what we really want to find out.”

Yao Adantor:
And this is really, from a research perspective, this is one of the most important parts of the project for me, is what do we actually want to know? Because if you don’t let me know that, we can go on a whole run, a couple months, weeks, and come back with the wrong data because we didn’t get to explore our true objectives. So from that perspective, I’m owned to the project. I’m very much hands on throughout the process, all the way to deliver, the recommendations, and the findings of the research.

Maurice Cherry:
What would you say is probably the most challenging part about what you do, as well as what’s the most rewarding part?

Yao Adantor:
Ooh, the most challenging part is, as simple as this sound, is just communication and understanding, so reaching across to our cross-functional partners and going, “Hey, I may need this information,” or, “What do we know about this?” And especially in a remote work where we’re not in the office and you can’t just get to the person, now it’s Slack messages, it’s emails, it’s this and that, so there’s a lot that get lost in translation. That’s probably the most difficult part. I wouldn’t even say convincing people. It’s just communication.

Yao Adantor:
We did a webinar. Research Bookmark did a webinar earlier this year where Mike from Klaviyo was telling us about hard power and soft power, and researchers are in a position where we usually have soft power, convincing people, allowing them to understand, therefore, helping them come on our side. We have really no hard power at work, so I’m constantly trying to exercise that. And that’s probably some of the most challenging part.

Yao Adantor:
And there’s also the rewarding part when you can get understanding or consensus from different types of people in a room agreeing on a project or even challenging the project to be better. So when we come to that reward question, what a real rewarding part is sometimes you go and you hear something in an interview or conducting research with a user and it just blows your mind. You’re like, “Whoa, we didn’t even think about that perspective.” That’s rewarding. Another rewarding part is when research pushes into this streams of building technology, and you can see the user in the minds of everyone sitting around. And the user is top of mind. Their satisfaction is at the top of mind. And their quality of life, which is a KPI that no one really measures, which I measure a lot when in anything I do is, how does I end up improving the person’s quality of life?

Maurice Cherry:
It’s interesting that you mentioned that about research, because I know a lot of startups probably, they’ll have product designers, UX designers, they’ll have PMs, et cetera. But it seems like organizations have to reach a certain level of maturity before they really start implementing research, at least in a UX researcher position. Even as I looked back through my interviews, because I was like, “I know I’ve interviewed a UX researcher before.” And I felt like I had done it sooner, sometime this year or something. It was 2020 the last time I interviewed a UX researcher. It was someone from Facebook, which is not to say that a company like Facebook is only one that will have UX researchers. But I don’t know. It seems like companies have to reach that certain level to really start taking research seriously as it relates to product development or user features or things like that.

Yao Adantor:
Yeah. It’s something that somehow, that narrative is so strange. Because if you think about it, wouldn’t you want to make the best decision at the very beginning of all of this? What happens is successful companies and products solve a massive problem. You don’t need research to solve a really massive problem. You’re just going to solve it, and that’s true. There’s no bridge. I build a bridge. Great. But then, you’re trying to build many other bridges across other cities, then you need to learn about that. This is where, for me, the narrative is so strange, that research is the last thing that comes on after decisions have been made on a product on a roadmap. And it’s scary because at that point, you’re in a back. You’re working on features. You’re not helping people with hard power. Stakeholders that are important plant seeds on our mind about decision that they should make.

Yao Adantor:
We don’t necessarily sit at a point where we change business perspectives. That’s not the goal. The goal is just to lay out what the user may expect from this product and everything that comes along with that. It is very interesting because we’re seeing its ramification in the market right now with layoffs at different companies. And this is probably because there are a lot of stuff being worked on that may not the best or something of that sort. Would I hire your researchers at the same time you hire your first engineer? I guarantee your company is going to survive much longer. It may change direction a lot. You may not agree, but you have someone that’s sitting there essentially representing the user truly in your company. So it’s a narrative that hopefully it will just auto change itself where researchers are coming at the front of that as we move forward.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, earlier, you alluded to two other companies. These are companies you mentioned. On your lunch break, you might do some things with them. But you co-founded two companies, one called Analog Teams, which is a technology service company. And another one called Research Bookmark, which has been dubbed the Google for UX researchers. I want to start off with Analog Teams. How did that come about?

Yao Adantor:
Yeah. Analog Teams is a pretty crazy story, man. Well, but it starts like a lot of small companies will start. My good friend and co-founder, Teyibo Oladosu, which is someone you probably need to talk to at some point as well because he has an incredible story. We ran track together. We were part of the same track team at UMBC. So kept up over the years. I know he’s in product. I’m in product. And we always talked about either the Black struggle… And we are both African. He’s Nigerian. I’m Togolese. And we both have this huge affinity to Africa and the future and all of that. So we discussed many different things, and he would come over. This is when I was at probably KPMG or even earlier than that. He would come over every once in a while. We’ll work and we’ll talk about what can we do for Africa? And how can we build? And look at all these young people. Africa is super young. Just perspective, most of the population is under 18, and it’s crazy because it’s also the biggest continent out there. And there’s a lot that can be done.

Yao Adantor:
So we’ll have these discussions and we’re, “What can we do?” And we’re both in product. And we’re like, “Okay, we’re going to start a software development company.” And we went on that route and he brought in our third co-founder, Myesha Luster, an amazing lady out of Dallas that also became one of my really, really good friend. Us three, we started to try to see what we can do for the continent. We call ourselves bridge builders, building bridges from African Americans in the United States to Africans in Africa through technology.

Yao Adantor:
And this took us into a lot of failures, a lot of wins, a lot of improvement of quality of life for our employees. Just to put things straight, we haven’t made really a dollar in Analog Teams. Even to this day, even being cash positive, almost all of it goes towards paying people, payroll. And it’s that journey itself, Analog Teams, it came about through just trying to, Myesha will say, “Cultivate and advance people,” and all of this stuff. And we found technology was a way to do it. So we tried our hand at software development, and we tried and failed and did different things.

Yao Adantor:
And then we found our hand a little bit in helping other people hire engineers. And we became this tech global sourcing company. And we sourced the best engineers for some of the greatest company, sometimes in the background, sometimes in the foreground, but that’s the kind of work we do now. And that came about through just a person knowing a person communing on some goal. We have all these recordings of four or five years ago of us just talking crazy about stuff. And here we are doing something about it. That’s how it came about. There’s so many things going through my mind as you’re asking this question. So that’s Analog Teams.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s, in a way, the quintessential American tech story. Two people in college get together with an idea, they build it with another friend, and then it becomes something major. It sounds like you all have great connections then to be able to staff, it sounds like internationally.

Yao Adantor:
We staff only in US companies now, but we have staff engineers from Africa into the West and back and forth. And it’s such an interesting business to be in because you rely a lot on the ingenuity of people and their humanness to connect with other people to be able to even get them to talk to a recruiter or whatever. We sit on the back of a lot of companies. We’re now just rolling out our own and being the face of I think they call it top funnel sourcing.

Yao Adantor:
And what is interesting about that, this happened post-college. Teyibo and I were in college 2014, and we started this in 2017. And my first tech job ever was actually being a sourcer at a company called Eliassen, which is, I think they’re called something else now. And I was a sourcer, and I remember just seeing all these recs call these people with no degrees, making so much money. And I’m like, “Oh my God, what’s going on? Is this tech?” And I’m like, “Wait, do we have to do a traditional way of thinking?” Actually, that was my first ever knowledge of being in tech, is just seeing all these recs and all these positions that I didn’t know anything about. And turns out years later, somehow some way we end up as a sourcing company, which I’m the prime sourcer somehow. And it changed so much from what I used to do in that internship, but it’s still amazing to think about.

Maurice Cherry:
No, that’s great, especially to have that relationship also with these companies that they would come to you, like you say, for that top funnel sourcing. In a way, it reminds me of the interesting thing for having done this show this long is I get to talk to people at so many different companies. And so a lot of companies will reach out to me, which is actually why we started our Job Board a couple of years ago. Because so many companies would reach out to us and be like, “We’re trying to find Black designers. We’re trying to find Black tech people. Where are they? You know where they are.” I’m like, “Okay. I’m just interviewing one a week, but sure. I could try to help out.” That’s great though. It sounds like it’s really taken off.

Yao Adantor:
Yeah. It’s tough. It’s taking off. We’re trying to break out of just being breaking even and actually offering more to the people that work for us. Of course, we are 100% African American and Black firm, African firm in the US. And there are so many challenges that we have to go through, to work across borders, everything from paying people without paying a bunch of fees, because somehow, no one has built a true way of paying people in Africa or engineers, really smart people. And it’s really hard. And we had to figure out things that no company had to figure out, and we’re getting better. And then we’re hoping to cross that barrier where people start seeing the quality that we bring to top-level sourcing as well.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, this other company, Research Bookmark, tell me about that. Did that grow out of the work you do through Analog Teams, or is that from somewhere else?

Yao Adantor:
Okay. Research Bookmark is, like many things that I do, an idea that hits me usually at night or randomly, and I start working on it right away. It just how it goes. This is how Research Bookmark came up. A couple years ago, I came across Notion, and I-

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, I love Notion. I love Notion. Sorry, go ahead.

Yao Adantor:
[inaudible 00:24:56]. Notion changed a game somehow. There are a lot of note-taking tools out there, but there was something about Notion. And at the time, I was also mentoring through a UXP program. I think I’d done once or twice, and I was in a third round or something. And my mentees, people ask about sources and I’m like, “I’m going to my bookmark and I drop it down, and it’s just random stuff. It’s a bunch of stuff. I’m sure they’re important, but I can’t make it out again.”

Yao Adantor:
Notion came round at that time, and I just thought, “What if I can just drop all of this somewhere and I can share it with the world. Is this really possible?” It blew my mind, something very simple. You could have done the same thing with a worksheet or Google sheet. But for some reason, Notion was well-designed and everything, and I really wanted to use it. So Research Bookmark was actually born right there. And it seemed like a crazy idea. I remember texting my friends like, “Guys, I’m going to put…” People are like, “Yeah, that’s cool. It sounds useful.” It sounds useful, that’s what I got at the time. From there, I think I tried many names before Research Bookmark, like call it Research Nuggets or something. It was like, “Yeah, I love this naming stuff when you start building something,” whatever.

Yao Adantor:
And we got to the point where the first person to work on Research Bookmark with me was actually one of the mentees. But she didn’t really last long. I know she was looking for work and stuff. But Analog Team… So here’s what happened, very strange. Teyibo, my co-founder, had lived in Kenya prior to that year. He lived in Kenya for a year or something of the sort. And he met a lot of people. We were trying to build software again, like I was telling you. And when we came back, this was one of our first hire. We hired a girl out of a town called Nyeri in Kenya. And her name is Cavendish Mwangi, and she’s actually the lead PM on Research Bookmark now.

Yao Adantor:
And the way I was to train her was through Research Bookmark. So she would do work for Analog. I don’t know what we were doing at that time. She was helping us with projects, whatever, and then I would have her spend time on Research Bookmark. “Okay, how do we categorize this? What do we do?” And it was just back and forth. She’s remote. I never met her. I actually just met her on this trip couple days ago. Crazy. So we’re going back and forth building Research Bookmark, and this is our training ground. This is also me just saying, “Wow, this is maybe how you build a product.”

Yao Adantor:
We get to the end of, I don’t know, 2019 for a couple months. We had maybe funneled our sources in there, organized in all weird ways. And I go, “Wow. Maybe if I get 500 to 1,000 people to touch this page over a year, that would be amazing.” Turned this thing on, two weeks later, there was over 1,200 people go, “Okay.” And at that time, we started talking to researchers. We’re rushing talking to researchers. “What do you need? How can we make it better?” Advisors, and my people that I look up to and stuff, and we just we’re talking and trying to improve it and make it better. And it took a life on its own, is really what happened. But it all started from coming across Notion, coming across the right person, being in the Analog, having Analog deliver a person that can work on it at the same time. This really impossible combination of stuff is what helped build Research Bookmark.

Maurice Cherry:
How has it been received by UX researchers? Have you gotten a lot of great feedback from people?

Yao Adantor:
Yeah. It’s been received well because essentially, product research is going through this maturity. A lot of PhDs in the social sciences are crossing over into industry, and this is the way to get in. It may not be where to stay, but this is the way to get in and this is what’s really interesting and fits their degrees, people coming out of college, us that were trained as product designers at the very beginning. My background is in psychology. I became a product designer first, but I always knew I was going to go into research or strategy or something of that sort. All of these people are now gearing towards research, product research. Companies are feeling the need a little too late, but they are feeling the need. You see programs at Google and Amazon starting to mentor more and more UX researchers. So us being the Google of UX research just helps everyone discover information, sources, meet each other.

Yao Adantor:
The platform itself is great, but the community that we’re building around the platform is really what’s going to help us stand strong. And that community is through LinkedIn. The people we meet, the research we run on researchers is been very well received. We always have been taking feedback, and our mission now is to make the day-to-day of researchers just more fruitful. If you wake up, you’re looking for something, improve your craft, go on Research Bookmark, use our search because that’s what it’s built for. We want it to become every researcher’s homepage one day.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s such a great way to just give back to the community too, with such a great resource like that. We’ve talked a lot about your work. You’ve alluded to this a little bit earlier about your background being from Togo. So let’s jump into your origin story. Tell me about growing up in Togo.

Yao Adantor:
Yeah, man. I grew up in a small country on the west coast of Africa called Togo. We’re Togolese people. I’m both Togolese and American. My parents moved here when I was pretty young, I think 9 or 10. And I grew up in Kamos. African kids grew up in big communities. My grandmothers are around, my uncles. Everyone, we lived in the same, I would say it was a neighborhood. And there’s a beach town. I lived maybe 10, 15 minutes away from the beach my whole life until I moved. I moved here. My first language is French, so we studied. I’ve started school pretty early, I think at two and a half or something. I was in the diapers, my mom said.

Yao Adantor:
One thing that I really remember about being in Togo is the group of friends that I live with in our neighborhood that I played with. Every day we play soccer and stuff like that. The house across were Jessica and Gail, and behind them were Sade. And just Steven behind me. And now that I think about it, we were pretty nutty kids because all come up with all these games. We tried making up our own language at one point and we lost that book. That would probably be very useful right now. All of these things that really mark my childhood, and being raised in a house or neighborhood where everyone is raising. It’s hard to do something wrong, growing up in the African community.

Yao Adantor:
But Togo was a blessing to live in. And I mean, I was young and I would go back home often to visit, and it’s always a pleasure. We’re pretty peaceful people for the most part, and the weather is nice and life is pretty good. It’s pretty good. Aside from the usual challenges of being an African country, a lot of unemployment, a lot of what do we do after I graduate, a lot of lack of just operational organization around the country. That’s just the challenges we deal with as Africans. But it’s really good. It’s really good growing up there.

Maurice Cherry:
And you say it was a beach town. Was this Lomé?

Yao Adantor:
Yeah, Lomé. I grew up in a town called Baguida, City de Baguida, so which is the City of Baguida, which is just a neighborhood right across the road from… You cross the big road, the highway, and you’re walking right on the beach.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice, nice. The startup that I work at is a French startup, and so we have a lot of people from Benin, which I know is the neighboring country. And I think we have one or two people from Ghana. But I know about Togo. One because, I don’t want to say I speak French, I studied French. I don’t know. I feel like I have to be put in an immersive situation to know whether or not I speak it, but I studied it from second grade all the way through college. So I can read it. I can recognize it. I think I’m okay with speaking it. But if I speak to a native French speaker, I’ll be like, “Yeah, oui.”

Maurice Cherry:
But I did a one of those, I think it was 23andMe or Ancestry, one of those. I think my ancestry was traced back to Togo. I don’t know where specifically in the country. I feel like I’d have to do African ancestry or something to figure that out, but that’s where I first had learned about Togo. I knew about it being a French-speaking country. And you say you moved here you were about 9 or 10 years old?

Yao Adantor:
Yeah, yep. We moved to Maryland. I remember Silver Spring. I went to an elementary called Viers Mill Elementary School, I remember.

Maurice Cherry:
How was that shift?

Yao Adantor:
It was good. We were younger. I knew it was tougher on my parents. I was younger. I was a kid, so it’s like, “Oh my God, new things. Oh, new school, new things.” And the language wasn’t hard. I had a English tutor before I got here. That didn’t help so much because American English is so different from what it is in person. We’re bit British English and stuff like that. But I would say all around smooth from us, for me, aside from leaving your friends back home. And they’re all over the world now, Switzerland and Europe and all of this stuff. So we’re all over the place, but it was a pretty smooth transition for me, I’ll say. I actually went to Morgan State first. I went to three colleges in three years.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Yao Adantor:
So when I graduated high school, I had a full scholarship to compete in track and field through shot put, and I still throw shot put for Togo as a pro. But then, when I graduated, I went to Morgan State. For me at that age, it was I wanted to find the best coach and wanted have connected with more because I wanted to throw as far as I can. And that didn’t happen that first year. And I thought maybe I need a switch. Then I went to University of Maryland. And Maryland in 2012, they cut the teams. There were budget stuff, and they cut the teams. They cut men track and field specifically among with some other sports.

Yao Adantor:
So I ended up going again to a school that I looked at when I was graduating. I actually visited UMBC and met Coach Bob when I graduated high school. I came back and there was a coach there, Coach Panayiotis Yiannakis, Greek man. So he became my coach, and I finished at UMBC. That’s how my story went. I started at a Black university, a historical Black university, which was a great experience, to Maryland, and then UMBC where I graduated.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. So how was your time there? How was your time? You were an athlete, but also you studied industrial psychology. How was your time there?

Yao Adantor:
Yeah, it was a great time. A lot of the stuff, a lot of the friendships, a lot of the connections. I live actually right behind UMBC now where my wife and I live now, so I stayed pretty close. It was a great time, I would say. College is a blur in a lot of ways because as athletes, we don’t have the same exact experience as everyone else. Our time is booked, so trying to do a lot of stuff. I remember I had a job even with athletics. I used to do security overnight for a company called Security Task. I would drive all the way to DC to do security at the GEICO building, going back and other weekends, I would do Marshall as a whatever. What do they call them? Something Marshalls. We were like cops on campus and did that work.

Yao Adantor:
But most of the stuff that UMBC gave me is just being resourceful. It wasn’t the easiest school to navigate. Most schools are. It was a pretty young university, and the technology was okay. So if you wanted to get something done, you had to go to the source. Actually, my last couple years, I was in SAAC, Student Athlete Advisory Committee. Okay, I got it right. And I was a president of SAAC my last year. We try to do a lot of stuff for the athletes and all of that stuff. That just got me around to meeting people trying to get stuff done. “Is this how people really get stuff done in real life?” I was asking myself, because it’s impossible. Everyone give you the run around even if they didn’t want to. So, “That person has it. This person has it.”

Yao Adantor:
So my experience there was pretty… Those were really formative years. And studying industrial psych, I actually started studying industrial psych in high school because I was in a part of some AP program and you had to choose something. I knew I wanted to do psychology. My father was like, “I’m not sure about psych, man. You may become a secretary or something.” This was a running joke in the house. And I was like, “Man, I don’t know if I wanted to become a counselor psychiatrist specifically, but if I was going to become, I was going to be a cool one.”

Yao Adantor:
But I also wanted to do something around business. And what I found through Google search was this thing called industrial psychology. It was fascinating that you can apply psychology without being a counselor or something like this. So I started, I got into this AP program, and you can study whatever you wanted. I had an internship at Raytheon Solipsys. It was some government contractor and I was an HR and learned what is… She wasn’t an industrial psychologist, I think. My mentor wasn’t. But this is the something would do. That took me to college where I wanted to study, and UMBC just happens to be one of the schools to have an industrial psych minor or certificate. So along with behavioral or native psychology, I did this certificate in industrial psychology.

Maurice Cherry:
So it all worked out then? That’s good.

Yao Adantor:
Yeah. All worked out.

Maurice Cherry:
Once you graduated, what did your early career look like? Did you find a lot of UX research positions out there? I’m asking alluding to what you said before about companies are just now starting to come around to UX research. I’m guessing you probably graduated in the mid to late 2010s. So I’m guessing, I don’t know. Were companies looking for UX researchers back then?

Yao Adantor:
Oh, no. First, I wouldn’t have known to look. Interesting point there is when we were in high school, they would always tell us… I went to Reservoir High School in Fulton, Maryland, and there’s two strange thing about their schools. One, they would bring this guy to talk to us how we were the best schools in the country. It was weird. It was a rally thing. And we actually believed it for a long time. Then, the other thing was they’ll tell us that the jobs that we are going to have are not yet created, and it’s really hard for a high school student to comprehend that. It affects me now in a lot of ways where I think about what are my daughters going to do, what I will be doing 10 years. Maybe it’s not there yet.

Yao Adantor:
And UX research definitely wasn’t there when I graduated high school, and definitely not there when I graduated college. I was looking for industrial psychology jobs, which were impossible to find as well. Who was hiring this industrial psychology to make the workplace better? Haha. No one was doing that then, but I bet now they’re just doing very different forms. But no, I was looking at. And I connected with HR so I look at a lot of HR jobs and stuff like that. But no, I knew nothing about user experience, which is a whole another story how I got into that or user experience research for that matter.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. Just that part you mentioned about the person coming to your school and saying that the jobs that you’ll have, they don’t exist yet, that flashes me back to high school. I went to high school in the nineties, and I was in high school right when the internet started to take off like, right when the advent of the worldwide web, I should say, that started to take off, so mid to early-ish nineties. We had a computer lab. We had computers in the school and stuff, and I was learning HTML and teaching myself HTML and not even knowing what I would do with it because it was a skill that you learned. And granted I was studying, I don’t know what I was on track to be in high school. I was just studying.

Maurice Cherry:
Actually that’s not true. I was on track to be a musician in high school. And I was doing a lot of math and stuff on the side because I was just good at it, but not really thinking, “Oh, what am I going to go to college for?” I initially wanted to go to college to major in English and be a writer because I was also writing. And my mom is like, “No, you’re not going to make any money doing that. You need to focus on something that’s going to make money. What about them computers? You’re always at school which you’re facing them computers. Why don’t you study that?” But back then, this is 1999. This is also the year where we thought Y2K was going to wipe out everything. So it’s the whole thing of, “I’m going to major into computers if Armageddon doesn’t happen.” And I would be sitting in my computer program in classes in the fall of ’99 like, “Why am I even studying this? What if Y2K comes and all of this is just obsolete?” We really didn’t know.

Maurice Cherry:
But to that point of you’re studying for something or the job that you end up doing is something that does not exist yet, which is so wild to think about when you see just the path of how technology grows. It’s crazy. I had no idea when I was in college that I would end up doing web design as a profession, because it was always a hobby back then. And I didn’t know anyone who did it. This was 1999, 2000. I was reverse engineering webpages in Notepad and just trying to figure it out, because I didn’t see anyone that did this. There were no schools that taught it. I didn’t know anyone that… If I knew people that did the web, they were a web master. So it was always this weird even back then. The terminology is not what it is now. There’s all kinds of different stuff. But yeah, man. Whoa, that took me back, just saying that part.

Yao Adantor:
That’s another thing right there, just the terminology or how things change. When we’re sitting here having this conversation and the jobs will be in the future, we can even fathom what that’s going to be like, who is going to be, and who’s going to be doing it, how it’s going to come about. It’s an incredible thing to think about, really.

Maurice Cherry:
Look, I’ve seen job titles change since I started this show. I remember when I first started this show, I was not talking to UX designers. I was not. I think that maybe started about, I don’t know, maybe about four or five years in, started getting a bunch of UX researchers, UX designers on the show. I’m like, “What is this UX? Is that graphic design? What is that?” Just trying to figure it out because actually, I think, back then they just called it like UI/UX designer. So it was you do both.

Yao Adantor:
Yeah, a bunch of things, information architect. And even in this show, I just use product researcher multiple times, but that just means UX researcher. But UX designers are not calling themself product designer so I’m like, “Well, I’m a product researcher then,” right?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Yao Adantor:
So it changes so fast.

Maurice Cherry:
Right. So going back and looking at your career, you were at KPMG for two years, then you were at Softrams for two years after that. When you look back during that time, what do you take away from that?

Yao Adantor:
Oh, man. KPMG was a fantastic experience. Actually, the way I got to KPMG was I was in the MICA MPS program, Master’s of Professional Studies, in UX design. Check this out. I moved to Germany after graduating, we didn’t talk about that, to go study sports management, because I believed in sports so much. I did, but it didn’t work out. So I went there to train. I trained with my coach a lot. I lived in Monheim. And before I left, I met the word UX design. That’s I found the word UX design on Google through a conversation, and that planted a seed. So I came back, started looking for schools, Arizona. I’m like, “Maybe I have to move to the West Coast.” I didn’t know what really I wanted to do. I felt down around those times. I was reading a lot of Rumi poetry to get myself back up. That’s how I was man. I was depressed. I was reading a lot of like Sufi poetry and stuff.

Yao Adantor:
And through that whole thing, I found this program that was starting at MICA, and I applied. I don’t know what the ad was or whatever. I applied. And I went to meet this lady called Crystal Shamble, and she’s just one of the great pushers in my life altogether. But I went to meet her to talk about that I didn’t want to do something theoretical. “I see this ad. I see you guys are doing UX design. I want to do it, but I don’t want to do anything theoretical. I don’t want to write any papers. I don’t have any time for that.” And at the time, I was a substitute teacher in high school. Actually, I wasn’t being a sub anymore. I was teaching special ed, helping teachers teach kids with behavior stuff. And I was the first student to apply to that program and the first student to be admitted. Very weird story. I only learned this about a year ago. And there was 10 of us and only 5 of us or 6 of us graduated the program.

Yao Adantor:
So through that program, towards the end, a letter came through, an email came through, and Crystal forwarded to us about people. They’re looking for people in UX design at KPMG. Oh wow, I know KPMG. I didn’t know KPMG then, but you look them up and you see they’re part of the big four. “Hey, you’re going to school. This may be a great thing.” I sent back my stuff. I don’t know if anybody did. I got an interview. I went there and met two gentlemen, Mike and Mark, and they interviewed me. And then I got an internship. It was an internship into a job kind of thing. So I got to KPMG through that way, right through basically this. They were looking for people. They had a relationship with MICA somehow, and I got to start working there.

Yao Adantor:
First thing I noticed is that this whole UX design thing is not very straightforward. There is a lot of moving parts. There’s a lot of people and a lot of ideas in limbo, just, “So okay, what do we do here? Or what is that for? What is design? How do you come up with product ideas? And how do you iterate and stuff like that?” Because I was moving into product design. I learned as much as I could. Traveled a bunch. They give me opportunity to just be on different projects with a bunch of Fortune 100 companies. So I’ve seen a lot.

Yao Adantor:
I wouldn’t say I got any craft skills, but I got two things. I got the idea of what good design is and what good design is not, and also about what cultures I wanted to be in and the cultures and the people that I wanted to work with. One of the greatest gifts I got from KPMG is one of my mentors, John Winawiki, who taught me actually how to design product and how to look at designing and when to break the rules or how to break the rules and where there’s no rules, what you do and so forth. That was my biggest takeaway from that company. I met a lot of people. There’s some pretty cool things, but having just someone on my first ever project just being like, “I like that kid. I’m going to help them out,” was life changing.

Yao Adantor:
Among the learning, being in the corporate and all of this stuff was also cool. I’m sure it influenced the way I look at business and stuff now. But that was the biggest thing I learned there. And from that experience, I went to the other extreme to work in government. I worked at CMS through Softrams during COVID. I got to Softrams, we on a CMS contract, and then COVID happened. It was madness. It was, “Wow. Now, things are really… Let’s improve the systems,” and stuff like that. And being at Softrams taught me another thing, working through a contractor in a federal space, which honestly wouldn’t want to do again. Not because it was a bad experience, but I think the system in which they work with other people probably needs to be improved in a lot of ways.

Yao Adantor:
But I worked with some pretty fantastic people on some impossible, impossible problems. Because if you know anything about government UX, building government products is not as straightforward. It’s not private industry. You don’t just go get things done. There are processes. There are people, in a way. There are steps to everything. And being able to improve all of that and the platform that you’re actually supposed to build was a positive challenge. It really gave me some strength in being in a senior leap part of my career. So I took a bunch of things from those two experiences, both functionally, all over, growth, cultures you wanted to work and people you wanted to work with, and so forth. So it was really amazing.

Maurice Cherry:
And now, you’re running two businesses. You’re working full-time. And on top of that, you’re also a professor at MICA where you got your master’s degree. You just alluded to that earlier. Talk to me about what you’re teaching.

Yao Adantor:
For the last few years, I was teaching prototyping. And that was really a passion of mine because prototyping is like movie making. And I used to make all these hack movies from training over the summer when I was in college and mix tapes and stuff like that. So prototyping for me is a lot like making a movie and making it correctly. For a few years, I did that. Now, I’m teaching UX research, which is closer to home, and because the need is there, and it’s also the perfect time. The world needs more UX researchers, and I want to be there helping people cross over, building that bridge again and helping people cross over into that field.

Yao Adantor:
You mentioned a lot of stuff. Most importantly, I’m a husband and I’m a father. And that takes most amount of my energy and that’s rightfully so. And whatever I have left, and I don’t want the company I work for or the business I do to feel less than, but whatever I have left is what I dedicated that. And I do it dutifully and I try to do as perfectly as I can. So all of those things are, they’re essentially part of how I think and how I work. I’m always in all this businesses and stuff. And building a business and stuff like that, I also shy away from the word entrepreneur and all of that stuff. It’s weird. First, I haven’t made that much money or any money. So what money that you become entrepreneur?

Yao Adantor:
But the second part is it also falls into everyone thinks you’re hustling, but that’s really not it. It’s part of my personality to create, and I’m a compulsive creator. And I say that I’m addicted to creation and I’m a compulsive creator. I’m always trying to make something. I think I built four or five products last year. Some are dormant. Some are not there. But I’m always trying to do this. And some of them have stuck, Analog Teams and Research Bookmark and so forth. And some of them have not. So I see it as part of myself, and that’s why I actually don’t use the work-life balance. I use work-life harmony because we take so much of our energy, of our life to working that is almost a spiritual journey as well, to building these things, meeting these people, being into it, failing, getting back up. It’s a big journey. So all of that for me rolls up into me essentially in a lot of ways.

Maurice Cherry:
How do you achieve that harmony? Like you say, you have all this energy and then you also expend it at work too. Teach us. How do you do this? How do you balance it all and get that harmony?

Yao Adantor:
I don’t. Honestly, I don’t know if there’s a purposeful way to say, “Hey, I do this, I do that.” I know that I do, which a lot of people shy away from, I do pray or meditate a lot on what I need to do next and get answers from there, which is vague to say, because it’s not operational. I’m not going to give you a five-second rule book or whatever. I’m always trying to achieve this the right thing to do stuff. And I think that helps my steps forward, and it helps me achieve a lot of what all of those things put together in a time that you need to do them.

Yao Adantor:
Plus let’s not discount and let’s actually put forward all the people in my environment that helped me do this, my wife, my kids, my co-founders and everywhere. I’ve never built anything by myself on my own just on my own. I may have gotten an idea on my own and kick started it, but never on my own. These are the people that are actually making this work-life harmony work. I actually haven’t thought about that before too much, but they are the people actually holding the whole thing up. Because if some of that goes away, you can’t get anything done, from my coworkers at work to people helping you build companies and update stuff. It’s both that. It’s both praying and meditating on what I need to do next and what is the right thing to do, but also holding up the people that are in combination holding everything up around me. I would say that’s that’s the best sense that comes to me right now, actually.

Maurice Cherry:
No, I think that it is funny. You said it’s not an operational thing. It’s really just taking time and stopping and meditating and praying. I think if it’s one thing I’ve learned throughout the years is that the work will always be there, and I don’t want to say it doesn’t do you any better, but it certainly does a disservice to the work if you rush to try to get things done. There’s that whole saying about haste makes waste.

Yao Adantor:
Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
The work will always be there, so if you can just take time out, work smarter, not harder, all those sorts of things. I’m glad that you said that it’s not some life hack or whatever, that one, it takes a team, it takes a family, it takes a village to help you out, but also just stopping and taking stock to think about what your next move should be. That’s really important.

Yao Adantor:
I’ve read all those books, man, how to make friends and winning people over. In my late, late teens, I’m a big Audible fan, and I’ve read so many self-help books without knowing. It wasn’t conscious at the time. It was just what my brain wanted to eat. And then now, I don’t do that so much anymore because I know even taking that in is different. The way you apply those stuffs are very different. And out of all this, I think you mentioned this a bit. I get tired. You get tired. So I need to rest. I need to sleep and I need not to think about work or anything of that sort. And that gives you more life into coming back and doing more.

Maurice Cherry:
What do you think you would’ve done if you didn’t get into this field?

Yao Adantor:
Oh man, that’s a wild question. Well, I think I mentioned before. I wanted to do sports management because I was really into the idea that I should have. I haven’t visited the idea in a while, that sports can help change a world, and it does in a lot of ways when you see these big events and stuff. So maybe I would’ve gone into sports management deeper. I always thought that if I didn’t do industrial psychology, I could have been a counselor or psychologist or something with a PlayStation in my room. So I would do teens who would have fun instead of putting a lot of pressure on them, a lot of that stuff.

Yao Adantor:
But I really couldn’t tell you for sure, because the perspective on life is this tunnel thing. I’m looking at it now and I’m like, “Maybe I could have done this, or that, or that,” but it takes one moment, one conversation, just like how I got into UX design or research, to change everything. So yeah, I don’t know. It could have been many. I was always interested in people, in talking, in psychology and talking to people and spiritual things and so forth. So I may have done something along those lines, whatever that is.

Maurice Cherry:
Would you have still possibly competed? You did it in college. And I know you mentioned that you say you do it for the nation of Togo as well. So you’re a record holder.

Yao Adantor:
Yeah. I’m our nation’s record holder. Who knew? Who would’ve thought that’s even possible? Yeah, but I-

Maurice Cherry:
In two events?

Yao Adantor:
Yeah, in two events. One of them, some young kids should definitely come and break down that. So please some young kid, come break this record. I got into college and stuff doing track and pay for a little bit of school. And then, I think when I was a junior, I found out that I can make, or sophomore, found out that I can make my national team. I emailed the head of the national committee, General Nabide, and I hope that man is still that when you called. He responded so into it with so much energy that I was like, “Whoa, maybe this is possible. I can compete for my country.” And then the next year, I was on a plane to Morocco competing for the first time at the African championships. And I set a record then, and then the years coming after, I did it again. I need to do it again soon. I’m training hard again. So I still compete as pro somewhat. That’s also there as part of, I guess, my story and stuff.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Would you ever do an Olympics?

Yao Adantor:
Yeah, I kept trying, man. My wife is actually a two-time Olympian, so-

Maurice Cherry:
Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait. Really?

Yao Adantor:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
In what sports?

Yao Adantor:
In this case, she throws this disc for… She was born here. She’s a dual citizen. So she throws discs for Nigeria.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Yao Adantor:
She made 2012. I don’t know if they got to go, but she went to Rio and had a great meet there as well. So she’s a better athlete than I’ll ever be. And I keep trying to make it, so I’m going to try. I’m going to try Paris. I feel good. I feel really healthy right now. And I’ll see if I make it, but this time it’s still pretty far. It takes one of those moments for you to do it, so I’m looking for that as well at some point.

Maurice Cherry:
So your family is like the Fantastic Four?

Yao Adantor:
You know what? If my two kids, my two… They’re pretty strong, man. They’re pretty active so they may grow up to do track and field as well. There’s no money in track. I’d rather them play tennis like Serena or Venus Williams or something. But if they grow up to want to play sports, we’re ready. We have a lot of knowledge.

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

Yao Adantor:
Oh, man. I think in the next five years, maybe I’ll still be at Bolt. At one time where I know we were talking to my… I have a really great manager, Andrew. We were talking about something. He was like, “10 years. You just at least stay here for 10 years.” I’m like, “Yeah, man. Why not?” So here’s something. I’ve never felt like I work. I work for people. I never felt the unbalance of relationship when I work for a company. I know a lot of entrepreneurs or people that like to create feel that, that heat. And they want to just be really into their thing. I’m a contributor in a lot of ways. So maybe I’ll still be at Bolt if the company keeps going and they keep doing great things. Especially for me, if the team is still awesome, I’ll be there.

Yao Adantor:
Research Bookmark would have taken over the world, would had millions of users, would be on every researchers and designers’ homepage at work, maybe even get a bunch of funding to build search all over the world and such. And my family and this whole support system would’ve gone through a stratosphere, being great people themself as well. Me, myself, if I give you a straight answer where I really want to be, I can’t tell you. I’ll be guided by whatever guides me usually. There’ll be God and just the great energy in this whole universe. But I’ll be doing something worthwhile is really what I’m hoping for.

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

Yao Adantor:
LinkedIn is probably the easiest way people connect these days when it comes to business and such. Research Bookmark is on there. If you are an aspiring UX researcher, UX designer, project manager, and so forth, and you guys are getting into research and users, use Research Bookmark. Learn, come into the best place to just draw. And our new update is incredible. We’ve gone from taking sources, almost like taking buckets and pulling it into the pool. And now we build our own search and you can search anything UX research on the web in the world. So come use it.

Yao Adantor:
Analog Teams. If you are a business out there, you are one of these unicorn tech companies, a big company, you need tech developmental talent from the US, from Europe, from Africa, we can find those people. We can qualify them, and we can save you so much time and money in finding great people to help you scale as well.

Yao Adantor:
I’m on LinkedIn, mostly. I don’t have any social medias. I do turn my Twitter every once in a while, but I turn it back off. So you can find me pretty open. I respond to everyone on LinkedIn and so forth. My team is there. Yeah, that’s the place you can find me. And obviously, through your podcast as well.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. Sounds good. Well, Yao Adantor, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. I think your whole story is just super inspirational, not just with the journey that you’ve taken from being an athlete and learning about industrial psychology and UX research, but also with how you’re giving back through your projects that you’re doing. I feel like you’re such a great example out there of what people can do if they really put their mind to it when it comes to building and creating things in tech. And I’m excited to see where you go in the future, man. I really am.

Yao Adantor:
Absolutely. I learned today we’re distant relatives because you’re from Togo. I’m from Togo and all these things. It was really a pleasure talking to you and meeting you as well.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s what’s up, man. Thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Yao Adantor:
All right, man. Merci, and good things in the future as well.

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