What led you to become a designer and developer? Have you always been interested in building things?
I was always a very curious kid growing up. For whatever reason, I always wanted to learn new things, and apply myself in a lot of different areas. I've always been a multitasker. I've always been attuned to aesthetically pleasing things. I think all humans are.
I started at Yammer as their very first intern. I did a lot of the grunt work, and eventually got hired onto the marketing team. We were always tasked with developing various marketing materials that were pretty design heavy, and there weren’t a lot of resources dedicated to our team. So I was like, “I can make these things, just give me the tools to make them and I'll do it.” We finally hired a senior designer Aria Shen, who’s absolutely amazing. She came from the agency world, and is a super talented illustrator. Aria was just this total badass. Really talented, really creative and took a lot of pride in her work. She transformed these boring marketing materials – literally everything she applied herself to turned out gorgeous and incredibly useful. She had a way of making information beautiful, and a lot of fun to look at and interact with.
I think mostly other people got me into design. Design just seemed like a natural tool to pick up for all the things I was interested in - it made sense with the marketing work, but I was also really heavy into data. So Edward Tufte, and data analytics in general interested me a lot. Just being able to make that information consumable to regular people was kind of nice. So I went down a few different paths at Yammer, and Aria did a pretty good job at understanding me, and teaching me how to do things.
And you were a developer before that?
Yes. When I started at Yammer there was the engineering side, and there was the sales side, and marketing was somewhere in between. Marketing priorities were not engineering priorities, so there was no one to build things specifically for my team. Engineers were much more interested in working on the core product, so I said, “Hey, I'll do it! I'll figure it out, and I'll do it.” Once I started building these things I also started working on my own personal projects as well, and playing with different technologies. Luckily, I had all the resources at my fingertips: I was surrounded by great developers who were always really helpful, patient, and willing to pass resources, links, and articles my way. It kind of just happened. I'm definitely more interested in the front-end, design side of it than I am the logical, Ruby programming side. Although, it's important to understand both. And to learn and know how to build a product from beginning to end, but there's a lot more satisfaction for me in design.
I basically said, “I'll never do this again. I'll never depend on someone else to build something I design for me.“
What do you value the most about being a designer and developer?
I don't have to depend on anyone else. For example, when I was at Yammer, a developer was tasked with building a site for marketing. It was a really simple landing page where all the code was written and could be reused, they basically just had to tweak a few things. It was an incredibly frustrating experience to sit on the sideline because I knew I could've written what was necessary in a few hours’ time, yet it took him several days to implement them. I basically said, "I'll never do this again. I'll never depend on someone else to build something I design for me."
So I just started building on my own. I guess it was for selfish reasons, but it also allows me to move a lot more quickly: I like designing in the browser, especially when it's just like a quick landing page or something along those lines. It's a lot faster. And so much easier. It's malleable, and I can try new things. I can inspect elements, make changes in the browser, and then just go back and code them in.
I've never been satisfied with the way some elements look in layout. When I finish laying something out in Photoshop or Illustrator, it's not real yet. Whereas if I design in browser, by the time I'm done it's done. I just commit the code, and push it, and it's done. It's just really time efficient. There are some things that benefit more from a unitasker approach, such as illustrating. But for me, web design is all about efficiency. I think it makes me a lot more valuable on a team as well, which is also nice. You get a lot more respect from developers too (laughing).
So is being a generalist is important to you?
It's very important to me. I have this theory that in ten years all the jobs that will exist don't exist yet, and that we have no way of predicting what exactly they’ll be. Honestly, I feel like no one should ever pigeonhole themselves. I think studying design has a way of making you a generalist, because of all the components you need to design. You expose yourself to different mediums and different communication tools, such as writing. You can have your hands in a lot of different things with design, which I feel makes you a lot more resourceful.
Literature has been a big part of my life and has kept me learning. Kept me hungry.
I understand you have a literature background. Can you tell me more about that?
Absolutely. I've always been a writer. Even when I was little, I was always a devastatingly sad, morbid child (laughing). I was never really unhappy or depressed, just very morbid. So I wrote a lot starting at a very young age– that was my primary means of expression well into college. When I got to college, I tried being pre-med for a semester, and hated myself for it. I was like, "This is miserable, there’s no way I can do this for four more years.” So I changed my major to more of a writing focus, and then went fully into - and this is kind of weird - British and Medieval lit. I was really fascinated by literary historicism and other popular ideas from the period’s literature.
I studied literature for two and a half years, and ended up leaving school a bit early to join Yammer full time. It seemed like a good idea for at me the time. School just wasn’t as challenging for me anymore, and it was actually more frustrating than beneficial. I went to school at the University of San Francisco (USF), which is known for being an extremely affluent college. I had a pretty difficult time resolving this. I grew up in an inner-city, lower-class community. It was definitely frustrating for me to be around people I really couldn't relate to at USF, and who also hadn’t been exposed to the things I had by that age.
I was going to Yammer every day, and hanging around some of the smartest human beings and then I’d go back to my college classes, and just grow more and more frustrated by the day. Leaving school seemed like the right decision at the time. I'd love to finish someday, I think that'd be great. I feel like it would be good to take a sabbatical from working. I'm only about a semester away from finishing.
I don't know what question you just asked, but it sent me down an entirely different path. So, literature. I love literature. All of my tattoos are very nerdy lit stuff. I have a Chaucer quote, and Dementor from Harry Potter on my forearms. Literature has been a big part of my life and has kept me learning. Kept me hungry.
Do you ever write for the web?
Absolutely. Actually most of what I did as an intern at Yammer was write website and ad copy. I did these things for the job I worked previous to GitHub as well. I worked mostly as a creative person in that role, so if the task could be considered creative, then it got sent to my corner. I love writing, and writing for the web is really interesting. I did a lot of A/B testing copy at Yammer for ads and similar kinds of content. It's really interesting to see how people respond to really small changes. It's really fucking fascinating. I love it. The only thing is- and this is my stance on writing in general - learn how to write well, don't be a writer. I think I got that from a copywriter friend. I must have. The thing about copywriting is that it can be extremely limiting. As a copywriter, you never really have a seat at the table at a startup or company. I've seen a lot of really smart, talented people struggle with that.
People who can write well are totally invaluable to me. They're so hard to find, especially in the tech community. I do a lot of writing, but I really should write more often. I've been meaning to spend less time working, and more time writing on my own - there are a million things I’d like to write about, generally about building things. Even product management. I really don’t think I believe in “product people”. I'm much more interested in engineers and designers – to me those are the product people. I’d really like to write about that, actually. I’d also like to weigh in on "women in tech", and why that saying should never be used again.
Amen to that (laughing).
I have this theory that in ten years all the jobs that will exist don't exist yet, and that we have no way of predicting what exactly they’ll be.
How did you become an intern at Yammer?
My school, which is one thing I think they did incredibly well. I found out about the job through our career center. Yammer had just moved from L.A., and was still a really small company. I think I was like number thirty-two there or something. They posted an ad for a data entry position, and I was like, “This looks pretty cool, I can totally do this.” I ended up going to an interview, and fell in love with the team. I was really intimidated by them actually, because I had never been around such smart people before. David Sacks, Yammer’s CEO, is an incredibly smart person, and has a really good eye for product. Yammer was a good opportunity for me to learn about startups in general, and how to build and scale a product and a company. I joined early enough that I could see these things happening. And I built this network of people I feel like I'll know forever, people I can lean on for both professional and personal advice.
I have a funny story about interviewing for Yammer actually. So I had never ventured into downtown or SOMA; USF is pretty far out there, and I was taking the bus back then. I was pretty broke, paying my way through school, and I needed to get to this interview, and jumping in a cab or an Uber wasn’t an option. I was running late, or I was going to be late, so I ended up just running. Like, full-on sprinting. I ran about a mile and a half to get there, in totally regular clothes. Dress pants, even. I showed up drenched in sweat (laughing). They took one look at me and asked, “Do you want some water…?” as I tried to catch my breath.
What types of projects are you passionate about working on? How did you figure that out?
Basically I just see a need for something, and I get irritated because no one has done it yet. I'll think, “Why don't we have this?” Or if there's something specific, like a kind of technology I want to use, I'm like, “Oh, I should build something like this."
Once upon a time I tried doing some freelance work. I took on a project with a company that I wasn't really interested in, but freelancing was a cool way for me to try new things. (It's important to me to always be learning, and getting better at things.) So I took on this project, and got burned pretty badly. They just disappeared, and owed me thousands of dollars. It was a pretty awful situation. Luckily, I had a full time job at the time, so I didn't rely on what they owed me to survive, but I know a lot of people who do depend on the money they make from freelancing.
I was recently talking about this with a couple of really well-known, successful freelancers and was surprised to find that this still happens to them pretty frequently. Sometimes clients don't pay the amount they agreed to pay in the beginning, or they just fuck people out of money entirely. It's a terrible situation to be in. You feel helpless and completely taken advantage of. So I thought for a while about things that could potentially solve this problem, or at the very least keep it from happening so frequently. And I started building something called the Client Burn Book. It's basically a way for designers to document their experiences with clients, and it provides a searchable directory of companies who have done bad business with designers. I kind of see it as a way to protect other designers. Ideally before you’d accept a client project, you’d be able to search this directory for a company’s name, and if it came up you could hopefully dodge a bullet by avoiding working with that client altogether. If a company wanted off of the site, instead of filing a cease and desist they could pay their designer. This is one thing I'd like to spend more time on. It's a pretty hefty project and I’m building the entire app myself. Or well, trying to anyways.
No matter what you're building or who you're building it for, you learn and become…more valuable. It's really fun.
With most of the things I make, I'm building them to learn how to build a product from start to finish. Have you seen the Make Everything Okay button? It's really dorky, you just click it and it says, "Processing, making everything okay.” I love little nerdy things like that. I've started building this thing where you go to a page, OAuth with Twitter, and click one one of two buttons to record whether you're having a good or bad day. Just two giant buttons: one that says Good Day and one that says Bad Day. The idea is that you’d be able to see that data grow over time. I'm starting very simple, just so I can learn data warehouse type stuff.
You seem to be really interesting in tracking behavior, collecting data, and helping people out.
If writing a few lines of code can prevent someone from ever having to experience the shitty feeling of being burned, or even if making a button can shower someone in rainbows after having a bad day, then I'll absolutely do it. These probably aren't things I'll go and give talks about, they're just things I think might help, especially the online community. I’ve met and had the opportunity to learn from some really fantastic people through the internet, and I want to do whatever I can to pay that forward.
I also really enjoy any opportunity I get to play with new(ish) technology. Things like SASS, SCSS, and pattern libraries. There are always selfish reasons to do things, because you learn from these things. No matter what you're building or who you're building it for, you learn and become a more valuable developer. It's really fun.
What are the lasting impressions you want to leave with your work?
This is hard, because I feel like the people who consume your work decide what those impressions are. It's really hard for me.
I want to let people know that building software isn’t the hard part, anyone can do it. I know a lot of developers who are pretty comfortable in their ivory towers with the attitude of, “I'm the only person who can possibly be good at this.” And they’re absolutely fucking wrong. It's easy, and there are a ton of resources available to help you through the harder parts. Teaching people to be resourceful is a pretty big thing for me, I guess.
I actually really want to do one thing, once I have a stronger network or a bigger platform to stand on. I want to do a thing where basically I, or anyone really, take a trip to a local high school and ask one question: “Is anyone interested in building something?” It can be a funny iPhone app, or anything really. I would love to give those who want to learn an opportunity to. I think kids who grow up in tougher circumstances are just as fucking smart as kids who grew up by any other means – they might just not have the resources that are readily made available to well-funded school and community programs elsewhere. I'd like to pay more attention to that, and help to balance the issue in any way that I can.
I guess the gist of it is that this program will get to select and fund five or so kids from the submitted applications or ideas - hopefully there are five kids who want to build something (laughing). I’d want the program to be able to give them any and every tool they require - a MacBook, an iPhone, whatever it is they need - to build this thing they want to build. And I think it’s important that they also have access one person or programmer who can help and kind of guide them along the way. Teach them how to learn about technology and solve the problems in front of them. I think it’s less relevant whether they want to go to college to study computer science or not. The one requirement I think would be awesome is that if they do take the opportunity to build this thing, that they come back help someone else build something in the near or distant future.
I would love to give those who want to learn an opportunity to. I think kids who grow up in tougher circumstances are just as fucking smart as kids who grew up by any other means…
I guess that’s sort of a dream of mine. And hopefully that's the thing I do that leaves an impression. There are so many ways to learn, and I’d like to make it easier for those who want to. That’ll be a happy day for me.