Tales from the trenches: Lessons learned from Netscape, Yahoo!, and Google

Note: This is a transcript of my opening keynote speech for the 2014 IA Summit.  #ias14

There has never been a better time to be in the UX profession. Design jobs are on the rise. Companies, large and small, can’t hire designers fast enough. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects the job outlook for web design and development to be 20% through 2022.

Even though more people than ever are trying to enter the UX profession, hiring managers will tell you how incredibly hard it is to hire great designers these days.

On the flip side, I get asked a lot by people for career advice. A lot of the questions center around getting to some destination, such as “How do I get promoted to the next level?” or “What kinds of career paths are available for designers?” In other words,

“Where am I going, and how do I level up?”

As a yoga teacher, to me “path” refers to a way of being in the world, like a code of conduct. In this sense, the way you are in the world informs how you do your work. In turn, through your work you can learn some of life’s greatest lessons. So it’s no surprise that when I get asked for career advice the conversation inevitably turns to how we deal with our own internal challenges in the face of adversity. For example, if you don’t have the right skills, what is keeping you from learning the skills you need? If you have the skills but don’t get the job, why do you keep getting rejected? If you have been in the same job for years but want to get promoted, why do you feel so stuck?

I’d like to share the story of my career with you and the lessons I’ve learned along the way. By sharing my own challenges and lessons learned, I hope to give you insight into how you can face your own challenges. I’ll share one story each from Netscape, Yahoo, and Google.

Netscape

In 1996, I landed my first full-time job, at Netscape as an interaction designer. That time during Netscape was so intoxicating. We were making the viewfinder to the internet and bringing the web to everyone! The engineers were the most amazing, opinionated, passionate, talented engineers I would ever encounter in my life, only to see many of them again later at Google.

I remember one engineer in particular, I’ll call him John. John had few friends and a strong opinion about everything, most of which was negative. One day he got particularly upset by a spec I had published; he was so livid he went to my team lead to complain about me.

I was a 23 year old woman going head to head with a much more experienced former Apple engineer twice my age, so this was a pretty scary experience for me. I wasn’t used to people complaining about me to my bosses so I wasn’t sure if I was going to get fired. I felt like a failure for coming up with a spec that was worth complaining about.

This wasn’t even a spec that required incredible engineering cooperation to execute. It was a spec for the design of the menu structures for the client software. Most of the lead engineers were happy to have a designer make decisions about the front end. I considered my next steps. I fantasized about telling the engineer that since I didn’t tell him how to code, he didn’t need to tell me how to design. Or alternatively I could deny him power over the spec by ignoring him.

Instead, I sat down with him for a couple of hours as we worked through the design spec together. To show my good faith in him, I put him in the driver’s seat; I let him edit the document. I made sure he knew I heard him. In the end, we ended up with exactly what I had originally spec’ed out. But, we both got what we wanted: I got the design I wanted, and he felt heard, and he got the design he thought he wanted.

That experience taught me how to listen and negotiate and practice compassion for others. Sometimes, what’s important is not the arguments or the content of the discussion or who is right, but the feeling one is left with at the end of an interaction.

After this experience, John became a great ally, and one of my biggest advocates. I started to build a reputation for dealing with difficult situations so much that Netscape gave me the “Jump Into the Fire” award. Eventually, I was named to lead the design of Netscape 5.0 because of the strength of the relationships I had formed with my engineering colleagues.
Netscape “Jump Into the Fire Award”

Lesson 1: Form bridges and connections with people, even if they don’t like you. Cultivate the capacity to develop relationships with people who are very different from you.

As a designer, your ability to get anything done rests crucially on how much decision makers trust you. The more you can build relationships, especially amongst those who are different from you, the better able you are to make design decisions that stick, to convince others on the right process, and to make people want to cooperate with you in achieving a shared goal. Moreover, the more relationships you have with diverse networks of people, the more connected to the world you will be, and will be more likely to receive important information about ideas, threats, and opportunities in time to respond to them.

Yahoo!

When Netscape decided to open source the browser code and form Mozilla, I decided to leave the company. I felt that the most interesting design challenges of the time were emerging around content, and not the viewfinder in which it was displayed. Among many options, I chose to go to Yahoo! This was in 1998 when the site was entirely blue underlined text against the browser’s default background color.

My colleagues at Netscape, who were much more experienced than I, snickered

“Why would you want to go to Yahoo? What kind of design is happening there?”

These colleagues were designers with a capital D. They had amazing portfolios and would never dream of being associated with anything visually ugly; they felt like it was a career killer.

At that time, Yahoo! was largely text based and by most standards ugly. It was mostly a directory with little interaction design. Most designers chided at the opportunity to work on a website that looked like this:

Yahoo! circa 1998

Their reaction left a lot of doubt in my mind about whether I had a viable career there and what it would do for my future.

I saw a little more beyond this directory. My Yahoo! had just launched, and Yahoo! had just acquired Four11 which developed RocketMail which meant Yahoo! would soon offer web based email. Yahoo! was just starting to develop interactive products. My background in Human-Computer Interaction would allow me to help shape the way products were designed and developed at Yahoo! (or any other web company) completely differently than they had been. I knew that I could contribute in a meaningful way and that it would be a lot of fun. Where other designers saw Yahoo! as ugly, I saw a blank slate that I could make great.

As much as my boss embraced what I had to offer, it was not an easy ride at Yahoo! My entry into the team created a sort of existential crisis among the producers, who were used to defining the product and designing the user experience, and the graphic designers, who were used to designing the UI. They didn’t understand what interaction designers or user researchers did; usability studies were referred to as “focus groups”. I hired a team of three people, and we strategically chose to work on a few projects where we believed the conditions were ripe for us to add value without much of an uphill battle. Over time, we bootstrapped off the success of the projects we worked on which created more demand for our expertise. Instead of spreading ourselves thin across too many projects, we went deep into a smaller set of projects and did those really well. With that strategy, we were able to create a high quality internal brand for the team, which led to further investment in the team and enthusiastic stakeholders ready to work with us. What started out as an odd, non-obvious place for designers to work at has become one of the largest employers of UX talent in Silicon Valley to this day.

Lesson 2: Instead of being heads-down and going with what’s been done before, be willing to see around corners. If it’s not great, make it great. Shape your future, instead of just reacting to it.

Too often we go through life with a plan, a fixed idea of where we want to be and how to get there. When we’re heads down going forth on our plan, we don’t leave a lot of room for serendipity and flexibility. Instead, when we are present, we are more able to see opportunities when they arise. Moreover, when we are present, we are more able to trust our gut instincts and seize opportunities when we see them.

Google
Eight years after I first joined Yahoo!, Google came knocking on my door, and I couldn’t resist the opportunity. Even though it was basically the same role I had at Yahoo, I knew it would challenge me and push me to grow in ways that I needed to grow.

The challenges of running design at Google were pretty well known in the industry at the time. I remember telling a former colleague at Yahoo! that I was taking the top design job at Google, she laughed and said,

“Oh, you took that job!”

as if to say,

“You are stupid and crazy enough to take that job!”

That laugh was a foreboding warning of what I was to face.

I could not have imagined what I would encounter at Google at that time in 2006. By this time, I thought I knew how to do the job. I knew the culture was different, but I had enough experience under my belt to have a strong vision for what needed to be done and how to do it. But, there were all kinds of factors I had not accounted for. Managers at Google typically had 50-100 direct reports so that they were burdened with so much people management responsibilities they couldn’t actually get involved with any projects and lead anything. When I joined Google, I had 60 direct reports, and had to write performance reviews for all of them within my first three months on the job. With its bottom-up, engineering dominated culture, and everything run by committee, I found myself in a role that seemed impossible. As a manager at Google, you couldn’t tell anyone what to do; as a designer at Google, you really couldn’t tell anyone what to do.

It was rumored that all designers who were being hired for design roles at Google were required by Larry Page to have computer science degrees or at least know how to code. When I started to hire designers with capital D’s who did not have CS degrees, in an effort to make Google more beautiful, Larry would not allow me to hire them, and rejected the offers we wanted to extend.

For the first couple of years there I resisted the environment I was in, wanting to change it. I thought that’s what leadership was all about: leading change and not accepting the status quo. Eventually I realized that in order for me to lead effectively I needed to be a better follower.

I ended up starting over from scratch. I embraced Larry’s coding requirements for designers. I introduced a code interview for designers who had coding skills, to help bring in more designers who could code, and to show that I was listening to Larry. Interestingly, by bringing in more designers who could code, I then gained more latitude to hire designers who didn’t code.

When I left Yahoo! for Google, everything I thought I knew about running a large design team inside a large consumer internet company wasn’t relevant anymore. I had to abandon prior experience and knowledge, and start over.

Lesson 3: Find the courage to abandon practices that made you successful in the past. What is familiar and comfortable may not work for you anymore. Keep a beginner’s mind, so that everything is always new. This is a concept in Zen Buddhism called Shoshin.

Our tendency as people is to feel like we know the answers once we’ve learned or experienced something. We think, “I have achieved this.” When we feel like we’ve achieved something, we have a “been there, done that” attitude. We have an inflated sense of self-importance. We then experience life with a skewed focus and look at things with an ever-present bias. We all do this.

With a beginner’s mind, you don’t think “I have achieved this.” You free yourself from any notion of success or failure. Instead, you are curious about the world with no preconceived notions about anything. “With a beginner’s mind, we see many possibilities; in the expert’s mind, there are few.”

Leaving Google

In 2011, when Larry became CEO, he suddenly embraced beautiful design. He started talking about how important beauty was in company all-hands meetings. Many of us wondered if this was the same Larry Page we had been working with for many years before. After years of insisting that all designers at Google have computer science degrees, he now wanted great visual design. Around the same time, Larry decided to decentralize all functions, which left me without a clear role. For me, this was infuriating and hurtful. I felt betrayed, discarded, and disrespected.
It took a while for me to embrace the realization that the only reason why decentralizing the UX team at Google was viable was because of how far the organization had come over the years I was there. After the reorg, I had the option to invent a new role for myself or join a team. Instead, I chose to spend the following year reflecting and exploring instead of eagerly jumping back into the fray. I took the time to deepen my yoga practice which enriched my life beyond my imagination. From that experience, I emerged completely transformed. I learned how to not attach my happiness to final outcomes; to be happy in spite of things that were beyond my control; to let go of my anger, bitterness, and grief; and to shed my sense of identity and worth from the professional role I had before. I became grateful for being unencumbered with any role or responsibilities, because it meant I was free to explore whatever my heart desired.

My yoga practice helped me understand my best path forward. Yoga gave me the courage to do what my heart wanted. Yoga has allowed me to find myself as I enter my 40s, and allows me to bring my best self to the table with a calm and focused mind.

The decision to leave Google was one of the hardest choices I’ve made. Google is an amazing company that many people would love to be part of. The prestige of being part of Google, the mental stimulation, the amazing people, the ambitious projects, the benefits, the food are trappings that are hard to let go. To this day, I still get questions from people about leaving Google. Even the TSA guy who processed by Global Entry application asked me
“Why would you ever leave Google for another job at a place no one has ever heard of?”

Entering the market as a yoga teacher is another journey onto itself. After a long career in design I once again find myself in the beginner’s seat, with no opportunity that can be taken for granted.

In this world, I am reminded of the sum of the lessons I had learned during my design career: What you know matters a lot less than how you do your work. Whether it’s design or yoga, everyone learns the same skills and curriculum; the attitude means so much more. Careers are made by how you deal with your challenging job situations and make it work for you.

Adversity and Listening

Looking back at my career, the most pivotal, significant moments of growth were all borne out of adversity: the cranky engineer at Netscape who hated my spec; the designers with capital Ds who snickered at the ugliness of Yahoo!; the engineering-driven culture at Google that was adverse to design; and eventually, my own struggle with leaving Google and the corporate world.

In each instance, what got me through the adversity I faced was the ability to listen deeply. I listened and built relationships with people who were against me, such as John. I saw something great in Yahoo! and listened to my gut instinct. I listened to Larry and adopted a beginner’s mind. And then I listened to myself and honored what would bring me true, meaningful happiness.

With that, take a moment to pause and tune in to the world. Close the eyes, take a deep breath, and just be with yourself for a moment. Maybe reflect on something related to your work or personal life that you are struggling with, or want to improve on, or are trying to move forward. What is needed in this moment from you?

Putting it into practice

Since this is the opening keynote for the IA Summit, let’s put these lessons into practice at this conference. Here are three things you can do:

1. Make at least three connections each day at this conference. Not as if you’re trying to collect people so you can use them later, but truly make a connection and listen to each other.

2. For the whole day, realize that you are a lucky person, and hold onto that feeling all day long. Open your mind to opportunities and be free of restricted thinking. Listen to your gut instincts and be bold, ready to seize a good opportunity when you see it.

3. Approach something old and tired with a beginner’s mind. Be willing to listen and receive feedback. Don’t fear failure and don’t get discouraged by it. And never lose your sense of humor and playfulness.

Conclusion
A career path is not about getting to a particular destination. It’s not about leveling up or getting some job title or managing a bunch of people. It’s about the journey you take, the lessons you learn along the way, and connecting with yourself to find true happiness.

Take a moment every day to listen to yourself and the world around you. That’s the key to the path ahead.


Check out these awesome sketchnotes from the conference (thank you Melinda, Nathan, Jason, and Veronica):

Sketchnotes by Melinda Miller
Sketchnotes by Nathan Rogers
Sketchnotes by Jason Alderman
Sketchnotes by Veronica Erb

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