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Darrin Henein

Design Lead, Firefox Mobile at Mozilla

I met Darrin a couple months ago via Instagram. We both share a passion for photography and in particular shooting at night. As I talked more with Darrin about what he does, I thought his story of doing design work at Mozilla while at the same time tackling huge side projects–such as his game Lastronaut–was really inspiring. I sat down with Darrin to discuss his path to becoming a designer and dug into how he approaches work and life.

Tell us about what you do?

I'm Darrin Henein, and right now I work at Mozilla. I'm the design lead for Firefox mobile which includes our Android and iOS products, and I've been here for about 2 and a half years. Previous to this I worked at a couple of startups in the Toronto area. I've been doing design and development for most of my career.

My team at Mozilla is responsible for all of the UX and creative for our mobile products. Our big one right now is our Android app, it's the highest rated browser in the Android store, with millions of users around the world. We just soft launched our Firefox iOS app, which will launch globally in November to 45 different languages and in every country - it'll be a pretty big scale release.

On your website you describe yourself as a Design Engineer?

When I started to get into UX design I got really frustrated by not being able to test my ideas quickly and see how things were actually going to work. I'm a strong believer in getting things into people's hands as quickly as possible, playing with the real thing whatever that may be. I quickly realized I should learn to prototype this stuff and I actually really fell in love with the art of coding and the whole development of software engineering. I kind of developed this design track as well as this engineering track. I say engineering very loosely but I think most people know what that means in the software realm - I code.

So what was your path to becoming a designer like?

I actually studied biology at the University of Toronto, it was a pre-med kind of program. The goal was to be a doctor of some sort, my father is a family doctor and I grew up loving his practice. A couple of years into my degree I realized that I liked it, but I didn't love it and I wanted to love it. I started dabbling in Wordpress and GeoCities and doing websites for friend's bands and things like that. I really fell in love with that side of things.

As a student I didn't have a lot of money so I started going to Chapters and I'd buy a coffee and just read the books in the store, I'd do that a couple times a week. One thing my degree did teach me was how to learn. In my program at least, things happened really quickly and if you were a lecture behind, don't even bother coming because you're not going to be up to speed. I learned how to read a chapter of a textbook and absorb key points really quickly and move on. When it came to learning design and then later development I was able to go to Chapters and read a book on Javascript and pull out the important stuff that I needed. I just learned by experience and reading and just doing.

You went away from the sciences and more towards design, what precipitated that?

Yeah, I mean I think I've always been a strong believer that when you wake up every morning you should want to do what you're going to be doing. It shouldn't be a chore to go to work because I don't think that scales. I really found the sciences fascinating, but I was spending more time reading about UX design and web design and things I was interested in versus my textbooks. It was just this realization that I should maybe at least spend some time pursuing this to see if it was a better fit for me and it turned out that it was.

“I always had this moonshot dream when I was younger of making my own game... I just started hacking something together and eventually had a prototype.”

Was there a turning point where you knew it could be your career versus a hobby?

It was the times I'd be in the library and I was just rushing through my work so I could go do something else. That was kind of a hint for me that maybe I should do that something else as my primary focus. I still finished my degree, I believed in finishing it because I didn't have a clear path elsewhere, but as soon as I finished school I set up a little freelance business and started calling all my friends and family and doing stuff for free just to build a portfolio. I ended up doing a bunch of charity work too. It was just a nice way to start growing myself as a designer.

I did that for a couple of years—some of them with a friend from high school—and then I hit the point where I was so busy that I either needed to bring someone else on to handle the books or just scale down. It was also around the time that I got engaged and so I realized having a steady paycheck would be nice. I started applying to a couple of jobs and that's how I ended up at Polar Mobile which is a startup in Toronto.

What have been some other major turning points in your career thus far?

I think getting a job with Polar was a big one, that was when all of this freelance work that I had kind of done unguided and on my own direction was validated in the form of a portfolio that was hireable. I started there as a junior designer and just went in with all the energy and I was ready to take on the world. I pushed myself to climb the ranks there and ended up with a team of five as their Director of Design. That was one of those moments where I felt validated as a designer. It was people paying me to come and do what I like to do every day. That was when I knew it was a valid career path for me, I was a designer with a capital 'D'. I got a lot of great experience there. I worked on brands that I love like Wired Magazine, we did the Toronto Maple Leafs app for a couple years and I'm a bleed blue Leafs fan - maybe omit that part [laughs].

When I started to show more experience on my website I started getting calls from recruiters, that was another turning point where I realized I'd developed a skillset to the point where it's a desirable, viable career path for me. That was when I kind of calmed down in the sense that I didn't need to stay up every single night, working on a portfolio piece because I'd hit this point where I could focus on leadership and some of the more soft skills.

What are some of the challenges you face regularly in your work?

I think there's kind of two tracks that I'm focused on right now. There's the whole leadership and management side and it's something I've done for a while but Mozilla is a distributed company and no one who actually reports to me is in Toronto. That adds another layer of challenge. Right now I'm actively focusing on my management skills and leadership skills and running a team and that whole aspect. I think I'm doing fine but that's where I'm hoping to really grow.

You can never predict how something is going to go and things always turn out to be a little bit different than you thought and it's just this on the fly adapting - maybe it's me or maybe it's something everyone feels but when I'm dealing with pixels and lines of code I'm much more willing to try things and make mistakes and break things and fix them later. I cannot allow myself to do that with people. When someone comes to me with an issue or they're trying to work through something or they're asking me how they should approach something, I can't just say "try this and come back in two days, and if you totally screw up we'll fix it." I can't do that. I have to give them the most sound and wise advice that I'm capable of. There's just an extra layer of caution when you're dealing with people than when you're dealing with bits and bytes.

When things don't go as expected how do you go about getting yourself on track again?

I think one of the most valuable things I've learned over the years is just to be overly opportunistic. As soon as you get into a place where you get frustrated because things aren't going well and you just want to throw things in the garbage, it doesn't really get you anywhere. I try to always look at a situation or a problem and figure out where we can go from there that's upward. No problem is too big to fix, that's something I've learned in my personal life as well. Younger and less mature me would more easily throw in the towel when things get hard. I learned over time that things that are worth doing take work and they're hard and you just have to push through the hard parts.

With creative stuff you often hit a wall where you just can't see the solution or even a way towards the solution, sometimes it helps to step back a bit and either work on something else or try a totally different approach. Even if you know it likely won't work, just getting away from that problem space helps get the wheels turning a little bit. Just changing context sometimes, listening to different music or working in a different place. So much of creative work is about where your mind is at at the moment. I find just going for a walk or listening to rap instead of rock just totally gets me into a different headspace. Sometimes that can help me see things I was missing.

“Design is just about bringing technology–which I love and think is incredible–to people and bridging that gap. Making it simple enough for most people to use. I find that incredibly fulfilling.”

What do you do to stay on top of trends in the industry?

I use Twitter a lot, I try and get rid of the noise. If I'm not getting value from someone on my following list I just get rid of them. I'm always looking for new people to follow, I find it's a really great way because of just the brevity of all the content with usually links to more. I find it's something I can scan once or twice a day and get a high-level overview of what's going on and then I can dive into the things later.

I use Pocket to save those things. When I come across a link and I know I want to read it later, I just throw it in Pocket and usually get back to it.

What tools do you use regularly in your work?

OmniFocus - I've been using this for a couple of years. I use their desktop app and their iPhone app, and even their Apple Watch app now that they have one. It was a bit complicated at first but once I found a system in it that worked for me it lets me nicely separate work things and personal things, sometimes those overlap and it let's me manage that.

Kindle & iPad mini - I don't go anywhere without these. I read a lot and I find them both really easy to throw in whatever bag I have with me. I have a very strict reading regime. My Kindle always has one fiction book and one non-fiction book. The non-fiction is not a technical, career oriented one. It's something about faith or about history that I'm interested in learning. The fiction book is for before I go to bed to kind of escape and clear my mind. My iPad is full of Pocket articles, PDFs, articles, e-books that are much more career related.

Google Calendar - I use this to coordinate all my work stuff, personal stuff and then I have a shared calendar with my wife that has saved me many times. I try and only adopt tools when I have a need for them. Tools and process in themselves have a cost and maintenance to take on.

How do you manage staying on top of email?

Poorly. My basic system is go through with my finger on the delete key and flag things I need to come back to and try and do as much of it in the moment as possible.

Best career advice you’ve ever received or would give?

The first one is that you only get one reputation, so above all else, above all progression and career development, make sure that you are staying true to yourself and that how you present yourself is how you want to be known. Once that becomes established for better or worse it's very hard to change people's perception of you.

Don't get comfortable. It's pretty easy to get into a rut - not in a bad way - but get into a routine and it's not challenging but you know how to do it and then five years down the road you wonder what you're doing and why you're not feeling fulfilled anymore. If I don't feel like I'm pushing myself and I've earned the rest I get at night, I'm just not going to be fulfilled and I'll be bored and frustrated. I check myself everyday to make sure that I'm approaching things in new ways and trying new things.

Why do you do what you do? What makes it all worth it?

I think selfishly I know I need to work to support my family and that drives it. It's easy to get up and go to work when I know it allows us to have a roof over our head and food on our table. As to what I do specifically, software and the software we build at Mozilla is about people. It's about equality, access and keeping the web as a free resource, keeping it open to individuals and small businesses as well as larger corporations. It's about bringing people together, communication happens online that is just the reality we live in. Commerce happens online. So much of our lives and world is moving - if it hasn't already - to the web. I find especially at Mozilla, a web without this kind of neutral player would be really dangerous. We have to stand up against things that we believe are wrong. We focus on the end user and the person at their computer or phone who's just trying to get online to pay their bills, or to talk to their loved ones. Not about how do we monetize this massive engine. Design is just about bringing technology–which I love and think is incredible–to people and bridging that gap. Making it simple enough for most people to use. I find that incredibly fulfilling.

Who would you want to see interviewed on Ways We Work?

There's a couple people from Mozilla I think would be good fits. Cassie McDaniel, she works on the foundation side, she's the Director of Design for the Mozilla Foundation - very inspiring person. Ricardo Vasquez is another designer on the foundation side that has a super inspiring approach to everything. They're two people that stand out as people I could learn from.