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Ways We Work Stories and first hand accounts of how people do meaningful work 2015-09-20T00:33:54Z Copyright © Copyright 2021, Amandah Wood, Matthew Quinn Introducing the Ways We Work podcast 2019-04-27T00:00:00-04:00 2019-04-27T00:00:00-04:00 Ways We Work Team We're back! I'm so excited to announce that Ways We Work is back after a two-year break, and this time it's in podcast form. This podcast is really an evolution of the website where I follow my own curiosity and speak to people I admire about the things they're currently putting work into. It's a podcast about how we work, in every sense of the word.

In the first episode, I share my own story and the story of Ways We Work, from how and why I started the site, and my journey from taking it full-time to burning out and taking a two-year hiatus. I also share what made me want to start the podcast and what you can expect from listening. You can expect new interview episodes every two weeks on Wednesdays!

I'd also really love to hear from you and answer your questions on the podcast. So if you have something you'd like to share or you'd like to submit a question for myself and a guest to answer on the podcast shoot me a message at

If you love what you hear, it'd mean so much if you could subscribe and leave a review!

Thanks so much!

Here's what people are already saying:

“As a freelance designer, Amandah's interviews about other people's journey's in work and life really help me to evaluate my own situation. Inspiring conversations with interesting people.”
“Amandah has a knack for asking great questions that go much deeper than the surface level. The answers she gets are so insightful and it sparked some much needed personal reflection.”

Listen here:

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Spotify Design 2016-10-10T00:00:00-04:00 2016-10-10T00:00:00-04:00 Ways We Work Team designers designers I’m willing to wager that Spotify is open and maybe even playing on one or more of your devices right now. Spotify—as a product—needs no introduction. With over 100 million users worldwide, the product has reached a music streaming milestone. As a company, Spotify’s mission has been to give people access to all of the music they want, all the time—in a legal and accessible way. The main focus has been on consumers and music listeners. However, as the music industry evolves, a company like Spotify needs to as well and there’s a growing realization that Spotify is dealing with a two-sided marketplace: both music listeners and the artists who create the music. Last month, Matt and I had the opportunity to spend an afternoon with members from a variety of product design teams in the New York office to learn more about the role of design at Spotify and how it contributes to their overall mission. We were given a glimpse into how the role of design varies across different teams, and how they maintain a cohesive user experience across the product. We also talked about how the design team finds a balance between maintaining Spotify’s iterative, experimental culture while at the same time proactively developing broader strategic goals.

Spotify’s office is located on the 3rd & 7th floors of a building in the Flatiron District of Manhattan. We were greeted at reception by Sally Chan who is a product designer on the C.R.E.A.M (yes, that’s a reference to the Wu-Tang song) tribe. Sally gave us a quick tour of the 3rd floor, which consisted of a main hall with a kitchen where the team eats lunch. On either side of the hall were breakout rooms and a dimly lit library where people could work in quiet. We had lunch with Sally, Brent, Doug, and Daniel who are all product designers under the C.R.E.A.M. tribe and they explained to us what exactly alliances, tribes, and squads are, and how they frame everything at Spotify. Spotify works in cross-disciplinary teams that focus on a specific feature, which means that squads are made up of varying combinations of engineers, designers, product owners, QAs, user researchers and data analysts. Squads sit together in the office, each one in a space with desks, a couch area, and a meeting room. A tribe is made up of several squads who are all working on related products within Spotify. An alliance is made up of tribes who are all working towards the same broader goal. The C.R.E.A.M. tribe works on projects that range from exploring new ad formats to automating ad delivery, and converting free users to paid ones. That tribe falls under the Revenue alliance, which is responsible for all products that maximize the revenue potential of Spotify. While Spotify’s organizational structure seems complex at first, it’s a huge factor in how individual squads can work autonomously while maintaining cohesiveness within the tribe and contributing to the large, overarching goals of the alliance.

With multiple squads, and designers working on different products, we wanted to learn more about how the team keeps things consistent visually and in user experience. Daniel Choe, a product designer working on conversion products, explained that there are varying levels to how this is done. For example, Sally might be working on a self-serve web app for advertisers while Daniel is creating a similar product for converting free users to paid ones. They share similar goals that they’re trying achieve, so often they’ll sync up to make sure their patterns are similar and there’s a consistent language across both products. Zooming out to a higher level Spotify also has an entire team dedicated to keeping the UI and visual language consistent across the company. This team is called GLUE (a Global Language for a Unified Experience—the team likes their acronyms). The GLUE team actively documents Spotify’s design styles, components and patterns on a site that's accessible to everyone in the company. Made up of both engineers and designers, the team meets with product designers weekly to share context of what they’re working on, making sure it’s aligned and helping to continuously evolve the design system. Even with a team like GLUE, the design language at Spotify is not dictated as a top-down approach. It’s a balance of the team facilitating and leading design guidelines while relying on product designers who are working on new patterns to bubble those back up to them.

“They’re building the system but in context, you have to make sure that the system works. They’ll reach out to designers or if a designer feels it’s an important enough issue they can reach out to someone on the GLUE team and together determine if there need to be adjustments made and what that means across the entire product.”

Daniel added that another major challenge related to designing at scale is localization and the impact that it can have on how something looks. He gave an example in a conversion product where you want to have a clear call-to-action to encourage someone to upgrade to a paid account. There are rules and guidelines for how long a call-to-action can be, but occasionally those rules need to be broken. Deciding when that’s a risk worth taking can be tricky. He also explained that they want to shape the messaging so that it resonates with people who will be buying into what they’re offering. Rather than a dry “upgrade now and get this!”, the call-to-action might be “count me in!” The challenge comes in trying to convert that vernacular to all of the different languages that Spotify users speak, and localizing the messaging.

After lunch, we had the opportunity to sit in on what the team calls “Soundcheck”. Soundcheck is Spotify’s name for their user testing sessions and they have a room in the office dedicated to these, complete with a one-way mirror. Every two weeks they alternate hosting the sessions in their Stockholm, London, and New York offices, streaming them over Google Hangouts so everyone on the team can take part. These Soundcheck Sessions are run by the Product Insights team at Spotify, and after the session we had the chance to learn how this team fits into product design and the various squads, tribes, and alliances. Product Insights is a team of about 40 that is spread across both Stockholm and New York. Previously, it had been divided into two separate teams: user research and data analysis, but earlier this year the two were brought together to help give teams a more holistic view of what was going on within the product. Peter Gilks, a manager on the Product Insights team explained that both analysts and user researchers are embedded into a product squad or tribe whenever possible, but they also have some people who instead focus on Soundcheck and supporting teams without dedicated Product Insight resources.

“Being embedded works really well, because we know what the team is working on, we know what kind of insights they could use and how they would use those insights. We design our studies with that in mind, it’s never in a vacuum. We always try to learn things with a purpose.”

With User Research and Data Analysis having reorganized into one team quite recently, Aggeliki—a user researcher at Spotify—talked about the way Product Insights has evolved. When user research was first established as a discipline at Spotify, squads only saw it as a way to retroactively check their work. Now the Product Insights team is able to be more proactive. Before a squad starts working on something they’ll work with Product Insights to determine what they already know about that area of the product. Aggeliki added that the success of Soundcheck sessions have led to it being embraced by the company, and the name has even been adopted as a verb with product teams often saying “we need to soundcheck this.” George Murphy, another researcher, added that on the occasion a product designer will sit in on a Soundcheck and make changes to their designs in the middle of the session, based on what they’re seeing from the user.

“Design is incredibly collaborative. If I’m doing guerilla research at Starbucks or in the park, a designer will usually come with me and we’ll do it together and then they’ll make changes that afternoon or the next day.”

Together researchers and data analysts work to provide a mix of both depth and reach when it comes to Product Insights. Soundcheck is an example of going really in-depth and personal, whereas A/B tests will be on samples of millions of people to have a greater reach. Kevin Showkat, a data analyst, explained that sometimes a user may come into a Soundcheck and say they do one thing, but by looking at their logs, their behaviour tells a different story. So it’s about bringing the two types of insight together to get the full picture. Being embedded into squads gives the Product Insights team an idea of what they should solve for, and helps the team balance between being proactive and reactive. For example, there’s a form that’s accessible to everyone in the company, so that anyone can request a Soundcheck session for something specific. But, the team also makes sure they’re weighing those requests with what they observe from being embedded within the different squads. From there they decide if a Soundcheck is necessary or if another type of study would be more productive. It was really interesting to see the balance between how discoveries through product insights can inform the big picture goals of a squad and a tribe, while at the same time big picture goals can inform what direction the product insights team should be focusing their research on.

“The challenge of being a data analyst is knowing when to stop peering down the rabbit hole. That’s why having a strong relationship with the product owner we work with is important, and being embedded in squads allows us to forge those relationships. They help build context around what problems we’re solving for.”

Later in the afternoon, we attended what the design team calls Fika. The name comes from Spotify’s Swedish roots and essentially means a coffee break, but is considered to be more than that. The entire point of Fika is to make time to take a break, have some coffee and usually some form of pastries. Fika’s goal at Spotify is to keep the design team feeling connected. Since designers are spread out across various product teams, Fika is a way to have them all come together on a weekly basis and maintain a healthy design culture. On our visit, Rochelle King—Spotify’s VP of Data, Insights and Design—was leading Fika that day and she explained that one of the challenges as the office has grown is figuring out how Fika should evolve. Originally, it started as a way for designers to come together and talk about their work, but once the design team reached a certain size it was hard for everyone to have context about the work going on in all different squads. So Fika evolved to be more of a way to come together and talk about what was happening outside of work or to share something that had inspired someone recently. As Fika grew from 6 attendees to 20, some of the challenges have been finding the best way to get the conversation going and a way to involve everyone. Rochelle added that they’re currently in the process of figuring out what the next iteration looks like, but that acknowledging it might not always work perfectly has kept the team engaged and patient through its various evolutions.

We ended the day with a tour of the office’s upper floors and rooftop patio with Ian Bach and Ritwik Dey, both product designers working to build experiences for the creator’s of the music, video and podcasts on the platform. We walked back down to the main lunch area to sit with Ian, Ritwik and Rochelle to learn more about how they work. They mentioned that working on design of the creation side of the Spotify ecosystem provided some unique challenges. Ian described it as starting from scratch and trying to rally a team of engineers and designers around a vision that didn’t exist yet. He explained that design plays a really interesting role in this way. Designers need to be more exploratory when designing experiments for artists and creators, but also mindful of the impact that these changes can have on the established product that millions use every day.

Before leaving Ian and Ritwik showed us a sneak peek of a brand new studio the team has built right inside the New York office, full of state of the art recording equipment and an impressive collection of instruments. Another example of the steps they’re taking to involve artists in the evolution of Spotify. By the end of our visit, it was obvious why Spotify’s organizational structure makes sense and why they need an in-depth architecture. It allows the company to create sustainable and strategic goals, while at the same time allowing squads to operate like independent start-ups, functioning with their own autonomy and iterative processes. However, the team was open about the fact that there are always challenges for a company growing so quickly, and just as some are solved, new ones are always popping up. It seems that by embracing this fact and not shying away from it, Spotify is able to flex and evolve as needed.

Thank you so much to Rochelle, the product designers on C.R.E.A.M., Creator and the product insights team for being so welcoming and allowing us to spend the entire afternoon interviewing and observing the team. Special thanks to our sponsor InVision and Igloo for making our trip to New York possible!

Diógenes Brito, Product Designer at Slack 2016-10-05T00:00:00-04:00 2016-10-05T00:00:00-04:00 Ways We Work Team designerfeature_1 designerfeature_1 Diógenes is a Product Designer at Slack in San Francisco. We talked about how his education in both engineering and design has made him a well-rounded designer and when he knew that product design was something he could pursue as a career. He shares some of the challenges he faces in his current role and how he manages them, as well as some great advice on things to consider when joining a company.

Tell me a little bit about your role at Slack and what that encompasses.

I’m a Product Designer at Slack. I’ve been here for over 2 years so my role has evolved over time in terms of what areas I’m working on or what teams I’m working with, but overall it’s still the same job. I’m helping people figure out exactly what it is that we should build from a very detailed perspective.

That involves working with product managers and executives to help define the problem and where it’s coming from, and then exploring the landscape of possible solutions for that problem. After that, it’s about pulling related ideas from the team, research, data and other interested parties to make the final design direction artifact to explain what it is that we’re going to build and how it should work.

What was your path like to your current role at Slack?

When I was in highschool, I used to build computers. I’d order all the parts and assemble them for people. That stopped being so lucrative eventually, so I switched to making websites. Someone I had built a computer for asked me if I could make a website and I said I could. I figured I could just Google it, and I did! It wasn’t a very good website, but it was good for that client. That’s how I ended up in web design and then I continued to do it throughout college.

In college, I knew I wanted to do some sort of engineering. I looked through the engineering handbook and found that mechanical engineering had the most interesting classes. It was great except for a few boring fluid mechanics and thermodynamics classes. Right underneath engineering in the book was Product Design, which was all the same things as mechanical engineering, but in place of differential equations and calculus was design and psychology. All of that really appealed to me, so I did that instead. That’s where I stumbled onto my passion. I had always enjoyed making things, but discovering that design was a thing you could do professionally was exciting. So I ended up doing product design with computer science on the side. After I graduated I went to work at Squarespace for two and a half years and then LinkedIn for 9 months and now here at Slack.

Was there a certain point where you knew that design and product design itself was something that you were going to pursue as a career?

It was in college that I assumed the identity of a designer. I enjoyed making things and creating designs for the things I was building. After I discovered the Product Design major, I went to talk to my advisor because you’re supposed to do that before you declare a major and his description of who a designer was really resonated with me. I decided that’s what I would do.

Since it was a mechanical engineering major, a lot of people came out of that program and did more physical product design or mechanical engineering design. But since I was already doing website design on the side I went right into digital interfaces and web product design. I had a portfolio with those types of projects in it because of the websites I had been making.

“I had always enjoyed making things, but discovering that design was a thing you could do professionally was exciting.”

How do you think being an engineer has helped you frame being a product designer?

Initially, I was a little weaker with the visual design elements, having not gone to an art school. So earlier in my career, when I was just starting out, the engineering experience made up for that and gave me an advantage. Later on, it was helpful when working with other engineers, learning about the medium and being able to implement the designs I came up with and understanding how you might do something. It gave me a competitive advantage because it’s a bit more rare.

My perspective on what design is, leans towards the execution and build process a bit more as a result of that engineering background. I actually don’t touch code here, but I’m very much a systems thinker and I cover all the edge cases and error states. All of those things are just a little bit easier for me to understand because I’m used to thinking in that way. The analytical, problem-solving approach is shared between engineering and design. Even the creative process. A lot of my mechanical engineering classes covered essentially what we call the design process. There's maybe less of a user-centered research component to it, but if you have a problem to solve, it's all about bringing your skills to creatively analyze it and then get something done. There's a lot of overlap there and I think that perspective has helped me in a lot of ways.

What were some of the challenges you faced getting started as a young designer and making a space for yourself?

There were no PM's at Squarespace, so getting the job done meant taking initiative to drive the direction of the project. Learning all those soft skills of driving a project, coordinating, keeping things moving and getting it done was a new experience for me. One thing I learned by doing a lot of freelance work is the importance of checking in with stakeholders frequently. Making sure you have a good understanding of what they're looking for every step of the project. That was important as part of a team too.

Early on, I was doing front-end engineering work as well as design. All the engineers I was working with were computer science majors so they didn't have as much as a web development background as I did. Having to do that front-end development work while simultaneously doing good design work was a challenge and a learning experience. That was the point where I realized that I wanted to be much more involved on the design side and less in the code side of things.

“I’ve learned when I’m most productive and what I’m most interested in, so I can make decisions and pick my projects with that in mind. Feeling in control of those decisions and building your habits around those are a good way to combat burning out.”

Over the course of your career, how have you known when it's time to make a change and move somewhere else?

When I was at Squarespace I started to get a little antsy in terms of wanting to learn new stuff, getting access to the kinds of projects I wanted to work on, and the kind of mentorship I was interested in. I started to feel that itch but hadn’t really acted on it beyond taking some calls and meeting with some folks. When my girlfriend at the time wanted to move out here, that’s when I really started looking.

Then at LinkedIn, I knew pretty early on when it was time to make a switch. It’s a great place to work overall but it was misaligned with my values around what kind of work I wanted to produce and how I wanted to work. The way they executed on their product just didn’t jive with me and that made me think there was definitely a better place for me to be. There wasn’t any time pressure on me leaving so I could take my time and look around for a good fit.

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

Well two years ago the team was about 45 people and now we must be approaching 600. The product team is huge and the design team is around 12 people, so there’s a lot of parallel work happening. One challenge is keeping a handle on several simultaneous large projects and keeping the bar high. Often I’ll start working on a project and think, "Wow. We’ve really got to go back and fix that old design." Or "We need a style guide for this thing." Or "We should lay down some documentation here about what you should do in this case." But, there are four projects on the go that need to ship. It’s a lot of figuring out where you can make the space—because it doesn’t happen on its own—to work on things that aren’t pressing but that need to get done to be successful in the future. Things like reflecting on your process, from documentation for onboarding to files and hand off—all those things are somewhat ancillary but really affect how you get work done.

I would say that’s the main challenge, which is great because at other companies I think the struggle can often be getting people to care about the design process as a valuable part of the process. I don’t feel those kinds of problems, instead, it’s about how we continue to get really great work done and continue our pace as we keep growing. Thinking a lot about how we can keep the quality bar high and design debt low.

“My advice would be to be mindful of what you need in terms of relating to and interacting with other people on your team and maybe the values of your company and what they incentivize and how they make trade-offs because that will show you what's important. Spend time thinking about what kind of place works for you.”

What are some of the ways you deal with challenges like burnout, how do you get back to a good headspace in those moments?

I think that can happen if a project starts to get really long in the tooth. Recently, I experienced some burnout because of some things happening in my personal life and it sapped my energy at work a bit. I read this book called, “Your Brain At Work”. It’s a distillation of a lot of psychological research around people’s tendencies to act or react in certain ways when they’re tired. It’s a practical guide for getting your brain in the right place for successful work and relationships based on research. There’s another one called, “How to Be a Graphic Designer Without Losing Your Soul.” I think a common thread I’ve seen in these books is using frequency and persistence to build good habits, blocking off parts of your day to get certain things done and having a ritual and routine.

Probably the most important element, though, is just being self-aware. Understand how you react in certain situations. Know what happens when you work long hours or when you work on a specific type of thing for a long time. I’ve learned when I’m most productive and what I’m most interested in, so I can make decisions and pick my projects with that in mind. Feeling in control of those decisions and building your habits around those are a good way to combat burning out.

Are there any productivity tools you use to keep organized?

I think the best thing you can do is just to get your tasks and goals out of your head. Break your larger goals down into small specific ones and write them down somewhere. Anywhere you can write them down where you can track your progress against them. I used to use Asana for this but now I do all of it in Quip. It’s publicly accessible to my team too, so they can see what I’m doing right now, in the near future and the distant future. At the end of the week, I clean it up and archive things so I can look back and see what I did.

That’s pretty much it. Of course Slack and Spotify are two important tools for me as well.

What's some of the best career advice you've been given?

I wrote some things down after I left Squarespace about what I had learned. One of those things was about how your culture is your product, about how the way in which people work together directly translates into the quality of the work. I think you spend so much time in the workplace and so much is done interacting with people that you have to think pretty carefully about the sort of place you want to work in, what you would like the people to be like, and what are the qualities of a functional team. Things you don't generally think about in terms of, "Oh I want to get into design work." And you hear people say, "I want to have an impact. I want to maybe have an impact at scale. I want to solve big problems." I want to do that kind of stuff too. That's all fine and dandy. You should find that kind of place.

What can be left behind is the everyday stuff like not having the support of your team, or not being able to work closely with the people who are going to build the thing, or not having a manager that cares about your professional development. Everyone cares about and values different things. So I think it's just important to think about what you think a good functional team and workspace is, and how you would ideally like people to relate to one another and communicate. There are some commonalities between high functioning, high output teams, but I think people don't think about that enough in terms of finding a place where they'd be happy. That makes a huge difference. And what does your day-to-day look like, mechanically? My advice would be to be mindful of what you need in terms of relating to and interacting with other people on your team, and maybe the values of your company and what they incentivize and how they make trade-offs because that will show you what's important. Spend time thinking about what kind of place works for you

“I’m drawn towards building tools because of the way they empower people to do great things. Slack, for example, isn’t saving the whales or anything but it’s a tool you might use to run a place like a non-profit, or a government agency or your startup. I like the idea of abstracting into that infrastructure/tooling space so that you can help people that way.”

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

Well, it’s a pretty sweet gig. It pays well, good benefits and a good industry[laughs]. That’s the table stakes reason. I’m a creative problem solver, I love designing user-centered solutions to real problems and then executing on them. That makes me real happy. I’d rather make ten amazing, high-quality desks that people love using than a billion widgets that I don’t really care about.

I work at Slack because a lot of their values align with the way that I like working, there’s a high overlap between those values which is important. You can build anything, but not everything is worth building. When I was at Stanford, I caught the bug of wanting to help people. To make the world better for everyone. I’m drawn towards building tools because of the way they empower people to do great things. Slack, for example, isn’t saving the whales or anything but it’s a tool you might use to run a place like a non-profit, or a government agency or your startup. I like the idea of abstracting into that infrastructure/tooling space so that you can help people that way. You can make something that helps other people help the world in whatever way they want to. That's really appealing to me. Instead of choosing one problem, I can help make an infrastructure that helps people solve lots of problems. I think Slack is a particularly interesting one because so many workplaces are so terrible for no good reason and the idea of making people's working lives just a little bit simpler, more pleasant, and more productive, is such a nice positive contribution to net happiness. I'm really excited about that.

Who is someone you’d like to see us feature on Ways We Work?

Doesn't everyone want to meet Johnny Ives? I'd like to hang out with that guy. Or any of the 20 some people on his industrial design team. That high- level focused creative work, that is so interesting to me.

Meg Robichaud, Illustrator and Designer at Shopify 2016-09-28T00:00:00-04:00 2016-09-28T00:00:00-04:00 Ways We Work Team designers designers Meg Robichaud is a designer and illustrator at Shopify. I began following her work via Twitter when she was still working freelance and wanted to ask her about the transition working in-house with a team. We talked about why she was drawn to the team at Shopify, some of her best habits and routines as an illustrator, the transition to leading a team and why she wishes illustration was seen as a more accessible career.

Special thanks to Igloo and InVision for sponsoring Ways We Work for the month of September and making these interviews possible!

Tell me a little bit about your current role and what that looks like.

I’m a designer and illustrator at Shopify. Originally I came in under UX, leading the illustration team. I've since added the culture design team as well as a bit of work with the brand team. I would say that half of my time is spent managing versus being in the thick of it. Both teams are so full of talented people that they're largely self-sufficient, I only really get into the pixels with branding projects.

What were you doing previously? What was your path to your current role like?

Before Shopify, I was working freelance full-time. I’d work closely with new start-ups and focus on the product and marketing side with them. I’d do big explainers for the marketing side and then corresponding empty states for the product side.

When Shopify originally contacted me, they were just beginning to scrap their whole illustration style. I came in for a week-long sprint to help kick off the new illustration style and get some fresh eyes in there to help them make decisions. At the time, I was pretty stoked on freelance and had no interest in doing any sort of full-time thing. But, I came in for a week and everyone on the team was wonderful, they were fantastic to work with. Kyle messaged me after that week to ask if I wanted to finish what I had started. I really did. Even though I wasn’t looking for a full-time gig, just coming into the office and working with everyone won me over.

What were some of the biggest lessons that you took from working freelance that you bring into what you do now?

A large part of being a good freelancer is being able to get in and get caught up to speed as quickly as possible—deliver something and then get out. I think that’s a big thing that I bring to working project-based. It can be a double-edged sword though. It’s a great skill to have to be able to get caught up to speed and get out quickly, but it’s also not always the best way to work on every project.

Because I have six years of freelance projects I’ve also developed really good habits around how I approach a project and how I organize and name all my files. I know I always start with a certain four files, I always have my source files in there and exports—that systematic stuff came in handy.

With Shopify, I started by making a lot of guides, like our illustration guide. I had practice with those types of guides because when I was freelancing it would help define how a team should continue on once I was gone. So I know how to work so that anyone could pick up a file I’ve done and continue working on it if I go away on vacation or whatever it may be. Those habits have really carried over.

“It’s a big change going from freelancing to working in a big company and it’s been super challenging moving into a managing role. I worked by myself all day, every day—I barely even interacted with the barista at my coffee shop. ”

Product vs. Marketing Illustration:

What are some other habits or routines that make you the most efficient?

I think just having a systematic approach every time I’m starting a new project or a new illustration. For example, with every new illustration the first thing I do is open up an Illustrator file to start a mood board and source files. It’s not necessarily the exact right way to approach everything but it’s mostly just important to have a default way to start a project. It allows you to go on autopilot until you’re excited about the project and it gives you something to do when you’re frustrated or stuck.

One other thing that I’m always encouraging my reports to do is to sketch out a lot of ideas. It doesn’t matter exactly how you do it, but the point is to set an arbitrary number of ideas that you’re going to come up with. Usually, you sketch out your third idea and think, “Cool, that’s the one I’m going to do.” But, you still have to fill up the rest of the page. So you spit out some shittier ones and by the last sketch, the one you were sure you weren’t going to use because number three was the best one—that last one always turns out to be the best.

What are some of the main challenges you face in your role now?

It’s a big change going from freelancing to working in a big company and it’s been super challenging moving into a managing role. I worked by myself all day, every day—I barely even interacted with the barista at my coffee shop [laughs]. Now I work with all these people and spend time making sure everyone’s excited about the projects we're working on, making sure everything’s moving forward and getting sign off.

Part of me also worried I would be become stifled and start drawing in this one style forever, but, now being on the other side I’ve realized you can do whatever you want. If you’re excited about a project, all you have to do is tell someone that you’re excited and they usually get excited about it too. It leaves you with so many options and so many people who want to work on it with you that you can get a little crippled by choice. Prioritization is actually what I’ve found most challenging.

What are the main tools that make up your workflow?


Google Hangouts - I work remote so I catch up with a lot of people via Hangouts and Slack.

Github - I did not expect that Github would be the best tool to organize design projects, but it has turned out to be hands down the best option. If we organize our projects in a place that everyone else can come follow up and see everything we’re working on at the same time, it’s super helpful.

Illustrator & InDesign - I mostly work in Illustrator, but sometimes InDesign as well.

“I think the biggest thing is to forgive yourself for not getting anything done. If you get to the end of the day and don’t feel like you got enough done—that's okay. Learn to let that go. Just close your computer and go do something that makes you feel good.”

Do you ever have periods where you are less excited about your work or where you feel burnt out? How do you get yourself back into an energized state?

I feel like everyone says this but, going for a walk and taking a day off goes a really long way. I try to take a couple of days off every now and then to recharge. I think the biggest thing is to forgive yourself for not getting anything done. If you get to the end of the day and don’t feel like you got enough done—that's okay. Learn to let that go. Just close your computer and go do something that makes you feel good. You did your best, try again tomorrow. I find that goes a really long way.

The second part to that is that in order to give yourself that break you have to actually get up the next day and go to work. You have to actually try again. Be confident that you did your best. If you just played on Facebook most of the day, then that’s not doing your best and you know it.

What’s a major aspect of what you do that you think people might not realize?

So many people think that all illustrators are just pulling ideas out of their brain and writing them down. If you look at any illustrator’s art board, they have other illustrations and other people’s work there. They have reference photos, and if they’re trying to draw a person and get the right angle, they’re probably tracing—I trace things sometimes. It’s okay. It really frustrates me that so many people are afraid to become an illustrator because they think they have to pull these ideas out of their head. They don’t realize that we have all kinds of reference images for all the work we do.

Specifically related to my role at Shopify, I think there’s a lot of mentorship that comes with a role like mine, which might surprise some people. There’s also a lot of coordination with product teams. It’s not as if we just get assigned a bunch of illustrations. We work with the other designers to help decide when illustration is the right tool for what they’re trying to accomplish. It’s about asking what they’re trying to communicate and determining what we can do for them. It’s never like, “Hey, can you draw us a car?” So that means it involves lots of working and meeting with other teams. That’s most of what I do.

“It really frustrates me that so many people are afraid to become an illustrator because they think they have to pull these ideas out of their head. They don’t realize that we have all kinds of reference images for all the work we do.”

What is it that you find the most meaningful about working in design and illustration?

I’ve been thinking about this and talking to other people about what makes you happy and I think it’s a combination of the community of people that fit your life, a lifestyle that fits your life and something that you’re good at. There are all different combinations that any person could find—I could have very well found another one.

I’m just very happy to have found myself in the middle of a lifestyle that fits me. The design community, for example, is very open to remote, we’re very passionate about taking care of yourself, and work-life balance—although a buzzword—is something that’s very important to me. Anytime I go to a design conference, I find people that I fit with. That doesn’t happen to me everywhere. And then, something I’m good at. I think I just happen to have found a place that I can exist between those things.

As it applies to Shopify, it’s kind of the same thing. They really value work-life balance and taking care of yourself. That was one of the things that drew me to working with them in the first place. When I was there for the sprint and it hit 5 o’clock, everyone said, “No, seriously just go home. Take care of yourself. Whatever you’re working on you can work on it tomorrow. Go be outside for a little bit.” I really respected that. It’s not something you see in every company. It’s also very open-ended, if you want to work on something that you think is important and worth doing, you just need to explain why you think it’s worth doing and then go do it. That can be intimidating but also very exciting.

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

Justin Mezzell, Rogie King, and Dann Petty would be good ones. Any of the people from Ueno. I love what they're doing. I'd love any insight into what they're working on next. It's always exciting.

Konval Matin, Director of Culture at Shopify 2016-09-20T00:00:00-04:00 2016-09-20T00:00:00-04:00 Ways We Work Team communicators communicators Konval Matin is the Director of Culture at Shopify in Ottawa, leading the culture team that spans across the company's multiple offices. I first learned of Konval and her role at a Slack event in Toronto where she was speaking on a panel about how Shopify used Slack in creative ways to keep everyone in the company engaged and informed. She talks about what culture means at Shopify, how her and her team work to help scale that culture as they grow and what some of the challenges are in such a unique role.

Special thanks to Igloo and InVision for sponsoring Ways We Work for the month of September and making these interviews possible!

Tell me a little bit about your role as Director of Culture and what that encompasses.

I work with the leadership team across the company to figure out where we need to be as a team and the mentality we need to have. I also spend a lot of time with my team of culture specialists, mobility specialists, designers, and internal communications to help execute ideas from the leadership. In essence, the culture team helps bridge the gap between the executive team and the rest of the company, making sure everyone is aligned.

My day-to-day is comprised of 1-on-1s with the culture team, and working with other departments to give them the culture lens on what they’re shipping out to our team. I spend a lot of time thinking about what we’re doing well and what elements of our culture we want to keep around as we continue to grow. Over the years I’ve learned that regardless of scale, there are certain things that are super crucial to our culture. For example, the fact that we default to open, and that we have weekly Town Halls. Those are things that we never want to lose, but finding a way to keep them around as we grow, is really difficult. So my team and I are obsessed about not losing our culture but balancing that with the fact that it does need to evolve and change in some ways. At the core, it’s about maintaining whatever culture we’re trying to embody, because if it goes in a direction that we don’t want it to, it’s a lot harder to reign in. We’re thoughtful and critical about every decision we make, often right down to the tools we implement, and the messaging we send.

Can you tell me more about culture and what it means at Shopify?

We define culture as the sum of every single individual at Shopify. Every person plays a part in creating it, and when someone leaves or joins, they have a direct impact on the culture. It took me some time to figure this out, but I think about what we do as creating holistic employee experiences and we partner with all different teams across the company to do that.

My team, for example, takes care of internal communications, so we have a good idea of the messages employees hear before they join Shopify up until they’re fully onboarded and integrated into the team. We know what the messages are and where to place them. We partner with other teams to give them more context on how to deliver their initiatives in the most impactful way so that it resonates and sticks with our employees.

As for the culture team specifically, it’s comprised of four teams at the moment. The graphic designers take care of all the visuals you see throughout the offices including the office design itself. They are great at making sure our culture comes to life in a visual way. The internal communications team—which is a small team of two—focuses on any message that we need to put through to the company, whether it’s a small change to our professional development perks or a larger change management communication piece. They have a good sense of how employees feel, what they need to know and how to deliver it in a way that makes sense. And the culture specialists have a very mixed and, I think, exciting role. They’re the eyes and ears on the ground. They’re really close to people and there’s a lot of relationship building. They onboard new hires every two weeks, and set up the Town Halls. They work with coaches and leads to find out what we’re doing well and where we could improve. They are kind of the voice of the people and we have one in almost every office.

“We define culture as the sum of every single individual at Shopify. Every person plays a part in creating it, and when someone leaves or joins, they have a direct impact on the culture.”

I’d love to know how you ended up in such a unique role. What was your path to Shopify and then also your current role specifically?

When I was in university I had a few friends that worked at Shopify and I’d see their Facebook posts and it seemed like a sweet place to work. So it was on my radar and I decided to go to a career fair one day where I knew Doug—one of Shopify’s head recruiters at the time—would be. Back then I was working as a freelance designer, and I had all these business cards designed because my friends and I were going to start a design company. On my card I put that I was a “visual linguist”, I wanted it to be a conversation starter [laughs].

So I started talking with Doug about a support role they were hiring for, and at the very end, he asked me if I had a business card. I handed it to him and he immediately asked what a visual linguist was, so I explained that I did a bit of graphic design. He mentioned that he had a design/culture intern position and asked if I would be interested. It was total chance that I had this card—the job he was hiring for wasn’t even posted anywhere.

I went in for an interview and met one of the co-founders, Daniel Weinand. I got the job and started working closely with him—at the time he was both the Chief Culture Officer and Chief Design Officer. In retrospect, I was his assistant, but he never made me feel that I was. He has such a great sense of culture and a deep understanding of it, so I got to work on really cool projects. I shadowed him and saw the way he thought through problems and made decisions. He taught me a lot of what I know. It was a crazy opportunity to learn that from such an early stage and it’s really defined the way that we approach culture at Shopify.

After that four-month internship, I jokingly asked if they were going to keep me around or if I should start looking for a new job. They kept me on, and I let Daniel know that I wasn’t as interested in the design side of things. He asked if I wanted to try recruiting, so I did that for a bit and it was really interesting, but eventually we got large enough that it made sense to have me focus on culture full-time. I began working closely with Brittany who is now our VP of HR, and I partnered with her on things like Hack Days, Town Halls and team retreats. In the beginning, we had a very surface level definition of culture as all the things you could see. We had just moved into a new office, so we needed artwork, and we needed some of the shinier things set up. Then over time when we started doing mergers and acquisitions we realized how crucial onboarding was. We gained a deeper sense of what culture actually was, and it was so much more than we thought in the beginning.

“Default to open is a concept where you start at a point of what not to share, instead of what to share, which is what most companies do. But for us we only close off anything that we’re legally not allowed to share—everything else is up for grabs.”

Early on, how did you define your role, and what were some of the challenges you encountered during that process?

I don't think we ever really defined it. I came in and there was a laundry list of stuff to do and we just made it happen. One of the biggest compliments I ever got from Daniel was, “the great thing is when I ask you to take care of something, I don't have to think twice about it. I know that it's taken care of.” We were so small that I had my hands in everything. I was helping the front desk, I was helping HR with onboarding. Over time, we became a bit more strategic in what the role actually should be. For example, I was doing some research online and came across the concept of default to open and absolutely loved it. So I shared it with Daniel and Brittany and we started to look at how we could reformat our communications. Default to open is a concept where you start at a point of what not to share, instead of what to share, which is what most companies do. But for us we only close off anything that we’re legally not allowed to share—everything else is up for grabs. So we restructured our Town Halls, which we do every Friday with the whole company. We experimented with doing AMAs with Tobi, our CEO. We thought about how we could get more mid-level leadership, and how we could get other people in the company to contribute and share knowledge in whatever capacity they wanted. So much of that formatting has stuck around today because it was well thought out and had a strong purpose behind it. It’s been interesting to see what things have changed and what things, despite our growth, have stuck.

What are some of the main challenges you face currently?

The biggest challenge for me is not losing that personal touch. Early on, I built so many relationships with people across the company and I understood where they were coming from. You might have heard of Dunbar’s number, where you can really only maintain meaningful relationships with 150 people. We are really cognizant of not being the type of company that starts being impersonal, or treating people like numbers. So how do we scale that personal element? The formula of having a culture specialist for every 150 people doesn’t really work, so how can we scale those relationships? There’s a lot of tools we use that help, like Slack, and I have some tips and tricks now for staying looped in with everyone in the company.

There’s also a lot of things we need to constantly evaluate as we continue to grow so quickly. For example, we’ve always hosted volleyball day, and I don’t want to stop doing that just because we’re too big, but if we do decide to stop it would have to be for the right reasons. Maybe it’s because we’ve found a more meaningful way to bring others together and build relationships across the company. The scale and the shifting of our projects is okay, as long as the impact is still there.

“We’re always thinking things through and staying purposeful with the decisions we make, down to the wording we choose to communicate our values. We critique the life out of it because we have a diverse workforce and people interpret things differently.”

What are some of the major aspects of your role that you think people would be surprised at?

I think the main thing is that both internally and externally most people just see the shiny parts of what the team does. People will look at our Shopify Instagram and say, “Oh wow, you’re the person who designed that great office!” When actually it was our Director of Facilities who did that, we worked closely together and talked about the impact of design on our employees but a lot of what I end up doing is very much behind the scenes. I’ll go to one of the executives and say, “Hey, there is a lack of context around this topic, can you shed more light on it. Or, can you talk about this at the next Town Hall, or send out an email?”

Sometimes it’s things like going to our VP of Product and saying, “I want people to be thinking about our merchants more, can you tie product demos back to the difference it makes in our merchants lives?” It’s more strategic, and behind the scenes. People need to know the role they play in the big picture, and how their work impacts the business. I think most people don’t realize how much of that goes on. When it occurs, it feels organic, and that’s always the goal. A while back, I had a conversation about having more ‘chaos bots’ around the office, essentially. So that’s currently on my mind. How do I encourage more teams to do random experiments? For example, the internal operations team ran an experiment where they only used their cellphones for a full week, just to see what that’s like because some of our merchants might not have laptops—so how do we get more perspective on that end? It’s really about switching our behaviours and habits to gain insight.

We’re always thinking things through and staying purposeful with the decisions we make, down to the wording we choose to communicate our values. We critique the life out of it because we have a diverse workforce and people interpret things differently. I think the thought and the purpose is what makes the biggest difference for us.

What are some of the tools that make up your current workflow?

Spreadsheets - I rely on Google Apps and spreadsheets heavily. I feel like I can only think in spreadsheets, it’s even carried over to my personal life.

Slack - We use Slack a lot of course.

Google Hangouts - To connect to the rest of the team in other offices.

Day One - It’s kind of a journalling app but I use it for notes. It syncs with my phone so it’s great for that.

Spotify - Helps me zone out and focus on the most important tasks.

Trello - We use this on the culture team to track projects.

“It’s incredibly meaningful to be able to just execute on an idea. It makes me feel like I have ownership of my domain, I can be the expert and test out new ideas.”

Do you ever have moments where you feel disconnected, either from your work or what you love about your work? How do you re-energize yourself and get back to a good headspace?

I’m very fortunate in that I never feel disconnected from my work, I do however sometimes lose focus, and that can frustrate me a lot. I’ll set out to work on something important and high impact, but then I get sidetracked by a small thing that ends up taking a lot more of my time. That’s something I’m trying to be mindful of. I’m looking at how to be more purposeful with my time and focusing on initiatives that I feel are important. I’m also learning how to pass those high impact goals on to the team.

What has helped with staying focused is taking time for myself. I did a couple of hiking trips this summer and I found that every time I came back I knew exactly what I needed to do and what needed my focus. It must have something to do with hiking, where you’re not doing anything but walking, setting up camp and eating. It’s so basic and minimal and gave me a lot clarity. I think the big thing that I’m trying to figure out is how I can get that clarity without having to take a week off.

What is it that you love the most about what you do and that you find the most meaningful about working in culture?

It’s two things, and the first one is that it’s incredibly rewarding because we get to see the impact of the things we do right away. We see employee’s reactions, the way that it impacts them. We’re really lucky that we get that kind of feedback directly.

The second part is that I’ve gained quite a bit of trust with the leadership team and I feel like I have a lot of autonomy. If I have an idea, I have free reign to try it out. I think if I were at a different company where I didn’t have that trust or had a lot of red tape to go through—it would drive me up the wall. I can very easily walk into any executive’s office and tell them about an idea I have. We test it out and if it’s a bad idea, we learn from it and we cut it out. If it’s a good idea, then we get support and we push for it. It’s incredibly meaningful to be able to just execute on an idea. It makes me feel like I have ownership of my domain, I can be the expert and test out new ideas.

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

I would love to hear from someone that has helped grow a company from 500 to 5,000, I’d love to pick their brain.

Anna Lambert is also someone you might want to chat with. She’s the Director of Talent Acquisition and has had to hire a lot of people at Shopify very quickly. It’s hard to find so many qualified people that we think are a good fit. She has scaled her team to be able to do that and it’s really impressive.

Annabel Gat, Astrologer & Horoscope Writer for Broadly 2016-09-14T00:00:00-04:00 2016-09-14T00:00:00-04:00 Ways We Work Team communicators communicators Annabel Gat is an Astrologer and writes the daily and monthly horoscope columns for Broadly. I first stumbled across her horoscopes on Twitter and have been a daily reader of them since. Naturally, I was curious to learn if astrology was Annabel's full-time gig and what the work of someone in such a unique role looks like. Talking with Annabel she's a straight-shooter and her practical approach to astrology is a large part of what I enjoy most in her work. She talks about how she got into astrology, how she landed her role at Broadly and what she loves the most about her work.

What does work look like for you and what does that involve?

I’m the Staff Astrologer at Vice for Broadly. I write both the daily and monthly horoscope columns there. I look at the Ephemeris, which is basically a list of where all the planets are going to be for the coming month or year and I plot them out. Then for each sign, I write about how the placements of the planets and their interactions with the other planets are going to affect what that person feels or experiences. For example, today is Thursday, September 8th and I can see that the moon is in Sagittarius, along with other things happening. So if I’m writing Sagittarius’ horoscope I might say something like, “the moon is in your sign today, so this is going to be an excellent time for you to reflect on your emotions. If you’re a Gemini, the moon is going to be in Sagittarius which is a sign opposite from you in the Zodiac wheel, so it’s going to be all about relationships today.” That’s my job at Broadly, as a horoscope writer.

My other main role is giving consultations to people. If someone’s birthday is coming up and they want to know how their next year is going to be, they come over and we look at their chart together. I call these consultations and not readings because I’m not intuitively “reading” anything, I’m not a psychic. It’s very plain and simple. If you’re a Gemini, certain things are going to be happening for you at certain times and I just relay what for hundreds of years people said these things would mean. I let people interpret that information themselves because someone’s intuition about their own life is going to be a million times stronger than whatever I could come up with.

Typically my workdays involve waking up and trying to write as much as possible in the early part of the day. That’s when my brain works the best. My writing involves a lot of decision-making so I try not to do that late into the evening when I’m tired. I never write the horoscopes at night because that reminds me of writing papers at school— I don’t want to have any homework vibes around the horoscopes! I don’t want them to feel rushed. If I have consultations I’ll usually do them around lunchtime because that’s when people have a break or usually, they are after work hours as well. So I take my breaks in the late afternoons to work around that.

What was your path to astrology like, how did you get started?

As a kid, I always loved Halloween, which meant I also loved witches, vampires, the Twilight Zone, and the X-Files. If it was really weird and creepy, I wanted to have it in my life. My parents are both Geminis, so we had hundreds of books in the house and they had books on everything, including astrology (Geminis love books!) I thought it was pretty cool. The summer before fifth grade I picked up my first astrology book which was a book on the Aries personality. I’m an Aries and as an 11-year-old it was about self-discovery and who I am. I was also constantly taking those personality quizzes in magazines, I just loved that discovery aspect. Throughout fifth grade, I put myself to task to memorize all the symbols for the signs and the planets. As I got older I still liked astrology but I didn’t take it very seriously at all.

Throughout high school, I was actually very skeptical and scientific. In college, I took a class with someone who was extremely religious, and it really annoyed me. I was so frustrated that someone could “believe” in heaven, or that Adam and Eve were the first people— it was preposterous to me. I absolutely couldn’t stand her— especially when she said things that were pro-life. But, I’m glad I had this experience, because I know first hand how frustrating it could be for someone to look at me, and think “how the f&*% could she believe in astrology!” To them I say— I don’t believe in it, I use it and have fun with it! (And I certainly don’t want anyone else to “believe” in astrology either!)

Anyway, it was around that same time in my college years that one of my friends and I got really into going to ghost hunting meetups on There was such a dissidence there. I couldn’t stand someone coming in talking about Adam and Eve and abortion, but on Friday night after a few drinks, we’d go to ghost hunting meetups [laughs].

Around the age of 20, I was feeling really depressed, life felt kind of meaningless and I was in a very dark place. My mom saw that and took me to a Tibetan dream yoga workshop in upstate New York. I was so zen and so centered there. I picked up a book on chakras and realized that this was what my life needed to be about again, I felt like I could find meaning. When I came back to the city I started going to astrology circles and seeing that people did this stuff for a living. I left school to pursue astrology and just have fun and I always thought that once I figured out what I wanted to do, I’d go back to school. I never ended up going back.

Going back to that anger towards the girl in my history class, again, I’m really happy I experienced that because now, as an astrologer, I completely understand when people get furious about astrology and horoscopes. I completely understand the stupidity of astrology. I get it, but as someone who loved mythology growing up and loved weird things and history—astrology is just so rich with all of that. It’s our oldest science. It’s a science we totally have grown out of, but for hundreds of years, this was how people diagnosed diseases. It’s fascinating. I take it very seriously while I’m writing horoscopes, but once I hit publish I take that astrology hat off. That horoscope is a time capsule, maybe your horoscope isn’t going to come true but it’s a great way to escape your life for five minutes. It’s this amazing science that we’ve created over hundreds and hundreds of years, it’s incredible.

“I never want you to be there reading your horoscope with your lover or your friend and have you think, “It said the same thing, except it said that it would be about money for you, and for me, it said it was going to be about health.” I want it to feel like new information every time you read it with someone.”

How did you end up in your current role at Vice?

I received an email from my editor when they were at the beginning phases of starting Broadly. They wanted a horoscope writer, and I’m so glad they reached out to me! They found me through the occult scene in Brooklyn.

What do you find are the major challenges you face in your work?

When I’m writing horoscopes, I’m trying to explain the same astrological movements in an exciting way for 12 different signs. For example, this month we have two eclipses happening. I have to describe those two eclipses to 12 different people and say it in a different way. Explaining how the eclipse will feel to each sign is the easy part— but explaining the mechanics of an eclipse 12 different ways is a challenge.

The last thing I want to do is copy and paste something like this 12 different times: “An eclipse is when a sun and moon are opposite each other in the sky, but the earth is covering the light of the moon, which means things are going to be seen in a new way.” I want to write it in a fresh way for each sign before I launch into what it means for you. Writing about the mechanical aspects of astrology in ways that will be consistently interesting is a challenge. I never want you to be there reading your horoscope with your lover or your friend and have you think, “It said the same thing, except it said that it would be about money for you, and for me, it said it was going to be about health.” I want it to feel like new information every time you read it with someone.

When it comes to giving consultations, the challenge arrives when I have to turn down a client because they confused Astrologer with Medium (someone who can speak to the dead), or a palmist.

How do you know when it's time to take on something new or make a change in your career?

That’s something I’m still figuring out. I never like saying “no” to a project, but I learned the hard way that the only way I can stay healthy is by making time for myself. I know I can take on a new project as an astrologer if I’m feeling excited AND I’m not overwhelmed at all by my other responsibilities. As for making a change in my career? I’ll know it’s time to stop giving consultations or writing horoscopes when people stop asking for them!

I’m trying to figure out how to be more proactive with distributing my energy. I’m grateful to be at a point where I can refuse projects because it sucks to be in a place where you feel like you have to take on everything just to survive. Now I’m at a place where even if it means money is tight, I would so much rather focus on my mental health and wellness. It’s important to remember that something else is probably going to come your way. I’m in a place where I have basic things I can depend on and I’m learning where my limit is past those.

“I’m trying to figure out how to be more proactive with distributing my energy. I’m grateful to be at a point where I can refuse projects because it sucks to be in a place where you feel like you have to take on everything just to survive.”

What are the main tools that make up your workflow?

Notebook - I try to be a notebook person and I fill up the first 2-3 pages and then I buy another notebook by accident. I have hundreds of notebooks now.

Notes/Phone - I record so much stuff into my phone. If I think of a joke or say something funny, I’ll note it on a post-it note or in my phone. I want my horoscopes to be funny, so I try to write everything down and find ways to incorporate it.

Time Passages - This is my software for making charts for clients.

Ephemeris - I have a big thick paperback bound book version but because I’m on the computer and my phone so much I never end up using it much— instead, I often use:

Maynard’s iAstroDaily Calendar - I use this on my phone to get a quick look of what’s happening for the horoscopes and for clients to determine if it’s a good day to do something.

Bonus: My astrology teacher, Anne Ortelee, always kept a lot of crystals on the table when she was giving consultations so that people had something they could fidget with during their session. I’ve copied that and try to keep crystals around. When someone’s sitting with me and don’t know what to do with themselves they can pick up a crystal and play with it.

“My intuition does not play into writing horoscopes at all. I think many people think we’re feeling it out. I’m not feeling it out. All of these planets, when they do something, it’s very literal what their meanings are.”

Are there moments where you feel disconnected from what you love about your work? How do you deal with that and get yourself re-energized again?

Anytime someone emails me saying they really appreciated a consultation or their horoscope—that re-energizes me. The fact that what I do is meaningful for other people re-energizes me. It’s not that I always need people telling me that I’m doing a good job, but it’s so rewarding to know you’re positively impacting someone. I’ve gotten messages like, “This month has been really hard and I read your horoscope and it really helped,” some of those have moved me to tears. I feel so happy that I’ve made someone else happy.

It’s the same with consultations. Someone will write me a thank you letter and I want to say, “No, thank you. Thank you for making me have a purpose in this world.” If I ever felt it was genuinely useless to other people, then I would stop doing astrology. I’ve never gone out looking for clients, I’ve never advertised. They come to me either through word of mouth or other avenues. If that ever stops, I’m not going to go out looking— if I ever needed to, then I would feel disconnected from my work, and I would probably be ready to move on to the next phase of my life.

What's a major aspect of the work that you do that you think would be surprising to people?

People are often surprised that I don’t think I’m directly connected to God or that I’m downloading information from “the universe” and passing it on to them. When I give a consultation, I’m really focused on figuring out what someone’s problem is. I want to know why they came and come up with a solution on how they can solve this problem based on astrological techniques that people came up with hundreds of years ago. I work closely with the chart and I try to be as rational about it as possible, using real astrological techniques, not just my intuition. I use common sense and my knowledge as an astrologer—I want the person I’m working with to use their intuition during the session, not mine! People that do like astrology are surprised by how literally I’m interpreting what the stars are doing and how little it has to do with my intuition. My intuition does not play into writing horoscopes at all. I think many people think we’re feeling it out. I’m not feeling it out. All of these planets, when they do something, it’s very literal what their meanings are. If there’s opposition or confrontation, I’m going to put that into the horoscope. I’m not intuiting.

“The fact that what I do is meaningful for other people re-energizes me. It’s not that I always need people telling me that I’m doing a good job, but it’s so rewarding to know you’re positively impacting someone.”

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

Kristi Collom— Kristi works with dolphins, and we all know that the only thing cooler than space is dolphins. Kristi also works at the Museum of Natural History in New York City, which is fucking rad. She posts a lot of pics of her marine explorations and fun at the museum on her Instagram:

Ramzi Rizk, CTO & Co-Founder of EyeEm 2016-09-07T00:00:00-04:00 2016-09-07T00:00:00-04:00 Ways We Work Team founderscreatorsphotographers founderscreatorsphotographers As someone who is passionate about digital product design and photography as I am, speaking with Ramzi from EyeEm gave me a unique perspective on how you can merge skills and passion into one really meaningful project. Ramzi opens up about how he got EyeEm started and how he overcame some challenges along the way. He speaks to some of the challenges of moving into a leadership role as CTO and what that process looked like for him.

Special thanks to Igloo and InVision for sponsoring Ways We Work for the month of September and making these interviews possible!

Tell us a little bit about your role as CTO at EyeEm and what that encompasses.

That’s something I’ve been trying to answer for myself for the past four years [laughs]. When we started the company five-and-a-half years ago, I was the only person who could write a line of code. At that time I was building the apps, the back end, the front end—pretty much everything related to the product. As we’ve grown, things have changed quite a bit. My team is now close to 30 people and I barely write code at all anymore. I’m actually not allowed to write code anymore because the team has developed their own processes and way of working. I’m a bit of liability now because as a CTO I’m a generalist. My role is to be available to take meetings, spend a week on the road when I have to and manage the engineering organization. I make sure that people have everything they need, that they understand why they’re doing what they’re doing and that they have the data they need, as well as the room to explore, experiment and push the envelope when it comes to technology. That’s one of my big responsibilities.

My role is similar when it comes to the R&D team. We do a lot of work on computer vision and machine learning. That team has very different needs from a lot of other people in the organization. My job there is to again make sure they have what they need, that we’re working on the right things and the way we’re working on things actually maps to the products we’re building. In addition, I manage the QA team and the data team. Managing those teams is about 30-40% of my time, with another 20-30% devoted to hiring, and recruiting the best people. That involves speaking at events and spreading the word about EyeEm. The rest is related to my role as a founder of EyeEm, thinking about overall strategy and direction of the company.

“For us, it was an obsession, a mutual obsession that we were ready to sacrifice everything else for. Your personal life takes a hit, you don’t see your friends or family as much. ”

Right, you’re also one of the founders. Can you tell us a little bit about how EyeEm got started?

I think to do that we have to go back a bit. It really started for me when I was six years old and I got my first camera. I fell in love with photography. When I turned 16, I got my first analog camera, and a couple years later Flickr started—I was one of the very first people on Flickr. I absolutely adored that community. There were a few people that would hang out in this IRC chat room, including the founders of Flickr, Caterina and Stewart. They’d often ask for feedback about new features inside the chat, it was a community. I think that struck me in a way that very few products have since.

When we started EyeEm we were about celebrating photography and the fact that you have tools and functionalities is a small part of it. The whole notion of EyeEm was to be a place where photographers can connect, interact and also meet in the real world and get published in magazines and exhibited in galleries around the world. That is the community that we wanted to build. That was really my driver. My co-founder Flo, who is the CEO, studied business and photography and moved to New York to try and be a photographer. An unfortunate series of events led to his equipment getting lost and he also stumbled onto mobile photography around the same time. We got together, the four of us co-founders, sometime in early 2010 to talk about the beauty of mobile photography which at that point was just taking off. No one had really done anything in that space. There were a couple of apps on the App Store but it was all really early days.

We started talking about how photography is not really about the camera you have but about the image that you manage to capture and the fact that there was so much data available, that you could make so much more sense out of that noise that was just increasing tremendously. That was really the impetus. One night we stayed up all night sketching stuff on my whiteboard. In the morning we realized that we had a job to do, we had a company to build. We started with a little exhibition, it was the world's first mobile photography competition. We built a small website, and people started uploading photos. We were absolutely blown away by how many people took part. I think we had 10,000 photos by 5,000 photographers submitted to this random competition. No one else was taking these mobile photographers seriously. We launched that contest, we launched our first magazine, we did another exhibition, and then we realized, "We need to build this out properly." We set out to do that and early 2011 was when we officially started working on this full-time and growing the team.

“That contrast of wanting to know everything with realizing how little you know, and how little time you have to be able to learn all of the things you want to know—that’s a hard pill for me to swallow.”

Can you talk about some of the challenges you faced during the transition to doing EyeEm full-time?

One of the bigger challenges is people. At the beginning, the notion of being a founder and an entrepreneur wasn’t very attractive, particularly not in Berlin; it wasn't the way it was for people who lived in the Valley. People underestimated the toll it takes on everything else. For us, it was an obsession, a mutual obsession that we were ready to sacrifice everything else for. Your personal life takes a hit, you don’t see your friends or family as much. For me one of the biggest challenges was once I got into the mechanics and building things, I risked losing the raw fascination I got from having time to think, or zone off and do the things that keep your creative interest going. Those were some of the biggest struggles. The first 7-8 months the company was run out of pocket, but the cost of living in Berlin wasn't that high so it wasn’t a big deal. Then we raised a little money and could hire our first person and get an office. There was never any huge drama we went through, but rather a lot of small cuts left and right that you only realize happened after you have some time to reflect.

“I do a lot of analog photography which is even better because it's more about getting back to the basics of printing it out, holding your breath and pulling the trigger between two heartbeats to get that moment.”

As a CTO in a growing tech business, in a growing company, what kind of pressures do you face that people wouldn't really expect or understand?

One thing I would say that is the most terrifying is being confronted with how much I don’t know on a daily basis, on an hourly basis. Having the hunger and the drive that I think you need when you want to build something yourself, it means that you’re always trying to know everything. That contrast of wanting to know everything with realizing how little you know, and how little time you have to be able to learn all of the things you want to know—that’s a hard pill for me to swallow.

The other thing is trust, and how important of a role that plays. If you’re a builder, your first instinct is, “I’ll fix it.” But, I have to trust that the people that work with me are more than capable, and let them do it and grow with it as well. That takes time to understand and to accept. Everything else is relatively easy. There’s a lot of challenges with data, with revenue, all of the things that are challenging for anyone building a company, but if you think you have the right product then all of those pieces will fall into place. The real challenge is trusting that you will be able to find the right people and help make it easier for those pieces to fall into the right place.

What are some of the tools you use to keep organized and keep on top of all the things you have to do on a daily basis?

Evernote & Gmail - I’m always taking random notes but they eventually end up in Evernote which is where I manage my day-to-day and my long-term work. Then I have my setup with Gmail and Google Calendar and that’s pretty much it.

We have a whole bunch of tools that we use at work of course. We use Slack and Jira and Confluence and all that stuff. But, for me personally, it's really those two.

Speaking to your own work-life balance, what are some things you do to reboot or step away from your work to re-energize?

Not nearly enough. Taking photos is a big part of it. It's a very active thing. I always have my camera around but actually making an effort to go and take photos of something, having a project in mind, I do a lot of those throughout the year. I do a lot of analog photography which is even better because it's more about getting back to the basics of printing it out, holding your breath and pulling the trigger between two heartbeats to get that moment. Then there's the pleasure of developing a film and seeing it weeks later, that's definitely one of those things.

Yoga and climbing are also helpful. They’re probably the only two forms of exercise where I can completely disconnect and recharge. I don’t necessarily need to get away for a long time to recharge. To me, it’s more of a cyclical thing. If I manage to exercise often enough and manage to see enough people I care about, and read enough non-work material and take photos—those are the things that I like to do and if I manage to do a couple of those things plus work then I'm very happy.

“I think it’s the combination of the people that we work with and the people that we serve. That was the motivator back then and it's still the motivator today.”

Has there been any influence or advice you've been given that's really stood out as something that's made a difference in your career or helped you overcome something?

There's this one quote that comes to mind right away where Mark Twain said, "If you never lie then you don't have to remember anything ever again." That's something that to me is an amazing lesson because there’s a lot of advice that really always boil down to the same thing: treat people the way you want to be treated. Don't take people on a journey, don't lie to people. Although there's lying and there's holding back information, which is two different things. Don't maliciously mistreat people. Do something because you love to. I think that's the biggest luxury that we have today.

These lessons are things that people repeat all over the place and all the time. I can't say that there's one specific thing that influenced me but a lot of these simple philosophies about the luxury of doing what you love and treating people the right way are the things that I live by and the things that are the biggest lessons that I've learned.

Why do you do what you do? What makes it so worthwhile?

I love photography. I think it's a luxury to be able to work together with photographers, to get inspired by photographers and to learn from photographers and to meet some of the idols that you have in that world. While at the same time, impacting the lives of millions of photographers that see this as a platform where they suddenly become professionals. That's been the biggest driver through and through.

Over the years another thing that has become increasingly important for me personally, is the team that we've built and the fact that I love working with the team and I love the people on that team. That's a big part of the reason why I’m excited to get up every day in the morning and get my coffee and smile. I don't smile before my first coffee [laughs]. Then go to work and do it all over again. I think it’s the combination of the people that we work with and the people that we serve. That was the motivator back then and it's still the motivator today.

“A photo is worth 1,000 words is such a huge cliché but it's actually true in some cases where you look at an image and it doesn't remind you of a single moment it reminds you of a series of moments, of a whole day. You can smell it, you can taste it, you can hear it.”

What is it about photography that you love so much? Is it what we can communicate with it?

Personally, I'm a digital hoarder, I feel like I need to keep hold of every single moment maybe for the fear of losing it, and photography helps that. At the same time, you sometimes have these moments that tell a story. A photo is worth 1,000 words is such a huge cliché but it's actually true in some cases where you look at an image and it doesn't remind you of a single moment it reminds you of a series of moments, of a whole day. You can smell it, you can taste it, you can hear it. To me, that's a big part of why photography speaks to me. It still needs room for the imagination, it's not a video documentary of your life or someone else's life, there's that room to imagine and to create. At the same time, it's protection as well because it's a reminder of where you've been, and who you’ve been with.

The other part of it, which is almost terrifying, is there's this computer program that has been running for the past 10 years or so, I don't know if you've heard of it, by some installation artist, and what he's doing is he has these black and white 640 by 480 pixel monitors that are iterating on black and white pixels. Effectively just randomly generating images. That's the other side of photography that these images, if you leave that program to run long enough, every single photo we've ever taken, every single photo anyone could have ever taken, is going to be on one of those screens at some point.

That's why I'm driven to understand imagery and to understand aesthetics and to figure out what the thread that runs through that is. What is beauty and why do we understand beauty the way we do? Why do we connect with certain images and others not so much? Those are the two sides of it.

That's why I love photography.

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

James Nachtwey is one of the most amazing documentary photographers in the world. He would be a really interesting person to learn more about.

Frankie Greek, Snapchat Journalist, Host & Social Media Manager 2016-08-31T00:00:00-04:00 2016-08-31T00:00:00-04:00 Ways We Work Team creatorsfreelancerscommunicatorsfeature_2 creatorsfreelancerscommunicatorsfeature_2 Frankie Greek is a Snapchat journalist, host and social media manager working and living in New York city. You may recognize her from the Fuse TV Snapchat or as the previous host for the Shorty Awards weekly Snapchat show. She was also responsible for launching the Times Square Ball's own Snapchat account. With a background in broadcast journalism and live TV/radio, Frankie shares her path to working in cutting-edge media formats. She shares her authentic and honest insights into social media and influencer marketing and the awareness she has of her own career path is inspiring. For those of us navigating and often crafting our own careers, this interview is full of insight and inspiration.

Special thanks to Igloo and InVision for sponsoring Ways We Work for the month of September and making these interviews possible!

Tell me a little bit more about what work looks like for you right now.

I’m a freelancer, and I focus on social media consulting. Fuse TV is my main gig right now, so I’m there most of the week. That typically looks like four days in their office but I’ve also been lucky to cover events for them. For example, I covered Coachella, EDC New York and Gov Ball.

I've worked in social media for just over two years, and this is the first time I’ve worked on accounts that are really heavily into media publishing and music, which is great. I work alongside our video team, using Snapchat to connect with artists in a fun and more digestible way. There’s an audience there that cares about it and will watch, which is really cool. Previously, I was also working freelance for the Shorty Awards, which is an award show that honors the best in social media.

How did you end up getting into a role like that?

My background is in radio and television, so before I moved to New York I co-hosted and produced a morning talk show for radio. When I moved to New York I met my roommate Nik on Craigslist and she happened to be one of the producers for the Shorty Awards. They were looking for someone to take over their Snapchat for the awards show in 2015 and they asked me to do it. I’d never really done anything like that before, but I had lots of experience with live TV and radio, so I wanted to see what could be done. I did quick 10-second interviews with talent as they came down the red carpet and people seemed to love it. It was really successful because we were interviewing people that the younger audience on Snapchat cares about, like Tyler Oakley and Brendon Urie from Panic at the Disco. People were screenshotting the snaps and sharing them on Twitter and Instagram saying, “this is on the Shorty Awards Snapchat right now!”

After that mini viral moment, they asked me to stay on and run their social part-time. Part of that involved hosting a weekly Snapchat talk show on their account that was all about social media and technology. I’d talk about what was trending, new app updates, and who my new favourite person to follow on Snapchat and Instagram was, etc. It was something I put a ton of time into and over the year and a half that I did that is when I really started to build a following. The show was something people could rally around, it was this consistent once a week thing. The audience got really invested, they started pitching me on topics, what they wanted me to talk about and caring about who was on the show with me and what co-host they wanted me to have.

One day people who watched the show decided they wanted me to co-host with Gary Vaynerchuk. I thought, “Yeah, sure. That’s a pipe dream.” People were tweeting and Snapchatting me, and it grew into something big. I started talking about it more and people got really excited. They were making Twitter graphics and Instagram flyers and photoshopping pictures of me and Gary using the hashtag I’d created #shortysnapwithgary.

It turned out that a handful of people who worked at VaynerMedia watched the show, so there were some people working on it from that end and he finally agreed to do it. It took three months and the hashtag #shortysnapwithgary had over 25,000 impressions on it. That experience was awesome because it reminded me that I wasn’t just talking into the abyss, it was more than me having this app on my phone talking to myself all day - people were really into it.

“I think people still have this idea that doing social media and getting to work with brands is this glitzy, glamourous thing where people are just paying you to be yourself. And maybe that is the case for some people, I can only speak for myself and that’s not the case. It’s a collaborative process, it’s a lot of me knowing my own worth, pitching myself and telling brands what I can do for them.”

What are some of the major aspects of the work you do that you don't think people realize are part of the job?

That’s a really good question. A large part of what I do is so undefined and it can be a challenge to communicate what it is that I do. My LinkedIn says that I’m a host, a Snapchat journalist, and a social media manager. It sounds all over the place and I wish there was a way to condense it. Until Snapchat, live video, and social media are more understood, I need to do a little bit of everything.

When it comes to being a social media manager and my day-to-day, that’s a desk job. That’s scheduling tweets, writing copy, looking at analytics and researching influencers. I don’t show a lot of that on Snapchat, so a lot of people end up thinking I don’t have a day job, which I find hilarious [laughs]. As far as my work as an “influencer” on Snapchat, I’ve been hired to do a bunch of takeovers for different brands, which I really enjoy. Snapchat was originally an outlet for me, it came naturally and was really fun. At this point in my career, I’m not prepared to say , “I’m a Snapchatter now. This is my main source of income.” Then I would have to start selling random things and doing weird campaigns that don’t make sense for me. I’ve actually never promoted anything on my personal Snapchat that I got paid for. When people hire me, they usually hire me to do takeovers and I always look for gigs that are event based and have an opportunity to tell a story or share an experience versus shilling a product.

One thing I don’t think people know is that there are two ways of looking at Snapchat and Snapchat influencers. I’m in the category of influencers or creators where people hire me because of a skill that I have, and they want me to use that skill for them. People don’t necessarily hire me because of my audience. They’re not always trying to spend against the audience I’ve built, but that does become an asset when promoting. Those are two very different things.

We’re in a bubble with social media influencers and influencer marketing and it’s probably about to pop. There are over 2,000 YouTube accounts that have over a million followers - that’s insane. I think people still have this idea that doing social media and getting to work with brands is this glitzy, glamorous thing where people are just paying you to be yourself. And maybe that is the case for some people, I can only speak for myself when I say that’s not the case. It’s a collaborative process, it’s a lot of me knowing my own worth, pitching myself and telling brands what I can do for them, what stories I want to tell and what events I want to cover. I have had a lot of brands reach out to me and I’m very lucky in that sense, sometimes I get to run around music festivals and hang out with really cool people. But, it’s a lot of work, and it’s a lot of having an idea and convincing people to get on board with it.

“I'm definitely interested to see where my career takes me, like a lot of people, I still can't say what I do in a sentence. I can't say what I do in 140 characters. It's difficult, but it's also really exciting. I still don't know what I want to do when I grow up.”

I'd love to know a little bit more about your career path to what you're doing now? It seems that more and more people are building these careers for themselves that didn't even exist five years ago.

I always knew that I wanted to do something in the realm of public speaking. Originally, in high school I was convinced I wanted to go into politics, I thought that was something you could do where you'd get paid to talk [laughs]. As I got older I had a more firm idea that I wanted to do something in media and journalism. So I went to school for broadcast journalism and was positive that I was going to graduate and go into TV news and that was going to be my life and be the next Giuliana Rancic. Everything I did was working towards that.

In college, I co-hosted a show for my University’s TV station called The U, which was a spin-off of The View. I did that for a couple of years and then did various internships in TV and radio. One Summer I did an internship with a local news station in my hometown. I went to Penn State and that was the summer of the Jerry Sandusky trial, so I got to go with them to work on that trial for the news station. That was an insane experience, I saw first hand how live news happens. Pennsylvania is one of the states in the US where you can’t have cameras in the courtroom. It was really interesting to see how the reporters would be in the courtroom for 8 hours of the day, walk outside, and then just go live and re-tell everything that had happened.

I was always very into social media. Tumblr first, when I was in college and through Tumblr found a bunch of YouTubers that I really latched onto, namely Grace Helbig. I’ve almost started a YouTube channel so many times, and I just never had the confidence because I thought it would be embarrassing to just sit and talk to yourself, which is hilarious because that’s literally what I do now [laughs].

After I graduated I took a job at a radio station and co-hosted their morning talk show and ran their internship program. It was a very small station that was going through a lot of changes, so I had a unique opportunity to jump in and wear a lot of different hats. It was trial by fire and I learned so much, so fast. After a few months, I found myself wanting to move on from the college town I was in. I had these plans to move to LA and then I somehow just happened upon New York. The first job that I had here was at an entertainment PR firm, and I was so bad at it, but looking back on it, I learned so much. It was another trial by fire situation because I knew nothing about PR whatsoever.

I worked there long enough to know that I didn't ever want to work in PR, but learned so much about the entertainment and media industry in New York through that experience. It was around that time when I got connected with the Shorty Awards through my roommate. I was meeting all these content creators, there were some people who had hundreds and thousands of followers because they had one viral moment but I was also meeting these people who just did it as a hobby for themselves.

I knew I wanted to be a part of that world, and I still felt like I wanted to do something that was forward facing like hosting or working in entertainment. Producing content for social media seemed like a really good cross section of the two. That was when I started really leaning into Snapchat and creating more content. When I did the show the kind of content I’d do was more focused because I was that girl from the Shorty Awards and I talked about social media and technology. Now it’s a little more undefined because my Snapchat is more like a daily vlog. So I’m still in the process of figuring out what’s next. I know I want to do on camera stuff, and I really love producing. I'm all in with social media. I think it's a really awesome opportunity to marry all the goals that I have in an expedited way. I could be working for a major network right now and be a glorified intern making no money. Instead, I'm working for a handful of different brands and I get to engage with our followers in a very real way.

I'm definitely interested to see where my career takes me, like a lot of people, I still can't say what I do in a sentence. I can't say what I do in 140 characters. It's difficult, but it's also really exciting. I still don't know what I want to do when I grow up [laughs].

“We’re living in a world where so much content is being created all the time. People have built these amazing empires. Sometimes that’s really inspiring, but other times, it’s just really overwhelming. You feel like you’ve never had an original thought in your whole life.”

What do you find to be the most challenging part of what you do right now?

Sometimes I’ll work on a story that I think is super interesting and really cool, but I get no response from it. A couple weeks ago I did an interview with a friend of mine who owns a clothing store and another interview with a friend of mine who just released an album. Those were stories that I really took time on, they were heavily produced and I did more work on them than anything I’ve done since I stopped doing the Shorty Awards show. They got a good response but not the response I was expecting.

For example, a few of weeks ago I snapchatted from my bed with no makeup on that I had had a dream that I was in a salon with Caitlyn Jenner and I was getting eyelash extensions. Then I was saying, "I've never gotten eyelash extensions and I want to, but everyone always tells me that they're painful and they take two hours and that's not my jam." I've never gotten more engagement on a single Snapchat than that one.

People were tweeting me and snapping me about their eyelash extensions. I was blown away. So I think the biggest challenge is just you don't know what's going to do well. I always want to make things that I care about and that I think are important. But then I also try and zoom out and ask myself what’s truly important, because this is a narcissistic industry. My Snapchat is me. It's my face every day talking about my life.

I did an interview with Joey Badass on the Fuse TV Snapchat, and I was so nervous about it because he's an artist that I really look up to. He's very politically charged, but the questions that we ask on Snapchat tend to be a little bit more irreverent, like, "What did you have for breakfast?" I feel weird asking that with this person I really admire. It can also be odd looking up to people who are younger and more successful than you. When I was working for the Shorty Awards this year, I'd be on the red carpet interviewing these 16-year-olds who have millions of followers and do 6-figure brand deals and I'm just like, "Hi, what's up? I’m 24 and I have three roommates."

I've made this choice to work in social media. As a culture, we're all so addicted to it and this idea of lifecasting, sharing your whole life. Sometimes I feel so weird about that, but at the same time, I know that this is what's getting me work. This is what is getting me to the next thing. You have to use social media to promote yourself, get in front of the right audience to find the right person. Every time I've ever worked with a brand or I've gotten asked to do an interview or speak at a conference or anything like that, it's always been someone who either found me through Twitter and Snapchat and they always have some story they remember me by and it's always something silly or that I did just being myself for a second. Like the time I snapchatted myself getting rid of a dead rat in our New York City apartment or when I threw my friend (who wasn’t engaged) a fake surprise bachelorette party.

It's finding that balance between having a normal life. I like to think I can, but I can't take breaks from social media really. I have to use social media to promote myself. I've been working with more agencies and they've been pitching me for more campaigns. They always say to me, "You need to get your Instagram up. You need to get your Instagram up." Instagram just isn't an app that comes naturally to me. I love it. I love looking at it but I like Instagram to see what my friends are doing. That's how I started using it. That's how I want to continue to use it. Everyone always says, "You have to do more photo shoots or you have to do more this or whatever." It just feels weird. I think that's something that I'm struggling with now.

It's one of those things where sometimes I ask myself, "Am I posting this because I want to post this and I want my friends to see it? Or, am I posting this because I know that it's going to get this amount of likes and because I need to post something today?" It's probably a waste of energy to struggle with that, but it's something that's been on my mind lately.

“If you're choosing a career that's a little bit outside-the-box, don't hold yourself to the same standard that your friend with a 9-5 has.”

With so many different things on the go and switching context so much, have you developed any techniques to help you stay on top of everything and be the most productive?

I am a super visual person, so it's really important for me to write things down and write things out. I take a lot of notes when I’m in meetings or on calls. The best thing that I've ever done was buy a sticky whiteboard off Amazon and put it on the wall in my room. Every month, I draw a calendar on it, and then I have everything color-coded. I mark everything from client work to when I'll be travelling. I've been so lucky to do so much travelling in 2016 but had I not gotten this calendar, I'm so positive I would have double-booked something. It's funny because I was looking at it a couple weeks ago, and the way that everything was color-coded and the way that I had marked flights is the way that I was taught to do it when I worked at that PR firm. That whole time, I thought, "This job is awful. I'm not learning anything," but I did learn something: how to manage myself. I saw a tweet recently from someone I wish I could remember who but it said, “A lot of you don’t need managers or assistants you just need to be more organized and work harder.” That stuck with me.

To-do lists are also huge. Every morning I write down a to-do list for the day. These are the things that I need to publish. These are the things that I need to work on. Then I have a little section in the corner where I literally tally up how many glasses of water I've drank because it’s a goal of mine to drink more water. As far as time management, I used to get really down on myself and think that I wasn't a "hustler,” that I wasn't as hard-working as everyone else because I am not a morning person. I'm just really not. I've balanced that out by sometimes staying up late working. Honestly, I do my best work between 11pm and 2am sometimes. That's where I get my best ideas or I come up with how to pitch something.

Letting your schedule be what it is and being honest with yourself about what's maintainable is important. Just because everyone else is up at 6am answering emails doesn't mean you have to be. I work from home 1 day a week, and today was that day. I slept until 11 and it was great.

I struggle with consistency but I think you just need to let yourself be flexible when you're in a job that calls for it. I have some clients who want to talk on the phone really late at night and I have some clients who only want to do things over email. If you're choosing a career that's a little bit outside-the-box, don't hold yourself to the same standard that your friend with a 9-5 has.

Do you ever have moments where you feel disconnected from what you're doing or you're not as passionate about it? How do you deal with that and stay motivated?

I'm in a pretty good spot at the moment, and I'm very lucky to be able to say that everything I'm doing right now I really care about. It's exciting stuff and even if not all aspects of it are incredibly exciting, I can find enough in it to stay motivated. But I've definitely felt it in the past, my first few jobs in social media weren't for the most exciting client.

I do occasionally get into funks where I feel like I’m not doing anything new or different. When that happens that’s when I know I need to take a day and not look at my phone, and not feel like I need to catch up with every single YouTuber in the world. We’re living in a world where so much content is being created all the time. People have built these amazing empires. Sometimes that’s really inspiring, but other times, it’s just really overwhelming. You feel like you’ve never had an original thought in your whole life. Taking a step back from all of it and looking at the stuff that you have done objectively as if you were a third party is a good way to get rejuvenated. Also, read a book.

“Those moments are always times where I realize that people are actually getting something out of this. I’m not just talking into the abyss.”

What are the tools that you're using on a daily basis that make up your workflow?

Google Drive - Google Docs saves my whole world, especially Google Drive because a lot of times with Snapchat I have to download things and send them to people and you get more space on Google Drive than you do on Dropbox which is nice.

My phone and an Internet connection.

And Snapchat.

When do you feel that your work is the most meaningful and that you are having the most impact in the way that you want to?

It sounds cheesy, but I’ll get messages-especially from younger girls-saying that I’ve encouraged them to pursue a career in social media or technology. Recently, I was on a panel about travel and someone reached out to me afterwards and said that I inspired them to travel by themselves because I do it all the time and I Snapchat about it. Being young and female it was something they didn’t feel they could do, I hate that that’s a thing, I hate that we even have to talk about it as if me daring to be female and get on an airplane by myself is a bold thing to do but it’s the reality.

Those moments are always times where I realize that people are actually getting something out of this. I’m not just talking into the abyss. I’m not just lifecasting for no reason to no one. That’s always really nice. Then, anytime I can convince someone that Snapchat is worth downloading (especially the older generation), I feel like I’m doing something that matters because it’s opened up such a huge world to so many people.

Who is someone you would want to see interviewed for Ways We Work?

Megan Frantz - She's the senior producer for the Shorty Awards and she helped me out a lot. She jokes around that she's my manager because she has pitched me for speaking engagements and gotten me jobs before. That's not her job, she's just a very well connected person. She's the blood, sweat, and tears behind the Shorty Awards. She produces that entire event along with Nik Aliye. She's the most organized, productive person I've ever met in my entire life, and she still has a few side hustles going on while having a full-time job, which I think is super admirable.

You can follow Frankie on Snapchat here.

Dave Brosha - Photographer 2016-08-24T00:00:00-04:00 2016-08-24T00:00:00-04:00 Ways We Work Team photographerfeature_3 photographerfeature_3 Dave Brosha has been working as a full-time photographer since 2008, despite having gone to school for something completely unrelated. I was introduced to Dave's work through another photographer I interviewed last winter, Paul Zizka. I followed Dave's work ever since and loved how he incorporates the natural world with whomever he's taking a portrait of. I chatted with Dave about his path to becoming a photographer and the career he gave up to pursue his passion. Dave dives into the process he went through transitioning and the challenges he faced along the way.

Special thank you to our September sponsors InVision and Igloo for helping us bring you these interviews every week.

For those who might not know you, give us some background on what you do.

I have been a full-time professional photographer since about 2008. This has not been my profession by trade; I actually went to school for something dramatically different. I fell into photography, or caught the bug and just loved everything about it. Over the last eight years I've taken a crazy and diverse path that started up in the Canadian north. I started as a photographer in Resolute Bay, Nunavut before moving to the Northwest Territories. I spent ten years there, had a studio and all that, and eventually moved east to PEI, where I currently live. I've been fortunate that my photography has resonated with people enough that it's taken me around the country and lately, around the world. It has been truly amazing and I feel like I have one of the best jobs in the world; mostly because every single day is dramatically different than the one before it. I love that aspect because I'm one of those people who can't sit still; I don't like repetition. I'm also one of those people that didn’t get the memo about picking one type of photography and sticking to it. Over the last ten years I’ve done commercial photography, wedding photography, landscape photography, adventure photography. I shot editorially, I've done countless families' portraits, and most recently I really threw myself into teaching photography. Every day is dramatically different and I love that. I wake up, whether home or on the road, to new challenges, new people to photograph, new places to see. I love every moment of it.

You mentioned that you started out in something completely different. Tell us a bit about your path to becoming a photographer and what you did before.

In university I took, of all things, an English and literature degree. I went into that program because I knew I wanted to become a writer at one point. I had the passion but I'll be honest, I wasn't all that successful in trying to become a writer, which bummed me out because I had no clue what I wanted to do with my life outside of that. Overall, I felt like I had this artistic side to me that I wasn't successful executing on in my post-college days. From there I ended up becoming a telephone technician; one of those guys who would climb telephone poles and fix wires, and get people's phones working. I did that job in one of the craziest of places, up in the high arctic in Canada. There's nothing like being thrown into the craziest job ever. I'd be out in -40C temps, in the pitch black and I'd be climbing a pole trying to figure out why a phone wasn't working properly. I really enjoyed it but it was actually pretty crazy. One day about three months into the job, I was out climbing a telephone pole in the dark of night and I started hearing these dogs barking. I was about halfway up the pole. I looked back and over my shoulder I noticed three polar bears coming right towards me.

Oh my god. What did you do? It was probably the scariest moment of my life without a doubt. I managed to climb up high enough to tap into a phone line. It's the only thing I could think of. I was very fortunate that the bears didn't come twenty seconds earlier because I would have been on the ground and there's not much I could have done. I was up high enough that they couldn’t reach me. The mother bear stood on her hind legs and was trying to get me and I was able to phone my wife and phone the cops and it all worked out.

Is that when you went home and said, "Well honey, it’s time to do something different"? It took about five more years, but that experience was the start. It was actually up in the arctic that I caught my passion for photography. I hadn't really ever picked up a camera before I moved north. It was being up there, being amongst polar bears and icebergs and all that kind of stuff that I really fell in love with the craft. I started going out with a little point-and-shoot camera and over time I noticed that I really loved this photography thing.

“It's one of those things where I think that anyone, if they're passionate enough or hardworking enough, can create their own business and create their own market.”

Can you talk a bit about the transition you made? Did you quit your job and jump right into photography or was there a transition where you went from one to the other?

Oh, a definite transition period. I had that job which despite my joking, I actually enjoyed and it was a good job by all means. For me to go from that to photography took a lot of convincing myself. I was very passionate about photography, but I'm also a conservative person when it comes to finances and all that. I had this decent job that a lot of people would be appreciative having. I would ask myself, is it a ridiculous thing for me to even entertain the thought that I could leave being a technician to become a photographer? So there was a definite transition period. From the time I started as a telephone tech to the time I became a full-time photographer was probably five years and in that five years, I was "a photographer", but it was a slow build. I started getting clients here and there and it was probably not until my photography income roughly equated about half my telephone salary that I decided that I might be able to make a go of it. The thing that really pushed me over the edge was the support of my wife. She gave me the kick in the butt that I needed and she said, "You know what? Go try it for a year. See how you do. If a year from now we're broke and you don't have clients, get the heck back to work as a telephone tech." It was her support that definitely gave me the confidence to take the plunge.

What was that first year like?

In the first week, I gave my notice at work and I remember sitting in my photo office on day one thinking to myself, "Okay, how the heck am I going to make this work?" The following day I had one photo session booked. I was like, "Okay, that's a start, but I need a heck of a lot more than that to make a go of it." I think by day three my calendar started filling up and I never really looked back from there. It's been really busy since. It's amazing how things work out if you can allow them to.

Looking back at that time, what were some of the major challenges that you faced that you can now say you've overcome?

Well, one of the biggest challenges was the fact that I lived in a really small market. Yellowknife is about eighteen thousand people. I remember when I told people that I was leaving my job to try and become a full-time photographer, they looked at me like I was nuts. They were like, "Oh, this place is not big enough to support a photographer, especially a full-time photographer. You're going to probably want to go back to your job pretty soon." I heard a lot of that and it's one of those things where I think that anyone, if they're passionate enough or hardworking enough, can create their own business and create their own market. That was definitely one thing that I had to overcome. Luckily, I was fortunate enough to overcome it.

At the beginning, were you doing what you do today? Just a mix of everything? Was there something that you just fell into at the beginning that worked?

Well, I started off as a landscape guy. Landscape, nature, adventure because that was, by far, my passion. The idea of photographing people actually terrified me. When I looked long and hard at the idea of doing photography as a living, I realized that it would be a much tougher path by sticking strictly to nature photography vs. branching out and photographing people as well. I had to overcome that mental block. I was very much introverted at the time and photographing people was a big challenge. I quickly realized once I started getting paying clients and portrait customers that I actually really loved that world too, so I'm glad I made that transition and overcame that fear.

How did you overcome that fear? What was that process like going from an introvert out in nature to photographing people and interacting with them on a deeper level?

Just like understanding exposure and all that technical stuff in photography is a learned skill, working with people is the exact same thing. I'm sure if somebody played back a videotape of my first five photo sessions, I'd be horrified right now. I was probably super awkward being on that side of the camera and directing people. It's one of those things where, again, every single photo session you do, you're becoming more comfortable. You're developing a way of doing things. You learn what works with people and what doesn't work. People respond more and more to you over time, which gives you more confidence. Here we are ten years later, I've probably photographed literally thousands of people and I think absolutely nothing of going into a portrait session. In fact, I find it rewarding. Even though I'm still a huge nature landscape guy, I think if you ask me what I'm most passionate about, it's mixing those two worlds together and photographing a person within nature. For me, I almost feel lost if I don't have that human component now.

How about today? What kind of challenges do you face today in what you're doing?

I think it's transitioning the pie chart of what I do to doing the things that I'm most passionate about. I feel like I'm extremely fortunate in the sense that I've done okay at a bunch of the different things within the photography world that I've tried, whether it be weddings or commercial work or whatever. I enjoy so much of it, but at the end of the day, I want to be completely passionate and fired up about it every day when I go to work. I don't want to ever consider it work. I think over the last two years what I've really been trying to do is take a look, a good long hard look, at what it is I do and make sure that I'm spending my days doing the types of photography and a day-to-day work structure that I feel the absolute most rewarding or most passionate about.

That's a tricky balance because a lot of times the jobs that pay the bills aren't necessarily the ones that align with the passion. Is there something you've done to bring those two worlds together or do you still have that give and take?

One of the things I've always tried to do is to never take on photography jobs I hate. It's easy for me because I'm one of those people that enjoys shooting so much. There's not too many genres of photography that I would say I dislike. That being said, there are things that I'm way more passionate about than others and I definitely had to take those gigs over the course of my career. The benefit is that it helped me become more known and enticed people to buy into my work and understand my artistic vision. Once people knew me for a certain style, I could be a little bit more selective, and I was able to say no to jobs I didn't want. That took me quite awhile to realize, that it's okay saying no and I'm not going to go broke because of it.

“Every single photo session you do, you're becoming more comfortable. You're developing a way of doing things. You learn what works with people and what doesn't work. People respond more and more to you over time, which gives you more confidence.”

Do you ever feel disconnected from your work or go through periods of time where you feel burnt out with what you're doing? If so, how do you pull yourself out of that?

I don't know if burnt out would be the right word. I mean, I get totally exhausted from self-imposed craziness. Just take when my friend and fellow photographer Paul Zizka and I work together, for example. We’re out exploring remote places and our prime time is sunrise at 4:00am or when the Milky Way is shining at 2:00am. I put in these crazy hours that totally exhaust me at times, but at the end of the day, I’m making the choice because I couldn't imagine not doing it. I have to balance that, of course. I'm one of those people that even when I step away from those crazy hours and I'm sitting around on vacation, I still feel that creativity gives me my greatest energy and makes me relax. I actually get antsy if I don't create. Even if it's with my own family, if I have four or five days off in my schedule I can rarely go forty eight hours without saying to one of the kids, "Come on, let's go do something. Let's go photograph or let's go for a walk in the woods." This morning, for example, I woke up and my oldest boy, Luke, was just sitting there on the iPad. I was like, "Luke, let's go down to the shoreline." We went for a little hike and I brought my camera. I can't sit still. I find that, for me, creativity is like breathing. I have to create in order to feel fulfilled.

Something I've heard from a lot of photographers is this idea of comparison paralysis because there is so much content being produced. Now with social media, amazing photography is at your fingertips every second of the day. Do you ever feel like you have periods where you are comparing yourself to others and what they're doing? Does that ever affect you creatively?

Yes, absolutely, and no, at the same time. What I mean by that is, I think any human being, any artist, is going to fall victim to that to some degree. As you mentioned, photographers live on social media and whether we choose to or not, we're bombarded with images and video almost every moment of the day. If you log on to something like Facebook, you're going to see twenty five images. I think there's no way to live in a bubble to all that stuff. I mean, you look at other people and their work and you're impressed and you're blown away and you're like, "Oh, my gosh." Have I been guilty at times over the course of my career of looking at other people's work and saying, "Oh, I should shoot this because look at the success they're having with that?" Totally. Yeah. I think at the same time though it's a constant battle and if you want to be true to yourself, if you want to call yourself an artist, you have to be able to turn on the blinders. You have to be able to say, no, it's not regurgitating somebody else's voice that makes me feel fulfilled; it's me using my own voice. I think when you come to that point where you are not creating for, let's say a Facebook like, where you're not putting something out there because you think that's what other people want to see, you get to a happy place in your own art. It's a huge leap and it's not always an easy process to get to that point where you consider yourself comfortable in what you're creating and comfortable with your own voice. Don't get me wrong. Even with that though, I think it'd be a wrong thing to totally block out other voices. To me, in my own growth as an artist, I love being inspired by other people. I love incorporating other people's voices within the broader scope of who I am. If you had to break down who I am as an artist, well, I'm probably a hundred and fifty other people combined into one.

So we're all a culmination of the people who've influenced us in a way? Yeah. We're mosaics of influence and I think it's a cool thing. If you look at a lot of the great music artists, it's not like they sat in a room for thirty years and didn't hear other music. They're putting together pieces of so many other great artists that have worked before them and have played their songs and have created their masterpieces. You look at those and you say to yourself, "Hey, where's my place in this? How do I pick pieces of all these influences to create something that's uniquely mine?"

Do you have any insight on that? What do you do to do that for yourself? Is that part of the secret sauce?

Well, I think for me, I love being the sponge. To me, a happy Sunday morning is sitting with a cup of coffee on my deck, my kids and wife around me playing, hanging out, and I might have a photography book in hand, reading the words and soaking in the images of somebody else. Chances are I'll soak up a little piece of that process, that person, and their art. Next thing you know, the following week when I photograph, I've changed ever so slightly because of that experience.

“To me, in my own growth as an artist, I love being inspired by other people. I love incorporating other people's voices within the broader scope of who I am. If you had to break down who I am as an artist, well, I'm probably a hundred and fifty other people combined into one.”
“I love the idea of wearing the photojournalist hat with your own family and capturing their life and their memories. I think that stuff is so important. I try to involve them from a creative perspective as much as possible.”

It's almost like there's two worlds when you're self-employed. There's what you do, the creative work, and then there's the marketing of yourself. How do you balance these worlds?

I'm sure almost every creative professional will say the same thing and that that is one of the biggest challenges we face. If you left it up to us, we'd say, "Just let me create, I don't want to deal with any of that other stuff." If it was entirely up to me, I would book myself two creative shoots per day or four-day hikes here and there or head out with the family to do something photographically and just personally fulfilling. That's the fun stuff. That's why I do it. I love being behind the camera. I love looking at the world and creating, but the practical side of me definitely understands the importance of that other stuff, even if it's not always the most fulfilling. I enjoy the challenge of putting myself out there in a positive way. I'm not even sure the term "marketing" is the right word, but your marketing voice, how you put yourself out there draws people to your work as much as your work itself in many cases. I mean, is it fun sitting down and pouring over email for four hours? No. There are a lot of things I would sooner do, but that part is so, so important to success in this industry. I firmly believe that the best photographers in the world have never been discovered because nobody knows about them. They haven't mastered that knack to put themselves out there to be discovered. Some of them may not want to and that's fine too, but I think for all those people who want to make a living at it, being a creative professional, you really have to wear those different hats and you have to try to do them all well.

Is there something that you actively do? Is there a schedule or is there something else that you do to bring those two worlds into balance?

Well, I go in spurts. Sometimes my work takes me offline for three, five, fifteen days at a time. The administrative stuff does pile up a bit. I rely on good help, too. For example, my wife takes on so much of that stuff when I'm out. I tend to forward her an email and say, "Erin, can you deal with the ins and outs on this job?" Having good people helping you is very important. For me, a lot of my process is trying to stay as organized as possible. Even if you looked at my Gmail for example, I'm ridiculously organized in terms of my structure, how I label things. I never, ever let my inbox get above fifty emails. I get cold sweats if that happens. I see other people with thirteen thousand unread messages in their Gmail and it makes me nervous.

What does a standard week look like for you?

It really is all over the board. For example, I just came off three crazy weeks where me and my friend Paul were teaching together for ten days up in the Yukon and then two weeks in Banff. We had participants from around the country and around the world who travelled to do the workshops with us. We'd spend three days with them or five days with them or however long the workshop was. For those kind of trips, they're usually in some pretty amazing locations, some of the most beautiful places you can imagine. For example, the Yukon trip, the workshop itself was about three and a half days. I could get away with just going for four days and coming back, but then I think that would be more or less “just work” if I approached it from that manner. If I'm going to a really incredible place, I want to be able to experience it myself through my own lens because I don't really shoot during workshops. I'm there to help the participants. So I usually make sure to tack on a couple days on either end of the trip if I can, if the schedule allows it. In the Yukon for example, that week started out in Whitehorse. I might get there on a Friday and on Saturday I might be location scouting. I usually try to set up a creative portrait session myself just for my own joy, my own portfolio. I did that while I was up there. The Sunday, I taught a one-day portrait workshop. The following week, the Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, Paul, myself and another friend went up to Kluane National Park. It's about three hours outside of Whitehorse. We hiked up on top of a mountain and we drove down the highway looking at bears and wildlife. Just some of that personal creative soul time. It was the calm before the storm before all of the workshop participants came in. When they arrive, I totally switch my brain into another crazy, creative, cool place. I ride off the high of them achieving the images that they're trying to create and helping them have the “aha” moments. I’m full on for three days, five days, or whatever it is. It's exhausting, but so amazingly rewarding.

How do you balance being out for long periods like that and having relationships, family and responsibilities like that?

It's one of those things where a lot of people look at my schedule or where I am and they're like, "Oh, my gosh. How do you do that? You have a family. Do you miss them?" Absolutely. You miss them when you're on the road, but I have a very non-traditional yearly work structure that looks a little bizarre to the person working in the 9 to 5 world. When I look at how many days off I have in a year, it's probably a lot more than the traditional employee would have. It's just structured in a totally different random way. For example, my April through about October every year is absolutely crazy ridiculous. Very often, within those periods, I'm working seven days a week and doing a lot of trips. On the flip side, from the end of October through February, sometimes I might go two or three months with time off. I have some amazing breaks that I consider myself really fortunate to have. Incredible family time. For our family and our children, they're as much travellers and nomads as I am. We all love adventure and photography as a family. I try to incorporate them on as many trips as I can and they do often come on my trips, even client related ones. I've shot weddings at different places around the world and they've come along with me. Obviously they can't come on every trip; it's not practical or affordable. I think I have to try to make them as much a part of my work world as I can and then really appreciate every moment of time off that I get.

How do you think having children has impacted you creatively? Was there a change?

Oh, without a doubt. Going back to the whole idea of photographing people, if I'm being really honest, that actually came out of me wanting to photograph my own baby boy when he was first born eight or nine years ago and wanting to do it well. I don't think I really had that interest, that spark, ahead of time. My kids have changed everything about how I shoot and what I'm drawn to photographing. Somebody just asked me the other week, if you had to choose one genre of photography, if you had to push everything else aside what type of work would you do? Without a doubt, I would choose photographing my own family portraits. I don't even think of it as portraits. I love the idea of wearing the photojournalist hat with your own family and capturing their life and their memories. I think that stuff is so important. I try to involve them, from a creative perspective, as much as possible. A recent example was when my kids and I sat down and watched E.T. After watching the movie I had this idea bouncing around that I wanted to do. It involved shooting the stars and one of my kids. It was around midnight one night and it was super clear and starry out and even though it was a school night, I woke my boy up and was like, "Luke, do you want to go look at the Milky Way with me?" He was like, "Yeah, sure, Dad. What time is it?" I'm like, "Don't worry about that. Just come outside." I dragged him outside and he took his bike and I got a picture of him sitting on his bike with the Milky Way behind him. It ended up being one of my favourite pictures I took last year. To me, it's way more special than just a picture. It's a moment with my child.

Is there any experience you’ve had or advice you’ve been given along the way that's been really impactful on you and helped you in a really positive way?

One of my big influences is the American photographer Joel Grimes. He's kind of a rock star in the photo world, but a really, really down to earth guy. About six years ago, I went down to take a workshop of his and around that time, I was really struggling with the idea of my voice as a photographer, my voice as an artist. I was struggling with even using that word "artist." I thought that I was a photographer, which meant I take pictures. Almost thinking that it sounds too pretentious to call myself an artist. Is it up to you to self label? I remember Joel telling us as a group and telling me one on one, he was like, "If you don't believe that you're an artist, nobody else will. Until you give yourself the freedom to call yourself an artist, you live within the box that everyone else says you have to live within. You're never going to be fulfilled in terms of your voice." It was really, really great advice. I think from the day I got back from that workshop, I switched away from just saying, "Hey, I'm Dave. I'm a photographer. Here's my studio. Hire me." To "Hey, I'm Dave. I'm an artist. This is my work and I believe in it."

Looking at your own career, is there anyone who's really inspired or influenced your artistry?

Absolutely. A British photographer by the name of Martin Hartley. Just by chance, he passed through Resolute Bay up in the arctic right around the time that I was first becoming interested in photography. To his credit, even though I was this kid with a basic digital camera who didn't know what he was doing, that didn't faze him. He knew that I had an interest and he helped spark that interest further in me. He looked at my pictures, my portfolio and he let me come out on the ice, the Arctic Ocean, and photograph with him. I would say that was probably one of the most pivotal moments of my whole career, this guy allowing me to soak up his world and his creativity if only for a few days.

Another really big influence on me was Joe McNally. Joe is an American photographer and he's worked for National Geographic and I think he was the final Life Magazine staff photographer. He's a celebrity in the photo world, but just reading his books, hearing him lecture, has been such an inspiration for me.

In more recent years, hanging around with Paul Zizka has been a big influence. Paul and I do similar but very different kind of work and it's like we're on a similar brain wave on so many things. I feed off his energy and passion and I hope that I push him in certain ways too.

Speaking to that actually, how do you think having a person like Paul in your life impacts or reinforces what you do? Is it good to have a partner or do you think as an artist you should be a lone wolf? That's an interesting one. If you had asked me this five years ago, I would be like, no, photography is a solitary thing. You go, you shoot on your own and you develop your stuff in isolation. I never really set out to have a partner, but when Paul and I started working with each other and our friendship developed, I think I realized personally that two can be better than one in a lot of cases. Not just with Paul, but with other people too. I've got a small circle of shooting buddies. A woman named Cathie Archbould up in the Yukon, a guy named Pablo Saravanja in Yellowknife and anytime I'm in their area, I hook up with them and we go out and we shoot. I always find my work is better as a result. Even if you're shooting totally different things, you're just in the vicinity of other creative people and I find that experience steps up your own creativity a notch.

Thinking about your work specifically, why do you do what you do? What makes it all worth it?

First and foremost, I do it because I love it and I can't imagine not doing it. Once you discover something in this world you're passionate about, you can't turn that passion off. We all have interests that come and go. I'm interested in music. I'm interested in learning how to paint but I wouldn't say I have a passion for painting. I do have a passion for photography and once I discovered it, I couldn't turn it off. To me, it's that itch that you have to scratch. It's that thing that you have to do to make you feel fulfilled. A big part of it for me is the high I get when I show somebody a picture of themselves that I've taken and seeing their reaction to it. Sometimes when I’m photographing someone who has low self-confidence and says, "I'm not photogenic" I’ll show them the image I took and I’ll see tears in their eyes and they'll say, "Wow, that's me." That's such an incredible feeling. It's amazing.

Recently I've switched gears a little and teaching has become a bigger part of what I do. I’ve realized just how passionate I am about that experience. Again, it's that amazing, incredible feeling you get when somebody else has a breakthrough moment. It gives me shivers at times seeing somebody else go from being insecure in their own work or not feeling like they have any talent to all of a sudden creating art they're ridiculously proud of. It's a really cool thing.

Amrita Chandra, Head of Marketing at CrowdRiff 2016-08-10T00:00:00-04:00 2016-08-10T00:00:00-04:00 Ways We Work Team headshot.JPG communicators communicators Amrita Chandra is the Head of Marketing at CrowdRiff in Toronto. Amrita and I first met at a design event a couple of years back and have stayed in touch over the course of her last two roles. She shares how she ended up in marketing, what she believes is the best starting point for a marketing team in any industry and gets really honest about finding meaning in marketing roles. Having worked in marketing her whole career, Amrita shares what she loves most about the discipline and also what she finds most challenging. Her points around knowing when it's time to make a career change and finding meaning in her work are some of my favourite parts from our chat.

Tell me a little bit about your role and what it encompasses.

I’m the head of marketing at CrowdRiff, which basically means that I lead our marketing efforts. We mainly work with people in the tourism and hospitality industries - destinations, hotels, museums. Our tool allows marketers to find photos that people are sharing of their cities, get permission to use those photos and then bring those visuals into their own marketing. So future travelers see a blend of authentic and aspirational photography. It is a dream role in that I get to work at the intersection of many of my interests - travel, photography, social media and marketing.

Marketing’s role is to make sure that we reach the people who have challenges our product can solve and that once they have heard about us, to work with sales to generate revenue for our company.

My role within the team is to make sure that as a team we work on the right things, and are able to measure the impact of what we do, and demonstrate how we’ve helped the company grow.

What is a major aspect of your work that you don’t think people realize?

I feel like marketing is definitely misunderstood because conceptually it’s very easy. In theory, it’s not neuroscience but in practice, it can be complex. People often think marketing is just about tactics. The reality is that to do marketing well, you need to start with a deep understanding of your customers and find that overlap between what your customers need and what your company offers.

I feel people think marketing is just about sending out tweets or running an ad. There is a lot more thought behind it than I think people know.

“Part of my challenge is figuring out effort versus impact. Sometimes you want to do certain things but you realize they’re not actually going to make much of a difference.”

Once you feel you have an understanding of your customer, how do you go about deciding where to put your marketing efforts?

I started at CrowdRiff just a few weeks ago, and luckily the team had done some research already on our customers. We had a sense of the different ways in which they go about buying software like ours. Beyond that, we looked at what they do in their jobs, and what they’re trying to get done that maybe has nothing to do with us specifically but give us some context to how our product helps them overall.

For example, we know that marketing folks in large destinations are always trying to keep on top of what’s new in the industry and find ways to innovate. Whereas a smaller city is interested to know how they can do more with a smaller team and budget. One of the things we aim to help them do is just find that information.

We know that we can meet them at conferences, we know that there are a very small number of publications that they read. One of the things we can do is to connect our expertise around visual content with their desire to engage visitors. Part of my challenge is figuring out effort versus impact. Sometimes you want to do certain things but you realize they’re not actually going to make much of a difference. Even if they’re easy and you can get them done in a week, it won’t really make a worthwhile impact.

It’s a balance of thinking short term versus long term. You need to do both. We’re a venture-funded company, we have certain goals that we want to meet. At the same time, we need to be thinking beyond the next three months. Making sure we are setting a foundation that will help us grow for a long time.

One concrete thing I do is put together a map - a buyer journey not unlike what designers use for user journeys. I look at how people move through their day and move through their career. Then I list out what their information needs are, who are the people they listen or pay attention to, what channels are they in, or where are their watering holes? To be honest, doing that work makes my job as a marketer so much easier because there are things I can rule out right away and then other things I know I need to do for sure. I think most people skip that part and that’s why it feels like it’s hard to choose from all the different tools and tactics.

It seems very much like a mix of being an art and a science.

Totally. I think everyone is talking about marketing as a science but I still enjoy the art of marketing too. There is so much conversation now about growth hacking and performance based marketing, which is great but I still think there is so much power in storytelling - like the Ways We Work site. I don’t think the power of storytelling has gone away, we are still humans that have emotions and great stories and visuals can connect with people on an emotional level.

“Earlier in my career, one of the things I didn't like was coming up with products that I didn't really feel added much value to people's lives. It was almost forcing the demand to exist. Whereas in technology, I feel like an app can make your life easier if it's a good one.”

How did you end up in marketing? Did you go to school for it?

I’ve always been a marketer, I’ve never done anything else. I remember, I had a cousin who was doing his MBA when I was a teenager and I was always fascinated by his marketing classes. He was actually developing packaging and messaging around particular products. For some reason I was drawn to that right away, I think it was partly the packaging aspect. I was probably as interested in the design as I was in the marketing.

I was also drawn to the communication aspect. I liked the idea of having to figure out how to talk about things that people are going to want to listen to. But I didn't really know how to become a marketer because I didn't really have a lot of exposure to that world. I actually went and did an economics degree first, which I totally regret.

Then I did my MBA at a great school in Boston. My MBA was my first real exposure to marketing. In between doing my undergrad and my MBA, I started working in marketing with Nestle. They're amazing marketers. That was a great first introduction to good marketing fundamentals. Also working in a company where marketing was really valued. That's how I got started.

I think the only thing for me that's changed is I've changed industries. I started off in consumer packaged goods. Then I joined the tech industry. A lot of the fundamentals are the same. I think the tactics are different but there are some basics that apply no matter what industry you are in. I love working in tech and I love what tech does for people's lives. Earlier in my career, one of the things I didn't like was coming up with products that I didn't really feel added much value to people's lives. It was almost forcing the demand to exist. Whereas in technology, I feel like an app can make your life easier if it's a good one. A lot of the stuff we were doing in packaged goods was how to get people to buy more chocolate flavored coffee. I wasn't that excited about that in the long term.

What do you find the most challenging about the work you’re doing?

The thing that stands out to me is that we’re a young company and there’s so much we need to do. It’s about being able to sit down and say, “Okay, what are the things that will really make a difference because we can’t afford to do everything today.” I feel in general at startups and every startup I’ve been at, that’s always been the struggle. Even the things that you know are going to work for you, you just can’t do it all. You have to prioritize.

One of the first things I said to our team when I came in was that I would actually be giving them less to do. To stop doing the things that just aren’t a priority at the moment. I felt like there was some discomfort around that at the beginning, because you worry if you’ll be less valuable. But already in the first few weeks, I’ve already had team members come back and say, “It’s great, we can focus, and we’re getting so much stuff done.” It was such a good feeling and I realized that’s something we just need to keep doing.

We’re still in our early days so there is so much we need to do. It’s just about balancing short term needs like - the sales team is going to a conference, so how do I make sure they’re as successful as they can be? While at the same time making sure we set up our inbound marketing, which takes a long time to start working and bringing people in. We don’t want to be six months from now wishing we had started it. So I would say in summary, balancing the short term and the long term goals, that’s definitely my biggest challenge.

How do you know, on a personal level, when it's time to take on a new challenge or start something new?

For me, that time has come several times over my career. I've been working for a long time, so I've been in a number of different roles. I think fundamentally it's when I feel like I'm not learning anymore, or when I'm not pushing myself. If things start becoming too routine, I usually feel like that's when I know. Usually, I try to look within the company to see if I can grow there. Can I take on more responsibility? Can we go beyond what we are doing now?

But sometimes that's just not possible. I've been at companies where they don't want to invest more in marketing, or other departments have more priority, and so that's just kind of where they are. I've worked for one company which - I didn't really totally understand this when I joined - but I realized while I was there that it was really more of a lifestyle business for the owners.

There was nothing wrong with that but it meant that it wasn’t the right place for me. I’m a very ambitious person and I want to keep growing. I don't work to just make money. I really love what I do, I want to learn. If I feel like I'm just kind of maintaining things over and over and we aren’t really doing anything new, that's usually a sign for me that I've either got to find that in a side project or I've got to figure out a way to do it in my role. Whether that's in the same company or at a different company.

“You can grow your company and still take vacation, still sleep at night and still feel really good about what you’re doing.”

Do you ever find yourself feeling disconnected from your work or experiencing burnout? How do you deal with that?

I’ve never felt disconnected from my work because work is a big party of my identity. I love work, but I have definitely felt burnt out. I’ve had times in my life where what we are trying to do and the resources we have to do it are just so mismatched. That can definitely happen in startups.

It’s one thing if it’s temporary, but if it goes on too long, that’s when burnout can happen. I was at one place where it went on for at least a year, our staff were just constantly working crazy hours and the environment wasn’t very positive. I definitely felt burnt out at that particular point in time.

So I feel like my goal is learning how to work less while still doing great work. For me, it’s about learning to set some of those boundaries and make sure that I don’t just work all the time. I work in an industry, that industry being startups, where there is this culture of it being 24/7, and I’ve seen a lot of conversations around equating being a workaholic with being a hustler in a good way. I think that’s unhealthy and I don’t think it’s necessary. You can grow your company and still take vacation, still sleep at night and still feel really good about what you’re doing.

I also think it’s important for people to think about that when they choose where to work. What kind of life do you want to have? I’m in my 40s now so my priorities are different from when I was in my 20s.

What are the main tools that make up your workflow right now?

Trello - I've been coming back to using Trello because it's something we are using at CrowdRiff, and we are power Trello users so I have become a power Trello user. I never loved it but I'm learning to love it and it's actually working okay for me now. Virtual Assistant - It's so funny, because it's just a little tool for scheduling meetings. Scheduling meetings is one of those things that just interrupts your day all the time, going back and forth with people over e-mail to figure out a time to meet, especially when they are outside the company and they don't see your calendar.

CrowdRiff - Of course I use CrowdRiff at work. I use it for sourcing photos for our blog posts and campaigns.

Tweet Deck - I love Twitter. There are things about it that have changed, obviously it's become less social, but I'm still very social on Twitter in particular. There are so many interesting conversations going on that I can follow. I use Tweet Deck because it allows me to kind of follow people on Twitter that match different interests. I actually have a Tweet Deck list of what I call interesting people, which is a private list. I just do it to make sure that interesting people are still on my radar so that I'm not just in a bubble and not only paying attention to work related stuff.

Receipt Bank - Again a small thing, but this tool has changed my life. It's basically an app where you can take photos of your receipts. It automatically scans what's in them and sends them into your accounting system. It's great, we use it at CrowdRiff and I had used it when I was a consultant. It's amazing, it means I don't have to hang onto my paper receipts anymore.

“The word meaningful kind of trips me up a bit, because on some level, marketing doesn't feel very meaningful. But I think why I do what I do is to bring meaning and thoughtfulness into marketing.”

Having worked in so many different roles, have you developed a good routine or structure for your day that really works for you?

I have what I call a loose routine. I’m don’t believe every second of your day needs to be productive. That stuff turns me off actually. I really like having some breathing room and spontaneity in my day.

One of the best things that I do now is use Trello. Our whole team does this now, and we have a top three label that we apply to our Trello boards. I have a Trello board that I organize by week, so in a given week I know the main things I need to get done. There are some projects that take multiple weeks so I'll just move those over week to week. But I find that top three label has been really helpful to me, because it's so easy to get distracted. There are a lot of little things that can take your attention away in a given week. Every morning I look at it and just make sure that I’m progressing those top three things forward. That’s been really helpful.

The other thing which has helped me is something I just started doing in the last couple of years. I've been doing a lot more writing for work, so it’s so helpful to just block off a whole afternoon or big chunks of time where I don't book meetings. I block it off as a meeting in my calendar so that I can just put on my headset or go into another room and not be interrupted and do that sort of focused work.

Writing, in particular, long form content, I cannot do it in spurts. I need that long chunk of time. I think when you work in an office environment, there are always demands on your day. Now especially with Slack anyone can just interrupt you at any moment. I find that I need periods where I just turn everything off. That's helped me as well.

Why do you do what you do, why is it meaningful to you?

The word meaningful kind of trips me up a bit, because on some level, marketing doesn't feel very meaningful. But I think why I do what I do is to bring meaning and thoughtfulness into marketing. I think you can market a product or a company in a thoughtful way.

At the end of the day, people do need “things” to make their lives function, and to make their lives fun and entertaining and delightful. I do what I do so that hopefully the things that people need they are able to find them easily, and they’re able to choose to do business with companies that meet their needs or align with their values. But I would say that I think marketing is not the most meaningful profession.

It's something I actually struggle with, is how do I find meaning in my life when the relative meaning of my work is maybe less obvious than if I was a nurse or if I was a firefighter or something like that. But still, I love my work and I love what I do because it’s intellectually challenging and can also be incredibly creative. I find that my work doesn't have to be everything, that I can live a meaningful life, and I do a lot outside of my work that has a lot of meaning. I volunteer, I try to be a good friend, I try to be a good wife. All of those things to me are what makes life meaningful. It's kind of a long winded answer to a good question, but I don't have any grand illusions about marketing being the most meaningful profession, and that's okay.

Who would you want to see on Ways We Work?

Andrea Carson Barker - She’s a good friend of mine and an all around interesting person. She started the first, contemporary art criticism blog for Canadian art. She ran that blog for years. But now she is doing a web series called Artland where she tells these little stories about some of the lesser known people in the art world, like the people who hang shows, or people who are collecting who might not look like a typical collector. She is just an all around great art advocate.

Sally McCubbin-Glassblower 2016-08-03T00:00:00-04:00 2016-08-03T00:00:00-04:00 Ways We Work Team I met Sally a few years ago and I was really curious to learn more about her craft as a glassblower. It's not everyday you get the chance to meet someone with such a unique creative skill and artistic mind. It was great talking with Sally and learning more about what she does and the challenges artists face when trying to manage the more practical elements of their lives. Sally gives an honest look into the realities of running a business while being an artist and presents some helpful perspective for others who might be on a similar path.

For those who might not know you, give us an idea of what you do?

I am a freelance glassblower that does a lot of my own speculative work; that's anything sculptural or functional but it really depends on where my head is at, what's happening in my life or what I'm working on at a given moment. I also do commission work for people who are looking for particular glass object to be made. I also have done some public art and sometimes I’ll do repairs. Since glassblowing isn't a super common thing, I find I do a variety of different work.

How did it all start and how did glassblowing evolve into being your full time career?

I discovered glassblowing when I was pretty young, around sixteen, and it naturally felt like something I wanted to do. Not having the right guidance in high school, I didn't actually get into it until I was in my early twenties. I had a couple years of misguided university where I followed the path you were supposed to follow. I went to university and took geography because I really liked weather, volcanoes, and natural disasters. It was the only program I was interested in enough to focus on during school. I don't regret going to university, I learned a lot of valuable life lessons, however, it was a big waste of my academic time. I eventually found an arts program at Sheridan College and I applied right away. There were three schools in Canada that offered glassblowing and Sheridan College happened to be really close to where I was living at the time so it was a perfect fit.

By the next fall I quit university and went to college. The funny thing is, it didn't really dawn on me until three years into the program what I had actually chosen to do. I'm a really impulsive person who doesn't mind massive amounts of change and I was really psyched about the idea of glassblowing, so I went for it. It took me a few years to recognize that I was signing up for a career in the arts and it was something that was going to lead me to the world of freelance. I really didn't wrap my head around this until I was well into it. In hindsight it was probably a good thing because I'm not sure I would have continued pursuing it if I knew an entrepreneurial life was ahead of me.

You said you were sixteen when you discovered glassblowing. Where did you experience it for the first time?

My brother is a sailor who was teaching in Bermuda and on a visit I walked into a glassblowing studio that was making souveneiry type stuff. It was really hot and it was really active. I was a big athlete in school and anything challenging, body wise, I was always interested in. Watching them work with this beautiful material that caught light in interesting ways really inspired me. I don't know if every kid has a natural attraction to glass, but I definitely did. I always wanted to play with little bits of it, like those glass beads, or the things you fill vases with. Seeing all this activity in one place, I thought, 'This is it. This is what I'm going to do.' In retrospect, it was a really important moment.

“I am trying to make these objects that are important to me because they include my ideas about the world, politics, or social trends. I'm trying to make objects that make other people think about things, cause them to think differently, or have an idea of their own.”
“Unfortunately, it’s very difficult in this climate to be an artist who wants to perfect a craft and to just do it for the love of doing it. You have to be very aware of what you're making, who it’s for, and what the ideal price point is.”

After you graduated, what were the first few steps you took to start your career?

Straight out of school I applied to a residency program at the Toronto Harbourfront. I didn't know it at the time, but I could have accessed the program when I was sixteen and it would have been a faster route to where I am now. The Harbourfront residency program is one of the best in the world. They offer emerging artists three years of highly subsidized studio access. It essentially afforded me the time and resources to become really good at my craft. It also enabled me to develop my creative voice and explore my professional options. It's awesome. I was there for three years.

Going back to what you were mentioning earlier about being entrepreneurial. At what point did you realize that you would have to be a business person?

The first thing I realized at college was that I was signing up to make things. Making things has always been an interest of mine, but the more I became concerned with ecology, waste, and the environment I became very self conscious that I was going to be filling the world with stuff. I already looked around and saw too much stuff, and too much garbagey stuff; like things that didn't need to exist. I had to grapple with this internal conflict and decide how I was going to deal with it because I wasn't okay with just making stuff and filling the world with it. It took me a long time to find the solution and I eventually decided I would only make things that were very worthwhile and had a high quality to them. I wasn't going to try to produce anything at volume.

Once I got through this mental hurdle and had my values in order I also had to figure out how to make money. I think Harbourfront residency afforded me some time to not feel like I needed to make money as quickly, which is so nice and so important. I had time to develop my business values and my ethics without needing to pay a whole lot of bills and overhead. Overhead in glassblowing is crushing. I learned about business after exiting the program. I started my first real functional glass brand and I designed everything to be highly economical and to not use up a lot of material or produce a lot of waste. That was definitely the biggest leap forward in understanding how I was going to structure a business.

Were there some turning points in the first few years where you knew you could do your craft and make a living?

The year after my residency I learned to take nice photos of my work and they started getting picked up by some media outlets. I made this piece called the “chip and dip” bowl and a photo I took of it appeared in Dwell Magazine in 2006. I think I got two hundred and fifty emails from that article in the days following it's release. That started a pursuit to get more press for myself. I was spending a lot of time sending releases and images to magazines and so on. The stories were producing sales that could sustain my very humble lifestyle. I was making a good amount of money but it wasn't excessive, at all. It was just being able to pay my studio fees and my lifestyle as a poor student type person.

How did these magazines discover you?

Good question. I owe that to a girl named Jessica. Coming out of school, myself and five other like minded people–they were mostly furniture makers, and a couple of ceramicists, and some textiles people–made this design collaboration called The Vest Collective. It was really cool and it was one of the best things I think I've done in my career. We would meet every couple of weeks and work on pieces that followed a theme for an installation that we could do at different galleries, or at different shows. This girl Jess was an excellent PR person who would make these beautiful press packages and send them out to I.D. magazine, Dwell, Wallpaper and others. We got a surprising amount of coverage for being so young and so new. It was all because of her that Dwell picked up my work. From that initial story things just snowballed.

Looking back to that period where you were moving away from your residency and starting your freelance career, what was one of the bigger challenges that you faced during that time?

I don't think that my identity, as a creative, has always fit well with the glassblowing environment that exists in Canada or the States. I think the biggest challenge for me has been finding my niche, or finding where I belong. A lot of what people think of when they think of glassblowing is souvenirey, chatchka stuff, because that is, essentially, what it is. There is a lot of people making their careers by making stuff that people can buy inexpensively. I couldn't connect with that idea so that crafty perspective was never going to work for me. I explored interior design thinking that making decorative objects for interiors might be my thing and it definitely is to a certain extent. I also had a long road of exploring what didn't work for me and what did. I would go to trade shows in New York and different gift shows and those types of things never really suited my sensibility. It was always, 'Well, I'm just going to be making decorative stuff that is very on point with trend.' Which meant it eventually would not be trendy and inevitably become garbage.

I have flipped back and forth with my work. I make a lot of functional things that appeals to a very particular kind of person. Someone who has an interest in design and things that are handmade. Since the price point is high, you have to be able to target your customer, very specifically. Where I landed after all these years is making things that are in viewed with ideas. I am trying to make these objects that are important to me because they include my ideas about the world, politics, or social trends. I'm trying to make objects that make other people think about things, cause them to think differently, or have an idea of their own. I'm not sure if I have, necessarily, satisfied all of my challenges but I have landed in that place.

What are some of the challenges you face today?

For a year I took a business course that was offered by the government. It made my finances extraordinarily painfully clear to me, as far as expenses are concerned. At the time it was a horrifying class because it was made apparent that the economics of being a glassblower don't work. They don't really work unless you are very mindful of what you're doing and how you're doing it. I teach business at Sheridan now to people in the program I studied. That's pretty much what I talk about the entire time. Unfortunately, it’s very difficult in this climate to be an artist who wants to perfect a craft and to just do it for the love of doing it. You have to be very aware of what you're making, who it’s for, and what the ideal price point is. The business aspects are the thing I think about the most now. My lifestyle is such that I don't have the freedom to not make money.

The challenges I face today are weighing my costs and my price versus the market and trying to find new places in the market where there is money and interest. Traditionally, the arts were very much supported by a particular demographic of the population that doesn't really exist anymore. There is money everywhere, for sure, and there is a lot of people interested in the arts who have money, but they are not the same kind of supporters of the arts. The climate and the buyer market has changed. Even craftspeople and designers have had to adapt a lot, as far as finding places to sell. In the crash in 2008 a lot of galleries closed. A lot of people who would normally represent people like me aren't in the business anymore. It’s a matter of trying to be creative and finding out where the people who would be interested in your work are and how to access them.

Artists and people with creative pursuits have to deal with a lot of uncertainty and stress because of what you’re speaking about. How do you manage those elements, keep going and not say, 'I'm just going to go be a banker?'

Totally. Only recently have I felt like I have to manage those elements. Before that I feel like my career in glass has been extraordinary and very lucky. I have been able to travel and I've been able to do all kinds of things that I never would have been able to do, if I was a banker or if I was anything else. I was okay with living hand to mouth. When I had money I would do my craft and I would get grants and be able to do research and travel, it was awesome. I would say in the last three years I have had to grow up a bit, and that's cool. I like that. I have realized how much stability I have sacrificed in having the kind of career that I have had. I've had to work really hard at creating stability. I would say that I am facing, now more than ever, the challenge of feeling like I should just drop it all and go back to school to do something else. I would say I was very close to doing that six months ago and I have realized that I am not built for it. If I decided to go back to school and be something different, I would keep getting pulled back to the career I have now. Instead, I have been trying to work at how to blend what I do now with something more stable.

What do you think you would add to bring stability?

I currently teach at Sheridan College and it has always been a small source of stability, as far as income goes, but it’s not easy working as a part time faculty. I would like to replace that part of my career with something a little more substantial. At first I was interested in the idea of user experience design because I'm super into digital products, platforms and applications that make business and my career so much easier. I'm always immersed in that and teaching that in my classes. It was natural for me to be interested in user experience. In taking a couple of workshops I have realized that it also blends, really naturally, with my skill set. Just thinking about design and how people use things every day or how they blend into their lifestyle, or their day’s workflow. UX is the thing I am going to investigate first. I don't think it’s going to replace what I do now but I'm hoping it’s going to dovetail really nicely into what I do.

In a way, you've been thinking about design and user experience for quite some time then.

Right. Like, analog user experience.

Very interesting. The rate at which everything is changing in tech has created this demand for creative people who can think beyond just fancy features and that must be really exciting for design thinkers working in other mediums.

I have this real desire to be a part of that change. The tech industry is this tsunami of change. There are these companies on the crest of the wave, being able to shape this change, and essentially, decide where our culture is headed. I find that extremely interesting and I want to help shape that change, or at least contribute.

When you are in a creative pursuit there are these duelling worlds between doing the craft and selling it. How do you balance the relationship between those two things?

More and more now I have the luxury of not having to blow glass as much as I used to, simply because I'm good at it. It doesn't require so much time like it used to. It’s fun for a lot of people but I look at it, very much, as work. I prefer to get that stuff done, and then manage my business.

I balance it because I have talked myself into thinking that glassblowing isn't the coolest thing going. It’s the other work surrounding it that needs a lot of the maintenance for anything to work. I have learned that the hard way, a number of times. I would realize that I'm not spending enough time doing the things that are going to get work out the door and get money coming in. I think through learning and experience, I balance it because it has to absolutely balance.

Do you have periods where you are burnt out or feel disconnected with your craft? If you do, how do you pull yourself out of those situations?

When you asked me about the biggest challenge I probably should have told this story. I got to work with Bruce Mau in the summer of 2012. He has nothing to do with glass, but I go to a glass school on the west coast almost every year and he was invited to be the artist in residence there. Through a process of applications he chose me to be his artist assistant. It was amazing. I got to work with him for three weeks, just the two of us. That experience changed my career so drastically. It allowed me to see burnout and all the challenges, and the negative stuff in my career, as just design problems that needed solutions.

He's such an optimist and is so positive. I learned about his way of working and the positivity that he approaches everything with. When I met him, I was probably very burnt out. Part of his residency was giving a slideshow about his work to the school. Being his assistant, I was asked to speak after him. I sat through Bruce Mau's forty five minute artist slideshow and then it was my turn. Mine was just a small fifteen minute thing. I have always been a fan of his and his work. His slideshow was just so moving and I was so in awe of everything he was doing. I thought what he was doing was so important and what I'm doing is so unimportant. I'm making glass objects that, essentially, only rich people can afford and I felt guilty about it because I've been consuming massive amounts of fossil fuels and so on. I often get stuck in that rut of, “what am I thinking?”

After his presentation it was my turn and I felt like I had to stand up and tell everyone about the silly career I have. I just cried. I couldn't get over how moved I was from his presentation. I couldn't muster talking about my work. I just sobbed for about eight minutes. Then, I finally pulled it together, and give my presentation. Afterwards I talked to him and he said, 'Sally, your work is so great.' I was just like, 'Oh, I'm so embarrassed.' I told him how I was feeling and why I was crying. He said, 'Sally, you cannot worry about that stuff. What you do is so important.' He was just saying all these nice things and at the time I thought, 'Yeah, okay. You're making me feel better, but whatever.'

In the process of working with him for the following three weeks, it made me understand how he is so optimistic and how he is so positive. It just breathed this optimism into me and it allowed me to look at what I was doing and say, 'Yes, maybe I am burning all these fossil fuels. I consume a lot of everything in order to make glass, but there are ideas that I'm trying to put out in the world that will maybe change people’s experience, or perhaps shape it.'

I try to see the value in the ideas I'm putting out. Putting things that are positive into the world or that are changing and perhaps even influencing perspectives is important, I think, so that we are all not just manufactured to be the same. It’s hard to explain but I've been able to try to take the long view when I get bogged down, or feel burnt out. I just try to think about what it is that I'm doing and try to solve that.

“You cannot always expect someone to be able to teach you how to do things, you just have to do it and probably fail a bunch of times. You're going to learn how to fix it and do it better if you just do it yourself.”

What is some of the best career advice you've been given that made a difference in how you moved forward?

There is a lot. Glassblowing is a very social activity, so I have a lot of mentors and I have a lot of close friends that I know through work. One of my mentors, his name is Blaze, taught me to blow glass by just saying, 'Fuck, Sally. You've just got to do it.' Because I would always go to him and say, 'How do I do this? How am I going to figure this out?' He would just always say, 'You just have to do it.'

I apply this advice all the time. I say that to my students, too, because you cannot always expect someone to be able to teach you how to do things, you just have to do it and probably fail a bunch of times. You're going to learn how to fix it and do it better if you just do it yourself. Some people, I think, can take that advice better than others. I do see people who just need to do it, and need to stop asking how?

How do you mentally recover from situations where things don't go as planned, or things that don't go as expected?

You just have to develop such a thick skin for being able to bounce back. I would say I have gotten better at it because at the beginning of my career I would plan these huge projects that would involve travel, or something that I needed funding for. I would put everything into it because I don't do anything half-assed. I would go into it thinking the project was going to happen because the plan was perfect. I convinced myself it was happening. Unfortunately, countless times, what I expected to happen doesn't happen. I would say at the beginning of my career it lead to little ruts of depression. I would feel bad about it. Now I have learned that it should take me a day, or a day and a half, and I can get over it. I have just learned that I have got to get over it and there are more opportunities. I've got more ideas. It’s not like I'm running out of them.

Why do you do what you do? Why do you keep plowing through the ups and downs of it all?

Community is a big part of it. I feel really lucky to have worked with the people that I have worked with, and to be able to collaborate, or bounce ideas off the people that I know in my network. The community, I think, is big part of it. I know that there is great people everywhere and I would find new interesting, and awesome, people in other lines of work, but I do know there is something special, about the community I am in.

Additionally, sometimes I try to switch career paths or switch disciplines and the switch is hard because I'm kind of good at glassblowing. It’s hard to deny yourself the thing you are actually good at. I'm sure there is other things in the world that I am good at but I just keep coming back to this. I think it’s because when a new opportunity comes up, or a new project comes up, I realize it’s happened because of what I’ve done already. I just slide back into it because I know I'm good at it and people want it. There has got to be value in that.

If there is a sixteen year old kid right now, who had that epiphany about what kind of work they wanted to do, like you had when you were sixteen, what would you say to them?

That's a really tough question. My husband Clayton and I always talk about how we are going to try to work on our daughter Alice to not be interested in the arts [laughs]. If someone told me that they really wanted to be a glassblower I would encourage them to do it because everybody needs to pursue the things that they are excited about. I would tell them to learn how to do it by whatever means makes sense for them. I would also say that it's so important to remember what you're making, and why. Understanding "why" you want to make stuff is something that really important for craft people, and makers, to think about. The act of making is attractive to everyone, its part of our nature. If you want to do it professionally, you really should consider why. As far as learning to do it, good glassblowers are a dime a dozen. They are everywhere. It's the ones that make really important things that are the special ones.

Cristina Cordova, Sculptor and Artist 2016-07-27T00:00:00-04:00 2016-07-27T00:00:00-04:00 Ways We Work Team creatorsfreelancers creatorsfreelancers Cristina Cordova is a sculptor based in North Carolina. Originally from Puerto Rico, Cordova studied engineering but after finding little room for creativity in the cold numbers and rigorous courses, she decided to pursue a career in fine arts. She shares how she ended up landing on sculpture as her medium, the early challenges of being a growing artist and the challenges she faces in her work now. Talking with Cristina was incredibly inspiring and her wisdom on continuing creative work when you've fallen out of love is something I feel almost anyone can relate to.

Tell me what your role looks like right now, what’s your main focus at the moment?

My focus right now is trying to get to the bone of what I’ve surveyed through the past fourteen years. I’ve tried a little bit of everything. I’ve tried to make different things, teach in different capacities and essentially experience the medium through different tangents.

I’m now at the point where I’m trying to simplify all of that and get to the core work that I feel is important, and a specific teaching strategy so that I can share some of the knowledge I’ve accumulated.

In a sense, I think I'm trying to distill and concentrate my efforts so that I feel that they're a little more focused.

You started in engineering, so I’d love to hear more about what your path from that to art was like?

My parents were kind of your standard professionals, they were physicians, so in my mind, the notion of entering into a career was kind of in alignment with that. I didn’t know a lot of artists that were making a living in art. My parents and I surveyed different things, and they had a friend who was an engineer and had their own company. I spent some time there and got the sense that I could maybe do that. There’s a pretty great engineering school on the West Coast in Puerto Rico, so I entered that program and began taking courses. I very quickly realized that wasn’t my disposition. The space for creativity was minuscule.

After all these cold numbers and really rigorous courses I was growing a little bit crazy, so I went back to the drawing board and decided to switch to the fine arts department. I started to look around Puerto Rico for artists who were actually committed to a life of art, I found this couple and they were hugely influential for me. It was the first time I had a strong example that making a living in art was really possible. I needed to have that model in my mind. When you just don’t know anyone who has done it, it’s hard to take a leap.

“Of course, I didn’t know anything about sculpting the body, but I knew I loved the material and that I loved the figure and I had to find a way to bridge the two.”

What kind of engineering were you studying?

It was structural engineering, so mostly having to do with buildings and structures. It certainly plays somewhat of a role in what I do now, either throughout the composition of my work or even several times in dealing with museums. There’s been a few times where I’ve had to actually call in an engineer to help me figure out the logistics of the wall as it related to the sheer weight of a piece.

How did you end up landing specifically on sculpture? What was that process like?

The fine arts program I entered into was a very general program, but at one point, in my third year, this artist Jaime Suarez came to my school, and he was trained as an architect. He had a double major when he went to school in the US and studied architecture and ceramics. The way that he taught clay just blew my mind. He was so open and cathartic in his treatment. He was doing these big monuments, but was also doing just very intimate parts, and I think that was my first connection with the material.

Once I knew that was the material I wanted to focus on, the figurative part of my work was an extension of me being a dancer for many years. It came from feeling really comfortable with that code of communicating using body gesture. Of course, I didn’t know anything about sculpting the body, but I knew I loved the material and that I loved the figure and I had to find a way to bridge the two.

“At some point, I had to stop everything and take a good look at the ins and outs of the business. Understanding that it was essentially what allowed me to be an artist.”

What were some of the biggest challenges, or maybe some of the most notable failures that you faced in the process of becoming a full-time artist?

I think it’s that you’re trying to tackle all of these specialties at once. The ceramics part of it, the figurative part of it, and then the logistics of running a studio like inventory, taxes and all of that. I feel like the juice for me was the creative part, and I was really reluctant to engage fully in the business structure of it. It started kicking my butt because eventually all of that got so rambly that I would lose valuable studio time trying to figure it out. I never started with a clear sense of what my business model was.

At some point, I had to stop everything and take a good look at the ins and outs of the business. Understanding that it was essentially what allowed me to be an artist. I backtracked a little and spent time consulting with a few people that had been doing this for awhile, just to bring the business side of things into focus more.

When you’re young, it’s easy to get carried away by what you’re passionate about without really auditing yourself. You just go with the flow and at some point I realized that this was much more multi-layered and if all these things weren’t moving forward at the same time, it just wasn’t going to work.

What do you find to be the most challenging part about the work you do right now?

The challenge for me is getting perspective on what the most important things are. I feel that I have all these ways to express my creativity, but it’s hard to discern what should really hold most of my energy. It’s easy for me to get excited and swayed by all these little things, and if I don’t catch myself I can get carried away and unfocused. So, it’s about understanding what that big thing is, not exclusively in relation to me, but the community at large. Where can I share the most, in the strongest way about what I do and what I care about?

That can sometimes be hard to grasp. I’m trying to stop more and take a survey and recalibrate as opposed to diving in and going too deep into something, and then looking back and saying, “Oh, maybe I missed the mark a little bit there.”

“If you’re going to make it, it’s all about the people around you and minimizing that ego to the service of the connections you make with the people that support you.”

What is a major aspect of your work that you think people might be surprised at, or that people outside of the industry might not understand?

That's a good question. I think when you see my work, or any figurative work, it's really easy to get caught up in the fact that it's figurative. There's an involuntary thing that kicks in where you assume things, and you are eager to impart some sort of narrative on it. A lot of my work uses the figure, but I think that the treatment of the material is just as important. The content is less in the imagery of the figure, and maybe more in the treatment of the material, or at least equally considered in my mind. So, as I'm making it, the markings on the surface which have nothing to do with the figure are saying something just as strongly as how an eye is rendered, as an example. The awareness that it doesn’t all start and end with the representational part is something that I don’t think people always understand.

Being a practicing artist, what do you think would come as a surprise to people in terms of what the actual work includes?

There’s this myth that’s a little reinforced in grad school that you are your own artist and your own person and you’re trying to establish your own identity and style. It’s very much about you as a separate creator. I think that it’s actually the opposite. If you’re going to make it, it’s all about the people around you and minimizing that ego to the service of the connections you make with the people that support you.

That became very clear to me, but it took me awhile to figure out. It’s really not about me. It’s about how I take this skill and put it into the surface of something bigger than me, and mediate that through all these relationships. The relationships that keep enriching me are like partnerships, where it’s not about the individual agendas, it’s about the shared mission and collaboration.

“I treat this, for the most part, as a 9 to 5. There are things that break the studio time, in terms of business related work, like emailing, but as much as I can, I try to be here, ready to go at 9am.”

What are the main tools that make up your current workflow?

I have a couple of mechanical tools that have to do with turning big sculptures around, so I have a large turntable and then my modeling tools.

In the past couple years, the computer and that whole digital realm has started to grow in my practice, and so most of my rendering starts with a set of photographs that takes views of the model in the round, and then I will pick from that. I will print out the front and the sides of the model in sections and then tape them together at scale. So if I’m working on something that’s six feet tall, I’ll have the six-foot print outs on the wall next to me, and then the rest of the views I just survey on my computer. So I keep turning them and turning the sculpture as I work.

Then, there’s video. I’ve been exploring video a little bit lately. I have a little camcorder that’s always around. It’s been really interesting to have these videos to share, and to get insights into how I work, how much I repeat or don’t repeat, or where I nurture the sculpture. It’s been a nice addition to my practice.

Have you developed routines or a structure for yourself that's helped you be the most efficient, or is it more of going with the flow?

It’s definitely not "go with the flow" [laughs]. I have children, so that adds a predetermined structure. But, it’s good. It helps me get going faster, and it helps build continuity. We wake up, I have my coffee and supplements, and if I can get a little workout in there, I will. I like to do short 20-30 minute workouts, like yoga or a quick jog-those are part of my everyday. I feel like they help my stamina and my mood.

I treat this, for the most part, as a 9 to 5. There are things that break the studio time, in terms of business related work, like emailing, but as much as I can, I try to be here, ready to go at 9am. Then the day starts to unwind around 4. I might have to leave earlier to pick up my kids, but I trade with my husband. On the weekends, if I have time, I’ll come in here for a couple of hours too.

“When you start working as an artist, you're so taken with the material, it's like being in love. You can't stop thinking about it, and every little thing about it excites you, and year after year, all those things start to become water under the bridge. The excitement becomes more elusive, and it takes you twice as long to get to that moment of impressing yourself.”

Do you have phases where you become disconnected from your work, or burnt out on what you’re doing? How do you deal with that and continue to create during those times?

That's another really good question, because that's another unexpected thing. When you start working as an artist, you're so taken with the material, it's like being in love. You can't stop thinking about it, and every little thing about it excites you, and year after year, all those things start to become water under the bridge. The excitement becomes more elusive, and it takes you twice as long to get to that moment of impressing yourself.

So, that’s when the real work starts. There has to be this broader perspective that allows you to access some of that thrill again, maybe not in terms of this little thing you’re doing, but in a larger sense. It becomes important to look at what you’ve done, try and understand it at a deeper, more conceptual level and what it’s allowing you to relay. Also, teaching has been wonderful for this, because you feel empowered and excited through the eyes of those you’re teaching. They see it from those fresh perspectives that you no longer have access to.

Understanding how I can refresh myself, especially when I get stuck and I can’t do it for myself has been important. It’s about looking at the community at large, and then at students. I also look back at what I’ve done, and try to remember what that connection was and how I can restructure that in my current situation.

When that first happened it was super disconcerting. I remember thinking, “Oh god, I’m going to have to go back to school…” It flowed so easily when I started, then all of the sudden it doesn’t and you freak out because your life has been based on this ability to have this flow on cue. When it doesn’t happen you think, “I’m broken.”

But, then you work through it, and it flows again. Once you go through it a couple of times, you realize that it’s just a part of the game that nobody told you about. It’s just something you have to live with, and know it’s not permanent, and it does require this big moment of reckoning where you look around and try to find your wind again, but it’s not the end.

“It’s not the thrill in sharing this awesome thing, it’s more like, “I’ve emptied myself through a certain amount of time into this, and I’ve made these collective sets of cumulative judgements, and they have drawn something out of me that has enough power that I’m compelled to share this.””

Why do you do what you do? What do you love most about it and find so meaningful about the work?

These are all theories in hindsight, of course, but I think I fell into this very intuitively. I grew up in a place where figurative representations were a place where you emptied yourself. It was part of a spiritual practice in the context of catholicism. My mom and my grandparents, we lived with these objects that were often really primitive wood renderings, but you would draw certain ideals or even power from them.

So, this notion of using sculpture in that way was always a part of my view of spirituality. As I grew older and travelled and I could go and see the residue of the figurative elements from different cultures, it still carried over. That sense of imagining somebody emptying themselves into this rendering. Some may be more stylish than others, but the imprint of that person’s psyche was relayed through that distortion.

All of those things started to build up, and then, as a dancer, my concentration was in classical ballet and the way the body is used there. You have this overarching theme that anchors this story, but the story is very open and it’s really more about these subtle things that the body is relaying. That whole excitement of using the body and all of its nuances to relay something combined with this whole other practice of imbuing something with presence is what locked me into the figure.

Once I was locked into that, it was a matter of how I could have these things perform. As I started to put them out there, I would see what they brought up in people. That started to feed my aesthetic, or my angles on a figure. When I put things out there, I’m not thinking, “this is the most awesome.” The thrill doesn’t come from thinking that. It’s not the thrill in sharing this awesome thing, it’s more like, “I’ve emptied myself through a certain amount of time into this, and I’ve made these collective sets of cumulative judgements, and they have drawn something out of me that has enough power that I’m compelled to share this.”

Then, you put it out there, and you have this moment of curiosity to see if it does carry over, beyond you. I think that, for me, is a thrill. It's not like, "Okay, this is a perfectly packaged thing that I’m excited about." It’s more of a performance. I’m eager to see if it can relay that set of qualities that moved me.

“It’s an exercise of every time you hear feedback, to take it, but keep your distance from it. If you’re open to all of it, it can really muddle your vision.”

It must surprise you when someone feels or has a reaction that’s entirely different than what you expected.

Oh, my gosh, I have so many funny anecdotes about that, because you put it out there, and sometimes it's not what you expect, and sometimes it's so much more. People see so much more, and you're like, "Oh, crap, I didn't even account for that." You feel you should've. For a while there, I thought my work had gotten very heavy and almost borderline scary, and I was finding a lot of thrill in that. There is this delicate balance between something being scary and something being beautiful. But, some people couldn't really deal with it, it was totally off-putting, so it was really interesting to see some of those comments, and realize, "Oh, yeah, it's so interesting that my meters are so different from this whole other side of viewers."

It’s an exercise of every time you hear feedback, to take it, but keep your distance from it. If you’re open to all of it, it can really muddle your vision. Sometimes, that’s hard. Especially if it’s a negative comment. You always want to feel appreciated, not yourself, but what you’re doing. But, I think it’s important to take it all in stride.

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

There’s a Puerto Rican artist, Angel Otero, whose work I've been really enjoying. I'd also love to see Norwood Viviano, Ollanski, Annie Lemanski and Jesus Gómez.

Emma Gannon, Author, Blogger and Podcaster 2016-07-20T00:00:00-04:00 2016-07-20T00:00:00-04:00 Ways We Work Team creatorscommunicatorsfreelancersfeature_4 creatorscommunicatorsfreelancersfeature_4 Emma Gannon is a freelance writer, a social media consultant, a blogger, a podcast producer and now an author. She defines this new generation of young professionals who are carving and customizing a career path for themselves. Having followed her on Twitter for some time I loved the positive and upbeat tone of her tweets, Emma is someone who really has a handle on personal branding. When I saw she was about to launch her first book I reached out to do an interview and had the pleasure of catching up with her a week ago. She shares what the past six months have been like being newly self-employed, great insight into the book publishing process and candid thoughts on what the work of content creators really looks like.

You’re a blogger, you produce a podcast and just launched your first book. I’d love to know what’s taking up the majority of your focus at the moment?

Right now, as we talk today, it’s definitely the book promotion and everything that goes around marketing a book. That’s taking up a lot of my focus in terms of the time I need to dedicate to it. The podcast I launched two months ago has also blown up into something bigger than I thought it would ever be. It’s a separate thing but ties in with the book at the same time. At the moment I’m working on monetizing my podcast, I’ve just got a sponsor, a large European coffee brand who will be sponsoring it. I didn’t really intend to monetize it, especially whilst promoting my book and doing panels, talks, events and workshops, but it’s great that I’m able to. I’m a curator at a big book festival coming up, which means I’ve had to do about five different panels and workshops. So it’s all different kinds of work but very much focused on the book.

I’d love to know a little more about what your role looks like in this career you’ve built for yourself. What does that look like on a weekly or daily basis?

I’ve only been self-employed entirely for six months, so I’m still figuring it out and don’t have a set routine. I don’t schedule my days very rigidly. I do the most urgent work first, stuff that can’t wait and needs to be done. I don’t check my emails throughout the day, I just check them in the mornings and evenings - unless I’ve got something scheduled.

The middle part of the day is very much about creating content because that’s what I do. I’m writing a second book and working on a project with a TV production company currently, so it’s either bulk writing, writing a proposal or doing some copywriting for brands. Then the beginning and end of my days are general life admin. I also try to schedule an actual meeting or event every day so that I actually leave the house. [laughs]

Working from home is amazing for me because I always felt very distracted working in an office. I am a very sociable person though and I love meeting new people. The podcast has been great for that because it’s given me the opportunity to meet so many incredible people.

“There’s a balance of how much you want to share. So sometimes there’s a misconception between what you see someone doing publicly and everything else that’s going on behind the scenes.”

What’s a major aspect of the work you do that you don’t think most people realize is part of the job?

I think you have to have so much on the go at once because only a handful of things happen, so for me, I have so much more that I’m doing that I can tell you about now because they haven’t happened yet or might not happen. No one else sees that stuff. As a creative self-employed person you have to have so many balls in the air, and juggle so many things at once.

For example, I got an email this morning about a piece of work that might or might not happen, but it’s important to manage your workload between actual work, and new, potential pieces of business. You might not get them, but it’s still important to spend time working towards them.

I know some of my YouTuber friends, for example, get frustrated when people say, “well you just put up a YouTube video every week, that must take you like half a day, what do you do with the rest of your time?” They are doing so much! This particular friend, she has her own beauty range and a million other things going on, like massive projects that are in the works. There’s a balance of how much you want to share. So sometimes there’s a misconception between what you see someone doing publicly and everything else that’s going on behind the scenes.

Let’s talk about your book. What was the process of creating that like, and what were some of the biggest surprises or lessons you took from it?

The biggest surprise was both how quickly it happened and how long it takes to come out. I’ve had loads of ideas for books, this is the only one that has happened. Loads of proposals have been rejected before, and this one just happened. I sent my idea to an agent who follows me on Twitter, we became pals over Twitter. I had met with some other literary agents and realized I liked her the best. She pitched the idea, and then about a month later I got a book deal. It happened within a few months which is really quick. So that surprised me. If someone likes your idea, it happens.

The other surprise was how much of a collaboration it was. I thought that you’d write a book and the publisher says, “yeah, thanks, that’s what we wanted.” Then they publish it. It was very much a collaboration though. I thought I would have total say on what the cover would look like for example, and I didn’t. They didn’t at all make me feel like it wasn’t my book it was just a collaborative effort. I needed to be happy and Penguin needed to be happy. They’re the ones that are going to promote it, put it on their roster and hopefully be proud of it too. That was a lesson, but my editor helped make it the best book it could be, so as much as it’s my book, it was a team effort.

“I think it’s important to focus on a few key things, I would go nuts if I was just doing loads of tiny little things every day. It’s good to categorize and compartmentalize the different tasks you’re doing daily into your larger goals and projects.”

Overall what would you say is the most challenging part of the work that you do now?

I think the misconceptions around paying bloggers, and online content creators good money is a challenge. The education process just isn’t quite there yet. It’s content, and people are listening to it, and often getting more eyeballs than more traditional outlets. I think we’re moving towards a better kind of understanding of what content creators do and the benchmarks but it’s not quite there. People ask why they’d pay a YouTuber to review their product, it’s only when you make them aware that, that YouTube video would get the same amount of views, if not more than an ad on TV, that they finally get it.

It’s a shame that we have to cross reference other mediums for them to understand. So the hardest part is that in addition to doing the work, I have to explain the work - that’s kind of exhausting. We’re just not there yet, I think a lot of brands are still scared and they just want to put their money where they feel it’s safe. The irony is that it’s not really safe anymore because there are quite a few brands that are ahead of the curve already.

When you’re already working on so many different things, how do you know when it’s the right time to start something new? How do you keep the balance?

I think we all know what our limits are, it took me some time to understand what mine were, but now I just know when I’m full. I know when I’ve reached capacity and I couldn’t possibly take on anything else - even if I wanted to. If tomorrow someone asked me to go interview Obama - okay that’s a bad example, I would definitely do that - but the point is I just know when I have to start turning stuff down. If it’s upsetting me that I can do all these shiny new things, then I know I need to re-jiggle my priorities and let something else go.

It’s a personal decision of what you think is enough or what your barrier is. Right now, I feel busy, but I’m also happy because I’m still remembering my family’s birthdays and I have time to water my plants - oh god, I sound so sad [laughs]. I have time for myself. I think if you’re so maxed out that you don’t have time to have dinner with your partner, or friends, then there’s an issue somewhere. That’s only something I’ve learned recently, previously I would spend any spare minute on work. I loved it but I was obsessed, I wouldn’t go out to events or do anything that wasn’t work-related. It’s dangerous.

The other thing is when I tell people what I do they say, “oh so you’re like a jack of all trades, you must be spreading yourself quite thin.” It’s not quite true because it’s not like it’s a million little projects, they’re all quite substantial. There’s the blog, the book, the podcast and the events. Most of what I do falls under those umbrellas. I think it’s important to focus on a few key things, I would go nuts if I was just doing loads of tiny little things every day. It’s good to categorize and compartmentalize the different tasks you’re doing daily into your larger goals and projects.

“So overall I think it’s good to embrace the busyness, roll with it, get up early and smash it, and know that you will have a quiet spell, and don’t beat yourself up about a quiet spell because you need it. ”

What are the main tools that make up your workflow at the moment?

Google Docs - I have a one pager that is my to-do list. When I do something I just delete it off there. I also keep a list of the podcast guests, quotes they’ve said so I can make little quote cards.

Paper Diary - I keep track of everything I’ve done in this.

Evernote - I use this for ideas, and writing things down whenever I get a wave of inspiration.

Are there certain tasks that make you feel more productive than others?

There’s two things that spring to mind. The first is reading other people’s work, and catching up on the news. I have a Twitter list of cool media people who I think are innovative, and doing amazing stuff. I like to stay aware of what they’re up to because whatever they’re doing is likely part of the next big thing. I just like to keep my finger on pulse. That doesn’t feel like work but it’s a nice way of feeling like I’m on the same page. It is work in a way, anyone who has a job needs to read up on the industry.

The other thing is email. I can email someone in bed from my phone, it’s so quick and easy that I almost don’t want to treat it as work. Some jobs I’m sure are just email, but I don’t like wasting too much time on my emails. It’s something I like to do quickly in the morning and in the evening, the rest of the day is spent actually creating things, reading things, and writing.

“I get to experiment with things, and connect with people - that’s at the heart of everything I do. There’s an audience, there’s people listening, or watching, or reading, and it’s that I crave as well. It’s not just the creative aspect, it’s the fact that it connects with people.”

Do you ever find yourself disconnected from your work, or burnt out? Have you experienced that since being self-employed and how to do you deal with it?

Yes, definitely. The way I combat that at the moment is I treat my work in waves, or highs and lows. At the moment, I’m on a massive book-book-book wave, and insanely busy, but I know at some point soon I’m going to have a dip. You have to understand that’s the way things go, so when things go quiet in a few months, that’s okay, it’s a good thing, it’s time to refresh and relax. It’s a time to do bare minimum work, rejuvenate and come up with some new ideas. I get my best ideas when I’m just not thinking about work.

I got the idea for my book on an airplane when I was going on holidays with my family. I was just so relaxed and that’s when it came to me. So I think holidays and breaks are so important. I used the Headspace app on holiday recently, I was skeptical about it at first, but it did work really well.

So overall I think it’s good to embrace the busyness, roll with it, get up early and smash it, and know that you will have a quiet spell, and don’t beat yourself up about a quiet spell because you need it.

Why do you do what you do? What do you love about it and find meaningful about it?

I think, to be honest, I just love learning. I never stop learning with what I do, and I never have the same day twice. The industry is changing so much, and I get to be a part of the change which is really exciting. I get to experiment with things, and connect with people - that’s at the heart of everything I do. There’s an audience, there’s people listening, or watching, or reading, and it’s that I crave as well. It’s not just the creative aspect, it’s the fact that it connects with people. I love doing events for example because I’ll come away having met 13 new people and that’s just amazing.

On top of that, it’s that I’m maybe even making a difference in some small way. The book is for teenagers, and I hope some teenage girls read it and feel better about themselves. There’s something about this generation, so many people are activists and campaigners, they just want a little more control in what they’re doing in their jobs, they want it to fit into their personal lives more and they want their identity to come out through their work. I think historically your work and your job was not you. You went to work in your uniform, and then you’d come home and take it off and you’d be you again. Now we make money by being ourselves, which is crazy, and it’s very cool to be a part of that.

Who would you want to see us interview on Ways We Work?

Ashley C. Ford - She is really cool. She's done a lot of amazing Tweets recently about work and identity, and not investing too much in a company, and investing a lot in yourself, so she's really cool. I really like what she says.

Lena Dunham - I don't know she hasn't given much away, really, about how she manages her life. I'm just nosy, but she's so impressive, I love her so much. I just want to be like please give us advice.

Also Ryan Holiday or Seth Godin.

Millie Tran, Director of Global Adaptation at BuzzFeed 2016-07-13T00:00:00-04:00 2016-07-13T00:00:00-04:00 Ways We Work Team communicators communicators A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of talking to Millie Tran on her role as Director of Global Adaptation at BuzzFeed. She first caught my attention when she joined the Ways We Work Slack group and introduced herself - I immediately wanted to know more about the role of global adaptation at BuzzFeed and what that involved. In the interview, Millie shares what the role is, what her and her team work on and how she ended up in such a role after a long career in various editorial positions. She gives a lot of good insight into being successful in operational roles and leveraging your skills to move up and sometimes over within an organization. 

Tell me a little about your role and what that involves on a day to day.

My title is Director of Global Adaptation at BuzzFeed. What that actually means is that my job is to make the best of BuzzFeed available to anyone, anywhere, in whatever language, platform or format. What that means in practice is that if a story is doing well in the U.S. in English, exploring if we should translate that into French or into German, and vice versa. Or, say if a video or comic is doing well in France, should it be a post in the U.S?

It’s more strategic than just translating though. The idea behind my role and the team I’m building is to build out an “adaptation layer” on top of BuzzFeed. If we have one layer where all of our content lives, and another where we’re distributing that content, I think of the adaptation layer as above both of those — where we’re looking at what’s being published, where it’s being published, how well it’s doing and how we can maximize what we’re doing with different audiences.

How big is that team?

I’ve been at BuzzFeed for a while but I started in this adaptation role in November. Since then, the team has grown to 8 people. There are four of us based in New York, two people in LA, one person in Tokyo and another person in Paris. We’re also hiring two more people in Brazil and Germany.

We mostly run out of headquarters in New York and our team in LA focuses on video translations and adapts the best of our video content. Mamiko and Adélie, who are on my team in Tokyo and Paris, respectively, are working with our BuzzFeed Japan and BuzzFeed France teams and focusing on bringing the best of BuzzFeed’s content from around the world to our Japanese and French audience. That will be the same across all our other markets. What’s fun is that we haven’t totally cracked the code on all of these yet, so we’re going through this really fun period of experimentation, building off lessons from our strong local editors and learning more deeply about who our audiences are and what resonates with them.

“The BuzzFeed News app gave me the opportunity to answer those questions, not by doing research or surveys but by making a product and working with actual readers and a real audience. It was a no-brainer.”

How did you end up at Buzzfeed? I saw you started in another role there first, so what was your path to your current role?

I’ve always been in media, and have always loved media, so my past roles have been mostly in journalism and editorial. In undergrad, I worked on my school paper as a tech columnist and opinion editor. Since I was so steeped in the editorial and news side, I did internships on the business side while I was still in school because I was so curious about media overall and didn’t know anything about it.

I worked at GOOD doing business partnerships, which led me to apply for this fellowship with Atlantic Media Company right after college. I got the fellowship, moved to D.C. from Los Angeles and worked on their political magazine National Journal where I was doing marketing and design. The fellowship was supposed to be a year long until I saw an internal job listing for a marketing associate. Because I was 21-years-old and had huge balls — for lack of a better word — I walked into my boss’ office and said, “I can do this job, you should hire me.” I ended up getting hired and was able to use my design background and to help launch the National Journal membership program. After working on the marketing and sales side for a while, I wanted to get back to the editorial side. I’d always had an interest in international affairs and foreign policy so I joined the multimedia team at the Council on Foreign Relations. They had won several Emmys for their multimedia projects, so I was eager to work with them. I was working with really talented video and multimedia producers and I helped produce a podcast called The World Next Week. I'm kind of upset that I missed the second ~cool~ wave of podcasts. [laughs]

After that, I moved to the American Press Institute because a friend who was in the same media circles in D.C. told me that a friend of his was relaunching this journalism think tank. I had this weird mix of media experience and was already working at a think tank so it kind of fit. There were four of us for the first six months or so and we were able to relaunch this old journalism institute as a think tank that was innovative and a leader in figuring out how the world of media and journalism was changing. While there, I was able to work on so many things like the design and branding because we were just launching this thing and we had to develop an identity; and the editorial strategy because I had an editorial background; as well as the marketing aspect and how we would position ourselves. It was just a really cool way to flex all those muscles that I’d developed in a really holistic way. There I helped launched this product called Need to Know, which is a newsletter for people in media who don’t have time to keep up with all the changes in media.

Through that, Stacy-Marie Ishmael, who was a subscriber and at the Financial Times at the time, sent me an email saying, “Hey, I’m starting this new team at BuzzFeed with a big email component, join me.” I was still at API at this point and thought I was going to grad school to study the internet and media, get an MBA and save the journalism industry. [laughs] BuzzFeed and Stacy offered me this chance to answer a lot of the questions I was interested in and already studying at API. Questions like, how do people get their news? What are they reading? When and how often? More importantly, joining the BuzzFeed News app team gave me the opportunity to answer those questions, not just by doing research or surveys but by making a product and working with actual readers and a real audience. It was a no-brainer.

From there, Stacy has been such a big advocate and supporter of mine that when there was an internal opening for this role, she had suggested I do it. It was one of those things where you realize why it's critical to have mentors and advocates who know your work (perhaps better than you do) and know you, because she had to sell me on this before I even thought this was a good fit for myself.

It was this really great marriage of all my interests: building something from scratch (or, in other words, turning a nebulous vision thing into an actual thing), the obsessive focus on audiences and editorial products, and of course, the international element.. At it’s core, the adaptation job is all about how information moves and I understood that from working on the app and the email newsletter; the ability to translate ideas, not just words — and being an immigrant helped too (I was born in Vietnam). So it was just all of these things that you don't put together and it doesn't make sense until someone else connects those dots for you. And that's how I'm here.

“For me, it’s always been about asking myself what I set out to learn. Have I learned that, what else can I learn and how much impact can I make? I think sometimes people think they’re just stuck in one place at a company, but it’s important to look at how you can leverage your skills to maximize where you’re at.”

You've been in media and editorial for most of your career and had many different roles. How do you know when it's time for you to make a personal change?

For me, it’s always been about asking myself what I set out to learn. Have I learned that and what other experiences or skills can I add? I think sometimes people think they’re just stuck in one place at a company, but it’s important to look at how you can leverage your skills to maximize where you’re at. I learned so much launching the news app and the newsletter — but I wasn’t done learning. It was about figuring out how I could apply what I’ve learned, my experience and my skills in a new way.

On a personal level, it's always been about where I can make the most impact, and where I can learn the most, and grow the most. I actually get very uncomfortable when things are too easy. It's really about exploring all the avenues to make sure that you’re actually maxed out. I feel like if you're good, and your company is good, and there are other problems to be solved, they'll make it work for you.

What are some of the main parts of your role that you think people would be surprised at?

I think the part that's most surprising is that I genuinely work across multiple parts of the company. I think this job would be so hard if I tried to operate as an island. I've been in jobs, and I've enjoyed jobs where I can just hunker down and focus on one thing, but what we are trying to do involves so many different people at the company. It involves working with our international editors, understanding their audiences, and what content works. It's working with our data science team to identify that on a more quantitative level. It's working with our product and dev teams to build products and tools to help us in this process. Sometimes you want to translate a video, so you're working with producers and our post production team. It's truly an “it takes a village” job.

What do you find the most challenging about what you do?

One thing is getting people who don't report to you to do things for you. It's fun in a way because any time you start a new thing, especially internally, it's a lot of selling your ideas to your peers about why this is beneficial for them, why they should help you, and what they’ll get out of it — and the art of persuasion is not easy to master. I think that's just a really good lesson to learn because you can take that anywhere with you. It's not just having the skill set to get shit done yourself — which we are all highly competent and can do — but it's really about leveraging everyone else's experience, and time, and skills to help you do your job and convincing them it's also good for them.

“It’s about making what I do more visible because I feel like any role that is operational can seem invisible. Which makes it hard for people to help you because they don't know how to help you or what your goals are.”

Are there any particular routines or processes that you've developed that help you be the most productive throughout the week?

A lot of my job is making sure everyone knows what our team is doing and what we’re up to. I'm naturally a very collaborative person so that makes all of this a lot easier. But it's making sure I am keeping the right people in the loop, sharing information with the right people, and even sharing information with maybe not the right people but passively in a way that’s you don't have to read this but if you're interested here it is.

It’s about making what I do more visible because I feel like any role that is operational can seem invisible. Which makes it hard for people to help you because they don't know how to help you or know what your goals are. It's constantly thinking about how I can continually share knowledge across so many different teams and languages effectively. It’s also about thinking how what I'm saying is most useful for our PR team versus our engineering team, our data team, or our news team or editorial team.

What are the main tools that you use in your current workflow?

Gmail & Google Calendar - C’mon, are you surprised? I can't live without these two. My calendar rules me.

Outlook on iOS - The Outlook iOS app is so good. After they bought the Acompli app, and then Sunrise. It's just the best email app, and everyone thinks you’re crazy, but once you use it, it's just a superior experience. It also combines your calendar, which feels intuitive (even if I still use Google Calendar on iOS).

Slack - Obviously. Slack has been a great way to do what I said earlier, which is to keep people passively in the loop. For example, when I don’t want to burden someone with an email (and create an unintentional habit of ignoring emails from me because they’re irrelevant!), I’ll forward it to Slack to make the information available if they’re even just a little bit interested. I’m all about the cross pollination of ideas and creating more opportunities for that to happen.

Twitter & Nuzzel - I still have to know what's going on in the world (which isn’t officially part of my job anymore) while doing my actual job. I have to know what my colleagues are talking about, what they're sharing. Nuzzel helps me with a snapshot of what’s being shared on Twitter without actually having to be on Twitter all day.

Evernote & Google Drive - I am such a big proponent of narrowing your collection point. I write everything in Evernote because it's so much easier to find something in one place. Google Drive is the static, reference library of Slack and email. I’m obsessed with excellent documentation. Google Docs and Sheets are especially important for me I'm so curious to know how many newsrooms are being powered by Google Docs.

Headspace & Spotify - Two things that are meditative for me. Just to calm my mind and just listen to some good jams.

Do you ever have times where you feel disconnected from your work, and how do you bring yourself back to that head space?

When I was working in news I was constantly worried that I was burning out — which is almost worse than actually burning out! You just live in this constant state of anxiety. I used to wake up around 4 a.m. to do the newsletter and everyday I'd wake up startled and think what happened in the world? and hoped that nothing bad happened while I was asleep. I think that anyone in news will tell you that burnout is a real fear, especially if you're doing digital news. The pace at which news moves now, it's insane. It's hard to keep up. It's a slippery slope to burnout.

Something else that's been hard — because I love news and being on the editorial side so much and creating things — and that is less of my job now, is having to continually remind yourself of how what you're doing connects to a bigger picture. I would say the bulk of my job is operations and management, even if it’s built on an editorial foundation. So, it's constantly reminding yourself how what you’re doing feeds into that larger goal of what you truly are passionate about. At the end of the day, it's about reminding yourself of the larger reason why you're doing this. That’s helped me a lot with both burnout and boredom.

“It's constantly reminding yourself how what you’re doing goes into that larger goal of what you truly are passionate about. I think at the end of the day it's about reminding yourself of the larger reason why you're doing this.”

What is it about working in editorial, and media in general that you find so meaningful, and why do you love it?

I love knowing what's going on in the world, and our place in the world and how to be a citizen of the world and a person on this planet. I want to keep zooming out, but on a very personal level if that makes any sense. It's just that desire for knowledge — desire to know and understand the context of the world in which you live. The second half of that is being able to talk with people about all of those things, and make those connections.

At the end of the day, it's always about the people. I think the closer I am to helping someone understand something, or helping someone better understand all these things, better understand the world they live in, better understand how they can influence XYZ or change XYZ or make a difference. That's my small dent in the universe.

Who would you want to see on Ways We Work?

Stacy-Marie Ishmael - She's a JSK journalism fellow at Stanford for 2016-17 and she'll be studying what it means to have a minimum viable mobile news room. Oh, and she also built the BuzzFeed News app and totally changed the news app landscape. If you don't know her, she's one of those people who, every experience and every conversation with her is transformational — which sounds like an exaggeration, but I think anyone who has talked with her, met her, interacted with her would say the same.

Nicole Nguyen - She is our tech products reviewer at BuzzFeed and she is probably the best in her game because no one writes tech product reviews like her — she writes them for humans. She has a great sense of talking about specs of something in a way that no one would normally care, and writing about it in a way that makes you think about how that affects how you would actually use the product in your life.

Laura Davis - We launched the BuzzFeed News app together, and she is now the digital news director at the Annenberg Media Center at the University of Southern California, as well as a full-time assistant professor of journalism. If you want to talk to a journalist who really understands the media landscape, talk to Laura. She's obsessed with media and how the media industry is changing. She has such an astute sense of audience and editorial products and how we can make great editorial products for our audiences.

Sean Bagshaw, Landscape Photographer and Educator 2016-07-06T00:00:00-04:00 2016-07-06T00:00:00-04:00 Ways We Work Team photographers photographers I was introduced to Sean's work after doing some research on photography post processing techniques. His photographs had a depth and feeling to them that many other photographers just didn't have. I really connected with Sean's work after working through his video tutorials on image processing and got a better understanding of the mechanics of developing a photo. His instruction went beyond the technical and allowed you to think about your imagery as more of an art form rather than just a photo. Sean shares how he transitioned from teaching to full-time photography, how long that transition took and how he learned what type of work he cared about most along the way.

For those who might not know you, give us an idea of what you do.

I am a landscape, nature and travel photographer and a photography educator. When I started in photography everything I knew about the business said that you made your living from selling photographs, so that became my focus for a long time. Before I was a photographer, I was a middle school science and math teacher for about a decade. I had a teaching background, and when I stopped teaching and started my photography business a lot of people asked me if I would do workshops or photography education. At that time I thought, "no, I’ve done my teaching thing", and I didn’t necessarily feel qualified to teach photography. Like I said, I was a middle school science and math teacher. Eventually, I added teaching to my service offering, and now it’s become one of the bigger pieces of what I do.

Tell us a little about your path to becoming a photographer. You touched on it briefly saying you were a teacher. Give us a bit of the history on how and why you made that transition.

I enjoyed photography for quite a few years before I thought about doing it semi-seriously. My interest in photography started through doing a lot of outdoor activities like expeditions, rock climbing, mountaineering, and other various things like traveling. It started off as a want to document the trips for myself and family and close friends. As I got more and more involved in those adventures and grew a bit of an audience, I gained a few sponsors for some local events. I would give presentations, like public slideshows about the adventures that I was doing.

My interest in photography really started out purely as an amateur. The more I did it, the more I realized how enjoyable it was. I also began to notice that certain images resonated with me and I felt they had some other quality other than just being documentary. Out of a slideshow I would give–which might have 100 to 200 images–there would always be a couple images that seemed to resonate with the audience too. In these circumstances, I would wonder what it was that made a photo more impactful than others? That’s what really got me thinking about photography more as an art form or a form of expression. After this I looked into how to do that on a more consistent basis and how to create images that have more of a personal impact with people.

The transition from teaching into photography was somewhat accidental. I’d been teaching for a long time, and the push to take photos escalated when my children were born. I really loved teaching and I put a lot of time and effort into it but when I had my kids, I realized that I didn’t feel like I was doing a great job at being a teacher anymore. I also wasn't able to do as good of a job being a parent as I wanted to. It was a time management problem. That’s when I started looking for other things I could do for work that would free up my time a little bit, or at least be a bit more flexible with time. I had been enjoying doing photography semi-seriously at that point and I thought, naively, “Oh, I’ll start a photography business. I’ll just become a photographer.”

Did you balance the two at the same time?

I did for a while. As a teacher, I had summers off, so there were several years where I was doing a lot of photography on the side. This was back in the late 90s or early 2000s. I had a website, which was kind of a big deal back then. I started selling and licensing images, but purely on the side, and not seriously at all. For some reason, I don’t know why, I thought that I’d take the leap straight from teaching into being a full-time photographer. Most of it revolved around some life events that gave my wife and I some resources. We had a couple deaths in the family that we received a small inheritance from. It was one of those things where we had some money, and my wife was very gracious and supportive in saying, “All right, if this is something that you think you want to do, we can cover it for a couple years here. If you’re not making back your teacher’s salary within X years, then you’ve got to go back to teaching or go find another job that’s going to make up that income.”

“It took me five years doing all the photography to make my teacher’s salary back. That’s probably the point where I realized that that was the time when I could start transitioning. I didn't have to take every single job opportunity that came along, or really diversify that much. I could start focusing in.”

What were the first few steps when you decided to take photography seriously?

I'm not really a business person or an entrepreneur, and I didn’t have any business starting a business [laughs]. I had no concept of what that was like, or what that meant, or what it required. I’d been a teacher as my main career, and I just had to show up for work and be a teacher. Being responsible for all the business stuff, I didn’t know what that even looked like. My business plan when I started was, “If I can sell a 20 by 30 print for $300–at that time, let’s say I was making $3,000 a month as a teacher–so if I aim to sell ten $300 prints a month, there’s my teacher’s salary. That was my business plan. I don’t know that I ever sold ten $300 prints in a month, ever, in that part of my career but that was my plan. It changed dramatically over the years for the better.

What kind of work did you get at the beginning?

When I started I would accept any job that involved a camera. It was almost entirely local work at the beginning. I was trying to sell prints, so I was trying to get in the art show circuit and hang images around my local area anyplace I could, just to get my images and my name out there. I would photograph portraits. I did a few weddings. I photographed custom furniture. I photographed real estate listings; pretty much anything I could get that involved using my camera. It was OK. It was a great learning curve for me, and it also let me see all the potential revenue streams coming from photography. It also let me find out what my skills were, and what I liked and what I didn’t like.

How did you fall into your niche, then? Was there a turning point where you knew you wanted to do a certain type of photography?

I guess it goes back to my original interest, which was the outdoor adventure lifestyle. I just love the outdoors and I realized as the more I did different types of photography how much my real motivation in photography was tying it to my experiences outside, in the wilderness, in the landscape, or doing some sort of traveling in the world. I knew that that was where my real interest and motivation and greatest ideas around photography were, but even once I realized that, it was still a slow transition. I was able to slowly phase out certain types of work. For example, one of the things I cut was weddings; I told myself I wouldn’t take anymore on. Eventually I phased out photographing people completely. Then after that I phased out commercial, assignment and product-type photography. Every time I felt the adventure and landscape focus of what I did grew and expanded, I was able to give up something else that I was doing and maintain my income level. It was a process, and I think the last thing that I gave up was architectural photography, even though I really enjoyed it. For me, photographing good architecture is a lot like photographing the landscape, in terms of composition and lighting and that kind of stuff, and the impact you want to have. As the main focus of what I was doing kept growing, other things had to go so I could really specialize and be good at something.

That’s really interesting. How long would you say that transition took? It doesn’t seem like it would happen in a short period of time.

No, it took me five years doing all the photography to make my teacher’s salary back. That’s probably the point where I realized that that was the time when I could start transitioning. I didn't have to take every single job opportunity that came along, or really diversify that much. I could start focusing in. As of this interview, this is my 12th year as a full-time photographer, so it was probably five years total to make the transition. It’s only been in the last one to two years that I’ve really stopped doing anything else, stopped taking any architectural assignments or any sort of commercial or editorial-type assignments.

“I know a lot of photographers, though, who are great commercial photographers. They love that kind of challenge. It’s a chess game, or it’s an engineering problem. This is what the client wants, and I’ve got this amount of time, this amount of money to do it. They love that challenge. For me, that was not what I was in photography for.”

As far as challenges go, was there something that you felt was a real struggle at the beginning?

It was all really hard, and it took a long time. I remember right about the time I started my photography business, my brother started a bike shop business. He got it up and running and had to be bringing in income within the first month. He had the pressures of rent, and he had products that he had to buy and all this overhead. Within a month, he already has customers and is making enough money to keep his business going. I remember thinking, wow, that’s also challenging, but here I am, however many years in, and I’m still trying to figure out who my customers are, or how to even generate an income. That was challenging. It was all challenging, but at the same time I guess I went into this business with no expectations and so little knowledge. I was very naïve. I was just prepared for everything to be really hard and a struggle, and that it probably wasn’t going to work. I was pretty sure that at some point, time would be up; I wouldn’t have made it work, and it would be time for me to go to a different job with a definite paycheck. I was pretty well convinced that’s what was going to happen, so after five years, when I realized that I get to keep doing this, it was like a bonus.

Do you ever have these times and periods where you’re disconnected with your work or just feel burnt out?

Fortunately, with photography itself, I have not reached burnout levels. Again, I think how I’ve structured and how I’ve guided where my business went in the sense that I don’t have to be out shooting every day. There will sometimes be long periods between photoshoots, and I have flexibility with my time because of that. I could also generally tell what would burn me out about other types of photography. For example, if I had to be out shooting three weddings a week all year long, and that was the model, yeah, I could see that burnout would be a huge issue. I don’t shoot for two or three months sometimes, usually not that long, but it happens, and by the time I do have a project or a trip or a reason to go out and photograph, I’m really energized to do that. In the in-between times, there’s enough variety of office work and other work that I’m doing that, so far, I haven’t reached a burnout point in anything. I think it’s a matter of being conscious of the things that I could tell I would have burnt me out and letting those jobs go.

Are periods where things don’t go as expected or as planned? How do you mentally pull yourself out of that situation and get your back on track?

That’s a good question. I always go into everything with low expectations. Things would have to go pretty bad for me to be disappointed in how they went. I always assume that whatever I’m going to do, it’s not going to do much. If it does even slightly okay, then I feel okay about it. A lot of times, things end up working out much better than I thought they would.

One of the real challenges I found–especially commercial photography, and one of the things that I didn’t like about it that made me get away from it–was that there would be a client who would say, “Here’s our idea of what the shot we need is. Here’s what our budget is, and we want you to make that shot this coming Wednesday at 2 pm.” The concept of the shot is, “We want this amazing sunrise in the light,” or they would point to other images that I had and say, “We want it to look like that.” The problem was I knew that the particular image they liked was the result of maybe a couple years of trying before I was in the right place at the right time to have that particular light situation in that particular place. There was a huge expectation that for this small window of time, this budget, and this type of image they wanted me to create, was really challenging to deal with. I struggled with that. I know a lot of photographers, though, who are great commercial photographers. They love that kind of challenge. It’s a chess game, or it’s an engineering problem. This is what the client wants, and I’ve got this amount of time, this amount of money to do it. They love that challenge. For me, that was not what I was in photography for.

“There’s not like an end zone you reach with finding your voice. It’s something that you’re working on all the time, and you don’t have to think about it too much, you just go do photography. It’s what comes out of you naturally, without thinking about it.”

How do you balance all the aspects of your life; from being in the field for long stretches of time, and then being away from your family and all those responsibilities?

It’s one of the bigger struggles. Figuring out the balance between my time away out in the field, and the kids, and being here and being present as a father. That’s where I put most of my effort; not just figuring out the balance for me but trying to determine the balance for four people in my family. It’s an ongoing challenge, and it’s a challenge that’s evolving all the time. As the kids have grown up they have more of their own activities that they need support and time from myself and my wife on. As parents, that has changed how the work/life balance looks. As the kids got into school and didn’t need as much time, my wife took on some more work and more recently she is juggling two different careers; one of which involves her traveling. The balance has been an evolving equation the whole time, but I guess the nuts and bolts of it is that what we try to do is look at the calendar way out in advance, and schedule things.

A couple of times a year I do end up being out for a week or two at a time. I could do a lot more of those kind of trips, but I just know that that’s not really where I’m able to be in my career right now. I know that one or two extended trips a year is kind of maximum. Fortunately, I live in a place where there’s a lot of great photography pretty close by. For me to be able to go out just for a night or two or three during the week, and get some good photographs, is totally doable. I don’t have to travel long distances, or spend lots of time getting great photos.

Fitting in some smaller trips like that, and the truth is, in the last couple years, as my wife has been traveling more, I’ve actually been cutting back on how much I’ve been out. At this point, it’s like I have this huge body of work, and I can always add to it, but I don’t feel this need to really get the volume of new images and always have tons and tons of new work, like I did in the past. I feel like I’ve kind of established that body of work, and so I don’t have to be out as much.

E-mail is something that everyone has to manage and organize. Are there any tips you use to stay on top of your inbox?

That’s probably been one of the bigger challenges for me. Early on, I would just kind of watch my inbox. For the first few years, there was almost no e-mail coming in, so any time a new e-mail came in that was an actual business contact of some sort, I would immediately respond to it. I would be doing other work, processing images or working on my website, and keeping an eye on my e-mail inbox. As the flow of e-mail has grown, I’ve had to change that; otherwise I’d just spend my whole day answering e-mails and never get anything else done. First thing I do when I get to the office in the morning is answer e-mails. I’ll go through and answer all the legitimate inquiries and questions people have about my work. I probably spend, on an average day, two to three hours just on replying to e-mail. Whatever is in the inbox in the morning, I work through it, get to the end of it, and then I’m done with e-mail for the day. Sometimes at the end of the day, I’ll check back just to see if there’s any sort of emergency things, but anything that comes in noon through to the evening, then it’s just in the queue for the next morning. That way I know that once I get my e-mail done for the day, I’ve got whatever the chunk of time is left over for other things.

“There are all these elements to the experience, and how do I communicate those through this photo that is just visual, and is two-dimensional, and doesn’t move; How can I communicate more than what I saw? How can I communicate the feelings and emotions and trigger the other senses? All of that is pretty exciting, and keeps me going.”

What’s some of the best career advice that you’ve been given over your time doing photography?

At the time the advice didn’t make sense to me when it was given, but now that I look back, it was dead-on and it was really helpful. I’m just fortunate that one of my personal friends, who lives close by here in Ashland, was a well known photographer. He was one of the biggest rock band photographers and movie poster, movie promo photographers, of the 70s and 80s. He had this huge career in photography, and went on to do a bunch of other things in photography. I remember early on talking to him about the business. I can remember him saying a couple of things. One was that I need to find my voice in photography. I remember thinking, “My voice?” For years, I was searching for it and I’d ask myself, “What is my voice? David says I’m supposed to be searching for my voice.” I kept trying to make up what my voice was. I’d go out and try to focus on a thing or technique and I would realize, “No, that’s not it. I’m not that interested in that,” and move on. Now, after the fact, when I look back I see that by doing photography and finding what interests me and the way I develop my images and the kind of light I look for, that my voice is there. Unconsciously, it’s there. It’s still constantly evolving too, in that there’s not like an end zone you reach with finding your voice. It’s something that you’re working on all the time, and you don’t have to think about it too much, you just go do photography. It’s what comes out of you naturally, without thinking about it.

The other piece of advice that he gave was around the business of photography. I remember asking him, “When you were shooting this rock band, this big rock band in the 70s, how did you figure out what the price was, and how to charge for it, and how to negotiate a good deal and all that kind of stuff?” He said, “You know what? I never did that. I did my entire career on a handshake. We never negotiated price. I did it because I loved it, and when I started I just wanted to do it. I would do it for whatever was offered to me, and I was so passionate and I did it so much that I eventually got known for it. At the other end of my career we never talked price, because the bands asked me to do their photos just said, ‘We’re getting David to do it. He’s the one doing it, so whatever he charges, that’s what we’re paying.’” His whole idea was, “I just did it because I loved it,” and that was his main concern. A lot of those other types of money issues just worked themselves out. Like how I mentioned earlier about how I started my business without a plan, strategy or negotiation technique, I found this point to also be true, not by any design of mine, but the things that have ended up generating my income were the things that I’m going to do anyway, whether I get paid or not.

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

I love the creativity of it. I love the idea of being creative while in the field. It’s all tied back to the fact I love to have experiences in the outdoors, visual experiences, but also the experiences run the gamut of all the senses and emotions. To be there with the camera, I feel like I really notice things in a way that I don’t do without a camera, and I didn’t do before I was a photographer. That piece is really motivating to me, being able to go out and be in the place that I want to be, but then have this creative way to connect with it. Then, once I’ve captured whatever it is that’s really speaking to me and exciting to me, a lot of times it’s light, sometimes it’s location, the way things just fall together within a composition, all those things are really exciting to notice and be creative around. Then, deciding how I interpret that and communicate that to the audience, that’s also really exciting. It’s not just what I saw, and I’m not just doing documentation anymore. There are all these elements to the experience, and how do I communicate those through this photo that is just visual, and is two-dimensional, and doesn’t move; How can I communicate more than what I saw? How can I communicate the feelings and emotions and trigger the other senses? All of that is pretty exciting, and keeps me going.

Who would you like to see featured on Ways We Work?

Somebody who I admire from afar, and who I don’t know but I’m really inspired by their work, is Nick Brandt. His photos are beautiful. He is a wildlife photographer and they’re black and white. They’re almost all animal portraits from an African safari, like Kenya and Tanzania, which is so far from what I do. I see a lot of wildlife photographs, and a lot of wildlife and I have a lot of respect for them, but a lot of wildlife photography doesn’t really energize me. Yes, I love animals, but that’s not where my creative interest is. There is something about his work, it’s so different from mine in that there’s no colour, it’s of African big game, and there’s something in the voice of it, it’s his voice, that really excites me. He’s been doing it a long time. He’s very well known, and I haven’t seen any of his work in a couple years now, so I don’t know what he’s up to.

I’m going to throw one more name at you, because again, it’s so different. His name is Michael Karcz. I think he’s from Poland, and he does photo composite work. It’s all photo illustration, bringing photos together. It’s all fantasy and science fiction stuff. It’s brilliant. It’s amazing, and I have no idea how he does what he does.

Becky Simpson, Illustrator, Author and Founder of Chipper Things 2016-06-29T00:00:00-04:00 2016-06-29T00:00:00-04:00 Ways We Work Team designerscommunicatorsfoundersfreelancersfeature_5 designerscommunicatorsfoundersfreelancersfeature_5 Last week I had the pleasure of chatting with Becky Simpson all the way from Austin, Texas. Becky has worked as a freelance illustrator, and as of yesterday has published two books, AND through a creative residency with Adobe now runs her own store called Chipper Things. We talked about what she learned from her year-long residency, finding structure and routine in a role that is always changing and some of the nitty gritty that makes up her daily work life. She is honest, fun, optimistic and overall a great person to talk to. Enjoy!

You’re a self-employed illustrator, author and you just launched your own online store. With a million different things on the go, what are your main focuses right now?

I’m super focused on my new book at the moment. It’s coming out June 28th and it’s called “The Roommate Book.” I’m so excited about it. It’s 150 pages of illustrations, really short essays, flowcharts, hypotheticals and a bucket list. It’s for all the young adult women who want to celebrate roommate life. That’s currently taking up the majority of my focus. I’ve been working on it for over 18 months. To finally have it in my hands and not just be a project that I’m talking about is awesome. I'm also focused on Chipper Things - my new online store.

Tell me a bit more about what your role looks like between those two things?

I’m trying to relearn a bit of a routine because I’ve been used to working on my own for years. Previously, I did a lot of freelance illustration work, which is a much different workflow than producing a product line and launching a book. It can also shift every few months. For example, I’m not going to have the same tasks with the book in three months as I do now. I’m still figuring that out, but I’m trying to focus. One thing I like to do is batch things to help me get into a flow. If I can do a lot of something in one sitting, versus peppering it throughout the week, that’s ideal for me.

Currently, my role involves a lot of emails and researching stores that I want to get into. That’s been a fun process, because I get to find my spirit stores, and be like, “I love you and I think we’d be a great team.” That kind of outreach is a big part of my day.

Everything I do right now feels so new. I have this friend and we get together every week to talk business and accountability. We're running partners in that way. I was just texting her and saying, "This feels like amateur hour... I need to figure out how to schedule my days." It's really easy to just be reactive when you have so much to do.

“It’s like you’re holding a few kittens and then you add more and more to the pile (how you found yourself in this situation, I do not know), but what I do know is that eventually those cuddly kittens just become very heavy.”

You recently finished up your year-long creative residency with Adobe. I’d love to know what some of the biggest lessons you took away from that were?

My initial gut feeling when someone asks, “The year is over. How do you feel?” is that I have this sense that I graduated from something really big. I really pushed myself, and I may have put in one year technically, but it feels like I came out with several years of experience. Everything was so focused. It was challenging in all the right ways. I have a lot more confidence and direction in my work. It was a really refining time.

The residency provided me with some solid accountability. To me, accountability is kind of like running with the wind. You might not feel the direct impact of it at the time, but it’s always there making it a little bit easier to run uphill or just keep going. Of course, it’s easier to notice when it’s gone (like when you have to run towards the wind). Adobe was really supportive of my endeavors throughout the year. Because they were doing so much to help me, it made it easier to help myself. I wanted to give them my best year too. It made it bigger than just being about me.

What do you find the most challenging about the work you're doing right now?

It’s a lot to manage. It’s not that each piece is too unmanageable, or too hard on its own, but when you’re juggling all these components, added up they can feel heavy. It’s not that each piece is too hard on its own… it’s when you juggle a lot of things that it gets tricky. It’s like you’re holding a few kittens and then you add more and more to the pile (how you found yourself in this situation, I do not know), but what I do know is that eventually those cuddly kittens just become very heavy. [laughs] Decision-making can be a lot of work too. I’m learning that having limited willpower in a day is a very real thing. It feels a lot like cooking and having a dinner party. You’re figuring out how to time things so that they’re all ready at the right time, and the potatoes aren’t cold when the main course is finally ready.

For example, if I need to restock a product, there’s this whole chain of events that need to happen, it’s not just one decision. It’s contingent on all these other decisions I need to make. Similarly, with the book, I need to reach out to this person in order to get this feature, before this date. We all have our own versions of that, but I’m learning what these new systems are and how to work with them the best way.

“I think that when the idea sustains itself (AKA I can’t stop thinking about it), that’s when it’s worth pursuing.”

How do you know when it's time to either start something new, or when it's time to take on a new challenge, or just make a change?

I enjoy staying busy, but right now I’m practicing the art of saying “no” more. There’s always more ideas than there is time to do them. Sometimes there’s something that in my heart of hearts I’d love to do, if I did have all the time to do it, but the reality is I don’t. You don’t want to overcommit, then have to apologize for not meeting a deadline, or turning in sloppy work. I’m learning to reel things back a little. With that said, there’s never a perfect time to start something. For me, it’s usually that I’m just too excited that I can’t not do it.

The book was an idea that came out of nowhere, but the ideas that ended making up the book came from eight years of living with roommates. Once I had the idea, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I’d find myself thinking about the jokes that I’d include in it, then I had the idea for the bucket list, then an idea about non-serious crafts and on and on. I think that when the idea sustains itself (AKA I can’t stop thinking about it), that’s when it’s worth pursuing.

On top of that, sometimes things just evolve and work themselves out naturally. The store, Chipper Things, didn’t really come out of nowhere, I didn’t just decide one day that I’d do a product line. It was several years of little victories here and little defeats there, that made me realize it was something I could do and wanted to do.

Over the course of your career so far, have you developed any particular routines or habits that make you the most efficient?

It’s definitely ideal to do the most important task first. In the mornings I generally try to not schedule meetings or calls. As soon as that happens, it can eat up the whole day. I read this post by Tim Ferriss, about getting things done. He basically said he gets distracted and lazy or unmotivated like everyone else but he’ll pick one thing he has to do that gives him the most anxiety and just carves out the time and space to do it. I try to follow that. You really do feel the most accomplished. I always feel proud of myself when I work that way because not only did I do something that I was afraid of, but I actually followed through with my agenda.

I’m also a big fan of the bullet journal.

“I’m trying to schedule more time for rest and play. Not only to avoid burnout, but to make my work better. If I had a sports injury, I wouldn’t be able to heal without taking a break.”

What are the main tools that make up your workflow right now?

Illustrator and Photoshop - For design-y stuff on the computer it’s mostly these programs.

Wacom Intuos - I use it for editing all the time. I don’t usually draw directly with it, (unless I’m redrawing wonky arms) [laughs].

Capture - I use some of the Adobe mobile apps like Capture, which is really nice for vectorizing art from your phone.

Printer paper, sharpies & watercolor - Everything’s pretty analog, it’s a pretty simple system.

Any favourite phone apps at the moment?

Google Keep - I've been using it for things like making lists. I want to be better at gift giving, so I have a note for that. If someone I know mentions they love something random, I write it down so that I hopefully someday will have this whole stash of ideas. I like it because it's laid out like Post-Its.

MileIQ - For keeping track of my mileage. It's so easy. If you're a freelancer, you have to download it. I regret not doing that before this year. It makes life a lot easier and saves more money on my taxes.

Do you ever have periods where you feel a little bit disconnected from your work, or where you burn out? How do you deal with those?

It comes down to taking care of myself. I’m always better off when I go to bed and wake up a little earlier and go to the gym before I work. It’s stuff that we know to be true, but it's not until we do it that we remember why. It makes such a difference.

It’s also important to take a step back. Sometimes that feels unintuitive because the whole point of working so hard is that you think all of this work just can’t wait. But if you had a sports injury, you wouldn't be able to heal without resting. I’m trying to schedule more rest and play to make my work better and avoid burning out. I have a lot of energy and I love what I do. It takes more disciple to pump the breaks than keep on working.

“The other thing is, with the store, Chipper Things, I know that nobody will notice the 99 things I do right. They’re bound to see the one thing that's not done right.”

I like asking that question because there's this myth that if you were your own boss, or if you were doing what you wanted to be doing, you wouldn't get tired of it, or you wouldn't burn out.

I think working for yourself sounds very romantic in a lot of circles, especially the design world. It’s not better or worse, or right or wrong. It’s neutral. It doesn't mean, if you work for yourself, that you've graduated from working for the man. It's incredible getting to do what I love every day, have my own schedule, ownership of my work, and all these other things that I wouldn't trade for the world… but it does come with a certain cost (or tax, and not in the IRS kind of way). There isn’t the same security month after month and I have to manage my energy. But on the other hand, I can’t imagine going back. Like everything else, it gets easier with practice. I love this lifestyle but I’d be lying if I said it was easy. Totally worth it? Absolutely.

What's a major aspect of what you do that you don't think most people know?

The first thing I can think of is not a sexy answer: admin work, but everyone knows that. The other thing is, with the store, Chipper Things, I know that nobody will notice the 99 things I do right. They’re bound to see the one thing that's not done right. I can't yell from the rooftops, "But I did these 99 things that you didn't get to see! I called like 10 different vendors to see who would do this thing the best, but you only see what’s on the site!" You can't do that. That’s everyone’s plight and I just have to shoot for 100/100.

“I think working for yourself sounds very romantic in a lot of circles, especially the design world. It’s not better or worse, or right or wrong. It’s neutral. It doesn't mean, if you work for yourself, that you've graduated from working for the man.”

Overall, why do you do what you do, and why do you love it?

I love what I do, and that's why I do what I do. I can't not do what I do. Not only do I get to work for myself, but I get to enjoy the process of creating that work. Sometimes I wonder how I can give it a bigger purpose than just being about me, but at the end of the day, I think that we should all be running towards what's already running towards us. For me, that's illustrating, it's connecting people, sharing process, creating work that's uplifting and positive and celebrates imperfection, it's real-life. Those are the things that, right now, I feel I can contribute.

Who would you want to see on Ways We Work?

Jen Moulton - My friend Jen does ceramics, jewelry, and leather. She does it all. Her process is really inspiring to me and she’s the first person that comes to mind.

Shay Spanolia – Shay is the founder and illustrator of Bunglo. Her work is beautiful and she’s a whip-smart business person.

Kathleen Shannon – Among other things, she’s the co-host of Being Boss, a podcast for creative entrepreneurs. She’s honest and wise and fun.

Elizabeth Tobey, head of community engagement at Medium 2016-06-22T00:00:00-04:00 2016-06-22T00:00:00-04:00 Ways We Work Team communicatorsfeature_3 communicatorsfeature_3 Being an avid user of Medium myself and after spending some time with the design team in San Francisco, it's clear that Medium's emphasis on community is a major part of what sets it apart. I stumbled across Elizabeth's writing while doing some research for ways we could better engage Ways We Work readers on the platform and it was her title that first stood out to me. After reading through a number of her posts and seeing the way she interacts with the Medium community on the platform itself, I was so curious to learn more about the role of community at Medium and more about Elizabeth. She shares the path that led her to working in community facing roles, the fast-paced nature of the work and why she thinks she hasn't really ever experienced burnout.

Tell me a little bit more about your role at Medium, what does it involve?

I’m the head of community engagement at Medium. Functionally, what that means is I’m focused on growing communities on our platform and helping them find each other as well as bringing new communities on to Medium. I focus a lot on dialogue and a productive feedback loop between people who use Medium and the company. What that means for my day-to-day varies wildly. I work closely with our content development team to help their projects. For example, we’ve run programs to highlight future criminal justice reform legislation. We also made a publication to talk about mental illness last month. Both of those projects relied heavily on talking with the community and getting their voices into the conversation mix, through stories and responses to other stories. I also work closely with our user happiness, marketing, comms, and product teams to make all our work and Medium as a product better.

What was your path to your current role, what drove you to it?

I’m an English and creative writing major and, growing up with a father who worked in marketing, I knew I was going to go into that field. Back when I was a wee lass, I got my start in marketing at a variety of tech companies. I sort of stumbled into community management. I am a pretty hardcore video game player, and when I moved from Boston to New York, I didn’t know how to make friends, so I arranged for a bunch of gamers I knew online to start meeting up and hanging out in real life. One of those people was a producer for a video game company and when that company wanted to start their first community department, he asked me to apply, since I was basically already doing that work in real life in my spare time. I got the job, and that shaped the rest of my life. I spent eight years in games, where I ran community, support, marketing, and communications departments, and then made the jump to Tumblr in late 2014 to turn their support team into a community team. Now I’m at Medium, building our official community engagement initiatives.

I have a strong belief that marketing, community, support, and PR are all basically the same thing because they all are strongly involved in communicating with users and customers, albeit in different ways, at different times, for different reasons. What gets me out of bed in the morning is working with different communities to make their lives better. I know how I want to be treated as a user or a customer and I want to use my skills and my passion to help make the world a better place for others.

“There’s so much we can do, and want to do, so for me, it’s about making sure we’re doing the smartest things first and to the best of our abilities, even if that means sometimes other really cool stuff will have to wait a while longer to put into action.”

What do you find most challenging about the work you do right now?

Hah! Well, I love a challenge, so everything, and that’s awesome. Medium’s a unique place because they’ve cared about and integrated their community into their product since day one, so while I’ve begun to build a lot from the ground up, I started with a very active, engaged, and fully formed group of people as well as a very robust product. There’s so much we can do, and want to do, so for me, it’s about making sure we’re doing the smartest things first and to the best of our abilities, even if that means sometimes other really cool stuff will have to wait a while longer to put into action. It’s a good problem to have.

Do you have any particular structures, or routines that you follow to kind of keep either your day, or your week as productive as it can be, or is it more organic?

I am the first person to say that no one should model their workflow after me. I keep Post-it notes with my to-do lists at my desk, rely on Notepad heavily, and only have one folder in Gmail, called “In Progress”, for categorization.

My day is about having a zero inbox, so that’s the first thing. The next thing I always do is catch up on the high levels of what’s happened on Medium: My own digests, any lists I have and monitor, my own posts and notifications so I can respond to anyone that needs it. Then, I split my day between issues as they come in, longer term projects and writing I have deadlines for, and keeping in touch with both community members and people in our company. Because I work in the New York office, I can knock out most of the work that requires my full attention in the morning, before the folks at headquarters in San Francisco are starting their day in earnest. That allows me to be more flexible for meetings and ad hoc requests in the afternoons.

What are the main tools that make up your workflow, right now?

Medium, of course, and our own internal version of Medium, called Hatch, are important. That’s how I communicate with users and with most people in the company.

Slack, for real-time communication with people at the company and to listen to a couple external communities of Medium users and what they are thinking and doing.

Gmail and Google docs and sheets for correspondence and sharing some writing, spreadsheets, or presentations that don’t fit in the format on Medium.

We have our own internal dashboards, a visualization tool called Databricks, and I also frequently run or augment SQL queries for the data I need to analyze stuff I’m doing.

I also use Facebook, Twitter, and Little Bird as tools to see what people are saying on social media. I use Twitter the most to actually talk to Medium users, of all the social media platforms.

My phone, of course, and the app versions of pretty much every tool I just listed. I am a firm believer in work-life balance but I also, personally, like to be able to check in on what’s going on even at night. That’s how I work best and am happiest. I wouldn’t recommend it for people other than me.

“Companies that are going to thrive in the future are going to do so because they have a meaningful and real relationship with their customers and users. Without a community, a company or a product has no purpose.”

Do you ever sort of experience periods where you feel disconnected from your work or just burnt out, and how do you bounce back from those, how do you deal with those?

I think I’m actually a bit odd in that I don’t think I’ve ever really felt this way. Several years ago, I was working at a company going through a particularly tumultuous time, running the community and comms teams, and particularly since the PR part was a new responsibility, I felt fairly stressed - but in general, I enjoy high-stress, fast-paced situations. I believe that’s an important driver for someone who is successful and happy in community-oriented careers. Things are always changing, and your job happens in real time. Whether it’s something super positive and amazing that’s happening or something not so amazing - both situations evolve rapidly and need a clear head and pretty rapid reactions. I’m not sure I’m built for an overly-structured work environment. Bring on the mayhem - I like it.

What’s a major aspect of the work you do that you don’t think people realize is such a big part of your role?

Probably data collection and analysis. When you are in a public-facing role, folks kind of forget that there’s anything else to the job. When I worked in video games, people honestly thought I played games and talked to gamers all day, but my work is about listening to what’s going on, making sense of it, and then mobilizing the right people to do something. That means a lot of my day revolves around research, collecting and visualizing data, writing, editing, or talking to people. The end product that you see through my posts on Medium take up maybe ten or twenty percent of my overall work life.

Why do you do what you do? What makes it so meaningful to you?

Companies that are going to thrive in the future are going to do so because they have a meaningful and real relationship with their customers and users. Without a community, a company or a product has no purpose. And to get there, you have really, actually, truly care about your community. My career - and really, my life’s passion - is about getting people to understand and embrace that and make that an integral part of their company - like, the marrow of the company’s bones. I also care very deeply and on a personal level that there’s a better, more productive, more respectful way for us to communication in online communities, and I want to be part of the future where we raise the civility of the digital world. The internet can be a toxic place and it might be hopeless to change that trend - but I think there’s a light at the end of that tunnel and personally and professionally, I think my work with community building is very important to getting there.

Who would you want to see on Ways We Work?

Great question! I don’t know about specific people, but I’d love to hear from someone at Bark & Co about how they work. There also might be an ulterior motive to see adorable dog pictures, here, too.

Puno, Digital Entrepreneur / Founder of ilovecreatives & People Map 2016-06-15T00:00:00-04:00 2016-06-15T00:00:00-04:00 Ways We Work Team freelancerscommunicatorsdesignersfounders freelancerscommunicatorsdesignersfounders I first stumbled across Puno and her work because one of her sites had been featured in examples of awesome ways to use Squarespace templates. I immediately admired her hustle but also how much fun she seems to have doing her thing. Being a digital entrepreneur Puno's work looks different all of the time, but currently she is focused on ilovecreatives, a digital classifieds for creatives and PeopleMap, an Instagram marketing tool her and her husband built together recently. We immediately connected on the weird world of trying to make a living online and balancing freelance with personal projects. She also shares what the term "slashie" is and what being one means to her. Not only is Puno refreshingly open and candid, she shares some pretty great tips for keeping your career on track, financially and goal-wise.

As a digital entrepreneur, it seems like you always have multiple projects on the go. What’s your main role at the moment and what does it involve?

Right now I’m focused on ilovecreatives, which is a digital classifieds site for creatives. We’re actually in a bit of a transition period. Previously I’d been bootstrapping that while doing freelance work and I’m hoping that we can finally have enough revenue through ilovecreatives to stop doing freelance work. In order to do that, I’ve just got to focus. Honestly, we haven’t done any marketing for ilovecreatives, I’m really fortunate that a lot of friends are supporting it and it’s grown from there.

So I'm working on ilovecreatives and PeopleMap, which is our Instagram marketing tool that came out of MadeWithMap. Last month we put a paywall on it and June 1st Instagram made all these changes to their API, so we had no idea what was going to happen with that. We were basically freaking out, calmly, until June 1st [laughs]. Now we know we’re okay and I can focus on scaling and ramping up PeopleMap as a business.

So what does your role look like amongst those two businesses?

My husband is a programmer and I do design and marketing as my main focuses. Everything else is just little stuff in between. His skillset is programming, anything in that world is automatically his, and I handle everything else.

“There are so many people, especially our age, that are able to research, find a job, find a new job, find a new skill, or start a small business--all on the internet. People are becoming more curious, which is really cool.”

You use the term “slashie” on your website and on ilovecreatives. I’d love to know where that term came from, what it means to you and if you’ve always considered yourself a slashie?

It actually came out of frustration! When we first built out ilovecreatives, the whole idea was that I needed a place to get all of my friends to stop texting me, and asking me, "Hey, do you someone who can do this?" I thought, “what if we just had one website where everybody could go to, and we'd do a newsletter" and so I did that. When I was selling ads for the site, people wanted to know who the content was going to. Instead of just putting demographics, like age and sex, I wanted to put up photos of them. I asked for their name, their title, and their location. Everybody gave me these long ass titles, and I was getting so frustrated, because I had to keep increasing the div height, over and over again [laughs].

I kept saying to myself, “these damn slashies! Photographer / Writer / Designer.” Then I realized looking at my own title that it was all over the place too and I couldn’t be a hater. I had a realization that pretty much everybody on our site was a slashie in some way. Ever since I started telling people this, everyone felt relieved that they were able to put that many titles to their name. I think, that's just the nature of the internet, right now.

There are so many people, especially our age, that are able to research, find a job, find a new job, find a new skill, or start a small business--all on the internet. People are becoming more curious, which is really cool. I think that’s where everything is heading to, more freelancers and more small businesses.

As long as everyone has the ability to market themselves, really quickly, and deal with all this other crap that you didn't think you could get before, all of these things are literally accessible via the internet. There really is no excuse, there's so much opportunity now to just try something for six months if you want to.

What do you find to be the most challenging aspect of the work you do, right now?

Not knowing if it’s going to be sustainable. One of my biggest goals for this year is to understand my work environment. What are the things in my day that I really need in order to be happy and successful? It’s about figuring out if what I’m doing is making me happy, and if it’s not what I need to do to change that.

Investment and time are also challenging. We don’t want to take investments, so it means that we are innately small, the things we want to do are small, and take forever to grow. That’s a conscious thing that we want to do, so the long haul is always filled with worry and doubt. It’s a lot of managing that and trusting that it will work out. That’s probably the biggest one, and then making sure that I am always happy.

“I just don’t believe in the eating ramen situation. ”

I can absolutely relate to that.

For example, because we decided to bootstrap, it means taking on freelance work - which makes sense because I can quickly and easily get design jobs. But, I was like, “Alright, how can I have enough time in the day to have design jobs, work on ilovecreatives and PeopleMap, and go out and have a margarita with a friend?” I needed to figure it out, so I made this spreadsheet. I put it on ilovecreatives, it’s called Do The Math. I took all the hours in a day, in a week and subtracted the things that I really cared about - like sleeping, taking a bath, eating, working out and hanging out with friends.

I realized that I only really had eight hours in a day, so I had four hours for all my side projects and then four hours for working. So the next step was figuring out how much money I needed to make in those four hours in order to be happy. I just don’t believe in the eating ramen situation [laughs]. I want to be able to look back at my life and think, “I really enjoyed that culinary resurgence in Los Angeles during that time.” I decided I needed this much money in order for my stomach to be happy, so I can live in a very echoey loft - so I backtracked from that number and determined what I needed to make an hour. Then I needed to find clients that would pay me that an hour, which I did, I pretty much killed it on freelance last year - the only part that was missing was that I was unhappy about not working on my own stuff.

Do you have any particular structures or routines that you follow to keep your day, or your week as productive as it can be, or is it more organic?

It's pretty organic. I think, once I have a marketing strategy for ilovecreatives, and PeopleMap, I'll probably have a more consistent thing that I need to do. Because that's what happened with MadeWithMap, when we were growing that Instagram account, and bringing users in, I basically had a team working with me, that's when I had to be more consistent.

Right now, I just have a to-do list that I have to clear. I go through it and make sure everything on it happens. I do have a system for freelance that helps me understand when I need to work again, or how long until I have to book work. That's been helping me in understanding, if can I just take a day off today, or not. That helps, too.

What are the main tools that make up your workflow, right now?

Squarespace - I design and build Squarespace sites my freelance work. It's also where I built my business,

Harvest - For time tracking and invoicing.

Adobe Creative Cloud - I use Photoshop, Lightroom, Illustrator, and Premiere Pro on an almost daily basis.

Calendly - This one is huge for me, for booking meetings, calls etc.

Type Wolf - I use this all the time for fonts.

People Map - Helps us analyze our Instagram marketing efforts and strategically build a targeted community.

And then a shit ton of emails.

“The worst is when you’d have those three-month or annual reviews, that’s way too long! So much can happen in that time, you should be evaluating your work environment and habits on a regular basis.”

Do you ever sort of experience periods where you feel disconnected from your work or just burnt out? How do you deal with and bounce back from those?

Totally. I feel like when I'm in transition periods, and I'm not sure what the outcome is going to be, I just go through this evaluation time, where I'm like, "Why am I doing this?" I actually have a set of questions that I ask myself.

I’ll find it… [Puno pulled up a note on her phone here]

Okay, it’s called: What do I really want? I found it in some book, but I don’t remember the book. The first question is: What do I really want? Then you just say what you want.

Next is: What is important about it? How will I get it? What is preventing me from having it? How will I know if I’m successful? Today, I will…

I answer those questions and that helps re-prioritize things in my head. Then I try to work on it as soon as possible.

What's a major aspect of the work you do? Something you spend a lot of time doing that maybe other people don’t realize?

Learning things. Right now, I'm trying to understand Facebook ads, paid ads. I will listen to podcasts, read blogs, and articles. When I'm running at the gym, I'll watch YouTube videos of people talking about paid ads. I do a ton of learning. All the time. Then, I like to pick up jobs that involve me learning simultaneously. Someone might ask, "Hey. Do you know how to do Facebook ads?" and I’ll say, "Yeah. Totally." Then, I get paid and learn how to do it.

What would your advice be for young and upcoming people like you who want to do multiple different things, and don't really want to pick a single career path? What would you tell them starting out?

I'd go back to the whole workspace environment thing, and just understanding, and giving yourself the time, every day, to think about it. Because you had a boss when you were in a full-time job, and that boss, even though you might not like them, they were in charge of figuring out your work environment. They might not have been good at it, but the ones that are very good thought about what your strengths were and what made you happiest in your work environment.

Things like happy hours where everybody can just go have fun. They thought about if someone was pissed off or disengaged, or why they didn’t come into work. It's just all these things that you have to do to yourself, but people think that they know themselves so well that they don't need to give themselves the time to think about their work environment. I know that I have to work on it all the time because sometimes it's just like a period week [laughs] but sometimes I need to really reevaluate things. Now, I give myself so much more time to think about what makes me happy. What's going to make me successful, every day? The worst is when you’d have those three-month or annual reviews, that’s way too long! So much can happen in that time, you should be evaluating your work environment and habits on a regular basis.

“I love those extremes, and I love being able to continuously iterate and take whatever stupid ideas I have in my head, and just execute on them immediately. ”

Why do you do what you do? Why do you love it so much?

I really love making something that’s so fulfilling. I use to be in advertising, I was an art director. I got to be a designer, and learn how to do design, but I always felt like we would work on a campaign for six months, and then it's out there in the world, and then we don't care about it anymore. The consequences of what happened in that campaign wouldn't even affect us. I was always really bothered by that.

Then, I decided to get more into product, because a friend of mine was like, "You should be a UX designer," and this was right when UX design was just starting. I thought, "Sure. I don't know what the hell that is, but that sounds good." I got into that, because I wanted to get closer to product, and I wanted to get back to digital, too.

I landed a role at Call of Duty at Activision, and that was the first time that I had built a product from the ground up, and it's crazy because the product that we were building already had a twenty million fan base. We had a ton of money, and there was this high expectation from fourteen-year-old boys. It was a really great and hard problem at the same time.

The first year it was kind of a mess. There are so many things that go into building a product in a huge company. This one just didn't do as well, but it didn't mean that I was pissed off. I mean I was totally pissed off for other reasons, but I was so stoked to keep working on it. Our entire team was, too. That's when I realized that I loved that process of building, no matter how much it hurt. The extremes are like a wave of “this sucks,” and “this is freaking awesome!”

I love those extremes, and I love being able to continuously iterate and take whatever stupid ideas I have in my head, and just execute on them immediately. That is so fun. I get really, really frustrated when I cannot try out an idea, quickly.

Who would you want to see on Ways We Work?

Cass Bird, Ali Wong, Reggie Watts, Emily Weiss

Heather Lipner - previously founder of Clashist, now drawsta (augmented reality shirt)
Patrick and Amy - Spring Street Social Society
Chelsea Matthews - Matte Black
Ellie Dinh - Girlfriend Collective

Reanna Evoy, Creative Director at Kit and Ace 2016-06-08T00:00:00-04:00 2016-06-08T00:00:00-04:00 Ways We Work Team designerscommunicators designerscommunicators Last week I had the chance to hop on a video call with Reanna Evoy who is currently the Creative Director for the clothing brand Kit and Ace. Reanna's previous role was as the Creative Director at ALDO, but the opportunity to work on shaping a new brand and the pull of home drew her back to Vancouver. Reanna talks about using Tumblr to pull creative inspiration - she thinks Pinterest has become a bit too "basic". She shares how she first discovered that design and art was the work she wanted to pursue, the moment came the first time she sat in a Starbucks. At the time, she was studying botany in University when she had the epiphany that wasn't what she wanted to do.

Tell me a little bit more about your role at Kit and Ace and what that involves?

I’m the Creative Director for Kit and Ace, which is definitely a multi-faceted role. I used to be in editorial and I built a lot of content throughout those years, but now I get to oversee a much larger scope of a brand. I’m helping to both shape the brand and acting as the brand police [laughs]. I work in everything from photography to content to design and typography.

Mostly, I’m responsible for making sure that we show up consistent across all of our channels and touchpoints. From social media: Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat, to our online magazine The Brief. It can include billboards, magazine ads, or any digital marketing. It all has to tell a story. All of the concepting and development comes out of my department. I work with J.J. Wilson and we spearhead what the brand will actually show from a visual point of view. All of the visual assets are created in our department and then I oversee it all to make sure we’re coming across consistent and awesome.

We have to tell a story. We need to talk about our product and who we are as a brand, what makes us unique, why people love us.

How big is the team that you work with?

We have a pretty robust team of amazing copywriters, really cool graphic designers, photographers, and videographers. It’s amazing because I think traditionally a lot of people go to agencies and when you work in-house you really have more control over your brand. You know the day-to-day realities of what you need to do for in-store and online and you can tailor those experiences.

I’ve had it both ways, I’ve worked agency side and in-house. It’s great that we have such a solid team. Sometimes you don’t always have the right amount of people to help you make a brand awesome, and it turns out we do, so that’s great.

How did you end up in your current role, what led you to it?

I was born and raised in Vancouver, and I left my beautiful city to get more experience and headed East. My goal in life was to be an art director for an actual magazine, and there wasn't that much opportunity here.

So I went East and got all this cool content experience. I learned how to build stories and work with editors and produce magazines that people actually read, which was super cool.

I had all of this great editorial experience and had experience working in fashion and with fashion photographers. That made me pretty attractive to retailers who wanted to tell their brand stories through photography and fashion. That’s what led me into retail. I spent about six years working at Aldo as their Art Director and then their Creative Director. That was a really exciting role.

Then, Kit and Ace was born. When Kit and Ace came along, it looked really interesting to me. They had such an amazing legacy coming from the Wilson family and it was a completely new brand. I was really curious as to how they could use their experience in building a loved brand. It was extremely attractive to me because I had been working in more of a fast fashion realm, this was more of a slower pace, building experiences and getting people engaged and to fall in love with your brand. I was also really looking forward to coming home.

It was sort of a combination of coming back to my roots and helping push a brand from the West Coast. I had been with these legacy brands before. Aldo had been around for 40 plus years, so the opportunity to help shape something completely new was really attractive to me.

“Being new means you might not have all the data and insights that you might have from being a retailer or a brand that's been around for a long time. It’s harder to get qualitative and quantitative research. You're trying to figure out who your customer is.”

What would you say are some of the most challenging aspects of the work you're doing?

I think it's always a challenge when you're new. Being new means you might not have all the data and insights that you might have from being a retailer or a brand that's been around for a long time. It’s harder to get qualitative and quantitative research. You're trying to figure out who your customer is. It's a lot of trial and error at times, seeing what people respond to and what creates a conversation.

It takes relying on a little bit of intuition as well, you need to be confident in what you think would resonate with someone in terms of emotional and functional needs. That’s great for me because I’m a creative and I have that little gut that tells me, "Yes, no! This is cool. This is on trend. This is what I think would make people think or make people react and make people actually engage with the brand."

The uncertainty can be the hardest part. I used to have giant consumer insight departments telling me, "Our customer is this, and they like to drink this, and they watch this show." You could understand and build that character based on the research. So the most challenging part of the role is also the most interesting, and what attracted me in the first place. It’s cool. It’s super cool.

In a typical week, are there any routines or processes that you rely on to help you be the most efficient throughout your week?

I think what I learned early on is that there always needs to be a balance in your life. Work and life has always been seamless for me. Work doesn't really end. You’re always researching, seeing beautiful things and gathering insight. There’s no off switch.

So sometimes you have to make that off switch. Making time for mindfulness is one way I do that. I take a couple of minutes every day to just do some meditation, I think that’s really helpful for me. I do it in the morning and in the evening just to regroup. I try my very best not to take too much work home too. We’ve got laptops and smartphones, we’re connected constantly and in this habit of checking our email about 1000 times. So I actually have two phones. I have one for personal and one for work, that way I can have moments where I can just focus on family and friends and be really present in my relationships. I think that sometimes you have to consciously make the effort to unplug a little bit, get off the grid, put your smartphone down, and have a nice conversation with your mom. That's usually what works for me, and getting a lot of sleep.

“There are moments where you just sort of have to do large gestures like that because I think as a creative, you need large amounts to recuperate. You come back stronger. If I hadn't done that, I probably wouldn't be where I am.”

In terms of a work day, do you divide up certain tasks to do together or is there any kind of structure to all the different things that you need to get done?

I’m pretty organic… in a very structured way… [laughs]. I come across as very structured; in my head, I feel like I’m all over the place.

I definitely block out times for certain work so I understand what things need to be done by what time. I make sure to block out projects and think about things in a more holistic way. I have to see it in a bigger picture, I can’t be focused on the super minute details all the time, so I constantly have to pull back.

I usually block off my day with the larger projects that I need to accomplish, and I try not to get stuck in some email vortex. I have to focus. It's hard when you're in corporate-land because it's definitely a meeting culture in most corporate companies. Trying to have more 1-on-1s rather than emailing is also really helpful. If I have a question, I try to make a point of getting up and asking that person because you'll probably find the answer quicker and you'll understand faster.

What would you say are the main tools that make up your workflow?

Adobe InDesign, Illustrator, and Photoshop - Those are the tools of my trade, and knowing those inside out are very helpful. Know your shortcuts, kids.

Research - I'm really an advocate of research. I spend a lot of time going outside of my usual tunnel vision of working on layouts and stuff. I dedicate time to looking at different blogs, photographers and pulling imagery. I kind of synthesize trends while I’m doing this. I’m very image based so I have the most insane database of images. That’s my biggest tool I guess. I’m just always looking and listening and synthesizing that visual information.

“Being a creative and managing creatives is actually quite interesting. Learning how to motivate and inspire people and make them feel like they're contributing to the process. I feel like that's actually something that is a really huge component of what I do, and that's hard.”

Do you ever have periods where you become disconnected from your work, and how do you deal with that?

It happens. I found it happens more often as my title has changed. I remember when I was a production artist, it never really happened. I wasn’t ever engulfed in my work. Now, it becomes more challenging to keep that balance. You really just have to, like I said, you have to stop. Usually, it means taking a break.

I watched that amazing TED talk with Stefan Sagmeister. He did this whole seven-year sabbatical thing where every seven years he takes a year off. I watched that one day and I was working in magazines, and magazines have very intense production schedules. I thought, “this Sagmeister guy is the bomb, and he knows what's up, and I completely admire him as a creative." After watching that, I remember having a conversation with my editor, and I said, "Hey, I'm going to Australia. I've got to do this." I went to Australia for a month. There are moments where you just sort of have to do large gestures like that because I think as a creative, you need large amounts to recuperate. You come back stronger. If I hadn't done that, I probably wouldn't be where I am. You have to really sometimes do crazy things and take big risks like that to continue being awesome, I guess.

What's something that's a major aspect of your role that you're doing frequently that maybe people outside don't realize until they are in a similar role or something?

I think sometimes people don’t realize how much mentorship and people management you have to do. It's one thing to be an idea generator and come up with ideas every five seconds. You have to come up with cool ideas. That's also really difficult, but I think people actually know that's part of my job.

Being a creative and managing creatives is quite interesting. Learning how to motivate and inspire people and make them feel like they're contributing to the process. I feel like that's actually something that is a really huge component of what I do, and that's hard. People have different management styles, and some people are iron fist rulers and really hardcore. I'm more of a big mom [laughs]. I want to help everybody and make sure that they feel like they're contributing. I love motivating people and teaching them and showing them how to do things.

I didn't think that that was a huge part of it, but it is. How to give criticism and critique people without deflating them. How to rally support. That's another part. If you're brand suddenly changes direction like we might experience, how do we get people on board and how do we enroll people? That's another part of it too.

“I guess in some ways, creating these experiences is really exciting to me and really fulfilling, and I love that it can be sensory and it's visual and you can play the right music and put the right smell in. It's a whole experience, and that's super fascinating to me.”

Why do you do what you do and why do you enjoy it and what makes it meaningful to you?

I don’t feel like what I do is work. This is going to sound crazy hippie, but it’s almost like an energy that I have that I just feel super energized and vital while I’m working in this industry. It fuels me, it makes me excited, it makes me happy, it makes me feel fulfilled. I’m so blessed to actually work in an industry where I can be creative.

Weirdly enough, I used to study biology. I was in University doing botany, looking at plants and cellular biology. I was like, "Why am I doing this?" It's really fascinating and interesting, but honestly, it was - this is going to date me because I'm actually pretty old - but there was this moment where Starbucks became cool. This was when people started to go to Starbucks, and you'd go in and there was jazz playing and everybody's drinking this coffee and everything looked so cool.

I remember thinking, "Who made this?" I want to know how you make a brand and spread it across the whole frickin' world and come up consistent. I was so excited by it. I didn't even know what it meant. I was nineteen at the time. I didn't even know what the heck that meant or how to even get there. It just didn't even occur to me that you could do that as a job, and one day I started to figure it out and got out of biology and out of botany and I went into fine arts and I started studying graphic design, and I was like, "Oh my gosh, this is exactly what I wanted to do."

I guess in some ways, creating these experiences is really exciting to me and really fulfilling, and I love that it can be sensory and it's visual and you can play the right music and put the right smell in. It's a whole experience, and that's super fascinating to me. It's cool to use your creativity for so much more than the printed material as well. It extends to so many different mediums and formats, and it's really exciting.

You're never tired. You’re always learning. Especially if you work for a brand where the client or customer is younger, like a millennial. It keeps you young because you've got to know what's cool, so that's really fun too. It's just a very exhilarating job to research and understand and create.

Who would you want to see on Ways We Work?

Oh! I would like you to interview Rebecca Bay. She's a designer. She used to work for the H&M brand, and then she went to the Gap. Now she's at Everlane, and Everlane is another brand that is really interesting. I’d be super interested in hearing more about her and her work.

A conversation with Ways We Work, Part Two: Reflecting on a year of working together and lessons from making a creative project your main gig. 2016-06-01T00:00:00-04:00 2016-06-01T00:00:00-04:00 Ways We Work Team It's coming up on a year since I started working on Ways We Work in a more full-time capacity. It's also been a year since Matt joined the project. So we figured we were due for a good sit down to reflect on what we've done and where we want to go. Matt and I obviously talk regularly about the site and are constantly working on different things but we wanted to really dig deep into how we're both feeling after the last year, what we've tried, what has worked and what has flat out failed. So we got together this week at a local coffee shop, recorded ourselves interviewing each other and took some photos of us talking with our hands.

In the last year we've done over 10 features on teams like Facebook, Medium, Photojojo, Bloc, Thoughtbot, Pivotal Labs and Igloo. We've interviewed 50+ people and experimented with a ton of things behind the scenes to keep Ways We Work alive and thriving. While we'd like to share our own experiences more often that usually becomes less of a priority with everything else we're working on. But, we're here now to share everything we've tried and learned over the last year and what it's like working on Ways We Work. We've had a few successes with weekly sponsorships, larger sponsorships, we spent a few months exploring a video series that didn't work out, we spent a couple months exploring the idea of becoming a recruiting platform and we even tried our hand at advertorial content. And while we're still learning, what has come out of the last year is that we both understand exactly what we want and what we need to continue growing Ways We Work.

We want to produce engaging content focused around how people do the work they love. We want to become a resource for people who are figuring out what work they find meaningful and how they can pursue it, and we want to partner with others who support that goal.

Matt: It’s been a year since we partnered up and you’ve got a year under your belt now of doing Ways We Work mostly full-time. Can you give us the general view of what the year has been like?

Amandah: It’s been strange, that’s the best way to describe it. It’s certainly been a series of ups and downs. The entire year has been trying to find the balance of pursuing creative freedom while also being able to financially sustain myself, and Ways We Work. It’s been about trying different things, and going step-by-step. I think it’s strange to hit the one year mark because this was never the plan, I mean none of it was planned. I just love doing this so much that I want to keep doing it, however I can. That’s the motivation. As many times as I’ve thought “I should really get a job or do something more steady for income,” it feels like giving up. Despite how many moments I’ve had where I feel like I want to give up, I really don’t. I sometimes think that most reasonable people would have by now [laughs]. In my mind, I have to try everything before I do that.

Amandah: It’s been a year since you joined the project, I’d love to hear what you’ve learned in this last year?

Matt: I’ve learned, or more confirmed, that these projects are really challenging. They're really hard and if you put pressures on them that they're not able to handle or you put expectations on them that maybe aren't fair, they can start to crumble. I've done a number of projects and the ones that succeed are the ones that just have this life to them. No matter what happens, you just keep going and going and you love the process and the core of it stays true to itself. Whereas the projects that fail are the ones that get too business too fast. Expectations ramp up and pressures are placed upon the project that ultimately buckle it in on itself because it's just not ready to hold what it's been made to hold. The dream scenario is expected to happen too fast or something. I've had that happen a few times where if the dream scenario isn’t met right away and the team gets impatient, the project fails. I'm super careful about that now.

What I've learned over the past year is that I completely fell in love with the project and I love everything about it and it's offered me some really great experiences and unique opportunities. What I've learned to do is just to not place expectations on that are too large because if I do, I know what happens; things start getting out of alignment. When I do these projects I try and do them with a humble attitude, or try not to make unrealistic expectations. As soon as I put them up there, I get into the wrong head space. I remind myself that I need enjoy the process of making content and have a vision and of what I want to see happen and then, however fast it goes, just ride the wave.

Looking back, last summer, we were like, "No, let's just be a publication. We're a community and we're small." Then we were like, "No, we've got to make money." And, "Let's be this big thing, this big platform." Then we were like, "We don't want to get VC money and be a platform." Then we stepped back and asked, "Okay, let's really think about this. What do we actually want to be?" It's good, I think, that we zig and zag because we test the waters along the way and get a better understanding of what we actually want out of our careers.

“I think it’s strange to hit the one year mark because this was never the plan, I mean none of it was planned. I just love doing this so much that I want to keep doing it, however I can. That’s the motivation.”

Matt: You say if you go get a job you'll be giving up. What are you giving up?

Amandah: I think the focus. For me, at this point in my career it’s difficult to be doing freelance full-time even. I’m at the beginning of my career and so it’s not as if freelance work is even at the point that it’s a steady income. I’m learning how to balance that and Ways We Work at the same time and neither one is easy, neither one is steady. So all the alternatives to funding Ways We Work and funding myself through Ways We Work, mean taking away focus from it, giving up the opportunity to grow it. It means doing things like spending a day with teams, or travelling to San Francisco to create team features just can't happen.

Matt: What are one or two big takeaways you've learned over the past year? Something you maybe wouldn’t have learned if you hadn’t been doing it full-time?

Amandah: At the beginning of this year I thought it was about figuring out how we monetize Ways We Work, and literally doing whatever those options were. Doing whatever we had to to make money. What I’ve learned is that it’s far more important to determine how you want to make a living doing it. There’s a thousand ways to monetize a site like Ways We Work, we could scale it up into a recruiting focused platform, slap advertising on every page just to scrape dollars together, let anyone and everyone pay us to write a feature on them. But, the reason people pursue self-employment and their side projects is so that they have the freedom to decide how they should be run. If I just want to make money I should go and apply for jobs right now. I’ve learned what it is I love about Ways We Work, and the potential it has, and now I feel like I have a grasp on how to move it forward.

Amandah: From your perspective, what’s been the biggest challenge so far?

Matt: I originally came on board as a content producer; someone who will make things and help with the formation of the creative aspects of the project, like the vision or what we're trying to do. Helping shape that with you has been super awesome. Having to put that on hold while we tried to monetize content has been a challenge for sure. I have this energy but it had to be put on pause. I completely understand that you can't just continually do this for free, you know what I mean? Even though I kind of want to, I get it. To be a business and to sell this stuff, you kind of have to put a price tag on it. You have to sell it.

The holding pattern is definitely the challenge and sometimes you ask questions like, "Are they going to buy it? Are they not going to buy it? Then if they don't buy it, do we open it up again for free?" If people aren’t buying what we’re selling, then I’m not making new content. That, for me, is the biggest concern. Then I'm like, "Do I even add value to the project if we're not making content?" It's like, "Okay well, what are we doing? Should I just wait? Maybe I'll just wait and see what happens.” The problem is, I don't like to just wait. I want to be proactive and I want to make stuff.

“What I've learned over the past year is that I completely fell in love with the project and I love everything about it and it's offered me some really great experiences and unique opportunities. What I've learned to do is just to not place expectations on that are too large because if I do, I know what happens; things start getting out of alignment.”

Matt: Can you talk about a moment where you wanted to quit?

Amandah: Just a few weeks ago I was going through some pretty real burnout. I think with a project like this there’s always ebbs and flows. One day you might have an interview that is really engaging and you really connect with that person. That hypes you up and you’re totally psyched about it again. Then you’re stressing about money; about how many page views an interview got; how engaged readers are. It’s like juggling, making sure everything is staying up at once. Then I think you go up and down about how you’re feeling about it and how excited you are about it - especially after two years. It’s not new anymore, so you have to make sure you’re staying fresh, finding new perspectives and keeping yourself motivated.

I think there was a period a few weeks ago where I hadn’t really felt like I’d been connecting in the interviews, readers didn’t seem particularly engaged, we had a bit of a down month and were closing in on using up our sponsorship money. To use the juggling analogy, it was like all the balls were down. I’m lucky to have a lot of support in my life and a lot of people saying “if you’re still enjoying it, you should keep doing it.” I wasn’t enjoying it, so I thought “why am I still doing it?” I think in those moments, you can feel like you’re not cut out for what you’re doing.

Matt: How did you pull yourself out of that, can you describe that process a bit?

Amandah: I think just talking to other people. What caused it wasn't one thing and getting out of it again isn't going to be one thing. I had a couple of really great interviews with people who I think in particular are in this space as well. They understand. They could talk and relate to the challenges of trying to get a project like this to a point where it can sustain itself and sustain us. Those are really great. There was a lot of conversations with people where you leave and it's just like, "Okay. We could try this." I think the biggest thing is having a course of action. Whereas when you don't it's like, "Well. I'm not enjoying this and I don't know what to do." It's like I don't have anything to try next. There isn't a next step. So, what do we do? It's just stalemate. I think having really inspiring conversations with people and having really great interviews you feel like - maybe it's a placebo effect - but you feel like there's a next step. There's a course of action you can take.

Matt: What are some of the challenges you see - that you still have to overcome? In the coming three to six months?

Amandah: I would say the two biggest ones are securing a steady way to fund the project and then figuring out how it grows content wise. We're getting really good at interviews, we're getting really good at doing team features. How do we more of those? Also, how do we create more content and different kinds of content on a regular basis to help grow an audience? How do we provide even more value than we already do. What can we add? Ways We Work started as just individual interviews, last year we added team features. What can we add this year? That's a really big one.

In terms of funding, to me I think a natural next step is finding partners. Over the last two years we’ve connected with companies and teams and individuals who really believe in what we're doing and are super engaged and want to see it succeed. Finding creative ways we can partner with them. On the other side of that, a job board seems like a really good way to sort of just cover costs of the site, cover costs of the project. It just seems sort of natural. People are coming to the site to read about ways that people work and ways that they find meaningful work. If we can be an avenue for helping people find that work as well, that just kind of seems to make sense.

Amandah: What’s been the best part of the last year for you?

Matt: The whole thing. I love just nerding out when you're in these places and going into it with a really fresh enthusiastic perspective. I don't have to fake it. I can go to these places, like going to Facebook and I just get excited. It's just fun. I love meeting these teams.

I love turning things that are almost untouchable things, like Facebook, how do you wrap your head around what Facebook is as an entity? When you start meeting the people, you're like, "Oh, they're just ... It's just a group of people." You know what I mean? I know that sounds either simplified or cliché or something, but I think the unique thing we do is we go in places and we translate that experience in a way. It's like we distill all the media and products down into their most basic parts, which is the people that put it together. That's the part I really love.

I love knowing that there's just an engineer sitting in a chair at one of these companies, and he or she's like, "Doo, doo, doo. Uh-oh, server crashed. Shit. Better reboot." It's just the same thing that everyone else does, but with this scale. It's just like, "Oh, this is our server guy." Or, "This is our CSS dude. He just codes and puts it in GIT and we launch the site." I'm like, "Oh, it's kind of like what I do, it's just that it's at this big company." I have this youthful enthusiasm and excitement around visiting these places and is something that I really loved over the past year, and I just want to keep doing it. I want to keep meeting people and asking them questions.

One of the biggest surprises was just getting feedback from people when you've actually had an impact. When you've written something or you've told a story in a way that people actually really connect with and they tell you. They're like, "Wow, I really loved that." Or, "That really inspired me." Or, "I feel different now, after reading that, than I did before, in a good way." That's awesome.

“How do we provide even more value than we already do. What can we add? Ways We Work started as just individual interviews, last year we added team features. What can we add this year? That's a really big one. ”

You can follow Ways We Work on Twitter, and follow myself @amandahwood and Matt @IamMattQ. We are currently looking for longer term sponsors to partner with and if you and your team love Ways We Work we'd love to talk to you. Just reach out to

Jamie Varon on making creative work, work for you and taking productivity advice with a grain of salt. 2016-05-25T00:00:00-04:00 2016-05-25T00:00:00-04:00 Ways We Work Team communicatorsfreelancersdesigners communicatorsfreelancersdesigners My first encounter with Jamie and her work was through a piece she wrote for The Billfold on Medium about how she asks for tips on all of her creative writing. It was one of those reads where you find yourself nodding your head more aggressively the more you read. So I read more of her writing and found myself connecting to every word. I had to reach out and learn more from Jamie herself. Jamie Varon is a freelance designer, writer and multidisciplinary extraordinaire. She is confident and self-aware in a way I haven't encountered in anyone else, and so her answers about what it really means to do creative work are honest and come from a refreshingly different perspective. Enjoy!

Tell me a little bit more about what you do and what that involves?

I am very much a multi-disciplinary when it comes to the type of freelance work I do. I tried doing solely freelance writing, but there’s something about writing when I just really need to say something, that’s very appealing. It puts too much pressure on it for me to try and make all of my money off of it. At least for now.

So I’m writing, and I have design clients and some consulting clients on retainer as well. I’m just scraping things together in the best possible way. It’s good. It’s nice to be able to write for a few hours and then shift my focus to something else.

Have you always been interested in writing? Or was that something that you stumbled on after trying a few different things?

In the back of my mind I’ve always thought, “I’m going to be a writer one day.” It was that romanticized version of a writer. When I was a kid, I loved both writing and reading-I always have. When I went to college I decided not to major in creative writing, which was a weird decision, because if you’re a writer you want to learn how to write really well. I just didn’t want this thing that I loved to be critiqued in that way. I feel like creativity is just something that’s really weird to be critiqued on.

So while I was doing design I would just write on the side. I’m 30 now, and when I was younger there weren’t as many opportunities to get your writing out there. It’s a different world now. You can put your writing on the internet and people can read it. That wasn’t even available. I put myself on MySpace [laughs], no one was reading that.

So once I started seeing more opportunities, I started putting my stuff out there. It’s been an evolution in a way. I’m also very practical. I never wanted to be a struggling artist. I always had to balance finances with doing the things that I wanted.

“My happiness just isn’t something I can really stake anything on because it goes up and down all the time, as is life. But I look for where things are lining up, and if nothing has for some time, I know it’s time to change something.”

How did you end up freelancing and being self-employed? Why do you choose to stay that way?

I’ve been self-employed since 2009. Mostly doing design work. A couple of years ago, I got a job as a staff writer at a website called Thought Catalog. I did that for a year and from there I left to go freelance. I didn’t even know what I wanted to do with my writing, but I had a feeling from my time at Thought Catalog that I had something that people were connecting with. That was so cool. I just felt like I really needed to explore that, but had no concrete plans of what that would look like.

One of the things I noticed about your writing is a lot of it has this underlying message of changing your mindset and the way you think about things. My question is, how do you personally know when it’s time for you to try something new or to take on a new challenge?

That’s a really good question. I think it comes from a combination of things. If it’s been awhile since I’ve felt inspired and there’s just nothing happening, I know it’s time for a change. I really think that when things are meant to happen, they come to meet you. It’s not like magical fairies, but when you make a decision that feels really right, things end up happening.

For me, that’s always been a guidepost. If it seems like a wasteland of opportunity, I know that something isn’t working. Because when I set myself on the right path, in my experience things have just happened. Not that I don’t have to work hard, not that I don’t have to go out and get things, but I get yes’s more often. I get people coming to me. I get those serendipitous and synchronistic moments. I look for those and I notice those.

It’s important to note the difference between that and happiness, though. I don’t necessarily base it off of whether or not I’m happy. My happiness just isn’t something I can really stake anything on because it goes up and down all the time, as is life. But I look for where things are lining up, and if nothing has for some time, I know it’s time to change something.

“I think routines and productivity tips are great, but if they cause you more stress because you feel like you can’t uphold them perfectly, they are getting in the way.”

What would you say are the biggest challenges that you face right now with your work?

At the moment, the biggest challenge is that I’m at a bit of a crossroads, where I have to start thinking about making money. Obviously I think about that now but I have some other opportunities where I can do different things. Unfortunately, that means my focus is always split in ten different directions all the time, and everything is the priority.

So my biggest challenge is looking at this thing that I love and how I’m going to take it more seriously. What does that even look like and what’s even possible? It’s strange because I feel like I’ve gone past the point of self-doubt. It’s not a matter of whether or not I believe I could do it. I think I could get there, there’s just a lot of options and I’m faced with this decision paralysis.

It’s a good problem to have, but it can be anxiety inducing. I’m already a pretty high-strung person, so every day when I wake up and I’m not sure what I should be focusing on-that’s a challenge. I want to be set off, I want to go and really dig my heels into something. I’m just not sure which direction to go in.

Do you have a particular structure or routine that you follow that helps your days or your weeks be the most productive?

When I’m very clear on what needs to get done each week, definitely. Sometimes I’m waiting for my week to fill out and I don’t know. Those are the most stressful weeks because I know something is going to happen, I just don’t know what. When I know, I can develop a routine that gets me in the right mindset and mode.

Right now, I’m working on a book and I’m also in this weird transition phase and I’m not writing every day, even though I feel like I want to. I know enough now to know what my ideal routine would be if I was actually clear on what I was doing each week. I just need to be in a place where I can actually execute on that.

On the flip side of that, I think routines and productivity tips are great, but if they cause you more stress because you feel like you can’t uphold them perfectly, they are getting in the way. It’s not even worth it, because the thing that’s supposed to help you relieve anxiety and stress is causing you the most frustration, just because you can’t perfect it. That’s not the best way to go about it. Don’t make yourself miserable just to stay on a routine. It’s supposed to help you. If it’s not helping, wait until it’s going to be helpful to you.

What are the main tools you’re using right now in your current workflow?

Honestly, I’m so back to basics. I feel like I have all this high-tech stuff and I end up being the most productive using my paper journal, my paper planner, and my highlighters. My meditation is my productivity booster. A lot of tech always seems to just muddle the simple things that I need, which is to journal, empty my mind, and have a very clear idea of what my week is about.

“Burnout is one of those things where sometimes you need to rest completely and take a break, but sometimes it means you just have to put your efforts into something else. It’s difficult to see the difference and there’s no “one-size, fits all” approach.”

Do you ever experience periods where you feel disconnected from your work and what you love about your work? How does that manifest for you? How do you continue to create during those times?

I don’t think I recognize burnout until I’m out of it. I’ll get to a point where I can look back and think, “man I was absolutely burnt out.” In hindsight, I’ll think that I should have given myself a bit of a break and been kinder to myself. I’m trying to close that gap. I’m trying to see when I actually need to rest as it’s happening. Usually, I’m so hard on myself, I’m sure everyone is. I don’t give myself that.

The other part that I’m trying to understand is the difference between when I’m resisting something and when I’m procrastinating. When I’m just afraid and when I actually need to rest. There seems to be a very fine line between the two.

Burnout is one of those things where sometimes you need to rest completely and take a break, but sometimes it means you just have to put your efforts into something else. It’s difficult to see the difference and there’s no “one-size, fits all” approach.

In the second instance, where you’re emotionally burnt out on something, it’s not going to help to sit in the bath for a week. Sometimes the only thing that’s going to cure it is to actually do something. Finish your project or just put your time into something else.

Sometimes you do need a real physical break though. When you’re self-employed you always feel like there’s more you should be doing. You’re your worst boss. You don’t give yourself days off, you have to work 12 hours, you’re awful to yourself [laughs]. I’m trying to learn the difference between just needing to give my brain a rest from making decisions and when I need to just sit in the bath for a week.

What aspects go along with being a freelance writer that you don’t think people realize until they do it themselves?

Writing is a very, very romanticized profession and people have high expectations for how it’s supposed to go and how it’s supposed to be. I encourage people to figure out their own path, instead of holding themselves hostage to these expectations. I know that when I started, I had this very romantic view, like “I’m a writer now!” As if that means something. But you make it mean whatever you want.

I think it’s important to take it slowly too. One thing about freelance writing, especially right now, is that people will pay you for your most personal stories. I have given a lot of people advice to be very careful about what they reveal because of wanting some sort of notoriety. What you write is going to be on the internet for a very long time, and it’s very personal. I think that’s something to take into account, because we are in this time of complete vulnerability and you can say whatever. But, you need to take care of yourself too and make sure you’re not revealing everything when you are not ready to.

“That’s been the guiding force because I like how I feel when I don’t have to hide anything. I love how it helps other people feel less ashamed.”

In the earlier days when you were first starting to write and publish online, before a lot of people were reading your work and responding to it, what kept you motivated to keep going?

I feel like I was motivated to say a lot of the things that I hadn’t let myself say for years. I got to the point where it was now or never. That’s totally arbitrary, but for me, it was now or never. Say the damn things you want to say. That, to me, was really motivating. It was purifying in a way. I just had so much that I had kept inside and never said, I needed to get it all out. That served as my motivation, at least initially.

Two years ago, I had a job where I had to write every day. That pushed me in a lot of ways. It was this question of, “can I do this? Is this possible?” I got to the point where I’d rather know if I have something and if I can do it, than spend my life not knowing out of fear of trying.

Why do you do what you do? Why is it meaningful to you?

When I was a teenager, I felt very alone. I often thought, “Nobody thinks like me. Nobody is like me. I’m the weird one all the time.” I think I still have a little bit of that person in my mind, but now I think, “Other people must feel this way too.” The more I share and the more I see people connect with my deepest stuff that I didn’t think anyone would connect to--it emboldens me. It’s almost healing to share it and to see other people feeling the same way.

It’s like, “Wow. I don’t feel alone in this anymore.” There’s nothing that I feel like I can’t say to someone now. There’s nothing I feel hidden about. Which is crazy, because when I started writing, I didn’t realize how much I had kept in. How much I wasn’t saying about how I really felt.

That’s been the guiding force because I like how I feel when I don’t have to hide anything. I love how it helps other people feel less ashamed. They see someone, and it doesn’t even matter who it is, just someone else that’s talking in a way that they think. The more people read my stuff, the more I find this to feel like a responsibility. I have something that I’m willing to talk about that other people aren’t. It would be really stupid not to use that gift.

It’s strange because the more people read my writing, the more humbled I feel by it. I originally think I started writing with this desire to be well-known, a bit of ego. But, the more people read my stuff, the more humbled I am by it, which I mean, of course that would happen.

Who would you want to see on Ways We Work?

Mari Andrew - She's a brilliant illustrator and writer.

Ben Johnston, on the grind of freelance work and finding the type of work you love 2016-05-18T00:00:00-04:00 2016-05-18T00:00:00-04:00 Ways We Work Team designersfreelancers designersfreelancers Ben Johnston is a Canadian-born designer who grew up in Cape Town, South Africa and has been working in Toronto as a freelance designer for the past three years. We talked about how he ended up in graphic design after a brief stint of studying industrial design in school. Ben talks about the work he's doing now, the realities of being a freelancer and the often difficult process involved to land on the type of work you really love to do.

Tell me a little about what you do and what fills your days at the moment.

I’m a freelance designer and lately my work has started to become a lot more multidisciplinary. As opposed to doing just digital work, I’ve been doing a lot of mural painting and exhibition work as well. So, silk screens, hand painted work and hand drawn things--very mixed media. Opening myself up to different types of work has opened the door to some great opportunities and being able to work with some great clients.

You’re entirely self-taught, is that right?

Yeah, I studied industrial design and product design for about a year and a half but I didn’t really go to college much [laughs]. So, I decided to drop out, it just wasn’t really my field. I enjoyed experimenting with different materials and building stuff but I’ve always been more focused on the graphic side of things. I left school, got a Mac and just taught myself the programs and went from there.

“Now my work has progressed again from being digital focused to including murals and other forms of work. I found a real interest in seeing the work I was doing on the computer come to life and be in large spaces.”

What made you decide to move out of industrial design and focus more on graphic design and mixed media?

The program I was in was a four-year program and I only made it through about a third of it. I had just always been more interested in graphic design and graffiti when I was growing up. I realized that I wasn’t really interested in building everything and spending all my time in a workshop. I was more interested in the concept phase, coming up with ideas and that sort of thing.

I think it was sort of a natural progression, realizing what I didn’t want to do helped guide me into an area of what I did want to do. Now my work has progressed again from being digital focused to including murals and other forms of work. I found a real interest in seeing the work I was doing on the computer come to life and be in large spaces. Seeing the way it worked visually at such a large scale as opposed to just living on a small poster was really cool.

You’ve been freelance for four years now. Was it always your goal to work for yourself and how did that come about?

I haven’t worked at a lot of different places but, I had mostly worked in ad agencies. I found that the level of being able to come up with cool, creative stuff wasn’t really there for me. It wasn’t matching my aesthetic need and what I wanted to do. So, I carried on pursuing freelance clients and luckily some really interesting projects came in and I’ve never really looked back since.

When I first moved to Canada, it was quite difficult to find work in Toronto, because people are looking for very specific things here in advertising. I just didn’t really find an agency that I wanted to work with, so I carried on getting interesting projects and never really looked back since. I think it’s one of those things that you don’t really plan too much, it just kind of falls into place.

“I also make sure to keep a few side projects going... It’s all related to design in one way or another but it’s about stepping away and doing something that makes you think a little differently for a bit.”

One of the things about being a freelancer is that you have a lot of administrative work that goes along with the creative work. How do you balance your time amongst those two?

It is pretty difficult. I honestly go to a lot of meetings. I try my best to minimize those as much as possible--if I don’t have to meet someone, I try not to. If I do I’ll normally schedule a load of them for one day. So I’ll do a full day of meetings and then I’ll still get four or five days to do work that week. For example, today I had three or four this morning. I try to get them all done in one go and then from there I can focus on the work. Once I leave the studio it’s difficult to come back and work, so I try to minimize that disruption as much as possible.

On top of that, I also have a producer I work with now who helps minimize a lot of the admin work.

Do you ever have periods where you feel burnt out or disconnected from your work? How do you manage those and bring yourself back?

It doesn’t happen too often these days but it definitely still does on occasion. If I’m going through a phase like that I try to just step away from the office for a little bit. Whether it’s a few days or a week, I just take some time to chill out and do other stuff.

I also make sure to keep a few side projects going. Whether it’s illustrations, 3D prints with other people or building stuff. It’s all related to design in one way or another but it’s about stepping away and doing something that makes you think a little differently for a bit.

For me, it’s usually less about taking a break and more about changing up what you’re doing. I don’t really take too many holidays because having a break is good but it also doesn’t really solve the fact that you still need to do creative stuff when you get back. It’s good to keep your mind on track but just pick up something else for a bit, you know?

“The outcome isn’t completely up to you all the time, but I think there’s always room for a really good compromise. You have to know how to deal with that.”

What are the main tools that you're using every day that make up your workflow?

I start every project with sketching, rough work and concept based stuff. Then I move to the computer to fine tune. What tools I use depends on the outcome of the particular project. Some projects require a hand done finish right till the end. Sometimes I’ll do rough ideas on the computer, play around with it and then go back to paper.

Illustrator & Photoshop - I mostly use Illustrator, I need Photoshop for certain things but I’d say it’s 90% Illustrator.

Calendar - I use my calendar to put all my jobs in there. What needs to be done on different days and I map it all out so I can see what the whole month looks like. A lot of projects take more than a week to do, so I need to plan in advance.

What would you say is a major part of your job that you don’t think people realize is involved?

I think a lot of people don’t realize just how much admin there is with each project. People can be quick to judge the outcome but forget that you’re working alongside a full team at a corporate company to push something creative. There is so much background that goes into even a small project. For a single mural, for example, there can be 20 different meetings, and meetings about materials and it’s just one little mural.

Sometimes the admin and managing relationships can take as long as the work itself. I don’t think a lot of people realize that. Also, how much compromise there is, learning to balance that with sticking to your guns. There’s a balance between being firm with people and also remembering that they’ve hired you, they’re paying. The outcome isn’t completely up to you all the time, but I think there’s always room for a really good compromise. You have to know how to deal with that.

You’ve had some practice with that now but was there anything that helped you navigate those challenges when you were first starting out?

I mostly sought out the advice from my peers who had been doing it for longer, but a lot of it was learning as I went. In the beginning, the work didn’t always go as planned, because when you’re younger you’re pretty headstrong about what you want to do and where you see yourself going--it’s not always very realistic.

I think it’s just about waking up to reality and changing your mindset to working with somebody instead of for somebody. It’s about collaborating with the client. Other than that it just takes time, dealing with enough clients. Hundreds of clients later, you figure it out. It doesn’t always go perfectly, but most of the time it does.

What would you say is the hardest thing about what you do?

I think it probably comes down to being just one person. It can be difficult because there’s so many different things to do all the time. So, even if I’m at meetings all day on Monday, I still have a project due for Tuesday. Some people think with freelance you can work whenever you want, and not work whenever you want, but 10 or 12 hour days are pretty standard.

I don’t mind that at all because it’s that much more satisfying at the end of the day. I can turn around after each month and look at a decent body of work from just one month. It might be a few logos, and a mural or two. You can see progression quite quickly when you freelance. When I worked at agencies, I didn’t really know what I was working on most of the time, you’re just working on bits and pieces. As a freelancer, I have to see every part of the project through until the end.

“Once you find what you really want to design that’s when you’ll be the happiest and that’s definitely where I am right now. So, I think I must be on the right track at least.”

Why do you do what you do? Why is it meaningful to you?

I’ve just really got a passion for it. I’ve always been interested in arts but when I was younger I didn’t know what field specifically. Now, I feel as if I’ve really found my area of expertise.

I like to find a balance between working behind the computer and outside painting walls. Once you find what you really want to design that’s when you’ll be the happiest and that’s definitely where I am right now. So, I think I must be on the right track at least.

It can take a long time to get there though, to find your feet. It took me until about two years ago. When you’re starting out you just don’t know much and you haven’t done enough to know what you truly enjoy. You have to do a lot of work that you don’t enjoy as much to figure that out.

It’s about consistently working and pushing yourself. Experiment, try new things and just try to stick out those first few years because they’re not going to be the most amazing.

When you find your own style and your own voice and what you love to do, you can do anything.

Who would you want to see on Ways We Work?

Piet Parra - He’s an artist in Paris who has found a way of making his illustration into art. He’s exhibiting his stuff in SFMOMA and other crazy places. To see that from young people, turning illustration into art, it’s pretty amazing.

Cassie McDaniel, Design Director at Mozilla Foundation on the importance of community building, and balancing family with a fulfilling career. 2016-05-11T00:00:00-04:00 2016-05-11T00:00:00-04:00 Ways We Work Team designersfounderscreators designersfounderscreators Cassie McDaniel has been the Design Director for the Mozilla Foundation for the past two years, working remotely from her home in Paris, ON. In addition to her full-time role Cassie and her husband Mark have been running and hosting an event series called Paris Lectures, focused around creativity, technology and highlighting local professionals. They are also behind Women&&Tech, which they began 3.5 years ago while living in Toronto. Preparing for her second child, due to arrive any day now, Cassie shares what she's learned throughout her design career so far, the importance of building community and balancing a strong family life with a fulfilling career.

Tell me about all the different roles and initiatives you’ve been a part of over this last year and what those have involved for you?

I’m the Design Director for the Mozilla Foundation, which is the main thing that I do. It’s a team of 7 including myself. Our team is responsible for building sites and applications to further Mozilla’s mission – protecting the Internet as a global public resource – and we have various initiatives to do that, both in education and advocacy. My role was to lead that team of designers responsible for all the production elements of what we were doing. Every designer on the team has a whole lot of freedom and we work collaboratively to make sure that we’re shipping the best design that we can.

Can you tell me a little more about the differences between the Mozilla Foundation and Mozilla Corporation?

More and more the work has become mixed between the two but I would say overall that the Corporation is more focused on Firefox, and the Foundation supports all the other non-profit, mission-driven work that Mozilla does. In terms of how we are organized as a design team, the Foundation is small, tight and nimble. We do all kinds of design tasks from branding, UX/UI, illustration, and front-end development, whereas the Corporation has much larger design teams often divided by specialty.

The differences aren’t really known to the public and aren’t actually important for the public to know, but it’s a curious phenomenon when you’re working inside the system. For example, we were recently doing a huge branding audit and the same thing was happening on the MoCo side. How do we make sure we’re not repeating work or losing efficiency or overlooking important details that the other side knows more about and vice-versa? For designing holistically, it’s a challenge for sure.

“Letting go of the idea that I have to make something or create something in order to be relevant was a difficult transition.”

I'd love to talk about your side projects. Paris Lectures and Jane & Jury, how did those come about?

Paris Lectures came first, which began as a series of monthly meet-ups and workshops centred around creativity and technology, created by my husband Mark and I in our little hometown, Paris, Ontario. It’s a lot like Creative Mornings in that we feature a local creative for a short lecture, but we put our own spin on it. Jane & Jury, a blog, came about a year later when we realized that no one outside of Paris knew anything about the extraordinary people and places here because none of it was online. Jane & Jury has also become a way for us to share our design work and other interests, documenting our family outings and such.

We’ve only been in Paris since fall of 2014, but we were so excited to move here from Toronto and see the greater impact of our work. In the city, you have so many people with similar skill sets and ideas, so people are generally doing the same things. Out here, with our specific skills and experience in technology, what we’re doing feels pretty special and unique. And people have been really responsive to both. What we’ve seen happen over the last year has been really, really exciting. We’ve had people knock on our front door to tell us to keep up the good work. It’s incredibly rewarding to feel like we are contributing something here that likely wouldn’t exist without us.

Having Jane & Jury has helped Paris Lectures because it gives more of a face to the lectures; we post our event recaps there and it’s space for us to share broader content about the creative community. The two really support and compliment one another. We just started Jane & Jury three months ago too so it’s such a baby, and we’re excited to see how it develops.

“It’s incredibly rewarding to feel like we are contributing something here that likely wouldn’t exist without us.”

With side projects like that, what are all of the things that are involved that you don't think people realize?

For our last Paris Lectures, there were 18 speakers and 13 different projects which involved so much coordination. Emails to everyone (I have a thread with around 200 emails in it), coordinating logistics of getting people there on time, making sure they have all they need, collecting their slides. I spent hours putting people’s slides into a cohesive deck. Part of our mission is to make sure it’s a high-quality event, so we spend a lot of time on the presentation and how the event flows. We argue about what the creative warm up should be – we’ve had people draw each other’s portraits for 30 seconds or draw the ABC’s in the air with a partner and see who can finish first. Those warm-ups are so important to get people out of their comfort zone and relaxed and laughing. We spend a lot of time thinking about those details. None of that is visible but hopefully, it results in a good time.

The other piece is convincing people to speak or participate in the events. There are some people who are automatically on the same page and immediately see the benefit of being involved in a community and contributing but there are others we have to spend more time with. And then all the post-event work is insane – editing photos and videos, staying up ‘til 2am the night of the event because we make a big effort to post a timely recap.

So when people ask, “How come you don’t have a bigger venue? When’s the next Paris Lecture?” There are about 18 things I have to do before I can answer those questions. It’s a lot to juggle when you have a toddler and a full-time job (and you’re mega pregnant). Luckily, there are a lot of people who realize that and who are incredibly supportive.

Jumping back to your full-time role, what was the transition from a designer to a design leadership role like for you?

I feel like I'm still figuring that out. It took me a long time to let go of seeing myself as a maker. I’m not a fan of titles – I started at Mozilla as a UX Designer but I never did just that. In my role as Design Director at Mozilla, I don’t make a lot of tangible things. I direct people, offer support and give feedback. That's huge, and something I really enjoy, but not something that immediately manifests into something tangible.

I recognize that part of what I do is solve problems creatively and visually. My strategy has always been to take a set of problems and use the best tool to solve them. Does that mean having a conversation? Showing something? Writing something? Making an event series?

Letting go of the idea that I have to make something or create something in order to be relevant was a difficult transition. I think that’s why I have side projects like Jane & Jury and Paris Lectures, because they are tangible, and they make me feel like I still know how to make things.

I remember my first annual reviews as Design Director. There’s a section where people can give feedback on their manager, and none of my feedback was about my design; it was all about being a manager. It was a nice surprise because it’s not really how I thought of myself, but obviously it was important to other people, making sure they had what they needed and helping push projects forward. Helping others grow their careers. It’s a totally different job.

“I’ve worked from home since our first daughter was born and balancing breastfeeding with ad hoc meetings is a real logistical challenge. I think in general there should be more conversations about the reality of being a parent as well as a professional.”

You're about to become a parent for the second time. I'm curious what some of the challenges have been preparing for that and for the next stage of your career?

Yes, I just began a one-year maternity leave about three weeks ago. There are so many unknowns at the moment. The other day someone said something to me about how pregnancy for a woman is such a personal experience but everyone can see it. I read the part of Jessica Hische’s interview where she said she had to edit what she’d say online because when she posted a lot of photos of her daughter people assumed she was still on maternity leave and weren’t contacting her about work. I hate that. I’m actually quite private online, but I just don’t think that women should have to edit what they do or say.

Luckily, even though not a lot of women on the Foundation side of Mozilla have gone on maternity leave, people are genuinely nice and want the best for you. A lot of planning a successful parental leave is figuring it out as you go, figuring out what’s best for the particular individual. For me, it’s being able to focus on the work and not on my private life.

Granted those lines have become more blurred. I’ve worked from home since our first daughter was born and balancing breastfeeding with ad hoc meetings is a real logistical challenge. I think in general there should be more conversations about the reality of being a parent as well as a professional.

In terms of organization, do you have any particular routines or processes that you use to manage your time amongst communication and the other kinds of work that you need to do?

When we were doing the hand off for my position, we had two people on my team step up and divide the labor amongst themselves. My biggest advice for them was to viciously guard their time. Sometimes you are pulled into all kinds of meetings and you just need to say “No” or ask to make it a 15-minute meeting.

It helped me to have 1-on-1’s with everyone on my team for half an hour every other week, which coincided with our sprint schedule. We also had team-wide demos and planning meetings every Friday. Design critiques every Wednesday. From there I just tried to be strategic about who else in the organization I needed to talk to on a regular basis.

On a more specific level, what are the main tools that make up your workflow?

Adobe Creative Suite – Half my team works on Sketch and the other half doesn’t, and personally I’m still an Adobe person. For a while we considered all getting on Sketch but discovered that not everyone liked using it and instead it was more important to use whatever that person felt helped them get the job done the best and the fastest.

Keynote – I’ve been using Keynote a lot these days, especially through Paris Lectures stuff. I really like Keynote’s interface and find myself wishing some of the specifics of it could be translated to Photoshop (and vice versa).

Google Apps – Our team uses the collaborative tools a lot, especially Google Presentations for benchmarking or mood boarding.

Github – We use Github for all of our project management, which is an unusual use of it but seems to work well for the distributed culture at Mozilla.

Vidyo – For face-to-face meetings with people across Mozilla.

Red Pen – I really enjoy using Red Pen. It’s a great, specific design feedback tool. I also often use Evernote’s Skitch to mark up comps or QA a design.

Self Control app – In some of the hardest days of trying to balance family with working remotely, I would find myself drifting off into social media. Even though I don’t really use it anymore, Self Control helped me regather my concentration and get back into the habit of getting things done.

“I think being successful in anything is 90% tenacity. Just keep going. Keep trying. If that’s what you want, don’t take no for answer.”

What would your advice be for young designers who are looking to make that transition from a designer into a design manager?

I think it’s important to stand up for yourself and to have an opinion. Those are the biggest things. Particularly with women, I find who are little more soft spoken or don’t get heard the first time so never repeat themselves. That happens with men too, for sure. And obviously it’s not just up to them, we are all responsible for a systemic culture of valuing loud voices over soft ones, but the soft ones need to do their part to grow outside of their comfort zone.

I think being successful in anything is 90% tenacity. Just keep going. Keep trying. If that’s what you want, don’t take no for answer. Someone can say no, but you can go and find a yes somewhere else.

I don’t have the most impressive resume behind me, I really don’t. I graduated from University of Florida, and they have a great Graphic Design program but it’s not well-known. I didn’t have a well-known internship behind me. My first job was in England for a company that was willing to pay me under the table. What was important to me was the international experience, understanding the different parts of the industry, and exploring my interests. I think the way you interpret your experiences and how you present them is so much more important than the names associated with them.

In Toronto, for example, people bounce around from the same companies, it’s the same names over and over again. To be honest, it’s boring. When I’m hiring, I look for somebody who took a year off and went travelling in Asia or had some interesting, personal side project that shows they were passionate about something.

On top of that, I don’t think design management is for everyone. If you’re not someone that’s into facilitation, communication and helping other people find their way, you’re probably not suited to a management role. You might be someone who is laser focused on your craft and really value shipping the best design possible and that’s important too. I don’t think they’re necessarily mutually exclusive, but they can be. There are so many ways to grow as a designer rather than just into management.

Why do you do what you do? What makes it so meaningful to you?

I didn't know what design was until my third year of University. I really had no background in it. I had always been a visual person and always artistic, but I wanted to be a painter or a writer. When I finally took a design course the idea of combining words and images innately appealed to me. It seemed to massage both sides of my brain. It’s cool looking back now that I've been able to write and publish as well as design.

I think what makes me more suited to design than “pure” art or writing is that I like being able to solve problems with people. When I was in school, design – and particularly graphic design – was framed as a service. I do still like thinking about it that way but more and more, I think of it as collaboration. I have a tool set that I can use to help you solve a problem. You have information and perspective that can help me solve a problem. I like when it's mutual. I think that's my favorite part. I like design as it manages to solve problems with people rather than for people.

Who would you want to see on Ways We Work?

Mark Staplehurst - I’d love to see Mark on here. He’s one of the best interactive designers I’ve ever worked with and is often hesitant to share his work. I would be eager to see what he pulls out of the archives to share with you.

Jack Cheng - I met him at Brooklyn Beta several years ago, he wrote and published his first novel These Days through Kickstarter. I’d like to see the perspective of a writer who understands design as well. I know he must have some deep insights on the industry.

Aarron Walter, Vice President of Design Education at InVision on the challenges of design leadership and the importance of creative inputs 2016-05-04T00:00:00-04:00 2016-05-04T00:00:00-04:00 Ways We Work Team designerscommunicators designerscommunicators Aarron Walter is the VP of Design Education at InVision, previous to his current role he spent eight years at MailChimp building the UX practice. He shares how he ended up in design leadership, and what he thinks is most challenging about his current role. We also spent some time talking about how you know when it's time to try something new and Aarron shares some wisdom for young designers looking to get into management and leadership roles. It was such a pleasure talking to Aarron, he has a lot of great learnings to share.

Tell me a bit about your current role and what that encompasses?

My title at InVision is Vice President of Design Education, which is a new practice area. Right now I’m doing a lot of research and writing about design best practices. Soon I’ll be speaking at conferences and companies sharing my findings to help establish strong design practices. I want to help elevate design in our industry.

You've been leading and building design teams for quite some time. What was your path into design leadership and education like?

My path is a little weird. My educational training is as a painter. I studied painting as both an undergrad and graduate student. After I left school, I became a teacher and spent about 8 or 9 years teaching in the United States and Europe. I taught design classes, technology, front-end development and a bit of server-side development. I also taught some hoity-toity things like non-linear narrative and history of communication media. I taught a lot about design and storytelling and how we can pull technology and culture together.

In 2007, I met Ben Chestnut, the CEO and co-founder of MailChimp. He was a guest speaker in a few of my classes and we got to know each other. I was writing my first book and wanted to write about MailChimp in one of the chapters. Through that, I ended up joining them. They said, “Well, great, you’re writing about us, why don’t you just join us and help us build this design team?”

At the time, we had a new engineer and myself, the designer. We worked together to rebuild MailChimp, rethink it and explore how the brand could evolve. We wanted to keep as much of the brand as possible. There was talk of making MailChimp more formal and business-like because some people looked at MailChimp as weird or juvenile. It was informal and had this personality. I’d been a customer for years before I joined and that’s what I loved about it, that there was this personality present.

As for how I started building teams, I fell into it, to be honest. Teaching taught me to learn and explore lots of new things on a regular basis, I was freelancing and working with clients at the same time. There was always an element of learning in my work.

That continued when I joined MailChimp. I was building a design team and learning on the job. We were given tremendous freedom to experiment with not just the product, but the business. We were learning and sharing, and that eventually turned into books and talks. The company grew and I had to build design teams, I had to consider the types of people I would hire.

Over the course of eight years at MailChimp I built the UX practice, and then ultimately that shifted to a new product team, where it was a different set of team values, and then an R&D team that was also a different value system.

“I’ve found that sometimes I don’t necessarily know what I really want to do, or what’s exciting to me. So, I could either sit and wait for some revelation of what I want to do, or I could try things.”

How did you go from painting and the fine arts into product design?

It was both accidental and on purpose. The paintings I made would just take so long to make. I’d produce two paintings in a month and I spent a lot of time in my studio. That was really painful. I wanted to prototype them faster, so I took a Photoshop class. Those images were interesting, but weren't really art, they were just weird and curious to me. This was the 90's when the web was young. We just got the image tag, and that was kind of a big deal [laughs].

That led me to learn about animation, so I studied After Effects. I wanted to create interaction, so I studied Macromedia Director. It taught me a bit of programming. Once I was bitten, I had to keep going. I had this feeling that I could change the world with painting. That was always my passion since I was a little kid. When I became an adult, I felt like I couldn't really change the world with painting. But, when I discovered the web that's where I felt, "Alright, this is the medium of my time where the power is. All the people will be here eventually."

That's how I made that transition.

You held a few different roles at MailChimp and now your role at InVision. Throughout your career, how and when do you know that it’s time for a new challenge?

I think your body tells you. At least that’s true for me. When I start feeling really tired, stressed or nervous. Those are usually a sign that something is going on in your mind. I make sure to ask myself if I’m emotionally engaged, and if I’m satisfied in what I’m doing.

For me, I'm so passionate about my work, I'm really invested in it. I see my work as me. I don't think that's necessarily a good thing. I think that's kind of a dangerous thing, actually. It makes it harder to go through a transition, to shift from one thing to another thing. I was a professor and that was my passion, now I’m a designer. I was a product designer before there were product designers. That was new territory for me.

I was familiar with the technology part, but managing people, hiring people, all of that was new. That’s scary, but I’ve found that when I make a transition, the fear is usually the thing that I let guide me. If it feels scary, that probably means that I'm going in the right direction, so I'm going to just keep going and trust that I'm going to be able to figure it out and do something on the other side.

I think it’s important to reflect on what’s meaningful to me and what I want to do. But, I’ve found that sometimes I don’t necessarily know what I really want to do, or what’s exciting to me. So, I could either sit and wait for some revelation of what I want to do, or I could try things. I’ve found that trying things is always better than not.

Freedom is the most compelling thing to me about life. Having the freedom to try things out, the freedom to stop, to be wrong, and to learn something new. I want to always give myself that. If I ever find myself in a place where I’m not engaged, or not learning, that’s the signal that I’m giving up freedom. Then it's just a matter of trusting your gut.

“The hardest thing is being succinct. There are so many things that can be said about how to do design well, but what are the fewest number of things that can be shared that will have the greatest impact on a company?”

In your current role, or in design leadership in general, what do you find to be the biggest challenges?

Even though I’ve only been in this role for three weeks, it’s super fascinating to me and so perfect for where I am in my life. It gives me the opportunity to reflect on the lessons I’ve learned over the past eight years or so. Not just in my own career but also in our industry as a whole, it’s changed so much in the past eight years.

I want to translate those lessons into best practices and share that with companies. How design teams can be built, how they can be run and how they can make products really well. The hardest thing is being succinct. There are so many things that can be said about how to do design well, but what are the fewest number of things that can be shared that will have the greatest impact on a company?

It might be a company from an older industry and they see software just eating their lunch. There’re all these different competitors popping up and they’ve got to figure out how to compete in a new way. Not just on product offerings or features, but they’ve got to compete on quality, and design is at the heart of that.

The way that consumers buy and think about software is different. They’re so sophisticated, they can recognize good software and bad software. When they fire up their banking app on their phone and they know that it sucks, they’re going to complain and they’re going to switch. Even though it’s a painful process to switch your financial institution, they will, because their current experience doesn’t feel good.

That’s just one sector where I see a lot of disruption happening. For me, I want to try to figure out what I can do to help these companies see how design creates value and help them change as quickly as possible so they can survive and move forward.

Do you have any particular routines or processes you've developed that help you manage your time amongst communication versus heads down work you need to get done?

I’m new to remote work, and my new position is totally remote so I’m still trying to figure some of that stuff out.

I wake up early and make breakfast for my family. I’ve got two little boys so I make breakfast for them, get them dressed and off to school. Then I run, and running helps me. Now that I’m not commuting to Atlanta, I have that time. Before I was doing a 70-mile commute three days a week, now I get to run.

During that time, I’ll either listen to a book or a podcast, or I’m just quiet. It helps me collect thoughts and ideas. That’s the thing I feel most confident about, what I bring to the table in an organization is connecting lots of different ideas. That's from studying painting, that's what painting is all about. It's creatively connecting disconnected things. Having that time where I can run or focus, that helps me tremendously with that sort of work.

Then when I need to focus and be really productive, I just turn off the Internet. That’s probably the best tool for me, the off switch. I also have this desire to check e-mail in the morning, but I find that makes me a lot less creative and productive if I do. Instead, I try to check it at the end of the day, because the morning is where my head is the clearest. If I clutter it up with all these different inputs, it’s hard to be productive.

What are some of the main tools that make up your workflow?

Google Apps - I spend a ton of time in just Google apps, Google docs, Google spreadsheets. I use spreadsheets for writing, too, which is handy, to work through ideas. I use Google Hangouts. All of those apps are super useful to me.

IA Writer - I like IA Writer when I really need to focus on a new piece.

Espresso Machine - I have a fancy espresso machine that is one of my favourite tools [laughs]. It was custom made for me in Seattle. That's my best tool. I make a latte, I turn off the Internet, and I get to work.

“The best thing I do to prevent burnout is to give myself the space for inputs. I need to read, I need to consume lots of different ideas.”

Do you ever find yourself experiencing burnout? How does that manifest for you and how do you help manage that and deal with that?

Burnout, I've felt burnout. The times where I’ve had that, it's usually when I have too many constraints upon me. I'm the sort of person that feels most comfortable with open space to explore. As more constraints are put on what I need to do, it's just not very exciting to me. For a mind like mine, where I’m connecting lots of different things, that’s most interesting when I can look broadly at those things and I’m given the space to do that. When I am overly constrained in scope of what's possible, it's just not very interesting to me.

Burnout in terms of too much work is harder for me to detect. Usually I stop sleeping very well. At that point, just making some space, taking a vacation or a break is good.

The best thing I do to prevent burnout is to give myself the space for inputs. I need to read, I need to consume lots of different ideas. I need to be able to read tons of articles. I try to read books, but I find that I cannot sit still to read them so I listen to books, that helps me. Lots of podcasts too.

I've interviewed so many different leaders, CEOs, managers over the years. A common thread that I've heard is that they spend an inordinate amount of time to reading, 50% of their day will be devoted to reading. I don't devote 50% of my day to reading, but I definitely do make it an important part of what I do. I use Nuzzel to be able to find interesting articles that are being shared on Twitter. I subscribe to a lot of newsletters to find things. I try to set myself up so that the content is coming to me and then I can kind of pick and choose from there. I save a ton of things to Instapaper and then use the read out loud feature. I’ll queue up like eight articles and just listen to them in the car or while I’m running.

I've got to have inputs, and lately what I've been doing is scheduling calls with people in the industry that I admire, that are experts on different topics. I'll just take notes, come in with a list of questions and I'll ask a lot of things to help me learn. That's always great.

Do you ever find that consuming a lot of new stuff like that can be overwhelming? There’s a lot out there and it can be a lot if you don’t have time to reflect on it or apply it to your own life.

Yeah, and there is so much right now. I feel, especially after Medium launched, there are just so many people publishing. To be honest, a lot of it is crap, a lot of it is not very good. You can sink two or three minutes per article before you realize, “this is actually not meaningful at all.” There is a point at which you can reach saturation, where you have just consumed so much and you have to stop.

For me, putting that in my brain and letting it stew, the meaningful stuff will come out. Of course, I take notes and jot things down in a Moleskine or Evernote, but I don't actually reference that writing as much, the act of writing is more about putting it in my head for the way that I learn.

What would your advice be for young designers that are eager to become better design leaders in their company, or on their teams?

I think they need to talk to people that have done it before wherever possible. Get coaching tips. The number one tip that I give people who are new to managing is that you need to be doing one on one meetings with all your direct reports. That's one of those things that I learned by not doing it.

You have to make space one on one to talk to people. It builds rapport. It helps you learn if something is going on in someone's life, if they feel dissatisfied, if they've got roadblocks in their work. These are all things that might cause them to quit. Or, it might cause them to not be very productive and they might miss a deadline. It might cause political backbiting because they’re not getting along with someone. If you make that space you can head that off.

The one thing I would say about designers who feel compelled to become managers is that you don't have to do it. You need to be honest about what that transition looks like, because it probably means you’re not going to be designing anymore. It means that you are going to be further and further away from making things.

To some people, that's okay. If you like talking to people, if you like coaching people and helping people see the big picture, that's great. I think that a lot of people feel compelled to move to a managerial role because they want to get paid more, or they want to improve their reputation in the company. They want to feel like they are growing, but you can either grow in craft by becoming a better designer, or you can grow in this new direction, which is to be a manager.

I don't feel like it's a path that everyone has to have, and in all honesty, not everyone is very good at it. It's hard to do.

“The one thing I would say about designers who feel compelled to become managers is that you don't have to do it. You need to be honest about what that transition looks like, because it probably means you’re not going to be designing anymore.”

From your experience, what aspects go along with being a design manager or leader that people don’t know until they do it?

There are a lot of therapy sessions that inevitably play out. Where people are lost and confused in their work, and they don't know what they want. They might be dissatisfied with a project or a company or they’re having a conflict with someone else. It’s a lot of conflict management and general coaching.

It was something I had to do all the time when I was a professor. Students would have issues and we would sit and talk to work through that stuff. I liked that. I liked being able to help people find joy in their life again.

A big part of being a manager is enabling people and clearing roadblocks. I always told my direct reports what their superpower was and what was their kryptonite. I would say, “This is your super power, you are really good at this, do you know that? I hired you for this.” It blows their mind, so many people don’t know what it is they’re good at.

Then I also tell them what they’re not very good at. Whether they struggle to work with others or to communicate their ideas. It gives them an honest perception of themselves so they can grow, but it also helps them collaborate with others.

If everyone knows their superpower and their kryptonite, they can collaborate better.

“Freedom is the most compelling thing to me about life. Having the freedom to try things out, the freedom to stop, to be wrong, and to learn something new. I want to always give myself that.”

Why do you do what you do, and what makes it so meaningful to you?

Software is such a part of daily life. I like that it’s changing us, changing humanity. I know that’s sort of a grand thing. I don’t feel like I’m necessarily pushing that forward in a big way, but in a small way being able to learn, try things and share that with other people. I think sharing knowledge can make us better at making software, and by making better software, it changes what’s possible for people.

In the next 15-20 years, life is going to look very different. I feel like the question of whether or not we’re going to survive on this planet will be connected to how well we make tools to solve the big problems that are in front of us. I like feeling connected—even in a very tiny way—to bigger goals like that.

I like that I get to learn all the time and work with smart people. That’s probably the most satisfying part, just the opportunity to work with incredibly smart people.

Who would you want to see on Ways We Work?

Julie Zhuo - She’s the VP of Product Design at Facebook. She’s super smart and has really interesting observations about being a designer and a manager.

Laura Martini - She went to MIT and studied engineering. With both an engineering and a UX background, she’s really gifted at seeing the big picture and how people work.

Emily Haasch, Lead Designer at Electric Objects 2016-04-20T00:00:00-04:00 2016-04-20T00:00:00-04:00 Ways We Work Team designers designers Emily Haasch is the lead designer for Electric Objects, previous to that she was the lead designer at Cards Against Humanity in Chicago. She shares how she ended up in each of those roles, her experience leading design for a team so early on in her career and her process for tackling the different challenges she faces in her work now. Emily shares some great insight into carving your own path and making the most of every opportunity.

Tell us a bit about the work you’re doing right now.

I’m the lead designer for Electric Objects — which is a very elegant way of saying that I do a little bit of everything. I split my time between doing work for product (iOS and Android), work for web, and visual design of the brand itself. I occasionally get to design for hardware, which is a unique challenge in itself.

Previously you were the lead designer at Cards Against Humanity, how did you end up in that role?

Well, I’m from Chicago. I went to an art school in the city (the School of the Art Institute of Chicago) where I spent a number of years studying graphic design, making art, creating weird little websites, learning furniture-making, and writing critical theory. I happened to go to an institution where I had both the blessing and curse of not really having a set degree path, majors, or grades. It allowed us as students to create a unique practice of our own, but it also made it a little difficult for me — who should I now work for, after four years of working for myself?

Concurrently, I was also pretty active in the design community in Chicago at the time. As I was nearing graduation, I had few colleagues pester me about a design role at Cards Against Humanity, which is based there. I wasn’t initially sure about it being the right “fit” — I was aware of and enjoyed the game, but didn’t consider myself a hardcore gamer of any sort.

Regardless, I said to myself, fuck it. I applied anyways.

A few hours later, Max Temkin, one of the founders of the game, emailed me back, and asked me to come in for an interview. Having no idea what I was doing, I immediately freaked out and kept him on hold for while, until I was able to finally come in for an interview like a week and a half later. I only remember sitting in CAH’s cramped leaky office, converted from an old pharmacy store in Logan Square, surrounded by Euro-style board games and Shawnimals plushies, and having a brief conversation about MMORPGs and InDesign. I decided it was really weird and took the job offer. From there it was sort of a “Wild West” type role. CAH had never had a designer before, and I was the third hire for this already successful company that still had a lot left to accomplish. It was a very strange and opportune chance to basically lead design at such a young age, and figure out how to build a process, established brand standards, and execute in so many different directions. Overall, it was a pretty fun ride — there were some growing pains at first, but I’d like to say I accomplished a lot by the time I left there.

“I was drawn to San Francisco partially because of my familiarity with the city and Northern California — there is still a sense here that, despite all the bullshit, you can be whomever you want to be and make whatever you want of yourself.”

How did you end up in your current role?

I worked at CAH for a while, but over time felt I needed to make a move from Chicago. Chicago’s always been my home, and it’s the city that raised me, but I didn’t feel I’d really be able to love it more unless I left it. So, onwards and upwards.

I was drawn to San Francisco partially because of my familiarity with the city and Northern California — there is still a sense here that, despite all the bullshit, you can be whomever you want to be and make whatever you want of yourself. There’s also a lot of strange people in the Bay Area and the extreme culture shock from the Midwest was something I intentionally looked for.

I made the move out here a little over a year ago and started freelancing for Electric Objects shortly after. The product director (Luke Chamberlin) and I were both following each other on Twitter, and he happened to reach out to me asking for my availability to design a small minisite project EO was doing. That small project turned into a larger contract shortly after I left my previous gig, and eventually they somehow hired me. The lesson to remember here is that you, too, can get all your client work and jobs off posting memes on Twitter.

What would you say are the most challenging aspects of the work you’re doing now?

Well, it's not necessarily the work that's hard, it's the responsibility that's hard.

Being a lead designer for EO is somewhat similar to what I did for Cards Against Humanity where I still get to touch and oversee everything. Organizing it all and coordinating with so many different types of people is really, really difficult — especially when you are working with consumer facing products that have physical, digital, and cultural components. Everybody sees what you ship all the time, so you're constantly making and it can be difficult to manage that while making sure there is a baseline of consistency to everything.

I think the other biggest challenge with EO the day-to-day aspect of designing for a commercial product, but also keeping in mind this legacy of it being something that's tied to inherently non-commercial things — art, the art world, and artists. Every day, I remind myself that it’s an honor that we have artists making work for us, using our platform, and enthusiastic about what digital art can be. Figuring out how to respect and celebrate this community — the lifeblood of the product — while also getting it into a million homes isn’t easy. But, it’s a worthy challenge.

When you're faced with something that's unfamiliar to you, or that you haven’t done before, what is your process for approaching that?

Regardless of the context, it always starts from a point of having a sense of empathy and desire for an end-action. With every project, I spend a lot of time talking to people, considering different edges cases and perspectives, and what’s actionable enough to be shipped today. This is not only for me to understand what the stakeholders actually want in the short-term, but also to for me understand our needs and preferences in the long-term. This all really comes in handy when you’re working in-house with the same people every day. The better I can understand and empathize with the personalities on my team, the better the design becomes and the more efficiently everybody works.

Are there any specific techniques that you use in terms of routines or processes that help you accomplish everything that you need to do in a day or a week?

Being in California and having most of the team in NYC, remote communication is huge for me. Thus, being available on Slack and holding regular hours is important (I shift my day to accommodate earlier East Coast hours, leaving my afternoon time for uninterrupted work).

I think it’s also important to take a little time out of every day for quick project management. Usually, the first half hour of my day is where I’ll step away from everything and just go through my tasks for the current and upcoming weeks, while identifying conflicts, emails I need to send, briefs I need more information on, freelancers I should wrangle, and other housekeeping. We use Trello, which is great for organizing lots of disparate things and seeing where projects are at across teams.

On top of that, I make sure to make time for a walk during the day at some point, because some of my best thinking happens under the hazy afternoon light we get here in California.

Being on a remote team, and keeping in touch with the team via email, and Slack, how do you balance your time spent on that versus the heads down work you need to do as a designer?

I let the West-to-East Coast time difference work to my advantage. I’m three hours behind the team in NYC, so the first half of my day is pretty functional. It’s all about meetings, checking-in, resolving conflicts, pair-coding, and making sure everything is on the right page. My afternoon is their evening, so that’s when I spend my time “heads-down”, getting work done and getting things ready for the next day. I have the rare pleasure of working for a company that keeps very regular hours and ends their day at a reasonable time (6:30p EST or earlier).

What would you say are the tools you're using on a daily basis?

Trello - For project management.

Slack - For communicating with the rest of the team. Also, emojis.

Google Hangouts - I’m checking in with people multiple times a day so it’s a great tool when it doesn’t crash.

Pen and paper - I start everything I design on paper.

Sketch - It’s fast and simple for interface work, it keeps my eyes on the screen.

Adobe Illustrator - Sketch still doesn’t treat vectors nicely or naturally, and I’m faster creating iconography in Illustrator.

Taking a walk - This is such a big tool for me, it helps me think. Also, bubble tea helps.

“Because I work at home I make it a huge point to get out of the house for a couple hours every day and constantly be going to music shows, art openings, socializing, and meeting people. It gives my brain a chance to relax and not look at my email and think about other things that put my work into perspective.”

Do you ever experience burnout and how you manage that? How you keep yourself motivated and going on multiple different things?

As a designer, I’d be a huge liar if I said I never experienced burnout. Sadly, with the industry as it is nowadays, it’s merely a matter of when, not if.

I think a huge part of it is communicating with my product director and other members of the team when I'm too swamped. There’s a mutual respect on each’s authority around what we do, so if we need to bring in a contractor or we need to move projects back, there’s always a good understanding of what needs to happen.

I think for me, having other hobbies and interests outside of my work day really helps to reset everything. Because I work at home, I make it a huge point to get out of the house for a couple hours every single day and constantly be going to music shows, art openings, socializing, and meeting people. It gives my brain a chance to think about other things that put my work into perspective. As a designers, we’re paid to be observant of the world around us, so the “down-time” to experience different facets of life is just as crucial as what you ship.

Why do you do what you do? What makes working in design so meaningful to you and why do you enjoy it?

I do what I do because honestly, makes the most sense to me. I love creating things that really resonate with people — things that cause emotion and affection, much like how art does. Design is another way for me to make art, but in the context of technology, accessibility, and collaborating towards a specific task with a little bit of expression built in.

Who would you want to see on Ways We Work?

Jenna Blazevich / Vitchcraft (Chicago) — She specializes in lettering and calligraphy, and has recently built a successful business from the ground up in doing so. I'm fond of her art projects and the ways she lends her skills to unusual projects, like iOS games.

Eileen Tjan / Other Studio (Chicago) — Eileen also built a business from the ground up, and is becoming an impressive designer and manager of her own studio. I love her work, her attitude, and her commitment to being a badass female-owned business in what's still primarily a male community.

Eddy Urcades (formerly Austin, now NYC) — Eddy and I met as online friends, and regularly hang out IRL when I'm in NYC. He has a really fascinating practice, having come from an industrial design background, to doing strange and surprising projects at IBM, and now as part of the product design team at Tumblr. He continues to do a lot of conceptual and art-based works in his spare time, which are above the norm for most designers I see in tech nowadays.

Akasha Di Tomasso, Communications & PR at Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment 2016-04-13T00:00:00-04:00 2016-04-13T00:00:00-04:00 Ways We Work Team communicators communicators Akasha is the Coordinator of Corporate Communications at MLSE, which means that she gets to work with teams like the Leafs, the Raptors and TFC. She started as an intern at MLSE three years ago and is now working in her dream role, working with her team to manage day-to-day communications and PR for all their brands and teams. I've seen some of the incredible events and experiences she's been a part of via social media, and I wanted to know more about her role. She shares how she got into communications, the intensity of working in sports PR and why she loves what she does.

Tell us a little bit about what you do.

I’m the Coordinator of Corporate Communications at Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (or MLSE). We own six sports teams in total: the Leafs, the Raptors, TFC, the Toronto Marlies, Raptors 905 and TFC II. We also operate the Air Canada Centre, Ricoh Coliseum and BMO field in Toronto. In addition, we have three restaurants: Real Sports Bar & Grill in Toronto and Ottawa and e11even. My role encompasses day-to-day communications and PR for all of our brands and our teams, surrounding everything that the company does with the exception of the teams’ performances on the court.

We have a separate PR team that handles post-game press conferences, trades and new signings. They are more traditional sports PR, where I’m more involved with brand and partner initiatives that happen outside of the court, the field or the ice. As an example, every year the Leafs do a practice in the community presented by SportChek - because it’s a partnership initiative I would execute the PR by working with SportChek’s team. There’s a lot more of those types of things than most people might think. For example, when DeMar DeRozan launched his book club this year with First Book Canada and BMO, that became something I would handle the media relations for.

The Corporate Communications team also works on longer-term initiatives, like the Raptors ‘We The North’ campaign. We were responsible for trying to get that video on as many broadcasts as possible, the morning it came out. I also run the MLSE PR social media which we’ve been building from the ground up. I’ve been trying to work on making sure we’re announcing things on Twitter at the same time that an email or press release goes out--that’s new to us and isn’t something we’ve done before.

“Despite being an arts kid my entire life I knew I wanted to work in sports. It was always something I was passionate about but couldn’t see myself working in. Sports was never something I thought I could work in, especially as a woman, but PR gave me that option.”

What was your path to your current role like?

It was definitely a whirlwind. Out of high school I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do so I took a year off and when I was ready to explore post-secondary options I looked at a few like advertising, journalism, and PR. I always felt I was a strong communicator both orally and through writing. I applied for all three programs and settled on PR. I’m the first to admit that I didn’t really have a concept of what PR was--I don’t think many people do.

It’s one of those elusive jobs that you could never really describe until you’re in it. We joke around a lot that most people base what they know about PR off of Samantha Jones from Sex in the City, which isn’t even close to what we do [laughs]. In my first year I realized both how much work and how multifaceted the industry was. Despite being an arts kid my entire life I knew I wanted to work in sports. It was always something I was passionate about but couldn’t see myself working in. Sports was never something I thought I could work in, especially as a woman, but PR gave me that option.

In third year we had to do an internship, so I applied at MLSE and started in internal communications. It wasn’t what I wanted to do long term but the end goal was to work at MLSE and that was a jumping off point. Halfway through my internship, there was a change in management that saw my direct manager leave the company. That was super stressful because I had no idea what was going to happen to me, that sounds really selfish, but I was only there for 4 months and didn’t know what I should do next. I took the initiative to start doing a lot of the work that he would have been doing, without knowing what would happen and by the end of my internship my team realized they needed someone to continue carrying out these day-to-day tasks.

That turned into a part-time contract, then slowly I started taking on more responsibilities, like writing community-focused blogs for the Leafs and the Raptors. Based on the writing I did, they started letting me write more, working on external pieces and first drafts of media advisories and press releases. When my current senior director started and evaluated the team, he appreciated my work ethic and my diploma in PR and I continued to work at MLSE through another two full-time contracts. There were several times where my contract was coming to an end and it seemed there wasn’t room for me to stay, so I just kept my head down and kept working hoping for the best.

“We joke around in our department and always say #next, because there’s no time to stop. By the end of one event we’re already thinking about the next big press conference or whatever is coming up next.”

Obviously a lot of your role is communications and being reactive, how do you manage your time so that you can still address the heads down work you need to do?

It can definitely be a challenge, time management is really big for me. We try to zero in on what the priority is at the time and focus on that, whether it be for an hour or a day, and then move onto the next thing. There can be a lot of context switching, we work with so many different teams and brands and the way they all communicate is very different.

It helps that we work on so many amazing things that keep us inspired but it can be really hard to switch gears so frequently. We just prioritize and zero in on what needs to be done at that moment, then we finish it and move onto the next thing. We joke around in our department and always say #next, because there’s no time to stop [laughs]. By the end of one event we’re already thinking about the next big press conference or whatever is coming up next. For example, the day that the Toronto Argonauts announced they were playing at BMO field was the same day the news came out that Mike Babcock was signing in Toronto. We were in the middle of this press conference and were being flooded with emails about Mike Babcock’s press conference the next day. Our minds were already starting to wander to that next thing but we always make sure we’re focusing on the task at hand and then #next. It’s kind of crazy.

What percentage would you say is reactive versus proactive?

It definitely depends on the day. There are some days we are completely reactive, if a story is broken or something of huge interest is happening. So for example, last week the Raptors were chasing their potential 50th win. I was working on having the Starbucks barista Sam Forbes and his manager Chris Ali from the Ellen DeGeneres show coming down to the game so I was zeroed in on that. At the same time though we were getting all these requests from news outlets wanting to figure out a different shot or place that they could do their stand up or interviews for the Raptors 50th win. In terms of percentage, it’s about 50/50 proactive versus reactive, which probably isn’t typical to the PR industry.

A lot of PR is about being proactive and pitching stories and getting news out there, and we do that with our community events and partnerships for sure. But, something can happen and then our whole day is gone and that’s just the nature of the business. It means you stay late sometimes to finish up all the stuff you need to get done. It’s definitely interesting and it always keeps you guessing. I spend a lot of time getting up from my desk and heading downstairs because there's a news outlet outside our building that has a question and I’ll go down to assist them. That's part of the job and why I love it because it's never a dull moment.

“Your demeanor is your work and that’s what people are judging you off of, that’s what your performance is based off of. There’s a lot to be said for being able to do that.”

Do you ever experience burnout working in such a fast-paced environment and having to be turned “on” all the time? How do you handle that?

It has happened before where I’ve worked 16 days in a row without a full day off, just because there’s been so many events. That’s okay with me. When I was in school I was taking full-time classes and working 40 hours a week serving. I would hit that wall of exhaustion a lot and I just kept working through it. I think that prepared me for this role.

It helped me learn to handle that type of stress and exhaustion, because in the service industry your income is directly dependent on how you function after being on your feet for eight hours straight. It’s very similar to my role now, it’s about being in front of people all of the time, and communicating in a respectful, professional and approachable way. You need to exude confidence and positivity, no matter how stressed out you might be. I do find occasionally I’ll hit that wall and I can get a little bit goofy but I can still maintain my composure. Once I do have the opportunity to stop, I don’t want to talk to anyone for a little while [laughs].

Your demeanor is your work and that’s what people are judging you off of, that’s what your performance is based off of. There’s a lot to be said for being able to do that. If you’re working in data entry or in design or any role where it’s you and your computer for the most part, you may have meetings but I feel there’s very few jobs where you literally are your work.

So what does a typical week look like for you?

Each week follows a similar structure. I wake up around 7-7:30 and check my phone and Twitter. In our industry it’s really important to know not just what’s going on in Toronto but in the world, because it directly affects our job and how we do it.

I grab my coffee and then lately I’ve been doing our media clips. We send clips about all of our teams to about 400 people in the company. As of late it’s been my job because we don’t have an intern at the moment. That takes me anywhere from an hour and a half to three hours if it’s a Monday and we’re following news from the past weekend. I consolidate all of that and send it out so that everyone is familiar with what’s being written about our brands and what the news is that day. We try to send them out by 9am.

From there anything can happen, usually I’ll be doing things related to preparing for any appearances we have that week. It could be a morning show in the studio between 6am and 9am, and prepping whoever our talent is for that. Whether it’s a player or management or even sometimes stuff with our dancers to help build hype and get our brands on the air. I could be going in and writing up an advisory or a press release if there’s something coming up. There’s always a lot of meetings as well, we have a weekly meeting for each of our brands. From there we figure out how we can amplify the most recent events or initiatives and then I’ll dive into emails.

Those can be responding to questions or requests for a statement from our media contacts or inquiries about setting up an interview. There's a number of things that we juggle and I try to look at what news is coming out during that week just so I can make sure I'm on top of it for social and make sure that I'm aware of when a press release is coming out. A lot of it is trying to plan. Sometimes our planning gets interrupted but for the most part that's how it breaks down.

“I don’t like disappointing anybody and a lot of the people who are reaching out are contacts that I value and that I’ve built up over my three years at MLSE. It’s hard to say no to them. I think that’s something I’m still learning and it never gets easier but I no longer think I'm making people hate me now [laughs].”

What tools are you using on a daily basis?

Twitter - I use Twitter to help me gauge whether or not I’m going to be successful with something I’m pitching. If I pick up the phone blind and call an assignment desk that’s in the middle of covering something else like the election or another big news story and I’m calling to pitch them something unrelated, I’m damaging my own reputation and credibility. So Twitter helps with that.

Meltwater - This is a media monitoring service that I use every morning to help pull clips. It makes it really easy to compile all the articles for our brands, as you can imagine, there’s a lot of them everyday.

Critical Mention - Meltwater is great for web and print media but Critical Mention is used to pull broadcast footage from events. I’d use it to pull CTVs coverage of when I had Sam and Chris [the Starbucks barista and manager from the Ellen DeGeneres show] at the game and practice for example. I can compile all of the footage from their experience with the Raptors and put it into a report for anyone who needs to see that.

Word & Excel - I write non-stop. We have certain templates that we follow for advisories and press releases that have to consistent across the board for all MLSE materials and it helps to have those saved and just work right off of them in Word. In Excel I have a lot of lists, a lot of RSVP lists, spreadsheets with media information. If I'm doing a media tour I will have times, addresses, and contact information so I have to put that all into a concise format that's easy for everyone to read.

Spotify - There is so much awesome stuff going on in the office that sometimes it can be distracting. I have to write in that environment a lot of the time. I use Spotify non-stop so I can just put on a playlist to focus and just zone out. Primarily when I'm writing I will listen to jazz but sometimes depending on what I'm working on it could be country, it could be rock.

What do you find is the hardest part of what you do?

There’s probably two parts to this. Meeting Sam and Chris was incredible, I spent all night with them on Monday and all day Tuesday and they were so inspiring. Sometimes I wish I could delve a little deeper on projects like that. I’m lucky I get to work on them at all but there isn’t always the time to stop and reflect which can be difficult.

The second thing is that I’m a really friendly and outgoing person, and saying no is always really hard for me. We work so hard to accommodate all the requests that we get but it’s not always possible. I don’t like disappointing anybody and a lot of the people who are reaching out are contacts that I value and that I’ve built up over my three years at MLSE. It’s hard to say no to them. I think that’s something I’m still learning and it never gets easier but I no longer think I'm making people hate me now [laughs].

Personally, I’d love to say yes to everything, but a lot of the time it’s not up to me. The one thing I’ve learned is that when I’m approached either internally or by a media contact, is it’s always helpful to have an email thread. If I get a call that's asking me for a statement I’ll always ask that the request be put it into an email so that I can make sure I get it to the right person.

It's just one of those things. I understand that media are working on a deadline and that’s they’re job. The phone is quickest for them but I’m also doing my job when I’m ensuring that the statement or response comes from the right place.

“Sports are so much bigger than what happens on the court, or the ice, or the field. It brings people together and that’s probably the coolest thing about sports-it’s not just the rules, it’s not just going to a game. It changes lives and I don’t know anything else, other than music maybe, that impacts so many people’s lives like that.”

Why do you do what you do? What makes it so meaningful to you?

For any sports fan it’s obviously a dream come true. I may be biased, but the Leafs are the biggest hockey team in Canada and one of the most storied franchises. The Raptors are the only Canadian basketball franchise. It’s incredible to be part of something that’s so much larger than yourself. I don’t think the teams and the players even realize the impact they have on people sometimes in their day-to-day lives.

Realistically, the Leafs winning or losing doesn’t impact the way someone lives, but the inspiration and the feeling it evokes from people is amazing. The fans are so passionate and it’s really cool to be a part of that. I know that no matter where I go in Toronto, without failure I will always see someone in a Leafs hat or a Raptors hoodie.

Who knows, maybe seeing the Raptors visit Sick Kids made someone feel inspired and like they could relate to the team more, or that they appreciate them more. It’s incredible how sports can change lives. The players visit a hospital and give a child a memory they’ll remember for their entire life. I’ve gotten better at not getting emotional at events but afterwards I’ll watch videos of those visits and I’m just a wreck. I can’t believe that this is my job. I think that’s why I do it, special initiatives like that. Sports are so much bigger than what happens on the court, or the ice, or the field. It brings people together and that’s probably the coolest thing about sports-it’s not just the rules, it’s not just going to a game. It changes lives and I don’t know anything else, other than music maybe, that impacts so many people’s lives like that.

Who would you want to see on Ways We Work?

Kat Stefankiewicz, she’s the host for the Toronto Raptors. She also hosts a number of third party events and curates content for her own weekly series called Raptors Rundown. She’s hugely involved on social media with her own personal brand and I just think she’s really awesome. She started as a member and then captain of the Raptors Dance Pak and has grown into this inspiring personality who’s so involved with the Raptors. People look to her for a lot of the information about the team and what’s going on.

Brittany Scott, she does Community & Player Relations for the Toronto Raptors. She works with every single player on the team and executes these incredible opportunities every day. She was a big part of what we did with Sam and Chris. A day later she's meeting a teenager with lupus and bringing him to meet with DeMar DeRozan. These are the types of things that she does as her job and she literally changes people’s lives every day.

Jeffrey Garriock, he’s a freelance videographer who used to work at MLSE. He was one of our producers, editors and videographers. About a year and half ago he got a job with a company called G-Adventures where he basically got to travel the world and capture these stunning visuals. He is now working freelance. I’d just love to know how he organizes his life.

Christopher Lund, he’s the community manager for the Toronto Maple Leafs. He manages all of their social media and for a team where the fans are so involved you can imagine how intense his job is sometimes. He manages to do it all with this great sense of humor and tact that I can't even imagine having under such an intense microscope.

Graham Roumieu, Illustrator & Author 2016-04-06T00:00:00-04:00 2016-04-06T00:00:00-04:00 Ways We Work Team illustratorauthor illustratorauthor Graham is an illustrator and author, and has been doing freelance illustration for the last fifteen years. I first met Graham about ten years ago through a mutual friend. I've always been a huge fan of his work and have been amazed how much he can communicate with a few strokes of ink. I stopped by Graham's place in Toronto recently to have a couple drinks and chat about his work. He shares his path to illustration, the grind of freelance work and the hardest thing about what he does.

Tell us a little bit about what you do.

I've been a freelance illustrator for fifteen years now and, surprisingly, it’s gone by incredibly fast. I was thinking about it the other day because I got an invitation to my twentieth high school reunion and I had to do the math in my head. Taking away the time I spent in art school, yeah, it's been fifteen years. Also, I'm terrible at math, so it took me a whole day to figure that out [laughs]. I currently do a lot of editorial work and a lot of that editorial work happens to be for print publications, which I think is becoming rarer and rarer. I have also worked on books with other people and I have a series of my own books, which I've both written and illustrated. I guess the biggest ones would be the series of fake Bigfoot autobiographies, where Bigfoot talks about his failed screenwriting career and his problem with sleeping in the mud and that sort of thing.

The Bigfoot books, in particular, started as a school project where the actual assignment was to take a piece of existing literature, say like 1984 or Three Musketeers and illustrate it as someone would if they were hired to illustrate a book. I couldn't think of what I wanted to do, so I wound up falling into writing this character, who is the most screwed up but honest and heartfelt guy. He was just spewing his guts out about how he is just not quite understood. From that, it turned into three published books and a handful of other non-Bigfoot books.

What was your path to becoming an illustrator and author?

One of my first memories of school–aside from being afraid of falling off playground equipment or losing my mittens–was writing and illustrating a story about a bunch of kids who find a cave on a hill that was filled with goblins. It wasn't something that was asked for by my teacher, but I think at that point I had already developed such a love for picture books, which I think is absolutely normal for little kids. I think I had some extra fascination with how you can tell a story with images.

In high school I had one meeting with a career counselor that didn't go well. I can't remember exactly what I said, but I was a teenager and I was probably being a sarcastic asshole. I remember this lady was very kind and patient, but I managed to break her patience and she said as she rolled her eyes and pushed some papers away, “well, you're just going to be homeless,” which was very frightening for me. To give you a little more background, I grew up in a very small town that was quite isolated; a place called Smithers, British Columbia. It's the home of the egg carton. I don't think nearly enough people know this. Unfortunately, the guy who invented it is long since dead, so he can't be interviewed for Ways We Work [laughs]. As pleasant as my surroundings and childhood were, I really didn't understand much about the world aside from watching things on cable TV; and that only came in when I was thirteen or fourteen years old. I didn't really know what it was to be an artist, I didn't know what it was to be an illustrator. I most definitely had the interest but I also didn't know what people did for money; other than the things that people did for money who were around me. My parents ran a business on main street, sold insurance, which was nice, but I don't think it was terribly exciting. There were people who worked in sawmills and others things you’d think people would do in a remote town in the mountains of British Columbia.

It took me awhile to figure out what I wanted to do, but I did figure out. It was this force of nature in the sense that I just wasn't good at anything else. I was already naturally good at drawing pictures, so there was a certain push in my own mind or an obviousness that I wanted to pursue being some sort of a visual artist. I thought about being an animator or a graphic designer, but I had no idea what those even meant. They just sounded great. I think I wanted to go into advertising once because I heard they make a lot of money. Then I came to Toronto, I went to Sheridan college in Oakville and took a one-year general arts course and ended up in illustration. I started as a fairly terrible student in that program but by the end, I was pretty sure that's what I wanted to do. By the first third of my last year, I was already out showing my portfolio to different places and halfway through the year I got my first commercial job and it just snowballed from there.

“I would show up at these people’s offices and I really didn't know what I was doing. I was approaching magazines and showing them my stuff that often subject-wise had little to do with what the magazine was about. It would be like walking into NASA and showing them your cooking expertise or something like that.”

Was freelance just what illustrators did or how did you fall into freelance, say, versus being employed somewhere?

When I graduated back in 2001, I think some advertising agencies still had some in house illustrators that would render things for decks and make beer bottles look extra cool and sweaty. Within a year that was, for the most part, gone. I think two or three of them actually still exist, at least in Toronto. There were also companies, like landscape architecture firms that would hire people to do renderings and so on. It became apparent that I wasn't going to land a job somewhere which, in hindsight, was a good thing because I knew I had my own voice. Working on the Bigfoot book really proved to me that I could do something on my own. I went out and showed my portfolio that had stapled together copies of the Bigfoot book and this other book that I did with a classmate. I would show up at these people’s offices and I really didn't know what I was doing. I was approaching magazines and showing them my stuff that often subject-wise had little to do with what the magazine was about. It would be like walking into NASA and showing them your cooking expertise or something like that. The subject matters couldn't be further apart. Everyone who works on magazine design has most likely gone through art school, but they have interests outside of whatever subject matter they are working on. I just happened to get along with the designers really well, they liked my work and they took a risk and hired me. From there it just kept going and going and going. It wasn't necessarily easy all the time. There was a lot of self-promotion in the sense that I was constantly producing my own work to say to potential clients I was alive and wanting to do work with them.

You mentioned that The Bigfoot book was a school project, was it self-published or did someone approach you about publishing it?

When I first got out of school, there was an instructor that I had my last year, a guy named Blair Drawson who's a fantastic instructor. He liked and got what I was doing, so he brought me in to see his rep, a guy named Bill Grigsby who ran a place in Toronto called Reactor; which is one of the great illustration agencies of Toronto. He looked at my portfolio–thankfully Bill has a good sense of humour and doesn't mind missing limbs and that sort of stuff– and he saw the Bigfoot book. A lot of his artists had published everything from indie comics to commercial kids books. They printed so much that they had a literary agent on retainer who took what existed of my book–which was about two thirds of what would end up being the published book–and sent it out into the world and a publisher picked it up.

“I have experienced those periods. It's funny how “too much” is not necessarily too much volume of something, but it's just too much of a certain way of thinking about something or a certain way of being responded to. The exhaustion can come in different forms.”

Do you ever experience burnout or periods where you are disconnected with your work? If so, how do you pull yourself out of that headspace?

I have experienced those periods. It's funny how “too much” is not necessarily too much volume of something, but it's just too much of a certain way of thinking about something or a certain way of being responded to. The exhaustion can come in different forms. You have bad months and, in my case, I've lost my sense of pride about what I did and the work suffered for it. The easiest way to get out of that headspace is when the most wonderful project, that seems like it was created just for you, falls in your lap. That can be the smelling salt, or whatever you want to call it, to wake up.

I've learned that if you are tired or frustrated and start to make shitty work, of course people will notice and stop hiring you. People aren't stupid, especially when you're working with and for people whose skill in this world is to recognize what is and isn't good visual work. They'll get it. To recover from it in the past, the unicorn assignment has shown up, but other times it's just realizing, and taking a step back from the work. I'll feel shitty and feel like I can't do the work or don't want to do the work and I can recognize that in myself now and stop. There have been times where I recognize, at some basic level, that the drawing I’m working on isn't good or the thinking isn't good. When this happens I know what I'm doing has to change in some way. It's either introducing something new or just flushing my brain of this notion that my job is anything more than just drawing good pictures. There is no one good answer to the question. Maybe, be honest about how you’re feeling and how the work looks and if something is going wrong fix it or prepare to die?

It is so important to be in the right headspace to do this sort of job. The older I get, the more experience I have, the more annoyed I get by distraction and the more protective I am of my workspace, my mental states and my career, I suppose. I see it as a very precious thing. I'm trying not to blow this out of proportion, but it is something that does need to be protected in a way. Sometimes I require certain things like time, I require practical things like quiet and the ability to get into that meditative state where I am doing something naturally and to the fullest of my abilities.

“The drawings that I draw, I'm not doing anything fancy with them. It's just some lines and watercolour, but what's amazing about them is they convey this thing about me and about the subject matter.”

How do you balance the creative work and the administrative aspects of what you do like self-promotion and selling your personal brand?

The most difficult thing I have to do is when my crappy little printer runs out of ink [laughs]. I feel like that's an intrusion into my life and I have to go find someplace in a large metropolitan area that sells ink. Little things like that bother me but for the most part it goes back to keeping things absolutely as simple as they can possibly be. The drawings that I draw, I'm not doing anything fancy with them. It's just some lines and watercolour, but what's amazing about them is they convey this thing about me and about the subject matter. I guess there is some similarities in the way I run my business, as far as doing accounting and that sort of stuff or invoicing or marketing. I have a website and it is a very simple. It’s an off the shelf Squarespace site and I fill it with what I hope is good work. When I do marketing, I like to have fun with it so I have a book of stamps in my desk and a bunch of pieces of watercolour paper around my studio. If I want to reach out to somebody I will just draw something on a piece of paper and send it out. It's like having magical powers in a way [laughs]. I have way too many little pieces of paper in the sense of art paper or watercolour paper and like any freelancer, receipts and shit, it drives me crazy, but I just stuff those in a place and it works itself out eventually.

Emailing is nice too. I do some of the twittering and Instagram. I love Instagram. It's the best thing in the world. I don't know if it's helped me business wise at all, but I just enjoy it. It helps me get pictures out into the world which is so important to me.

Are there any tools you use to make your life more productive?


Adobe CS4



Flatbed scanner that appears to be designed by Jawas.

“When you are all alone out in the cold wilderness and it's just you and you are standing at the cliff's edge and the wind blows; that's every day in the freelance world.”

What's the hardest thing about what you do?

There have been times where I get the promise of something big, project-wise, and then it falls through. I find that difficult to deal with. It's like how liver filters blood; I feel like there needs to be an organ in the body that deals with this special kind of disappointment [laughs]. I guess it's about being wise and disciplined and I should know better. When I get that email or I get that phone call and the person on the other end is like “we've got this crazy idea and it's for a campaign for so-and-so” and it's like, “oh my god.” I can’t sleep, the mind races and I'm like “what will I say at the awards show?” [laughs] Of course it's like a Greek tragedy or a fable; the universe is going to come back when you start dreaming and be like “Nope. Did you really think you were going to put a down payment on a house?” That's a hard feeling to deal with. What's that called when a plane just starts falling? The death spiral?

There's a difference too about freelancing and dealing with disappointment like that. Maybe this is unfair to say or maybe the comparison isn't right, but when you are all alone out in the cold wilderness and it's just you and you are standing at the cliff's edge and the wind blows; that's every day in the freelance world. Versus, say, working at an agency where you are at a board room table and there are twenty others in the room trying to figure out who farted. Somebody walks in, like an account director, and announces “well, we just lost the Philson's account” and people look at each other and are like, “so, what's for lunch?”

At the end of the day, you just have to be a grown up about it and get out of bed the next day, sit down, read the newspaper and start over.

Why do you do what you do? What makes it meaningful to you?

There is a pure satisfaction of doing it; illustration is what I'm best at. There is a genuine, pure, humbled-by-the-universe amazement that I get to do this every day and that's why I do it. It's exciting to get better at it every day too.

What does it mean to get better at it? To get better at drawing pictures? What are you doing when you draw a picture?

Black magic. Some sort of crazy voodoo [laughs]. I'm creating something that someone can look at and on the surface say that it looks like a beautiful picture but, hopefully, people look at it and also get what's being said; they get the joke, they get the sense of it. It's just a crazy thing that someone, some total stranger somewhere, can look at the drawing and get it. I’m not assuming that every single person in the world gets what I do, but there are plenty of cases where I get random emails and it's like the magical system worked. The actual mechanics of a bunch of ink and some splashes of paint on a page got transferred somewhere by some medium and on the other end a person looked at it and was like “Ahhhh.” It's not a diagram of something, it's not an Ikea booklet on how you put your dresser together. It takes some thinking and there has to be some connection through commonality and just being a human being. People will connect to the drawing and it's just, wow, that's amazing. I think I'm getting better at that, and I think part of that is that I'm getting older, and I have more to say, or I know more about the world. I do miss twenty one year old me that was daring to do anything and show my drawings to people. That worked, but now I can do that weird thing that pictures can sometimes do which is have an effect on people. Not a significant effect like cure cancer or anything, but someone could look at the picture and be like “hah.”

Who would you like to see featured on Ways We Work?

There's two people. The creative director of the Atlantic, a guy named Darhil Crooks who's worked his way up through magazine design and is running probably the best general interest magazine in the world right now. From a magazine that was struggling a bit a few years ago, to one that is amazing and thriving now. I feel like he would have a lot of insight on what it is to work in the world of magazines today.

There is a guy, a friend, Brandon Olson who is a chef here in Toronto. He and his fiancée are running a company called Chocolates by Brandon Olson. He's worked at many excellent restaurants, the last being Bar Isabelle, one of the most celebrated new restaurants in Canada. Brandon can cook all varieties of things but found himself in making chocolates.

Igloo 2016-04-04T00:00:00-04:00 2016-04-04T00:00:00-04:00 Ways We Work Team When it comes to company intranets and collaboration platforms, many people have some scar tissue associated with the concept. So when I first encountered the team at Igloo, I was immediately interested in learning how they were tackling something that has, in the past, been a pain point for many. An intranet solution means different things to different teams, serves a wide range of purposes and above all has to be enjoyable to use. The team at Igloo has made that their mission. Igloo is a collaboration platform for teams both small and large with features like private blogs, file sharing, task management and company wikis. We spent an afternoon in February with the product team at Igloo to learn about the team’s structure and the way they approach product development.

Igloo is located in the heart of downtown Kitchener, in what was the former offices of a large Canadian bank. The team of close to 100 is located on the second floor. Matt and I took the elevator and landed outside the Igloo office, greeted by their front desk and honorary greeter-a mannequin named Norm. Norm is one of those things that starts as an inside joke in the office and just kind of sticks. We were greeted next by Marine Dumontier who works on the marketing team at Igloo. She explained that Norm was originally meant to keep the front desk company in their previous office and quickly became somewhat of a mascot. She added that before they shifted to more frequent product release cycles, he would often be dressed up based on the names of their major releases, like ‘Unicorn’ and ‘Viking’.

Moving past the entrance and into the office, the space was made up of two main open areas, connected by the kitchen and large glass board rooms. Along the edges of both spaces were smaller breakout rooms and desks were grouped in clusters based on the team. A white board near the support team read ‘Bug of the Month’, which Marine explained was where every month, the team would find both a very interesting bug in the insect world and an interesting bug in the software and talk about both. After the tour I met Michael Mackuliak, Igloo’s Director of Product Management to learn more about the product team and how they run their release cycles.

The product team at Igloo is made up of three product managers including Michael, and each product manager acts as a champion for one of Igloo’s three main roadmaps. Those three roadmaps, Michael explained are extensibility, enhancement and enterprise. Extensibility is how Igloo can integrate with other software their users rely on, with tools like Dropbox, Google and Slack. Enhancement is defined simply as how they can make the current product better, updates and improvements. Then the enterprise roadmap involves thinking about how they can scale the platform and architecture for larger organizations. Each product manager will make the case for why they think a feature in their roadmap should be prioritized for the upcoming cycle based on measuring it up against its impact to the product as whole. Things like what its impact will be on retaining customers, new revenue, and operational efficiency. Even though each product manager acts as the owner of their roadmap, together the team will take a holistic view at everything and decide what is priority.

From there the work will be defined as a product card, which Michael explained is a card where the idea will be scoped out and well-defined enough to be executed. He added that the team roughly tackles about five product cards per cycle, and they always end up being a blend of the three roadmaps. In addition to the product manager’s ideas, Igloo is continuously getting requests from users. Those end up becoming product cards as well and the team will use the same process for weighing those features, of course keeping in mind how frequently something has been requested. For example, if a feature is being highly requested, but doesn’t seem to score well against the current lens the product team is using, that helps the team reevaluate how they’re framing their thinking going forward.

“Build in five dollar bills. Don't try and take on doing a 20 dollar bill, because if you only get halfway, then you only have half of a 20 dollar bill and a product that is half-baked. This way you can deliver value incrementally.”

Once the team knows what features are going to be the focus for the next cycle, they’ll kick off the first of two 2-week sprints with a sprint planning session. This involves working closely with the development team to break each product card down into stories and deciding how much can be done in the first 2-week sprint. Every day there will be a stand-up to review progress that’s been made, remove roadblocks and make adjustments where needed. Each product manager assumes the role of a product owner and maintains a high-level view of the feature throughout the course of the 2-week sprints. Michael added that working this way, even for larger projects has allowed the team to deliver value incrementally throughout the process.

Previously Igloo was building and releasing updates in much longer time frames, so I talked with Joe Capka, the team’s VP of Tech about why they decided to make this change and how it came about. Joe manages the three directors that fall within the core product team: development, QA and product management (Michael’s team). Joe mentioned that for some time at Igloo there was a desire internally to move to a more agile process, but introducing new ways of working is always challenging and it can be difficult to determine where to start. After a lot of discussion, they decided to just dive in, starting small and introducing the sprint model. They reorganized the teams and developed three sprint teams made up of testers, developers and a product manager and experimented with running sprints.

“We thought about it for a while and then at one point it was just like all right, rip off the band-aid and go do it. So we started bottom-up in the sense of doing sprints.”

That worked great, but one of the main challenges was how they could apply this way of working to instances where the team needs to be more reactive, dealing with bugs and being able to put out fires. Joe elaborated on this, “if you commit to two weeks sprint, you really commit to doing this work and something comes up, it distracts you, it disrupts you and there goes your sprint.” The way they’ve mitigated this is by adding a “scramble” team. The scramble team deals with first in, first out work and are able to drop everything if something blows up. They’ll put in a tactical fix, recommend a strategic long-term fix, add it to the backlog and move on. It also gives team members flexibility in regards to what team they might be best suited for. Joe added, “it's a different type of individual, we have people that have been in both or people that prefer one over the other.”

Another challenge they discovered was translating the work done in sprints, up to longer term roadmaps. Joe explained the reality of having users and customers asking about long term plans for various features, or wanting to know when something would be built. The list can get long fast, and so finding a way to translate the work happening from daily standups, to sprints, and into quarterly or even yearly roadmaps was important. Joe added that this is something they continue to work on as a team but so far have at least been able to articulate what will be coming in the next cycle, and even the cycle after that. It’s a balance of being agile and being able to course correct, while still being able to keep a high-level view of the overall direction for the product. Joe illustrated that his role in this process is about being able to move between the 100,000 foot view, and 10,000 foot view. With his goals being quarterly, he’ll sit in on demos in the 2-week sprints and keep a high-level view of what’s happening within each monthly cycle, which will ideally translate to goals for that quarter. Which will then translate to various marketing efforts and other organization-wide efforts.

“We're still trying to figure that out, we have not cracked that nut but this is one way toward saying, "Okay well we can at least tell you what we're doing in the next cycle and we've locked it in and then what we're doing after that." It's an idea to commit but then be able to correct.”

Working within the three roadmaps helps to contextualize these high level goals, since their user base has such different interests and needs. Joe gave an example of their extensibility roadmap with being able to integrate with Dropbox, “is that enterprise? No it's not a need for scalability or performance anything like that. Is it an enhancement? Well sort of, but not really it's not the same as us adding features to our product, right?” He added that this helps with decision-making at a high level, looking at what is most important to them as a company at the moment. Joe explained that it might be really important to focus on enterprise for a cycle, which tells them they need to pick a little more from the enterprise roadmap at the sprint and release cycle level.

After chatting with both Michael and Joe, Matt and I toured around the office one last time. Someone whizzed by us on a hoverboard handing out paychecks, and we couldn’t resist embarrassing ourselves a little bit by trying out the hoverboards ourselves. The team at Igloo is all about creating software to make collaboration between teams easier, and so it was a bit meta to see how they themselves adjust and adapt as a team to collaborate more effectively. With so many different moving parts it was interesting to gain a little behind the scenes peek at how their product evolves on both a daily, micro scale and a more macro level.

Thanks to the team at Igloo for having us. They're currently looking for people to join their team!

Huda Idrees, Head of Product & Design at Wealthsimple 2016-03-30T00:00:00-04:00 2016-03-30T00:00:00-04:00 Ways We Work Team designers designers Huda Idrees leads the product and design teams at Wealthsimple, previous to that she was a product designer at Wave and Wattpad. Recently I had the opportunity to chat with Huda about what her role involves, how she got started working in product design and how she approaches the challenges she faces in her work. What I found most inspiring is her fearless attitude towards problem-solving and the way she has made the most of every opportunity in her career. She has great insight for those just getting started or looking to make their next career step.

Tell me a little bit about your role at Wealthsimple?

I lead the product and design teams, so anything that the users see, or interface with goes through my team. We’re a team of designers and developers. My role morphed from being the only designer, to a broader role that encompasses all the different platforms we now exist on. We’re on the web, we have native apps on iOS and Android and we even have an Apple Watch app now. I'm secretly very proud of that [laughs]. It’s just one of those things that helps you envision what the future will look like. If we didn’t have giant desktops, or laptop screens, what would the story be that we tell people about investing their money? I’m also leading our new office design--so my role of designer has definitely been stretched!

So you lead the product and design teams, how many people are on those teams and what’s the structure of them like?

We split our design efforts into product and marketing. I focus the majority of my time on our web and mobile product, as well as parts of Marketing collateral such as banners, swag and content is handled by a separate team.

At the moment, we work with a few freelance designers in addition to our in-house product team. Overall, it’s a team of 6, our 4 developers and 2 designers.

“That led me on a path of doing product design, instead of working in development like engineers traditionally do. Once I started doing design work, I fell in love with it.”

You were previously at Wattpad and Wave-what was your path to your current role at Wealthsimple?

I studied engineering at the University of Toronto where we did 16-month internships. I really liked the concept of Wattpad so I applied to do my internship there. The role I applied for was a quality assurance analyst, which seemed boring to me, but I applied anyway because the company seemed interesting. I went in for the interview and told Allen [Wattpad's CEO] that I didn’t want to be a quality assurance analyst [laughs]. I give him a lot of credit for still going with me, he could have easily said, “Okay, you can leave now.” But I managed to convince him that he needed a designer on the team and if he would let me, I could start their design team. He agreed but said that I would also need to do the quality assurance part of it. Since I came from an engineering background I spent the first month writing a bot to do the quality assurance for me, it was their first automated testing platform. Then I spent the rest of my 16-month internship doing design work, which was what I really wanted to do.

That led me on a path of doing product design, instead of working in development like engineers traditionally do. Once I started doing design work, I fell in love with it. I learned way more at Wattpad than I would have in any large corporate company.

When I graduated, I went to work at Wave as a product designer and worked on that team for about a year and half. I was looking for a new challenge and through a mutual friend, I was introduced to Mike, the founder of Wealthsimple. We met for coffee and two days later I had joined the team. It's been great. We've grown the team from about 7, when I first started, to 26 now.

What are some of the most challenging aspects of the work you’re doing right now?

For starters, we're trying to do a lot with a very small team and growing quickly. We acquired a brokerage of our own, so now we're this company that buys other companies, and we’re just a year and a half old. There's a lot of priorities that all seem equally important. The toughest part has been looking at data trends, but also paying attention to our instincts, which have served us really well in the past. Figuring out what we should work on next and where we’re going to spend our limited resources has been a challenge.

Finding designers has also been a personal challenge for me. There are very few people who are excellent at all facets of design, who can come in and really take a project all the way 'til the end. It's something that in theory, a lot of people feel like they should be able to do, but a lot of designers in action have difficulty with it. Toronto is a hotbed for designers, but they're always employed, and it's so hard to get them. Stuff like Heist shutting down, or Teehan+Lax closing down doesn't help either. There's this weird trait of Toronto that really gives rise to these creatives, but I think we lose most of them to other ecosystems, which is not so great.

“I’ve learned to embrace the uncertainty because the future is going to be unprecedented. What Wealthsimple is doing, hasn’t been done in the way that we’re approaching it. We can’t expect previous processes or regulations to help us design the future.”

In your role, when you're faced with an unfamiliar challenge, or a problem that you haven't solved before, what's your process for approaching something like that?

I used to be pretty process-driven, in terms of searching for the concrete steps I could follow that would lead to success. When I was at Wave we were a team of 70 people and there were a lot of processes in place. I knew who I would be working with, and we followed a set process. We did X number of iterations, and had a formula, so to speak. What I've learned at Wealthsimple is that there is no such thing. There is no such thing as a perfect formula. You just have to roll with it.

Instead, what we do is try to think of the very first step that we can take to get to our goal. We develop either a simplest version-1 of a process or product and we iterate from there. That’s helped us a lot. It’s helped us to bring stuff to market really fast. I try to apply that thinking to everything I do. For example, if something’s uncertain or I’m feeling really stretched in terms of design I try to think about the first step I can take. In the case of bringing on help, that first step is reaching out to my personal contacts, people I look up to and finding the opportunities there.

From there, it’s about determining what we want the design team to look like in the next six months. Then the next year and taking baby steps to get there. It’s been much more effective than trying to make this utopia of a recruitment or prioritization process. I’ve learned to embrace the uncertainty because the future is going to be unprecedented. What Wealthsimple is doing, hasn’t been done in the way that we’re approaching it. We can’t expect previous processes or regulations to help us design the future.

I'm really interested because you're managing and growing a team, while still doing hands-on design work. How do you manage your time amongst those different contexts and the heads-down design work that you need to do?

I'm terrible at time management [laughs]. I wish I was better. What I've tried to do is to set a schedule for myself. That sometimes helps. Whenever I can I will give tasks a set time. I will calendar them in and make sure everything has a place. There are so many different verticals that I’m looking at and each one needs attention. If I don’t set reminders, things can get forgotten.

From there I’ll split my time based on the project. The product team is at a pretty good size now and we’ve managed to section out our responsibilities more, which helps a lot. Currently, I’m spending about 50% of my time prototyping new stuff that we’re going to be doing. This includes making the prototype, getting in touch with users, regulators or compliance officials for feedback. The other half of my time goes to creating any high-fidelity assets that we need and communicating with the rest of the team to get these initiatives implemented and out the door. We have a lot of pairing sessions, so I'll usually sit down with either a front-end developer, or send out a pull request, saying, "Hey, this is the change I want to make. What do you think?" That’s roughly how my time is divided at the moment.

“We tend to get into this weird bubble, I’m very prone to it, where we don’t talk to people if they don’t work in a fin-tech startup. You can start to develop a very single-track mind.”

Taking on so many aspects of the work, do you ever experience burnout, or difficulty maintaining that workflow? What helps motivate you, and keeps you focused?

I think everybody experiences burnouts, and start-up employees tend to be at the top of that list. I recognize that this is an issue, and I can usually see it within myself in a couple of ways. I'll notice that I'm a lot more irritable, that’s a major sign for me. I don't really feel like going into work and I’m short with people. I normally enjoy being around people, so I know I’m feeling burnt out when I start to feel otherwise.

What usually helps me is travelling. I’m not a Canadian citizen so there was a period of three months where I was going through paperwork that required me to stay in Canada. It was only a few months but it felt like a lifetime. Even if it’s a weekend away, I’ll try and make sure that I’m going somewhere else. We tend to get into this weird bubble, I’m very prone to it, where we don’t talk to people if they don’t work in a fin-tech startup. You can start to develop a very single-track mind. It helps when you travel and talk to other people who don’t work in technology at all even. It's so great, and really refreshing. I just came back from Vancouver, where I was out in nature, and doing outdoorsy stuff most of the time. It was great and I can feel it since I've gotten back, I'm not as cranky as before.

What are the tools you’re using on a daily basis?

Sketch - Definitely my number one right now. I use it for prototyping and all our assets get made in Sketch.

Slack - I like to say that I'm the biggest Slack fan, and I've asked to be like recognized as the biggest Slack fan, but I probably have competition.

Github - We use this for project management and prioritization.

CodePen - I use this a lot in collaboration, it helps me show other people how I expect something to work.

Marvel - I use this to prototype and string all my screens together into workflows. It has a really nifty app that you can just load screens into, and it'll let you build your stuff on a mobile device. I could be on the subway, and I can make little workflows, and send them to the team.

That would definitely help with productivity, I know anything I can do on my phone, makes a huge difference.

It’s huge. That was actually a lesson we learned when we made our mobile apps. When we were first making them, every single person in our usability tests was asking, “why are you making a mobile app? Wealthsimple is about long-term investing. Don’t do it.” Now, our mobile apps are core to our business.

It's kind of cool. It's just a different behavior. You can design around behaviors. Mobile's been huge for Wealthsimple.

Was there a recent moment where you had to go outside of your comfort zone, or do something that scared you? What was it, and how did you deal with that?

Oh, man. I feel like I am always outside of my comfort zone [laughs]. I think I've learned now that I just have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. Because I can't really work otherwise. For example, our team size changes all the time. One thing that we had to address recently was what the organizational structure should look like.

This is the first inklings of process coming into our world. Startups are all about moving fast and there’s usually little process involved, but we've had to start introducing that and framing it. It was difficult because it’s not something I do on an everyday basis. It’s good because it helps us think about what we’ll look like in the future, but there can be tough conversations around that. Everyone has different opinions and different things make sense to different people. I had to learn how to illustrate and communicate in a way that every person could understand.

So you’ll try an idea and maybe find things that aren’t working and you have to be able to talk about that and find an alternative. Finding that alternative and testing if it works is such a meta thing. We do it for our users and our product, but we never really do it for ourselves. Everyone has ideas for how things should be done and it can feel like a massive confrontation sometimes to have to explain why you think that idea isn’t working well. It's important to make sure you’re speaking about the problem and not about the person.

Why do you do what you do and what makes it so meaningful to you? What do you find most exciting about it?

I think the speed and the amount of learning that happens in roles like mine, and companies like the one I'm in, is really cool. It's like accelerating your learning. I learned this first when I came back from my co-op from Wattpad, where I had touched literally every single part of the product. I had sat in on investor meetings, made their marketing collateral, developed their framework, and testing platform. I worked with every single developer on the team and just learned so many different things. The alternative job that I could have taken, was at Google as an intern and the person who took that job actually ended up working on a single feature. It was a feature for starring emails for internal Google employees. It was all they'd done in the amount of time that I feel like I had learned how to run a business. That was eye-opening for me. From that moment, I was convinced that I wasn't going to work in a non-start-up environment ever again. If need be, I will keep moving until I can always work in small companies. That's so exciting, just the amount of learning we all get to do in our space.

I think Wealthsimple, particularly, is exciting, because we're all very competitive. We're very big on challenging the status quo. No one on the team takes no for an answer, at least not easily. We'll challenge almost every single aspect, and I think finding a company that has that in its DNA, is really rare. We’re also in a space that is heavily regulated and needs change--that’s a designer’s dream.

We’ve also found a product-market fit in a way, and in size, that you can't usually in a company that is so small, and so young. Now, I feel like there's a million different directions we could go in. This is the kind of divergent problem solving that is really exciting. I find this is where I thrive the most. Financial services is huge. There's no end to all the areas that we could change. Figuring that out, and seeing it grow, it makes me really proud.

“This is the kind of divergent problem solving that is really exciting. I find this is where I thrive the most. Financial services is huge. There's no end to all the areas that we could change. Figuring that out, and seeing it grow, it makes me really proud.”

Who would you want to see on Ways We Work?

Howard Wong - he's an architect with Hariri-Pontarini Architects and is working on the Wealthsimple HQ with me right now. Howard is fascinating and I imagine the way he works would be even more so. He not only works across technical, creative, tangible, and intangible realms, but is also a master storyteller which makes him so great to partner with. I can't say enough good things about him.

Zahra Ebrahim - she's a city builder and I've seen her speak on multiple occasions and she's always terrific. One project of hers that stands out to is a community centre she co-created with 11 year olds who now hold a bunch of building patents as a result of this project. So cool!

Jay Carter - he's the executive chef and owner at Dandylion, a Scandinavian-inspired restaurant that is minimalist and seeks to provide "nutritious foods" to its clientele. It's one of my favorite places to dine in the city and I love the story he tells with food.

Cooper 2016-03-28T00:00:00-04:00 2016-03-28T00:00:00-04:00 Ways We Work Team Goal-directed design and personas are staples in the product design handbook. While design tools and methods used are constantly evolving, the concept of a persona has largely remained the same since it was first popularized in 1999 in Alan Cooper’s book, The Inmates Are Running the Asylum. Alan Cooper’s list of accomplishments is long: he’s the “Father of Visual Basic” and co-founded Cooper, the storied business strategy and interaction design consultancy where goal-directed design and personas were born. In December, we spent an afternoon with the team at Cooper’s San Francisco office (they also have a location in New York). We wanted to learn how they apply these methods today, how their process has developed, and the challenges they face as the industry itself continues to change.

Cooper’s offices are located in downtown San Francisco and take up the entire 8th floor of the building. Matt and I walked off the elevator and were greeted by a large Cooper mural on the wall made out of recycled computer keys. We were met by Andrew Kaufteil, Cooper’s Director of Engagement, who gave us a quick tour of the office and explained who we would be talking to. About half of the space was open-concept with desks throughout, which then narrowed down to a hallway with breakout rooms--or “war rooms” as the team at Cooper refers to them. There was also large kitchen stocked full of snacks and then the hallway continued into more war rooms, meeting rooms, and a large classroom space where the team runs workshops under their Cooper U initiative.

After the tour, we gathered in a large meeting room in the office with five members of the Cooper team to get a rundown on the way their project teams are structured. At Cooper, roles and processes are well-defined. Project teams have at least three consultants: one “synthesizer”(or “synth”), one “generator” (or “gen”), and an engagement lead that keeps a high-level view of the project and the client’s needs. We were introduced to Brendan Kneram, a gen, Lauren Ruiz, a synth, and Kaycee Collins, who had recently joined the team as a gen designer. Also in the room was former design fellow Chris Noessel and engagement lead Suzy Thompson. Having heard the term synth and gen throughout introductions, they took some time to explain the difference between the different “flavors” of designers at Cooper.

They explained that the idea of having clearly defined designer roles came from a conflict in the early days of Cooper. Alan and another designer had strong and opposing opinions on design, and found it difficult to agree upon solutions. Shortly afterward, a third designer joined them and took it upon herself to step back and help direct the conversation. This method of having one designer generating ideas, and one observing and guiding the process - became so productive that they formalized this way of working together. In each project at Cooper, there is a “gen” designer, someone who is most comfortable picking up a pen and generating big ideas, and the “synth” designer, someone who is skilled at making connections between those ideas and articulating how they translate into practical designs. Talking with the designers in the room, it’s clear that this relationship is a core component of Cooper’s process.

In addition to pair design, project teams at Cooper follow a goal-directed process and move through similar phases that you might see at other design consultancies: discovery, research, modelling, framework and detail. Lauren elaborated on how this method works, explaining that “discovery and research is a major part of the learning process. Modelling is about synthesizing and reframing it in new ways and having research outlets, and then ‘framework’ is where we start to define what the product does. Kind of like a blueprint for a house. “Where are things going to go?” and “How is it going to work?” Then, we dive into the extreme details of how the product behaves, what the buttons do, etc.”

During discovery and research, the design team conducts interviews and research together, so they both have a strong understanding of the client’s and users’ needs. The gen and synth roles are punctuated in the modelling phase of a project, where they take everything gathered from discovery and research and use it to develop personas and define what the true goals of the product are. Chris explained that often the synth will take the lead during this phase, because they are synthesizing all of the information. Then during framework, the gen designer takes the lead, generating ideas, sketching and creating possible solutions.

For both roles to work effectively they need to be in sync, so there is never this idea of going to your desk, working on the design alone, and coming back together to explain it. As this way of working has evolved, project teams at Cooper have grown to include a visual designer and an engagement lead role. Visual designers at Cooper are interaction designers who, as the title suggests, specialize in visual design. The engagement lead is responsible for managing the relationship with the client, conducting QA on a product, and making sure the product stays within scope. Teams at Cooper are focused on a single client project at a time, allowing them to dive deep and avoid having to switch context. Suzy explained how it benefitted the team by allowing them to focus and not worry about the time that’s lost when you’re constantly having to switch gears, “you don’t have to wonder which crisis is more of a crisis.” For the client, Suzy added, it means “you get our designers working on your project full time during business hours but odds are they’ll probably be noodling on your problem in the shower and while they’re washing dishes and while they’re sitting stuck in traffic. You really get to focus, which is nice.”

“You really keep the gen and synth focused on the functionality and behavior of the product, and the visual designer is really thinking about the brand strategy, the overall look and feel.”

Cooper’s processes have largely developed and evolved around this concept of co-creation and the gen and synth relationship. For example, war rooms grew out the team’s desire to work more efficiently and cut down on the time between going away to design and having to come back to compare notes. The practice of war rooms came about organically, Brendan explained that they would often host clients in conference rooms for a day or two, and camp out working on the project. It turns out that proximity ended up being very productive. So the practice of working together in a war room became crucial, naturally encouraging this co-creation process between designers. Regardless of the tools being used on a project, the gen designer is generating ideas in real time, and talking through them so that the synth designer has something to respond to. This environment, where the project lives inside this shared space, facilitates this way of working and supports the gen/synth relationship.

Although design pairs tend work together for a few projects, they make a point to change up teams regularly when the project schedule permits. It means that designers stay fresh and get a range of experience working with different skill sets and abilities. It also helps make sure that a pair doesn’t get so comfortable together that they lean on each other too much for things they should both be doing. Lauren added that this "break-up" can sometimes be a little difficult having developed such a close working relationship, but this practice of swapping pairs on a regular basis has been crucial to how Cooper evolves. If a new tool or a new process works well with one pair, often it will get passed on in the next team. This helps make the adoption of new tools and new ways of working more iterative and natural.

In addition to the gen/synth designer relationship and co-creating inside war rooms, there are two main things that Cooper is known for: the Goal-Directed design methodology and the use of persona development within that. Personas are formed by the designers from the discovery and research phases of the project and come directly from user interviews, which are highly specific and defined. Communicating the value of the discovery and research phases to the client early on, is another key element, so that the client understands why they might not be seeing screens or visual designs right away. We saw examples of these personas inside one project’s war room; it listed the persona’s name, background, and specific motivations and goals. These goals become the litmus test for everything throughout the course of the project. This ensures that the conversation isn’t around tasks or features or even functions, but instead how the product will meet each persona’s goals. Lauren gave an example: “A goal might be traveling; so if you’re traveling from coast to coast, someone’s goal isn’t to buy an airplane ticket. Their goal is to get from point A to point B safely and efficiently, and that’s something that can stand the test of time.” Framing the product through the eyes of these personas and their goals helps both the designers and the client stay away from deciding things based on their personal preferences. Of course, they still get pushback from clients from time to time, but personas help frame the conversation because they are well-defined and agreed-upon before any detailed building starts.

“Personas tend to be very misused and misunderstood. Goals are one of the most important aspects of a persona, and this is often what we see missing. We look for those goals in our research and then design for them in our scenarios. These are stories of how our personas accomplish their goals, using the product or service we're designing.”

Historically, the team has marketed the value of Cooper's Goal-Directed design through books that Alan Cooper and others on the team have published. Another way they communicate the value of design and how to effectively lead design teams, is through Cooper U, where they host workshops and seminars for the public (in San Francisco, New York, and LA), as well as private clients around the globe. In addition, they host internal workshops, usually over lunch on Fridays where someone from the company (or friends from the outside) presents or facilitates discussion either around Cooper’s process, or on various topics ranging from meditation, astronomy, and art.

As with many teams, talent acquisition can be a challenge, especially in a place like San Francisco. Suzy added that there are a lot of really talented designers that might not be a fit at Cooper because of the polarized gen and synth roles. Many often have some generative skills and some analytical skills and fall somewhere in the middle of both. She added, “we tend to hire people on the polls who are extremely generative and extremely analytical or have the ability to synthesize and process the flight patterns and things like that so that we have people who fit together and create two pieces of a board.”

“All Engagement Leads used to be, or still are designers. I think that is a really great aspect of it as well, so when they’re handling a lot of the interactions with the client, they don’t have to come to the designers and ask: "did I answer that right?"”

What stood out the most from our conversations with the team at Cooper is how clearly defined their processes and roles are, but also how challenging it can be to effectively evolve those over time. Not only is the industry continuously evolving, but Cooper as an organization continues to grow and change as well. As a team they face a lot of similar challenges that other design consultancies do: talent acquisition, communicating value to clients and more recently how to blend their culture and methods with their East Coast office in New York. Cooper has been around for almost 25 years and is a team who has literally “written the books” on product design. It was fascinating to spend an afternoon with the team and learn how they've grown and adapted to the ever-changing product design landscape.

Thanks to the whole team at Cooper for inviting us in and spending the time to illustrate how your process is applied in real projects. And special thanks to Alan Cooper for personally taking the time to tell us some great stories of the early days of Cooper.

Jessica Hische, Letterer & Illustrator 2016-03-23T00:00:00-04:00 2016-03-23T00:00:00-04:00 Ways We Work Team designersfreelancers designersfreelancers Jessica Hische is a lettering artist, illustrator, author, and self-described “avid internetter” who needs no introduction. She has become as well known for her side projects as she has for her client work and some of her clients include Wes Anderson, The United States Postal Service, Tiffany & Co.,and Starbucks. She shares openly what it's been like going back to work after having her first baby, managing personal and client expectations, and what she loves most about her work. It was an absolute pleasure talking with Jessica and her interview is filled with insight and inspiration. Enjoy!

I know you have a million different projects on the go at any given time. What's keeping you busy at the moment, what are you working on right now?

It’s a little complicated at the moment. I was working on a campaign for the Oscars which ended up getting killed. They were looking for a really loose style and the work I was turning over was just too tight for them. The creative director and I got along like gangbusters though, so it was a lot of fun to work on, but ended up killing my calendar for a month.

Right now, I’m working on an ad campaign for a hospital. It involves me doing watercolor paintings-that’s really out of my comfort zone which I’m psyched about! I’ve been feeling inspired to take on more challenging work. Pushing myself to do more interesting, and weird stuff since I’ve been back to work. I’m a parent now, but I’m not a brand new parent anymore, so getting back into the workflow and trying new types of work has been fun.

I'm also working on a couple of logo projects that are finishing up. I try to only take one logo project on at a time. I want to devote as much as I can to the client when it comes to a logo and their branding because it’s an emotional process for everyone. I just did a poster and catalog cover for a show here in San Francisco at the Letterform Archive. I've been trying to do flocking on them and finding printers that do flocking still was harder than I thought it was going to be. It's like a psychedelic poster that's going to have pink flocking on it, that fuzzy texture.

On top of that we just bought a house, so I moved last month!

Do you plan how many projects you take on around different things that you know are going to be going on? For example, speaking engagements, moving etc.

For sure. When I have a lot of stuff going on, it's difficult to keep my schedule as busy as I would like it to be. I'm one of those people who is most productive when I have a little too much to do. If there's any holes in my schedule, I will fill them with leisure [laughs]. I will find a way to have a two-hour lunch with a friend.

Speaking and travel is the hardest because I have to warn my current clients that I'll be unavailable for a certain amount of time. I've tried working while traveling and it's just miserable. You just can't really be in some hotel on the other side of the world doing work when there are tertiary events to go to. A lot of the reason conference organizers invite you is so you'll actually interact with all the people that are there. It's one of the reasons why I love speaking at events as well.

It's fun to go on stage and talk about yourself, but it's more fun to meet new people and students all over the world. It's really enjoyable and inspiring for me. So if I go somewhere and all I do is go on stage, come off stage and then sit in my hotel room to finish up a project, it's not really worth it.

When I'm planning around speaking engagements, I end up having to do quite a bit of buffering. I’ll tell a client that I won't be available that week, so we need to finish the project up the week before. It's just about managing expectations with clients and being really honest if I’m not available. There are a lot of people that try to ignore whatever they have going on personally, but I think it's important to talk about the realities in your life when it comes to scheduling things. It's a normal part of life.

“I think I'd be able to forgive myself for a few years of not being the most productive designer, but I couldn’t forgive myself for a few years of not being the best parent.”

What would you say are the most challenging aspects of the work you're doing right now?

The most challenging aspect for me right now has to do with my attitude towards the work. I'm having a hard time not getting intimidated by intense schedules or larger workloads since I've come back to work. Before I came back, after the baby, I had much higher expectations of what I'd be able to accomplish in a week. Managing baby duties on top of client work has made my days, and my hours much shorter than I thought.

My work day is from 10:30 AM until 4:00 PM, which feels like no time whatsoever. I can work at night but it's difficult to find the motivation and then I’m exhausted the next day. I have to be in bed by 10:00 PM incase I’m surprised with a 5:00 AM wakeup.

The baby goes to sleep at around 7:30/8, which leaves two hours at the end of the day to reclaim for work but it's difficult to do that. My biggest challenge has just been pushing myself to ramp back up to the level that I know I will be best at. Rather than being overly cautious and just taking on a few projects here and there, if I push myself to take on more work, I will do more work and I'll probably be happier. I'll be more effective at my desk and not fiddling around with email for half the day.

Time management is a lifetime issue and once you feel like you've got it handled, something happens in your life that completely changes how everything is framed. I'm still in the stage of working out my current system. I want to feel like I'm really maxing out my career stuff, but also really maxing out family stuff too. I think I'd be able to forgive myself for a few years of not being the most productive designer, but I couldn’t forgive myself for a few years of not being the best parent.

When you're faced with an unfamiliar challenge, what's your process like for approaching an unfamiliar territory?

I think with everything, I need to break things into easily accomplishable stages rather than think of it as, "I need to make a painting." I ask myself what is familiar about the process to me already. One, I have to do a sketch to start. I know what I'm doing when it comes to sketches because I sketch for every project. Even if I'm doing something in a medium or style I don't work in, I know that pencil has to hit paper first.

I try to turn down the intimidation factor on whatever it is to just get started. Then when I do start, it's not a problem to push myself and experiment more. It's just getting it started that is hard.

No one wants to spend a million hours creating something that is going to look bad—which is why it can be difficult to start projects, especially larger projects. You have to figure out ways to be chipping away at something without feeling like the work you’re doing has to be amazing. Whatever you're doing is helping you get to that final product, whether the work you're doing right now actually contributes directly to it.

If you're writing, you might write a first draft and not use it at all. Maybe that first draft was just to get all the bad ideas out. If you're doing design work, you just have to start thinking and creating something, even if whatever it is you're doing right now will get canceled tomorrow.

“Whenever something that used to bring you joy no longer brings you joy, it's time to try something new. It's not that that thing will never give you joy again, it's just that you need some time away.”

When do you know when it's time for a new challenge? To try something that you haven't done before or take on something you're less unfamiliar with?

Since I'm reliant on clients coming to me for what I'm doing in any given week, it's very a kismet kind of thing. I'm sure I could reach out to people if I wanted specific kinds of work but I really like the variability of just letting things happen as they happen. When I start noticing that all the projects coming in are the same kind of projects that's when I stop having enthusiasm to work on those things.

If I'm already getting the feeling by reading the email that it's a project I'm not excited about, I know that it's time to take on different kinds of work. It's just a feeling. Whenever something that used to bring you joy no longer brings you joy, it's time to try something new. It's not that that thing will never give you joy again, it's just that you need some time away. Your relationship with your work is like your relationship with any really close friend. No matter how tight you are with someone, you don't want to have a slumber party for three months with them.

I think self-awareness is the key to success in life. No matter how talented you are, if you don't take the time to think, "is this actually what I want to be doing? Am I happy? Is this work going to help me develop as an artist or bring me the kind of clients that I'm interested in?" You have to be asking yourself those questions. For example, there are lots of designers that will never work for tobacco companies. I'm one of them, because (aside for just not wanting to work for ill-intentioned corporations) if I work for a tobacco company, I can't ever do children's work. You can't be making pretty things to sell cigarettes and then do a children's book. You can't do it. It's a big conflict of interest.

Is there anything you do specifically that helps you manage time amongst your email and communication stuff, versus the design work that you need to do?

I was doing admin Mondays, which are still pretty true, so I never have client deadlines on Mondays if I can help it. For one, Monday deadlines mean I have to work on the weekend which I definitely prefer not to do, so I try not to have a final deadline on a Monday. Mondays are full of answering emails, phone calls and doing all the things that you have to do as a person and as an artist. It’s when I do the things that are not paid work, but are still work that has to get done.

That also helps me say no to things for the rest of the week. So if people contact me and say, "Hey, I want to interview you" or, "Hey, can you fill out this paperwork?" I can tell them that I’ll send it over or deal with it Monday. It gives me a task list so that all those little things don't kill my week. Otherwise, it can be like death by a thousand scratches. Every time you ramp down from work and ramp back up to work, it takes away time.

For managing clients, I use a series of Google calendars. I'm good at understanding how long it takes me to do something, because I have been doing this long enough. When I see a project brief come in, I can generally know how long it will take me.

It's like a puzzle of filling your time. Not only to plot things in a way that you can actually get them done, but also in a way that you're not going to feel burnt out from doing a lot of the same type of work. If I had a bunch of logo projects at the same time, I wouldn't set it up so that I was working on logo briefs for three projects in the same week. That's a lot of hardcore thinking and writing and heavy client time. So I schedule the deliverables for each in a staggered way. It really helps to break it up.

“The only thing that you can do is promise yourself that you'll be better in the future. I think that that's the thing you always have to think about when you're in the middle of a bad, "I'm not good at stuff" phase.”

You mentioned ways that you avoid burnout, but do you ever experience it still and what helps you get out of that and motivates you?

I'm kind of in the middle of a burnout session right now. My burnout has less to do with the client work and more to do with just all the other business and personality management things. Since my time in the studio is so precious right now, I get a little upset with people when they send me really generic questions to answer or that kind of stuff. I know that's a total symptom of burnout and I just need to take a breath and take some time for me. It's a combination of things in terms of how I deal with stuff.

Sometimes, I'm just burnt out because I feel like I haven't had a moment to breathe and have a long walk, or lunch with a friend. Sometimes the reason I'm burnt out is that I was bad at saying no to things. The only thing that you can do is promise yourself that you'll be better in the future. I think that that's the thing you always have to think about when you're in the middle of a bad, "I'm not good at stuff" phase.

It’s important to remember that whatever you’re experiencing right now is because of decisions you made in the past. Not because of the decisions you’re currently making. You can take an active role in making your life better but it's okay if that's not felt immediately. You can't expect that if you're burnt out right now, that next week you're just a totally awesome person again. If you're burnt out right now, it means that this is the fall out of the decisions you made in the last few months. The next few months will be better because you'll make better decisions.

What are the five tools that you’re touching on a daily basis right now?

iPhone - I do a lot of iPhoning especially because we haven't had internet at our house. I've been answering a lot of emails and I do this speech-to-texting all the time. I thought I was so dorky but my husband uses it like crazy. I wish I could do that on my computer for answering emails because I like it so much.

iMac - I have a laptop set up but I just ordered a new iMac because I want to not have to commute with my computer anymore.

Adobe Creative Cloud - Mostly Illustrator and a little Photoshop with a bit of InDesign.

Robofont - I also use Robofont occasionally when I work on type design projects. I'll use it if I'm working on a super basic type-based logo because I think differently when I work on type based projects. I over-analyze, and you need to do that for a logo, so I do like to work in that environment when I'm working on type projects.

Wacom - I have a Wacom which I like. I don't love it for vector work but I love it enough for editing sketches and photos in Photoshop that I keep it, even though it bothers me in Illustrator which is the primary environment that I work in.

What was the most recent moment that you had to go out of your comfort zone or do something unfamiliar or something that scared you?

What’s been scaring me recently is the realization that all the things that people with kids tell you are totally true. Wherein it completely changes your perspective on your work.

I didn't feel like I was having the new parent identity crisis until recently. I escaped it for the first eight months some how—when I came back to work she was three and a half months old and even then I thought, "This is great, I'm just a person with a baby, I'm not a mom." [laughs]

It's only recently that I've been having a harder time being as enthusiastic about work as I was in the past. Maybe that's a symptom of me being a little more careful about the kind of projects I take on, because my schedule isn't the most friendly to certain things. Or maybe it's just a thing that everybody goes through. When you have this joyful little human in your life, they really are the best thing and you want to be with them as much as possible.

Before this, work and life were the exact thing for me for so long and I really loved that. I was sad when I lost that. That happened before the baby though, when I moved to San Francisco. My husband had a full-time job and we weren't both keeping crazy hours anymore. So it wasn't like we were sitting on the couch and having work parties until 1 in the morning. He was no longer at the studio working late while I was at my studio working late so it wasn't the same, "work whenever you feel passionate about something" lifestyle anymore. He wanted to hang out with me when he wasn't at work, so it was important to find the balance between spending time together and working on projects.

That has become even more important now because before, I would still work on the weekends if I was really stoked about a project. Now, it would have to be just next level shit to make me work on a Saturday. I just have to have the holy spirit move me in order to want to have a Saturday at the studio instead of hanging out with the baby. It's been scary. It's scary to have your whole vision of yourself totally up-ended, but I think it's just an adjustment period and everybody goes through it.

“I'm not one of those people that's going to swear off clients forever, because I like the purpose that a client-driven work style brings. There's enjoyment in having someone at the other side of it be happy. ”

I'm super glad you said that because I talk to a lot of people who are younger and at the beginning of their careers, and I've talked to people who have had kids, so those two ends of the spectrum are interesting. You have a very fresh perspective because you're right in the middle.

What I discovered when we moved to San Francisco was that being a New Yorker, everybody just works their butts off all the time and they love it. I loved it. I would have kept that way forever. I probably would have died ten years younger but I loved it and I wouldn't have cared. When I moved out here, I realized that, "Hey, I don't have to do 100 portfolio worthy pieces a year to stay relevant." I can have a little more free time in my schedule and that free time helps me make better work when I do work. I need the down time and I need to be healthy.

It was really freeing to feel that I didn't have to be running at a breakneck speed. What I've told a bunch of people is that it taught me that you can actually drop off the face of the earth for upwards of two years and almost no one will notice [laughs]. That was really freeing and made me feel less intimidated about having a kid. To know that if I take six months off of work, it's really a blink of an eye.

That said, it has taken a while to get back into the groove. Clients have almost been too respectful of my time off, and think I'm still on leave. I've noticed that I can't Instagram with the baby because it makes people think I'm still on leave. I have to be conscious about what I talk about online in terms of my personal life. Whereas before, it was just a brain dump of whatever was happening in my life.

Since the biggest thing in my life is this kid, if I always talk about it, everyone just assumes I'm not working. Which I think is really different for guys than it is with women. No one assumes that a guy nine months into having a kid, is still taking off work but it's not an incorrect assumption to think that a woman could be doing that. It's weird.

Why do you do what you do? What makes it so meaningful to you and what do you love about it?

There's two things. One is that I just love the process. It's super meditative for me. I like having constraints. I love the world of design and commercial art. I'm not one of those people that's going to swear off clients forever, because I like the purpose that a client-driven work style brings. There's enjoyment in having someone at the other side of it be happy.

Then there's also the mentorship aspect and the fact that I can be an inspiration for young designers. I'll get emails from them that say I made something seem less intimidating, or they applied to art school because they were inspired by me. That is super-duper fulfilling. Whenever I have doubts about working in an industry that's making things for sale that are prettier, I just have to read one of those and know I'm having an impact. It may not be in a global way like how people that work at life changing start-ups do. It's more of a small scale impact but it's more meaningful. It's a deeper impact with less people.

Who would you like to see on Ways We Work?

I've been wanting to talk to Michael Bierut and Paula Scher, just about how they keep up the stamina of interviewing for 30 years. I really want to have a personal interview with them about, "Hey, how are you still doing this?" My studio mate Erik Marinovich would be a pretty good one as well!

Geoff Teehan, Product Design Director at Facebook 2016-03-16T00:00:00-04:00 2016-03-16T00:00:00-04:00 Ways We Work Team designersfounders designersfounders Geoff Teehan is a Product Design Director at Facebook working on News Feed, Interfaces and Feed Ads with his teams. Previously, he was one of the co-founders of the influential Toronto-based design agency Teehan+Lax. Recently we had the opportunity to chat with Geoff about his current role, what he's learned in the year since shutting down Teehan+Lax, and some of his philosophies for maintaining a productive work environment for him and his teams. Geoff is a refreshingly candid individual and offers great insights for both product managers and young designers.

Tell us about what your current role is and a little bit about what that encompasses?

I’m one of the Product Design Directors here at Facebook and I’m in charge of three main groups: News Feed, Interfaces and Feed Ads. Interfaces is our way of keeping standards and guidelines across all of Facebook. It’s the group that looks holistically across the entire experience. There are other teams–like Search, Profile, Notifications, etc–that are in charge of some very specific areas of the application. As a result there’s not one group looking after the whole platform outside of Interface. Its role is to create standards and guidelines and make sure that the experience is great. There’s a design manager that I have working with me on that, as well as a team of about 10 or so designers.

Feed Ads is the advertising experience that you see on the News Feed–the design manager on that is Jessica Watson–and she has a team of about 6 designers. Then there’s News Feed. I act as a design manager for that as well as the director and I have about 8 designers on that team. In total, my whole group is about 25 people and we oversee a lot of the bigger parts of Facebook. Since I act as design manager on News Feed, it’s where I spend the bulk of my time. I’m involved on projects inside of that group, and other groups, but primarily the bulk of my time is spent inside of News Feed. As a little side project, our team works closely with the Interfaces team and we have been publishing a lot of design resources, tools and files that help the broader design community outside of Facebook.

“As design director, I’m there to support the design managers and set them up with the environment they need to run the product team.”

Since you mentioned being both a design director and design manager, what are the main differences for you in terms of your responsibilities in those two roles?

As design director, I’m there to support the design managers and set them up with the environment they need to run the product team. That means having a high-level visibility around what they’re working on, meeting with the design managers and understanding what’s working, and what’s not. Finding out where they may need help, and making the appropriate connections or giving appropriate guidance. On the design manager side for News Feed, I’m involved more strategically in what we’re doing and from an execution and directional side of things as well. For the other two groups, the design managers maintain close relationships with the designers, and the individual contributors underneath them to manage their career growth. The work I do on the other areas, Interfaces and Feed Ads, is relatively minimal because I have great design managers that do the job there and can manage up to me when things aren’t working.

In your role overall what would you say are the most challenging aspects of the work you’re doing?

One is that this is a very large organization and as big as it is, it’s relatively flat in its architecture. There is a lot of autonomy given to the people doing the work, which is great. While there is process, there’s not so much that it gets in the way of doing the work. There are also a ton of different working styles here. Sometimes, those things can be difficult to work with. There are people who have worked here for a while that are very proficient and good at what they do. They know the ins and outs of this place and they like to work with a lot of autonomy and relative isolation; much like lot of designers. Some of them are very successful at that. I think that’s okay, but I think as the company has grown, that becomes a little bit more challenging to work within. I really prefer and think we can do better work when we work in pairs or we collaborate a little bit more. Figuring out ways to get people working in a more collaborative way has been a challenge. You can’t just put two people in a room and expect them to work together. There are certain dynamics and fit involved. There are also times in a project where you really do need to just sit, put your head down and do some work. There are also times when you need to come up for air and regroup with other people, get other opinions, and jam on ideas.

With regards to team management, are the challenges similar to what you faced when you ran Teehan+Lax versus what you’re facing now at Facebook?

I think it’s different. What came in the top of the funnel at Teehan+Lax, at least in terms of the talent, were usually from the same walk of life. They came from similar companies to Teehan+Lax. There wasn’t and still isn’t the type of atmosphere in Toronto that there is down here in the Bay Area. You get wildly different types of designers here and that is a big difference. The designers that would come to Teehan+Lax typically had been working at other ad or design agencies previously. As different as I like to think that Teehan+Lax was, to a certain extent, our working style was not unfamiliar to people who were coming in the door there.

Earlier on in your career, what was the turning point where you knew you wanted to start an agency rather than go work for another company?

It happened twice actually. When I first started, I was working for an Internet company that was doing web hosting, domain purchasing and web design. Web design was the fad. It was the mid-'90s so it was the super early days. What happened was I worked there for a while and then the company went bankrupt. There were great people working there and I found myself without a job. I decided to take a stab at doing my own thing, which I did. That was in the late 90’s. I did that for about two years and then one of our clients, a big digital agency called Modem Media, came along and I ended up taking a job with them. I enjoyed that. Making money again was nice, working on larger clients, and not having to worry about some of the things you worry about when you own your own business. Focusing on the work as a young designer was a refreshing change and something I think I needed.

That was great, but then it happened again, the dot-com bubble burst and I didn’t have a job anymore. I had been working with Jon [Lax] at Modem Media and we decided to start our thing. We found ourselves in a similar place where we looked around and didn’t see anything that interested us job wise, so we started our own company instead. We just fell into it. We figured we’d do it for six months or a year or however long the initial contracts we had would last and then we’d go get what we call “real jobs”. It wasn’t until we signed leases for photocopiers with 3-year commitments that we realized we were in it for the long-haul. It was one of the those silly things. Obviously we were subletting a space and we had bought equipment and we even had one staff member too, so it wasn’t like we weren’t committed. Even still, it felt like we could get out without too much damage. It wasn’t until we rented this Xerox copier that made it feel like something long term. The lease was on a 3-year term and we had to sign it. It was like $10,000 or $12,000, it wasn’t an insane amount of money, but back then it was this real commitment because getting out of that lease would be a big pain in the ass. This is one of the small things. Obviously, hiring employees was a big deal as well.

“Again, nobody really wanted to do it. The challenges it presented us didn’t interest us. I think, ultimately, if we had to kept going, it would have been like a sitcom that stayed on a few too many seasons and became unfunny.”

You guys grew Teehan+Lax into one of the more well-known and admirable design agencies and about a year ago, you and your partners decided to part ways. When you’ve built a business to the level you had, when do you know it’s time to move on and try something new?

I don’t think you ever know. I think you guess. We had, for some time, thought about it and talked about it, but not in serious ways. We had people, agencies and companies offer to buy us and most of the time, we wouldn’t even entertain those ideas. It wasn’t one thing that happened, it was a lot of different things. We had done a lot of work, and we had changed a lot in how we did that work. We had really focused in on product design, and saw changes in the industry where product design was becoming internalized within companies. Figuring out what to do after an initial 90-day engagement, and how to continually improve a product was difficult. Working at a distance and doing things for startups or for well-established digital companies has its limitations. There were times where we embedded ourselves in companies and I think that goes a long way especially if you’re building something at scale. You really need to understand the inner workings. You need to work with a lot of different teams cross-functionally and that’s very difficult to do in a 90-day contract.

There were many other things too where even the personal desires of many of us differed. With everything factored in, we had to have that conversation and try to figure out what was the right thing to do. Could we have just kept running Teehan+Lax for a while? Yeah, for sure. I think our desire to continue to want to reinvent ourselves had waned a little bit. It’s a pretty exhausting exercise that needs to happen and it has to happen on top of a lot of other things beyond just doing the work. Ultimately, nobody was really interested in doing that anymore.

It was about growth too, the company just desired to keep growing. No matter how much you want it to stay one size or no matter how successful you are, the company just wants to grow. We talked about opening other offices. Again, nobody really wanted to do it. The challenges it presented us didn’t interest us. I think, ultimately, if we had to kept going, it would have been like a sitcom that stayed on a few too many seasons and became unfunny.

“Coming to Facebook has taught me to grow through real change and to be more cognizant of how I am actually doing. It's easy to get comfortable and complacent, and that's when you stop growing or find yourself in less than ideal scenarios.”

What was the thing about Facebook that drove you guys in that direction?

We looked at a lot of different options for a long period of time and put a lot of thinking and due diligence in before landing here at Facebook. We met with a lot of great companies, and some not so great. Facebook painted a very clear and compelling picture for us. They were incredibly open and honest about what they would be working on, what they valued, and where they wanted to take the company. They also did a lot of good research on us to understand what our strengths and weaknesses were. Early on we had open and honest conversations about some of that stuff. It was very genuine. Compare and contrast that to some of the other companies we talked to and in some cases, they just wanted us to come onboard and figure everything else out after, and that just doesn’t fly.

The other thing about Facebook is that while everybody at Teehan+Lax didn’t come along, Facebook probably worked the hardest to maximize as many people as they could. There were some people that simply weren’t interested and then some whose roles inside of our company just made little sense at Facebook. It wasn’t perfect by any means, but it’s something that made sense.

It’s been a year since the announcement of T+L closing, looking back what are some of the takeaways from the whole experience? What did you learn or what perspectives did you gain?

Leaving anything is difficult—no matter how good or bad it is. For the record, Teehan+Lax was amazing. But I think as humans we just generally struggle initially with change. I believe as we get older we resist change more. Coming to Facebook has taught me to grow through real change and to be more cognizant of how I am actually doing. It's easy to get comfortable and complacent, and that's when you stop growing or find yourself in less than ideal scenarios. I am now a big believer in forming habits. It's how I did a 180 on my health and, made changes to how I work. I make commitments to do something for 60 days straight so they stick—that's about how long it takes for us to form habits.

“As a manager it’s important that you look out for the calendars of your team as well. They need to have good, clean blocks of time to do work, so making sure their meetings are grouped together is key.”

What are some of your routines or ways you’ve learned to structure your day to accomplish everything that you need to do or be a part of in a day?

I get up super early at like 5:00 and then I work out for 90 minutes before starting my day. I think about what the one thing is that I need to accomplish that day. It’s my one main thing. I don’t have a work priority list and a personal priority list. I have one list and I prioritize everything. Whether it’s a phone call, setting up a meeting, a recruiting thing, writing a brief, scheduling car service, all of those things are on the list. I take a clean look at it every single day and decide what I’m going to accomplish and I try not to take on too much. It’s easy to get overwhelmed and stretched out if you try to take on too much.

Facebook has a heavy meeting culture–at least I know it does on my team–so I try to protect my calendar as much as I can. I will put in blocks of time so that people can’t block me out. If something is important they’ll reach out via email or messenger and I’ll open up a time. I found that helps me stay focused on the things I think I should be focused on. I have a lot of team meetings and product meetings, as is, so protecting my calendar has been a very good exercise and productivity boost for me.

As a manager it’s important that you look out for the calendars of your team as well. They need to have good, clean blocks of time to do work, so making sure their meetings are grouped together is key. On Wednesdays we have a work-from-home or no meetings day here. It’s a nice, full workday and that’s been positive. But periodically it’s important to ask your team how their calendar looks. If it looks like a shotgun blast, that’s not a great way to do a lot of good work.

“Fundamentally I’m a product designer at heart and one of the primary things that I love is shipping product.”

What are the tools you use that you’re touching on a daily basis?



Facebook Groups


Face-to-face communication is the tool I try to use more and more. I'm doing a lot more writing now, so Medium is something that I use a lot. Primarily it's communication tools and organizational tools.

When you find yourself disconnected from what you find meaningful about your work, how do you get yourself back into that space?

It ebbs and flows for sure. There are days where you're just not feeling it. Maybe you haven't really had any wins, or progress feels slow, or the stuff you're testing or putting into market isn't doing as well as you'd like it to. I think that now that I've made some personal changes I’ve gotten better at that. I do yoga every day and I find that gives me some good time in my own head. It’s helped me feel less discouraged and keeps me a lot more vibrant and interested, even when things aren't as good as they can be. I also don't keep stuff inside like I used to. I talk to people about it. I have a few people that I trust in my life now and openly communicate with them. Even sometimes the act of sharing the things aren't going as great as you'd like with someone else, is helpful.

What is the best career advice you've been given?

I think the best advice I've received was never given. It was always learned. I think when people just tell you things we tend to just throw them away a bit too easily. While we may take in the words, they often don't mean much until we've experienced something. When people say "time goes by quickly, make the most of it" or "you can do anything you want if you put your mind to it" it doesn't mean much. Sure, they're overused and vague, but they're actually super-fucking true. Sadly, I think 99% of people literally can't hear them for what they are, because it's too difficult for our brains to comprehend the scale of what they mean. For example, my eldest son Cole, turned 15 the other day. It was a big moment for me. One where I realized in a year he'd be getting his drivers license. It made me think about how quickly it really does go by. Of course, I'd heard that phrase a thousand times, but it didn't sink in until the passing of time gave it true meaning. I think the same could be said for "you can do anything…". It isn't until you've gotten there, or perhaps really seen good progress that you understand it's true. So, to me, I think trying to take note of positive changes and seeing them as part of something really big is important in helping recognize something as cliché as "you can do anything…".

“It's unbelievable to me the nuance when you're working at a product of this scale, and how the smallest decisions can have such great impact.”

Why do you do what you do? What makes your work so meaningful to you?

Over the past year here the team's grown immensely. I think it was 10 or 11 people when I joined, and now its at 25 or 26. It’s really enjoyable to see that growth. Not in size–that's definitely one thing–but it's more about seeing people grow. Watching them progress through the work that they're doing that you're hopefully guiding them on. That’s really enjoyable.

Fundamentally I’m a product designer at heart and one of the primary things that I love is shipping product. Putting tests in the market even if they're not doing well is just super fascinating and I love it. Facebook has been such a cool place to do that, because you're working at such scale and there's so many talented people here and they're able to push out tests so quickly and with so many iterations. It's fascinating, and empowering to understand how quickly you can get real feedback on whether or not your idea is working. That's been really cool.

To understand that making something two pixels larger has meaningful impact in terms of how people engage with it, that’s unreal. It's unbelievable to me the nuance when you're working at a product of this scale, and how the smallest decisions can have such great impact. We never really got to experience it at Teehan+Lax to the scale of this. Even though we worked with some of those companies like Google and Facebook and other large companies. Even though you're partnering up and you're working closely, you're not really as involved over a longer period of time to really understand. Being on the inside now, it's been pretty eye opening.

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

Ben Cline, who runs Rally. I think they just do great work, and he's an owner but he's also a very hands-on guy. I'd be interested to understand from him how he balances that. What he enjoys.

I think Dann Petty is a really interesting guy. He's a super nomad. Like the lifetime freelancer guy. He's tried going full time. He contracts out, and now he's doing big conferences. He's just constantly reinventing himself, so I think ... He is so selfless, he rarely talks about himself. I think that I'd be interested to hear from him.

Design at Medium 2016-03-14T00:00:00-04:00 2016-03-14T00:00:00-04:00 Ways We Work Team featuredfeature_4 featuredfeature_4 When thinking about Medium there is a certain mysteriousness about it. At first glance you might call it another blogging platform, but that feels like an oversimplification. Some might refer to it as an online publication where everyone is a contributor, but that doesn’t seem right either. However you decide to describe what Medium is, it will most likely fall a little short of the truth. The topic has been under great debate over the past few years and googling ‘What is Medium?’ illustrates this quite clearly. All the mystery and labels aside, the platform is doing something unique with how we communicate online. Amandah and I had the pleasure of visiting the Medium headquarters to get an inside look at what the team is trying to create. We met up with the design team to chat about how they work and discuss the challenges of creating something new and evolving it to match their envisioned future.

We made our way to the flatiron building located at the intersection of Market and Ellis St. in downtown San Francisco. We entered into the lobby of Medium's office–which took up an entire floor of the building–and waited for Brad Simpson, one of design team members we’d be shadowing that morning. Brad greeted us and gave us quick tour of the office. As we walked, we got a glimpse of the company culture and staff that made it all happen. The south side of the office space was relatively empty and earmarked for growth while the north side was a flurry of activity. Brad showed us through the various nooks and crannies in the office, each one with its own character. The first impression of the office space was one of beautiful utility. Every space had a purpose and seemed well-designed with that intention in mind.

As we walked, Brad introduced us to Tyler Howarth, another member of the product design team. The four of us continued through the space and stopped to look at a wall covered in printouts with various typefaces on them. Brad explained that as part of their recent rebranding, the team went through a fairly rigorous typeface feedback process. Anyone at the office could highlight things about the font they liked and things they didn’t like. This attention to detail to the user experience and product design was a clear indicator that the team thought very deeply about all aspects of what they were doing, right down the descenders, bowls, ligatures and whatever else any hardcore typeface junkie would be concerned with. I couldn’t help whispering “that’s awesome” as an armchair typeface enthusiast myself.

“Nuances like making smart quotes go the right way, and drop caps and all these like tiny, tiny things that kind of pay off over time. They can seem tedious in the short term but people start to notice those details and those subtle moments of lack of friction where it does exactly what you want it to do. ”

Brad had to jump into a meeting so Tyler carried on the tour in his place. We ended up in the staff kitchen–which felt more like a cafe–to have some coffee and talk about their team structure. We were discussing processes and Tyler mentioned that they had an internal version of Medium called “Hatch” that was used in a couple of different ways. Practically it was used as a company wiki that housed guides, onboarding tips, and operational things. More interestingly though, Hatch was where ideas were shared and discussed around the product and its evolution. It was a place for employee reflection and to write commentary about what they learned from experiences they had with the product. Others in the company would read, comment and formulate their own thoughts on the topics posted. Hatch was a central hub to collect company ideas in written form so they can be argued, debated, refined and distilled into their essential parts. From those essential parts the team would build the product upward and outward. Zooming out a little from Hatch, this processing of ideas into its most valuable parts appeared to be what Medium itself is enabling for others, except with a much broader scope.

From the conversation about Hatch we started to discuss some of the nuances of how the team evolved the product and how new features came to life. Tyler mentioned an interesting element to their stand up meeting. Beyond the typical, "this is what I’ve done, this is what I’m doing, this is where I’m blocked", they had an additional step called ‘1 thing about anything.’ It allows the team member to express 1 thing that really bugs them about the product at the current moment. Tyler added that those ‘1-things’ will usually steep in the product manager’s head and then will be batted around in Hatch to see if its worthy of pursuing further. Beyond those, Ev Williams–Medium’s CEO–and other product team members will bring in longer term functionality requests that will shape the core product in bigger ways. Those bigger ideas would then be broken down into smaller parts and implemented slowly over time. Tyler explained that they don’t get too bogged down in process, and some features are simply taken from conversations and implemented while others go through some planning in Hatch and are then implemented. Overall product features are coming from all aspects of the company and the process for distilling it all happens via in person conversation and through posts in Hatch. In a given day the product will generally see numerous updates and fixes pushed live to its audience.

“The other week I wrote a 100-word Hatch post where I explained why I felt we should be able to copy and paste images into the editor and why that seemed broken. Then the next day I worked with an engineer on it and we built it and it was live.”

After finishing our coffee Tyler, Amandah and I headed over to the design team’s work area and met a few of the other team members. We then headed into the team’s daily DCT which had various meanings based on the day of the week. Sometimes it was design critique time and sometimes it was design chill time or design collaboration time. The day we visited it was design critique time and the team was going to discuss product features that they were working on and get feedback from the rest of the team. After speaking with Tyler about Hatch, it was interesting to see the next layer in the process. Now that ideas were vetted and selected for development, the team brought the ideas to life through mockups and prototypes. Each designer would present their ideas and explain their thought process on the decisions they had made. Input requests from other team members were pointed instead of being of the general “so what do you think?” type. It seemed that once ideas had made it through the ‘Hatching’ process, the individual designers had a sense of autonomy to bring it to life. They were allowed to use their intuition and design sensibilities to add their own touch to the product. Of course, it always had to go through an approval process, but from where we sat there appeared to be a lot of trust in the design team to individually make the right calls.

Throughout the DCT we got to witness more of the same attention to detail in all aspects of the final product. We heard Tyler discuss slight adjustments to the navigation and talk about other details like drop shadows. When it was Marcin Wichary’s turn to speak he went into his thinking process about how to visually round follower counts to make it more interesting to the user. He talked about when to round the number and when to break it out into more detail. For example, instead of the user seeing simply 10K followers, when the tally got close to a big milestone they would change the way it was visually represented to give a little more weight to the occasion. Instead they would show 9.95k instead of showing 9.9k just to give the user a little more excitement about reaching the milestone. While a feature like that might go unnoticed, when you think this way about all aspects of the product, those little pieces start to add up and make an impact on the overall experience.

“DCT stands for Design Critique Time, or Design Chill Time. Tuesdays and Thursdays is Design Collaboration Time, Mondays and Wednesdays it's Design Chill Time which means we all get in the same room and we design together, sometimes listen to some Drake - Drake Chill Time.”

After the DCT wrapped up it was time for lunch. Everyday there was a catered lunch for the entire company. It’s one of the company perks that’s become common in the San Francisco area and beyond. Throughout the day we hadn't got a sense of how many people were in the office, but over lunch it became quite obvious just how many people were there. As the staff poured into the lunch area, everyone filled their plates and chatted away. The lunch room sounded more like a busy restaurant with the volume rising as people spoke louder so they could be heard over the crowd. Amandah and I filled our plates and sat down with the design team.

The conversation turned towards the recent massive rebrand the company went through and what it meant on the whole. The team referred to the shift as ‘Medium 2.0’ and with that change was a whole new sense of the direction of the company. They mentioned that through all the learning they’d gone through in Medium 1.0 that they felt that the transition represented a better version of themselves and a clearer path to what they wanted to achieve. In a way, the change was a shedding of the old aspects that didn’t work and from that change came a whole new envisioning of the company’s identity, both literally and philosophically.

We then turned the conversation over to story responses and how that component of the product was a huge move forward in Medium 2.0. Tyler explained that what they are trying to do is create a platform on the Internet that is a positive, safe place to visit to hash through ideas without the noise of spam accounts, troll commenters and other disruptive things like that. Tyler added that they are very intentional about having people's personal profile and social graph attached to the words as a way to keep people honest in addition to using it to shape how content is displayed. Marcin agreed that they want it to be honest, positive, and safe but added they don’t want it to become an echo chamber. It meant that they wanted Medium to be a place for potentially intense discussions and inevitably disagreements but with the tenets of positivity and safety firmly in place. Curating the conversation and keeping it all civil is, no doubt, a big challenge but the team doesn’t shy away from it. Sasha Lubomirsky, the design lead, says “it’s crazy, but that’s what makes it exciting.”

“There are a few things in the design already that try to account for more generic responses or troll comments. You don't see every response in a post. You only see the people you follow or what the author recommended.”

The lunchroom started to quiet down as the staff headed back to their workstations. Amandah and I were still deep in conversation with the design team about the challenges the team faced on a regular basis. Marcin explained that having a team of 5 can definitely be limiting as there is so much that needs to be thought through and created on any given day. He added that it can be a challenge to focus. Adding new members to the design team also presents challenges as the types of people they look for are hard to find. Brad described the design team as a very diverse group with different visions and varying opinions. Marcin and Brad explained that only through the combination and balance of all the different personalities and priorities does the true value come out.

The conversation turned back towards the vision of the company and what it’s purpose was on the whole. Brad brought up the conversation that happened between Amazon and New York Times and reflected on the reason why those writers chose to discuss the articles on Medium instead of their respective platforms. Brad asked “why Medium?” and the reason he proposed was that Medium was this neutral ground–or digital commons–where each party could discuss things openly and publicly without the bias or politics of their employers. Additionally, the community of readers were free to add their own perspectives and point of view on what was said. There hasn’t been a place to have a conversation like this in a neutral space that enables the conversation to unfold to a natural conclusion that's not burdened with bias, trolls and spammers. Beyond this occurrence, Brad explains that “people write on Medium now and shit happens in the world. That to me is the power I see. That to me is next level.” At first glance this digital commons sounds not all that new or different, but what Tyler, Marcin and Sasha mentioned earlier in the conversation regarding the elements of non-anonymity via your social graph, positivity and safety while at the same time encouraging different points of view really is unique and ambitious. Instead of avoiding the comments, like a lot of people recommend, Medium wants you to read the comments and get involved in the conversation with the goal of coming to a rational and progressive close.

Marcin added that everything they do within the company tries to enable mindfulness: mindful reading, mindful writing and mindful conversation. Being mindful means Medium enables readers and writers to focus on the present moment and consciously pay attention the details of that moment. Marcin cited a couple smaller features their thinking about to help enable mindful writing. He added, much like the visual design details, the mindful product features will add up to a whole that enables mindfulness in a very clear way. From an outside perspective, a clear example of this is Medium’s writing tool. When you open it there is nothing else on the screen but a blank canvas, a flashing I-beam and a ‘Tell your story’ prompt. As a writer you’re encouraged to be in the moment, free from distraction, and write what you’re thinking down. Hearing how intentional everything in the product is, and how all of these small details coalesce to make a greater whole really puts into perspective the idea of ‘mindful design’ and what it means when building a product.

“I've always liked this idea of if you don't understand the word when you're reading something, you should look it up. That's a super awesome principle because you're going to learn. You're going to be better next time you read something.”

As we wrapped up our time at the Medium HQ that morning, we gathered our things and said goodbye to the team. When I first arrived that morning I didn’t have a clear understanding of what Medium was. However, after spending a few hours discussing the product design and organizational goals, it became clear that Medium is a digital speaker’s corner for sharing written thought and perhaps most importantly it’s a forum for sharing opinions, hypotheses and ideas so they can be tested and peer-reviewed by it’s community. Much like how Hatch is used to distill product ideas into their essential parts, Medium aims to enable this constructive process for everyone. Currently digital forums and comment threads have been left uncontrolled and conversations are allowed to unfold without guides. What we’ve become accustom to are conversations devolving into chaos lead by troll commenters with no real insight gained. It appears Medium is trying to fix this by enabling a controlled but mindful conversation of free thought that leads to a progressive and useful outcome. With these goals, it’s not hard to imagine a future where a coalescence of these positive conversations leads to the discovery of some greater truths that have an impact us all.

Definition of a forum: “a place, meeting, or medium where ideas and views on a particular issue can be exchanged.”

Bas Berkhout, Filmmaker and Director of Like Knows Like 2016-03-09T00:00:00-05:00 2016-03-09T00:00:00-05:00 Ways We Work Team Bas Berkhout is a Dutch filmmaker and director living and working in New York. In 2012 he started the viral documentary film series Like Knows Like, where he profiles the personal stories of famous Internet artists, creatives and bloggers. Using this style of filmmaking, he works with brands to help tell their story through film and photography. Bas shares how he was originally rejected from film school, how he started in film and how he has been able to blend his artistic practice with paid work.

Tell me a little bit about what you’re working on right now?

There's quite a few projects ongoing at the moment. Besides my ongoing independent work, I'm creating a lot of branded content with Vimeo and also directly with clients. One example is the InFrame video series that I'm working on with the team at Format. In addition, I'm also doing some directing and producing for a corporate organization where I help them create engaging internal video communications. There's a good mix of independent work and branded content that I do with clients around the US.

How did your video series Like Knows Like originally start?

So before I moved to the US, I lived in the Netherlands, I just moved here two and a half years ago. About five years before I moved, I did two 40-minute long documentaries. One of them won a lot of awards, which was great. Instead of creating more documentaries I decided to take on a lot more client work. That ended up growing into a company where I had hired freelance videographers and it got to the point where I was just basically managing them. I was making schedules, making sure videographers were where they need to be, and making sure video was being delivered to clients. At a certain point I found I was no longer being fulfilled creatively. So together with photographer Marije Kuiper, I decided to start Like Knows Like, as a creative outlet and a type of distraction. I had all of the skills to do the entire project myself, camera work, editing etc. I was excited to meet my fellow creatives and hear their "real" stories. I wanted to know and share what their lives looked like past their social media accounts. That project really opened my eyes.

The gap between my paid corporate work and the unpaid creative work through Like Knows Like was growing wider and wider. Around the same time some personal life events drove me to take a sabbatical. I had done a film on Tina Roth Eisenberg and she invited me to come to New York and take a desk at Studiomates. So I thought about it and made the move to New York. When that happened I made the decision to focus as much as possible on storytelling and documentary filmmaking. That's where the team at Format came in. They recognized Like Knows Like and reached out about doing a video series. So recently I turned Like Knows Like into a boutique agency, where I help brands connect with their audiences using storytelling.

You’ve developed this great style of video storytelling that’s created as branded content. I would love to know how you’re able to keep creative control and tell an authentic story in that type of work?

Well if I’m being completely honest, it depends on the money. If you're working with a lower budget you can ask the client for a lot of creative freedom. So, if there isn't a huge budget but you think it’s super interesting to work on, you can keep a lot of the creative control. In that scenario I can have the space to tell a story and create my vision. It’s about telling a compelling story.

There are other types of projects where the budget is much higher, and in that case, I need to deliver whatever it is the client wants. That being said, I like to work with clients who value my opinion. I like to have a dialogue and make sure that opinion comes across and I fight the good fight if I feel strongly about something. At the end of the day, if you sign a contract that is work for hire, you have to make the changes that they ask for.

What I try to do is make a lot of great independent work. People will see that and then I get hired for that type of work. It may get watered down a little in the process but initially, you were hired because they loved your work.

You’ve been doing filmmaking for 13 years, how did you get started in film?

I once hosted a national children’s TV show when I was eleven. Being around all those crewmembers I felt a sense of belonging. I wanted to be part of that world when I grew older. In college, I took a four-year multimedia program, it was quite broad, we focused on advertising, marketing, and many other related disciplines. I wanted to go to film school. I applied for multiple film schools and they all rejected me. I felt incredibly insecure about it. I hung out with a lot of artist friends who were in school for art and I always felt like I fell short because I didn’t have a proper education in art. Then I made this documentary, it was a completely independent piece and ended up winning a couple of awards. That made my insecurity of not having any film-related schooling go away.

Along the way, I tried many different rolls within film. From shooting, to editing, producing and directing. That’s what made me so multidisciplinary today.

What are some of the biggest challenges that you face in your work currently?

Before I moved to New York, I only cared about making clients happy. I was really providing video as a service for corporate clients. Now that I'm focusing on my artistic voice and being hired for that, it is much tougher when clients want to make a change. Especially if I feel very strongly about it. That's a big challenge. It is a balance to stay close to the art, but also be able to make money.

I need a lot of fulfillment now; I don't want to just work for the money anymore. If a project is well paid but I don't have a lot of fun, I'm not going to do it. I'll walk away from it. I can obviously only do that because I was able to save a little bit. When you're just starting out, you need to take on everything. For your experience, to get a financial buffer and make sure you're on the right path.

How do you balance the creative work that you’re doing with the admin and business-related work that you need to do as well?

There’s certainly a lot more formalities in the US. You need to sign contracts, negotiate, and there's a lot more parties involved. It is definitely very demanding what you need to do as a one-man band. It’s getting tougher, so I’m becoming more open to trusting other people to help me.

I’m so used to doing everything myself, it’s becoming more work but it’s still doable. I’d love to be able to focus on the creative part solely. That is definitely on the horizon, I’m not there yet, but I do feel I’m working towards that.

It can also be difficult to let others help you with your work. Letting go of control of certain things is a challenge itself.

What are the tools and equipment you’re using on a daily basis?

iPhone - I do a lot of work from my iPhone.

Email - I drag everything out of my inbox and into folders. What remains there I use as a to-do list. I’m very organized.

Premiere Pro - I use this program for video editing.

Lightroom - I use this program for photo editing.

Sony FS7 - This is the camera that I use mostly for film.

Canon 5D Mark III - The Canon is what I use for photography.

Are you naturally comfortable interviewing people on camera and working in that way, or was it something that you had to learn?

I feel like I have a lot to learn there still. I have been good at getting to the heart of people and showing their vulnerability and I think that really resonates with people. But I do still think that I have a long way to go in terms of continuing to ask deeper questions, more difficult questions. Being able to confront people or even be more empathetic - to really understand and go deeper.

In work like yours where you are very much a one-man band, it can be easy to become overwhelmed with everything that needs to get done. How do you avoid burning out?

I am super organized by nature, I take care of things immediately. Every morning I wake up around 6am and every day I make a list and work through it. Getting rid of stuff right away is how I keep everything moving. Once I'm in that flow, it feels comfortable to be really busy.

I'm almost the opposite where I feel depressed if I'm not doing things. I need to stay busy. I’m incredibly fortunate to have a wife who’s not incredibly stressed out by that behavior. I can get really intense and want to have control of every situation. Sometimes I need to chill the hell out.

The only moment that I came close to a burnout was when I wasn’t feeling fulfilled in my work.

I'm constantly chasing that feeling of fulfillment. That's why I'm doing a lot of short films, it's that sense of accomplishment every time one is done. If I do long format again and I’m working on a project for a year, I can start to feel like I’m losing touch with my audience and clients.

Why do you do what you do and what makes it so meaningful to you?

Storytelling is so important to me because I learn through connecting with a subject. I learn through interviewing, seeing someone’s world, and visiting places. That is the most beautiful thing about photography and filmmaking is that you see places, you learn about life, you learn about people and then indirectly, you learn about yourself. I’m always trying to get to the essence of life, what is the meaning, what is the purpose? I try to get those answers from the people I profile, and I learn a little bit more about myself and life every time.

Who would you want to see on Ways We Work?

Jimmy Marble

Jon Burgerman

Noah Kalina

Michael Scoggins

Scott David Laufer

Catalina Estrada

Thomas Medicus

Deepa Subramaniam, Director of Product at Hillary for America 2016-03-02T00:00:00-05:00 2016-03-02T00:00:00-05:00 Ways We Work Team designerscommunicators designerscommunicators Deepa Subramaniam is the Director of Product at Hillary for America. Previous to that she was Head of Product at charity: water, a non-profit bringing clean water to people in need. Her first job out of college was with Macromedia which was eventually acquired by Adobe, where Deepa spent the first 10 years of her career. She took time out of her insanely busy schedule to talk about how she came to be on the Hillary for America campaign, what her role is like (it's as crazy as you might imagine) and how she keeps herself firing on all cylinders.

Tell me a little bit about the work that you're doing right now and what your role looks like?

I joined the Hillary for America campaign at the beginning of July 2015 as Director of Product, just a few months after Secretary Clinton officially announced her presidential campaign. It’s been an amazing, fun, challenging and inspiring ride so far. I am a part of the Tech team which is a fantastic group of front-end and back-end engineers, product designers and product managers.

The purview of the Tech team is to use technology to do a variety of different things: raise money, spread our message, engage with supporters, and of course ensure people go out and vote! And of course, Tech is all about helping the campaign run more efficiently.

In short, it's a really exciting job where I learn so much every single day, especially how to produce at a high-volume and quickly. It’s funny, I used to think I needed a full few days to put a presentation together and now I can do it in an hour. At past jobs I would be so proud if an idea went from concept to execution in a couple of weeks. Here you can have an idea on Monday and it can be live on the site on Wednesday. That kind of speed is exciting and invigorating though it also poses all these different challenges that I haven't had before.

I used to joke around that I wished there was a reality competition for product management, and once I joined the campaign I thought: “Oh, this is it!”

I'd love to know more about your role as Director of Product and what your responsibilities are within that role?

In many ways it’s classic product management. I’m ideating with my design and engineering team, writing requirements and specs, working closely to make sure what we’re building is going to be successful, and satisfy requirements, yet can also evolve as time passes. My main focus at the moment is online fundraising and how we get people to sign up and engage with us in the variety of ways possible.

Of course, once we ship a new product or feature, I make sure everything is performing as expected and end-users are happy. That means looking at data, tweaking the product if it isn’t satisfying the original goals or maybe completely pivot the product to tackle an area we weren’t initially thinking of.

I also try to pay close attention to what’s happening outside of the campaign in order to stay connected and generate new ideas for things we could build.

A campaign is a series of amazing moments that make up this very deep and relevant experience. Some of these moments you can control and some happen more fluidly. I find that my time is best spent thinking about how technology can be used to make these moments even more impactful.

“As challenging as this job can be, I still pinch myself in the mornings when I walk into the office and get to work with such amazing people to put the first female president in office.”

What was your path to this role, how did you end up on the campaign?

Macromedia was my first job out of college and in 2006 was acquired by Adobe. Together I spent 10 years there and Adobe continues to be a company I love. However after a full decade, I was ready for both professional change and personal change and around that time I met Scott Harrison, the founder of charity: water. He needed someone who had my skills and so I decided to take the leap and move from San Francisco to New York to work on product. It was an exciting and disruptive move for me, leaving the for-profit world to join a non-profit charity, but I was really motivated by how technology and storytelling could be used to tackle huge global problems. The water crisis is an active, ongoing issue - 663 million people around the world lack access to clean and safe drinking water. charity: water was all about using technology to raise money in order to build water projects for people in the developing world. For me, it was incredibly eye-opening to see that you could creatively mix disciplines like classic engineering with beautiful design and powerful storytelling to have a real impact on the world.

I was at charity: water for over 2 years and very proud of the work we were doing when I happened to get an email from a friend of a friend who had just joined the Hillary for America campaign. I remember it very clearly, he shot me an email on Easter Sunday that ended with, “P.S. - What do you think of presidential campaigns”. Needless to say I was intrigued and later that night we got on the phone and he explained the role. I was immediately excited. I grew up in a very politically conscious household, my parents are proud Democrats and we talked about politics all the time. So after a few weeks I was connected with the leaders of the HFA Tech team and through a few conversations got offered the job! As challenging as this job can be, I still pinch myself in the mornings when I walk into the office and get to work with such amazing people to put the first female president in office.

It’s so crazy how sometimes the biggest and most amazing opportunities can just come through a note in an email.

Yeah, I definitely feel very lucky but in hindsight I can see how there were certain things I did that helped this opportunity land on my plate. When I came to New York I really put myself out into the tech scene and I now realize that by doing that, you help sow the seeds for your name to get thrown into interesting conversations. I mean when I moved to New York I literally knew 2 people in the city. I joined charity: water and met great people there and also spoke at some conferences and meetups and gradually expanded the folks who were fun to “talk shop” with. It was through those actions that I got put in touch with the campaign so I’m a big fan of connecting with folks in your community, you never know what could come of it.

“You’re kind of in this constant “game-on” state. Because of that, I’m learning a lot about what things I need to do personally to stay charged and energized and what are the things that I need to cut out in pursuit of focus.”

What would you say are the most challenging aspects of the work that you’re doing right now?

I’ve never had to lean on my time management skills as much as I do with this job. I eat in minutes, I think in minutes, free time is a luxury. Additionally, this role has really highlighted the things I feel like I’m good at and the things where there’s still lots of room for improvement. That’s a very rewarding insight to have.

One thing that is key for this job is to stay focused. You’re kind of in this constant “game-on” state. Because of that, I’m learning a lot about what things I need to do personally to stay charged and energized and what are the things that I need to cut out in pursuit of focus. Discipline has been key. A campaign is a marathon of sprints tumbling head-first towards this grand finish. Every day I’m learning how to harness my energy and keep the pace up.

What things have you been doing to keep yourself inspired and help keep that energy and focus?

Engineers, designers, product managers: we’re all so rational and organized. So of course the way I stay focused is keeping lists and action items and goals top-of-mind at all times. I can’t tell you how many Medium articles I’ve read on life-hacking. I’ve tried it all, but the things that work for me are pretty basic: quality time with my family and my close friends who inspire me and make me laugh, quiet mornings with strong coffee and little treats to keep my days exciting.

Also, I’ve never been so crazy protective of my downtime. I used to sometimes feel guilty if I hadn’t seen a friend in awhile or I didn’t feel like going out to a social event but now if I have an evening off or even a couple of hours of free time, I guard it like a precious jewel. I’m more thoughtful about the time I have off so that I’m using it in a way that lets me rest and stay inspired and connect with the people I love.

How do you manage your time amongst email and communications versus the heads down work that you need to be executing on?

Yeah, it’s tough - the volume of information and projects flying at me is like a fire hose. Whether it’s Slack, email, text or phone there’s so much information to consume and act on. I used to come in in the mornings and write the top 5 things I was going to do that day and now I’ve learned that is just a silly task and every day will be different. This means ruthlessly prioritizing what’s on my plate to make sure I’m moving the biggest boulders and not getting lost with the pebbles. Now I write 3-5 five things that I kind of want to get done but always know that there’s going to be days where the plan gets blown up and that is A-OK.

“Whenever I feel fearful or nervous about speaking my mind, I just look to my left and right and there are so many strong women who fearlessly say what they believe. That's not something that came so naturally to me and I'm so thrilled that I get to flex that muscle in this job.”

What are the tools you use every day to stay on top of things?

Slack - I cannot believe how much I can coordinate at all times of day and night with my teams and extended teams through Slack. I have it on all my devices and I use it constantly - what a lifesaver!

TeuxDeux - I use this to keep track of the things on my plate both personally and professionally that I need to take care of and do in a timely manner.

Headspace - Headspace is a beautiful meditation app. It’s whimsical and well-designed and has helped me dabble in meditation.

Notes - I write lists constantly and I find my little system of using Notes works well for me to stay organized.

You must be seeing the impact of your work so frequently and directly all the time with the campaign being so public and such a big event. So many people must have opinions or things to say about both the work your team is doing and Hillary Clinton. How do you keep that from affecting you, avoiding burnout and staying inspired towards your end goal?

What I've learned more than anything is that everyone has an opinion. It's something I knew prior to the campaign and that has been heavily reinforced. I mean, it’s actually a good thing: people are interested and they care. Now there’s times where that can be overwhelming but I control what I’m reading and how much of it and certain days I just focus on what is important.

Also, I look to our candidate for inspiration. I mean Hillary Clinton is such a fighter, someone who relishes hard work to get things done. She’s been in the public eye for decades and has accomplished so much and I find that truly inspiring.

I’m sure this entire campaign has been about pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone, but I’d love to know if there are any recent examples you could share of how you’ve had to do that?

Oh gosh. Yesterday? Everyday? [laughs] I think one thing that this campaign has taught me, this is actually pretty personal, is that inspiration can be right next to you. I work with such amazing people, including a group of the most creative and whip-smart women you’ll ever meet. Women in technology has been a conversation I've always been part of and it’s awesome to interact with such talented women outside of tech now that I’m in this new political realm.

I’ve really found a stronger voice in working with the HFA team. Whenever I feel fearful or nervous about speaking my mind, I just look to my left and right and there are so many strong women who fearlessly say what they believe. That's not something that came so naturally to me and I'm so thrilled that I get to flex that muscle in this job.

“On the campaign, success is so clear, so binary. You win or you lose. That clear outcome is powerful, it’s what helps us focus and rally every day.”

What are some of the things you’ve learned about politics and working on campaigns that you didn’t know before this role?

I’ve learned so much, especially about elections and campaigns and democracy at large. I think what kind of constantly takes my breath away is just how much work happens behind the scenes to support any candidate. The collaborative effort it takes for something like this to happen is impressive.

On the campaign, success is so clear, so binary. You win or you lose. That clear outcome is powerful, it’s what helps us focus and rally every day.

What do you love most about the work you’re doing, why is it meaningful to you?

I truly believe with my heart that the best thing for our country and for the world right now is for Secretary Clinton to be our next president. It is a privilege every day to work alongside my colleagues to accomplish this together. There is such a sense of urgency and importance in what we're doing - it's really a beautiful thing.

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

Smiley Poswolsky - Smiley is a good friend and an amazing author. He is helping people all over the world learn how to find work that inspires them. He’s also one of the most disciplined people I know and I am truly amazed at how he can do that! Maybe he’ll spill some of his secrets if you guys talk.

Bryan Mason - Bryan is a good friend and mentor whom I met at Adobe and he just really kills it at life. Like seriously, he truly knows how to live a fun and balanced life. He just accepted an amazing new role at VSCO and as a fan of Bryan and a fan of VSCO, I’d love to hear how life is going for him!

Stacey Mulcahey - Stacey and I have been friends for I think over a decade. We met working on Flash stuff and since then she’s gone on to have all these amazing roles. What I especially love is she’s taking her love of code and her wicked wit and applying it to helping kids learn to code. She’s like the absolute best teacher and I’d love for her to share her thoughts on inspiring young kids.

thoughtbot 2016-02-29T00:00:00-05:00 2016-02-29T00:00:00-05:00 Ways We Work Team featured featured Chances are, you’ve probably heard about thoughtbot. With four podcasts, five of their own products, a dozen books and a 22-page Github repo of open source projects, they know how to share what they do with the world. thoughtbot has ten offices spread across the US, the UK and Sweden. Each office is made up of varying combinations of developers and designers working with clients to design, develop and grow their products. This past December we visited thoughtbot’s office in downtown San Francisco and met up with Lydia Damon, the Design Director of the San Francisco office. We wanted to learn more about how designers and developers work in tandem at thoughtbot, what a typical project looks like and in addition, how the team is able to find time to produce their own projects and products.

When we arrived at the office everyone was just finishing up lunch, which gave us a chance to wander around and explore the space. Upon entering the office we were greeted by a sign displaying an upcoming Taco Tuesday event, a weekly meetup where they invite people in the industry to come speak and hang out. There were no shortage of thoughtbot's robot stickers, figurines, posters and pillows. As we moved through the entrance and into the main space, it opened up into pods of desks where people were starting to head back to work from lunch. There were three main sections to the office, the lounge near the entrance with a couple of meeting rooms off to the right side, the main area where the team worked and then the kitchen and lunch area. Every space had an open concept feel but the way they were divided up gave each area a purpose and its own atmosphere.

After lunch Lydia introduced us to Gabe Berke-Williams, a developer on the team and Steven Harley another designer in the San Francisco office. I started out by asking Lydia about her role and the general makeup of the team. She had recently taken on the role of Design Director and explained that for the most part the team stays pretty flat in terms of their roles and hierarchy. Recently, they began implementing director roles for design and development just to help keep more organization with all the recent growth of the team. She explained that herself and Steven were the only designers in the San Francisco office at the moment and so her role was still very much as an active designer.

The role of designer, Lydia explained, is a little bit different at thoughtbot than other agencies or startups. A designer is involved in everything from UX, to visual design and strategy, to front-end implementation, so they look for designers who can meet developers a little bit further on the technical side than usual. This is largely due to the fact that each project starts with design, and designers play a big role in helping define what the project is, often prototyping solutions before they’re fully built out. This process means the team is less interested in just being handed a product to build and instead aims to become an extension of the client’s team, helping them figure out what to build, and continuing to test assumptions throughout the building process.

“The most common team is one designer, and two developers. Sometimes it goes bigger, sometimes it goes much bigger. Sometimes it’s just a designer or sometimes just a developer. But that's probably the classic team.”

Each project at thoughtbot starts with a product design sprint, a process and methodology they’ve borrowed from Google Ventures. Gabe described the product design sprint as a week long process where they narrow down what exactly it is they’re going to build. On the rare occasion they’ll come out of that discovering that the client doesn’t need them, or the product doesn’t match the market at all. He explained that in it’s own way the team considers this outcome very much a success, it prevents a client from spending thousands of dollars on something they don’t need and helps the team mitigate riskier projects.

A product design sprint at thoughtbot happens over the course of 5 days and in that time they try to involve as many stakeholders as possible: product managers, developers, and the CEO whenever possible. The main goal being to get everyone in the same room talking about challenges, solutions and ideas. Lydia told us about one they had just started and described the first day as being all about discovery and a lot of listening. The team will sit with members of the client team and just listen to them describe their challenges and ideas, really getting to know their domain and what their problems are.

The second day is where everyone involved starts to diverge and explore all the potential possibilities. Everyone is sketching and contributing ideas at this stage--not just designers. On the third day, the group converges and together they determine the solution and path that’s most worth digging into. The last two days are about prototyping and getting something simple that they can actually test with real users. The final day of the sprint is where they focus on getting something in front of users, Lydia explained that this is something they keep as part of their process throughout the project, trying not to let too much time pass without showing it to people and having them actually use it. She mentioned that frequent user-testing can often be a challenge and doesn’t always work perfectly, but the team aims to have real data to go off of as soon and as often as possible.

“There are companies out there that will basically just build out your app for you. That's not us. We want to be part of your team, figuring it out with you and deciding what to build.”

After the design sprint the goal is that the team has a solid understanding of what the product is and what the most important goals are. Gabe and Lydia both expressed this as one of the most difficult stages of a project and the importance of refining down what parts they truly need to tackle first. It’s about determining what needs to get done in order for the project to move forward and get momentum. This is often where a designer on the project will get started building HTML mockups and framing up the product for the developers to build out.

With an approximate 20/80 ratio of designers to developers I asked how they managed allocating designers to projects, and if they ever had to work on multiple projects at once. Lydia explained that they stay dedicated to one project at a time, because one of their main promises to clients is that they’ll have their full attention during the project. Gabe added that often thoughtbot developers will work with a client’s internal design team or a project will get to a stage where only developers are needed so it’s about allocating designers and developers where they’re most needed and will contribute the most value. They've even gone so far as to help clients hire their first developer or designer, so that when their time with thoughtbot is finished they have a strong foundation to keep growing upon.

“There’s a mentorship aspect sometimes, when you're a developer or a designer on a project, if you're working with their team. It’s hard to hire a designer or a developer, so they want to use us to teach their team our practices.”

We became increasingly interested in how, amongst all their client projects that thoughtbot was able to produce their own products, multiple open source projects, podcasts and find the time to publish books. Gabe explained that they’re able to do this because of something they refer to as an “investment day”. Every Friday the team works on their own projects, meaning they’re only doing client work 4 out of 5 days in the week. Gabe elaborated on the types of things they can work on during these days as “anything that will make us better designers or developers or improve the company.” This could include learning a new language that might get them new types of work, or working on one of the team’s open source projects, or writing a reflective blog post on their process and recent discoveries. He mentioned it can also be a day to dedicate to sales work and bringing on new clients. Lydia added that everyone at thoughtbot for the most part, has a background in design or development, and in addition to having a dedicated sales director, everyone plays a part in bringing on new projects and client management. Often this way of doing things can help when allocating different team members to projects because the team can be a bit more collaborative in who is allocated to what. A lot of times if someone is really excited about a project and wants to work on it they can, and similarly if they don’t feel they’re right for a project, that can be open for discussion. It means they can find who will be the best fit for a project, rather than just assigning people and having it be a surprise what project they might end up on.

“It’s an investment. We're investing in the future of the company. We're taking time now to try to get more work in the future or do work faster in the future.”

We dug a bit deeper into how they’re able to make a day like this exist every single week, with client deadlines and all the other work they need to do. Gabe explained that part of it means they don’t take on as many clients as they probably could. Steven continued that it’s really seen as an investment day. The return may be more long-term but it means that team members are happier, more engaged and they’re able to invest time in sharing their knowledge and products with the community, which naturally turns into reaching more potential clients in the long run. Gabe talked about their open source libraries as an example, something they don’t make any direct revenue from but have become successful sources of referrals through the people who use them. Gabe also runs the thoughtbot blog and mentioned how many posts they’re able to write on Friday’s, another great source of referrals for the team. Many of the tools they contribute to the open source community are libraries or frameworks they’ve developed while working on client projects, such as their tools Neat, Bourbon, Bitter and Refills (there’s a clear theme to the naming process). Steven gave the example of their tool Neat, “we're starting projects every few months, so why write the same code more than once? We pulled that out into a library and I use it on all my projects now.”

With 10 offices across four different countries, we asked how thoughtbot decides to open a new office and how they decide where to go next. Steven's short answer was that “people decided to move there.” Lydia also gave the example of how their Denver office was opened when their CEO Chad met Desi McAdam, and had her start that office as the development director. She also talked about how they moved into Sweden, "Thank god, one of thoughtbot's original employees Mike Burns moved to Stockholm, because I think it’s really cool to have that office. It opened up the whole of Europe to us. Now we're in London.” She added that having offices in so many diverse places has influenced their culture in unexpected ways as well, like the work/life balance that is so important in Stockholm and surrounding countries. Gabe added that the New York office was opened because of a desire to move into that market specifically, but for the most part it’s spurred by a member of a team wanting to move somewhere and find work.

The team at thoughtbot has so much of their process nailed down that they created the thoughtbot Playbook for new hires, which in open source fashion is also available for anyone to download and read. It’s often something they share with clients to give them a bit of insight into their overall process before working together as well. Gabe mentioned that despite thoughtbot being well known for their methods and process, it can still be difficult to get new clients on board with things like design sprints and regular user-testing. We talked about the tools the team is using and the ongoing challenge of keeping up with what’s being used in the industry. thoughtbot’s stack started out primarily Ruby on Rails, and has expanded to include iOS and Android development. But, the team is always learning new languages and trying to keep on top of what’s current and relevant to the types of projects they’re taking on, which is where their investment days really become a benefit.

The main challenge however, as with many teams, is hiring and finding the right types of people who will fit with the way thoughtbot does things. Steven explained that it’s important for someone to be a great developer or designer, but they also need to be someone who can interface with clients, be easy to talk to and can articulate ideas and present them clearly. Gabe added that ideally they grow the team with the goal being that anyone could lead a project. He explained, “You can’t be someone who doesn't want to talk to people and just sort of sit there in the backroom and do your own thing. You need to be able to talk at retros and do that kind of thing.” Lydia explained how it can be hard to find this idea of “unicorn” designers who enjoy coding or at least, some form of front-end development, it’s a sweet spot and extremely difficult to find people who are enough of a generalist in terms of their interests, but experienced skills wise.

Gabe went on to talk about how they often look for this great mix of everything in clients and projects as well, “We also want unicorn projects, where there’s awesome design to be done and freedom to be had. Then with the development, the same thing. We want to be able to work on those projects all the time. We want those projects so we can hire cool people and it’s hard to get all those things. It’s hard to get all those things all the time.” We ended on the ongoing challenge of maintaining their identity as a team as they spread across time zones, take on bigger clients and continue to grow at a faster pace.

“We have documentation on everything. There are steps to do all these things, but for new clients or new hires, it’s a case by case basis. I think it’s the same way we build our frameworks, where they're opinionated but flexible. We have an opinion on how we should onboard people, but it really depends on their skill level or where their comfort zones are and we try to cater to that.”

It was great to gain more insight into how the team at thoughtbot has established themselves as thought-leaders and the way they’ve incorporated an open-source and collaborative mindset into every aspect of the company. As they continue to grow it'll be interesting to follow along as they continue to scale their process and the team. Thanks to Lydia and the San Francisco thoughtbot team for having us!

Ethnography and anthropology in design 2016-02-26T00:00:00-05:00 2016-02-26T00:00:00-05:00 Ways We Work Team Anthropology. Ethnography. Maybe you’ve heard these terms floating around; maybe you are even well versed in their meaning. Anthropologists and ethnographers are increasingly being hired at both large technology companies and design agencies. With their growing popularity in the business and design worlds, the two terms often seem to be used as buzzwords, and so we thought it was worth exploring why there is such growing interest in anthropology among companies large and small. I enlisted the help of my good friend Gillian MacDonald, who recently completed a Masters in Applied Cultural Analysis. She spoke with two anthropologists currently working in design to find out more about the work they’re doing and what exactly anthropology can add to the design world.

Her intro below.

My undergraduate degree is in anthropology, and most recently I received a Master’s in applied cultural analysis (which was essentially applied anthropology with a spiffier title). Not really interested in taking the traditional academic route, I started looking into how I could use anthropology in an applied setting. Design was a field that kept popping up over and over again. Many design firms have hired anthropologists as researchers, and strategy and design consultancies are increasingly building up anthropology as a research specialization.

So, the design world is becoming more and more interested in anthropology — why? Well, I see the short answer as: good design is made for people, and anthropology is all about trying to understand people. But I wanted to talk to some experts working in corporate and design anthropology to learn more about their experiences bridging the two fields. What are the benefits of anthropology for design? How is anthropological research used in the types of projects they work on? What challenges do they face in this type of work?

Nadine Hare, Resident Anthropologist at Idea Couture

Working as an applied anthropologist means working within tensions, tensions between strategy, design, anthropology and corporate interests. From my perspective, both anthropologists and strategist are ideally involved in the whole process, from building proposals, to research, to developing deliverables. When the anthropologist is back from the field, she start developing a narrative which should speak to the experiences she saw in the field while being in dialogue with the client’s business questions, objectives, and hypotheses. A big part of what happens when I come back from the field takes place in the dialogue between anthropologist and strategist: we’ll have some sort of exchange, I'll go away and write and then we'll talk some more, and I'll come back with something I feel good about. The strategist will push or challenge me. They’ll tell me: “this needs to be stronger,” or “this is going to be interesting to a client, and this is going to be less interesting.”

This cooperation between the strategist and anthropologist helps shape the research so that it challenges clients assumptions while still being accessible to them. There has to be a balance between fitting enough in a framework so that it's legible, but pushing this framework enough so that the work we do helps the client deconstruct past assumptions and offers interesting insight into people’s lives. My aim is to offer a critical lens on the narrative they've built about the people they deal with: their clients, and the consumers of their products.

I also work with designers on what we call journey maps. Journey maps are a visual representation of a part of the experience. Designers, strategists and anthropologists develop this map together. Designers speak to what is visually possible and interesting to represent so that they can create the tools that we use to help clients understand the journey, make strategic decisions, or even just to socialize insights in their organization. The anthropologist tries to make sure that everything being built is in line with the larger story we're telling and is representative of the stories she heard in the field. The strategist speaks to how this tool will be valuable for the client, and what needs to be at the forefront to make it strategically useful. This is another key tension that is part and parcel of the work that we do, being part of the dance between designers, strategists and anthropologists: representing complexity and nuance in the story we want to tell while still creating something that is viable and useful on the strategists end, and creating something that is doable, visually accessible and interesting on the design front. Bringing these three voices together is a really interesting moment. If you imagine this as sort of a triangle, what we create is something that lives in the middle of these three points and brings them together.

I think these tensions are something that makes the work at Idea Couture so valuable. Our findings are deep and complex, but still accessible and useful. Without the anthropologist having a say in these conversations, we risk losing the depth and complexity that brings so much to the work that we offer. Social life is complex! Even though people don't want it to be and want a simple answer, there isn't always one. The value of this whole process is being in those tensions and using them productively. Being in those tensions and working with and from those tensions is for me the way in which good research in this field can be done.

Rebecca Pardo, PhD, Research Director at Normative

Anthropology can provide a counterpoint to our instinctive ideas about how things should be, by providing the perspective of people’s actual behaviors, habits, values, and beliefs. By combining theory with empirical study, it can help make connections between different scales of social life: one individual’s behavior, group activities, trends, and abstract forces. That said, I feel strongly that design decisions do not need to be, and in fact shouldn’t be, always data-driven. Research is one input, not the only input, and not the most important one. It needs to be calibrated with all kinds of other inputs, like intuition, designerly knowledge, technological considerations, aesthetics, industry conventions, best practices, time constraints, and so on.

At Normative, we use a variety of research methods, ranging from the more ethnographic, like participant observation and diary studies, to the more focused and tactical, like usability testing. But it’s about more than methods; it’s mindset. Regardless of the methods we use, we generally take an anthropological perspective. For us, this means a focus on identifying and suspending our own assumptions. Instead, prioritizing internal perspectives of the individual or group we are studying. We try to understand the logics by which people make sense of their own experiences with technology. Through this, as well as other inputs, research and design work together to develop our own models of understanding.

Using anthropological theories and methods has strengthened our research work and deepened the level of our insights. For example, on a recent project about media use in the home, we applied Mary Douglas' classic theory of purity and dirt to our analysis of how people set up media spaces in their homes. This lens enabled us to develop an interpretation about boundaries and perceived sacred spaces that helped us understand the behaviors we observed. As far as methodology, we've incorporated methods from linguistic anthropology and discourse analysis, specifically close analysis of transcripts and video records to identify specific details of speech, gesture, and other aspects of interaction that reveal people's values and mental models.

In addition to constraints around things like budgets and timelines (many people have addressed the problem of whether you can do “real” ethnography in the matter of a few weeks, or even days), the broader, and I think thornier, challenges have to do with perceptions about what is valid research, data, and science. Popular notions define good research as quantitative and closed-ended; whereas anthropology is qualitative, interpretive, and often open-ended. It answers different types of questions; some people say that while quantitative research can answer the “who,” “how many,” and “what”, qualitative can explain “why” and “how” people behave the way they do.

Business anthropology is opportunistic. It cares about interesting cultural/behavioral insights insofar as they can help further business goals. This isn’t a bad thing - I decided to work in industry because I wanted that constraint; I wanted to be forced to be accountable to the purpose of the knowledge I was producing.

Goh Iromoto - Filmmaker / Cinematographer 2016-02-24T00:00:00-05:00 2016-02-24T00:00:00-05:00 Ways We Work Team photographers photographers Goh Iromoto is a self-taught director, filmmaker and cinematographer who brings his visual narrative style to the world of marketing and advertising through his work. He shares how he got started working in his medium and the industry, as well as the challenges he's faced in his career over the last year. Goh gives insight into the balance between creating and everything else that goes along with being self-employed-like marketing yourself and communicating with clients. His honesty and passion for the work he does is inspiring, enjoy.

Tell us a little bit about what you do.

I'm a director / cinematographer and I do some photography as well. I specifically work in the marketing and advertising field as opposed to television or long format filmmaking. What that means is I specialize in the art of filmmaking specifically for commercials. The commercial realm today isn’t just TV like it used to be, it has broadened out to cover mediums like the web. The web allows for a variety of story formats, not just the 30-second commercial. It includes things like 12-minute short films that have a completely different narrative. Web-based commercials are not a product-selling tool like traditional 30-second TV spots are. For example, the commercials can be short stories about surviving in the wilderness that indirectly promotes a region of Ontario. That’s what I’ve done a few times for Ontario Tourism. It's a really neat market to be in. It's definitely something that's relevant to our day and age. This new commercial format didn't exist 10 years ago when I started in the industry.

What was your path to becoming a filmmaker/cinematographer?

I didn't go to film school; I was very much self-taught. I guess the journey began when I was a kid. My mom and dad were journalists and they were a part of a Toronto community newspaper, so I had cameras around me all the time. My dad would always have different video cameras, not just for work but to shoot home movies as well. My parents were, by no means, artistic filmmakers but they had the equipment and I think that had a big influence on me.

When I was in university I got involved in a freediving community–which is where you dive underwater and hold your breath instead of using oxygen tanks. One summer before my paying job started I volunteered my time to create a promo video for a diving organization. They gave me about 50 hours of tapes they had lying around and I edited the best parts into a 3 to 4-minute promo video. That video was really well received in the diving community and because of it I was asked to cover the freediving world championships. I ended up filming the competition by day and then editing at night so that a video was out by the next morning. The following spring the freedivers funded me to do my first short documentary. It was about 60 minutes long and was shot in the Cayman Islands for about 2 and a half months. Every day I was filming and editing and I was only about 19 at the time. Kirk Krack–who is still a good friend of mine–was the world championship free diving coach and he treated his staff very intensively. He had high expectations and high demands and I was just like any other athlete to him. I definitely wanted to please him and meet or beat his expectations. I probably slept very little during that time. [laughs]

Closer to the end of that summer, I got an internship at a downtown advertising post house called School Editing. That company had a similar expectation level as Kirk. I still remember my first day as an assistant editor, I ended up pulling an all-nighter at the office. At the time I thought that type of work schedule was normal. Maybe the standards were a bit different, but I didn't think that was abnormal. The way I was working was definitely getting attention. I saw myself getting praised, moving up quick in the company, and what not. It was a grind though.

“It's not to say that creativity is dead and we’re all doomed, but it's definitely more of a challenge to stand out. Overall, it's a good thing, it's a good challenge. It pushes me but it can be really intimidating, even for someone has been doing this for a while.”

What are some of the challenges that you’ve been facing over the past year and how did you overcome them?

I'd say the biggest challenge, or insecurity, is a creative one. Thinking back 5 or 10 years, I would have no problem thinking creatively and attacking ideas with new tricks and techniques. Perhaps it's just where I am in my career or perhaps it’s more about modern times with Vimeo and YouTube and everyone having access to amazing technology. I'm at a place now where I'm trying to come up with new creative material and I'm actually finding it hard to stand out. There is so much great talent out there, and again, I want to say this more as an insecurity and vulnerability than a complaint. Any editing style you can think of will have been reproduced or refined or creatively done better. It feels like almost everything that can be done, is already out there. It's not to say that creativity is dead and we’re all doomed, but it's definitely more of a challenge to stand out. Overall, it's a good thing, it's a good challenge. It pushes me but it can be really intimidating, even for someone has been doing this for a while.

Along those lines, I've encountered in the photography world this idea of comparison paralysis. Like you said, there's so many great people doing great things. You look at your own work and you compare it to other people and can’t help but think you’re not good enough. You've alluded to something similar, how do you pull yourself out of that head space?

I'm trying to figure that one out. It's funny because I don't get that way that often and from the outside you might think that I have a healthy ego. I get some really great comments and I get recognized, and all that. You're actually catching me in the middle of one of those periods right now which is why it's hard to put it into words. I'm very much in a self-reflective mode. I released this short film called “The Path of Grey Owl” and I was in a really depressed funky place editing it; it was a real challenge. I hit blocks constantly. On top of that, I was burnt out from another editing project that was really tough on me. The only answer that I have is what I'm doing now and that is just being persistent and not giving up. I'm doing little things bit by bit and clawing away at it. I saw the Revenant recently and it got me inspired to test out a couple new pieces of gear. I called up some friends and we figured some things out and that helped trigger some creativity.

I think the worst thing I could do is do nothing and sit around all day. Again, it's hard. I get frustrated with the cliche of "don't give up and just keep at it," it's definitely not as simple as that. My girlfriend Courtney and I are heading to Montreal this weekend and I'm forcing myself to sit in a café and write. It’s something I’ve never really done a lot of before. Doing new things brings me back to when I was in high school when I used to just try new things because I could. I think it’ll help a lot.

It's literally an artist's temporary depression. Be persistent and don’t give up.

“Every job I’ve landed can be somehow traced back to those first 2 jobs I had in my professional career. It doesn't work like that for everyone but I would say, hard work goes a long way when building a career in this industry.”

How do you balance the creative work, the field work and going out and producing these things and then coming home and doing admin work and marketing of yourself, etc.?

It's definitely a challenge. I have absolutely no rhyme or reason or process to the marketing side. As of last week, I put in my calendar post on Instagram, Facebook once a week. My account now has a repetitive notice. Up to this point though the process has been very fluid.

I’ve followed the cinematographer of the Revenant, Emmanuel Lubezki, since his Terrence Malick days and he's the guy that I aspire to be. He mentioned that that's what he started doing; posting something on social media once a week. I've just got to do it. I've tried in the past and it didn't work [laughs]. The balance is too hard and I'm not one to post every bit of my journey. I try to post only my best work and I try to consciously think about what might be a good series or brand or imaging.

When I'm passionate about a project like “The Path of Grey Owl”, I naturally will find time to promote it. I also have these other pieces that I'm scared to release because I think it might be a little too rough and maybe not make me look good. If I have it in my calendar, I’ll usually end up pushing it back a couple weeks and then I’ll just say, "You know what, it's not meant to be." Overall my marketing process is organic, which is funny because most of the other things in my life are very controlled and very scheduled and very thought through. Marketing and public self-promotion is still and unnatural thing for me. I hope to reach the holy grail of being awesome at self-promotion and being incredibly busy at the same time. I've definitely seen people who are creative guys and are phenomenal at marketing themselves but they may not actually be that busy. When things are slow I’m pretty good at the marketing thing but when I'm busy, it all goes out the window. When I’m on set I'm so busy that I can't even consciously think about which image to choose, what to write, how to post it on social media. My brain is so focused on shooting that I have a hard time doing that.

Fortunately, for me, I’ve kept busy mostly through word of mouth. Every job I’ve landed can be somehow traced back to those first 2 jobs I had in my professional career. It doesn't work like that for everyone but I would say, hard work goes a long way when building a career in this industry.

How do you manage your time emailing versus other things you need to do in a regular day? I know dealing with email can be such a time consuming task.

I don't like email in my inbox. I've read some Fast Company articles about the top 5 things CEOs do or successful people do and one of them is always clearing out your inbox. I have one of those inboxes where as soon as I'm done with an email, it gets sent to a folder. My inbox usually either looks empty or just has the emails I haven't replied to in it. There is a bit of a “clearing-of-the-conscience” workflow to it. When I see email pile up it makes me a bit anxious and I'll start to plow through them. If I’m on set I’ll just pump through some of the easier ones and some of the bigger ones about jobs or pitches, I’ll wait and reply to those when I get back to the studio. Sometimes I do let them pile up because there is something gratifying about ploughing through a bunch of easy ones.

“Filmmaking is a great way to make connections that are probably deeper than I normally would make without a camera.”

What are some of the productivity tools you use to keep organized?

Dropbox - I use Dropbox not just as a file delivery system but as my file management and synchronizer. It’s how I work in multiple places at once. It's also great because it's got quite a good backup system. If I accidentally deleted a document Dropbox will archive it for a certain amount of time so I can recover it. It has been key.

Evernote - I also use Evernote quite a bit. I've got a lot of to-do lists so Evernote's been key on that. Plus, I share them with my crew or freelancers or assistants. It's been a key way to communicate. That's been really helpful in building my efficiency.

Screens - For what I do in the freelancing world my iMac usually is the heavy workload rendering machine. For example, “The Path of Grey Owl” was a 4K film. It's about 10 minutes long. To export that on my laptop would take 8 hours and on my iMac, it would take maybe 2 or 3. Normally, I'll do a lot of heavy workload on the iMac but it’s located at my studio. Screens allows me to have a remote desktop so I can connect to my iMac at the studio and start an export there. I can go home, and I can connect from my other laptops or my iPhone, I can see what the progress and if it failed for whatever reason. It frees up a huge amount of time.

Magical Miles - This one is great for any business owner. I've recently learned that CRA (Canadian Revenue Agency) requires you to log all your mileage from start to finish. Usually you would have this little booklet in the car and you would literally log every trip from the office to Home Depot or the office to the restaurant for a meeting and back. Magical Miles is a great app that the moment you start driving, it'll start logging.

Sun Seeker - This app is basically a 3D or a camera augmented app that almost all DPs now use. You hold the iPhone up where you're standing and you can see the path of the sun. What's great about it is when you're scouting and say you're scouting at 3 PM and you're shooting at 9AM, you could see where the sun would be. One time I needed to see when the sun was going to peek through 2 buildings and the app nailed it. Moon Seeker is the same for the moon. I remember when I did that night astrophotography shoot last year, I needed to see when the moon is going to set because it was way too bright. That's a great tool.

Do you have any specific processes or routines that you go through to accomplish all things you need to do in a given week or day?

Do I have a routine? [laughs]. I'm laughing because I think that's been another challenge of mine. In my line of work there isn’t really a way to have a routine. The last couple months–simply because I’ve been home in Toronto–is one of the few times I could even consider having a routine. Right now I wake up, have cereal, go to Starbucks, come to the studio, spend a day here; it’s been different for sure. Up until two months ago there was no way I could have anything resembling a routine and it was something I always craved.

I use an app called NoteMaster which it's like the most generic note-taking app. I use that as a way to build my schedule. I don't use any of these task master scheduling apps. I use iCal but NoteMaster is what I actually use for my daily tasks. I've turned the notepad into my daily calendar and to-do list. I go over the list quite a few times a day to remember what tasks I have to do. The app only shows me the to-do list for a week, which is nice. iCal is for bigger picture planning and NoteMaster is where I put every little thing like: grab this lens from the shelf or eat cereal [laughs]. Anytime I can remember to do things, even the menial tasks, I'll put it on the list. That's the way I make sure to keep on track and make sure I don't forget important things. I think amongst peers forgetting something is not a huge deal but in client relations it’s probably one of the biggest no-nos. Apart from hard work, I think reliability and trust is the other reason why I've succeeded. All that note-taking I would attribute to helping me build that trust of the clients.

“It might be in my personality but my industry and my craft pushes this self discovery process further and it forces me to dig deeper. I know that, even to this day, I'm not one to approach people and start talking. Having assignments, having a camera, having a motive to talk and interact with people in an intimate way really does bring value to my life.”

More recently was there a time when you had to go outside your comfort zone or do something that was a bit frightening?

I've been asked to speak a lot lately. I did a talk a couple weeks ago at the Belljar Café and then I've been asked to do another one on invoicing and contract writing for freelancers. There's also the big Toronto Adventure Outdoor Show coming up. It’s an outdoor adventure type convention and they've asked me to do a talk there. I have two time slots where I’ll be talking about "The Essence of Adventure". It should be a lot of fun. For many reasons, I'm a behind the camera type of guy. I do love to teach and help people out and I always meet with people who have questions but speaking publicly is definitely nerve wracking, totally new to me and out of my comfort zone. I said yes because from a marketing standpoint and from a business standpoint, it is something that I want to do more often. Not that I want to be a celebrity photographer but the idea of having that presence, in even the slightest way, is something I feel like I'd like to try out. It might be an abysmal failure, but I'm willing to try.

More on the creative side of things, I went back to editing last year. For a while I would just hire the editing out. But last year with “We Belong To It” I decided to get back into it because it's where I got my start. I am consciously trying to stay a bit more grounded or literally grounded, staying at home November, December last year, which I know I mentioned led to a little bit of my artistic lows in editing, but I think it is part of the journey. “The Path of Grey Owl” edit was hard for me for many reasons because of the amount of footage I shot and the storyline was hard to configure because it's not something I had beforehand; it was something that came through in the editing process. Taking that on creatively was a challenge but something I find deeply satisfying in the end.

Why do you do what you do? What makes it all worth it or what makes it so meaningful?

Without sounding too cheesy or pretentious, this process I'm going through now, in a way, forces me to learn about myself and give me experiences that I wouldn’t have otherwise. It might be in my personality but my industry and my craft pushes this self discovery process further and it forces me to dig deeper. I know that, even to this day, I'm not one to approach people and start talking. Having assignments, having a camera, having a motive to talk and interact with people in an intimate way really does bring value to my life. I wouldn't say I'm a hermit but I definitely am not a socialite. I don't go out every day and chat with people just for the sake of it. Filmmaking is a great way to make connections that are probably deeper than I normally would make without a camera.

Who would you say has been an influence in your career so far or inspires you to do what you do?

I'll have to say James Nachtwey. He's a photojournalist and he starred in an Oscar-nominated documentary called War Photographer. It inspired me to leave editing and it got me out into the world to cover real issues and stories. He said this famous quote, it’s not his, but I remember it being in his film and it's: “if your photos aren't good enough, then you're not close enough.” James took that both figuratively and literally and he would get really close to whatever he was shooting. In a war zone, he would be a foot or two away from the gun as opposed to using a telephoto lens and standing far away. He'd build a connection with the people instead of just stealing their images and running away. If you look at “The Path of Grey Owl” I didn’t use a telephoto lens anywhere. Most of my work is wide angle or macro, really up close. I definitely attribute his philosophy, his lifestyle, his way of life, everything to what I do today.

Then without being overly cheesy, my girlfriend Courtney has been a very important inspiration for many reasons. I think it's her work ethic and her determination. Like me, she goes through the struggles of business ownership but she always gets through it. I really admire that.

Who would you like to see featured on Ways We Work?

His name is Eliot Rausch. He's a director, and filmmaker that I found on Vimeo. He's one of the young guys that I spoke about that's incredibly successful. He did a short film documentary about his friend who was putting his dog down and there was imagery of him cycling in the rain. I think it's called “Last Minutes with Oden.” I've been following him throughout the years and he became a commercial director. I admire that he knows himself, knows what his style is, knows who he is, at least seemingly through his work. That's everyone's struggle; trying to find who you are. More recently I was watching a side documentary about the Revenant on YouTube. It's a 45-minute piece and I was really impressed with how it was shot. I looked at the end credits and sure enough, it was Eliot Rausch's documentary.

6 years ago he was shooting these DSLR shaky camera stories on Vimeo and 6 years later, he's doing this film. I don't think he's a celebrity director but I'm very much in awe of his work and his career.

Ken Wong, Lead Designer at ustwo games and Monument Valley 2016-02-17T00:00:00-05:00 2016-02-17T00:00:00-05:00 Ways We Work Team designers designers Ken Wong is a lead designer and artist at ustwo games where he worked directly on their wildly popular iOS game Monument Valley and their latest VR venture Lands End. Ken talks about the challenges of following up a success like Monument Valley and how he and the team are always finding ways to remind themselves what it is they love about creating. He shares his passion for game design and how he believes the industry is pushing the boundaries like never before. It was clear talking with Ken that he is a true artist with a serious love for his craft.

Tell me a little bit about your current role and the work that you're doing right now?

At ustwo games we've been pretty loose about roles and responsibilities. When we worked on Monument Valley I really didn't have a formal title. I became the lead of that project sort of organically. Afterwards, when I started talking publicly about Monument Valley I had to make up a title for myself [laughs]. I called myself "Lead Designer", and we've run with that. I suppose in other places it might be the equivalent of Creative Director. I have a role in art direction, coming up with stories and game ideas. Also working with some of the less experienced designers and working with producers and technical folks to get projects made.

Things are always changing. I don't know how much you know about game development, but unlike say, film or writing the medium is so fluid. You're constantly inventing. It would be like film except if you were constantly re-inventing the camera or inventing the language of film. The language of video games is constantly shifting, and because of that our team is constantly in flux and changing.

Currently, my role is helping some of the other guys get into the field of game design. They may have done some level of design work; or art direction before. A lot of people, they want to have their shot at being a game designer. The way we see it, it's a bit like being a director of a film, with a lot of responsibility in terms of making decisions. I'm coming up with exercises, and passing on what I know and training them up.

“The interesting thing about mobile gaming is that mobile games have to be simpler. So, a smaller team can take an idea and make something simple, beautiful and innovative without the overhead of a big studio.”

What was your path to your current role? Did you come on for Monument Valley or were you there before?

My first job in the games industry was as a concept artist. I began drawing and designing characters in different environments. I worked closely with a game designer, and he got me my first full-time job as an art director. That was scary because I've never had an art director, so I don't know what an art director is suppose to do [laughs]. I did what I thought an art director should do, and made a lot of mistakes. I learned a lot on the job and eventually, got better at it.

After a few years of doing that in Hong Kong and Shanghai, the iPhone and the iPad came out. Mobile gaming became the thing. The interesting thing about mobile gaming is that mobile games have to be simpler. So, a smaller team can take an idea and make something simple, beautiful and innovative without the overhead of a big studio. I thought, "This is my chance to finally get into game design." I wanted to go off on my own and fill in some gaps in my skillset. My goal was to understand all facets of game development. I improved my programming skills, learned a bit of animation and then, I had to take on the whole business development and publishing side of things.

I moved back home to Australia and made a game by myself. It did okay, but more importantly I learned a lot on that project. Just before that I applied for a job here at ustwo and landed it. The primary motivation was actually just wanting to move to a new city. After living in Hong Kong and Shanghai, I thought London would be an interesting adventure. I arrived here, started pitching game ideas, and one of those ideas became Monument Valley. Things just took off from there.

What are the most challenging aspects of the work you're doing right now?

After Monument Valley we did a VR project called Lands End. VR is an emerging field, and a lot of people are having their first taste of VR. It's so unlike other platforms. There's no screen, you put on a headset and you're in that virtual world. You can't see your hands. Unlike other games or app experiences, we have to invent a whole new control scheme. We're creating a whole new paradigm for moving around and interacting with things. Doing a VR project was an interesting challenge for us, but that's how our team operates. We like to take on tough briefs and try and bring interaction to a wider audience.

There's still a perception that games are for hardcore geeks, or for teenage boys or for people with too much time. They're not seen as expressive or as important as films, or books or music. We see a big part of our role at ustwo as bringing games to a wider audience by using design skills to make them accessible, beautiful and forward-thinking.

It's challenging because we're talking about ideas, and trying to predict what these ideas are going to look like if we flush them out. Is it really going to make the impact that we're hoping for, or have achieved in the past?

Of course, everything is going to be compared to Monument Valley. It's a tough act to follow. Some people are being very generous and assuming that we can strike gold twice. But this is invention, it's a bit like doing multiple startups almost, it's never the same process. We have a lot of freedom, but there is obviously pressure to continue raising the bar. We've been searching for that real special thing, and trying to devise methods and manage people to fulfill that goal. That's a big challenge that my team is facing now.

“We have to remember why we love making games. We almost have to forget all the wonderful things that people have said about Monument Valley and just focus on doing great work.”

I can only imagine how tough it is to follow Monument Valley. I'm curious then, when you're faced with those kinds of challenges, how do you approach that? What's your process for not letting that overwhelm you?

We try to remember what is was like before Monument Valley, and remember why we were passionate about in the first place. I think about it like music. When you decide to form a band and make music it would of course be nice to be the Rolling Stones or the Beatles, but that's not necessarily why you do it. You do it because you love making music.

We have to remember why we love making games. We almost have to forget all the wonderful things that people have said about Monument Valley and just focus on doing great work.

It's also about becoming better as a team. Things went so well on Monument Valley because me and the producer, Dan, we had just joined the team. We brought this new energy and a lot of things weren't certain. A lot of roles were undefined, and that made for really good collaboration. There were no assumptions, and that worked really well on Monument Valley. It hasn't really continued that way.

We've needed to learn how to do the standard things better, like communicating and knowing when to have meetings and when to stop having meetings [laughs]. That's all really tough, and it's weird because things worked well on Monument Valley. We can't just do the same thing, we have to move forward and go into the unknown. It's part of what makes every day interesting.

On a day-to-day level or on a weekly basis, is there any specific techniques or routines that you employ yourself to help you accomplish what you need to do?

Oh, good question. We have stand-ups once a day. That's not particularly unique. It's partly because we're in a very different phase at the moment where we don't actually have a project, and we're searching for a new one. As soon as we find that project, one or two projects, things are going to become more rhythmic and we'll set up a routine. Again, it's a bit like working in a film studio. The start of working on a film, and the end of working on a film and the bits in between films are going to be different.

How do you manage your time amongst like email and communications versus other more heads down work that you need to do?

It helps that our whole team is in one location, and we're just 11 people. A lot of our communication is done face-to-face or at meetings. Email is usually external stuff, and a lot of that I can ignore for awhile. The ones that are important tend to be fun things like interviews. A lot of the boring stuff I usually delegate to my producer.

The easy answer is that making games is usually a lot of fun and you can do it all day and then, you take it home and keep working on it because you love it so much. It's not particularly balanced, but it works. When I have less enjoyable tasks that's a bit harder. I just have coffee [laughs].

“There's a certain magic when you can imagine something in your head and get it down onto paper or onto the screen. When you can communicate your imagination to someone else and they get it. That's powerful.”

What would you say are the five tools that you're using a regular basis, stuff that you're touching daily?

Pinterest - It's cool that you have an interview with Tiffani Jones Brown, Creative Director at Pinterest. I love Pinterest. I find it's a great way to do mood boards, to collect a bunch of ideas, and influences together and collaborate on them. We use that on a lot of our past few projects including Monument Valley.

Photoshop - I use it every day.

Unity - We make our game with the Unity engine, so we use Unity everyday.

Standing Desks - Half of our team uses standing desks at least part of the day. When I first joined ustwo only one person was standing and now, a lot of people stand. A lot of us are into that.

White Boards - We do a lot of drawing on white boards.

This goes back to what we were talking about earlier, remembering why you love making games. Keeping that in mind, do you ever experience burnout or periods of time where you forget that or feel a little bit disconnected from doing it? How do you deal with that?

Absolutely, last year in particular was really tough. The VR project we worked on called Lands End, just seemed like challenge after challenge. There were technical challenges, personal challenges, and visual and design challenges. It bore down on us, morale was really down. We just punched through it, just putting one foot in front of the other. Asking for help is useful too. When you don't know what to do or you know what to do and it's just really tough, just asking someone else on the team, "Hey, what do you think about this? I'm facing this problem and it's tough, and I'm having a hard time with it. What do you think?" Sometimes just talking it through with a team member will 'grease the wheel' so to speak.

“There's so much you can do that you can't do in other mediums. It's an emerging form, and it's a young art form. There are great gains that take advantage of not just the latest technology, but the latest in design thinking, the latest in how can we participate with the audience.”

Why do you love what you do and what makes the work that you do meaningful to you?

There's a certain magic when you can imagine something in your head and get it down onto paper or onto the screen. When you can communicate your imagination to someone else and they get it. That's powerful.

Animation is one step further. Through movement, animation, sound and music, you're telling a story. You're conveying these things in even more detail. Interactive video is one step beyond that, where you're not just setting up visuals and audio, but you're setting up a playground. You're inviting people to come in and participate. Instead of the whole thing playing out by itself, the audience member has to become a part of the artwork. The work is not complete until someone engages with it. There are things you can do with that, that you can't do with any other art form. You're making someone part of the play, and involving them.

For a lot of games the automatic method of conflict resolution is violence. That is largely because it's easy to simulate, it's easy to make games where someone wins and someone loses. You take out your enemies and if you're the last person left, you win. We're at this stage in the evolution of games where we're understanding how we can offer more narratives. How to present other kinds of choices, and how to resolve conflicts in other ways, or how to setup conflicts to have resolutions other than violence. That's super interesting. It's incredible that we can make games that can make people cry or can teach people things.

There's so much you can do that you can't do in other mediums. It's an emerging form, and it's a young art form. There are great gains that take advantage of not just the latest technology, but the latest in design thinking, the latest in how can we participate with the audience.

It also used to be games were very much dominated by straight white men. Now you're getting people with all sorts of backgrounds making games. Kids are making games, people with diverse backgrounds are making games, people from non-English speaking backgrounds making games. All of this added together makes a tremendously fun and interesting field to work in.

Who would you like to see on Ways We Work?

Rami Ismail, indie game developer
Scott C, artist
Ash Thorp, graphic designer, director, podcaster
Nathan Vella, game developer (in Toronto!)
Noelle Stephenson, comics artist

Cap Watkins, VP of Design at BuzzFeed 2016-02-10T00:00:00-05:00 2016-02-10T00:00:00-05:00 Ways We Work Team designers designers Cap Watkins is the VP of Design at BuzzFeed in New York. He told me how he ended up in his current role and some of the growing pains along the way that influenced his career as a designer and eventually a design manager. My favourite thing about talking with Cap is how reflective he is on what he's learned so far, which is probably credit to all of the writing he does on his own blog. He talks about the transition into his role at BuzzFeed, why he loves managing a team and advice for designers on when it's time to move on from something. Cap's experience mixed with his lighthearted humor made for a great conversation, with loads of insight.

Tell me a little bit about your current role and the work that you're doing right now?

I'm the VP of Design at BuzzFeed in New York. That's my title. What do titles even mean? [laughs] What I'm responsible for is the product design team which is 16 designers at the moment. The product design team covers the site, our apps as well as our internal tooling that we use for data analysis and ad sales. I also manage the consumer branding team, which works on logos, the style guide, and swag. If you ever see someone with a BuzzFeed T-shirt or something, we probably designed it.

I know that you were at Etsy and other companies previously. What was the path to your role now?

It was very long and fraught with danger.

I graduated college with a creative writing major and had taught myself HTML during that time. When I finished school I got a job at a coffee shop like all good creative writing majors because I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life [laughs]. I was doing some web work on the side and did a website for a couple of my friends from college who were starting a company. One day they called me and said, “hey, we got funded!” They needed a designer and asked if I wanted to move to Oakland. I said yes and three days later I packed up my things and moved. That company was PMOG and was a Firefox extension that essentially turned your internet browsing into an MMO game. It was really cool.

After that I took a job at Zoosk, an online dating company. I was the only designer there for about two years. In my first job I’d learned a lot about having to write production CSS and deploy things but at Zoosk I wound up learning a lot more about the design process itself. The founders had been working at Microsoft before that, so they'd actually seen design in a professional context. They knew a lot about user testing, things like AB-testing, user flows and that was all new to me.

“It was in that role that I really thought about what was important to me as a designer for the first time.”

When I left that job I went to Formspring which was hot on the internet for about 20 minutes. I was also the only designer there for a couple of years until it was pretty clear that we weren’t going to make it. It was fun because I’d never worked on a social product before. The thing that made Formspring so viral in the beginning was that you could ask someone a question anonymously. Anonymity, turns out is a super viral thing. The problem was that it made it too easy for people to abuse each other and we saw a lot of that, a non-trivial amount. We considered turning the ability to do that off, or changing the settings so you could only allow anonymous questions if you wanted to, but we wound up not doing either. That’s the hard part, that’s where the majority of the traffic was coming from, so we spent a lot of time not addressing what was the real problem with the product. It was in that role that I really thought about what was important to me as a designer for the first time.

I started thinking a lot about the product and not just the job, and what I wanted to do next. I thought about what products I really liked myself and what I thought was good for the world and impactful. This was around the time that the second Kindle came out, which I still think is the peak Kindle. I found myself reading a lot more because I had access to all of these books. Amazon Prime was skyrocketing at that point too and it just seemed like they were doing interesting work. I found one of the design directors at Amazon on Twitter and followed him hoping he’d follow me back. He did and I DM’d him. We had a phone call that went really well so they flew me into Seattle for an interview. They wouldn’t tell me what they were working on, it was a secret project. Sidenote: If you’re ever trying to hire a designer just tell them it’s a secret project - I couldn’t take not knowing. I took that job and moved to Seattle to work for Amazon. It was the first time I’d really worked with other designers before, after having been the only designer in so many of my past roles. So you walk in thinking you know what you’re doing and you definitely don’t. It was clear so quickly that these people were way smarter than me. It was kind of awesome.

“I think one of the big things for me is, are the problems and challenges that I'm facing in my job, problems and challenges that I find valuable to solve? That’s an important question to ask. ”

There was one guy in particular, Aaron Donsbach, he was a principal designer at Amazon and he was just one of those people that you know you want to know. Super smart guy. We didn’t sit near each other so every morning I’d go sit by his desk and just talk to him. He was either going to tell me to go away and stop being annoying or he was going to be my friend [laughs]. We’d be working on these hard systems problem and get really deep into it and realize that one piece of it undid everything else in the system. I learned a lot from him about being able to step away and view my work dispassionately, which is a really hard thing to do.

Three years ago I ended up moving to Brooklyn and taking on a design manager position at Etsy. I found being in a leadership role there was a lot of freedom to be the kind of manager I wanted to be. I’ve found that I enjoy the management part a lot more than I think I ever even enjoyed design. You hire these talented people and the worst thing that could possibly happen is that they can’t do their best work. I like the idea of smoothing the path for designers so they can just do their absolute best work.

So I spent a couple years at Etsy and then I met a couple BuzzFeed designers and started talking to them. Now I’m the VP of Design at BuzzFeed. It still feels surreal when I say it.

You've moved around a lot and had a lot of different experiences, how do you know when it's time for a new challenge for yourself. When it's time to move on and do something else?

I think there are a couple of factors. One, is that every place you ever work is going to have problems and challenges to solve, no matter what. I've come to terms with the fact that there are no perfect companies. People look for that a lot, I was looking for that a lot, and it doesn't exist.

No place is free of challenges. Buzzfeed has challenges, problems we're trying to solve, things we're not happy about internally, it's true everywhere. I think one of the big things for me is: are the problems and challenges that I'm facing in my job, problems and challenges that I find valuable to solve? That’s an important question to ask.

The second thing is: how empowered am I to solve them? I think there's a point where you're maybe solving problems that you shouldn't have to solve. That can feel really bad and might be a reason to leave. More importantly, not being empowered to solve those things, or not seeing a path forward. That is the reason to leave.

If I'm okay with the problems and challenges, no problem. If I can't actually impact them in any way, shape or form, but I'm still experiencing them all the time, that's not sustainable. Those are really the two main reasons.

“I’ve come to the realization that nothing is really scary as long as it’s changeable. If I can change it once I realize it’s not working, it makes things way less scary.”

In your role right now, what would you say are the most challenging aspects of what you're doing?

One thing that has been challenging for sure is managing all these different disciplines and areas that I haven’t tackled before. When I came to BuzzFeed we didn’t have a branding team. So I created one and found this designer on the team who was a really great illustrator, I grabbed him and the two of us formed the branding design team [laughs].

I wasn’t about to send an email to all BuzzFeed employees saying, “There is a branding team now and you need to go through us!” That’s completely bonkers. So instead we took a more “grass-rootsy” approach. I was in a lot of conversations so if I heard something we could help with I’d say, “cool, we could do that for you” or “we could help you with that.” We’d do great work for them (and by we I mean Shaun, the illustrator), we’d communicate well and the work would go out. Then someone else would see it and ask where it came from, and I’d get an email: “Hey I heard there’s this thing that exists, could we get something from you for this thing we’re doing?” That expanded much faster than I expected it to so we hired another guy, Chris Rushing, who is now the senior art director and helping me run all of that. That could have all blown up in my face. We could have tried it, it could have totally fell down and then I would have walked away and pretended like it never happened. That's not what happened, and that's pretty awesome.

The other hard thing is, we've grown so fast. The company doubled the size last year in 2015. Communication, it's hard anyway, and it becomes more complicated, the larger you get. I'm still figuring out the best way to communicate across all of these different teams and trying to keep up with them and make sure that we're talking regularly. It has already become more of a challenge. That'll be a time and iteration thing where it's just like we'll try some stuff and see what works and what doesn't work; figure out the best balance.

As VP, you're wearing a lot of different hats, managing a lot of different roles and disciplines and trying a lot of different things. From a perspective of either a typical day or typical week, how are you dividing up your time to focus on all the different things that you need to do?

The priorities for me are shifting so quickly. I’m always making sure I’m being proactive but what the things are that I'm being proactive about are shifting week by week.

Some weeks I’m focused on the CSS framework that we’re building and trying to get that out the door or trying to organize training sessions for all the people that will need to use that framework. Another week it might be coordinating holiday swag for all the employees at BuzzFeed. Another week I’ll prioritize communicating with the teams and making sure everybody feels good about where we’re headed. In a few weeks we’re moving offices so that’s been a project we’ve been working on.

Every week is different but there are some things that occur every week, such as one-on-one’s with folks I directly manage or just people who want to check in with me regularly. We have a critique every week as well. Those things kind of happen with frequency and cadence. Other than that it changes every single week for me which I really enjoy.

Is there anything you do to keep a routine or section off time to do certain things that have to happen regularly?

There are a couple things that I schedule for myself pretty regularly. Once a month I book an hour out for myself. It just recurs every month. I call it monthly reflections. I have a doc and I just pop it open and I have the name of each person I’m managing in it and I write a quick 3 or 4 sentences about what's happened in the last month. What I've been thinking about with that person. It's a log for me. It makes things like quarterly reviews or mid-year reviews much simpler.

I try to leave my calendar as open as possible because in my opinion, my job as a manager is to be available. I tell all the designers, even the ones that I don't manage directly, I'm like, "Hey look, if you need time, if you want to talk to me for any reason whatsoever. My calendar is your calendar. Put time on there, just take it".

“You hire these talented people and the worst thing that could possibly happen is that they can’t do their best work. I like the idea of smoothing the path for designers so they can just do their absolute best work.”

Was there a time most recently where you did something that made you uncomfortable or scared you or took you out of your comfort zone? What was that and how did you deal with that?

Taking this job scared me for sure. Have you heard of the Peter Principle? It's this idea that everyone gets promoted until they get to the position that they're no longer useful and that's where they stay. They stay in a position where they're no longer useful. I'm always worried whenever I move to the next level of something that I'm about to hit that point. I get asked sometimes, "Wouldn't it be cool to be Chief Design Officer or something"? I'm like, "Well I don't know". That sounds terrifying. What if that's the job? What if that's the job where I become completely useless? It’s totally possible. I don't want that to be true. Taking this job scared me a lot in that way but I also think that you should do those things, probably.

Mostly though, I’ve come to the realization that nothing is really scary as long as it’s changeable. If I can change it once I realize it’s not working, it makes things way less scary.

What would you say are the five tools that you're using on a regular basis, kind of every day that help you do what you're doing?

Slack - I don't know what we would do if we didn't have it. The world would be a terrible place. I'm really glad that somebody productized IRC and made it way more friendly than it actually is.

Omnifocus - There are a lot of people who are very hardcore about to-do management. I am not that person. I keep it for very simple lists of things which may be a stupid reason to pay for Omnifocus but I really like it.

Gmail - I think the people that are bummed out about it don't use it correctly. It's a to-do list for me. If it's in my inbox, I need to deal with it. I am an inbox zero person. I try to get to zero.

Google Apps - We're deep in Google Docs here. I love it. I love the simplicity of sharing things with people, and the ability to collaborate on docs together.

Sublime Text - For the CSS framework we’ve built, I'm pretty involved in that. For me it's like a fun side project to work on and chew into every now and then.

How do you manage your time amongst communications and email versus other work you need to do?

If I have a few minutes between meetings I'll check in on email, not to respond to it, but to curate it out; and just keep it clean so when I do sit down to look at it I’ll have a pretty actionable list of things to do.

The only thing that I can think to say is that Slack is really helpful in that way. I do tend to pop by people's desks randomly too. If I'm walking by, I'll pop in and see how it's going. Being on Slack actually makes me still available if I'm sitting at my desk and chewing through emails. If someone goes, "Hey, do you have a minute?” I'll just put it down and stand up and walk over. I don't need to keep doing email.

I feel like it's a self-management problem a little bit. The people that I know that are drowning in email, could probably not drown. It seems achievable to put yourself in a position to not have that happen. It's a lot of discipline and committing to it. I think, if you think of email like chat or something, you're screwed. You're just going to let it all pileup.

“At this point in my career, I really value good communication and healthy teams, which go hand-in-hand. I love the job I have right now because I'm in a position to really make an impact in that way.”

Why do you love what you do and what makes the work that you do meaningful to you?

There's so many reasons. At this point in my career, I really value good communication and healthy teams, which go hand-in-hand. I love the job I have right now because I'm in a position to really make an impact in that way. It’s also really empowering and really exciting because if a designer is having a hard time, I can do something about that. I love that about this job.

I love that if for some reason, tomorrow the way we're doing design critique was completely broken all of the sudden, we just all realized at the same time like holy crap this isn't working. There's no system for me to go through to change it, I can literally talk to the designers and figure out something to try and try it. That's super cool, I love that. I love working with the designers, I love who we hired, I love who’s here.

We have such a really solid team. Everyone on the design team is so generous with their time and their work. No one is precious about it. It's really exciting time to be at Buzzfeed too. We're growing so quickly. We're doing all sorts of new things all the time. It's just very exciting. Like I said, every week's completely different, there's never a dull week. It's never not exciting. It's never not interesting. I really love that.

Who would you want to see on Ways We Work?

Andrew Crow - Head of Design at Uber, I’d love to know how it’s going and how their team is working.

Brynn Evans - She was a designer on Google+, she’s also now working on Google Fi. I heard her speak once about why she works on the problems she works on. I’d love to hear more from her about how she likes to work.

Aaron Donsbach - He was my mentor at Amazon, he's still a really close friend of mine. He's a really excellent design mind. He's working at Google now in Seattle. He's just one of those people that I feel like more people should know.

Michael Shainblum, Photographer / Filmmaker 2016-02-03T00:00:00-05:00 2016-02-03T00:00:00-05:00 Ways We Work Team photographers photographers A few years ago I took my DSLR camera outside on a warm summer night and tried to capture the stars. I was able to get a couple nice shots and that's all it took to get me hooked on the experience. I spent some time researching how to get better and that lead me to Michael's incredible work. Michael was one of the first astrophotographers that completely blew my mind with what was possible to capture using a DSLR camera. Beyond the technical aspects he adds a unique final touch of artistry in post that takes his images to another level. It was a pleasure chatting with him about how he makes it all happen. -Matt

Tell us how you got started doing your craft?

I’ve always found it fun to be able to make things with my hands. As a kid I explored every possible different type of art form I could. I tried sculpting, painting, charcoal, and eventually graphic art after being introduced to computers in early high school. I really enjoyed graphic art and I was interested in photography as well but had never used a really nice camera. I did a little bit of film photography and I would take pictures of various random things. When I shot using a digital camera it lead me to learn about post processing images in software. I would bring my photos into Adobe Fireworks and mess with them to create cool effects. I started to learn Photoshop to do the same thing and would mess with photos, apply filters and so on. It was just so much fun to create whatever I wanted.

When I was 14, my parents bought me my first DSLR camera. At the time, I was interested in photography but I was mostly focused on graphic art. I was excited to be able to get high-resolution images that I could edit. The new camera was making me get out and shoot more and I started realizing that taking pictures was just as fun as editing and processing them; perhaps even more so. That's where photography started becoming a true passion. From then on, I would bring my camera everywhere I went. Friends and I would go eat tacos and I'd bring my camera, just because I wanted to take pictures of everything I possibly could. There was no rhyme or reason, I just loved everything about taking pictures.

What was your path to becoming a full-time photographer and filmmaker?

When I was 16 I tried to get a job to make a little money. I applied to a bunch of places but no one hired me. I knew I was good at taking pictures and I thought people might hire me to do it. So I tried doing a ton of different photography jobs. I did events, I did 2 or 3 weddings, I did portraits of friends and things like that. I dabbled in action sports photography and in concert photography. I really tried to explore a broad spectrum of what I could do with the craft and try to make a little bit of money at the same time. In high school, I realized that I really wanted to go to photography school. I didn't want to take SATs or ACTs. It just wasn't for me.

I went to Brooks Institute and got a photography degree in commercial photography. I started doing studio portraits and product photography; quite different from what I do now. I got into time lapse and fine art photography by doing a lot of behind the scenes video work and a lot of studio shoots in college. That type of work was what a lot of the professors told me I should be doing. They would say, "that's what's going to get you the money, that's what you're going to make a career out of. This whole landscape thing won’t work out.” The problem was, I wasn’t really into the studio work. So I continued to do landscapes and time lapse after work just because I loved it.

I ended up making a time-lapse film towards the end of college, about 3-4 years ago. I'd been doing time-lapse for a while but this was my first real film that I put a name to. The film was my first piece that had a concept and a story. When it was finished I put it on social media and it ended up going viral. I started to get emails and interview requests about it. About the same time, I was building my social media presence. I started a Facebook page and I started releasing Milky Way photos and people started following me. Things grew organically from the point onward.

With this new found attention, I started getting called for similar jobs. People wanted to hire me for time-lapse and landscape photography; the things I loved. I started doing the work and told myself that I didn't want to do anything else. Previously I was getting paid close to nothing to edit magazine videos and do crappy photography jobs and they just didn’t make me happy. When time-lapse got really popular and when my social media following got larger, I started getting known for it and people started hiring me and licensing the footage. I was like: "Yeah, screw all that other stuff. I need to figure out how to keep doing this!"

Looking back, what were some of the challenges you overcame?

It's hard to avoid getting burnt out when you do the same thing every day. A lot of photographers get burnt out and while they still love what they do, it's hard to avoid. Fortunately, for me, I do a variety of different things that's helped. For example, if I didn't want to go shoot photos, I’d go do some time-lapse or maybe if I didn't want to take pictures from the ground I'd take my drone out and fly over the beach. Dealing with burnout is definitely something that's really tough.

Photography is just like any job where you do the same thing every day. Eventually you get tired of it. Photography can be a lot more fun than some jobs but you can definitely have too much of a good thing. Switching up the mediums has helped a lot with that problem. I've tried to keep myself interested in all sorts of photography and filmmaking and it's kept my work at a higher level. For example, If I did seascapes every single day, eventually I'd get to a point where, sure, I'm able to produce great work but the drive and passion was gone. This is the point where I try something else.

One topic that comes up a lot with creative people is the idea of comparison paralysis. It’s where you look at other people doing similar work and then getting in a self-defeating head space about your own work. Do you find that happens to you, and if so, how do you pull yourself out of it?

It's tough not to compare yourself to other people and tough not to compare the work. There are definitely moments where I say to myself, "Crap, I want to produce better work." I often look at other photographer's work and love it but instead of wanting to quit, it inspires me to try a little bit harder instead. I can see where some people may see an image that they think is better than their own–which is all subjective of course–and they want to give up. For me, it's just fuel to keep going, and it's not a need to compete; it’s a way to keep inspired. When I see an image that blows me away it compels me to push my work further to get to a similar level.

Some people think of this craft very competitively. For me it's not really about that. Photography has given me a community and it's given me some of my best friends. We're not out competing against each other. We're all in it together and we're photographers to have fun. We're exploring art and we're all supporting each other. That's really the most awesome part about it. If you ever do get in a funk where you hate your work, all you need to do is connect with another photographer friend and they always pull you out of it. I talk to some friends that I would consider some of the best photographers in the world and I say things like, "Oh, man, I'm not feeling what I'm putting out right now," and they'll be like, "Dude, I love your work! The work you've been putting out recently? It's amazing!" You get these warm comments from people that you really respect and it pulls you out of it. You can never really do something like that by yourself. You need support.

How do you balance going out and doing the creative work and then coming home and marketing yourself?

Balancing it is tough. I spend a lot of time in San Francisco on my computer processing images, dealing with clients, working on website stuff, invoicing and all that. I do try and spend a lot of time out shooting. I shoot in San Francisco a lot, so if I want to go out and shoot sunsets, not a problem. I just grab my stuff and go. It allows me to stay creative. I also love the big trips where I can go for a week to a month and shoot as much as possible. Then I come home and for 2 to 3 weeks I’m processing images and having fun. It's definitely a tricky juggling act.

This balance is definitely one of the hardest parts of what I do and I try hard to not get overwhelmed by it all. It can be easy to miss something. If I focus too much on the business side of things then I end up not producing enough content. If I focus too much on the creative side, then the business side suffers. It's not easy, but I just take it day by day.

What are some of the productivity tools you use to keep organized?

I don't use a single thing. I've tried using calendars and I've tried using to-do lists and all those apps. I end up writing stuff down and not touching the app. The best thing for me is to really know what I need to do. I can always go back and look at emails, which help me a lot. If there's something I really need to do, for example, if I really need to work on my website I'll write it down on my notepad and when I’m done that task I'll cross it out. If I didn’t get to the task, I would bring it over to the next day. I go old fashioned with it. Different things work for different people and all the crazy apps that come out inundate your phone with alerts and that just doesn’t work for me.

How do you stay on top of e-mail?

For a while, I had a pretty crappy email system. I was the guy with the cluttered inbox with hundreds of emails. My issue was I wouldn't archive or delete anything after I've read it or sent something out. I realized what works for me is keeping the inbox as small as possible. If I need something, I'll archive it and then search for it. If an email comes in, I try and respond right away. If I think it's an email where I'm going to need to follow up, I'll keep it in the inbox. If it's something where I know they're going to respond again, I’ll just delete it out of my inbox. I'll have maybe 10 to 20 emails that are kept in my inbox throughout the day. I'll probably get another 20 or 30 more, but those will end up being archived or deleted at some point. This system has helped me a lot because it’s in line with how my brain works; the less information I see, the better. It's really helped me stay on top of things.

What does a typical day look like for you?

It depends on what kind of job I'm doing. If I'm in the field and it's just for personal work, I'll wake up for the sunrise and then most of the day is spent scouting or just driving somewhere I need to drive to get new content. My whole day will be shoot, drive, shoot, drive, shoot, come back home and maybe process a little on the computer. I'll usually make sure I have cell service at some point throughout the day so that I can check my email. I focus on the art side of things as much as possible when I'm out on the field. When I'm back at home, it's kind of a combination. I try and stay pretty active. It's tough when I’m sitting in front of the computer all day. I try and work out, try and go for a run and free myself from the desk if I've been sitting for too long.

For a while I definitely got lazy. I was eating pretty unhealthily and I was just processing all the time. I was like a machine processing in a dark room, and that can get really unhealthy. I've been so much happier getting out and going on a run to the Golden Gate Bridge and going out and having a social life. Most photographers are pretty social but there's definitely some photographers that like to do their own thing. I'm very social, I like to talk to people and I've got some great friends in San Francisco. It’s important to me to have a good work-life balance. It can be hard being a professional photographer and not turn into a machine that produces images all the time. It can consume you if you let it. I've become so much happier by being a real human being, while at the same time having a career and passion for photography.

To that point, how you balance being out there all the time and then being at home and balancing relationships and family?

It is a tricky balance, but in my life photography and creating art is the most important thing to me. Friends and family are obviously extremely important as well. However, I need to do what I need to do to follow my passion. I need to get out there and I can't let anyone stop me from doing that. Like I mentioned, I balance things by spending a lot of time going out with friends and when I do, I won't bring the camera and I won’t think about photography. Saying that, I also go on trips with my photography friends. I have a great time with them talking about photography and the industry. It’s extremely fun. I also like to just hang out and do nothing, go to the beach or have beers on weekends and so on.

I used to bring my camera everywhere, but now, if I'm going to go take pictures, I need to be in the zone. I need to prepare myself. I don't want to work on the fly. Creating art and creating imagery is really thought through for me. If I want to go out and shoot something, I need to have that goal beforehand. There are definitely times where I’m about to go out with friends and then look out the window and say “oh crap, the clouds look really cool, though.” [laughs]

Overall, it's not that hard for me because I don't have the responsibilities of a wife or kids and all those things. I'm sure for somebody who does have those responsibilities, their answer would be a lot more complex. I'm sure in the future, I'll have to figure that part out.

What's some of the best career advice you've been given?

It was my parents telling me to follow my passion. If I hadn't take it I would have probably listened to the people telling me what I “should” do instead. I'd probably be doing something that I wouldn't be happy doing. I've had a lot of people tell me throughout the years that what I'm doing probably isn't going to work, and that's tough. That is really tough. It's hard to not say to yourself, "I need to do something else because all these people that I respect are telling me that maybe this isn't a good idea." Having my parents be so supportive and say things like, "Hey, do what you want, just risk it. If it doesn't work out, it doesn't work out. Just keep trying" was so helpful. This advice was definitely the best advice I could’ve followed; do what's going to make you happiest. Fortunately for me, what I’m doing has definitely allowed me to be happy. I was having dinner with my parents last night and they're like, "Cheers to your success! You’re doing what you wanted to do and you're happy and we couldn't be more proud." That was pretty cool.

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

A lot of things. The first is for my own sanity. I need to create images. It's a need, it's a physical need. I love it. It makes me happy. If I wasn't getting paid to do it, I would do it anyways. What makes it worth it is being able to inspire people and getting people excited to go try new things. I think if somebody has a urge to express themselves, photography is such a great way. Art, in general, is a great way to express yourself, whether it'd be writing or sculpting or painting or making music. The thing I like about it is you're able to put yourself into your work. I'm able to tell people what I'm about, what I'm thinking or how I see the world. I think that's one of the coolest things. Hearing people's thoughts and seeing how super happy my work makes them is really great. When I hear things like, "Hey, you inspired me to get into photography, and now I want to make it a career." That's a really cool thing. To be able to change somebody's life like that. I did not think I would ever have that ability to help somebody in that way.

Who would you like to see featured on Ways We Work?

Rob Whitworth is a really cool filmmaker. He does so these amazing short films that are just incredible. Check him out on Vimeo. His work is kind of time lapse based but it goes beyond that. Rob's a really creative and I'd think he'd be an interesting person to learn more about. My friend Ted Gore, he's really cool. He does some pretty great photography. Erin Babnik is pretty awesome as well. She's a really creative photographer. My friend Alex Noriega is really great and my friend TJ is a pretty amazing photographer as well. They all have a different drive and they all create pretty unique images. There's so many people!

Grace Garey, Co-founder at Watsi 2016-01-27T00:00:00-05:00 2016-01-27T00:00:00-05:00 Ways We Work Team founderscommunicators founderscommunicators Grace Garey is the co-founder of
Watsi, a nonprofit startup connecting medical patients who can't afford procedures to donors online. I first heard about Grace and Watsi through this article on the incredibly successful email campaign the team ran for their Universal Fund initiative. Through reading more interviews with Grace, I learned that Watsi was the first nonprofit startup to be accepted into Y Combinator and was curious to learn more. With no prior marketing experience, Grace approaches their unique challenges with ease and confidence. She applies this straightforward, problem-solving mentality to new challenges, rather than let them be a source of intimidation. It was an inspiring conversation with a lot of great takeaways.

I know that working in a nonprofit and a startup that your role must be constantly changing. Can you tell me what your role is at the moment and what that looks like?

Yes, it is always changing! As a co-founder, your role and you as a person, from the beginning to now hopefully scales, along with your organization. So I’m one of the co-founders of Watsi, and broadly I’m in charge of marketing. I spend my time thinking about how to compel people to support a stranger that they will probably never meet, online.

I’m currently exploring company partnerships, and whether there's an opportunity for us to help everyone from small startups to larger public companies give back and engage their customers and employees in a meaningful, and personal way with Watsi. How we might be able to turn some of their energy and financial support into awesome impact. That’s a new area I’m exploring at the moment.

Did you have experience in marketing before? How did you end up on the marketing side of things?

I didn’t really have experience in anything before [laughs]. We started working on Watsi on nights and weekends on top of our day jobs, right when I graduated from college.

I spent a lot of my time in school taking time off to go live in other countries and work with nonprofits. I ended up taking another quarter off of school to go work at a big international humanitarian advocacy organization in DC. So I had some experience but nothing too impressive to speak of.

I think I ended up focusing on marketing because the piece of Watsi I’m always most excited about is the opportunity to connect people in a really different way. I spent a lot of time studying foreign policy, international development, and politics. Also, a lot of time inserting myself into the existing infrastructure that is out there today. There are all these traditional mechanisms set up for how we can help people across the world that I always thought I would just insert myself into and hopefully make some kind of a positive impact.

What I realized is there is much more potential. There’s technology just coming about now for example, where we see people connecting in their social lives and summoning a driver of a car with a click of a button. The internet is connecting us directly in all these kinds of ways. That’s what drew me to see if there is a way to apply that kind of connection to some of the world’s biggest problems. The professional term might be marketing but I really think of it as just how to use the internet to share these stories in a way that compels people to get involved and act.

“As an organization scales, people have to scale with it. What that means is that my job sort of becomes irrelevant every six months, which is a good thing.”

What would you say are the most challenging aspects of the work you’re doing right now?

I think the hardest thing is something you alluded to a couple of minutes ago which is just that everything is always changing. As an organization scales, people have to scale with it. What that means is that my job sort of becomes irrelevant every six months, which is a good thing. You have a problem or an opportunity and you try a bunch of things to address it. Once you find something that works, you can pass it off to someone else and then you have to move on to the next thing.

One perpetual challenge is getting comfortable with the fact that you are going to be bad at a lot of the things that you’re doing for most of the time and right when you’ve mastered it, it’s time to move on to the next thing. There’s not a whole of gratification, and just sitting back and feeling like, “I’m really good at this. I’m good at my job!” [laughs]

Simultaneously, that's one of the things that's really motivating to me. I feel like I’m always learning and stretching and out of my comfort zone. I definitely have the opportunity to work on things and have freedom and creativity to try things at a pretty young age that I don’t think I would have gotten anywhere else.

Are there any specific techniques or processes that you use to accomplish all the different things that you need to do on any given day?

The one that I’m always striving to get better is just prioritization. In a startup where there are more things on the list of to-dos then there are people you have to realistically accomplish them, you have to have a framework for deciding what is most important. Being really clear about that is something that we are increasingly focused on. It’s an added challenge when you are lucky enough like we are that everyone on your team is super excited and passionate with a ton of ideas. We are always adding five things to the list for every one that we cross off.

Being able to zoom out to the bigger picture and start from the end point really helps. What does this look like if we are successful? At the highest level, what does Watsi look like if we are successful? At a medium level, what does Watsi’s marketing look like if we are successful? Even at the lowest level, what does this project or this email campaign look like if we are successful?

Then working backward from there, you start with the most important things and you can tell a story about what this looks like if you’ve done a good job. Then you can whack anything off the list that doesn’t directly contribute to that. Hopefully, by that logic if you don’t make it to the end of the list the stuff at the end probably wasn't that important to your end goal.

“The other challenge is transitioning from being a maker and a day to day producer, to more of a manager and a leader. I’m straddling that line a bit, and I don’t know if there will ever be a time where I feel like I won't be.”

In a typical day or week do you have any kind of routine throughout your day that you try to follow?

The extent to which I stick to it is kind of variable, but I do think my most productive days follow a similar pattern. I try and do something outside or get some kind of exercise in the morning. That gives me energy for the rest of the day and makes me feel like I’ve done something for myself. If I end up working really late, I feel okay about it because I took some time first thing to do something that was just going to make me feel good.

Another thing I try and do is make time for projects that require a lot of creativity or thought in the first couple hours of the day. I’ve even gone so far as to arbitrarily block out the first two hours of the day, even if I don’t have anything I know I need to work on there. It prevents stuff from getting scheduled in that time. In a similar way, I try to push meetings and conversations and stuff that can be more reactive into the afternoon. That works pretty well for me I would say in terms of trying to follow a routine.

How do you go about managing your time between email and communications, versus the other work that you need to get done?

Yeah, this is one that I’ve definitely struggled with. I used to be super driven by email, which was out of necessity before we got more sophisticated with the tools we were using at Watsi. Everything came in via email, whether it was a request from someone external or a team member.

For a while, I was running our medical program and so the medical partners around the world were submitting new patients for Watsi to me via my email. I had to be on email frequently, and I found that made it really hard to make time to focus on more creative or strategic projects.

Since we’ve managed to separate out a lot of internal work, especially from email, I’ve tried to make a point to only check email twice a day. I’ll definitely keep it open throughout the day but I really don’t let myself sit down and dive into my inbox more than twice a day.

I've found that almost everything can wait at least a day. It helps me to feel more productive, because at the end of the day, answering a ton of emails doesn't. I’d much rather make good headway on a specific project and still having a couple dozen emails in my inbox. At least, I feel better, and while the difference to the outside world may be negligible, it actually matters to me how I feel at the end of the day. That’s been really helpful.

“Giving people a channel to participate and to be useful, and to really see the impact of their desire to do that, that’s gratifying to me. It motivates me because I think there is so much to be done there.”

What are the tools you use on a regular basis, the ones you touch every day?

Calendar - For everything, from coordinating with a lot of people to as I mentioned, just blocking off time to try and focus on something. It’s a good way to spend time on the things I’ve decided are most important.

Asana - We use it a lot at Watsi, both for collaboration but also task management and even aligning tasks or smaller projects with higher-level strategic goals.

Slack - Unsurprisingly we use this for internal communication. We love gifs. It’s been really helpful for getting stuff out of email. I know now that everything in email is from an external person, which helps.

Google Docs - We use this a lot for writing and collaborating and planning things.

There is a lot of meaning to the work that the Watsi team is doing and that you’re doing. On a day to day, do you ever find you can get separated from that and how do you bring yourself back to the level of having those real connections with people?

It’s a good question. It’s something we’ve been talking about a lot more recently because we’ve doubled the team in the last year. There are many more people whose day to day isn’t right in the nitty-gritty and feeling the impact and mission that we are all here to serve. I’ve totally experienced that. This time, last year I was still overseeing the writing of every single patient profile on Watsi. There were thousands of patients going through our system but I saw their faces and read their stories before they were posted on the website. It felt like a very natural part of my day to be really close to that.

As soon as that became someone else’s responsibility I definitely felt it. It was amazing how fast I could go a day or two days without reading a patient profile on Watsi.

We’ve recently started to try and build in more opportunities, to make sure that everyone on the team is really connected to that. Whether it’s explicitly stating what the impact goal is for every single project. So, at the outset of every project, be it marketing, engineering or design, explicitly talking about what this is going to do for our bigger mission and goal. There's smaller day to day things too, like having a Slack channel called #stories, which we’ve had for the last couple of months where Katya, who now runs our profile stories operations program, will post in stories that are inspiring to her as she encounters them in her day.

It’s definitely something we have to be really proactive about.

What would you say was the most recent moment where you had to go outside of your comfort zone or do something that scared you?

There is an ongoing one that is taking on the company partnerships stuff. It’s just an area where we’ve been pretty reactive in the last year or so. We’ve started being approached by more companies who want to know what are our partnership options are and we’re like, “Oh, interesting. We should have partnership options!”

It’s not something that we have a ton of experience with and it’s going back into exploration, and entrepreneurship mode and figuring out how to build something from the ground up without a ton of context.

That’s definitely outside of my comfort zone because I don’t feel like there is a real road map or a game plan that I can steal from someone else.

The other challenge is transitioning from being a maker and a day to day producer, to more of a manager and a leader. I’m straddling that line a bit, and I don’t know if there will ever be a time where I feel like I won't be. We are still very much all hands on deck and blurry roles, that’s for sure a reality but I do also feel like I’m in the middle of a transition right now. Where I have one leg on the escalator and it’s going up and the other one is on the ground [laughs]. I’m trying to make that transition and be as powerful an enabler and a strategy setter as I can be. While at the same time letting these amazing people that we’ve hired just do awesome creative things, and be way better at their jobs than I ever could have been.

“We have tech entrepreneurs who come on and support a kid in Ghana who needs surgery so that he can play soccer again, because they played soccer growing up. There is this commonality that’s not related to almost anything else about the way that they would self-identify in their life.”

Why do you do what you do and what makes it so meaningful to you?

It comes back to trying to solve a problem I feel like I’ve experienced myself. Which is that I grew up hearing stories about people in need around the world and wanted to help. I felt what I think is a pretty common human impulse to help, and to be useful. The more I learned, the less I felt like I had an outlet to really be useful in someone else’s life. That felt at odds with the way the rest of my life worked.

I had Facebook friends in other countries and I was acutely aware of these things that were happening to people around the world. It felt like without some kind of an outlet I would be prone to tuning out and not wanting to hear about these things if there was nothing pragmatic and practical I could do. I feel like that is something that happens to a lot of people.

After having had that experience and then turning around and helping get Watsi off the ground, it's been really gratifying. I hear from people now who feel like they are able to come to our website and have a positive human connection with someone that’s based on similarities they share versus differences. We have tech entrepreneurs who come on and support a kid in Ghana who needs surgery so that he can play soccer again, because they played soccer growing up. There is this commonality that’s not related to almost anything else about the way that they would self-identify in their life.

Giving people a channel to participate and to be useful, and to really see the impact of their desire to do that, that’s gratifying to me. It motivates me because I think there is so much to be done there. Selfishly, I feel like I’m solving a problem that I have myself and contributing to a world that I would prefer to live in.

Who would you want to see on Ways We Work?

Deepa Subramaniam - She’s the Director of Product for Hillary for America and is just an amazing person.

Tiffani Ashley Bell - She’s the founder of another non-profit that went through Y Combinator called Detroit Water Project which lets you pay someone’s water bill in Detroit online.

Tracy Chou - She’s an engineer at Pinterest who is also a great gender and diversity in tech advocate.

Cindy Wu - She is the founder of They help people doing cool scientific things crowdfund their projects.

]]> Format 2016-01-25T00:00:00-05:00 2016-01-25T00:00:00-05:00 Ways We Work Team featured featured Our first encounter with the team at Format was an email from Jillian Lockwood, the team’s PR manager. We often get emails from teams who are interested in having us visit, but this one caught my attention. In four short paragraphs Jillian explained who they were, what was interesting about them, and included two photographs of their space in Toronto. I had heard of Format previously via their InFrame documentary video series and was immediately impressed at the level of content the team was producing in addition to building a product.

If you don’t know, Format is a self-funded Toronto-based team that offers an online portfolio platform for creative professionals. It was founded in 2010 by Lukas Dryja (CEO) and Tyler Rooney (CPO). Since then they’ve grown from 2 to 35 employees. Ten of those employees joined in the last year, and six employees are completely remote. The team had recently reached a milestone of having a user in every country in the world when we visited them. In addition to developing their product, the team at Format produces an editorial magazine aimed at informing and inspiring their audience. The more we learned, the more we wanted to know: how were they dealing with growing so quickly, managing a partially remote team and building a successful product in such a competitive space? With Toronto just a quick trip down the road, Matt and I took the opportunity to spend an afternoon with them, talking to the founders Lukas and Tyler, as well as members from the design, support and marketing teams.

We walked into Format’s fairly inconspicuous office in Liberty Village, an older industrial-style building with tons of light and exposed brick like many of the buildings that surrounded it. We were met by Jillian who gave us a quick tour of the office, the layout is entirely open, with the majority of the office concentrated in one large room, minus some breakout meeting rooms on either side of the main space. I first sat down with Lukas and Tyler to learn more about the beginnings of Format.

I learned that Lukas graduated from OCAD (the Ontario College of Art and Design) in 2004 with a Bachelor of Design and explained that he was shocked at how few of his classmates were showcasing their work online. Lukas pitched the idea to Tyler who came from a software engineering background, previously having worked at Amazon. Both agreed there was an opportunity to help creative professionals by giving them the tools to showcase and promote their work online. After a couple of years working on the idea part-time along with freelance work, they jumped into building Format full-time in 2010, with neither of them taking a salary for the first year.

“In 2010, we decided to abandon consulting and jump into Format full time, and we basically had no salary for about a year. It was risky but it’s paid off.”

Both Lukas and Tyler explained that from the very beginning they decided to be a self-funded company and not seek external investments. Lukas expressed that being a tool for creatives they wanted to make sure that every decision they make focuses on the needs of their users, and didn’t want to risk bringing on an investor that might have different goals. Tyler added that it allows them to build the team more sustainably too, there’s no rush to grow and they can add people as needed. It’s this aspect that has more than likely contributed to maintaining a strong office culture as they’ve grown. I asked what some of the biggest challenges were currently and Lukas admitted that growing the team is one of them: “Building an amazing product, making sure that it works, and making sure people use it is a challenge, but if you don't have a team that works well together and that shares the same vision, you cannot accomplish those goals.” He continued with the challenge of hiring the right people at the right time, “making sure that we don't hire someone on support versus design and bottleneck development because of that decision.”

From a product perspective Tyler talked about the challenges of prioritizing what to build next or improve on, “The real challenge for me is to understand what can wait and what is priority? Is this something that can wait six months, is this something that can wait six years, is this something that is the kind of pain point that makes someone leave a product, or is it a kind of pain point that they endure with, and when all things are considered it's not a big deal?”

“People sign up for a portfolio because they want their first gig, another gig or a better gig. They want to quit their job because they want to be a full time photographer.”

On user feedback and a remote team

Customer support and feedback is an obvious channel for helping to answer those questions, so I took some time to talk with Stefan Pintaric, the team’s support manager. He was Format’s first hire outside of the founders and manages a remote team of five. Stefan explained that the support team faces a lot of the same challenges any support team does: being proactive and solving problems before they happen, and what to do when software services that they rely on fail - something out of their control but that still affects their users. A unique challenge for the support team is the fact that they are often dispersed across multiple time zones, which Stefan explained has ended up being beneficial in a lot of ways, “because we have people around the world, that doesn't just mean that we can fill different eight-hour time slots. It also means that we can capture something that's unique to those areas, and those people's personalities, and their background, and how they can bring some personality to their support interactions.” The team often handles a wide variety of requests, including the occasional second opinion on aesthetic choices for a user’s portfolio, writing code to help users customize their websites, and even requests to be featured in Format Magazine.

The support team uses a tool called Full Story that allows them to observe all the ways users interact with the product, and like many teams, they use Slack, and frequent video chats to stay in sync and connected with one another. However, there are still definitely challenges with making sure the remote team feels a part of the culture that Format has built in the office. Lukas mentioned that some things they’ve been doing to help with this is monthly all hands meetings, and celebrating milestones together. For example, he explained, “we'll have a company Christmas dinner, but then we'll set a budget for a Christmas dinner for all the remote team members to grab dinner on us with their loved ones or their partner, or a friend... The little things.” The support team works closely with developers and designers back at the office to make sure they’re both handling issues quickly and and applying insights from support interactions to product developments.

“I think, always, the biggest challenges are the ones that you have the least control over. When a service provider that we rely on is down and that impacts our product, how do you convey that to a user?”

On design at Format

I sat down with one of the team’s designers Lauren Barless to learn more about how the design team is structured and how they work alongside developers and support. She explained one of the main challenges the design team faces is making sure they’re designing features that will be really useful for someone’s career but not alienate another group of users. For example, not designing features that would only be useful for photographers. In determining what users want, Lauren elaborated on how they work with support for this, “they have everything logged. It's as easy as looking up keywords and seeing what people have said from the beginning of the product pretty much. If I was interested in seeing people's complaints around customization, for example, I could look that up and see what people have had issues with. We can make improvements based directly on what those bigger trends are, on what people have found to be difficult or cumbersome.” She added that another challenge for the design team can be that the bar is set so high, since they are designing for an audience that is so design savvy. As for how new features are implemented, designers work closely with the development team and the number of designers and developers on a feature can vary based on the size of the project. “There's usually one designer and a front-end developer and a back-end developer, possibly more depending on the size of project. We basically try and have a tight knit group so there is a lot of communication between all of us, we try to keep it really collaborative.”

“Because we're creatives designing for creatives it can be a bit of a challenge because the bar is quite high. You really want to do your best because our community is a very savvy group of people.”

On different ways of communicating with creative professionals

Naturally, since we run an online publication ourselves, I wanted to know more about the decision to create Format Magazine rather than a simple company blog and how they were managing that along with other marketing initiatives. Some of Format’s current marketing initiatives include Format Magazine, a documentary film series called InFrame produced with filmmaker Bas Berkhout, long form PDF guides, and ebooks in addition to the standard email marketing and social efforts. After talking with Yousuf, a marketing strategist on the team, it seemed to all relate back to the fact that Format’s audience is creatives and so the high bar for communicating with them plays into marketing as much as it does design and support. Yousuf explained, “I think as we focus on our purpose as a company, the projects that we define in marketing become natural extensions or examples of that,” he continued “we're actually providing value to people, or inspiration to people. It's a more genuine connection than simply promotions or features or benefits and things like that.”

Format Magazine is run like a lot of publications, it has a dedicated editor Lydia Pawlowsky. The content spans from interviews, Q&As, discussions and anything else that might appeal to creative professionals. They often feature their own users but Yousuf explained they don’t limit it to that, the main goal is to create content that will appeal to their target audience. “It's more about how long did they stay on the site, what sort of value did they gain from this content, are they talking about this content?” By positioning themselves as a source of inspiration, education and career development, the goal is that they’ll be top of mind when creatives are looking for a way to showcase their own careers.

“From a marketing standpoint, no one wants to hear you talk about yourself as a brand. I don't. I don't like being marketed to.”

After finishing up interviews with members of the team we spent entirely too much time on (and took too many photos of) Format’s two office dogs Snapple and Andy. One of the biggest observations from our time with the team at Format was that they really are creatives building products for other creatives. Lydia and Jillian told us about a recent office hackathon where the whole office took part. They both spent the time editing and producing a print version of Format Magazine, while Mohammed, a product manager on the team, spent that time producing an episode of a podcast.

The online portfolio space is no doubt a crowded one, so it was definitely interesting to see the ways that Format is differentiating themselves. At the very least, they seem to be having fun doing it. Thank you to the team at Format for inviting us in and sharing some insight into the people behind the product. Interested in having us spend a day with your team?
Shoot us a message,

Format is looking for people to join their team.

Taylor Burk, Adventure Photographer 2016-01-20T00:00:00-05:00 2016-01-20T00:00:00-05:00 Ways We Work Team photographers photographers I came across Taylor's photographs last year while browsing through my Instagram feed. One of his images was featured on a wilderness account I follow. I really liked the shot and after looking at his feed, I quickly became a fan. I loved his approach and the natural feel his images had. The images didn't try to hard and felt really authentic. Taylor was great to chat with and the fun and natural vibe conveyed in his images carried through to who he was as a person. -Matt

Tell us a bit about what you do?

I'm a freelance adventure and travel photographer and I've been doing it full-time for almost a year. Right now I'm in Pismo Beach, California but I used to call Edmonton, Alberta home. I got rid of my place there last Spring and I've been travelling ever since. I am currently living out of my vehicle, camping and staying with friends when I can. I had no real reason to be in Edmonton anymore; I’m just not really into the city lifestyle, so I opted for something different.

What was your path to becoming a full-time photographer?

A few years ago I was travelling and came across Instagram. I wasn’t really into social media; I didn’t have Facebook or any other social apps. I was happy without it but I thought I'd give Instagram a try because I had all these photos from my travels and I wanted to inspire my friends to get out and see the world. I learned that Instagram was a great place to share photos, so I signed up and started to upload my pictures there. When I got back to Alberta I ended up getting an iPhone and I was amazed by the quality of photos it could take. They were way better than the camera I had previously.

From there I just had fun shooting my everyday life: going for walks, going to the mountains, going here and there. I had fun trying to capture different angles and perspectives. Mobile photography was nothing like anything I had done before. From there, photography developed into more of a hobby and eventually some friends said, “You should just buy a DSLR camera.” I agreed due to an upcoming trip. I wanted to capture high quality memories. I bought a Canon Rebel T3i and I took it on my trip. I had no clue what I was doing with the camera though, and I quickly got fed up with it. I preferred my iPhone just because of its ease. With the iPhone you just point and shoot, with DSLRs it has all these crazy settings. It was a bit overwhelming and I didn’t know what the heck I was doing. I bought this expensive camera and it was just collecting dust in my house.

Until the beginning of last summer, I only posted iPhone photos. In that time though I was learning, asking questions, watching YouTube tutorials. I had friends in photography and would learn from them, gain insight and practice, practice, practice. I would see a shot–like a slowed down waterfall or a Milky Way–and I would research and figure out how to get those type of shots and just kept practicing until I was able to capture what I wanted.

So when did photography become how you made a living?

It started using Instagram fairly early on and I was just having fun with it. I was meeting up with people and trying to make connections with others who had similar interests. Instagram has this “suggested users list" where they feature their favourite accounts. If you were a new Instagram user and didn't follow anyone, the app would give you a list of suggested accounts for you to start off with. People on the list would gain a large number of followers in a short period of time. About a year and a half ago, I made it on that list and in two weeks I went from 2500 followers to 25000 followers. From there my following has been naturally growing from popular accounts featuring my work, to word of mouth, and collaborating with others. Once I built up my following, brands started inquiring about my work. I still had a full time job, so I was taking a lot of vacation time to go out and do photography gigs. It got to the point where I just couldn’t take any more time off and my bosses were getting a little upset. I thought about things and I came to the conclusion: “You got to take a risk and chase opportunity if you want to pursue what you love to do.” I quit my job in December 2014 and have been a photographer full time ever since.

What were you doing before?

I was a plumber. I don't have an education in business or photography so I’m kick starting this business by trial and error along with tons of research. It has been very successful for me! I am very fortunate to be working with a lot of big clients and companies that I believe in and stand behind.

What are some of the challenges that you’ve been facing over the past year and how did you overcome them?

Some of the challenges this year have been around the finance side of things. Now that I’m strictly freelance, I have to make sure that I can budget properly for each month. I have to manage all the invoicing, saving receipts, paying bills, making sure the work’s done correctly, and then on top of that, making sure that I have jobs coming in regularly so I can support myself. I’ve been overcoming that by reaching out to others and asking questions on those topics. The Internet is obviously a big help as well. Figuring out how to do photography professionally, learn from my mistakes, and continue to push forward has been a big part of my year. There is the bad and good with everything. There are times when things are tough, and then there are times when there are no worries at all. I do my best to not focus on negative situations, I always try and find the positive. If you spend too much time worrying then you sink into a deep hole. I just do what I have to do in each situation and make the most of it.

How do you stay on top of your industry?

I am always trying to push myself. If I go to popular locations that other photographers often frequent I ask myself, how can I do it differently? I try to think outside the box; whether it’s including someone into the photo, climbing up to a higher area or getting down lower. The key is to always push yourself and try new things.

Gear wise I have a fairly basic set up. I shoot with a Canon 6D, 20-74mm f2.8 and a 17-40mm f4.0. The setup works for what I need. It’s definitely not about how much “shiny” gear you have. I know an incredible photographer with old gear that hardly works but her photos are incredible.

In terms of staying on top of things I always try and prioritize my time to make sure that inquiries are getting answered. It’s tough being on the road because a lot of times I’m either driving, hiking and shooting or doing errands. I come back home and I have emails to go over, and photos to edit. The workload can get a little bit backlogged because I'm the only one doing it. Prioritizing time and making sure it all gets done is an important part of making everything work.

How do you stay on top of e-mail?

I go through my email regularly and make sure I get back to everyone as soon as possible. When I am on a shoot or on the road I set an autoresponder to let people know I may take awhile to reply.

One thing I’m going to do soon is base myself so I can crack down and stay on top of everything. I need to make sure I get caught up because it's tough always being on the go. Each day that goes by the pile of administrative work I have to do gets bigger. It's an important aspect of what I do, so I constantly remind myself to take more time to focus.

What are some of the productivity tools you use to keep organized?

Expensify - It’s an app where you can put in all your receipts and all your expenses in and tracks it all. It’s so easy. I don’t really use a whole lot of apps or things like that but that’s a good one.

What does a typical trek in the wilderness look like for you?

It depends. There are times where I am on big long treks and times when I’m not close to the wilderness at all. If i'm around the city it’s because I need to get stuff done or there are things I need nearby. One thing lot of people assume is what they see on Instagram is my day to day life. For example, the photo I posted yesterday was taken a few days ago, and the photo before that was a few weeks ago. It’s not always current which but sometimes it is. For me it’s more of a portfolio and a place to share my experiences and to inspire others.

My day is a mix of everything, I mean there are days where I am out hiking, there are days where I’m only driving, and there are days where I’m only in the city. I like to spend as much time out hiking and being outdoors shooting; whether it’s a day trip, an overnight trip, or a couple of nights.

When I’m out shooting I'm usually waiting for sunrise/sunset, shooting as much as I can during golden hour, and if possible get some work done during down time.

So what was today like?

Right now its late and I’m in a McDonald’s using the Wi-Fi. I haven't eaten at McDonald's in over three years, I’m actually against it, but they have great WI-Fi! [laughs] I can’t thank them enough for that. My office is usually a cafe though. Earlier a friend and I did a road trip down the Pacific Coast Highway. Tonight some friends and I are going to do some night shooting and camping on the beach.

Yesterday I was out camping and it was an interesting experience. It started as a beautiful crystal clear night so we setup some hammocks and we were planning to camp out under the stars. We went to bed around 10:30pm and I woke up at 4:30am to a couple of raindrops. It hardly rains in California, they are going through a drought, all of a sudden it starts pouring! All our gear was out and exposed because we didn’t expect rain. So we quickly packed everything up as it was becoming drenched. We decided to drive back to my friends place so we could go back to sleep. As we were driving out the rain had caused a lot of rock slides. There was a huge rock on the road and my friend hit it resulting in a flat. It was now 5am and I was out there changing a tire. I got the spare on. 20 minutes down the road the spare goes flat, Shit what do we do? Luckily we found an area where we could pull over and get service. We waited for a tow truck to come. In the time that we were waiting the sun was rising, the clouds broke free for 20 minutes and we got to see a beautiful sunrise. We made the most of it, but it was a long morning!

What's the best career advice you’ve been given so far?

One of my friends, Chris, told me to write everything down. For example, say you have some brands you want to work with or some magazines that you want to be published in; write it down. Additionally, he told me that if you have a company you love, then find out who it is that you need to talk to that deals with what you offer and get their information. Come up with a plan and reach out to them with your idea. If you never ask or never reach out you’re never going to know. Writing down your goals and accomplishing them at the same time is definitely something that's been useful.

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

Often I get a messages from people thanking me for sharing my images saying it inspired them to get outdoors. Hearing those things mean more to me than I can explain. That is the major reason why I do what I do.

I used to be a city boy and never did big adventurous things. That feeling I got when I actually went out there doing it was amazing! To go and travel and meet new people and just be more open; it made me the happiest guy on Earth. So knowing that I can make someone feel those things and have those experiences too, that’s what makes me happy. Adventuring, meeting new people, and experiencing new things that’s what I love and just being able to have a platform to share it on, makes it even better.

Instagram has changed your life in a way...

Instagram has completely changed my life in may ways– I'd say 90% of the people I talk to on a regular basis - like friendships - I have met through Instagram. Besides the community aspect of it, it also enabled me to make a drastic change in my career going from being a plumber to a photographer.

Who has been an influence in the way you live?

In terms of the lifestyle my buddy Geoff Reid who lives in New Zealand. He is doing some amazing conservation work, making a huge imapct. He is always an inspiration, he is the one who got me into this backpacking lifestyle and the outdoors. He is currently making a documentary, traveling the country helping conserve fresh water, so I want be able to go and give my voice to help promote what he is doing.

Photography-wise I have always been inspired by my friend Callum Snape. He is such an awesome guy, a big inspiration. He has always been very helpful and supportive. I met him through an Insta-meet, at least that’s where we formally met. We became close friends and we’ve had a lot of work together recently.

Who would you to see featured on Ways We Work?

I would like to see a feature on Andy Cochrane from Oru Kayak. He is super motivated and always one step ahead of the curve. I would like to get more of an inside look into his mind.

Design at Pivotal Labs 2016-01-18T00:00:00-05:00 2016-01-18T00:00:00-05:00 Ways We Work Team featured featured Pivotal Labs is a company whose name has come up in many different conversations over the last couple of years. A friend of mine had worked in their Toronto office; a friend of a friend works in the San Francisco one, and their unique processes had been mentioned in conversations I’d had with designers and developers quite a few times. So when Matt and I were looking into teams to visit in San Francisco, Pivotal Labs was definitely on the list. When a company has been around for over 20 years, and has 16 offices internationally there’s a pretty good chance they’ve got some processes that are working for them. We were connected with Kim Dowd and the design team at the San Francisco office and they welcomed us into their space to spend a morning with them.

Matt and I took the elevator to the fifth floor where the Labs team was situated in 875 Howard Street. There we were greeted by Kim and invited to grab breakfast from the large, open-concept kitchen that had a buffet of options. As we talked with Kim, she told us who we would be talking to that morning from the design team. We noticed that everyone in the office was starting to gather for a very large stand-up meeting, definitely the biggest one we’ve been a part of so far. This one was super quick, with some office-wide updates. The team uses this time to introduce new hires, let everyone know about upcoming events or other important news that’s relevant to the entire team. It was really interesting to see how much energy the stand-up brought to the office. Breakfast had been relatively quiet, but during and after stand-up there was definitely a buzz, and an excitement to dig into whatever was next.

After the crowd dispersed, Kim took us over to where the design team congregated for their team-specific stand-up. This was much smaller and more focused on design team updates and projects. Kim was quick to explain that designers are spread-out around the office based on what project they’re currently allocated to. The area we were in was a place for designers to congregate and was also where “beached” designers could work. An important thing we learned was that every designer is either pairing with a developer or another designer every day for the entire day. This is one of Pivotal Labs’ core processes. However, if a designer isn’t currently allocated to a project, the team affectionately refers to them as being “beached”. While it doesn’t happen often, occasionally a designer will have a week or two where they’re not tied to any specific client project and they’re able to then work on something related to their design practice, or a Pivotal Labs project. For example, Aaron Lawrence who was working on designing unique badges for each Labs location. This was one of my favourite aspects of the team’s workflow -- for one, the term is great and makes me laugh, and the process naturally allows for time to work on personal and team-related projects.

“You have a buddy to basically share the mind space with and get immediate feedback. All of the benefits of pair programming are very similar from pair designing.”

Talking with Kim and the rest of the team, we wanted to know more about the types of projects they were working on and what the flow of a project was from start to finish. There are two key elements to Labs’ process called Discovery and Framing.

Discovery is where the Labs’ team collaborates with the client team to determine what problem it is they’re trying to solve. This stage involves open-ended research, workshops, interviews and any exploration needed to discover what the problem is.

Framing is establishing how to solve the problem. During this stage, the team is focused on researching and validating their ideas.

After Discovery and Framing, the project moves into delivery where designers and developers work in pairs to develop the solution that was uncovered during Discovery and Framing. This stage is iterative and involves continuous testing, user-research and validating that the solution is actually working.

A key theme throughout talking with the team was the importance placed on flexibility. Pivotal Labs uses an agile methodology and they really live by it. Kim explained that while there is definitely a defined flow through a project, each one is different and often projects will come to them at various stages. She explained how some will come with the problem already defined and at that point the team helps to validate any assumptions or potential solutions. Sometimes a client will come with wireframes and concepts and are looking for design and development support. In every case, the Labs’ team becomes an extension of their team to help not only deliver the product but often help the client adopt a more agile process within their own team.

“The reason we do time and materials is that they're a very sustainable pace. If you promise scope, you're going to wind up sleeping under your desk. That allows us to start work at 9 and leave at 6, have a reasonable pace, and always be improving a product but not burning yourself out.”

I wanted to know what this process looked like in action so I sat down with Nina Mehta who is a design manager on the team and had just wrapped up a project for an insurance company looking for an iPhone app. They were looking to have a better digital presence and wanted to transform their company from a waterfall approach to more agile. Nina explained how both are large challenges on their own. The first week of the project was about getting to know the team and their product and doing exploratory research on their users. She told me one of the main challenges of the project is one that often comes with working with larger companies, which is the barriers often involved in reaching users. A lot of the times companies don’t want an external team representing them while talking to their customers. So finding creative ways to connect with users is important.

“We get a lot of clients who want to make that change. They way that we do it is we say, "bring a small group of people from the company who are actually ready to do it. We're going to teach them, we're going to work with them, and we're going to build something together."”

I asked her how they went about introducing a concept like agile to such a large team and she explained that it was key to start small. Finding the small group of people within the company who are excited about it and ready to do it, and working with them so that after the project was finished, they would have the tools to be advocates for the rest of their team. She told me that the project was so successful that the company came back to work on an Android app, which Nina explained was exciting because several months later she could witness the changes happening in the company from their first project together.

After talking with Nina, we took a final tour around the office where there were pods of designers and developers working, all grouped by the project they were currently working on. There was a mix of people using standing desks, some sitting, some at whiteboards, some in breakout rooms and others just chatting throughout the office. Oh, and there was almost always at least a few people at the ping pong tables.

Thanks to the team at Pivotal Labs for letting us spend the morning with them and learn a little bit more about how they do the work they do. Interested in having us spend a day with your team?
Shoot us a message,

Ann Friedman, Freelance Journalist, Writer & Podcaster 2016-01-13T00:00:00-05:00 2016-01-13T00:00:00-05:00 Ways We Work Team communicatorscreatorsfreelancers communicatorscreatorsfreelancers Ann Friedman is a freelance journalist who writes about gender, media, technology, and culture. She writes a weekly column at and contributes regularly to The Los Angeles Times, ELLE, and The Guardian. She also co-hosts the popular podcast Call Your Girlfriend. I first came across Ann's work through her newsletter and admired her wittiness, and intelligent writing. She's spent the last three years crafting her ideal role, and I was so excited to learn more about how she fell into being self-employed and how she continues to hustle to do the work she loves. I took a lot away from our conversation and know you will too.

Tell me a bit about what you’re working on right now?

If I have one overarching role it's as CEO of the corporation I've made to oversee all of the stuff that I do. There are two things that, financially and in terms of my time, are guiding my weeks right now. One is my column in New York Magazine which I've done for three and a half years now. It's a weekly column, although I do skip the occasional week. It’s about politics, gender and culture which is, as you may have noticed, three fairly broad topics, so I have a lot of leeway to figure out what I want to write about.

The other thing that is taking up a lot of my time, is the podcast that I do with two friends, called Call Your Girlfriend. We're just at the stage where we're starting to sell ads against it, we're launching a newsletter related to it, and starting to plan more live events. At this time last year it was something that I was doing but wasn't so much a part of my working day.

I'm also working on my own email newsletter, which I started a monetization scheme for towards the end of last year and I'm kind of fine tuning that. In addition, I'm working on some freelance profiles for some magazines in the UK right now.

Those are the four big things: my New York column, the podcast, my newsletter and these freelance profiles are the main stuff I’ve got going on right now.

“I think it actually took a full year, maybe more before I could confidently answer that I was a self-employed writer when people asked me at parties.”

What was your path to initially going out on your own and why do you choose to remain working that way?

I got fired which is how I became a freelancer [laughs]. Statistically, when you look at entrepreneurs most people come to working for themselves because they were booted from a cozy, full-time position. It was something that I had thought about for a long time, but I don't know if I would have taken the initiative to do it without the prompt of being actively ejected from my job as an editor.

At first, I thought it was just a phase while I job hunted, I said to myself “you know I'm going to do freelance writing while I apply to jobs.” I landed the New York Magazine column within in a couple of months. It became clear that maybe if I did that, and I got a couple other columns, that would be steady. So it started to feel a little more feasible after that. I think it actually took a full year, maybe more before I could confidently answer that I was a self-employed writer when people asked me at parties. Identifying myself as a self-employed writer was the first part of the battle.

I stay freelance because there's a lot of freedom in it. For example, two days ago a friend of mine I don't get to see often, she just came over and we hung out and painted watercolors in my house for two hours, from 2-4pm. Then she left and I did work.

Obviously, that's not a representative day. There's some days when I am chained to my desk and working the whole time. That type of thing where I can construct my own schedule, it's nice. Also, as a journalist it's really nice if an editor I work with says they're not interested in something, I can just find another editor or maybe I can talk about it on the podcast. The fact that I can both create my own outlets for things that I think are important and find other outlets if I need to is really, really liberating.

How do you know when it's time to try something new or find a different challenge? For example, doing something like the podcast or taking on another endeavor?

I thought of 2015 as the first year of my career that I didn't start something, like the newsletter in 2013, we started the podcast in 2014. Then I realized that 2015 was the year that I actually incorporated and in some ways I think of it as the year that I really started to think of myself as a business. All that is to say that I actually feel like I have the opposite problem, I want to start so many things all the time and at a certain point it's clear that I have a lot of demands on my plate. They're all things that I'm interested in and it's possible to juggle them but there's this core of what I do, which is writing.

That's true both in terms of how I make my money and how I self-identify. I didn't do the best writing I've ever done in my career in 2015. I did a lot of really cool stuff that I'm proud of but it wasn't the year where I can point to my writing and be like, "yes I killed it this year." That's something that I'm mindful of.

If I want to produce better writing even though it doesn't feel as exciting or sexy to me the way that figuring out a podcast business strategy does. I have to stop starting new things.

What would you say are the most challenging aspects of the work that you do right now?

I have a macro challenge of trying to make time to focus on getting better at the skills that I think of as core to who I am and what I do. I think that there is also a fundamental problem or difficulty in what I do which is what I take in, who I interview, or who I am writing about versus what I put out, like my own ideas that I put out or things that I make.

There's a tension between the skill sets of being a fact gatherer versus an opinion producer or a producer of stuff like the podcast, which is mostly my opinion and my friend's opinion. That tension is something that I think about and struggle with.

“Being a journalist is like a hall pass into the things I want to learn more about. I can invent an excuse to call pretty much anyone, doesn't mean they'll talk to me, but that's built in and I really like that.”

In a typical day or a week, how do you divide your time? Are there strategies you use to make sure that everything that's important is getting the attention it needs?

I think I'm constantly trying to get better at this. There's certain things that give structure to my week. In the beginning of the week, I decide with my editor on a column idea. At the end of the week, I send out my newsletter and we publish the podcast. There's more flexibility in between. I have certain things that I do on certain days of the week, like I put together the newsletter on Friday morning. Every week is different. Every day is different.

I try to adhere to a schedule where if I have something that's mentally taxing, or a writing assignment that I want to devote my best brain to, I do it first thing, in the 7am to 11am range. I try to schedule it, which is a little difficult for me sometimes because I'm on the West Coast. The East Coast is available for phone calls and stuff like that earlier in the day. I vastly prefer to do things like the conversation we're having now in the afternoon, which is the time where I do stuff that doesn't require so much concentration.

What was the most recent time you can think of that you either did something that scared you or took you out of your comfort zone?

This relates to what I was saying about being a reporter and gathering stories and information versus just my opinions. I have a really good friend who's a photographer. She and I, for a long time, have been trying to collaborate on something. In the fall, we went on a reporting trip together which was a full week where both of us were out of our element. We were talking to strangers and laying the groundwork for the project we want to do together. That was something that was a leap because it takes me out of producing work that pays me for a week, which is very difficult psychologically [laughs]. You're just saying, "I'm going to have a week where I'm not invoicing anything."

It was also an outlay of money. I bought my ticket to go and meet up with her. Also, just skills wise it's a stretch. It's not that I haven't done any reporting in the field. I definitely have, but a lot of the work that I do these days is interviewing people who want to be interviewed. They're people who have agreed to be profiled or they're experts who are excited to share what they know. It's less likely that I talk to someone who's reluctant to talk to me. Even though that's something I've done before, it's not something I do daily anymore. That was hard and it was good.

“I have a macro challenge of trying to make time to focus on getting better at the skills that I think of as core to who I am and what I do.”

What are the five tools you use on a regular basis?

Simple Note - It's not the notes one in an iPhone, but I have tons of different pages that are ongoing ideas and notes from all these different projects to things I have going on. I have one that's where I keep just general ideas, things I want to write about, people I want to talk to, anything that might be a little thread I want to pull from for work. Anyway, that is a system that encourages me to continually come up with ideas and is a concrete thing that I look at and use, which is pretty crucial to what I do.

Calendar - I think the other thing is trying to actually put on the calendar when I want to take time for things. That doesn't mean I schedule out my whole day. I tried to do that and I failed miserably. It's sort of saying, "Okay, this editor is asking for pitches. I'm not going to do it unless I carve out an hour here to think about those." It's never going to have a deadline against it. It's not going to be a priority, so I have to try to create one.

Time of day - Trying to play to my strengths at different times of the day is important. Leaving the morning for writing time or other intense work is a productivity tool for sure. The better I am at sticking to that schedule, the better my work is.

Google Docs - I know a lot of writers who use Scrivener and maybe if I ever wrote a book and needed a footnote in it or something I would use that. I just use Google Docs, which most of my editors find easy for sharing and pretty simple to use.

Echo Smartpen - It's also a recording device that syncs with a special notebook. You take notes and have a full audio file and if you want to listen to the audio clip from the moment when you wrote a certain note, you just tap that note again and it will play back the audio from when you wrote it. That's very nice. It's also not intrusive to be holding a pen, psychologically. I mean, it helps to interview people that way without staring at your phone.

How do you manage your time between communications and email versus heads down writing or the other work that you need to do?

Yeah, I think it's a challenge. I think I would probably be more productive if I didn't sit with my email open all day. I am a sucker, like everyone is, for clicking on those articles about how to work better. They say, "don't leave your email open all day." I get it. There's also a lot of work that I do that is based in email. Reaching out to people to interview them or corresponding with editors and that is real work, that is not busy work. I associate bullshit busy work with being on staff somewhere. I'm never in a meeting where it's like, "Ugh, what am I doing in this time suck meeting?" It's not part of my life. Thank you, person who fired me.

It can be tough to concentrate when I'm writing. It honestly helps me to go into full-screen mode too, whether it's Google Docs or Word, where I just can't see any other options. That's sometimes very helpful to me.

Why do you do what you do? What makes it meaningful to you?

I think the answer is slightly different for all the different types of work that I do. I'm really interested in people and in strangers and in learning about new things. Being a journalist is like a hall pass into the things I want to learn more about. I can invent an excuse to call pretty much anyone, doesn't mean they'll talk to me, but that's built in and I really like that.

For the opinion type work, I would say that my motivation is giving a structure or a framework or a language for things. Things that maybe many of us have noticed before, or felt, but not been able to articulate why it's annoying or why it's great. I think that giving a language for things, or a vocabulary for them, is really important. I can think of the things that I've read where I've thought "oh, that's a name for that phenomenon." It's so powerful and revelatory, and then it gives that shared vocabulary to other people who are experiencing it.

I think that at it's best, the sort of opinion and essay work that I do, does that. That's a motivation for me personally as well. I want to figure out what these things have in common or why this thing is annoying me, or what to call it when dudes do that, or whatever. That's a motivation.

“The fact that I can both create my own outlets for things that I think are important and find other outlets if I need to is really, really liberating.”

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

Kenesha Sneed, illustrator and ceramicist.
Gracy Obuchowicz, self-care coach.
Samhita Mukhopadhyay, dating-book author and editorial director at Identities Mic
Lara Shipley, photographer.
Jos Truitt, writer, artist and activist.
Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, journalist.
Ali Liebegott, poet, artist, and writer for Transparent.
Myisha Battle, sex coach.
Of course my podcast partners in crime Aminatou Sow and Gina Delvac.

Paul Zizka, Adventure Photographer 2016-01-06T00:00:00-05:00 2016-01-06T00:00:00-05:00 Ways We Work Team photographer photographer I first encountered Paul's work about a year ago when I started getting deeply interested in night sky photography. I found his account while scouring Instagram for others who had a similar passion and I was immediately inspired by his work. The more I got out to shoot the more I had questions about how these photographers make it all work in life and business. This interview with Paul is the first in a series of interviews with adventure photographers where I try and uncover some of the challenges they face doing the work they love.
- Matt Quinn

Tell us a bit about what you do?

I do adventure and landscape photography out of Banff here in the Rockies. I've been doing it full-time for about eight or nine years. I do a little bit of commercial work, so I have clients like Lake Louise Tours and Parks Canada. I suppose I would call myself a freelancer. I go out and shoot the material and then, find a way to monetize it to pay the bills. Increasingly, I do a lot of instruction as well. I would say workshops are probably fifty percent of my income now, and they involve introducing people to beautiful parts of the world. Additionally, I try to help get people where they want to go with their own photography.

What was your path to becoming a full time photographer?

I started out like a lot of people, just with the little point-and-shoot documenting my own adventures just to show the folks back home, "Hey, here's what we're doing. Here's what it looks like around here." At the beginning I did what everybody did. Once in awhile, someone would say, "You know, you have a pretty good eye. You should consider taking it a bit more seriously." I started out spending the summers working at a little lodge here to pay for school and explored the mountains in my spare time. By the time I was done with school, I'd met my wife at the lodge I worked at and it was obvious that we wanted to live in the mountains going forward. The idea was if we're going to live here, we'd try to find a way to be outside as much as possible. We didn't want to lock ourselves in. I considered different things that I could do to maximize my time outside. Two were guiding and photography and I did both for couple years or so. Eventually photography started to take over and I decided to just fully focus on that. I started off doing more commercial work, I think, partly because it was more reliable as a source of income. I've been phasing it out a little throughout the years to just make more time for what I really like to shoot best which is the truly creative work; adventure and landscape photography.

Describe the turning point where you knew "Okay, I'm going to do photography from this point on"

I don't know if I can point to a specific moment, but I suppose it was when I committed to doing photography exclusively. I think the way I've felt about those types of careers is that it's something that's hard to do on the side. It's hard to have one foot in the 9:00 to 5:00 with your day job and then, one foot in the semi-pro photographer world. I think that if you want to know what could be, you have to just take the leap and go for it. Just ditch everything else in your life and fully focus on that one passion. I think that's where things started to change for me. I decided to commit to being in Banff and focused on doing photography for a year to see how it went without relying on other sources of income.

So, what did that first year look like? Was it just a lot of building your portfolio?

I think, like a lot of people, I had a romantic version of the career as a photographer in my head. I used to think: Okay, I'm going to be shooting every sunrise/sunset, go out on adventures and it'll all be edited, ready to go by noon, and someone will have bought the images by suppertime. I quickly realized that like any other job, it's got its downsides. In the first year it wasn't exactly what I thought it was going to be. I spent a lot of time pushing my work, putting it in front of the right people, and doing the accounting and tasks that are not very glamorous. In the end, I realized if it's field time that I'm really after then I'm almost better off doing the 9:00 to 5:00 job and then, shooting on the side. I personally ended up really enjoying having my hands in all the different parts of it and being able to see everything through and knowing how to run all those different aspects of a business.

No doubt you went through some challenges in that first year, can you name one of the most challenging things you overcame and how you did it?

I would say the main challenge for me since the beginning, and it's still a challenge occasionally, is just refining balance. That's because when you're self-employed, you quickly realize that the more you put in, the more you get out of it. When good things start to happen, it becomes sort of addictive, where you could just work twenty four hours a day. There's good things happening. You see the direct result of the labor and of the effort that you put in, but then, as we know, there's other things in life to juggle. I have a two and a half year old now, I work from home, and I don't want to stop playing in the mountains. There's a lot of things that I like to do that I don't want to give up on. Juggling all that has been challenging, and I wouldn't say I've overcome it, I think that I've gotten a lot better at it.

How that happened, is through being organized and thorough. Regardless of what happens, setting aside that time for all those different things, for all those little priorities. No matter what happens, you're committed to it and you're not going to switch things around. It's amazing how you think, "Oh, wow. Next week is going to be pretty quiet, actually. I'm pretty excited about it." Then, next thing you know, Monday arrives and the week's filled up again and there's so much going on.

If you haven't set aside creative time, time for family and time to connect with fellow photographers it's easy for something to fall through the cracks. I try to be as organized as possible. I've got some people helping me out now so they keep me accountable. They help me have structure, too. I think structure is not something that's easy to find in this field of work.

How do you balance doing your creative work and then, marketing your brand?

It's such a delicate dance of just going out there and creating content you're excited about. However, if nobody ever sees it, what's the point? You have to spend a considerable amount of time thinking about, "Okay. Who needs to see this image and who has the budget? Who might be interested in spending money in licensing it?" Especially when you're freelancing. It's a daily juggling act, to be honest. Sometimes I'll realize that, "Oh, my gosh. I've just been pushing my work down different avenues for awhile. I haven't been out in ages."

I think a part of me is always assessing the balance and reminding myself: "Okay. Maybe I've been overdoing it a little bit with the field time. It's nice to shift things a little bit more towards pushing the work online and all that." The opposite is really easy to notice. I know when I haven't been out for awhile and I need to get creative because I see it in my own behaviour and stuff like that.

It's a tricky one. Honestly, I don't know that I'll ever fully figure it out. Maybe I've just partly accepted the fact that I'm always going to feel pulled in a couple different directions. It's a conversation that I have weekly with my wife. She helps me with some of the stuff and we have one employee who helps out a lot. We meet weekly to talk about stuff like this. "Okay. Where are we at? Do we need to shift the balance one way or another?" Everybody pitches in and then we build the schedule around that conversation.

What does a typical trek in the wilderness look like for you?

It varies quite a bit. I'm fortunate that I live in an area where if I only have an hour to play with, I can drive up to Two Jack Lake and ten minutes later, I'm there, getting creative. At the end of a big day of editing, I can go out for an hour and just to get my little dose of creative time. In some instances, I'll take day trips. I definitely have a few trips every year that are multi-days, where for three to five days here in the Rockies. We'll typically go on mountaineering trips, key mountaineering, in the winter. There's a few of those a year and then, there's the odd trip abroad.

I just got back from Greenland. I was there for a couple weeks just shooting my heart out. A hundred percent field time pretty much, very little editing, very little action on social media. Of course, you pay for it when you get home. It's time to switch the balance the other way pretty quick, but yeah, It varies a lot. Sometimes it's just the one hour window that I have to work with and sometimes it's a full day. Sometimes it's a couple weeks into the wilderness.

What are some of the productivity tools you use to keep organized?

Wunderlist - We've used Wunderlist quite a bit. I've got my to-dos, my wife has hers and Kelly, who's helping out, has hers. Just being able to quickly prioritize things and drag and drop; It's so user-friendly, so efficient. When someone thinks of something to address at the next team meeting, they just throw it on the list. Everybody can see it, everybody gets a notification that it's been added.

Sunrise - We use the Sunrise app too, for calendar purposes and to coordinate everything and make sure that I'm not double booking things.

PhotoPills - I also use apps that help me stay efficient in the field because they'll tell me say where the Milky Way is going to rise and when. When my field time is limited, efficiency is always important. I use PhotoPills quite a bit. That's really an awesome one.

Star Walk & Photographer's Ephemeris - Both great ones.

Stellarium - There's a great desktop app called Stellarium. It will pre-visualize the night sky so you can plan ahead. I find the nighttime photography very time-consuming so whatever I can do at home to plan is great.

How do you stay on top of email?

Ah, jeez. Yeah. Everything that goes to the general inquiries email address goes to Kelly, who helps us out. She's our nearly full-time employee. She knows how to handle a lot of those inquiries now because of course, ninety percent of them are always the same. "What gear do you use? Do you sell prints?" and this and that. A lot of those inquiries I never really see myself and instead Kelly will receive them and will reply to them. Sometimes there will be things where she really needs my input, whether it's an opportunity of some kind or just a tricky question about prints. Getting some help and getting another person involved has just been so huge for us. I wish I'd done it two years ago. There are things that she's way better at than I am and way more efficient at than I am. It makes so much sense. That's opened up a lot of field time for me and that's really been a turning point, I think, in terms of my quality of life and my mental health and decreased my stress level quite a bit.

Beyond that, I think we're all pretty organized with Gmail and just using labels and prioritizing and all that. For social media, we use Hootsuite quite a bit to try to keep things organized. We're active on many social platforms and if you don't have a system, you can end up pouring so much time into it.

What's some of the best career advice you've been given?

The best advice I've been given would be to just remember why you do it. I've got notes all over the place reminding me to think about that. Any photographer will get the little ego boost when your stuff starts to do well on social media. It's a pat on the back but it can lead to taking photos for the wrong reasons. I mean, we all start out shooting for ourselves, but eventually the business aspect of things can take over and then, the creative time can vanish. I know for me I'm not at my best when I haven't been out in the field for ages. When I'm not at my best I just need to remind myself why I got into this business: "Okay, you know why I started? Because I like to be out in the wilderness and I need to get out. Today, I'm going to make some time for that. I'm going to shoot stuff that I would shoot. I'm going to try to shoot the way I would regardless of the online influences. I'm going to try to not press the shutter and think, 'Well, will people like this?'"

It's an easy trap to fall into with social media. It's easy to start robotically creating recipe-based shots that I know people will like. From a creative standpoint, they don't really do a whole lot for me. I look at the image and I'm like: "You know what? That will do well on the various platforms, but I know it's hardly cutting edge work. It's not something that I was ever excited about at any point, so why did I even bother?"

Right. I mean, it's easy to get caught up in just harvesting likes in the social sphere. You're saying that: "Don't just do work to harvest likes. Root yourself in the 'why' instead?"

Absolutely. At the same time, I'd be lying if I said, "Well, who cares about the followings and the following and the likes and all that?" When you start doing photography for a living, you have to have some sort of following on social media; when it's time to sell workshops or prints, that's just the reality of it. There's still a way to gather a following and still be true to what you like to shoot. I feel like I've definitely been guilty of shooting stuff just because I know people will like it and I know it'll do well. I think I'm getting better and better though. I remind myself that I'm going to shoot because I love the way it feels and the way it looks.

When there's following of a certain size, you know you can't please everybody anyway. You just put it out there and say: "I hope you like it, I like it, I hope it makes you feel a certain way. If not, well, that's just how it is." I encourage everyone to shoot the same way and just put it out there. Keep your work personal and true to yourself. There's always going to be someone out there who won't jive with it, but that's just art, right? It's a personal experience.

So, why do you do what you do and what makes it all worth it?

I think it's something that I've had trouble describing. I think sometimes I'll go out in the field and everything just works out. Then, I see the creative side within me just come alive and I realize that it's always there, but it's dormant a lot of the time because it's obscured by a whole bunch of other stuff. When I really get in tune with that feeling and I have a really great time in the field–even if I don't come up with images that are groundbreaking or anything–I'm just happy. I almost feel like a little kid again creating for the sake of creating, regardless of the outcome. For me, it's kind of a rush, it's kind of addictive. I love to go in the field and feel that creative side of me come out.

That's also why I love teaching and so much of my time is spent on workshops now. I love to bring that feeling out in other people. I love to go out on workshops and with people who say, "Oh, I'm really not a creative person" and then after a few days with them, they realize, "Jeez ... Yeah. It is truly in everyone." I see them go beyond the idea that they're not a creative person and just embrace the fact that, yeah, they have a creative side to them. I want to make other people aware that they have that same creative spirit to tap into. I think in our society, as it is now, that being creative is not something that we're steered towards very much. If anything, it's the opposite. There's so much that gets in the way of our creative selves. For me, it's all about that state of mind that I get in when I'm out in the field–when I'm in tune with the wilderness–and I'm able to document some of that magic that happens out there.

That alone is worth it, but then if I can come back home with an image that I can share with the rest of the community, it's even better. I see people relate to the image even though they've never been anywhere close to that area, or they've never been anywhere close to ice climbing and they're like, "Oh, it's like I'm there." The image makes them feel a certain way and it can stir up some strong emotion. In an online world that sometimes feels dry and lacking, in terms of emotion, if you can stir things up that way, it's very rewarding. I'd say the combination of those things is why I like to get out there.

Is there anyone you'd like to see featured on Ways We Work?

I would say Doug Urquhart who's a video time-lapse guy. I've never figured out how he manages to get that stuff that he does and yet he has twenty four hours a day like everybody else. I'd be really curious to hear his thoughts on that.

Then, someone who'd have really great things to share also is a good friend, Dave Brosha, who's a photographer out of PEI. He has a huge following, three kids and just probably the busiest person I know. I would love to know how he makes it work. I mean, I spend a lot of time with him, but how he maintains that level of energy through everything that he does and enthusiasm is quite remarkable.

Sabrina Smelko, Illustrator, Designer & Editor for Design*Sponge 2015-12-30T00:00:00-05:00 2015-12-30T00:00:00-05:00 Ways We Work Team designerscommunicators designerscommunicators Sabrina Smelko is a freelance illustrator and designer, an editor for Design*Sponge and a multi-disciplinary jack of all trades. When I caught up with her for this interview she had just finished a semester teaching illustration at Sheridan College and a full kitchen renovation which she documented through blogs and video journals. A friend shared her work with me on Twitter, and I immediately admired not only her ability to manage so many roles and projects at once, but the way that she has been able to make her career work congruous with her lifestyle.

Tell me a bit more about your various roles and what you’re working on now?

I am such a serial dabbler, but I would say the two main things that are always ongoing are my illustration/design work and my role as an Editor at Design*Sponge. has changed over the years and what I offer has gone from just pure illustration to more varied work including design, Art Direction and writing. I’ve hit a point where I can feel valid and comfortable calling myself all of those things. This year I did everything from working on book covers to designing x-rated apps, to creating over 1,000 Emojis for Firefox OS, and creating images and graphics for social media. Whereas before, even a year or two ago, it was mostly editorial and the traditional illustration stuff. That's where my work is heading in terms of being creative just trying to take advantage of the fact that people are now becoming more open to using illustration and images for content and other things that they wouldn't have considered using before.

About a year and a half ago, I started working as an Editor for the Sneak Peek column on Design*Sponge. My role was just finding people and sourcing the internet for really cool homes to feature and people to profile. Since then, I've now taken over the Life and Business column as well as the City Guide column, and I just started my own column called Comfort Zone, which blends business and life and interiors, talking about all the more real, raw aspects of life as opposed to a perfectly poised Instagram photo. I just found in this last year that my job is so much about spending time on social media and I feel like I've seen so much of the same things. It's very repetitive.

My goal right now with Design*Sponge is to break past that and talk to the real person. Rather than just featuring their home, I want to find out what makes it so personal and comforting to them. Featuring all of the people who most blogs otherwise just glance over because they don't have a beautiful feed. I want to dig into the realness.

“I feel like while I am inspired in the morning and feeling good, I like to take advantage of that inspiration.”

How do you divide your time amongst those two roles during a typical day or week?

I work really well when I do a two-hour on-off work day.

I wake up, and I do about two hours of work for Design*Sponge. In the morning I like to do emails, source people, and do a lot of correspondence. Then I probably take a good two or three-hour lunch break, and then go back to work for two or three hours in the afternoon and evening where I focus on my design and illustration work.

I’ll take another two-hour break and if I have more work to do I'll work for another two hours. I feel like any given day adds up to anywhere from four to eight hours a day, with two-hour on-off cycles. I just work a lot better when I break up my day. Instead of working a nine to five, I like to work from the minute I get up until the minute I go to bed, but it's so scattered throughout the day that it doesn’t feel like work. That just works for me and my lifestyle, especially with a dog. I have to work that way.

Typically, Design*Sponge is my focus in the morning and then illustration and design-related work, I do in the evenings. At night I'm a little bit more creative. I used to try and do the whole nine to five thing or just delineate Mondays as DS days, or Tuesdays as just illustration days, but I find that doesn't work for me.

What I do with Design*Sponge and the people I meet in the morning might dictate maybe something that will inspire me later in the day. I feel like while I am inspired in the morning and feeling good, I like to take advantage of that inspiration. If I wait a whole day and say “no, that's for tomorrow”, I can't wake up the next day and get that same feeling again. I have to act on inspiration. When I'm feeling jazzed about something I need to act on it right away.

How did you end up get started in design and illustration and now writing?

I feel like I was never meant to just be an illustrator. The program I took at Sheridan was a four-year illustration program that focused on pure illustration. In the final year, while I was working on my thesis, I realized that I wasn't meant to just be an illustrator.

For my thesis I ended up writing a science fiction novel and illustrating and designing it. In the process, it made me realize that I like big ideas. I like combining a concept with images, good design and using them as storytelling techniques. I liked how all of those things came together. It was the first time I had really tried combining everything, and experimenting with all of those things and how they worked together really made me realize that that's what I was meant to do. So when I graduated I took a job as an art director at an ad agency.

At the time it really made sense because I thought, “I like coming up with ideas and I like crafting a story and a concept.” Writing and producing a book, to me, sounded like it could translate into an ad campaign. I had to come up with the idea, execute it, and sell it, all while fostering a larger story. It turned out that that role simply wasn't for me. I didn’t enjoy it, or who I had to be to enjoy it, so I quit about a year later.

“I want to start thinking more about what will happen in the next couple decades that I want to achieve... What will my body of work look like when I'm 70?”

What would you say are some of the main challenges that you face in your work now?

It's been an interesting year in that I experimented a lot in blogging and sharing my personal voice through blogging. I learned that I enjoyed some aspects, and not others, but in general, in tandem with also being an Editor for a huge blog, where I'm forced to be in such an online now, now, now world, next year I want to think more about the long game and the long term. I want to start thinking more about what will happen in the next couple decades that I want to achieve... What will my body of work look like when I'm 70?

Another aspect of all of this is that it’s easy to get stunted by looking at other people's work. Everyone shares now. I feel like because I am forced in my own job as an Editor to see the work of so many other people, it's easy to pick up patterns and see the repetitiveness of the creative industry. That's always going to happen, there's nothing new under the sun, but because I see it so much it stunts me sometimes to not create at all. Sometimes I end up not creating at all because I fear I'm just going to be redundant. That's been a challenge lately of just forgetting about it and creating for the sake of creating again and not having to think that everything I make has to be perfect and shareable and the best piece ever. Stop thinking about how it's going to be presented or what people think and just create and enjoy that process rather than judging it so early on that you end up not doing anything at all. That's been a challenge lately.

When was the last time you had to do something that made you uncomfortable and took you out of your comfort zone? What was that and how did you deal with that?

In the world of blogging, it’s hard finding that balance between work and personal life. Blogging can be whatever you want it to be, and I’m not sure where I want to see that line in the sand yet. Thinking about it as a job and how to tackle that is sometimes uncomfortable.

Recently, I did an editorial/blog collaboration for my kitchen renovation that was a month-long. I had to do video diaries and updates and bring the camera into my home and show my family and all of the good, bad and ugly of the renovation. If something went wrong, I had to share it. If I didn’t feel like blogging that week, I still had to. No matter what, I had to film a vlog diary every single week and that’s where I realized that as much as the content can be personal, it feels like work. But yet it appears differently on the outside...

I think that was a little bit uncomfortable for me. I feel like I'm now more comfortable just sharing the stupid dumb stuff. Throughout the process, I can tell looking back on some of the videos I did that I totally treated much more “jobby, and in others, I was way less professional, for lack of a better word. In turn, it made me uncomfortable because I didn’t always know how to balance it.

“I definitely believe in forgetting what you're bad at. I'm bad at doing just one thing, forever.”

That was a good learning experience and it's actually what lead to me adopt my blog, Hands and Hustle, into my personal site. It used to be on it’s own URL, and I feel like it became more of a resource for other people in a way -- which is nice and I still want to continue to offer tips and advice for other people -- but in doing so, I felt like I stripped myself out of it. I didn't feel like I could share my own struggles with an illustration I was working on, or a simple work in progress shot of a design, or my thoughts on teaching and what that felt like. It seems silly, but it felt like a branded name. Hands and Hustle just felt like a company to me. That was one of the biggest things that made me uncomfortable is realizing that I created a blog that I felt like I couldn't participate in myself.

What would you say are the five tools that you're using on a regular basis?

My phone - Especially because for Design*Sponge the amount of emails I have to get every day and respond to is huge. A lot of it is actually screenshotting on my phone too. At night when I'm watching TV, I'll go through Instagram or certain tags and explore feeds to try and find people to profile. Sourcing people is a huge part of what I do every day. I just screenshot at night, and then in my morning two-hour email session I'll just go through my screenshots and contact those people.

Music - When I’m working and just grinding it out and hustling, I really need music or podcasts. I would say that's another big one because I can't really work in silence.

Bamboo Wacom - That's how I create. Most of my illustration is digital. It always starts with a pencil sketch but by the end it's 90% digitally recreated. I just have a tiny little Wacom tablet, and I still use it to this day.

Printer/Photocopier - I have a really good photo printer that does wide format and it not only lets me sell prints and reproduce them nicely but I end up creating a lot of textures that way by scanning and reprinting and then reprinting and rescanning until it becomes null. I think that's a big hallmark of a lot of my illustration work is I like to add a lot of textures, self-made things.

Photoshop/Illustrator/Lightroom - On a regular daily basis I work with Photoshop, Illustrator and Lightroom a lot. I get into a lot of photo editing with Design*Sponge and people will sometimes send me raw files, Lightroom is definitely the best resource for editing photos.

How do you manage email and communications amongst other work that needs to be done?

I feel like before I used to always save emails and respond to them later. I’d say to myself, “no, it's 10:00 p.m., I'm not going to answer, I should just wait until my morning email session.” Then they would pile up. Being able to give myself permission to reply to emails with my phone was key. I know that sounds silly but I used to not like replying on my phone because I like to write a nice long email that's very considerate and has enough cool, nice, quirky things. I would end up not getting to them because I made it so much more of a job replying to emails, once again making more work for myself.

So giving myself permission to just shoot back, “hey, I got this, I'll let you know when it's posting or I'll let you know the publishing date.” I think the biggest and best tool for that was putting a signature on my mobile device that says: “Sent from my phone, excuse brevity.” It gave me permission to relax and that's been the best tool.

Also, I do a lot of email writing at night and I don't want to email someone at midnight so I end up using Boomerang on the regular to schedule an email to send at a later time.

“I am definitely a sum of my parts. I think as a whole, I'm able to be successful and be able to do this as a full-time gig not because of one individual thing but because of the greater picture of who I am.”

Why do you do what you do? What makes it meaningful to you?

I think I enjoy what I do because I don't do it for a long time [laughs]. I cycle a lot and, like I said before, I'm very impatient and I like dabbling. I think I'm able to still enjoy what I do and stay motivated and not get burnt out because I change it up so often. I'll get obsessed for three months with interior design and just draw pictures of couches and arrange my living room and come up with moodboards and style other people's houses or rooms. Then after that three month mark when I lose my wind of passion for that, I'll pick up something else or do a lot of writing. I think that's what keeps me going and that's what I really find refreshing is just doing different things.

I am definitely a sum of my parts. I think as a whole, I'm able to be successful and be able to do this as a full-time gig not because of one individual thing but because of the greater picture of who I am.

If I was just purely an illustrator… There's a million other illustrators who are better than me, there's a million other designers better than me, there's a million other writers better than me. I'm jack-of-all-trading it, I think that's my unfair advantage is that I can do many things. Rather than trying to be perfect in one field, my strength comes from being able to do a lot of things well enough.

Everything that I do helps inform the other things that I do. Every illustration I make speaks to my design work, and a piece of writing might inspire an illustration. I've realized that's a very natural way of working for me. I have to take advantage of it and accept it and foster it.

I definitely believe in forgetting what you're bad at. I'm bad at doing just one thing, forever.

Who would you want to see on Ways We Work?

One of the people that comes to mind, just because he was so interesting to work with, is Jeremy Bailey, he’s the Art Director at FreshBooks and was such a pleasure to work with and such a fascinating person.

Bloc 2015-12-21T00:00:00-05:00 2015-12-21T00:00:00-05:00 Ways We Work Team On one of our recent trips to San Francisco, we spent an afternoon with the team at an online coding school, designed around 1-on-1 mentorship. Founded by Dave Paola and Roshan Choxi, the team at Bloc is aiming to change the way we learn new skills online. With such an abundance of online coding bootcamps and programs, we wanted to learn how the team at Bloc was approaching the challenges in that space and what they’re doing differently.

We met up first with Bloc’s design lead Emelyn Baker, who took us through their office space in downtown San Francisco. The office was divided into two main physical spaces, the first opened up right in front of the elevator where the majority of the team was heads-down and working. The second section of the office was off to the left and opened up to more desks, with a lunch area and meeting rooms in the back.

Talking with Emelyn, she explained that the team had done some significant restructuring just a few weeks before our visit. Previously, the company had been divided as stakeholders, design and engineering, with projects flowing through those teams in a linear fashion. Having experienced quite a few pain points in that process, the team had recently moved to instead work in two main pods: growth and product. She described how much faster that allowed the team to move, “if you can have a designer, a product manager and an engineer working collaboratively earlier on in the process you can make much greater strides, much faster and it feels like a team. It feels satisfying, it feels like working with a group of people that you enjoy and want to see every day.”

“There's a lot of institutional memory or scar tissue that many people have in the country around online education and paying for it. We want to be very mindful that we don't fall into the same trap.”

Sitting down with Emelyn and one of the founders Dave in a meeting room just off to the side of where the growth team was working, Dave told us how Bloc got started and some of the core values. He explained how he and his co-founder Roshan were inspired by other online coding tutorials, such as Codecademy but noticed that not a lot of people were able to actually secure jobs after completing those. An early version of Bloc focused around building full projects, instead of rogue fundamental skills, but they noticed they still had a lot of similar problems to Codecademy; like engagement levels falling after a certain amount of time and people still weren’t learning enough to become full-time programmers. Inspired by another company that was launching the first physical developer Bootcamp, Dave and Roshan decided to take a deeper look at the problems of learning these skills online and how they could solve them.

At the time they had a list of around 5000 users that they had gathered from their first free version of the platform, and they asked those people if anyone would be willing to pay them $500 for 8 weeks of coaching to become a web developer. The response was positive and those users became their first batch of students. Being the first two mentors, Dave spoke about how the bulk of the product is the relationship between the mentor and student and how they can use technology to support that, rather than detract from it. He explained that early on they understood the importance of a high-quality experience, “there's a lot of institutional memory or scar tissue that many people have in the country around online education and paying for it. We want to be very mindful that we don't fall into the same trap.” The solution was to provide each student with a 1-on-1 guide, someone with real world experience to help through roadblocks or to explain more difficult concepts.

“When you add new people they kind of look to their left and look to their right and in some sense copy some of the behaviour they see around them. If you add too many people at once they're copying behaviour that maybe wasn't around originally.”

Now with the team at around 50 people and offering 5 courses–with 2 more in-depth full-time tracks–I asked Emelyn and Dave what they felt the main challenges were for them as a team. Emelyn described how in the last few months they had added around 20 people to the team, and that maintaining the original culture at that level of scaling was proving to be a challenge. She explained, “we have a great culture, we work well together and we're passionate about what we're doing. As we add more people to the team and as we add more mentors to our community that's going to be increasingly difficult to preserve. We've seen that happen to a certain extent and we've done a good job at reducing some of the dangers that come with that.” Dave added to that with an explanation of what happens during the onboarding process, “when you add new people they kind of look to their left and look to their right and in some sense copy some of the behaviour they see around them. If you add too many people at once they're copying behaviour that maybe wasn't around originally.”

In addition to scaling, Dave added that communication amongst team members is always something they’re working on and improving. An example being that an engineer might come at a problem with a very different outlook than a designer or a product manager. He illustrated to us on the whiteboard how two different people approach the same problem differently, where the pain points often occur, and the importance of trying to lessen the friction and frustration there.

I asked them how they go about adding members to the team and what they look for in potential hires. Both Dave and Emelyn emphasized to me the importance of value matching, that the person really cares about quality and the outcome of the students. Dave stressed the importance of authenticity in potential hires, that someone is the type of person who will really follow through when they say they’ll do something. What was the most interesting however, was how they’ve hired several of their own students. Dave explained that it’s a surprisingly effective way to find people who match in both value and skill level. He also added that they have an incredible work ethic and a real eagerness to learn and improve.

Currently, Bloc teaches 5 courses: Rails Web Development, Frontend Web Development, UX/UI Design Course, Android Development and iOS Development. They also offer two more in-depth tracks: the Full Stack Web Developer Track and the Software Engineering Track. I wanted to know how they choose what to cover in terms of curriculum and how they stay on top of trends in the industry. Emelyn told us how over the last year they’d developed a team of curriculum developers who are knowledgeable in their field and are responsible for keeping up with new things and generally improving the content. Although she did add how challenging it can be to keep up with software trends and that often the curriculums are never really finished.

Dave added that the entire curriculum team is remote which has been a huge benefit, “they don't always necessarily live in San Francisco, the hub of technology, it's like Florence in the Renaissance, most people don't live here, they live elsewhere across the country. It's not the same, so the fact that we have part of our company distributed in that way is a big advantage for us.”

We spent the rest of the conversation talking about Dave’s philosophies around learning and the current education systems that are in place. We discussed how the traditional model of a lecturer disseminating information to a classroom may no longer be the best way to learn. Using the technology available it's now possible for a student to learn from an experienced mentor anywhere in the world. We're no longer limited to learning only from local experts and so the barriers around learning from the best practitioners in the world are diminishing. It was incredible to see this in action at Bloc, where a student in San Francisco was learning with a mentor from Australia. For Bloc, it means they can screen mentors for quality first and foremost, without worrying about where they're located. While Bloc is focused on web development and getting people into real jobs, I left wondering if this model might work as well for other disciplines, or what other models might disrupt the current education systems in the near future.

Before we left Emelyn and Dave shared their three favourite student success stories, and in the spirit of pursuing meaningful work we’ve shared them below:

Student success stories from Bloc

Emelyn: “A common one that we continuously come back to is Brittany Martin, she's a very holistic success story. She started as a marketing manager and took our rails course. Eventually she became a support engineer for a company called Ninefold and was able to work remotely, I think their offices are based in Australia. From there she started to get engaged with the local Rails community and became one of the leaders of her new code chapter. Since then she's moved back to Pittsburgh, she's engaged and she now has a job as a full-time engineer, that essentially started with us. Which is totally crazy and now she's a mentor for us which is even more exciting.”

Emelyn: “We could also pick anyone we work with too, like Brian for example. Brian has a wife and a child and he took the rails course, worked as a developer and now he's moved out here to San Francisco to work with us. That's a huge change and there aren't any dev boot camps in Orlando, there's no way to get that in-person intensive bootcamp feeling, but we're able to provide that one-on-one mentorship online so we can access a huge market of people that can't afford to quit their jobs and spend 12 weeks in a really expensive city and work non-stop in a bootcamp.”

Dave: “There's a story I like to tell. I remember very early on before we had student advisors or program coordinators I was the one who talked to the students before the application process. I would interview every student before they enrolled and ask them the same five questions. One of the questions was: “Can you actually commit the time?” It's not like you’re going to pay us and we're going to do this, this is a two way street. One woman took her interview in the back room of her parent's warehouse in Las Vegas, she was a single mother, and yes she got a job but her income level went from A to B. She changed her life. It was this realization that “Wow, her kid is going to have a totally different life now because of this.” I keep that in my back pocket.”

*Update: Before publishing this Emelyn informed me that the team recently decided to hire all of their full-time and part-time mentors as staff rather than as contractors. This puts the Bloc team at around 90 people now.

Russ Tannen, Head of Music at DICE 2015-12-16T00:00:00-05:00 2015-12-16T00:00:00-05:00 Ways We Work Team founderscommunicators founderscommunicators Russ Tannen is the Head of Music at DICE in London. When we spoke he told me a great story about how he started booking bands at his hometown's local pub at the age of 15 and wasn't able to actually watch the shows himself because he was too young to enter. That started him on a career path in music, programming shows for Vice's venue in London, and eventually into his current role. DICE is an app where fans can buy tickets to shows with no booking fees, and Russ and his team are responsible for curating all of those shows. Russ talks about the challenges of growth and prioritization and how he ended up in his role at DICE.

Tell me more about your role at DICE?

I'm the Head of Music at DICE, which means that I am ultimately responsible for the inventory that we have. I have to be across all the relationships with promoters, agents, managers and anyone who we might be selling tickets directly on behalf of. It also means I'm working on getting exclusives with established artists, and looking at which new acts we should be supporting.

I work closely with the marketing team helping shape our voice and how DICE should be pitched to fans and partners alike. I also work with the product teams to ensure that new features we build reflect the interests of users and artists.

I’m in charge of the culture, and making sure we keep that right.

My team is eight people, out of a total 38 here. DICE is a technology-led business, but really it’s a music company and music is at the core of everything we do.

“I was really into Punk and Hardcore music. I started to book bands myself to play at the local pub. For the first six months I wasn't actually allowed in the venue as I wasn't 16 yet.”

I’d love to know more about how you came to be in this role and your path to where you are now?

I grew up on the Isle of Wight, which is a small island off the south coast of England. I was always really into music and seeing bands but there wasn’t exactly a huge amount going on there. I'd have to save a couple weeks' paper round money to get the boat over to Portsmouth if I wanted to see a band. When I was 15 I'd had enough of that and started promoting shows myself.

I was really into Punk and Hardcore music. I started to book bands myself to play at the local pub. For the first six months I wasn't actually allowed in the venue as I wasn't 16 yet. I'd book someone, they'd take the ferry over from wherever they were in the U.K., I'd be there at sound-check and then have to stand outside at the back with my mates while they played. At the end of the night the guy who ran the pub would come out and give us cash to pay the band. We'd pay them in the car park and they'd jump on the ferry home.

I was promoting shows, running a zine, and a CDR Record Label, and I was caught hook, line and sinker with the idea of working in music.

I studied photography at university in Kent and ended up taking pictures of bands. I went to SXSW when I was 20, shooting people like Amy Winehouse and The Horrors, and got caught up in that world. I met a couple of guys from Universal Records whilst I was in Texas and got a message from them a while later asking if I wanted to come in and host a YouTube series for them, this was about ten years ago now. Eventually I ended up hosting for E4 music and Channel 4.

I was still promoting shows myself, and a job came up at Vice to program their venue in London, The Old Blue Last. While I was with them we threw some great parties. I booked the first U.K. shows for Lil B, Death Grips, Purity Ring, loads. We did a lot of cool stuff and we weren't really constrained too much by budgets.

I saw a band called Peace play their first London show, met them and ended up managing them. I left Vice to focus completely on management and partnered up with Phil (now DICE Founder/CEO) at his company Deadly. We signed Peace to Columbia Records and had a great run of it. I've been working with Phil ever since then.

When he started to knock the idea for DICE around the office at Deadly, I knew I wanted to work with him on it. We went quickly from talking about DICE over a couple of beers every now and then to partnering with ustwo (the creators of Monument Valley) and launching the app to the public in September 2014.

“If you've got five priorities then really you’ve got none. You need one task, you need to start every day saying, "This is the one thing I'm going to get done today."”

That’s a great story. So back to present day, what would say are some of the main challenges you face in your role?

There's definitely a major challenge of trying to keep focused. That's been about trying to block off time just to get one thing done, to prioritize.

If you've got five priorities then really you’ve got none. You need one task, you need to start every day saying, "This is the one thing I'm going to get done today." When I've actually managed to do that, it's been great. The hardest thing in the world is to be able to really say, "No, this is not as important as this." That, I think, is the biggest day-to-day challenge.

Growing also has it’s own challenges, especially when you’re hiring lots and lots of people so fast. For the last six months it’s felt like we’ve hired a new person every week. Getting someone that might not come from a music background to understand why we're doing what we’re doing, that’s hard. The culture here is so important to us.

What does a typical day look like for you?

It’s Wednesday, so let’s use a Wednesday as an example. We have a weekly leadership meeting with the founders and the other heads of departments where we run through all the high-level stuff that's happening. We made sure it wasn’t just us updating each other on what we've been doing, instead we deal with stuff like, "What do you need help with? What do you need to deal with? What's going on with your team?"

Then we do a weekly A&R meeting. Everyone on the music team plays each other new music we've heard. We talk about shows we've been to see. We make sure that everyone on the music team knows what business development deals we're working on. We get everyone’s feedback on what artists are in the app or what shows we’ve been sent - we curate everything on DICE. It's a moment to go, "Okay, should we have taken this show? Is there something else we should have gone for? Is there a show we don't have that we need to get?”

It's very typical for me to sit down with a manager or someone over lunch and just catch up, see what they’re working on.

This afternoon I’m planning a presentation. I do presentations quite often - I might be at an agency or with a promoter, with a group of people, pitching to get a specific show. The presentation I'm working on today is for a large event that's happening next year.

“Getting someone that might not come from a music background to understand why we're doing what we’re doing, that’s hard. ”

What would you say are the top five tools you're using on a regular basis?

Trello - I use this to keep track of all the bigger shows we might be working on. The whole music team uses it. We add new shows in there as and when they come in, moving them to ‘discussing’ or ‘confirmed’.

Slack - We use Slack religiously. Everyone probably says that I’m sure. I think most of our product team don’t look at email at all.

Email - We have this thing every month where Google tells us how many people have sent and received emails. Sadly I’m always near the top of that list, so I have to count email.

Apple Music/Spotify/SoundCloud - All of those are really important because we’re listening to music all the time. I always have a few SoundCloud tabs open where we’re listening to new artists that are coming through, that’s still the easiest platform for very new artists to get their music out on.

Google Docs - We use it for absolutely everything.

How do you find balancing all of the different communications you need to keep up on versus doing your own personal work throughout the day?

I try to do email in blocks and I'm trying more and more to set time aside to get work done versus doing emails. You read about people that check email three times a day or something like that but I don't know if I can do it that infrequently. Because I have a business development role, email is super important, I don’t know very many people in the music industry who are using Slack.

“I love feeling that every step we take is helping us achieve something good, it’s not just about building a business, it’s about having a positive impact on culture and the music industry as a whole.”

Why do you do what you do? What makes it meaningful to you?

I've always worked in music and I'll always work in music. It was a big deal for me to move out of doing management, which is kind of what I always thought I'd do. At the same time I really believe that what we're doing at DICE is having a positive impact on the live music industry, for artists and for fans. That’s what gets me out of bed in the morning. I love feeling that every step we take is helping us achieve something good, it’s not just about building a business, it’s about having a positive impact on culture and the music industry as a whole.

Who would you want to see on Ways We Work?

His name is Jimmy Asquith. I know him because he was promoting shows at The Old Blue Last when I was booking with Vice. He’s started an incredible techno label called Lobster Theremin. The name is like if you hold a lobster above a boiling pot of water and move it up and down, it would make a noise like a theremin you know, the instrument?

His business is unbelievable. He's growing it by himself, releasing vinyl. He's selling thousands of records and expanding into distribution and loads of other areas. He's built it up to a team of seven people in the first year doing something which everyone is saying shouldn’t work, releasing vinyl. Every time I talk to him, I think his working day must be absolutely insane. He's doing what 30 people should be doing. He’s a legend.

How to develop an effective learning process 2015-12-11T00:00:00-05:00 2015-12-11T00:00:00-05:00 Ways We Work Team The way that people learn has been and continues to change drastically. If you want to learn how to code there are a wide range of online coding bootcamps available. If you’re a junior designer there are endless tutorials and resources online. You can learn a huge variety of subjects such as marketing, photography, and writing on communities like Skillshare and

The resources available to people looking to learn new skills are infinite - that’s a good thing right? It can also be overwhelming and sometimes distracting. How do you know where to start? How can you be sure the information you’re getting is quality? Time is an all too precious resource and no one wants to waste theirs. So, we asked three professionals who have honed the skill of learning, to weigh in on how to develop an effective learning process.

Verne Ho, Director of Design at Shopify in Toronto:

There is certainly an abundance of resources available today to help us learn pretty much anything we want. And so we do, because we also live in an age where it's widely encouraged. But the problem is that, while it’s easier than ever to learn something new, it’s still just as hard to be great.

We’ve all heard about the 10,000-hour rule, but just simply spending time doing something doesn’t necessarily make you an expert. To put things in perspective, 10,000 hours is roughly 4.8 years based on an average 40 hour work week. Certainly we all know people who have worked longer than that. And yet, not many can be called experts. Something’s clearly missing.

The answer lies in being deliberate about the way we practice. Being deliberate means not only putting in the time to do the work (there are no shortcuts here), but to actively focus on improvement every step of the way.

We need to ask why every chance we get. Why did something work well? Or why did it blow up in our faces? The more we know about why things happen, the more empowered we are to affect change.

Turn those whys into truths. We need to define personal principles for ourselves. Become opinionated about what makes great work. We need to be critical about these truths and edit and add to them over the course of our careers. It’s from our personal set of truths that our work finds distinction.

In other words, as Ryan Hamrick once so elegantly put it: "Practicing something for 10,000 hours — or for any amount of time — is only worth a damn if you’re spending the entirety of that practice time completely focused on improvement."

@verneho |

Chantal Jandard, Designer at Mule Design in San Francisco:

The first step to learning is noticing. Noticing shows you where your gaps are and guides you.

For instance, these days I'm drawing cats in the styles of designers I admire. Though a simple project on the outside, it's been a deeply analytical exercise: Why does the illustrator use that technique over another? Why those line widths? Why that effect? By studying each body of work and going through the motions myself, I've explored new ways of thinking, created digital teachers for myself and built a diverse library of solutions to draw from in future works. It's made my weaknesses more apparent and given me clear next-steps to continue growing. Notice it, examine it, do it.

Another thing, for the exceptionally curious: prioritization and focus are your friends. Back in the day, I wanted to learn all the things, and tried to do so at once: Learning a new coding language? Write the variables in Indonesian! Learning how to sing? Sing only Spanish songs! While this 'efficiency' made me feel oh so clever, it was a complete flop: I was slow, fatigued, overloaded and only absorbed at a superficial level. (I'm still horribly tone deaf and know only a handful of Indonesian. Oops.) Make decisions and focus: you'll learn much better this way.

@chantastique |

Ben Morris, VP of Engineering at Boltmade in Waterloo:

I’ve always found that the easiest way to learn something is to just get in and do it. To totally immerse yourself and to set up opportunities to be passively exposed to the domain throughout your day.

When approaching something totally new go wide first and just explore. Find the edges, learn the vocabulary, and hopefully find some things to be excited by. There’s so much information available to us now it’s hard to know what to trust, so it’s helpful to develop a foundation first.

For example, when I was approaching how to cook better I subscribed to a lot of different food related subreddits and read their top of all time posts, followed a ton of people posting about the topic on Twitter, Instagram & YouTube and ordered some cook books to have out around the house.

Setting up passive opportunities to be exposed to the topic is one of the most beneficial things you can do. It helps build & maintain excitement without it feeling like work. It turns checking Twitter while standing in line waiting for your coffee into something semi-productive.

@bnmrrs |

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Tiffani Jones Brown, Creative Director at Pinterest 2015-12-09T00:00:00-05:00 2015-12-09T00:00:00-05:00 Ways We Work Team designers designers Tiffani Jones Brown is the Creative Director at Pinterest in San Francisco. Her first role at Pinterest was to define the character and personality of their brand and voice. With her background in philosophical ethics and creative writing, Tiffani has both a creative and methodical way of looking at things. She talks about her role at Pinterest, how she ended up there, and the challenges she faces on a daily basis. Her advice for young professionals and professionals at any stage in their career about practicing your passion, is spot on.

Tell us a little bit more about your role at Pinterest?

I'm the Creative Director for the brand, which means I oversee a team of writers, designers, and filmmakers. I work closely with marketers, researchers and our PR team to define the character and soul of the Pinterest brand, based on our company values and what we care about. Then I make sure that we express that character through everything that we do.

Pinterest is a boundless catalog of ideas, so my job is also to help people understand, through brand campaigns, how they can use it in everyday life (like when you're trying to figure out what's for dinner, how to tie a bowtie, or what your taste in architecture is.)

How did you end up working in writing and content strategy? What was your path like?

Growing up I was always into writing - I did a lot of creative writing. I went to grad school for philosophical ethics and I was going to be a professor. A little ways into my PhD I remembered, "oh wait, I'm going to have to move to the middle of nowhere and oh my god, I'm going to have to live in the middle of nowhere, and I want to move to NYC or whatever." So I ended up bailing on that.

My husband was working as a designer at the time, and I was always helping him with design work, writing and crafting brand voices. Slowly I just got into writing and messaging and coming up with concepts. My husband and I started an agency where I helped to define a voice and content strategy for businesses. With philosophy, it's about what the big idea is and that's a lot of my job now actually, pulling out what the actual concept is, what's the idea? What's the story? So it all kind of fits together but in a cobbled way.

After Facebook acquired our agency, I joined their team as a writer and content strategist, responsible for defining the “brand voice”—and eventually I made my way to Pinterest to do the same thing. At Pinterest, my first job was to define our character and personality, so I spent a lot of time trying to codify the “Pinterest magic.” I thought a lot about how pinners thought about Pinterest (we have this “put pinners first motto”) and worked closely with our community manager to define and incorporate our voice, which used to be “warm, down-to-earth, clear, honest and delightful” but has now evolved to “simple, playful, real and clever.”

“Anytime you're learning there's a lot of fear underneath. There's always a little bit of excitement and anxiety whenever you're pushing yourself. To me, that is the essence of creativity.”

I read a piece that you wrote for The Manual where you talk about passion not being a thing that you pursue but instead something you should constantly be practicing. I loved what you wrote about how with every new skill you develop, there is still always more to learn and more to be afraid of. In your role right now, how do you deal with new fears and new challenges?

Oh, gosh - yeah I'm definitely still dealing with them on a regular basis, I don't think they go away. Anytime you're learning there's a lot of fear underneath. There's always a little bit of excitement and anxiety whenever you're pushing yourself. To me, that is the essence of creativity. I deal with it every day. If I want to be creative, if I want to try something new I have to push out against the edge of what I'm comfortable with.

At Pinterest, one thing that's interesting is we hear from a lot of people who use our product that say: "oh I didn't think that I was all that creative but I tried it out and now I feel a little bit more creative, like I can do this or that." What we try to do at Pinterest is create an environment where employees can bang around and experiment and push the edge of their creativity. So for me that's what work is about. It's about finding an open space in your head to bump up against what you know and bring in new ideas.

We have this concept called 'knitting', it's one of our company values. It sounds like actual knitting but what it means is knitting together ideas and thoughts from different disciplines. To me that is really helpful to overcoming that anxiety. I know I've got an amazing researcher on my team who understands people really well, and an engineer who understands their discipline really well. If you bring together those different perspectives it's helpful and gives you what you need to work in those areas where you don't feel as comfortable. My personal opinion is just that fear is such a natural part of life and a welcome part of the creative process, even though it doesn't always feel great [laughs].

Read: Tiffani Jones 'Practicing Passion' from The Manual

“I'm learning a lot right now. I'm learning how to manage disciplines that I've never managed before. I'm also learning to not just be a concept thinker and writer, but also an art director.”

What would you say are some of the main challenges that you face in your work right now?

It was just five months ago that I took over this role as Creative Director, so I'm now managing not just the writing team--which was where I started--but also a design team and filmmakers. It's a very different kind of role that requires overseeing the entirety of how we express our brand. I'm learning a lot right now. I'm learning how to manage disciplines that I've never managed before. I'm also learning to not just be a concept thinker and writer, but also an art director. I'm learning to operate in a creative capacity at an organization that is about creativity but is still an organization, you know? You're not doing art, you're trying to make a product that really helps people. So trying to put all of that together means learning a lot all the time.

Oh, and another challenge is making sure that everyone, all over the world, understands how Pinterest is useful to them. Understanding cultural nuances as we grow into a global company is a big deal (do you show photos of spaghetti dishes to folks in France? What kind of shoes do you show for a photo shoot in Japan?). Because Pinterest is so personal for people, it’s important that everything my team designs and writes feels relevant to you—whether it’s an email, a launch of a feature like buyable Pins (you can buy pins now!) or a campaign about Halloween costumes. Tricky.

What does a typical day look like for you?

Let's see…

So I get up, I have a two-year-old and I take her to daycare, often in the morning these days I'll throw her in the stroller and we'll go on a run together.

Then I come to work and I usually have a series of meetings. I have a regular cadence of meetings and creative workshops throughout the week. On Tuesday there's a writing workshop and right after that there's a brand design workshop. On Thursday there's a writing, design, and film workshop. On Fridays all of the work comes through for a creative review, there's this regular cadence of creative work getting pulled through, so I spend a lot of time in that just workshopping stuff.

I write a lot for the company still, so there'll be things I'm writing. I'm in meetings reviewing tons of work, photography, reviewing a launch, reviewing an idea that somebody has. Then I try to spend a lot of time with the people that I manage, just getting to know them and helping them.

It's a mixture - I'd say the creative workshop is what is the heartbeat of the week and then sort of meetings all around that. Creative director jobs, you're in a lot of meetings and you have to make sure that you carve out space for reflection and creativity.

“If I don't have an hour or two mixed throughout my day where I can just reflect, or goof off, get a coffee or do email, I start being less productive.”

What are the 5 tools that you're using most regularly in your work?

Pinterest - I use Pinterest a lot actually, especially if I’m thinking of brand stuff and art direction, I use it a lot for that. We're going through a refresh right now of evolving the Pinterest voice, so I use the Pinterest product to get at what the voice attributes mean and how to show them in images. And I go to Pinterest for general creative inspiration—I’ll often do this on my phone, on the way to work or while I wait in line for a coffee or something—Pinterest is hugely helpful.

Google Docs - I'm in docs a lot because I'm writing.

Slack - As a company we use Slack to communicate with one another.

Email - I'm on email a lot just because it's an easy way of getting in touch with people.

Smartling - The writing team in particular, we review - we call them strings - every single piece of writing that comes through our code base and that goes through a tool called Smartling. We're always in there making sure that everything we publish has been looked at and is on voice. We also work with the Localization team and Style Owners in each of our local markets to help make sure we maintain the Pinterest voice globally.

I imagine being in a leadership role like you are, you're getting a lot of email and feedback from a lot of different channels. How do you manage staying on top of all of that, in addition to all your meetings and time to reflect and do your own work?

I think it's tricky. What you want to do is, especially with certain people, is just get to know how they like to communicate and then know how you like to communicate too. You try to find some balance of all of that. On a team level, I try to go with where the teams are. For example, the product designers use Slack a lot, if I need to talk to a product designer that might be a great place for me to go.

As far as staying on top of my own schedule there's sort of a discipline to it. For me to do my best work and my most creative work, I know that when I get up to around 7 meetings a day, my brain starts to fall apart a little bit. If I don't have an hour or two mixed throughout my day where I can just reflect, or goof off, get a coffee or do email, I start being less productive. It's about knowing yourself and trying to honor what's going to make you a creative person. Then trying to understand the communication styles of the people you work with and fitting yourself to that when it makes sense.

“With storytelling of any kind you have an opportunity to establish sort of a meaningful emotional connection with people if you do it really well. There's something really fulfilling in that for me.”

When I was in University our professors would often say they were preparing us for jobs that didn't exist yet, I think that's true for a lot of young professionals. What would your advice be for someone who's younger and wants to get into a role like yours?

It's a good time to be a writer. For the first time since I don't know when there's this crossover of creative writers and journalists and people from more traditional writing backgrounds coming in through the tech industry and these jobs are really interesting. You're able to do tons of writing and you can help define the voice of a company if that's interesting to you. There's a lot to be done if you're a writer right now. I have found it very interesting work, even as somebody who comes from a hardcore humanities background.

So I think for me, there's two things: learning how to write and how to be clear, it starts with the idea and focusing on that and then focusing on the tactics of writing after that. Secondly, there's some advice that I've been given before which is just to be courageous and brave. Don't look at the thing that's just right in front of you, think about your vision for what would be the most amazing job you could think of in your imagination and head towards the mountain in that way. Look at these companies, talk to them, get in touch with them.

When I was first starting out I'd use the internet a lot, I'd read articles by other people in my field or adjacent to my field. I read a lot of ‘A List Apart’ back in the day and it was so helpful to me just to see what other people were doing. I tried to set in my head in a vague way, what I would imagine myself doing in the best case scenario in 5 years and letting that be the thing that pulled me along. Once you get into a company I think there’s value in just being able to really go and make yourself indispensable. It’s about doing the work that is important and needs to be done and being able to prioritize and figure out what matters in that role and what does that company need? Being able to think about that and then tying that to your vision. That I think is the trick.

“Don't look at the thing that's just right in front of you, think about your vision for what would be the most amazing job you could think of in your imagination and head towards the mountain in that way.”

Why do you do what you do and what makes it all worth it to you?

I've personally always had a bit of a love affair with Pinterest the product, so I started using it way, way back when and not being an early adopter of much technology, really loved it. I loved using it and really enjoyed it. So that for me was what drew me. It was this thing that I really loved, a reflective space, it's an inspiring space and kind of a relaxing product to use.

There's also something about the product itself and the character of the company that I just personally think is unique. It's a product that's about yourself, your self-expression, your creativity. It's about trying things out, little things, whether it's something that you want to make for dinner or who you want to be in the next ten years. It's got this full range. I think there's something unique about that and for me what fascinates me is if you're a brand person and you're trying to tell the story of what that is, you want to think about who people really are and what they really care about and tap into that. We have a unique opportunity to tap into some zeitgeist around everyday creativity for people. I love thinking about that.

The culture here, it fits me. This idea of bringing together lots of different disciplines and letting them go nuts on a problem. The space to try things out and bumble around and figure it out as you go appeals to me. I think I'm keyed on storytelling in general and that's what brand work is about so it gives me this outlet for the thing that comes more naturally to me.

Who would you want to see on Ways We Work?

Right now I'm really obsessed with old school fashion editors. I've been pinning a ton about Diana Vreeland and Grace Coddington and the old-guard at Vogue, I'm on a kick right now. What I like about them is they're writers who have this aesthetic sense and a storytelling sense. They're like this hybrid of a designer and writer and a fashion designer. I would love to work with these old school fashion editors. I’m also a little obsessed with Freunde von Freunden—it’s this magazine that shows you the homes and inner-lives of artists, writers, photographers and architects all over the world–it’s all very romantic, and makes you want to build a glass bungalow in Buenos Aires. You can follow them on Pinterest. I pin all their stuff.

Alexander Mayes: Product Designer at Instagram 2015-12-02T00:00:00-05:00 2015-12-02T00:00:00-05:00 Ways We Work Team designers designers Alexander Mayes is a product designer at Instagram in California. He grew up in Bakersfield, California - a small town where his passionate interest in art and design was a unique one. He talks about honing his design skills by working design jobs during school and how doing both at once developed his work ethic. He also shares the importance of soft skills and accepting feedback from other designers. It may be something to do with the epic beard, but Alexander has some great wisdom to offer young designers and is honest about why he loves what he does.

Tell me about the work that you're currently doing?

I currently work at Instagram on the design team, as a product designer. Unfortunately, a lot of the work I’m doing right now I can’t really talk about [laughs]. I'm on a team comprised of around 15 or 16 designers, our team is growing a lot. I was the 8th designer that started on the team, and that was six months ago so we've grown a ton since then which is awesome.

As a product designer at Instagram each of us are working on different parts of the product. I'm in the monetization realm at the moment, but I've worked on some growth stuff as well in the past.

What was your path to design like? I noticed you actually went to school for it, so did you know early on it was what you wanted to do?

I did know really early on, which is funny considering my upbringing. I come from a small town in California called Bakersfield, which is sort of like a farming, agriculturally-based town. It's super conservative and super republican and they hate the arts and don't really have any artistic sort of mindset there [laughs].

I remember being in high school during the recession and they cut all of the extracurriculars. They cut all kinds of classes and they were laying off teachers too. The only teachers that they didn't lay off were the teachers that taught sports. I was in a web design class and I was the last person in the class. They shut down the class but they still needed somebody to run the website so they literally created a class for me to go in first period to work with a librarian who had no idea what to do when it came to web design. So I was in this one person class, called web design that consisted of me sitting on the computer in the library designing the school’s website.

At that point I realized I was doing something kind of different. Everybody was focusing on playing sports in high school, and I was just so interested in computers and making graphics on computers. People just didn't understand that. My parents definitely didn't understand that either. I think my grandfather was the one who really helped me figure out where I wanted to go to school.

When it came time to choose schools it seemed really obvious that I should go to design school. I thought, "there's a school for everything else, I guess I'll just go to design school because it's something that I really love to do." It really made sense to me. All of my friends were doing completely different things and didn't understand being able to make money from making graphics. I remember my first venture into that, I had a little business called Tonic Creations, and I used to make custom sliced out div websites for MySpace. I would do the div overlays with the different buttons and bands used to pay me $500 to do that. I was just this 15-year-old kid doing that stuff. So that was pretty empowering and I thought it was really cool.

My parents still don't know what Instagram is. I don't even think my dad has an email address [laughs].

Where did you end up going to school?

I went to the Art Institute in San Diego. I have an older sister who lived in San Diego at the time and I had never connected with her so I made a conscious choice to move and go to a design school in San Diego so I could develop a relationship with her more. AI wasn't necessarily the best school and sometimes I think that maybe I should have gone somewhere else but it doesn't really matter now.

At that time I met a ton of friends with all different majors like game design, animation and it was a good time.

“As far as learning to be a better designer that definitely came from working and learning from people who were much better designers than I was.”

There's a big trend in being self-taught, especially in design, so I'm wondering with all your hindsight now if you would still choose to go through school or not?

That's a really good question. I don't think I learned that much from school. I learned a lot of terms. I had four different typography classes and I learned a lot of the ways to speak about typography, but as far as appreciation of good design and art, and understanding how to become a good designer - I don't know.

In college I worked at a design agency and I kind of discredited all my classes at the time and just worked full-time. I remember being in one class and we'd have eleven weeks in a quarter, I went to the first week and then I didn't go back until the eleventh week to present our presentation and I still got an A on it. It's just that that class fell during the time that I had to work and I was working at an agency and learning so much about design.

I think being in school gave me the platform to push myself and be that student type of person. Staying up really late and finishing projects and being under deadlines and understanding the value of time.

As far as learning to be a better designer that definitely came out of working and learning from people who were much better designers than I was. Fighting with them and thinking I was right, and then figuring out that I was wrong and secretly doing what they said but not telling them that I did what they said [laughs].

“I didn't go to Stanford, I didn't do all this kind of crazy shit that people out here are used to. Sometimes I stop and look back and think "this is intense." It even makes me smile to this day.”

What would you say are the main challenges that you face in the work you're doing now?

Before coming to Instagram I was at a smaller startup called Curalate and the challenges there were just so different. Half of my time there the design team, which was super small, was trying to explain what design was and set design principles. I spent a lot of time trying to get the CEO and everyone else on board with shipping really awesome design. Then I’d have to tailor it back and understand that we didn't necessarily have the resources being a startup, and that business goals didn't always align with good design. So I had to push really hard but also tailor myself back to be somewhere in the middle.

But at Instagram, everybody is just pushing for super amazing design all of the time. We have some of the best designers, like famous designers that work here. You get to sit next to the people who you’ve really looked up to all day. Then all of the sudden you're showing your work in a design review with Kevin Systrom, and all that you can think about is the first Instagram post that you ever posted and how 5 years later you’re designing for an app that has been such a big part of your life with the people that literally created the first version, it's all kind of unreal. For me, coming from a small town and then a start up it’s... I mean I didn't go to Stanford, I didn't do all this crazy shit that people out here are used to. Sometimes I stop and look back and think "this is intense." It even makes me smile to this day.

So I love getting feedback from other designers here. Some designers that I’ve worked with in the past have been really egotistical about getting feedback, but I know the people at Instagram that are critiquing my work are just so good, so it's great for me. I think what I'm trying to do now is to put myself at that level too, and realize that I don't have to take all feedback and learning how to distil it better and be quicker on product thinking. Not really execution but getting to answers faster when it comes to the product. It's really important because if you spend hours thinking of product solutions you're never going to get anywhere. That's probably one of the main things that I'm really focusing on right now is how to be a better holistic product thinker.

What does a typical day look like for you?

Usually in the beginning of the week there's more time to actually sit and design. I don't have as many meetings.

Mornings are usually meeting heavy and then later in the afternoon or evening I'll actually sit and crank on design and learn and read. It depends quite a bit, we could have a review towards the afternoon, but a lot of it is meeting with our PMs and talking over things and meeting with the individual teams. The product that I'm working on right now has a very small team, so it's kind of nice because we can easily communicate, there's not a lot of facets to go through.

Meetings and design, meetings and design basically [laughs].

What are the top 5 tools you're usually regularly in your work?

Sketch - I've phased out Photoshop since I've been here.
Facebook Messenger - We use Facebook in general and Messenger quite a bit.
Keynote - I never thought I would say that, but we do really big presentations and they have to be nice.
Origami - Prototyping software.
Quartz Composer - Another kind of prototyping software.

How do you manage email and communications?

At my old company we used email heavily and a little bit of Slack. I think I've used Slack once since I've been at Instagram and it was to communicate with a single engineer, somewhere.

Most of the time we have private Facebook groups that our whole team is on and we consistently post stuff on that Facebook group. We use Facebook Messenger to communicate, kind of like Slack. We use that a lot and people will mention you if there’s something relevant for you to see. There's groups for everything. Each project will have multiple groups, whether it's a feedback group or an announcement group or something.

We do use email sometimes but it's very rare.

What would your advice be for a young designer?

That soft skills matter.

A lot of designers focus on being a really well-crafted artist and they focus on perfection, but they forget how to actually communicate and deal with other people. In my opinion, if you ever want to be a leader or be successful in the world, you need to be able to influence and deal with people in a meaningful manner.

When I first started out, I felt pretty special being a designer coming from a place where there wasn't any other designers and I was pretty good at it and I was getting jobs and doing really well. Over the last two years I've really been focusing on being less cocky and less arrogant. It doesn't help and it's just not good in general for you as a person.

People respect you more and people see you more as a leader and want to work with you more if you have those soft skills of being able to inspire and influence people.

How would you recommend that designers learn those skills if maybe they don't come naturally?

Right. So listening is a big thing. I think people tend to forget to listen and they're really just being quiet and thinking of what they want to say after the other person is done talking. I always talk about knee-jerk reactions and how they really come back and bite you, even if you're trying to stand your ground and be solidified in your beliefs. Being able to control those knee-jerk reactions and being intuitive with your own thought process, and what you’re saying and what you’re taking in. Listening is a really good start.

Why do you do what you do? What makes it worth it and meaningful to you?

It changes a lot.

I love design, but I don't think I can say that I do what I do right now because I love well-designed things - do you know what I mean? I think I do what I do now because when I get to show my friends what I do, or something I've worked on, that show-off moment - it’s really rewarding. Everyone craves attention and craves appreciation. I think the single most craved emotion for human beings is appreciation and if you can play into that in any sense for people I think that's really important.

I remember I did motion graphics for film for three months as an intern and I worked on Wreck-It Ralph and Cars 2 and I was sitting in the theater a couple months after that and saw some of the graphics that I worked on in the trailer with my friends and I was like "woah! Hey I totally did that!" That excitement to be able to show my friends and share in that joy is awesome. Maybe that's a really bad answer...

No, not at all. I really appreciate that answer because I think it's really honest. I hear all the time that it's meaningful to design for something that will impact thousands of people lives - not that that's not an honest answer. I just appreciate that you said what you really felt.

Yeah, I mean when people say that I totally get it. It's just not a very personal reason. They can't see those thousands of millions of people everyday and during work when you're sitting there, working at your desk, listening to music, drinking your coffee and looking at the pixels on Sketch, there's no way that you have all those people in mind. It's impossible. You do it because you want to feel appreciated - maybe not all the time - but for me when I sit down I'm thinking about what I can create that I'll be proud of.

For example, I'm working on the monetization team, and if I can get my friends excited about advertising - that's awesome. If you can have a smile when you're talking about your work you're probably doing something right.

Who would you want to see on Ways We Work?

Tobias van Schneider, he’s the director of design at Spotify and because #beardgoals.

Konrad Sauer: Maker and craftsman of woodworking hand planes 2015-11-25T00:00:00-05:00 2015-11-25T00:00:00-05:00 Ways We Work Team freelancerscreators freelancerscreators Konrad Sauer has been crafting handmade woodworking planes for the last 11 years. When we were first introduced to him we were immediately curious how such a niche craft could become a full-time endeavour. As we talked with Konrad and learned that before plane making, he was working in graphic design and advertising . He shares how he got started working with wood, why he left the advertising industry and the importance of not letting fear stop you from just doing something. It's clear Konrad is passionate about his craft and it shows in the beautiful pieces he produces.

You’re in a pretty unique line of work. Can you tell us a summary of what you do?

For the last 11 years now, I've been a full-time plane maker, so making woodworking hand planes. I've also made furniture the whole time, and done some of my own home renovations. Really, if I had a business card, it would be: “Konrad Sauer: I just make shit.” I’ve made furniture, electric guitars, done some teaching and speaking, but mainly plane making.

What was your path to designing and making woodworking hand planes?

Growing up I would draw all of the time. My initial contact was drawing and making things, but more from a traditional art perspective, so drawing, painting, sculpting, that kind of stuff, I did all that as a kid.

I grew up in an old house, and so my parents-partly for financial reasons-but also because they were interested in it, we just always renovated our houses. There was a really fundamental lesson for me early on of not being afraid to just try something. When I was in high school, I'd wanted to move up into the attic of our house, because I needed more space for a studio or something. I came home and my dad had ripped the roof off. We renovated. All of a sudden we put a huge dormer on. We just did stuff like that. You get over the hurdle of trying something that you don't know how to do. You just say, “Screw it, I'm going to do it anyway.”

After high school I went to the design program at Conestoga College. What was really amazing about that program was that for the first year and a half there were no computers. We did everything by hand. I learned analog and digital. When the computers showed up, the computer was just viewed as a tool. Now I think most people view it as the only tool. I was really lucky that I caught that bridge, that magic window of learning both.

“That's been one of the incredible things for me, is that the line between customer and friendship has gotten really, really blurry in an awesome way. That's probably one of the more rewarding parts to it, actually. I make 35 planes in a year. This is not a volume business. I enjoy that personal relationship with the end user.”

After school you ended up working in advertising right? Tell us what the transition from that to making planes was like.

I worked at an advertising agency called Tenzing and worked there for almost ten years. It was very small. We got to do some great stuff, but I found that I was spending more time on the computer than I would have liked. That was kind of the nature of the job.

I started making furniture on the side because I didn't want to have shitty furniture, so I learned how to make it myself. I loved it, because it was this tactile experience and became a creative outlet for me.

I did a couple of commissioned pieces for people. It was great. Then I started out growing my tools. The tools that I was using weren't doing what I thought they ought to be able to do. I was continually upgrading them, and then I hit a wall when it came to hand planes.

Eventually, I stumbled upon an original infill plane, which is what I make. An infill plane is a metal shell that is filled in, or in-filled with wood in a very generic sense. It just blew away anything I'd ever used ever. It was unreal.

I started looking for more original infill planes and couldn't find them. There weren't very many around. They were commanding serious, serious money. I decided I was going to have to make them if I wanted to use them.

Did it become a business for you at that point? You were still in advertising full-time right?

Yeah I was still working in advertising then. My friend Joe Steiner and I started by just making tools for our own personal use and we were invited to demonstrate these tools at a woodworking show. At a demonstration we were doing, there was a woman named Karen McBride who really took an interest and we started chatting. She asked us if we could make a plane for her. It hadn't really occurred to us that there was a business in this, but once she asked, I said to Joe, “if we're going to do this, let's just pretend that we're actually a business.” We sat in a Tim Horton's and had an 8.5" by 11" sheet of paper and wrote the business plan.

The first thing we wrote was, “if this is not fun, this is not worth doing.” We were both working full time. I had a busy job, and Joe, he ran a dental lab in Woodstock. We figured out what we needed to make per hour, we guessed the material costs, added it all up, and I think it was 1600 bucks or something for that one plane. Joe said, “There's just no way.” I said, “We just figured this out. I'm sure we missed stuff. We're probably light on the price.” He said, “Fine, you call her.” I called her and was just nervous as anything and was beating around the bush. She said, “Okay, have you figured out what it's going to cost?” I said, “Well, yeah. It'll be about 1600 bucks.” She said, “Great, when will it be done?” I was like, “Oh my god.” I hadn't even thought that far.

Karen and I are still really good friends. That's been one of the incredible things for me, is that the line between customer and friendship has gotten really, really blurry in an awesome way. That's probably one of the more rewarding parts to it, actually. I make 35 planes in a year. This is not a volume business. I enjoy that personal relationship with the end user.

“I've got these two parallel worlds that are running. One sucks, and the other one I realize I need a whole lot more of. It was that sort of interaction that I realized, you know what, I've got to get out of this advertising world because it's going to kill me...”

What was it that made you decide to take the leap and do the plane making full-time?

So, we started the business but we weren't sure what was going to happen. We figured, you know what, if we make two planes in a year, great. We'll use the money to pay for materials so we can keep making our own planes. The really significant turning point for us was when I got an email from a guy in California, and up until this point, everybody that commissioned a plane we had met in person.

We had taken out a little ad in the back of Fine Woodworking Magazine that was two inches by one inch, like a tiny little black and white postage stamp. From that we got an email from this guy in California who was very specific about what he was interested in. We emailed back and forth. It was a plane that we'd never made yet. He didn't care. He was willing to wait. We specced it out and gave him a quote. It was close to two grand. He said, “Fine, that's great.”

Two weeks later I get a letter from him, and in it is five post-dated checks and a little handwritten note, and it said, “I'm so excited about this, this is great, looking forward to working with you guys. I've taken the liberty of sending five post-dated checks, because I know that you're really new to this business and I figure this might help your cash flow.

I'm thinking to myself, “Good lord. Here's a guy we've never met who's spending over two grand on these two guys that he doesn't know, in another country, and he has the care to think about our business.” So I've got that world running through my head. Then I've got my clients in the art direction/design side who, you get the phone call at 3 o’clock in the afternoon and they say, “You know that thing we've been sitting on for three weeks? We need it for Monday. You've got to work on the weekend and get it done.”

I've got these two parallel worlds that are running. One sucks, and the other one I realize I need a whole lot more of. It was that sort of interaction that I realized, you know what, I've got to get out of this advertising world because it's going to kill me, for a variety of reasons, but also because it was in such stark contrast to ... that client from California, that's incredible for somebody to think that way.

“I break stuff down into steps. Then I get the immense satisfaction of taking my pencil and scratching it off. You play all these funny little mind games when you're self-employed.”

You've been doing it, like you said, for almost 11 years. What would you say are the main challenges that you face in your work now?

One of the biggest challenges is actually finding appropriate wood, which seems kind of dumb. Wood moves. As it takes on moisture, it loses moisture, it moves. In a plane, you are confining wood on three sides. You don't want it to move, because if it moves it distorts the body of the plane and it doesn't work properly, which is why most planes are specific to only a few species of wood-true rosewood being one of them-because they are incredibly stable. You can really only work with very old wood. The general rule with domestic woods, is that it needs to dry for one year per inch of thickness. For rosewoods, it's ten years per inch of thickness.

Where do you find 30-year-old wood? The only real option is to find either those one or two wood distributors that have a pile of wood they've forgotten about for 30 years or you buy it from retired furniture makers or people who have had pieces sitting around for that long and just didn't use it for whatever reason. That was a huge challenge, I got really lucky though, I befriended a number of retired cabinet makers and furniture makers who have given me access to their old inventory.

Then the other challenge too is that I couldn't afford to be my own customer. They're expensive. People's value equations have really changed a lot over the last 50 years. People used to buy something where the selling feature was that they never broke down. People don't do that anymore. We're such a disposable ... Here I am sounding like the old guy belly aching. People think of everything as disposable now, so for some people the idea of spending several thousand dollars on something like a hand-crafted wood making plane is a difficult one.

What is the structure of a typical day like for you?

Get up in the morning ... The alarm goes off at quarter to 7:00. Not for me, for Jill (my wife), because she's got to get to work. I usually get up when everybody else gets up. I'm the first one downstairs, getting the coffee going, and cleaning up the kitchen so it's remotely presentable, and help everybody get off to school and get out the door.

Then I usually take a deep breath because I've got the house to myself again. Grab a cup of coffee, check my email. Again, having clients from all over the place, I get emails in the middle of the night.

I usually wander out here between maybe 8:00am and 9:00am. If I've got a blog entry to write, or other stuff that I'm doing, or some design work to do, I'll stay in the office in the house and work on that. I'm usually out here safely by 10:00 every morning.

I keep an old school day timer, and I write out my list of all the crap that I've got to get done on a particular plane. There's kind of the day to day stuff, and there's the big picture... over the course of a week I've got to get this done, or whatever. I've found that actually writing a list is really important for me because it helps me not get overwhelmed. I break stuff down into steps. Then I get the immense satisfaction of taking my pencil and scratching it off. You play all these funny little mind games when you're self-employed.

I inevitably get a couple of phone calls from clients or colleagues or whatever else. Going for lunch and hang out. In the summer I'll often have a 20-minute nap on a hammock on the balcony, because I can.

So you mentioned you blog, and then email is obviously a big tool for you, going back and forth with clients. Your work is so hands on; you're not in front of the computer all day, how do you manage email and other communications into your workflow?

I check my email in the morning before I come out here, and if there's anything that I need to deal with right away I'll deal with it. I'll check it usually at lunch time again, and then in the evening. Probably the evening is when I spend most of my time doing more of the dense work in front of a computer. If I'm designing a new plane or something like that. The office is in the attic of the house, so I'm getting a lot of exercise running back and forth: drawing in here, running in there, scanning it, printing it out, coming out here.

I thought about building a studio in the house as well. There's something that I get out of the walk. I'm not exactly sure what it is, but I've found there's value in it for me. It's a head clearing minute and a half or however long it takes to walk out here.

“If you want to do it, you've got to jump in with both feet up to your eyeballs. I was lucky. It happened very fast for me, relative to doing something this screwed up and obscure. Who the hell thinks that you can make a living making custom hand planes?”

We’ve talked to a few people who’ve made significant career changes. What sort of advice would you give to someone who's maybe looking to do the same thing?

That's a good question. My first thought is, don't be afraid to go for it. Life really is too damn short. When I was probably in my late 20s, somebody said to me... I was already probably grumbling a little bit about the advertising world. I joked and I'd say it was a soul destroying industry. It kind of is a soul destroying industry.

Somebody said to me, “If you want to make a career change, you'd better start planning it right now, because you're going to blink and you're going to be 40.” For whatever reason, I really heard that. I took it to heart. I left the ad world when I was 29. Yeah, I blinked and I'm 44. If you want to do it, you've got to jump in with both feet up to your eyeballs. I was lucky. It happened very fast for me, relative to doing something this screwed up and obscure. Who the hell thinks that you can make a living making custom hand planes?

Who would you want to see on Ways We Work?

Internationally there's a guy in South Africa named Ford Hallam, who makes tsubas. Again, in the world of people who do weird and wonderful things, his world is probably more obscure than mine. On a samurai sword there's the hilt. That's called a tsuba. That's what he makes. He does it at a level where a tsuba is 15,000 dollars. He smelts his own metal. I love listening to people who are passionate about whatever it is that they're making.

Lastronaut: A two-year side project that became an unexpected indie game success 2015-11-23T00:00:00-05:00 2015-11-23T00:00:00-05:00 Ways We Work Team designers designers Last month we interviewed Darrin Henein, he’s the design lead for Firefox Mobile at Mozilla. During our interview with Darrin we learned that he is also the creator of the popular iOS game Lastronaut. In his interview, Darrin talked a lot about learning by doing and not being afraid to just try something. Having always wanted to create a game, he finally felt he’d picked up enough skills through his career to give it a shot.

The game started as a side-project, he and his friend Stephan Leroux worked on it in their spare time over the course of two years. When it launched in the App Store they hoped it would be played by a few thousand people but never expected the response they had. It was recently nominated for Best Indie Game 2015 by the Canadian Videogame Awards. We thought it would be interesting to catch up with Darrin and learn more about his experience developing and launching Lastronaut.

For people who haven’t played what’s the basic premise behind Lastronaut?

At its core it's an infinite runner. I didn't want to invent a whole new type of game and have to think about game mechanics while I was just learning to make a game. I figured "let me start with something that's kind of simple and a little bit more understood as far as game design goes." It was clearly heavily inspired by popular games at the time, like Jetpack Joyride.

Basically, I had this story in my head about an astronaut who—after this apocalyptic war with the robots, obviously—ends up being the last human on Earth. He's tasked with piloting the last rocket ship off of Earth as humans are quickly abandoning it. He's running through all sorts of chaos and madness to try and get to this ship. As a player you're running, avoiding obstacles, and you have a couple of different weapons that you can fight back with. That simple premise ended up being far more complicated than we initially had hoped, but at least we weren’t reinventing a whole new type of game.

“I find my best work as a creative comes when there’s no pressure; in its infancy I had no plans to ship this game or even show it to anyone else!”

When did you first start working on the game and how did the whole idea come about?

I grew up playing Nintendo games and loved them, and I got a lot of joy out of games like Super Mario as a kid. Ever since I was young I’ve had this moonshot dream of making my own game. But at that time you picture video games being made by these massive companies with hundreds of people working on them for years, and it just didn't seem realistic that one person could do it on their own.

My career in design slowly led to learning programming—starting with things like HTML and CSS but quickly moving on to Ruby, Javascript and other more advanced languages—and I got to a point where I figured "you know what, I probably have enough of the fundamentals to at least take a stab at it". The project began as a learning experience, it wasn't something I planned as being a finished project that I would launch at some point, it was really to get started working on a game to see how it comes together. I find my best work as a creative comes when there’s no pressure; in its infancy I had no plans to ship this game or even show it to anyone else!

I started drawing some of the artwork, and posted some of it to Dribbble. A co-worker at the time, Stephan Leroux, saw it and said "hey I didn't know you were making a game, I've always wanted to develop a game!” He came from more of an engineering background and he said "if you need any help at any point let me know." I said "sure, I don't know what I'm doing, and you can probably help me save a lot of time."

Pretty early on I had a working prototype that I was able to show him and he was happy to join the project. From there it was just the two of us over the next two years in our free time hacking away at this thing. I take the train into work so I had some time each day on the train, and my wife would go to bed early so I would have some time in the evenings as well. As well, Stephan got married during those two years, and I had a kid, so life just kinda happened and it took us some time but that's how it came together.

“The first big milestone was getting something on my phone actually working, some code that would draw the player sprite on screen. That was more difficult than expected, and a sign of how complicated this endeavour would be.”

Can you talk about the process of working on the game? It happened over two years but what were some of the major milestones throughout the project?

The whole project was really a good encapsulation of my philosophy around learning things, which is just to go out and do them. Books are great, and courses are great to give you background and a fundamental understanding of concepts but the best way to really, deeply learn something is to actually exercise that knowledge by applying it.

For us—and for me especially—I had much less background in the programming side of things. The first big milestone was getting something on my phone actually working, some code that would draw the player sprite on screen. That was more difficult than expected, and a sign of how complicated this endeavour would be. Tools have evolved a lot in the last couple years and so it's a little bit easier to do today, though what we started with was still far simpler than generations before us had it! Just getting my little character that I'd animated on my phone that I could show people was a special moment. Then getting to the point where there was a few obstacles and a couple of ways to avoid them was really cool. At that point I could ask friends and family to try playing it, even though it was still kind of thin, it was a playable game.

There were a lot of things that we knew we had to do but didn't anticipate how difficult they were going to be. One of the big ones was sound design. I had been in a band in university, and I was familiar with music production in a very peripheral way. I have a keyboard at home that I can connect to my computer, so I knew I could do the music and sound effects.

One of the goals of this project, to step back for a second, was that I wanted to create the whole game myself, or at least between the two of us. We didn't want to outsource any of it or hire a team or hire people to do parts of it, so all of the artwork, all of the animation, everything came from our two computers. Music was one thing that took much longer than expected, I ended up writing a bunch of it on my iPad using this great music app from Korg. I (obviously) couldn't carry my keyboard around, but the best time to work on stuff was on the train, so I would sit on the train with my headphones in and my iPad and use this tiny little keyboard to write the music for it. It was time-consuming but turned out okay I think [laughs].

We left sound until the end and we had this really cool effect in the game where time slows down every once in awhile. It doesn't just go from full speed to half speed though, it follows this gradual slowing down, this “matrix bullet” time effect which was difficult to do visually but really looked great. We finally got it working, but then when we were doing the sound we realized any sound that we're playing needed to also slow down at the right speed, and then play in the slow motion speed and then come back up to the full motion speed.

“I think by the end of the first day we had over a 100,000. Within a week we had passed 1.1 million downloads. We were just stunned, we didn't know what to think.”

This was all stuff that was challenging but when we got those details right, it really added a nice sense of polish to the game. There is a lot of distance between a functional demo and a polished, shippable product.

The last part that was far more work than expected was just the whole promoting and marketing piece. Once we decided we wanted to put the game in the App Store, I started emailing blogs and game reviewers and YouTube people and trying to get as many people seeing it as possible. That's where I think we just ran out of steam. We got a little bit of feedback and we hit a couple websites that picked us up but we definitely didn't put enough work into the whole marketing piece. We did get lucky, but to properly launch a product is a lot of work in itself.

What made you decide to launch it, and what was that experience like?

When we started the project we didn't even have the ambition of ever releasing it. We were just working on it making it what we wanted it to be and what we thought was fun. We hit a certain point where we were showing it to friends and family and they were saying "oh this is really cool, when can I get this on my phone?” At that point we started thinking that we weren't that far from having something we could ship, so we met for lunch one day and made a list of all the things we needed to do to submit it to the App Store and have a playable game. We had to add menus, and settings and just things to wrap the game up. This was in early 2015 and we ended up shipping in March.

It was a wild experience. The way that the App Store works is that they review everything ahead of time that goes into the store and if they see something they like they send you this very anonymous, blunt email saying: "Hi, we like your thing, there's a possibility that it'll be promoted at some point, can you provide us with promotional artwork?" The game is all pixel 8-bit graphics, and they wanted these massive HD banners. I was scrambling the nights before the release date, redrawing everything in Photoshop to HD specs and staying up till 2 in the morning just to get this stuff to them on the off-chance that they'd promote it.

“People were asking how they could support us and they were asking us to make more games. That validation, that we made a thing that people would pay money for, was really neat.”

The night before it launched my wife was asking me "how many people do you think are going to play your game, what do you think is going to happen?" I said "I don’t know, I know maybe 100 people in Toronto that may each know a couple of people, maybe we'll get 1,000 people playing it, maybe 10,000 if we somehow strike gold." Then we woke up in the morning and saw it on the front page of iTunes and the numbers were already in the 30,000s. I think by the end of the first day we had over a 100,000. Within a week we had passed 1.1 million downloads. We were just stunned, we didn't know what to think.

Probably the most immediately rewarding thing was just realizing that we live in a time when with a laptop you can create something that people around the entire world are going to see. We used Google Analytics and saw that there were 2 countries in all of the ones that GA tracks—which I think is all of them—that didn't have someone playing the game. We were blown away by the global reception. This was a game that was entirely in English, we didn't localize any of the languages, we didn't even think about this stuff. But it was a simple enough game that I think people could figure it out. That was really rewarding, just seeing all this hard work paying off. Not even in a financial sense, as the game is free with no ads, but just having people see your work. I think to most artists that's kind of the goal, to just impact people and have your work affect people.

You decided to give it away for free instead of charging for it, what was the thought behind that?

I think part of it was my insecurity of it being my first game and thinking it wasn't that good. I just wanted people to play it. To me success with this game was having even one person I didn't know love it and really enjoy it. I played all these great games that impacted me when I was a kid, I just wanted to give that back and say "here's my contribution to video games." I didn't want money or barriers of any kind to stop kids around the world from playing it, I just wanted people to be able to enjoy it. I would rather have 1000 people play the game then to have a thousand dollars.

What were some of the major highlights for you post-launch?

We started getting emails from people playing the game who were just like "this is awesome, I can't believe it's free!" We launched with no ads, and no in-app purchases and it was an entirely free game which is kind of rare. People were asking how they could support us and they were asking us to make more games. That validation, that we made a thing that people would pay money for, was really neat.

Then we'd get even better emails which were the ones like the one father who emailed us and said "my daughter showed me your game today and we sat on the couch for 4 hours tonight playing it. I had such a great time with her, so thanks for making this game". Stuff like that where I'm tearing up reading the email, I couldn't even imagine this little experiment that we made would have that type of impact on people.

If you want to try the game you can find Lastronaut in the App Store. If you liked this piece and want to see us feature more project specific interviews - let us know!

A Medium post about the decision to make the game free:

Interview with Jeff Shin, Lead Designer at 500px 2015-11-18T00:00:00-05:00 2015-11-18T00:00:00-05:00 Ways We Work Team designers designers Jeff Shin is a lead designer on the community team at 500px in Toronto. After his first year of University he made the decision to drop out of school and pursue a career in design. After three years being out and working in the “real world”, Jeff shares what he learned from taking that path, the main challenges he faces in his work today and his role at 500px. Talking to Jeff he has this confidence about him that is rare, especially amongst young professionals. He has great points to share about sticking with your decisions and learning how to handle discomfort.

Tell me about what your current role is and the work you’re doing?

Sure. I'm the lead designer of community at 500px. The community team at 500px builds consumer products that millions of people use. The photographers, the photo lovers, the curators, and the people that just like looking at photos.

We oversee the main website, the iOS and Android apps. We also get to work on some smaller projects like an app for Roku or for Android Wear. I'm the lead designer on this team, which is made up of three people.

What does your role look like within that specifically?

I try to do a lot of designing, but it's definitely a lot less than it used to be. It's now a lot more of helping the other two designers and making sure that they are given the right priorities and product direction from the product managers and the executive staff.

Though I do still design quite often. In startups, given the resource constraints, you have to be a generalist. So I wear a lot of hats within product design, like defining a product, wireframing, mocking it up, prototyping, to even writing a lot of production code. All of our designers are great at being generalists, so we all help out where needed.

Being a self-taught designer, what were some of the resources for you getting started? Did you learn from anyone? Or was it mostly online self-teaching?

I got started in graphic design. It started with a lot of reading tutorials online on how to achieve a certain look in Photoshop. I was just drawing inspiration from things I liked such as films, posters, fashion and architecture. I grew an eye for visual design through being inspired from the outside world.

As for the technicalities of design it was two things:
One was looking at the websites or the apps that I admired and trying to break them down myself and figure out what the steps were for that person to design something like that.

The second thing was pure trial and error. I remember the first time I tried interface design when I was really young… just remembered this now. It was the worst thing to design if it's your first try at interface design - I tried to redesign Mac OS X. I was a kid who knew absolutely nothing about interface design, and I was naively thinking “oh, interface design is probably just like graphic design”. I quickly realized how wrong I was.

Fortunately this was a time where people were writing a lot of stuff online about interface design and interaction design, so from there I just started reading a lot, and my designs slowly got better and better.

You dropped out of University after your first year and wrote a great post about it on your site. That was three years ago now. In retrospect, what was the greatest benefit of doing that, and the greatest challenge?

I think the biggest benefit was that it put me in an uncomfortable situation where I had to carve out my career path. When you're in university, there's at least a couple of steps you can see ahead of you that you know you need to take in order to achieve success, whatever that means to you. Dropping out of school left me in this place where I didn't know what my next step was.

I didn't even know what success meant to me. It pushed me to think creatively about what it meant to me, and how I could get there. The removal of the safety net of school put this fear in me that propelled me into a year or so of some of the most packed learning I've ever done in my life. I don't think I ever learned so much as I did in the year after dropping out. To me, that could only have happened if there was no safety net.

It's interesting because I thought the toughest thing about dropping out of school would be professional or career related. I thought it would either have to do with me not being able to find a job, or work in the states because I didn't have a degree. Things like that.

But the biggest thing for me was more emotional and mental. I think when you're young, you can't wait to grow up. When I was in high school I couldn't wait to be in university, and when I was in university I couldn't wait to be out in the 'real world', making money. I was just fantasizing about and glorifying adulthood.

I realized after that you only have a couple of years where you can be young and explore different career paths. You can take the time to figure out who you are and what you want in life. For me I felt like I didn't really have the time to do that, and I was a bit rushed into it all.

Back to the present day what would you say are some of the main challenges that you face in your work right now?

I think growing pains are a challenge for us right now. Things are moving fast - the company is scaling, the products are scaling, and we even recently did a rebrand. As we scale, the processes have to scale as well, so for us, it's important to really nail down the process before we get even bigger, like 100 or 200 people. So we've been thinking a lot about our processes, and carefully evaluating them. Like how we come up with product ideas. We've tried a couple different methods that didn't go so well, so we keep trying to improve. The same goes for our design process.

We recently brought on a dedicated UX researcher, so we had to think about how to integrate that into our overall process. How do we user test? What do we do with the findings? How do we communicate the results?

So it's a lot of figuring out what the best process is - but also remembering that too much process is the worst kind of process. So a lot of it is trying to find out what the right amount of it is.

What does a typical day look like for you, the main components of your day?

A big chunk of my day is spent with my fellow team leads - the product lead and the engineering lead. The three of us oversee the vision and growth of the community, so we spend a lot of time talking about planning the roadmap and future products, making sure that the products in the pipeline have solid release plans, coordinating with other teams on projects, etc.

A lot of my time is spent on design work as well. Working with other designers and coming up with wireframes, mockups, getting them tested, going over test results and designing iterations. Oftentimes I'm coding, polishing animations and styles, or fixing UI and usability bugs on the site. The design team works really closely with one another - doing critiques of each other's work, doing design reviews, and having project kickoffs.

I'm spread a little bit thin, so there's a fair amount of context switching throughout the day that I'm trying to minimize.

What are the top 5 tools you’re using on a regular basis?

A Pen - a Bic pen specifically. It comes in handy when you're sketching out an idea or making a quick note to yourself on paper. But you will always see me with the pen in my hand, spinning it, even if I haven't written anything the entire day. I always have a pen spinning in my hand, it's like a generator for my brain. That's probably really weird [laughs].

Slack - I think everyone's going to say this but Slack - it's amazing. We use it a lot.

Asana - Especially given that I'm switching contexts between designing, coding, and planning, Asana helps me out. I often use it as my playground to organize thoughts and ideas and things like that, which end up turning into tasks.

500px website - I use the site a lot actually. Often it's just to slack off and look at cool photos, but it keeps me reminded of the awesome products that we're building. It inspires me visually and creatively by looking at these amazing photographs taken by really creative people, but it also makes me think 'this is awesome, this is what we built'. It's an energy boost to keep me reminded of why we do what we do.

Photoshop - We have some designers that use Sketch, but I'm mostly still in Photoshop, which sounds like the old school thing to say nowadays.

How do you find managing and staying on top of an email and communications? I find it’s something a lot of people struggle with. Do you have a process?

For emails I just generally try to keep my inbox as thin as possible, and I'll only leave items that I need to address in my inbox. I have this thing where I'll be really annoyed if there's leftover items. I'm sure this is the same with most people. So if there's emails that I need to respond to or take action on, I'll just keep them there, and generally my need and desire to clear that thing will soon force me to deal with them.

As for Slack... I'm in a lot of channels that I don't really need to always pay attention to. But it's always tempting to check it if there's a new message in that channel. So I just mute as many channels as I can, and only get notified when important messages are posted.

You talked about context switching earlier, and over planning certain things. Do you find it difficult limiting the time you spend organizing tasks versus doing the actual work?

I don't like to do that because it's feels like work that doesn't really produce anything. I can sit and code for an hour, and I'll have an hours worth of code. Or I can sit and design for an hour, and I'll have an hours worth of design. But if do an hour of moving tasks around, I come out of it and I'm like, “what did I just do for the last hour?” Obviously the reason to do it is because it actually does help, but to me it doesn't feel like I've been very productive, so I try to keep it as thin as possible.

I do that by talking to team members in person whenever possible. I can either create an Asana task and write this long description, make it super bulletproof, then ping someone on it and say "hey can you read this?" Or, I can just walk over to them and speak much faster than I can type. I can get their questions right away and answer them. I try to do that a lot because I feel like it cuts down the amount of time that you spend planning.

You have an interesting perspective having left school and started working much earlier than most people. What would your best advice be for someone maybe trying to break into design or a similar industry?

The advice that I would give is that choosing this path where the steps to achieve success is unclear is an explicit decision. You have to know what it involves, own it, and live with it. I'm surprised that I didn't see it coming back them. I would have told myself, "look, if you're going to drop out of school and you think you're going to find a career in design, great. Just understand what that involves. Understand that it's a risk, understand that things are going to be unclear and understand that you're never going to have a clear step two."

This is a path that requires you to be someone of a specific calibre. It's not to say that it's super difficult - a lot of people can do it - but you have to be someone who's incredibly driven, who's a risk taker, who is willing to try a bunch of shit that does not work. You need to be okay with being uncomfortable. So I would say just know what you're getting yourself into, then brace yourself for the discomfort that may come. It's all worth it in the end, however.

Why do you do what you do? What makes it worth ... Why did you drop out of university to do it? What do you love about it?

I love making things. I like that I could go from there being nothing to there being something. That act of creation - especially without physical materials like wood - I feel like it's almost magical. You can make something that people from all across the world can appreciate, use, or see, just by typing into a little box on your desk.

Also, as someone who had to carve their own career path by learning a lot on their own, I relied a lot on the tools that helped me get there. Tools like Dribbble, Photoshop, and Tumblr - I owe it to these tools, services, and companies for helping me find success in the creative world. Now, I get to build one of these tools. I get to help people who are getting into photography, whether they're just starting to shoot on their iPhone or their dad's DSLR.

I see a lot of the work that I do at 500px as me giving back to the creative community, because without the tools that the community gave me, I wouldn't be able to do what I do now.

Who would you want to see on Ways We Work?

I want to see my friend Tom Cardoso. He's a designer at The Globe and Mail who does a lot of the infographics and the data visualizations. I think that's super interesting and I'd love to hear about some of his challenges and what tools he’s using.

Interview with Marte Marie Forsberg, Food & Lifestyle Photographer 2015-11-11T00:00:00-05:00 2015-11-11T00:00:00-05:00 Ways We Work Team photographersfreelancers photographersfreelancers Marte Marie Forsberg is a Norwegian photographer living in Dorset, England. She works as a food and lifestyle photographer for magazines around the world, teaches workshops and is working on her very own cookbook. I'd been following Marie on Instagram for close to a year and had so much admiration for both the work she was doing and the lifestyle she was able to lead. It's so clear after talking with Marie that her passion to lead that lifestyle is what pushes her incredible work forward. We talked about her not-so-simple path to photography and the reality of answering client emails in a cold courtyard, after midnight on a trip to Venice. It was a real pleasure to learn more about Marie, I know you'll think so as well.
Header photo credit: Peter Lacey

Tell us about what you do?

I'm a visual storyteller, I work around food and my main tool is the camera. I work with a variety of clients to create visual stories around their food related products. I also work on my own food projects; which includes a cookbook that's coming out soon. I run workshops around the world for food styling and food photography as well. In fact I just got home from one in Venice and I'm going to Copenhagen in a few days for another!

What was your path to photography like? How did you get started?

It was quite random actually. I wish I could say I had that one moment, but there really wasn't. My father gave me an old press camera when I was 15 and I thought it was kind of fun. I signed up for a black and white photography class which was about a week long but after that I just put it away. I didn't really look at photography again for another 10 or 15 years.

Having said that, when I look back on my childhood there are so many visual memories. I can still remember when my mom would shake out the hallway carpets in Spring there would be sun coming in, and you could see the dust twirling around in the light. I remember my mother preparing breakfast before school on a sunny day. She'd roll up her skirt to expose her legs to the sun rays, and as she would move back and forth the sun would cast shadows on us. Those memories are just so vivid when I look back. I feel I must have been a photographer all my life I just didn't have the camera to capture those moments.

“I guess I realized in that moment that there wasn't a job title out there that I wanted, and I had to create my own.”

Fast forward: I took a degree in Fashion Design in Italy but after I still wanted to continue exploring. I did a complete 180 and did a degree in Middle Eastern Studies in the United States. The last semester before I graduated, I found I really missed being creative, so I signed up for an Introduction to Photography course. It was for half a semester, once a week and even then it didn't click for me yet. I was just photographing everything and exploring. Then I moved to San Francisco because when I graduated I still had no idea what to do with my life. I felt a bit lost.

After what felt like months of feeling lost I realized that I didn’t want to work with either of my degrees. I wrote down on a piece of paper: Food, Travel & Design. Then I started crying because I thought "well what does that mean?! What kind of a job is that? Food, travel, design - well done Marie - that's what you came up with after two degrees?" I guess I realized in that moment that there wasn't a job title out there that I wanted, and I had to create my own.

At that point I still didn't know it was going to be photography but those three things were kind of my guide. I packed up my stuff, I realized I had to go home to Norway and I needed to start from scratch.

After moving back to Norway I started to think through what food, travel and design could mean as a career. I kind of ended up starting three separate companies. One was a travel concierge company, and one where I designed a little clothing collection and three I kept cooking and photographing because I loved food. Very quickly starting those three things, I realized that I didn't want to do design and travel for other people. I also learned that I liked the design process but I was more excited about photographing the collection than making it.

“Nothing much happened after that for awhile, but that made me realize that I could use Instagram to get both feedback on my images but also to reach potential clients. I connected the dots in my head. It helped me to hone in on what people were responding to.”

What was left then was my cooking and styling and photography. I realized that the travel aspect could go into that because I loved exploring new countries and their food culture. So I just went for it, I had nothing to lose, I wasn't 21, I was 30 and I didn't feel like I was going to spend the next ten years assisting anyone. So every day I would cook, I would style and I would photograph. I'd hop on the train and go to Oslo and I'd photograph restaurants and their food every single day. Sometimes the waitress would be blurred in a photo and I'd try and figure out why she was blurred - I'd have to go home and analyze and then I'd go back and try and do it differently. I literally taught myself how to use the camera by making mistakes. I would go, I would mess up, I'd go home - figure out why, do it again, fail better, fail better, fail better. That's kind of how it started. As I did that, I realized "god, I love this!"

Was there a turning point where you realized it could be a full-time career and not just a hobby?

Yeah I guess there was a real moment. So six months after moving home and starting this practice, I started using Instagram. I used Instagram quite a lot, this was in the early Instagram days, nobody knew what it could be. It was just a tool to take pictures with and no one cared and it wasn’t about influencers and food porn - it just didn't exist in that form yet. So I was really lucky that I did it very early on and then I got this super crazy idea of doing a 60 Days of Lunch series. I set a goal to create a lunch dish every single day for 60 days and document it on Instagram.

That was absolute crap photography, when I look back now [laughs]. I needed something to push me forward though. So I did that, and after ten days, I realized "you're an idiot! 60 days what were you thinking?! How about 15 days or something?" Nevertheless, I did 60 days and half-way through, Bon Appetit magazine picked up on it. It was the first time anyone had done the "15 Best Food Instagrammers in the World" type of post. I was lucky enough to squeeze myself in there and it was like Jamie Oliver and then there was me. I was like "mom!" and she was like "my daughter is going somewhere!" Nothing much happened after that for awhile, but that made me realize that I could use Instagram to get both feedback on my images but also to reach potential clients. I connected the dots in my head. It helped me to hone in on what people were responding to.

“You have to come up with the campaigns, you have to create them, cook them, style them, photograph them, get the clients, do your accounting, market yourself, and schedule your travel. It's only you.”

That's when I really started focusing on food stories and learned to target the clients that I wanted to work with. Otherwise you're just another food photographer in Norway. I had lived abroad for 15 years so it was important to me to create a platform where I could live anywhere and work anywhere. I would find brands that I loved and start following them to learn more about their brand. One founder contacted me because she liked my photography and we had lunch and all of the sudden I was a photographer for one of their campaigns.

After having done that it became more and more about the storytelling and not just a photo of a dish. I started telling the story of my life through my photography. I began narrowing down what I would share and would exclude photos of my nieces and nephews and cats with glasses from my feed. I do take those shots (not the cats with glasses) [laughs] but I don't share all of that because I think there's power in telling a simmered down story that's really about something.

What are some of the most challenging aspects of the work you're doing now?

Oh, the biggest challenge is that it's only you. You have to come up with the campaigns, you have to create them, cook them, style them, photograph them, get the clients, do your accounting, market yourself, and schedule your travel. It's only you. Of course you can get an assistant but not for everything. I had a meeting with an Italian newspaper, that wanted me to write - funnily enough - a column on English food for them and I was like "I'm Norwegian" but I said "sure I could do that!" The client said "go home and come up with an idea of how to do that." I can't ask my assistant about coming up with that idea or anything so it's all about being creative. I think that's the hardest thing is constantly coming up with new ideas, and while you're working on that you also have to be thinking about things like if Instagram will be the most powerful social media tool a year from now and make sure you have a footing in different worlds. There's just constantly so many things going on. You wish you could just turn it off sometimes but if you turn it off you don't have a living.

What are the top five tools you’re using on a regular basis?

iPhone - That's my right hand. It's my most powerful tool in the sense that it's my mobile office. I travel a lot and I wouldn't be able to do anything without my iPhone.

Camera - Obviously this is how I create most of my content. I have one main camera, it's a Canon 5D Mark II. Up until this past summer I only had one lens which was the 50mm, I like to travel light. Now my favourite lens is a 24/70mm. I don't believe that a lot of gear makes you a better photographer. So I travel light.

Instagram - Definitely my main marketing tool. That's where clients find me, that's where editors find me to write features - I'm thinking maybe that's how you found me too? It's such a great visual platform to reach anyone these days.

Alone Time - I need to be alone. I need to go for walks. If I don't do that I can't hear that inner voice that tells you where to go and what you'd like to work on and who you are. There might be a project I'm working on and I can't hear how to do it if I don't remove myself and just sit in a cafe for a few hours or go for a walk. All of the sudden there's an "oh, yes that's how I'm going to do it!"

Guiding Principles - Who do I want to be and what kind of life do I want to have? I guess that's a tool in a way, that's my guiding tool - those two questions. They guide every single project I allow myself to work on. Will it make me a better person? Are these people interesting to work with? Will you learn something? Will you grow? Are you honest? Is this a brand you can collaborate with because their product is something you actually use or would use or are you just using it to make money? Which we all have to do but I try the best I can to do better each year in terms of who I choose to work with. I think of if it will it lead me to that house in the countryside that I want to have with chickens and a huge kitchen and does it lead me towards that?

Do you find it difficult to stay on top of email and communications? How do you manage that?

I wish I was on top of that. I wish I could ask you that question! I really don't know, I have no idea how to stay on top of it. I really try, but it's heartbreaking the amount of emails that I just don't get to. And they are heartfelt and sweet. They may be people that have been at a photography class or someone you've just inspired, or someone who just wants to say hello. I'm like "okay, I would love to answer you but I have to put you in a folder that I'll get to when I've gotten to the accounting and everything else." By the time I've gotten to all of that, there's very little time. I did have my assistant answering some of those emails every now and then but I just felt wrong about that, so I don't do that. That's just rude. I don't know if it's better not answering but there's just so many hours of the day isn't there? Okay that doesn't answer your question, that's just sad. That's the honest truth though.

“You're so tired and just want to pass out but you know that for you to live in that beautiful house in England, to have a dog, to buy the clothes you want and cook dinners with your friends, you have to stand in that courtyard and answer those emails.”

What’s the structure of a typical day for you?

I must admit I don't think I have any day that is the same as the others. It's so varied, which I always like, but I also miss having a routine where you get up at 7, have breakfast - I really would like my life to be more like that.

I do always have a cup of tea. No matter how crazy things are, either with retouching or planning a new workshop or retreat that I'm doing, or a new campaign I'm working on, or writing my cookbook or recipe testing - I always sit down with a cup of tea and I go for a walk with my dog every day, twice. He's kind of energetic.

If I'm not at home I will still always go for a walk. Even if it's 11pm at night, I just need that time to walk. That would be a typical day I guess. That some part of the day I'm alone to think and I always have a cup of tea. The rest is just kind of all over the place. It's all very varied. A little bit too much for my mind right now. I'm actively working towards a more steady routine. So maybe next year when you talk to me I can say "oh yeah, I get up at 7am and I go for a walk with my dog and then every Saturday and Sunday I do..." Next year! [laughs]

Life happens very fast and you have to really pull yourself in the neck to focus on what's important.

When you're travelling and have all these deadlines that you have to meet, did you find you had to develop self-discipline for working while you're travelling? I know it can be easy when you're travelling to put stuff off.

Yeah, I was literally just thinking about that. I was walking up buying meat at the butcher and I was talking to myself in my head because my friend yesterday had said that through my Instagram it looked like I had the most amazing time in Venice. Which I did, but I must admit, I got up at 6:30 every morning and had a brief meeting before all day long it was teaching and discussions, feedback, critiques, and setting things up. Then you tumble home at midnight and you have to tend to the emails, and the deadlines.

There was a magazine waiting for high-res images and the connection was so bad in my room, because it’s Venice with thick walls. So I had to walk out to the courtyard in the middle of the night to get a better connection, and it was cold. You're so tired and just want to pass out but you know that for you to live in that beautiful house in England, to have a dog, to buy the clothes you want and cook dinners with your friends, you have to stand in that courtyard and answer those emails [laughs]. It puts it in perspective, because you're working your rear-end off but it's for a cause you believe in and that you're passionate about. It's towards something, to continue doing work that's meaningful to you. Sometimes that means that you have to be up from midnight to 1:30am to send those high-res images off or answer those emails. So I guess, the discipline, I hardly even think about it because it's just a necessity. You just have to do it.

“I feel so grateful to have grown up with beautiful values and inspiring people around me. That's the kind of life that I really want to have. Now I have to create it for myself.”

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

I think it goes back to my childhood. I had a very beautiful childhood in Norway, I had parents that loved me and supported me. They encouraged me to never think that there was limitations to what we could do in life. Not in any way that I was better than anyone else but that we all have the same abilities to reach our dreams and make them come true no matter what they were. You just had to work hard for it and be diligent and then doors would be opened.

Then you're in your teenage years and you forget what your parents said. In my twenties it was about having fun and all of the sudden you're thirty and you don't know what you want to do. Slowly the voice and the images of your childhood come back to you. You realize that you really want to start a family and have friends that you choose because they have values that you believe in. I want to be surrounded by inspiring, uplifting people. I care about my food and where it comes from, I don't want to buy plastic products when I can buy something more expensive that's handmade out of wood from some place nearby. I really started thinking about those things and that kind of guided me.

That's the story I try to tell as well through my Instagram and through my work. I'm in no way perfect. I buy plastic, I don't squeeze out everything from my toothpaste but hopefully next year I'll squeeze out more than this year. I feel so grateful to have grown up with beautiful values and inspiring people around me. That's the kind of life that I really want to have. Now I have to create it for myself and I can't just rely on my parents creating it for me. I have to surround myself with inspiring women to push myself and to be filled up with this energy.

That's why I do what I do because to me my work is guiding me in that direction. Hopefully through the brands I work with, through the cookbook and by sharing my food journey from my mother's kitchen to my own cottage in England, I'll have stories that I can share. I hope those stories will touch someone to maybe call their mom and tell her they love her. Or to just be more grateful for what we have and take that extra moment to think about who they are and the direction they're going. I know that's pretty lofty for a friggin' cookbook, but I do believe in the power of images and storytelling. If anyone is inspired to cook from scratch for their kids or for themselves, I don't know what could be greater. If someone is inspired to start that bakery in Spain they've always wanted to do then that'd be amazing. That's really what drives me.

Who would you want to see on Ways We Work?

Mimi Thorisson who runs the blog Manger.

She's a woman that inspires the world at the moment. She's gorgeous and kind and talented and leads a very exciting life that she's created with her husband. It's made to be what they choose it to be, which is beautiful. I'd like to know how SHE handles email. She has six children, she runs this world famous food blog, she's got two cookbooks and a TV show and I just think "how the hell do you manage to do all of this?!" She cooks for her children and she answers all her emails heartfelt-ly as well and comments on her blog - I don't know how she does it.

Interview with Li Chen, Operations at Major League Hacking 2015-11-04T00:00:00-05:00 2015-11-04T00:00:00-05:00 Ways We Work Team communicators communicators Li Chen runs operations at Major League Hacking or 'MLH' for short, which is the official student hackathon league powering over 150 hackathons each year in North America and Europe. Li has been an avid reader of Ways We Work for some time now and reached out wanting to see more people in 'behind-the-scenes' roles, so I was curious what was involved in operations management for a team that organizes events on an international scale. Li shares some of the challenges, how she's navigated her career so far and some of her process in her daily work.

Tell me about what you do?

I run operations at Major League Hacking (MLH), the official student hackathon league that powers over 150 hackathons each year in North America and Europe. We work closely with student hackathon organizers from day zero to help them put on the best possible hackathons. My role is mainly making sure the trains run on time. If I had to describe what I do day-to-day in one sentence I'd say my role is basically filling in the holes before anybody sees them [laughs].

What does your role look like with Major League Hacking?

A huge part of the job is event production. We provide a pallet worth of hardware to our sanctioned events, such as Dell and Alienware laptops, Oculus Rifts, Myos, Pebbles...etc. My team and I are also onsite to help organizers, hackers, and sponsors. I make sure flights are booked, event photographers are hired, prizes are ordered, and pallets are scheduled to arrive at each event. On a busy weekend, we can have up 7 events in the US alone. That's the event production side.

Then there's the day-to-day operations that can range from reviewing a high school hackathon’s event budget sheet, to sending MLH t-shirts and stickers to a hackathon in the Philippines. No two days are the same.

“To me, self-doubt is this little monster that lives in your head, and you can't kill it, so you need to learn how to put it on a leash and take it for a walk.”

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

One of them is definitely scaling - which is a good problem to have for a startup - but as we scale we're trying to determine how we maintain the quality. We doubled the number of sanctioned events last year. We’d have maybe two events every weekend and now five is the average. As we double, the challenge is making sure we maintain the 'level of excellence' as the team calls it.

Communication with the rest of the team is a big part of achieving that. I'm never afraid that we won't get everything done for an event, I know that we will, but my fear is if it will get done to the level that we set for ourselves.

What are some of the tools that you use regularly in your work?

Workflowy - To-do list with bullet points and you can click deeper and deeper into different levels of the list.

Gmail - We have a business account set up with the Google Apps ecosystem so I use that a lot.

Slack - Our main form of communication with the team. We have a team in Europe and Mexico so that's really helpful.

Google Calendar - I can't live without this!

Evernote - I use this for things that don't have a strict deadline necessarily but that I need to reference later.

Worklife - It syncs with your calendar and sends you little reminders of upcoming meetings.

“I got too comfortable at my previous job. It was a hard decision but I put in my notice without a backup plan. I wasn't learning anything new so I pulled the trigger without another gig lined up.”

Do you find it important to stay on top of trends? How do you go about doing that?

For me hardware is of course a big area of interest, we definitely want to stay up to date with hardware and make sure we're providing access to the latest hardware at our events.

On a more personal level, I've been focusing more on areas I want to improve on, writing being one them and ignoring the rest. When you go to events you meet a lot of smart people and there are times where you feel a lot of self-doubt. To me, (quoting The Oatmeal’s Matthew Inman) self-doubt is this little monster that lives in your head, and you can't kill it, so you need to learn how to put it on a leash and take it for a walk.

I try to really focus on what I want to achieve, even if coding is the coolest thing to be doing if that's not what I'm interested in, I don't worry about it. It's easy to get caught up in seeing all of the cool things that everyone else is doing and feel like you need to be doing those too, but it's important to focus on what you're truly excited about.

How do you manage email and all the other forms of communication?

We receive emails with all different sorts of questions and requests, if I don't know the answer to their question but I know who on my team would be the right fit to answer it, I'll make sure to cc that person and delegate it to them. Whichever ones I can handle, I handle.

I've gotten pretty good at knowing what emails are the top priority so with that it's just prioritizing. I don't really use any tools for that, I just go through and respond to each email one by one.

Our CEO made this great rule, question = Slack, to do item = email.