“If you don’t laugh at each other’s jokes, it’s probably time to move on.”

In May of this year, I was fortunate enough to be asked to speak at the graduation ceremony of the newest class of HCDE graduates – my own graduate program at the University of Washington. I’ve kept in touch with the Department and its faculty over the years, as well as with some of my own classmates from the grande olde class of 1996. It’s been encouraging to watch the field of user-centered design and research expand from a sort of fringe, Frontier Days position in the early 90’s to a central role in most technology organizations, from startups with designer co-founders to multi-nationals with strong in-house UX disciplines, today. I wanted to encourage this crop of graduates to keep in touch and build a strong network to help them achieve new things in their early careers – and hopefully pay mutual dividends down the road as their efforts flourish.
Here’s the text of that commencement speech; I don’t know why I didn’t bother to share it this spring! I’ve added a few links that were a bit challenging to click on in my original live speech. I hope the themes resonate with you, too.
Somewhere in the leather-bound commencement speaker’s handbook, I’m sure there’s a caution about quoting rock musicians, specifically Pearl Jam, since Eddie Vedder himself says he spent no more than 30 minutes on each song’s lyrics for the last album. But I went for a run recently with that album queued up, and one Vedder quote from the song Unthought Known really stuck with me: “Dream the dreams of other men / you’ll be no one’s rival.” My interpretation, inevitably from startup perspective, is that working to realize someone else’s vision, no matter how fulfilling, won’t put a target on your own back. No one else will be yearning to go head-to-head with you, to top your achievements, to push you harder than you’ve been pushed before. As a result, the odds of you making a singular mark are not as great. Remember, too, that being exceptional happens in the midst of failure, and that failure isn’t a conclusion, but just another plot point.
This is not to say you should seek out competition recklessly. Far from it – the most valuable thing in your possession as a professional is your network; the people you know, trust, and would do almost anything to avoid letting down. Teamwork is essential, whether you’re a two-person startup or part of a global enterprise, and great teamwork leads to a great network. (Recently, Ray Ozzie offered great commentary about the power of personal networks for entrepreneurs.)
Teamwork drives Seattle’s startup scene: almost improbably collaborative and mentorship-driven. Accelerator programs bring together the best and tie them up with mentors who have deep experience to share. There is a strong spirit of pay it forward, some say it’s Seattle’s unique civic virtue. Come to think of it, I also have a hard time thinking of two direct competitors in the current crop of companies rooted here.
The last company my co-founders and I built, FeedBurner, was another link in a 16-year plus long chain of entrepreneurial activity. This service allowed bloggers, podcasters, and big commercial publishers better distribute, measure, and earn money from online content they publish. It was a natural fit for Google and it led to its acquisition, but we didn’t start with that end goal in mind. Nø, really. It started with a service we built in the late 90s based on one good idea — allowing coworkers to share stuff they find online — then continued with another service based on alerting you when stuff you care about appears or changes online. All of these had the ambitious goal of making the corners of the web that matter most to you more accessible and useful.
My co-founders are incredibly sharp, motivated, and skilled individuals, and I’ve merely hung on to the side of the truck we’d been driving flat-out these ten years for dear life. Surrounding yourself and sticking with smart people reduces uncertainty and increases your appetite for well-managed risk. If you look to your left and right and only see people with complementary talents whom you simply trust to always do the right thing, you’ve got a team to keep. One easy litmus test: if you don’t laugh at each other’s jokes, it’s probably time to move on.
In summary, another pop culture quote: be excellent to each other. Stay in touch. Stay interested in what your classmates are doing. Be helpful when the opportunity exists, and expect nothing in return. Also, ideas are fun and cheap to dream up, but learn how to execute on them, and you’ll win over the engineers every time. Take an improv class. Try to write something new every day. Trust that when somebody tells you to “write every day,” they quite probably aren’t taking their own advice. Go to networking events and talk to people you don’t already know. Don’t be afraid to leave something you’re not truly passionate about doing; in the long run, everyone involved will be better off and respect the outcome. And finally, I’d share that my favorite designers in industry are great storytellers. In technology, especially, people derive purpose and meaning best when it’s set in motion with characters that they can relate to, situations that have real gravity and impact, and that reflect the personality and passion of the people creating the product. We should all strive to tell good stories, and you have the advantage right now that your own is still just beginning.