“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.

“Allow 3-4 weeks for delivery.”

I recently redeemed 2,000 hard-earned Open Table dining points. I think it’s taken me almost ten years to finally cross this first redemption threshold; not sure if that’s a commentary on how poorly I’m doing at dining out overall, or just within OT’s network of restaurants, but it’s pretty damned lame. Still, I figured I finally had a credit I could apply, so…let’s claim that thing?

Not so fast. 

I submit the form and see the response come back from the server. I’m expecting to get a PDF to print, or maybe even a bar code to flash on their mobile app at my next restaurant. Mais non! “Your certificate will be mailed to you. Please allow 3-4 weeks for delivery.”

How in the name of Loyalty Marketing does a company born and developed solely online to disrupt offline restaurant seat inventory allocation, decide to mail you a bleeping piece of paper in the year of our Lord, Twenty Twelve? And what about the fulfillment process requires them to take as long as General Mills did with secret decoder rings in cereal boxes, circa 1964?

I’m sure there is some sound terms-of-service reason for this lag, but perception is reality and this particular perception is baffling.

Red Tails: “I have a bad feeling about this.”

Red Tails has all the ingredients to be great – Lucasfilm SFX, an encouraging yet overlooked story from an otherwise overworked genre, and what appears to be an ace cast – but to paraphrase my man Han Solo, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”

But I’m afraid there’ll be an inevitable Jar Jar moment – a character or situation so out of tune with the message or even the plot (thankfully Lucas doesn’t have a writing credit) – that it’ll turd the punchbowl of an otherwise stirring film. I need look no further than this quote for damning concern:

“‘For me, ‘Red Tails’ is like ‘Flying Leathernecks’ (a 1951 aviator picture with John Wayne). It’s corny. It’s uber-patriotic. And it’s a really exciting action-adventure movie.
“As for the racism in our story, it’s embedded in the material, so we just had to be careful not to overdo it.’”

He also put at least $50M of his own money into it, so you just know he’s been meddling with the final cut.

I’m keeping my fingers crossed. I really want it to be great. But we’ve been here before – notably while waiting in line for Star Wars Episode I: The Death of Your Childhood Franchise.

On getting new designers deeply involved in your startup

Here’s a post I just guest-authored over at the excellent Design Staff blog, where my former Google colleagues @kowitz, @jazer, and Michael Margolis offer incredibly useful insight on working in design in a startup context.

5 things you should do to keep new design hires sane, and insanely engaged

(…and thus, my streak of not writing an actual post with original content on this site is extended.)

Something I worked on recently: an ‘infowidget’

Here’s a widget we’ve cooked up for a quick celebratory post at BigDoor.

Cheers to our ace designer, Chad Jacobsen, for the infographic and for rolling with the countless creative gyrations. I love that he can cook up such substantial visual elements in basically 0 seconds flat. I enjoyed writing the underlying CSS/JS and markup; first time in a long time I’ve put together a widget like this. Maybe the first since FeedBurner Email?

Also, if you like that cool parallax scrolling effect – e.g., how the clouds scroll along in the background more slowly, creating an artificial sense of depth – head over to Jon Raasch’s site to learn more about the JQuery plugin that powers it. It Just Works.