Type 1 vs Type 2

The following article is a great find. It outlines the differences in the mentality of people who want to create great things (Type 2) versus people who just want to get a paycheque (Type 1). To truly create something great, one needs to be willing to have go way beyond the ‘tasks’ and ‘skills’ and explore in the realm of uncertainty for answers. In the process one might break some rules and appear to be distant and aloof, but those are the risks one must be willing to take. Providing answers should be the goal. The act of building amazing things is just an accumulation of problems solved and answers provided. I believe with dedication and time a person can achieve amazing things, but the key is that one needs to focus on the value he or she is providing.

Elon Musk put it very nicely, “I learn by reading books and talking to people. When you struggle with a problem, that’s when you solve it…when you put in X number of years, you’ll have a good grasp with [that problem]…That’s one of the ways I interview people. I ask them to tell me about the problems they’ve worked on, how they’ve solved them. If someone was the really the person who’d solved it, they’ll be able to answer in multiple levels, they’ll be able to go down to the brass tasks. And if they weren’t, they’ll get stuck.” My key takeway from this message is that, there is no getting around doing the real nitty gritty work. But this kind of work must be Type2 not Type1.

But there lies a simple question, faced with the uncertainty and risks associated with Type2 work, how does one know one’s self-assessment is right? Musk again has shed insights on this, “being focused on something you’re confident will have high value to someone else, being really rigorous in making that assessment[of the value to someone other than yourself] is really important, because our natural human tendency is wishful-thinking. A challenge to entrepreneurs is to say ‘what’s the difference between really believing in your ideals and sticking to them versus pursing some unrealistic dream that doesn’t actually have merit. ‘Can you tell the difference between those two things?’ [is the question]. You need to be very rigorous in your self-analysis. Certainly, [you’d need to be] extremely tenacious. And then just work like hell. Put in 80 to 100 hours per week, every week. All those will increase the odds of success. If other people are putting in 40 hour work weeks and you’re putting in 100 hour work weeks, then even if you’re doing the same thing, you’ll achieve in four months what they’ll take a year to achieve.”

It’s time me to post this and start open up my code editor and some books. Because frankly, things are to be built, not talked about.

Disclosure: I’m an ex-Googler. This answer does not represent the company.

The premise of the question is somewhat misguided in that there are no $500K guaranteed “earnings” out there for engineers. As the article mentions, this is a combination of salary and restricted stock units (RSU).

To explain what you’d need to do to get there, let me offer an analogy:

If you’re a worker in a village who supplies said village with water, you are valuable to its people. There are two types of workers:

Type 1 worker: Grabs an empty bucket or two, goes to the sweet water lake, fills them up, comes back and makes twenty people happy. He gets to drink some of that water along the way, and once he gets back, takes some of the water home.

Type 2 worker: Disregards how much of a “fair share” of water he’s getting. Instead of grabbing a bucket, grabs a shovel and a little cup, and disappears for a while. He’s digging a stream from the lake towards the village. Often he disappoints people for having returned from weeks of work with an empty cup. But the elders in the village for some reason believe in him and want to keep him (and throw him a bone so that he doesn’t starve for a little while). Some day, suddenly he shows up with a constantly flowing stream of water behind his back. He puts the Type 1 workers out of water delivery business. They’ll have to go find a different activity and “team” to work with. Type 2 worker, depending on how much control they retained on that stream, get to own a good chunk of it. Because the village wants to acquire and integrate that stream, they compensate the ownership of Type 2 worker in that stream with on par ownership in the village itself, typically land or such.

News media observes the Type 2 worker and his unwillingness to part with his accumulated wealth in return for his added value for the village (often vesting on a schedule, also known as golden handcuffs); and spins it such that it looks as if another village tried to woo that worker but was met with unexpected resistance.

The resulting media impression, in the mind of Type 1 workers, feels like pay inequity (see the video at the bottom). This is because Type 1 workers expect equal rewards for equal time spent being loyal to the same village.

Let me now tell you a real story:

I was in Monterey Bay for new years this year. I stood there with my wife, watching a young guy start to dig a hole. My wife was enjoying the general vibe of the beach, where everyone was busy ignoring the guy. I pointed to him from the top of the observation spot and told my wife “Watch. In 30 minutes, all these people will be digging for this guy.”

Thirty minutes later, he had managed to dig a tiny stream from his castle / moat to the ocean. The water had to come uphill from the ocean to fill his moat, so he was busy changing the slope of the stream to favor the moat. 5 minutes later, observing children started digging with him. 10 minutes later, a few grown-ups started digging. 15 minutes later, the timid foreigners with cameras in hand started digging. In 60 minutes, one Type 2 worker had managed to inspire 15 Type 1 workers to complete a flowing stream of water.

Here’s the photo I took of the completed project, to forever commemorate my bet on the power of an individual. The guy with the purple bucket is the founder of that stream, though you wouldn’t know it just by looking at the picture:

The overlooked detail is that not all sweat creates equal value. Type 2 worker was willing to break some rules, becoming an outcast and going hungry for an indeterminate period of time to create an automated stream of wealth for the village. Worker 1 expects to “get paid” this value by performing “skills” or “tasks”. The basis of this line of reasoning doesn’t yield the desired results. The key difference is risk taking with no guarantees.

Arguably almost all of the pioneers of the village itself (in this case Google) were Type 2 workers who held their thirst for years before establishing the stream of billions of dollars. The folks making big RSUs are, either:

1. From the early days, responsible for having created a major core value
2. Created new value accidentally as a side project that turned out to be valuable
3. Acquired as a value-creating startup
4. Somehow (unlikely) have monopolistic knowledge about a value stream

The other types getting these deals are usually the children of our imagination, and sell a lot of “Business Insider” papers.

Every heart sings a song, incomplete, until another heart whispers back.- Plato
Thank you for the tremendous support for this writing. 120,000+ views, Quora is incredible!

A number of commenters have indicated that they have a hard time putting this parable in the frame of their reality. Some have questioned the negotiation tactic between the employee and the company to secure the level of equity that would be needed to support such an income. Others have even accused the parable of not answering the actual question. Most of these comments are looking at the world from the Type 1 frame of mind, still striving to “get paid”.

So let me tell you another story, just a week after writing the above. Perhaps this will be a little more concrete:

In May 2009, a career Type 1 worker applied for a job at Twitter. He was turned down. In Aug 2009 he applied for a job at Facebook. He was turned down again. He decided to set out on an “adventure” and picked up Type 2 work, digging a stream of revenue from the lake of humanity’s communication needs to the village of incorporated chatterboxes manifested in the very two companies that had rejected his Type 1 services.

Along the way when he and another friend were digging the stream, their inspired group grew to 55 individuals, and the elders of other villages threw them a few bones, $250K at first, then $8MM and eventually $50MM by Sequoia Capital once the stream was going to obviously be successful.

Three hours before this very moment that I’m writing this, CNN announced that this Type 2 worker’s stream “is purchased by Facebook for $19 Billion” (That’s Billion with a “B”).

Facebook just purchased WhatsApp. And Brian Acton, after five years of “digging a revenue stream” for Facebook’s business, is now a capital owner in Facebook; a place where he originally applied for a job and got denied.

His timestamped tweets from 2009 before he started “digging”:

“Got denied by Twitter HQ. That’s ok. Would have been a long commute.”
brianacton: Got denied by Twitter HQ. That’s …

“Facebook turned me down. It was a great opportunity to connect with some fantastic people. Looking forward to life’s next adventure.”
brianacton: Facebook turned me down. It …

Do you think his 55 employees will need to negotiate for $500K salaries at Facebook? Or do you think Facebook will force larger salaries and vesting capital upon them lest they decide to get the heck out of the village as soon as their checks clear?

The Type 2 worker does not compare or negotiate salary, because he is not selling a service to the village (corporation). He is selling overlooked wealth. The village essentially has no choice but to compensate him in accordance with the value of the wealth he brings to the table. The wealth in his hand can be traded to make both sides of the deal better off. (Watch the uptick in Facebook’s shares)

The question is not whether there will be a deal. It’s whether this particular village is sitting at the other side of the table, when that deal happens. And when it’s water for the village, the extra zeroes in front of the dollar sign are considered a negligible necessity.

More of my writings can be found at the link below, where I collect my original work. Translations to other languages are welcome, as long as you give me the opportunity to link back to your translation from the original post.


I’ve come across some enlightening information from David Cole, lead designer at Quora.
My key takeaways from his article are:

  1. Design is an agglomeration of skill sets that facilitates the building and production of something that changes the world. These skill sets change over time. New ones are added, old ones are deprecated, just like life. Graphic design is an agglomeration of skills in typography, color theory, layout, visual hierarchy, etc. Industrial design is an agglomeration of skills in ergonomics, usability, aesthetics and more. These fields used to be quite hands on (some still are) and heavily relied on paper, wood, foam and other materials. Designers drafted with 4H pencils and metal rulers on large sheets of papers, quickly sketched out ideas with charcoal and later on markers. They modeled with wood, metal, foam and textile.
  2. Then the medium shifted to digital, pretty thoroughly on most fronts. Photoshop, Illustrator, SolidWorks, CAD, AfterEffects have become the de facto tools of design. With the emergence of the web, mobile, and ubiquitous inter-connectivity, a new Product Design medium is born.  Graphic and visual design skill sets and tools no longer suffice the new medium of digital product and experience design. “The medium is the message.” How can a designer conceive of great user experiences without being well versed in the languages of this digital medium,  in which these novel experiences take place? Producing static images of what your design that are supposed to convey the flow of experience, simply does not work. When you have to ask people to imagine an interaction,  you are not doing the job right. We as designers, cannot be married to the media / tools we work with. If one wants to produce great work that changes the world, then one must be well versed in the language of today’s world.
  3. Design that doesn’t get implemented is not real design.  When a mock is not implement, it stay as a mock. It does not become design — it has not been tested, it is not real. Design is simply not producing a mock and giving it to someone else to make. Design is iterative and cyclical in terms of its relationship with production/implementation. “Implementation reveals gap in design”. It is through implementation that poor assumptions are observed and hidden conditions are exposed. Only after going through this process can a mock be validated and then it starts to become design. So the key is that the feedback loop has to be there to for design to take place. When design and implementation are closely so integrated, to the extent that feedback loop closes itself, it becomes one momentous act of simply making/doing. Such a condition can produce great work. This is why it’s best that designers need to know enough code to allow that closely integrated feedback loop to happen.
  4. A design oriented business needs to enable such a condition to exist. Systems and tools unique to the business needs to be put in place to truly elevate the level of iteration and speed up the process of making & doing.

My thoughts for now. I may have more to add for #4.

The full article from David Cole is below.

The Myth of the Myth of the Unicorn Designer

David Cole

In his article, Why Can’t Startups Find Designers?Sacha Greifwrites:

If you’re looking for a designer who can come up with your identity, design your site, create UIs with great user experience for your web and mobile apps, and on top of that code his or her work in HTML/CSS (and why not throw in Javascript in the mix!), then I’m sorry to inform you that you’re hunting unicorns.

The “unicorn” label is not Sacha’s creation, but this quote neatly summarizes a pervasive meme in our industry: designers who excel at many skills are so rare that they might as well be mythical. The argument goes that designers must pick between being great at one thing or mediocre at many things.

This is wrong. You can observe many talented people who stand as counter examples: Shaun InmanKyle Neath, and Justin Ouellette are some of my favorites. More problematically, this argument is the result of numerous bad ideas about learning, definition, and process. Being a long-time generalist designer myself, I feel passionately that this myth is holding back our field and deserves to be debunked.

Learning isn’t a zero-sum activity.

These skills are not mutually exclusive. Picking up Python won’t make you forget how to kern. We all have many years ahead of us in our careers, and they can be used to learn anything.

The central counter-argument here is that any learning comes with opportunity cost. Learning Python might very well take up time that you would otherwise use for studying, say, product management. This is true, in theory. But in practice, most designers I know, including myself prior to joining Quora, arenot learning at their maximum rate. I have spent much of my career solving the same design problems over and over again with no substantive personal growth to show for it. I don’t think my situation is unique.

But even if you were learning at your maximum rate, the opportunity cost argument actually works in favor of the multi-disciplinary approach. Design and its component practices are like any other craft: you can always develop a deeper familiarity with the minutiae, asymptotically approaching mastery. But this is a process with diminishing returns. Would you rather carve a door 1% better than you did last year, or learn how to build the rest of the house in the same amount of time? As I argue below, the connective tissue between these skills may actually be more valuable than incremental gains in a single practice.

And keep in mind, this is more an issue of prioritization — what do you want to learn right now — than one of long-term skill development. You have the rest of your life to carve a better door.

Design is already not a single skill.

The notion that you can’t be good at more than one practice is silly because most practices are themselves comprised of more granular skill sets. Typography teaches you about kerning, font pairing, and legibility. But typography itself is just one component of what we call graphic design, which is the unified application of many additional skills like color theory, layout design, and so on. We may call them different things, but that’s an abstraction to aid study and discussion. Their utility, and our primary concern, is in their function as part of a holistic system, where they work together to achieve an outcome. This never stops being true, no matter how far up the chain you go.

A unified process fosters better work.

If you accept the holistic view, then you have to accept that design itself is just a piece of a larger effort, which is to build something that changes the world. Design work that never gets built is not real; you cannot truly separate design from implementation.

The product development process, then, must be built to ensure this holistic perspective is not lost. The best implementation reflects the designer’s intent, and the best design reflects the product’s goals. There’s a through-line that binds every step: the product needs to reflect a single vision, a consistent explanation (about human behavior, about the technology) for why it will succeed. The preservation of that through-line can be more important than any individual step, as a mis-aligned product competes with itself before it competes with the market.

I think this dynamic is why single developer products (think:InstapaperPinboard, etc.) can often be so successful despite their inherent constraints: fewer chances for misalignment. It’s just easier to align a small team than a large one, especially when the designer shares the same technical language as the engineer from working in the same codebase. It’s also easier for one person to harmonize aspects of a product when they can accurately reason about trade-offs between the various moving parts of the system.

The other implication of this perspective is the admission that this process is not inherently linear. Taken as an interwoven system, design and implementation can and should push on each other in equal measure. Implementation often reveals gaps in the design: undocumented states and conditions, bad assumptions about usage, and other realities hard to predict when locked in Photoshop. The designer who implements their own work experiences these feedback loops directly, and can incorporate the appropriate changes in their final context.

You don’t have to be great at everything to create great work.

The aim of developing your skills is not actually to have moreskill per-se. We learn in order to make, and its the quality of our output that is the ultimate measure of our efforts. These concepts are tightly related, but there are systems for producing stronger work independent of skill.

When people hear “designers should learn to code” they often take it to mean that designers should be as talented an engineer as someone who does it full-time. Thanks to technical advances, this is decreasingly the case. Here at Quora, we have a sophisticated infrastructure that empowers designers to build complex features with a rudimentary knowledge of programming (relative to an engineer). I wrote about this more extensively in my post, Designers Will Code. This is not unique to our culture here, GitHub’s Kyle Neath has also talked aboutthis phenomenon. This is currently overlooked because these systems haven’t become common-place, but that’s a chicken-and-egg process: investment in creating these tools is justified only if you actually have a generalist team.

Another example: one problem with discussing this topic in a theoretical light is that designers don’t actually work in a vacuum of their individual skill. As a member of a larger organization, your individual variation in skill is less important than the aggregate expertise of the team. I’m not the strongest programmer on our design team, but my peers can help me make informed decisions. Everyone on our team draws on the skills of everyone else, and the final work will be stronger than any individual would’ve been capable of. This may sound like specialization but it’s fundamentally different. The expectation is that every individual is growing towards independence, not developing dependencies. This is not abstract: by becoming a better programmer I have concretely absorbed the tasks that what would typically define a discrete role (front-end engineer) at most other companies.

It’s curious that designers are so eager to place limitations on their potential, but I’ve experienced those feelings first hand. Prior to joining Quora, I did not have a good reason to believe I could ever be a productive programmer. All of my attempts to learn in evenings and weekends were not particularly fruitful. But when placed in an environment where I’m both expected and empowered to develop these skills, I have indeed been able to. Perhaps it’s not for everyone, but I’m positive that the number of designers who would thrive in a generalist — a.k.a. multi-disciplinary a.k.a. holistic — design role is far greater than the number of designers who are actually encouraged to try. To my fellow jacks-of-all-trades: don’t give up.

I suspect I haven’t considered every angle of this, so I’m eager to get feedback on this post. You can reach me in the comments below or on Twitter.

Moving Out + Dumb Experiments + Average Humans

Great presentation from Zach Holman, githubber.

When you find yourself pondering the time you spend at a company — ask yourself:

“Am I improving?”
“Is this company improving?”
“Is the company going to burn in a cashless fire mere months from now?”
“Do I dread the work?”

Then spend some time assessing these things. “Moving up sometimes means moving out.”

“Don’t rely on work for growth, build ridiculous side projects, because dumb experiments become smart patterns.”

“…Most humans are average, even the ‘best’ and ‘coolest’ are pretty dumb.”

A Dent in the Universe

One of the great things are technology is that it enables the spread of knowledge. I find that so empowering and incredibly awesome.

For example, this article I came across, once again by Lift app founder Tony Stubblebine, reinforces what I believe should be the goal of any creative/startup endeavor — that is having a real positive impact that makes the word a better. Some of you may say this is very cheesy and cliched, but hey, those words ring true to me.

What is success? Impact.

Never mistake activity for achievement. ~ John Wooden

The software project that haunts me the most was a single-sign on implementation that I did for O’Reilly.

This project was handed to me, partially done, with the following instructions:

These three bugs need to be fixed. Do you think you can do them so that we can launch in two weeks?

The three bugs didn’t seem too hard, so I said yes. I think it takes some experience to recognize that there’s a huge red flag in that question.

I was answering, that, yes, I could complete those three things in short order. How would I know, having never looked at the project, whether those three things were sufficient for launch?

In the course of the next two weeks, three more unfinished things popped up and the launch date was pushed back two more weeks. Then more missing features and bugs were found. And again.

After three months of this I was racked with guilt over the missed launch dates. Although, nobody had ever asked me the explicit question, “How much work needs to be done before we can launch?”

I went home that weekend determined to figure out how to get the project on track. I was basically a junior programmer then and had no idea how to run a project. So I bought a book on project management, Rapid Development by Steve McConnell, and cracked it open.

The book opens with 36 Classic Mistakes Enumerated. I checked off 17 mistakes for the project and was hooked on the book for the rest of the weekend.

When I went to work on Monday, I hid out in an empty office on a different floor and spec’d the project for myself. According to my rough spec, the project had at least 180 function points and I had completed 90 over the last three months, leaving 90 more to do. Would we be launching in two weeks? Definitely not.

For a long time, this was the project I was most proud of. I used my spec to pull the project out of the weeds and onto a realistic schedule. The project got on track, a realistic launch date removed my late-project guilt, and the launch was a technical success.

My bosses loved my initiative. It also gave me a lot more work options: I got more respect at that job, I got opportunities to make bigger decisions, and that led to opportunities to work for some pretty cool startups.

Then one day I asked myself, “Why were we building a single sign-on system?”

Mixing some metaphors about nature and total ignorance, I had gotten out of the weeds only to see trees.

Years later when I could see the forest, I realized that my proud moment hadn’t accomplished anything (minor convenience for a small population of users, inconvenience/confusion for a big population of users).

The goal of the project was actually to allow for a second phase around business intelligence or some such thing. That never happened and I’m told now that the system is being phased out.

Being the richest man in the cemetery doesn’t matter to me. Going to bed at night saying we’ve done something wonderful, that’s what matters to me. ~ Steve Jobs

Ever since that realization, I’ve been working to figure out for myself how to maximize the impact of the work I do.

There’s a good discussion of what constitutes startup success over on Gabriel Weinberg’s blog (and the discussion is basically what prompted me to write). It goes over various scenarios for startups and tries to judge if they would be considered successful. Obviously a long running company that made millions of dollars for the founders and investors is a success. What about one that made a lot of users happy but didn’t make the investors any money? What about one that made everyone money in an acquisition but then was immediately shut down?

I just don’t think I could ever call my work successful unless people used it. I don’t want to be merely well paid. I don’t want to write great code that doesn’t get used.

There’s a logical argument to be made that taking part in a system that produces one Google and nine failures is a way to maximize your impact. But I couldn’t handle that unless I was working on Google. I don’t want to look back on 30 years of work and realize that only three of those years mattered. That means I care about consistency of impact as much as I do about the magnitude of impact.

Do What Matters

I recently found this great article about working on things that matter.

So what does matter?

My key takeaways are:

#1 Work on something that you’d want to solve regardless how much money you’d be paid. Say you’ve won the lottery for a huge sum of money, so much that won’t need to ever think about making ends meet. What would you work on next? How does that thing matter to you, to others? What do you want to see happen as a result of your effort?

#2 Be less focused about what you’re getting. Instead focus on what you’re providing. Reframe the question to what value do you bring to the world. What are you contributing? This echoes a lot with one of my earlier posts.

#3 If I find myself working on something that I don’t think matters, I will do two things. 1. Validate the problem exists, if it doesn’t — find out what a related problem is. If it does exist, find out what I can do to solve that  2. Work on the problem.

Parts of the article are copied below.

  1. Work on something that matters to you more than money.I addressed this topic in my commencement address at SIMS a few years ago, and I’ll think I’ll just quote myself here.

    Some of you may end up working at highflying companies. Some of you may succeed, and some of you may fail. I want to remind you that financial success is not the only goal or the only measure of success. It’s easy to get caught up in the heady buzz of making money. You should regard money as fuel for what you really want to do, not as a goal in and of itself. Money is like gas in the car — you need to pay attention or you’ll end up on the side of the road — but a well-lived life is not a tour of gas stations!

    Whatever you do, think about what you really value. If you’re an entrepreneur, the time you spend thinking about your values will help you build a better company. If you’re going to work for someone else, the time you spend understanding your values will help you find the right kind of company or institution to work for, and when you find it, to do a better job.

    Don’t be afraid to think big. Business author Jim Collins says that great companies have “big hairy audacious goals.” Google’s motto, “access to all the world’s information” is an example of such a goal. I like to think that my own company’s mission, “changing the world by sharing the knowledge of innovators,” is also such a goal.

    Don’t be afraid to fail. There’s a wonderful poem by Rainer Maria Rilke that talks about the biblical story of Jacob wrestling with an angel, being defeated, but coming away stronger from the fight. It ends with an exhortation that goes something like this: “What we fight with is so small, and when we win, it makes us small. What we want is to be defeated, decisively, by successively greater things.”

    One test of a bubble is how many entrepreneurs are focused on their upcoming payday rather than on the big things they hope to accomplish. Me-too products are almost always payday-focused; the entrepreneurs who first made the market often had much less expectation of easy success, and were instead wrestling, like Jacob with the angel, with a hard problem that they thought they could solve, or at the very least make a dent on.

    It’s also clear that if you’re thinking more about the competition than you are about customers and the value you’re going to create for them, you’re on the wrong path. As Kathy Sierra once put it, “In many cases, the more you try to compete, the less competitive you actually are.”

    The most successful companies treat success as a byproduct of achieving their real goal, which is always something bigger and more important than they are.

  2. Create more value than you capture.It’s pretty easy to see that Bernie Madoff wasn’t following this rule; nor were the titans of Wall Street who ended up giving out billions of dollars in bonuses to themselves while wrecking our economy. It’s harder to judge the average small business, but it’s pretty clear that most businesses do in fact create value for their community and their customers as well as themselves, and that the most successful businesses do so in part by creating a self-reinforcing value loop with their customers.For example, a bank that loans money to a small business sees that business grow, perhaps borrow more money, hire employees who make deposits and take out loans, and so on. The power of this cycle to lift people out of poverty has been demonstrated by microfinance institutions like the Grameen Bank. Grameen is clearly focused on creating more value than they capture; not so the like of Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac, or WaMu, or many of the other failed financial institutions involved in the current financial meltdown. They may have started there, but at some point, they clearly became more concerned with how much value they could capture for themselves.If you’re succeeding at this goal, you may sometimes find that others have made more of your ideas than you have yourself. It’s OK. I’ve had more than one billionaire (and an awful lot of startups who hope to follow in their footsteps) tell me how they got their start with a couple of O’Reilly books. I’ve had entrepreneurs tell me that they got the idea for their company from something I’ve said or written. That’s a good thing! I remember back in the early days of the Internet, when the buyer at Borders told me after one of my talks, “Well, you’ve just given your competitors their publishing program for the year.” If my goal is really “changing the world by spreading the knowledge of innovators,” I’m thrilled when my competitors jump on the bandwagon and help me spread the word!Look around you: How many people do you employ in fulfilling jobs? How many customers use your products to make their own living? How many competitors have you enabled? How many people have you touched that gave you nothing back?There’s a wonderful section in Les Miserables about the good that Jean Valjean does as a businessman (operating under the pseudonym of Father Madeleine). Through his industry and vision, he makes an entire region prosperous, so that “there was no pocket so obscure that it had not a little money in it; no
    dwelling so lowly that there was not some little joy within it.” And the key point:

    Father Madeleine made his fortune; but a singular thing
    in a simple man of business, it did not seem as though that were his
    chief care. He appeared to be thinking much of others, and little of

Focusing on big goals rather than on making money, and on creating more value than you capture are closely related principles. The first one is a test that applies to those starting something new; the second is the harder test that you must pass in order to create something enduring.

Take Microsoft. They started out with a big goal, “a computer on every desk and in every home,” and for many years unquestionably created more value than they captured. They helped grow the PC industry as a whole; they built a platform that helped many small software vendors to flourish. But over time, they began to capture more value than they created: as the cost of PCs plummeted, hardware vendors had to survive on the slimmest of margins while Microsoft collected monopoly rents; bit by bit, Microsoft consumed its own developer ecosystem by building the features of successful startups into their own products, and using their operating system dominance to crush the early movers. As I’ve written elsewhere, I believe that Microsoft must re-commit itself to big goals beyond its own profitability, and to creating more value than it captures if it is to succeed. (Danny Sullivan wrote a great piece about the strategic relevance of this very idea just last week, Tough Love for Microsoft Search.)

Or take Google. Again, a huge goal: “Organize all the world’s information.” And like Microsoft in its early years, they are enabling others while making a pile of money for themselves. Any business with a web presence need only take a look at its referrer logs if it questions that assertion. How much of your traffic comes from Google? But again, as I’ve written previously, this test still looms in Google’s future. Will they continue to create more value than they capture, or will they seek to capture more of the value for themselves?

It’s a matter of balance. Every business needs to pay attention to its bottom line; every individual needs to put a roof over his or her head and provide food for loved ones. But take a look inside: how much are you thinking about yourself and what you might gain, versus what you might create?

It’s particularly tough to stay focused on big issues in the face of an economic downturn, because getting paid looms large. I look back at some of the decisions I made after the crash in 2001, when I became far more focused on the survival of my business than on the value we were going to create in the marketplace. We did some me-too publishing that I really regret; the things that ultimately made a bigger difference to our bottom line were commitments to the future: our Web 2.0 events were driven by the goal of reigniting enthusiasm in the computer industry as well as helping people to understand the new rules of the emerging internet platform;Safari Books Online was driven by the desire to create a new revenue model not just for ourselves but for all publishers; Make: was a celebration of the next generation of hackers; Foo Camp started as a way to give something back to all the people who’d contributed to our success.

But these two tests are not enough, because it’s become clear that we need a long term ecological perspective as well. So I’d add a third principle:

Don’t Dream — Just Do. Do it Now and Do it Fast.

Some pieces of advice are not applicable.

The following advice though IS highly applicable.

My key takeaways are:

1. doing something useful is more worthwhile than chasing after money. Rather than putting up smoke mirrors and fool people, actually provide something that people will want to buy.

2. startups are about learn. Learn fast and try fast. Iterate on what you learned and ship,  learn from what you shipped, then iterate and ship again, and then repeat the cycle.

3. surround yourself with people who are more interesting / more skilled than you. You’ll learn and grow fast and iterate fast and become better.

I spoke recently to an entrepreneurship class at Carnegie Mellon. The professor approached me saying she wanted to hear from an entrepreneur early in their career who was not yet rich. Check.

I tried to skip the standard fare, “Fail fast!,” but still focus on some fundamental truths that have been important to getting me this far (and that I wish I’d understood from the start)

About Me

I’ve had five jobs.

I did trivial, boring work for a giant corporation, MasterCard. My main goals during that time were boosting my hourly rate and managing my fantasy football team. I decided that I needed work that felt meaningful.

I left for the most interesting company that would hire me, O’Reilly Media, a company that is very active in the cutting edge of web technology. That company is surrounded by an amazing community of innovators and inventors.

Eventually it dawned on me that I was more interested in being part of inventions than studying them. So I joined Odeo, a podcasting startup, as their director of engineering. Podcasting was very hot at that time and people thought it was the next big social media trend, on par with blogging. We failed, and the market failed, to do anything big in podcasting, but we did have one significant success. We spun out a side project that is now huge: Twitter. That’s by far the biggest success I’ve witnessed first hand.

After that, I helped some friends launch a personal finance startup, Wesabe, which, famously (in tech circles), got crushed by Mint (that would be a pun if the outcome was reversed). I do hope that somebody else tries to tackle that space because the problem we were working on remains unsolved.

Then I started my own company and launched our first, and hopefully not last product, CrowdVine. I had this idea that anyone should be able to create their own social network site, like a miniature Facebook. I didn’t know why this would be useful, I just thought it would be cool. I also had a goal to build the company as a privately owned entity that was investor-free, so we ended up specializing in the first profitable vertical we could find, which is conferences. This genre of software has a major impact on ability of conference attendees to network.

So that’s the work history feeding these observations: working at a large company, a mid-size company, a start up that pivoted into something huge, a startup that went under, and my own startup which has reached the point of profitable small business but wants to be much more.

#1. Surround Yourself With Interesting People

Without this step, I wouldn’t even be here.

O’Reilly taught me that, if I didn’t like the projects that other people were giving me, I could go out and create my own projects. I’ve always been ambitious, but until I really ran headfirst into inventors I thought ambition was about working hard and getting promotions.

The second thing interesting people do is turn turds into gold. That’s certainly what happened at Odeo. We had no traction with podcasting but one person on the team did have the golden idea for Twitter. That person, Jack Dorsey, paired with two more people was able to put together a compelling prototype in two weeks.

The third reason, is that even if your company fails completely, the interesting people you worked with will disperse to other interesting places and invite you along.

#2. Focus on the right things.

Focus on the right things. But what are the right things?

Steve Blank, a well regarded professor of entrepreneurship at Stanford and Berkeley, describes a startup as a learning organization. If business advice was reliable, a startup would simply be building and selling a new product. But it’s not. A startup is about learning what’s useful and why, and then learning who’s buying and why.

In my own business, we got tons of advice on how to grow. We should do partnerships, we should sponsor conferences, we should get trade show booths, etc. But we measured all of those ways and realized that they lost money. And, just to double check that we weren’t simply bad at marketing, we watched our competitors try and fail to grow through those methods. So my advice on advice: trust but verify. After trying and measuring, the things that do grow our business profitably are word of mouth, blogging, and newsletters. So that’s what we focus on.

It ends up being simple, but it starts out as a confusing jumble of contradictory signals and advice. Your main job, essentially, is finding out what the right things to do are and then doing them.

#3. Be useful.

This last one is not especially optimized for making millionaires, it’s just a bit of personal philosophy behind why you would work so hard as an entrepreneur.

There’s basically two ways to be financially successful as a company. One, you could rely on time-tested business fundamentals. I call this the Warren Buffet model.

Two, you could rely on the greater fool theory, which is that with enough hype, smoke, and mirrors you can find a buyer who is an even greater fool than your investors.

The greater fool theory is so reliable that it could even be called a fundamental rule of business which is why I said this is philosophical advice. I know people who’ve gotten rich both ways. But you only have so much time on this earth, why bother being small minded?

4 Years. 199 Hires. Not a Single One Left.

This talk is about how to keep people happy at work and get productive in a tech startup setting — making work a thing you’d enjoy and love.

My key takeaways are:
1. Experience design permeates everything. Focus on the experience is the key to success in everything. This is a great example of experience design for an organization. Reframing the employee, business organization experience does away with many of the traditional constraints/problems. There are way more things to explore in this.
2. Always bootstrap first — seek to be profitable from day one. The goal should be focused on contributing to the world / solving a problem — making something better, something that people would pay for, that you can make / provide.
3. Don’t listen to the users. Like Henry ford said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Users are likely wrong, in most instances.

Tech companies do a generally poor job at keeping employees from leaving.

There are plenty of reasons for this: competing offers, unhappiness, and just generally itchy feet. Because of this, sometimes it’s difficult to focus on building a strong culture of company solidarity, particularly when you’re trying to juggle the hundreds of other needs of a growing business.

This is a talk about keeping people.

Mastery Explained

David Choe is the artist who painted Facebook’s HQ back when it was still an aspiring startup.

He challenges the notion of talent by serving up the truth in blunt bro-style language. Art is work. Any greatness is achieved through discipline and repetition.

There is no shortcut. If you’d want to contribute something valuable to society, you need to work for it.  This is a universal principle.

“Competitors Don’t Matter”

Competition is not to be worried about. Competition is something you cannot control.

Focus on what you can do, stuff that matter.

Here are some simple rules on dealing with competition according to Tony Stubblebine, CEO of Lift. An app that I use and love.

Great article.

Here are a few things I’ve learned about competitors while working for or starting four different startups (Odeo, Wesabe, CrowdVine, Lift).

  • Competitors don’t matter.
  • If you’re going to get technical about it, worrying or planning for competitors doesn’t matter.
  • Competitors will find a way to put themselves out of business no matter what you do.
  • You’re at risk of putting yourself out of business also, so mind your own ship.
  • Competitors aren’t very good. Think about it, most startups are run by complete amateurs (remember the first company you started?), tackling a space they don’t understand, with extreme pressure, and limited resources. This is not a recipe for awesomness.
  • Take your eye off competitors for a moment and you’ll notice that your own company doesn’t have any customers. #morepressingproblems
  • Go back to examining your competitors and realize that if you were to knock them over the head and steal every single one of their customers that your startup would still be screwed.
  • When competitors kick you in the teeth it comes with such strength and suddenness that there was nothing for you to do anyway. Some examples to follow.
  • Beat down #1. Odeo’s podcasting directory didn’t matter after Apple added podcasting to iTunes. There was nothing to do beforehand other than not start the company. There was nothing to do afterward except to try something new. We tried audio comments, an online recording studio, audio messaging, short video messaging, audio status updates, an online radio player, and 140 character status updates.
  • Beat down #2. Mint sprinted by Wesabe with a cleaner design, better name, and aggressive marketing. This was obvious from the second they launched. Kudos. The only thing to do beforehand was to be better (which, duh, we tried). There was not much to do after except hope they take themselves off the board (Which they pretty much did when they got acquired and most of the team quit.)
  • Beat down #3. I just finished my beta version of CrowdVine as a “create your own social network service” when Ning refocused on just social networks and raised $100M. One day they looked completely unfocused, the next they looked unbeatable. Four years later they’d peaked, imploded and been acquired.
  • Two of the beat down stories involve competitors looking less strong over time. This “put yourself out of business” impulse is strong. I can’t stress this enough. If you insist on competing then use the “don’t go out of business” tactic. This tactic has a 99% effectiveness rating.
  • In the Odeo case, isn’t everyone happy we got chased off of podcast directories and did Twitter instead?
  • CrowdVine had seven direct competitors launch after we pivoted to social networks for conferences. Six of them put themselves out of business. For example they raised VC money and then pivoted after finding out that the market was too tiny, they failed to land any paying customers (this was B2B software), the founders got bored and tried something else, etc.
  • The seventh CrowdVine competitor, the one that didn’t put themselves out of business, validated the market and made it easier to land new customers.
  • A lot of weaker competitors will focus on you (and maybe even seem like they are copying you). Let them. Better to have second rate copies rather than for one to discover there is a fundamentally better approach.
  • If you’re thinking about competition because you’re one of the copycats, then you’re lame. You’re missing the point of entrepreneurship. There are so many fresh problems to solve.
  • Some competitors give you the creeps. They try to buddy up to you (it’s hard to find the respect to reciprocate when they’re copying your ideas). They publicly compare themselves to you even though they’re miniscule and you’re barely any bigger. They make outlandish claims about being top dog. They post links to their product in the comments whenever you get press. They behave weirdly toward you in person. Having the creeps is a distraction from your real problems: your product isn’t good enough and you don’t have enough customers.
  • Competitors will have tiny wins. You wanted those wins. Seeing them win will make you feel bad about yourself. The best thing I ever did for myself was delete my vanity search for CrowdVine competitors. Again, you have real problems that you need to save your stress for.
  • If a reporter asks you about a specific competitor the proper response is to pivot and respond to the product category. How does Twitter deal with Facebook? “Social networking is a huge category and we believe Twitter holds an important place.” See? You never even have to say the name of a competitor no matter how big.
  • The better competitors are actually your peers and you will be friends with them someday because you have a shared passion.
  • Competitors really only matter if your users are telling you that they matter. But this is just the same as any other case of your users telling you that you need a better product. So keep making a better product.
  • This post might look like it’s about strategy, but it’s really about productivity. Stop thinking about things that don’t matter.

Hopefully this realization about the futility of worrying about competitors makes your startup experience as zen as mine is (which is to say more so, but still a long way to go).

Fundamental Truth about Humanity

great talk transcribed in its entirety by the speaker himself: David Cole, head of design at Quora.

My key takeaway from this that Design is about discovering fundamental truth about humanity, then applying those discovered truth to empower people. Any piece of great design/innovation has that property of empowerment and enabling effect. The process of the such great designs/innovations, all of them, involved the discovery of fundamental truth about humanity.

My second takeaway is that constraints make design happen. What limits the design can be (or simply is) the driving force that enables the impetus that drives everything, as shown in the basketball example in the article. Embrace constraints so that freedom comes from within.

My third takeaway is something I already knew, but once again reaffirmed here. “It’s not what it looks or feels like. Design is how it works.” How it works is the product. Essentially design is the creation of the final product that people are not only willing to try, but deliberately seeks for and then chooses to use and incorporate into their life. This is back to the first take away of discovering fundamental truth about humanity and applying them for empowerment.

This is material from a talk I gave at Build on November 14th, 2013. I’ve cleaned it up a bit from the original working script so the video will be slightly different.

Two years ago at this conference, Wilson Miner gave a talk called When We Build. In that talk, he drew a connection that’s stayed with me. He argued that in the same way cars and roads transformed the way we lived our lives 50-60 years ago, screens are transforming our lives right now, and will continue to do so for decades to come.

And that raises a question for designers: What future are we building, given that we play a role in such an important process? I believe our industry as a whole hasn’t given an adequate answer to his question.

Recently I’ve started forming my own answer, and I’ve found it by looking backwards through the history of our field. But, it’s a different history than I’m used to looking at, and a different history than I think our industry is used to looking at. So today I’d like to share where I’ve been looking, and the answers I’ve found there.

I’d like to start by looking at the very history Wilson was describing. This is Thomas MacDonald. MacDonald was a civil engineer from Iowa and he was the Chief of the Bureau of Public Roads in the United States, which is now called the Federal Highway Administration.

MacDonald was the driving force behind the development of the American Interstate Highway System, which was something like the skeleton of the transformation that Wilson was talking about.

In 1924 he outlined his dream:

What I like about this quote is that it’s a vision of the future, a statement of how the world will be different once he’s done. It’s the answer he would have to Wilson’s question, and it’s the type of statement I think we should have readily available whenever asked. He wrote the following:

I’m not sure if he’s right — a stable economy seems pretty important too — but I think it’s important that he felt that way. This vision drove his work, and informed his decisions. For example, toll roads were one of his big enemies, being counter to this populist vision. The Golden Gate Bridge once lost federal funding just on the grounds that it had a toll.

So, many of us as designers don’t have an answer like MacDonald. There might be an answer but it wouldn’t be ouranswer, not in the way that MacDonald’s answer was his answer. The designer’s answer, more often than not, would be an answer given by someone else: a founder, a CEO, a product manager… There’s a kind of distance that exists between the vision and the designer’s work. Between what something is, and how that something gets expressed on a screen.

This distance is not unique to software design. It has been with design and designers for a long time. You can see this when you look at our heritage. When we study the masters, we talk about works like this:

Or this:

Or this:

These comparisons make gut-level sense. When you’re sitting back at your desk, reflecting on your work, it doesn’t appear to be very different on the surface:

But these classic works of graphic design have something important in common: the most valuable part of the work was not created by the designer.

Paul Rand did not engineer the first hard drive for IBM. Massimo Vignelli did not construct or conceive of the New York City subway system. Josef Müller-Brockman certainly did not write Beethoven’s symphonies.

Their work was always in service of a client, or a separate creation or event — always something else. Their role was not as creator, but communicator: translator, facilitator, marketer.  Design was in the middle, working between the something else and the customer. The something else, however, is where all of the actual value lies. Without a something else, there’s nothing to design for.

And this is still where interactive design was until only recently: the product specs, and the engineering over here, which designers translate into interfaces, for the user over there.

It’s literally what the word “interface” means: the point where two systems interact. It’s in the word! So by definition, if your only responsibility is the interface, you’re just communicating or translating the value, not creating it.

Here’s another lens on this. A classic definition of design that we’ve all seen:

And it’s an idea that has held up over time:

This idea is not specific to the idea of content, here it is with products:

That’s from the famous ten principles. See how design and product are separate notions here? There’s a radio over here, and an expression of the radio over there. In other words, design is a step in a process fueled by someone or something else.

So I think this thing of being in the middle is baked pretty deep into our identity as designers. But what I’m seeing is that for many of us working on the web (or mobile or whatever) this is becoming an incomplete picture of the work that we do. The industry is changing, and what it means to design is changing.

Over the course of my career, I’ve observed a progression:

My earliest interface projects began with wireframes that were given to me by a client or a founder or whatever. I would take the wireframes and kinda color them in, doing my best to spread usability into the nooks and crannies of the design. It was very structured and pre-defined.

After doing that for long enough, it became more typical to do the wireframing myself. Instead of starting with the wireframes, I started with a set of product requirements, and I defined the layouts and flows and interactions. This model worked well, and I think this is the model most of the industry still thinks of as the role of the designer. But that too began to change.

I started becoming more involved with that developing those product requirements, helping teams to develop whole products from scratch. Eventually my work started not with any specific assumptions of a product or a feature, but an abstract goal: a description of how things could be different, or should be different. Nothing there but aspiration.

Even that, too, is beginning to shift, but that’s another topic for another talk.

This is a description of my personal career path, but I don’t think it’s unique. This is a trend I’ve observed happening across our whole industry: design creeping into the tops of organizations, into the beginnings of processes. We’re almost to the point, or maybe we’re already there, that these are boring, obvious observations to be making. Designers, at last, have their seat at the table.

I think this is the defining quality of interaction design today and into the future. We’re not in the middle anymore. The something else isn’t a something else anymore. It can be ours to define. Ours to create from little more than a loose idea, a goal. Something from nothing.

There’s a Steve Jobs quote that gets thrown around a lot these days: design is how “it” works, not how “it” looks. But I think it’s gotten bigger than that: design is what “it” actually is.

So when we look back at a field like graphic design, we’re looking at a very different process. One of communication, not creation. In the past, when people created something new — that process of making something from nothing — in the past, we called that process not design, but invention.

And that’s what I’d like to propose today:

Designers are now in the business of invention.

I admit, there’s some part of me that chokes on that word a little, because I think it sounds a little silly. It makes me picture like a sepia-toned dude in a lab, working with beakers and microscopes. Our world feels very distant from that image.

But I don’t actually think they are too different, design and invention. At their root, both processes hinge on creating something new that’s based on an insight that nobody has had before. We discovered how vacuums are created, and so we were able to create the light bulb. Capacitive touch displays made it possible to build the iPhone. Those are clear insights, based on a technical discovery.

But in many cases, the key insights of the products we work on haven’t been technical. Twitter, for example, was technically possible for a long time before it was created. But the insight — that the character limitations would enable a fundamentally different and important kind of social behavior — wasn’t really known.

Now I’m not saying the creators of Twitter were consciously tapping into that discovery. Maybe they were, but it doesn’t matter. It’s not necessary that the insight comes ahead of the invention, as it’s often the pursuit of an impossible vision that returns the insight. But the dependency is still there, that the design depended on discovering something new about the world. The understanding of social behavior that Twitter taps into wasn’t obvious to most of us, otherwise I think we would’ve had Twitter as soon as it became technically feasible.

So taken in this sense, design and invention can be collapsed into a kind of shared definition. They are both, simply:

Applied discovery.

There are, of course, many products that do require a technical innovation in order to be successful, so this isn’t a point about design being more important than engineering or something. My point is just that a single non-technical insight can be the central driver of value and meaning in a creation. My point is that there’s an equivalency between the magnitude of a technical discovery and a behavioral or social discovery. We use different terms, but it’s in our interest to study them together, to treat them as a unified process, because there’s a lot we can learn.

And this is not a new phenomenon unique to software: history is filled with non-technical progress: schools, political systems, economic systems — all non-technical in nature. And these systems are actually very similar to the social software we create today. The way information is accessed on Facebook, that only your friends see your updates, is not a technical restriction. It’s an artificial structure created to guide human interaction towards a desired end. These other systems are the same way, and their insights come from understanding the optimal relationships between people and between groups. It’s not technology holding them together.

Basketball is actually one of my favorite examples of this phenomenon of non-technical insight, because it’s so recent that we can study it. A lot of these things emerge from over millennia of tradition. But basketball was created by a single guy: a gym teacher, James Naismith. So his school was in New England, and it was too cold during winter to play outdoor sports, and the students were getting rowdy. So he got this set of “product requirements” from his boss:

Keep the kids in shape; make it fair for everyone; not too rough. He had no budget, and a two-week turnaround time. Sounds like a really great client, right?

But he did it. He drafted up a simple set of rules. And it was fun. And basketball is now the most played sport by American teenagers, and there are professional leagues in almost every country in the world. It’s an incredible achievement, and there was no technical discovery required. Just a re-purposed soccer ball and a couple of trash baskets.

Games are actually some of my favorite examples in general because their history goes back so far. There’s evidence of people playing the board game Senet in ancient Egypt in 3000 BC. The game is over five thousand years old and it’s still fun today. So whatever universal aspects of the human experience the game taps into to make it fun have held true across an incredible timescale.

There’s this trope in web design that, because our work isn’t physical, it doesn’t last.  When you understand that our work depends on the discovery of these deep truths about humanity, you realize that our work is both the discovery and the creation. And new knowledge and understanding will live much longer than anything you can manufacture. We don’t need the original Senet game board to experience it.

Even technical inventions are defined, in many ways, by their non-technical impact on the world, by what they enable for people in their lives. Let’s talk about the telegraph and its inventor — or one of the inventors — Samuel Morse.

Samuel Morse was actually an artist for the first half of his life, and he painted portraits professionally. He landed this sweet gig in New York painting the famous Revolutionary general Lafayette. Morse was a huge fan, so he got pretty stoked about this, and he wrote letters to his wife back home in Connecticut just beaming with excitement and pride. But she would never read those letters, because back home she had fallen ill, and then later died. The letters from his family explaining the situation hadn’t shown up yet because they had to be delivered on horse, which took like a week to do. So then the dude invents instantaneous cross-country communication.

It’s a great framing of the story — albeit simplistic — because it contextualizes his work against the reason it matters to the world.  It enabled connections between people that weren’t possible before. These days we like to complain about how over-connected we are, how that actually makes us lonely. I think Morse was lonelier.

But, it’s interesting that Morse is our primary association with the invention of the telegraph. Remember that he was a painter for most of his life, not a scientist. His invention depended heavily on the work of the people who came before him and worked with him.  Much of the pioneering thinking behind electromagnetism was already discovered by a slew of other scientists, and even the first telegraph was, in fact, created by someone else — a pair of scientists named Weber and Gauss —not Morse.

One of the reasons Morse’s technology took off where others hadn’t is the insight of morse code. 1774 George-Louis le Sage invented a telegraph that could send complete, written messages. 1774! Samuel Morse wasn’t even alive back then. But this system required dozens of cables, you can see it here, one for every letter in the alphabet, because that’s what he figured was necessary to encode language into an electrical signal.

Morse code, a non-technical discovery I’ll note, meant that communication could be handled exclusively by a single cable. This made the invention significantly simpler and cheaper to implement.

But even though the technology was sound, Morse had a pretty bad “market fit” problem in front of him. Why would anyone use a telegraph where there were no cables… anywhere.

So Morse ends up spending the next years of his life pushing for adoption of his technology. In the process, he ends up burning through all of his money. He goes totally broke trying to petition Congress to install a kind of test cable, a line between Baltimore and Washington D.C. to communicate important political updates. He writes these depressing letters about how his hair is turning gray, and his vision is failing. Death was the only thing he saw in this future at that point.

This was all taking place during the Panic of 1837, the worst recession in the country’s history so far. There wasn’t a lot of optimism around federal funding for a theoretical technology without any proven benefit. Another dream client, right? The bankrupt United States government?

Eventually Morse slowly convinces one congressman at a time, and there’s this critical vote that barely passes, at like 89-82. But it works, and this cable gets constructed. It carries 30 letters per minute — about 14,000 times slower than a 56k modem, but pretty sweet nonetheless. And his standard becomes adopted by all of Europe and eventually he sees it spread into South and Central America. And of course, this technology is the foundation for modern communication, leading to the phone and the television and the internet, and so on.

This second half to Morse’s story is, to me, just as important as the initial invention. We often remember the people who successfully popularized or commercialized an invention more than the person who made the initial breakthrough. You know, we associate Edison with the light bulb, not Joseph Swan. Bell with the telephone, not Elisha Gray.

There are bad reasons for this, like privilege and power. These guys could do some pretty nasty things to take control of these creations. But the ability to take something from the lab and spread it out into the world is important, because that’s when the widespread human impact is actually felt. The human impact, not the technical.

So, after reading story after story like this, I’ve started to identify some patterns. Themes in their work that help me think about my own work. I’m starting to form answers to that question: what future should I be building?

When I look at the history of the greatest inventions, I find two important themes: they empowered people, and they empowered a lot of ‘em. Taken together, you get this kind of rudimentary formula of empowerment multiplied by scale.

And when I say “empowerment” I mean it in a very broad sense.

Whether that’s instantaneous communication with loved ones.

Or a new way to stay healthy.

Or the ability to travel across the country with unprecedented access.

Or really any way to help people be happy and long-lived, closer to the ones they love, with the tools and knowledge they need to be the person they want to be.

On the other end of the equation, we have scale. How many people are being empowered in this way? How can you lower costs and eliminate barriers?

Like Morse pushing through infrastructure investment, or using one cable instead of twenty-four.

Or Naismith using cheap, existing materials making the game accessible to everyone.

Or MacDonald eliminating toll roads, ensuring everyone with a car could take advantage of the freeways.

Costs for us as designers take many forms, some less obvious. Bandwidth is a cost, slow speeds are a cost, poor accessibility is a cost, confusing interfaces are a cost, complexity is a cost. Scale also suggests solving universal problems: problems like health, education, and financial stability.

So, I came to these conclusions, these answers, not by studying graphic design, but by taking a broader view of our work. I actually don’t think that these are properties you can meaningfully imbue into graphic design, or even interaction design, if you wanted to try. These are properties that come from the deeper layers of decision-making:

I’m talking about:

Product design. This is my definition, at least. The term is being used to describe any interface designer who happens to work on a product, which is unfortunate, but I’ll keep using this one.

But why us? Why should designers be in these roles? Well, one immediate answer is simply that I would like to be in control over the future I’m building. Right now, many of us can only change our answer to Wilson’s questions by just quitting and finding a new job where we’re bought into the vision.

But deeper, I think this is something designers can be really great at. We already understand how to induce utility, delight, motivation at the level of the interface. Expanding that toolset to apply to the bigger picture is not a huge leap.

This is a way of thinking about design that’s growing in popularity, but I recognize that it’s still a minority, maybe even an extreme minority. Nonetheless, I remain optimistic. When I look at the major shifts in our field over the past years — user-centered design, standards-based design, responsive design — years of advocacy have led to genuine, sustained progress. I’m confident we’ll get there.

I’ll point something else out, which is that we’re actually living in a perfect time for change. Apple, famously design-led, is the most valuable company in the world. Taking a design-centric approach to product development is becoming the default, I’m sure it will be taught in business schools soon enough. At the same time, thanks to frameworks and tools like Ruby on Rails, AWS, etc. engineering costs have sunk, creating a larger number of smaller engineering teams creating new products.

So: both a greater demand for design per team, and a greater number of teams in total. This has created an environment where we, as designers, are currently an extremely valuable resource. The hiring market is tilted hugely in our favor. This puts us in a position of power. Power to work on our terms, to craft our roles with as much thought as we craft our work. Our peers are looking to us to lead them, and we should feel good about that.

I’ve tried to articulate why reframing our work is a good thing, but I’d also like to talk about some of the problems that arise if we don’t.

There’s a temptation, when your only domain is the interface, to look there to innovate. When your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail, right? Most people don’t want novel interaction patterns. They want obvious interaction patterns, time-tested standards that don’t need to be re-learned every time they switch the app on their phone. Can you imagine if every car had a different approach to steering? One car would have a wheel, another would have tank controls, another with a video game controller… That’s what we’re doing to many of our users. Roll your eyes at a hyper-real page curl animation, but I bet that convinced a lot of people that the iPad would make sense to them.

This narrow view also threatens the ability to do our best work. Far too often, a designer is charged with designing a product that will never make sense when expressed in UI, and the feedback loops rarely move backwards to force the product to change in response to the interface. By owning both halves, each process can move in appropriate response to the other, ensuring harmony. This is also why I believe designers should code, but again, that’s another subject for another talk.

Here’s a question to ask yourself: if the project you were working on failed — it hit the market and nobody wanted it, nobody used it — would you blame yourself? If the answer is no, then I think you don’t have enough authority. If you’re blaming others for the outcomes in your work, it’s time to demand more.

So, invention, empowerment, scale… I’ve given you my answers, but they’re only my answers. I’m not trying to say they should be yours.

What I do want you to do is this: realize that now is a very special time, a time where we can pursue or create roles with unprecedented authority, roles that give you the ability to create from scratch, to define a vision that changes the world. So: don’t limit yourself, think as big as you can, and go invent something.


As usual, I am deeply indebted to Mills Baker for his help honing these ideas and editing this talk. I’d also like to thank Andy McMillan for creating the opportunity for me to give this talk.