Video is available here: https://vimeo.com/129198643
I left Adobe last year. The things we do today (at Typekit?) looks nothing like what we did a few years ago. I work as a venture capitalist now in a Silicon Valley business. Not very common for a designer, but I think a user-centric and design-led culture is good for a business.
I could give a talk about capitalism, but this is Europe. This talk will be about culture.
Imagine paddling down a river towards the sunset. Just you and the elements of nature. Suddenly your boat tips over and you end up in the water, grasping for air. When you look around you see some kids swimming away, laughing at you. What do you feel? Anger? Fear? Anxiety? Maybe all of them.
Now go back a few moments before and instead of getting tipped over, you look around and saw that your boat ran into a floating log. Would you feel the same? Probably not. They’re pretty much the same situation, than why are you feelings not the same? The feeling you should have is equanimity – grace under pressure.
Another example, one morning I woke up at 6.24am to the sound of water. It came from the bathroom, and there I found my son pushing down rolls of toilet paper down the toilet with a plunger. He was very proudly working down his third roll already (I always found it amazing how people always manage to take a picture of this first in these kind of situations). As a parent you know the feelings rushing through you at that moment.
Typekit allows you to use custom web fonts on your website. When you choose a font on our site, your fonts get compiled for you into something we call la kit. Next the kit gets moved to our CDN where it’s placed at the origin server, and gets distributed from there.
Jeffrey shows a graph about how their server load normally looks, and how it was showing a sudden spike one day. After some investigation it seemed like s lot of kits were stuck in the queue on the road to the CDN.
On normal days they hold a short morning meeting about all the active projects going on, but that morning it was all about that spike. One of our customers seemed to be creating a very large amount of traffic via the API. So I call their CEO, and say that they’re doing a great job. The CEO agrees and tells him that they just released their new site to 400k users. Great! Nice that you informed us about it up front.
He goes on telling that there will be more coverage coming the next Monday, as they just got acquired. This all happened just before the Thanksgiving weekend. We got a group of engineers together and made a plan. We had three days to be able to handle 3 times more traffic than that’s crippling us at the moment.
We decided we had to identify the problem on Friday, build the solution on Saturday and integrate it with the rest of the site on Sunday.
We tried to do it like NASA, where they created a room where everybody knew what to do.
So then we removed all the business decisions, and provide them with all the moral support (in the fridge ;-)). There would be one person who would update us regularly, and discussing what they needed. So everybody else could work on fixing the problem
Here equanimity comes in. We set everything up, structured everything. Let all the anger go about the situation you’re in.
First we looked at generating the kits, that only took milliseconds to do. Clearly that wasn’t the problem. There was no problem with the bandwidth either. But everything was clogging on the way to the CDN server.
With the problem being outside of our infrastructure, and not having the time to wait on our provider to fix it. We chose to ignore the CDN and started to build our own.
This had been on our list of things to-do for a long time, it was going to be a project that would take three months. Only instead of doing it in 3 months, we had to do it on Saturday now. On Sunday morning they had a just viable service.
There was a tremendous amount of traffic on Monday, but our new CDN managed to handle it quite well.
What did we learn?
There are enough lessons to learn here, but I’ll focus on just one.
The world is complex, we are connected to everything and everything breaks. Everything we do is user experience. It felt like it was always holding him back in doing what he wanted by making the best user experience. Perhaps the biggest thing we learned is that teams thrive if they have equanimity.
If you look at sports, and more specifically at cycling. The journalists often ask about somebody’s changes, and if they say they will win and do they’re all amazed. And if they ask how he did it he said “The team was very strong”. Cycling like how birds do it, they keep somebody out of the wind.
“Some people believe tension is a good creative tool. I’m not one of those people” – Steven Soderbergh. Not controlling his actors, but trying to amplify them.
The old way of motivation is based on factory work, where human labor is asset you need to squeeze as much as you can. In a creative environment other things are needed. Like shared values, trust, and camaraderie. What working at a start-up is really about is a shared feel of values.
This is about meetings. “If you are tired and alone, you can always hold a meeting.”
We had a set of meetings that helped us reach equanimity.
The first type of meeting is the chat room. Email is corrupt, we need to over-communicate to act distributed. Chat does that better. Email is a large communication medium, not about compression.
The information you needed was only available in the chat-room. Created a set of accountability. And yes, things like animated GIFs are part of it.
I was always very frustrated with meetings. In a distributed setup it was easy to feel adrift. We aimed to get it as fast as we can. We started it at 10.05 because nobody would be late. If we started at 10.00 it would often take half an hour to get everybody there, but if we did it at 10.05 everybody would be there. I have no idea why it works that day.
Every single person in the company would be there. What at the time was about 30 people. One of the rules is nobody gets to talk. Only the people running the meeting and the person running a project. No problem solving in meetings, or else the rest would be waiting. But everybody could do it in parallel afterwards.
We just had a text file as a project management tool. There was a daily email to everybody on the team to keep them updated.
Meeting two: the weekly meeting
This one happened on Friday afternoon with beers and we shared what had happened during the week. Issues closed, things shipped. Valuing design in everything.
Meeting three: product review.
The first product review I had was when I still worked at Google and it was terrible. If you presented it was a bunch of engineers shooting things down. Nobody knew how to give good feedback.
With us this was an optional meeting. But if you are there, participation is mandatory. We don’t leave the room until the problems we’re discussing are solved. It is not a forum for expressing opinions.
Bad: I don’t like that blue.
Better: Why is that blue.
Great: Is color important here.
Will it be a convergent or a divergent meeting.
Divergence: solving a problem. like brainstorming.
Convergence: evaluate, drive towards consensus.
This is why these meetings go wrong, people have the wrong expectations.
One thing that was important is user testing with the right expectations. Use it to build empathy, see them use your project. Purely qualitative. More exposure to users means better design instincts for everybody involved.
Sometimes we would explore Behance together. more exposure to great work gives you a better design vocabulary.
Good taste can be cultivated. You can work on it as a team.
Last meeting: post-mortem.
Nobody wants to be there. This one comes from manufacturing. test-driven development with multiple setups a day, can also cause a lot of problems.
The person who pushed the button, thought it was the right thing to do. It’s the human nature to look for the villain. It’s called the fundamental attribution error, very well know in psychology. That person is an idiot and don’t know what they’re doing. People should feel safe experimenting, and we shouldn’t be blaming people.
Sakichi Toyoda. He always asked why 5 times to get to the root of a problem.
Jeff Bezos used to do the same thing at Amazon. One of the warehouses was shut down because somebody got his finger in between one of the machines. The cause wasn’t that he was an idiot, but that there wasn’t a place to store his stuff what caused his bag to fall on the machine and him trying to get it out and getting injured in the process.
Zoom out. Purpose is timeless. People with a clear purpose have a longer life expectancy.
The ability to communicate across generation is why some civilizations succeeded, where others failed.