In early 2010 I left my job as Director, User Experience for Yahoo! Messenger. After three years I was ready for something smaller, where I’d have more of an impact and spend less time fighting big company politics.
But something was brewing at AOL. It had a portfolio of embarrassingly bad products and was admitting that publicly. Tim Armstrong (AOL’s CEO) and Brad Garlinghouse (head of Consumer Applications and famous for his “Peanut Butter Manifesto” criticizing Yahoo’s lack of focus) pulled in Matte Scheinker to fix the problem. Matte — my former manager, ongoing mentor, and one of my absolute favorite people — invited me to help found his new Consumer Experience team. The opportunity was too intriguing to turn down. So I weathered the inevitable, “AOL? Really!?” from friends and family and signed on in May 2010.
Armed with authority over AOL’s product review process, the three of us — Matte, Christian Crumlish, and me — set out to turn terrible experiences into great ones. We consulted, pleaded, designed, brainstormed, fixed typos, debugged code, cleaned trash out of conference rooms. It was exhilarating. The team grew and flourished; by fall 2011 there were seven of us. In the course of it I got to lead the TechCrunch redesign, build an internal social network, and meet and earn the respect of product teams across the company.
But with its acquisition of the Huffington Post, AOL gained new leadership for its core Media business and no longer looked to Consumer Experience for help. It’s no secret I have disagreements with their approach to product development; I can’t say whether they’ll succeed, just that it’s not for me.
Meanwhile, Brad Garlinghouse is leaving AOL. The organization he leaves behind includes incredibly talented people — folks I’ve been privileged to know, work with, and learn from in the past twenty months. I hope AOL figures out how to retain this top talent in the wake of Brad’s and other high-level departures.
So as of a few weeks ago we decommissioned the Consumer Experience team. I wish Christian, Krista, and Jason (my partner in crime on TechCrunch, various adventures in commerce, and gratuitous pie purchases) luck on the AIM team; I know AIM recognizes the kick-ass talent they’re getting. Same for Gabi and AOL Mail, and for Amy and HuffPost. But I’m leaving. (As is Matte; but he’s still planning his next move.)
I considered staying on in another role. Great people, interesting work, millions of users. A Product role that wouldn’t require a paragraph to explain. And there are people I’m especially sad to leave behind. Yet if anything my time at AOL has increased my desire to go small…really small. The greatest, most rewarding moments in my career have been tight teams of amazing people in a room, building stuff. So I’ve been exploring startup ideas of my own, and talking to existing startups that excite me. Which of those paths is right? Tough call. The former is the Bay Area version of the American Dream but also scary. The latter is safer but lacks the chance to start from zero with my own vision. Neither is a bad choice.
Several years ago I read Gail Sheehy’s Passages. Its central thesis may be obvious today: there’s no such thing as a final adult self. We go through as many changes in our adult lives as we do in childhood, despite society’s expectation that we know who we are by the age of 25. These changes happen via punctuated equilibrium: periods of relative calm followed by times of upheaval. Those who fight the change cripple themselves via a sort of self-induced emotional binding.
I’ve spent the last five years collecting pieces of the next me. At Yahoo! I honed my design skills, led a team, and learned how to navigate organizational politics. At AOL I became a product manager, built leadership skills, expanded my network, grew a thicker skin, and found my ego. (Yes, that’s a good thing. A friend says I’ll succeed because of my humility and she’s probably right — but that’s a counterbalance to ego, not an alternative.)
There are things missing from that list. Sales. Marketing. Business development. Things I can’t anticipate. Things that will blindside me, crush me. I’ll figure them out, or turn to others for help. But I see the rough outline of the next me, and it’s time to make it happen. The best, maybe the only way to do that is to put my money where my mouth is and build something from scratch.
And I’m ready. I’m an interaction designer, a product manager, a visual designer, a front-end developer. I can manage a team, pitch an idea. I have so much more to learn and I’m excited about that too. I don’t want to do it by myself, but I won’t have to: I have talented, passionate, amazing people cheering me on, offering advice and support, and eventually (I hope) joining the effort.
Here I go.
Originally published at operationproject.com on December 21, 2011.