My Five Years at Seven Bridges
Please note these are my opinions and don’t necessarily represent how others at Seven Bridges think.
This January marks my fifth year of rolling with the Seven Bridges crew. Five effing years! Simultaneously I hit the personal milestone of the longest period at a single workplace.
Why am I writing this now? I felt it’s a good time to pause, look back and reflect.
Besides wanting to put together thoughts I’ve buffered over the years, main driver for writing the sequel to my first year of SBG experience is positive feedback I got from readers.
Unexpectedly, that piece resonated so well with colleagues, interviewees and community members.
Someone even told me I single-handedly hired 100 people. This is not true of course, and my intention was never to support corporate marketing efforts.
Generally speaking, I think I got better at working with people, communication, resilience, patience and persistence. All of this, of course, is far from where I’d like to be, but I never thought I’ll ever need any of these skills as a designer.
Learning to Craft
Seven Bridges is the place I learned the craft of product design. Now I have a better sense of how to do stuff, but also how not to do it.
Participating in over 200+ (who knows how many) various projects, I had a chance to test my intuition, fail, correct my mistakes and learn from that. The more I learned, I saw how little I knew.
Besides mastering a ton of new things, now I’d like to “unmaster” a bunch of them as well.
I learned that it is totally OK to aim for the perception of a good design. Well executed flow rather than polished interface. To jugaad. This includes lots of MVPs and putting focus on the core values and the real user/business problems.
Marathon is better than sprint. Iterative thinking will more likely give birth to good design than some grandiose redesigns. I struggled with this mindshift.
From improving registration flow, redesigning tools for browsing huge datasets, over designing apps for visual coding, to helping researchers test human cancers in mice better — I started treating design as a service rather than a solo discipline. This included letting go and helping others participate in the design process.
Learning to Grow
Being there and watching as company grows from 40 to 400 people, felt like swimming through the waves of thrill and perplexity. But keeping up with the fast growing organization was a totally different beast. And in order of not getting outgrown I needed to adapt.
From a strictly engineering driven culture to the point where the whole company have a sensibility for customer experience. From having a couple of academic labs for customers, to partnerships with some of the top pharmaceutical companies. Working with the whole organization on these, and many more accomplishments, took a lot of effort and hard work. Seeing us constantly transform over time, tops all grind with positive vibes.
Having a crazy chance to be on both sides of the organization carries a lot of weight with it as well. Supporting people in all of these operations from the perspective of a manager is an emotional rollercoaster.
Learning to Be a Grownup
It took me a lot of time to figure out how B2B business works, and although I learned many valuable lessons I’m still barely covering the basics.
As someone coming from consumer, I always looked at enterprise business as something boring, slow and ridiculous. I still think this stands, but as a designer, I also learned to see a big opportunity in that.
You can see it first hand what keeps your company afloat, and what it takes to sign a deal. It’s challenging to jump in and try to help with optimizing these processes using a design approach. Whether that is participating in proposals writing, prototyping alongside customers, prioritizing your teams work or spearheading enterprise grade set of features.
The same way I got to know our “buyer” and “doer” personas, I had a chance to be a buyer couple of times. From understanding the needs of your team or initiative, doing product/company research, scheduling demos, asking for budgets, getting security/legal clearances, negotiating prices, implementing solution, onboarding people, tracking usage etc. This sounds like a design problem 101 right? Well, not exactly.
Another side of having a prosper business is getting your product replicated by some of the competitors. I saw that too. Although a very mixed feeling at first, you end up smiling because you know some of the paradigms they think are right are actually wrong as you are already working on improving them.
But that’s business I guess, an eternal battlefield, where everything is allowed if you are unethical. But don’t be, that’s bad.
This company is an anomaly.
And the only reason I think so is because it managed to gather such an extraordinary group of people. Outliers, misfits and underdogs — working, learning and growing up together. All good people.
As I like to call it “the ship of lunatics”. The best one you can be on.
Working With People
Working with these people is a perk by itself. Many of us unfortunately don’t realize this.
Having a privilege to get to know and spend a lot of time among them speeds up your time. You learn things faster. You learn things you didn’t even know existed. It changes the way you perceive the world around you.
On a flip side, smart people tend to compete among each other in who’s the smartest one. This is impractical and in many cases exhausting, because there’s a lot of debating and overthinking of simple stuff.
You start to develop specific bubble in your file when working with so many intelligent and eccentric folks who give themselves fully to the job they do. Your perspective towards other people gets skewed. It starts to feel like a cult.
One more thing I noticed is that the majority of us developed this kind of a unhealthy relationship with our job — where we stopped treating our job as a job but more as a duty. Mission, vision, hype, greater cause sort of thing. It sounds silly, but this behaviour firebacked couple of times, collectively and personally. In the retrospect it affected my productivity, output quality, mental health and peer relationships.
Working for People
“Leading teams is much worse than making things.”
— John Maeda
With a bit over two years in the leadership role, everything I thought I would be doing turned out to be false. Helping designers do their best work, is the hardest fucking thing I did, but at the same time one of the most rewarding.
To make some things clear, design management has almost nothing to do with designing. I jumped from being mediocre designer to an even worse manager.
Am I good at this position?
Is my imposter syndrome even bigger?
Am I trying to be better at this each day?
The thing is, I’ve never actually been prepared for this role and probably only my manager knows why he trusted me at the time. In the retrospect, if I hadn’t took the opportunity and responsibilities that were coming along, I would probably never had had a chance to do so many awesome things for designers and other colleagues in the company.
Building up a team, interviewing people, on-boarding new designers, figuring things out together and learning from an amazing bunch of people. Ultimately, seeing those individuals thrive each in their own unique way and watching them becoming better than I could ever be is the best feeling ever.
The same way I gained someone’s trust, I’m trying to give mine to others too.
But it’s not all unicorns and rainbows. Actually most days are sprinkled with some frictions.
Designers are probably the most challenging professionals to work with. Add a designer hostile environment on top of that and you can expect the unexpected.
Tough 1:1’s, big egos, disagreements, unrealistic expectations, having people to resign and leave are very stressful and emotional. Resolving conflicts between designers. Resolving conflicts between product managers. Resolving conflicts between engineers. Resolving conflicts between Product and Engineering caused by designers. All of this pushed me over the edges of my capacities dozens of times, but it is also the number one thing why I’m still here.
Even though one of the most popular writer at the moment Yuval Harari in his latest book points out how biotech, alongside with infotech, is the most important industry of this century, it seems that biotechnology didn’t gain much popularity in the last 5 years. If we exclude sensationalistic CRISPR titles popping up in the news here and there, there’s no much buzz around it in popular culture and tech community in general.
This veil of obscurity doesn’t make any sense since the biotech industry has great potential, for example to destroy cancer. But from the inside it looks like a lot of efforts goes into keeping it under the radar. I tried to understand why is this so and here are some of my thoughts.
Biotech Is Hard
Humans still don’t know a thing about biology and thus I don’t find myself knowledgeable enough to speak about why this domain is hard. I recommend digging into these two pieces to get a better sense:
- James Liu on “Why are bioinformatics startups notoriously hard?”
- David Glazer’s talk: “From Data to Meaning: The “So What?” Problem”
Besides the domain, there are technical restraints as well. Imagine this: the Internet is still slow and unreliable for moving huge amounts of data to the cloud, so people often call the truck that works as a mobile hard drive. Once they have it in the cloud, in some cases they need dozens of hours and a lot of CPU power, to compute a single patient analysis. Often that sequence needs to be repeated with different tools in order to get the finest results.
Who would’ve thought that something so sophisticated feels so primitive in practice. It’s surreal.
Now think about the newest phone with face recognition in your pocket. Are you able to grasp the discrepancy in different domains of technology and their ability to co-exist? Consumer tech is king.
Of course, not all hard things are that hard by their nature. People are masters of making hard things even more complex. Let’s not forget to mention the whole array of legal paradigms around human data — storage, sharing, privileges and ethics.
This whole mashup produces unattractive solutions, slow adoption, slow feedback cycles which results with slow innovation. The similar situation is in govtech, as Joel Lewenstein writes here.
Biotech Lacks Outsiders
The industry jazz still plays the song of promises and problem identification, which makes everyone skeptical and enthusiastic at the same time. There’s a lot of academia influence, politics, secrecy and paranoia. Dogma casts thick shadow over the bubble.
From the outside this seems like nobody knows what they are doing. Considering myself as an outsider, I believe the future will be built by us.
“One reason so many good ideas come from the margin is simply that there’s so much of it. There have to be more outsiders than insiders, if insider means anything.”
— Paul Graham
In order this industry to flourish, field experts and leaders need to open up, stop being so autistic, drop their titles and acronyms and be more inclusive.
“Don’t focus on MIT, focus on the World instead, cause that’s where you supposed to be.”
— John Maeda
My capacities to view beyond the curve are narrow, but this industry is craving for creative thinkers with background in product, design, psychology, social studies, art… This influx will change the landscape once it happens. Sooner or later.
Biotech Is Not Rewarding
“Real change, enduring change, happens one step at a time.”
— Ruth Bader Ginsburg
It’s kind of a love and hate relationship I have with this industry. You know you are doing something novel but at the same time you know seeing its full effect on common people lives will take too much time. In that sense it’s not rewarding at all.
Because of my family history with cancer, I really want for this whole thing to succeed. But the more I’m in it, the more I realize how some big breakthrough is not going to happen any time soon. And that’s defeating.
To better understand what I’m speaking about, I invite you to read this article by David Shaywitz, which he concludes with this sentence:
“Yet it’s the long and complex path towards implementation that we should have anticipated, and with which many of our most imaginative innovators will now engage.”
This was my Seven Bridges journey so far. Who knows what awaits me as I go forward wiser from what I wrote above.
While I was writing this post, and going back and forth with Jovana Tomić, without whom this creation wouldn’t be possible, she pointed out parts around biotechnology that might not be so clear to the broader audience. This is probably true, as this topic requires more knowledge, experience and research in order to be deciphered in the common language.
It might happen I will try to cover that in the upcoming posts. In the meantime feel free to reach out if you wanna chat about this or any other of topics.
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