Over the last couple weeks I’ve been blabbering and documenting my journey of finding the team and position that not only fits my skills and career goals, but also one that doesn’t require me to move to San Francisco or Silicon Valley. Working & living close to family locally in Southern California has always been a priority and was also a huge motivation in joining Design Inc (Based on Costa Mesa, CA). Before Design Inc, I worked on Android Auto for Google for over year…and I did it remote.
Working remote at Google is not a common occurrence, but I was fortunate enough to arrange a working-relationship “experiment” with the Android Auto team (notably with the support of some of the best design leadership I have ever worked for…here’s looking at you Evan Malahy, Henry Newton-Dunn, Glen Murphy, Mike Buzzard 🙌🏻 🙌🏻 🙌🏻 😉 ).
I want to start this by saying that this is not a fail-proof formula that can be applied for anyone or any team. Every individual and team member needs to contribute to this relationship in the right way. Team dynamics can prove to be exponentially more complicated when having remote team members, but I wanted to describe the arrangement that worked well in my experience. Before I dig into the details of our working-relationship “experiment”, a little bit about the team composition and location. The entire Android Auto UX team I joined was located in Mt View, CA at Google’s mothership and was ~14 people: 1 Design Manager, 4 Interaction Designers, 3 Visual Designers, 1 Design Producer, 1 Design Intern, & 4 User Experience Researchers. This team was responsible for many effort, but the project I was leading design for was a much smaller and also distributed.
Google Irvine, CA UX Design Team
– 1 Sr. Interaction Designer (ME 🤘🏻)
Google Mt. View, CA UX Design Team
– 1 Sr. Visual Designer
– 1 Design Manager
Google Kirkland, WA Product & Engineering Team
– 1 Product Manager
– 1 Engineering Lead
– 4 Software Engineers
For over a year, this small team worked on the genesis of Android Auto for mobile. It was a wild and rewarding ride being able to bring a small glitchy prototype to a fully functioning app launched at Google I/O. It was great to be able to work on such an important product with such a tight-nit team, but it didn’t happen without it’s own pains and aches. Over that year I learned a lot about being a remote designer working across 3-cities and have resolved to a few themes that made this relationship successful.
Even though the team was spread across 3 cities, we were still in the same time zone and were able to have plenty of face-to-face time, both digitally & physically. These are some common and healthy rhythms I fell into that enabled me to efficiently collaborate as a remote designer, while also being able to pitch designs, make the hard decisions with leadership, and also have quality heads-down time to focus and design with out interruption.
Regular collaboration is not only critical, its human
Living minutes from John Wayne Airport (SNA) and affordable 70min Southwest flights made these 1 day on-site trips fairly easy. These trips normally started on a Tuesday around 6:00am with me returning around 8:00pm. I would take the first flight out of SNA, land in SJC, take a 20min Uber into Mt View, and be in the office by 9:00am. The joke in the office was that I could get to Google Headquarters faster then driving to Los Angles or faster then my co-workers shuttling down from Oakland.
The main goal of these shotgun trips was to get face-to-face time with with the full Android Auto UX team. My manager and I would schedule these days around the most essential collaborative meetings & jam sessions that week. There is something special and innately human about collaborating around a white board. These times in the office with my peers really helped when I felt isolated and creatively “alone”. The weekly travel and 12 hr days were by far worth it for the amount of focused meetings and collaboration I got out of one day.
Be efficient, available, & over communicate
Having one day committed to travel, team collaboration, and in-person meetings allowed me to have efficient and (mostly) uninterrupted time designing in the Google Irvine Office. I still had the normal morning stand-ups and prioritization Hangout calls, but all of the other hallway distractions and taps-on-the-shoulders were nowhere to be seen. A specific point I want to make is that even though I was being distracted less, doesn’t mean that I wasn’t available. There are a couple notable attributes that allowed to be remote, available, and accessible.
- “Always-On” Screen
This is probably the easiest solution to being available and accessible. At any time of the work-day, I had a secondary screen up with an active Google Hangout. I had my own internal URL that connected to a Google Hangout that was essentially a live stream of my workday. This live-steam was the place any designer could get a quick answer, any PM could jump in for a quick chat, and the occasional banter & office humor happened. This was an easy solution to have a constant & live video/chat room to anyone from any browser or phone.
- Create a Digital Hallway: Communication through Documentation
One of the risks of being in a secondary office is being abstracted from the “pulse” of the office and the context of everything happening in HQ. Not having everyone in the same office is a huge hurdle for teams to jump when considering a remote team-member. This for me is laziness veiled as convenience, which in turn can create swirl and unneeded inefficiencies. The convenience of hallway conversations has immediate payoff and efficiencies to it, but the consequence is usually more meetings & syncing across the team for everyone who wasn’t apart of that quick conversation. We live in a day where important decisions can be proposed, discussed, and documented digitally and publicly within a team. Chatting on Slack or in a chat is equally efficient and allows everyone to be on the same page without scheduling more meetings.
- VR Whiteboards & Robots (Less practical, but fun & useful)
This may seem crazy and only something Google can do, but both these product are now available and on the market for any team. I used the JAM board & the Beam roboto-call-thingy to have great session with other team-member while not in the office. These tools seem silly, but definitely help with human-collabortion element you loose when being in different office…plus they are fun.
Make hard decisions in person
There were some critical meeting with Android leadership and other core team meetings where the team was making critical decisions and/or I was presenting critical work. Said plainly, presenting and demanding a rooms attention is best done in person. I would occasionally fly to Mt View & Kirkland when I needed to present in important meetings. Its easy to get ignored, talked over, and interrupted as a face on the screen, so I quick prioritized being in the room when I need to show my work.
Getting things built
The final and most enjoyable (but also exhausting rom a travel perspective) element about working remote was my trips to getting in to the details with Engineering in Kirkland, WA. I love the Pacific Northwest, so these trips let me scratch my travel itch every 4 to 6 weeks. These trip would be 2–3 full days of Sprinting, bug bashing, and collaboration on the ongoing development of the app. This was essential for my relationships with my counterparts on Project Management and Software Development.
These weren’t the easiest trips as a husband and father of 3 boys, but I was usually able to compensate the other 2 days of those week to recover and spend less time in the office. These were also the most invigorating and exciting trips due to the hack-a-thon esque nature of the meetings. I loved getting into the details and working side-by-side with engineering.
I spent the time to document this journey and share my experience simply because I have been pitching this arrangement and talking to many design teams as I search for my next position and team to join. I do think distributed teams, global offices, and remote working is inevitable and an essential element in fostering diverse and happy workforces for our tech and design industry.
That being said, there are a ton of topics and complexities around design culture, collaboration, and designing design spaces that I didn’t address in this post. My intent is in no way to say the way design relationships are done in-house today is wrong. At time it can be dysfunctional as can distributed teams or working remote. I simply wanted to share this successful remote-relationship and wanted to share my story to contribute to the broader conversation. 🤘🏻