Featured Follow: Dustin Senos

Please tell us a little bit about yourself, what do you do, and how do you like to spend your free time?

Hi, I’m Dustin Senos a thirty-two-year old Canadian living in Vancouver. I’ve been younger and lived in San Francisco, but have always been Canadian.

I spend free time outside and with friends. Ideally both. My girlfriend and I take our dog Arlo for walks in the forest and hikes in the Rocky Mountains. Often, we’re under an umbrella, Vancouver rains a lot. Don’t visit in the winter. We lay on beaches when there’s sun. To stay healthy I meditate, ride bikes, run in a 5km circle as fast as I can, and lift weights. I don’t go to yoga as often as I should.

I turn ideas into pixels and code for work. For the last year and a half I’ve freelanced as a product designer. During my career, I’ve worked with a range of companies from small tech start-ups to corporations like Disney, DreamWorks, and Samsung. I even helped with design at the White House. Obama’s White House, of course.

You were an early designer at Medium, what made you excited about taking on this role? How did your responsibilities evolve as the company, and your team grew over time?

I initially joined The Obvious Corporation, the company that created Medium. I joined Obvious Corp because of the folks who interviewed me. They said a lot of intelligent things with a lot of passion. They worked at companies I read about in Wired. I was twenty-five and from a small town in Canada. One of those people was Ev Williams, the cofounder of Blogger, Twitter, and now Medium. I often think about Ev taking a chance on me. Working at Medium changed my life.

As Medium and its team grew, I led the design team and helped shape the product. When I left Medium in 2015 I was the Head of Design.

You’ve recently worked on two exciting, but radically different projects, Wallcat and Out of Office Hours. What motivated you to dedicate your time/energy towards these different projects? How do you decide which ideas are worth working on?

Oh dear. Great questions. I’ll answer them separately.

Wallcat updates your Mac OS wallpaper to a beautiful image every day. I built Wallcat with two goals: To learn Swift and monetize a new surface (I wrote about that here). I succeeded in learning Swift but failed to monetize. Wallcat taught me two lessons: First, if you build a side project requiring substantial upkeep and servers, don’t release it for free. People will cover the time and cost of good ideas. If no one wants to pay, it may be a sign the idea is not worth your time. Make something smaller and easier to maintain. If you need a lot of eyeballs to sell ads to, or are raising money, you’re not building a side project. Second lesson: Don’t start forever side projects without a plan. It takes time to curate daily high-quality, hand-picked images for Wallcat. Thanks to those two lessons, I’m working on making Wallcat self-sustaining and easier to update. Soon, others will curate channels, like Darren Hull’s Northern Perspective.

Out of Office Hours (OOOHs) is a community of experienced “volunteers” who work in tech, and underrepresented “newcomers” getting into the industry. Each month around 500 newcomers chat with around 250 volunteers. Most conversations are about skills to learn early in a career, the interview process, and the realization that almost everyone suffers from imposter syndrome. OOOHs started as an article I wrote last Christmas inspired a tweet from @fat. During the holidays, I opened eight hours of 30-minute calendar slots to chat with underrepresented people getting into tech. I recognize my privilege and want to talk with people who don’t have the same opportunities as me. We have a lot of work ahead of us to make tech a place for everyone.

To avoid another forever project, I timeboxed OOOHs for three months at the suggestion of Dianna Kimball. After the response from both volunteers and newcomers, I spent a month automating the systems to keep OOOHs running. OOOHs will remain free because it should. I’m proud of it and want to see in the world.

How do I decide which ideas are worth working on? Early in my career I built side projects that were interesting and useful to me. I found it helpful to quickly generate placeholder text so I built LittleIpsum. To my surprise, LittleIpsum appeared in an Apple Keynote. Shipping work, no matter how small, is the best way to show what you can do. If I were starting my career today, I would contribute to open source projects. You learn faster and create more impact as a team.

Now my goal is to generate income from what I build. Because of this, and thanks to what Wallcat taught me, I approach projects differently. First, I run the idea through a framework Daniel Burka shared with me. Plotting ideas on a graph of effort over impact:

If an idea has high impact and high effort I have to be certain it’s worth dedicating time to. If an idea is low effort and high impact, I’ll prototype it and send it to a couple friends or tweet a link. I did this with a Slack Bot named Gramma. Gramma suggests grammar and writing style corrections. It took a night to build and I still use it.

If a prototype shows promise, I think about the possibility of it generating income. This is a new step for me. Will people pay a monthly fee for Gramma Bot? Maybe. If it’s really good. Is it easy to create really good natural language processor to suggest grammar improvements? No. Does Gramma Bot require upkeep and servers? Yes. Is Gramma Bot so interesting it’s worth committing months to? No. Gramma Bot is fun to use, brings me value, but not worth pursing. I’ve come to learn ideas always seem amazing and often suck. Validate ideas fast and throw them out faster. Kill your darlings, as they say.

You’ve thought openly about the digital experiences and products our industry brings into this world, and whether it may or may not be another form of junk food. Have you come to any stronger conclusions about how that affects the work you take on personally and professionally? Is this something we should be having a more active discussion around?

I feel a lot of smart people spend a lot of time making a lot of meaningless products. I wrote a post on it, Have you Tried Junkfood.app? There isn’t a time in history when it was easier to build something that can change people’s lives for the better. There also isn’t a time in history with more apps to create memes or have our cars hand-washed while we’re at work. I think about this a lot. I think about it a lot with the products I build. Is Wallcat contributing anything positive? Probably not. I think about this a lot with the companies I do contract with. I’ve started to turn down inbound requests if the product only benefits the upperclass. I suggest anyone that can, do the same. If those companies struggle to find employees or freelancers it’ll force them reconsider their products. Working on OOOHs, We the People, Feminist Frequency, and Figure1 is some of the most rewarding work I’ve done.

There should be more discussions about this. I’m always open to chat.

What are 2–3 things you are currently thinking through, and that you’d enjoy having a conversation with others about?

How much further ahead the world would be if everyone had equal opportunity from day zero. If opportunities weren’t cannibalized from the LGBTQIA community, women, and POC, would we be exploring different planets? Would world hunger be solved? Climate change? What can I do to create opportunities to help fix this?

Does the impossible engine actually work? Will I get to see interplanetary travel in my life because of it? Am I going to visit a different planet?

Do we not recognize animal intelligence because it’s not human intelligence? I read how octopuses and other cephalopods rewrite their RNA. Should we eat them? Our little dog understands the world around him in ways I can’t begin to imagine. As I read more about animals I’m convinced being a vegetarian is the right choice.

What idea would you like someone to be working on, that given a lack of time/energy, you cannot commit to work on yourself right now? #WhatWouldYouLikeToSeeInTheWorld

Anything that helps others see the value in doing work which positivity changes people’s lives. There’s more to life than adding value to stocks.

In the past month, what is an article, book, or video that’s made your mind go whoa?

A quote by Blaise Pascal, a French mathematician from the 1600’s, is on repeat in my head “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.” It applies to so much more than writing.

I’ve also highlighted almost every page in Creativity Inc, by Ed Catmull.

You can learn more about Dustin on his website, and by following him on Twitter.