Uber Creator Spotlight: Perseverance and Grit
What table tennis champion and Uber Designer Adil Dhanani learned about sports and how it relates to his career as a designer.
Spotlight is a series of Q&A sessions with the multi-talented creators on Uber’s design team. In this session I chat with Adil Dhanani— a table tennis champion, Silicon valley veteran and product designer on Uber’s Rider Team.
Hi Adil! Thanks for sitting down with me. Let’s start by getting to know you a bit more — what’s your story at Uber, and what are you currently working on?
My journey in Silicon Valley started over ten years ago. I started at Uber in 2016 as a designer on the developer platform team which is focused on building tools and API’s for integrating Uber into other services. My technical background in computer engineering and prior experience working with technical teams helped me bring a unique perspective to the team.
I spent a year with the developer platform team and then moved into Uber Partnerships, where I worked with the likes of Google, Apple, Facebook and Samsung, exploring how we could create better experiences for our users.
Currently, I’m working on building long-term relationships with our riders, which involves introducing special celebratory moments into their Uber experience such as free upgrades to premium cars.
You’re a table tennis champion. Have you always been into sports?
My parents are originally from Pakistan but moved to Belgium early in their lives, and then to the USA to give my sister and me a better life. I was pleased with how I was doing in school and that’s when I started looking into what else we could do to keep ourselves busy that would allow us to grow and learn.
I explored a bunch of different things before I settled on sports as a hobby. I spent a few years learning musical instruments, participating in Boy Scouts and taking up Taekwondo. At one point I was playing three racket sports all at once: badminton, tennis and table tennis!
At the time, sports were just a hobby for me — something fun to do after school. However, plenty of people around me whom I looked up would continue to remind me that learning these skills would become useful in the future.
What makes table tennis such a complex sport?
There are different areas of complication that draw me towards table tennis, one being the variation of the spin. In table tennis the ball can rotate in many different ways, so the complexities of possible outcomes is high.
Because the ball is small and you can hit it fast, the ball rotates at much faster speeds. This adds to the complexity. Your reaction time in table tennis is extremely short. Within the space of about 700ms, there are seven different things you need to consider:
- Where is my opponent going to place the ball?
- What kind of speed and spin did he/she put on it?
- Where do I need to be to return it?
- What spin do I need to return it with?
- At what angle should my racket be?
- Where am I hitting the ball?
- How hard am I going to hit the ball?
At some point, this starts happening subconsciously, but in the beginning, all of these things need to be taught and integrated consciously. Remember, the ball comes back in less than a second, so you have to be really good at making snap decisions!
You mentioned to me before that you learned a lot about life from your high school coach. What kind of things did he teach you?
I first met my high school coach at a tournament when I was fourteen. At the time, I believed that one day everything would click and I’d wake up and become a champion. When I shared this with him, he broke it to me that life is harder than that — that I would need to put in the hard work. He took me under his wing and I began training and travelling with him.
We spent a lot of time together travelling, driving for hours to the next tournament. During this time we’d talk about life and how it involves a lot of trial and error…that in order to get better, you need to work hard. If you’re consistent with this and believe in yourself, eventually it will pay off.
What’s your routine when preparing for a game?
I have a very specific pre-game routine which involves three parts:
Part 1 — Physically preparing and getting my body warmed up. I often find someone to help me warm up and hit the ball.
Part 2 — Taking notes. Surprisingly, I play against a lot of the same competitors year after year, and I have hours of video footage of my matches and a lot of written notes. When I know who my opponent is I can go through my notes or re-watch past videos to remind myself what to focus on. For example if I know my opponent has a weaker back hand, I will focus on attacking there. This way I’m not spending each game trying to relearn what I’ve already learned in the past.
Part 3 — I listen to music by myself in the minutes leading up to the game. The type of music largely depends on the opponent. If I need to be super hyped up and energetic, I may listen to something fast or upbeat. Alternatively if I’m playing against someone who is more strategic, the music needs to be a bit softer, so I can be calm and thoughtful. This helps me channel the right energy needed to play the game.
Where do you train?
I train at various local table tennis clubs, but when I want to play for fun, I head to SPiN, which is a social club in San Francisco. SPiN has a bar, really good food, and tables for rent — think of a bowling alley. They frequently have DJs, events, wine & painting sessions, making it a great spot to hang out.
As a pro on their roster, I often help run exhibitions, tournaments or demos for the community. One of the pros I get to play with is a U.S. Olympian, which is a lot of fun!
Do you prefer to play singles or doubles?
In doubles, you have to serve a certain way and it encompasses alternate hitting, meaning you have to make sure you’re out of your partner’s way. This means I’m essentially hitting every fourth ball, which I actually prefer.
This is a collaborative aspect to playing doubles: how I hit my ball will affect my partner, and vice versa.
Before I serve, I’ll tell my partner exactly the type of spin I’m applying and where I’m going to serve it so he knows what kind of ball to expect in return. I like the core communication and strategy of doubles. Often our strategy is heavily based on our opponents.
You’ve done quite a bit of coaching. How has coaching shaped you as a player?
For my first ten years of playing, I was super focused on learning, improving my technique, and competing in tournaments. I had a lot of coaches that made a difference not only in my table tennis career, but also in my life.
Being surrounded by inspiring coaches made me reflect on the time and effort that they were investing in our generation. I decided to see if I could take the knowledge that I’d learned from them and give it back to the next generation of players.
Coincidentally at this time, someone had donated a few tables to our religious center, so it felt right. Since then I’ve been going to different religious centers in my community to set up teaching programs and write manuals to help others teach table tennis too.
In the children I teach now — some as young as four years old — I see the spark of the same passion that I had for table tennis twenty years ago. I like to think the cycle is continuing. Unfortunately, table tennis is not as popular in the USA as it is in places like Europe or China, so it’s important to me personally to keep table tennis alive.
Four years old?! How do they reach the table?
They don’t need to! One of the main skills you need for table tennis is hand-eye coordination. With four-year-olds instead of giving them a ball, you give them a balloon. Then they stand across from one another and hit the balloon back and forth with a table tennis racket.
A balloon is slow, steady and allows them to develop control. At this stage, it’s less about becoming a champion and more about coordination and developing basic techniques.
Working with four-year-olds of course requires patience; I think I’ve always had the patience in me to teach and explain things. I’ve learned a lot of techniques in my coaching courses — not only how to improve my game but how to teach others.
How important do you think it is to have passion to become a great player?
Without passion, I feel like I would have only gotten so far before eventually stopping. Frequently throughout my table tennis career, I’ve gotten frustrated, but my passion for the sport encouraged me to keep going. Without passion, it would have ended. Passion gives you the push to continue investing your time in different ways.
As a designer, has your love for table tennis influenced your creativity?
Absolutely. Over the years I’ve learned a lot of different things in sports that I can apply to design. Take creating a strategy as an example: When you’re playing an opponent, there’s a certain strategy required. What does this opponent like or not like? How am I going to score points or react to their attack?
This is similar in design. As designers at Uber we work with different personalities on a day-to-day basis. Working with these different people causes you to consider your approach. How can I work best with this kind of product manager, engineer or designer? People have different ways of working and communicating.
The other thing I’ve learned is that there’s always something to improve upon. In table tennis if you make incremental improvements to different aspects of your game, your overall game gets better. I frequently identify areas of improvement and dedicate time to focus on them and practice.
This also applies to design — there’s so many aspects to design that require patience and practice. As a product designer I know I constantly need to be improving upon my prototyping or research skills for example. Little by little if I improve my skills in certain areas, I will become an overall better product designer.
At Uber we enjoy celebrating our creative team members and the broad spectrum of design. We value the pursuit of various forms of creativity and believe those experiences inspire our team, improve our products, and ultimately enhance the experience of our end users.
Checkout the first edition of this series: Uber Creator Spotlight: Designers Who Photograph their Cities.
Learn more about our design team’s work, people, and events: www.uber.design.
Femke is a podcast co-host of Design Life, active writer on design and side project addict. She’s currently a product designer on the Cash team at Uber, ensuring that our riders and drivers have a delightful cash experience at the end of the ride.
Thanks to Nina and Diego for their help with photography for this piece