From high school dropout to product designer at Facebook and Lyft: Tanner Christensen
The Grit

From high school dropout to product designer at Facebook and Lyft: Tanner Christensen

Juraj MihalikJuraj Mihalik

Hi Tanner. How would you introduce yourself to people who don’t know you?

I’m a Digital Product Designer at Lyft, designing software for self-driving cars.

I’m also a published author, developer, design advisor, and semi-entrepreneur. Previously I worked as Product Design Lead at Atlassian, and before that, I worked as a Product Designer at Facebook.

Getting to this place in my career has been a long and windy road. I only started working professionally in product design about six or seven years ago. I think when people hear about my accolades or career path, it’s easy to forget just how jagged and full of dead ends any career can really be. Part of why I wanted to do this interview was to help share some of the things I’ve experienced, and lessons learned going from being a broke, hopeless high school dropout to designing software for billions of people.

Great! I can’t wait to hear it. How did it all start?

Most people don’t know that my career didn’t start out in design. While I have been designing since I was 15 years old, my professional career throughout most of my life was actually in marketing and search engine optimization.

I started designing after walking through the design studio run by the father of my best friend at the time: Stephen Hales Creative. The studio was very small, but it was full of energy, and there were vibrant colors everywhere. Really great environments can have a lasting effect: energizing you and inspiring you to move in a certain direction.

The design studio was full of large design prints hanging on the walls, action figures and other toys on every desk, big TV screens in colorful meeting rooms, shiny new computers and other tech toys — all of that fun stuff just scattered around the space. My father was a surgeon, and my mother was a school teacher; I had never seen a working environment quite like a design studio before. I was so enthralled by the place, I knew immediately design was something I wanted to do and /that/ was the type of place I wanted to work.

I applied to internships at every local design company I could. But because I was too young at the time to start studying design formally — I hadn’t even begun high school yet — nobody would give me a job. I just wanted to get a foot in the door, but nobody would even hire me as a janitor to clean up their studio, let alone as a junior designer.

This is when I started developing my belief in doing your own thing, within reason.

If nobody is giving you opportunities to do the things you really want to do, you have to go out and do them yourself. You can’t let other people be an excuse not to do something. Most things in life that don’t directly impact others can be done without permission, without formal training; you just have to be willing to spend time putting in the work ton your own.

While I wasn’t able to get a job or an internship, I did have a really old laptop that had been handed down to me from all of my older siblings. I’d skip school to make logos or websites for fun. After a few months, I had enough of these conceptual pieces of work, I needed a portfolio to share them. I started teaching myself HTML and CSS — piecing together whatever I could find from tutorials and forums online — until I had a website. I shared links on forums asking people for feedback but ended up getting more than that: clients started reaching out to me.

Around this time I also did a lot of work on spec sites that ran contests for designers (I recognize many people are against these types of sites, but it really helped propel me in my early career). I remember thinking at the time: “Who are all these people out there willing to pay some naïve kid thousands of dollars to design their brand?!”

The work kept coming, and my portfolio grew. I ended up skipping school every day to do the work. School didn’t interest me anyway. I was bullied a lot and generally picked on, along with being told by teachers that I would never amount to anything. I ended up being a problematic, troubled kid. But I felt like the computer was a place for me to be myself and create things. I could hide behind the guise of a vague nickname and ambiguous photo. Nobody really cared how old I was online or that I hadn’t gone to school, so even the more experienced designers welcomed me into their circle.

There I was, a young kid of maybe 16 years old, and I was making thousands of dollars doing what nobody would hire me to do in their company. I spent almost all of my free time designing (or skateboarding), and it was a lot of really hard work. I ended up sacrificing a lot of valuable aspects of my youth to learn what it meant to design and try to run a business. Dropping out of school meant I had time for designing and programming, but it meant I missed out on a lot of the social and networking impacts formal education provides.

My mother wasn’t convinced the Internet was going to pan out, and she was worried about how my design work had distracted from my education, so she kind of forced me to get a “real” job after one particularly troubled summer. I ended up getting a job as a market researcher in a consumer research center for a few years. Thus began my career in marketing.

After the market research job, I finally got an opportunity to work for a real design company: but as a search engine optimization specialist, helping ensure the company’s website was #1 when people searched for “design” on Google.

From there I jumped around to different marketing jobs, but I always had a heart for design. I’d design anything I could whenever I could. And I was very fortunate to work for managers who saw that drive and would give me small projects to design or code.

In my free time, I was still designing and programming too. I ended up learning new things like PHP, JavaScript, and SQL. I built a little “todo list” web app that eventually got big in Japan and really opened my eyes to the power of digital products. I built a few complex products that either ended up in the garbage or were sold to corporations interested in the underlining architecture of what I had built.

ToSimplyDo app

Then the first generation iPhone came out, and I started thinking about what I could do with it, teaching myself Objective-C and learning about things like device memory management, localization, and digital interaction patterns. A few years later, I had built several apps for the iPhone and iPad, many of which were prominently featured by Apple in the App Store, reaching as high as the #3 position of all apps. And this was all taking place outside of my full-time job! Again I found myself having sacrificed a lot in order to do things I was really passionate about; spending late nights and weekends working and learning rather than going out with my friends, dating, or relaxing.

Brainbean, once a #3 app in the Apple App Store.

However, all that work would pay off. My career trajectory had been set despite me being unaware of it at the time.

Tell me about your very first design job.

Apart from working as a freelance designer for a number of years, on the side, I always say my first real design job was when I joined the design team at Facebook.

After years of designing and building software products on my own, I was getting burned out at my marketing job. I wanted to be designing things full time, and I wanted to get out of Utah — where I had spent the majority of my life growing up.

I applied to many jobs and got a few invitations to interview. One opportunity which really excited me was from Dropbox in San Francisco. It felt like the perfect place for me, and I had long been a fan of the Dropbox brand and what they were doing at the company.

But I completely failed the interview. I didn’t even make it through the full loop because I just wasn’t used to product design interviews at big tech companies. Word of advice: if you aren’t familiar with these types of interviews and are planning to go into one I highly recommend reading up on the common process or talking to someone who has gone through it in order to get a sense for how they work.

In this instance, the Dropbox recruiter ended up walking me out of the building right after my presentation and told me “better luck in a few years!” I was crushed and spent the rest of that day moping about the city, reflecting on the interview and what had gone wrong. I had worked so hard just to get into the interview, and I had failed.

Fortunately, just shortly after flubbing the Dropbox interview, I ended up connecting with Julie Zhou — now VP of Design at Facebook — and got an invitation to interview with the social giant in Menlo Park, just a few miles south of San Francisco. Their offices were far bigger, far more colorful and impressive, than Dropbox, but rather than feeling intimidated by it all I felt excited! I felt like I had learned a lot from the Dropbox experience and was prepared to just go into the interview with positivity. I found myself embracing the experience as just that: not an interview to decide my future but rather an experience to be had on its own. That attitude really helped me get through the process and it must have impressed the team as well. Within a few days, I was offered the role of a full-time product designer!

I’ve since done many interviews across the San Francisco area. I’ve been offered jobs at Google, Apple, Atlassian, Redfin, Uber, Lyft, Cruise and many more. And I’ve come to believe that one key for interviewing is realizing they’re not a game to be played. A job interview is a chance to be your real, authentic — flawed and passionate — self, and a chance to determine whether you have something to provide the business and vice-versa. I now reflect on that first flub at Dropbox as a sign that the company and their culture just isn’t the type that meshes well with people like me. The interview had less to do with my capabilities and more to do with fit.

But back to our story: finally, after well over a decade since walking into a tiny design studio and deciding design is what I wanted to do with my life, I had reached my goal by joining one of the most impactful companies of the time: Facebook.

Working on various projects at Facebook, which one was the most challenging and exciting for you?

At Facebook, I had the chance to work on a lot of different, diverse projects. Everything ranging from supporting the redesign of one of the largest ad platforms in the world, to helping build the foundation for design tools, and doing illustrations for the Oculus Rift (VR), to helping imagine the future of identity and profiles on social media.

Of everything I worked on while there, I’d say the most challenging but also most rewarding was my first project: Facebook Ads Manager.

The core team on the Ads Manager project was relatively small — just three designers — but we had to collaborate with more than a dozen different teams across the company in order to simplify what had become a fragmented, overwhelming experience for Facebook advertisers.

I remember sitting in a small room with our PM — my former mentor and co-founder of the Mac app company Sofa — Dirk Stoop, as well as the other designers — Holly Hagen and Matt Rigodanzo — and a few others. We broke down the problem (Facebook’s advertising products were overly complex and siloed) and came up with a plan to explore possible solutions. The ads leadership weren’t fully convinced the problem was worth solving, so part of our process also entailed creating more transparency between the advertisers on the platform and Facebook leads.

We spent several months conducting research with advertisers, talking with business stakeholders across the company, and collaborating with all of the various teams that depended on ads to keep the lights on.

The process was straight-forward from a design standpoint, but the nuances of the work were complex. And because the project was centered around Facebook’s core business model (and billions of dollars for advertisers), we had to be very careful in how we approached any change. Research really became our most powerful asset. We tiptoed through as much of the work as we could: wireframing, sketching, then building an incremental test to put in front of advertisers, getting feedback, and iterating quickly on what we learned.

After more than seven months of research, sketching, working through a new design system and creating new web interaction patterns, we shipped the simplified Ads Manager.

Facebook Ads Manager.

From that experience, I learned that sometimes outwardly boring projects — anything business or ads related, free from the shiny aesthetic of consumer-facing experiences — are often the absolute best projects to work on and learn from.

Not many people want to design a dull-gray interface for several months, but what I learned in doing exactly that, was just how important systems thinking is for any design project. And if you’re just starting out in digital product design I cannot emphasize enough how valuable it is to start with a large, systematic project. Doing so means you’ll have to learn about collaboration, how one small interaction impacts the larger part, and how one key from research or testing can have a cascading influence on future decisions.

What was the transition to Lyft like, and what’s your main focus nowadays?

After working at Facebook for a few years, I started to get curious about other possible opportunities in the area. Facebook was growing, and I felt like it was time to grow a little more myself, so I interviewed at several places, got several offers, but nothing ever felt like a worthy move. That is until I started talking with Alastair Simpson, Head of Design at Atlassian, who convinced me what the company was doing to improve team collaboration was something worth working toward.

I ended up going to Atlassian for a few months to build out their mobile platform but shortly after decided it wasn’t the best cultural fit for me personally.

Then I found Lyft.

The Lyft team I interviewed with were doing a lot of big-picture, ambitious and complex work around autonomous vehicles. The role felt like an immensely challenging, hugely rewarding opportunity I couldn’t pass up. I would be able to take everything I learned while working at Facebook, in consumer research, and all of my development chops and apply them to one of the most daunting challenges of my generation: making transportation more autonomous.

Lyft has this culture that is very reminiscent of my early days at Facebook, at least I feel that way. When I joined Facebook the design team was about 80 and when I left it was around 800. Through that growth, I watched the culture shift away from a very hacker-esque, DIY environment to one where processes ruled everything. You couldn’t get something done without having to go through tons of red tape and required approvals from every possible level of leadership.

Now, at Lyft, I feel as though the design culture is very familiar to that smaller Facebook team I originally joined. The design culture is really a bunch of scrappy, top-tier talent doing some of the best/funnest work of their careers.

With the future of self-driving cars coming to fruition (within a couple of years still) Lyft has a strong position. As self-driving technology matures companies like Lyft will be able to provide a truly great, reliable experience in that we’ll be running autonomous vehicles in places and on trips where they can really shine. And where autonomous vehicles won’t be able to go (for the foreseeable future) or when circumstances don’t enable them to run safely, we’ll have the already large network of remarkable human drivers ready to go. In this way, we don’t see self-driving cars as replacing drivers, rather supplementing them. In fact: our vision of the future for transportation isn’t fewer human drivers for ridesharing, but actually more of them; as car ownership moves from standard to taboo.

Since joining Lyft I’ve been focused on designing tools and software to help our growing team build out our vehicles and technologies.

Nobody is really doing what teams like ours are behind-the-scenes, and this creates some interesting challenges from the design side. Unlike a designer working on, for example, yet another camera app for your phone, our design team can’t really look out at the market and find answers to the questions or problems we’re running up against. We have to design from scratch because nothing exists out there for our needs. Nobody has really done what we’re trying to do.

It’s very challenging work but it’s also rewarding. If we succeed, we’ll be the pioneers creating things the next generation of digital product designers might be copying from or inspired by.

I think projects like this are not for everyone though, despite how creatively exciting they may seem from the outside. You really have to be someone who can thrive in unknown spaces, with unknown constraints and large requirements, to do the job well. If you’re someone who is a self-starter, who can tinker with any type of scope and within the realm of programming languages you don’t fully understand or within the space of masked, multi-layered artificial intelligence models, you’ll do well.

Looking back, what got you into product design?

A strong curiosity and an appetite for building things.

Product design has been such a fuzzy concept for the past few years because it’s evolved alongside our technological counterparts in engineering and business.

Not long ago a product designer focused on building the tangible things you could see in a window display or on the shelf of a store. Now products have evolved to be everything we interact with behind the glass of a phone or tablet or computer, and these digital experiences need to be designed just as much as the things on the store shelf — possibly even more so, due to the influence and impact they can have on billions of lives in an instance.

But digital product design is also not design in the traditional sense of the word. Aesthetics and how the thing looks are only one part of the job. The rest involves research and data analysis, being able to deeply understand problems and how technology can influence or remedy them, interaction patterns and looking at how people will use or abuse the thing being designed, and so much more.

If you want to get into product design, I always say the absolute best way to do that is to do what I did: build things yourself.

I got into product design because I wanted to solve the problems I had in my own life. I designed and created products because they could help me in my own life. Technology today makes this type of behavior almost excuse-less. If you have a computer you can create things to better your life. And because the world is such a large place, someone, somewhere, probably will benefit from what you create too; if you do your job well, potentially millions of people will.

But it all starts with building things, not just designing them. When you actually build things — as opposed to simply designing static screens or imagining what a project might entail — you’re forced to face things you otherwise might not encounter. Things real projects in the real world drum up. I think Trevor McKendrick put it best:

The Big Vision with all the bells and whistles is fun to think about because it gives you all the benefits with none of the work… You can picture how you’ll look and feel, the money in your bank account, the respect of your friends and peers. At no cost, you get to imagine a perfect future that has everything you want and nothing you don’t. Because all the bad stuff, all the twists and turns, the late nights and early mornings, the rejections and betrayals… even if you wanted to you couldn’t imagine them because you don’t yet know what they’re going to be.”

The absolute best way to prime yourself for the real work of being a product designer is to build some products. Even if what you build doesn’t succeed or make you millions or even really fully ship, you’ll have more resources in your toolkit than the dozens and dozens of other designers who only ever focused on getting the pixels right.

It doesn’t matter what you build either — it’s more than ok to design yet another to do list app — what matters is building the things and learning along the way. If what you build ends up being garbage or not working, that’s ok, because building for the sake of building is often really fun too.

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Almost done. What do you like to do when you’re not working?

I’m always working, whether I’m working or not. I enjoy what I do, so when I get a free moment, I’ll usually spend it doing more or less the same things I do at work. But I don’t think of any of these things — designing, writing, developing apps, consulting or mentoring — as “work” per se, because they’re the things that give me energy and keep me motivated. It just so happens that my idea of non-work activities are also what I am fortunate enough to get paid to do.

Thank you so much. What is the best place for people to connect with you online?

I’m mostly active on Twitter and LinkedIn, but encourage people to follow me on Medium or subscribe to the RSS feed over at my personal blog.

Bonus Question: What was the weirdest way you ate an avocado?

It’s not weird, but my favorite way to eat avocado has always been sliced and grilled with some soy sauce in the center pit. De-lic-ious.

Want to stay in touch with Tanner? Find him on Twitter, LinkedIn, Medium or have a look at his personal blog.

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