The Grit

Using a growth mindset to advance in your career with Gabriel Valdivia

Juraj MihalikJuraj Mihalik

Hi Gabriel. Can you tell us a little about yourself?

Hi, thanks for having me! “Where are you from?” is one of the hardest questions for me to answer. I've lived in 4 countries, 3 continents, and no less than 20 homes. Because of that, I've become quite comfortable with change and find myself seeking it every few years.

When I was eight years old, my parents, my brother, and I left Cuba, the country I was born, and moved to Costa Rica. From that moment on, I had to embrace the feeling of being an outsider. I carried that feeling while my family and I moved countless times to find our footing within Costa Rica, and eventually that same feeling propelled us to seek better opportunities in the US, the place I now call home. Being an outsider isn't so bad, though. It's helped me identify patterns in the ways we communicate and interact with one another while giving me the perspective to appreciate what we have.

What’s your design journey? Walk us through it.

I always enjoyed drawing, especially to distract myself in school. In fact, here’s a fun story: in 8th grade, the local newspaper did a piece on me because I won a drawing contest of sorts. In the piece, they asked me what music I liked. I tried to sound cool and said “Nirvana” the reporter didn’t buy it and asked me if I listened to Shakira. I said “uhh, I guess so. Sure.” It took years to shake off the “Shakira Painter” nickname in school after that.

Anyway, my childhood interest in drawing and video games eventually led me to explore design in 9th grade and I’ve been obsessed with it ever since. I studied Graphic Design in college but I really fell in love with the rebellious nature of the tech industry in 2007. Back then, the world of design agencies seemed to me like a country club exclusive to the white men who sat in front of monochrome backgrounds preaching simplicity.

It was refreshing to discover the emerging industry of mobile apps, inventing their own rules, creating job titles and work cultures. I wanted to be a part of that! So, I changed my address on LinkedIn to California (I was living in Florida at the time), grabbed a Google Voice number with a California area code, and started applying for jobs there. That con job eventually landed me in Los Angeles for a year and eventually San Francisco where I lived my dream of being part of a startup with Automatic, a connected car company.

My role at Automatic was to design everything from the app’s UI, packaging, website, and even the door sign. I learned a ton and got the opportunity to flex all the design muscles I’d been building until that point.

In 2014, you joined Facebook as a Product Designer. Tell me about that.

Shortly after launching Automatic, a Facebook recruiter reached out for lunch. I didn’t speak recruiter lingo at the time and startup money wasn’t exactly abundant, so I said yes to a free meal! Turns out “lunch” was code for “an interview with a few of their designers in a closed room” — good to know! I totally bombed it (obviously), but was really impressed by the people I met that day. After a couple years of leading design for Automatic, I felt I had given it my all and needed to take some time to be a part of a larger team where I could learn from really smart people and level up my skills. So I asked that recruiter if we could grab “lunch.”

After joining Facebook, I quickly found that I thrive in small teams where I can influence the culture and product vision. Luckily, they really encouraged mobility across the company at the time, so I found myself hopping between projects every few months. I was lucky to be a part of their well-oiled products like Pages, Photos, and Composer as well as other more experimental projects like Virtual Reality. I even moved to London for a year to lead a small project and help build their design team.

Working at Facebook was a truly expansive experience. It taught me the impact Design can have in the world and some lessons for effective communication that I’ve carried with me since. One of my favorites is: avoid surprises. I used to take so much pride in revealing a “brilliant” idea to my team in a meeting. Working at a large company, I learned to build incremental buy-in by slowly introducing ideas to my team. That way, when the whole team encounters it, it becomes an evolution of the collective thinking the group has already been doing.

Why did you move to Facebook's VR Design team? Who made the decision?

I loved my experience in the Facebook VR team. When I joined, I was as novice as it gets when it came to VR and 3D design. Luckily, the team was designed with diversity in mind, not just of race and gender but also of skillsets. Thanks to that, I was able to lean on my experience building products at scale to compliment the VR/3D skills other team members had.

Over time, I got comfortable enough with Unity to make a few prototypes and eventually grew to lead design for the company’s first VR apps: Facebook 360 and Facebook Spaces. We were a scrappy team of 2 designers when I joined, but after two years we grew to 12. That team evolved Facebook VR from a small app into a metaverse-building juggernaut leading the VR conversation and steadily making progress towards a future reality unbound from physics.

Why did you decide to leave Facebook and join Alphabet’s Jigsaw?

Like I mentioned at the beginning, I’m energized by change. After four years of amassing knowledge and valuable skills at Facebook, I felt inclined to apply those skills towards a cause that I was more closely aligned with. At the time, Jigsaw was a small team within Alphabet, tasked with using technology to help at-risk communities feel safer in the world. We worked on projects that tackled disinformation, online security, censorship, and online harassment.

I joined to lead a VR-focused project at first and eventually helped them manage the Design and Research teams across the company. At Jigsaw, I learned that we don’t need to compromise our values to make good, interesting design work. There are plenty of opportunities out there to be impactful, move the design industry forward, and make the world a better place. It’s a good reminder for us to peer outside the Silicon Valley bubble (possible even within a Silicon Valley company, surprisingly!) and apply our superpowers for good.

What was your next destination after Jigsaw?

After a couple years at Jigsaw I felt the itch to go back to a startup environment, this time a little older, wiser, and with a mission-driven mindset. I joined Canopy, a startup founded by a few tech veterans who were eager for a private alternative to the data-mining personalization algorithms that plague the internet today.

What was your role at Canopy?

My role as Head of Design was to build the brand and help turn the team’s ambitions into a minimum lovable product: Tonic, a daily selection of personalized reads. The app used a mix of private on-device machine learning with human curation to recommend five things to read every day.

Canopy wasn’t like every other tech startup, though. It had privacy engrained at its core and through it I was given a blank canvas to introduce new mobile patterns that prioritized user trust over engagement. We documented a few of those and coined them Sensible Design. Tonic was our first foray into the Sensible recommendation space and it grew to have a small but dedicated audience. As a result, we were acquired by CNN in early 2020 to carry on that work and dream of a new news product that is designed with these principles at the center.

What projects are you currently working on at CNN? What is your main focus?

As Director of Design for NewsCo, a CNN Digital’s Emerging Products and Platforms initiative, I am responsible for leading its user experience team, which includes Design and User Research. Our team is small, right now there’s about twenty of us at NewsCo and three in the UX team: two designers and one user researcher. Our team was founded with the goal of rethinking how we consume news and align it with the way information flows in 2020.

The Canopy team was acquired in April 2020, at the heart of the COVID-19 crisis, so we’ve been distributed since we started. Like most companies out there today, we’ve had to learn how to work from home in the midst of a global pandemic, plus adapt to the integration of the acquisition. Luckily, everyone at CNN has been extremely flexible and accommodating to WFH realities and made the process as smooth as it can be.

Needless to say, 2020 has been a newsworthy year and CNN has been an invaluable institution to help us navigate these turbulent times. It’s been an honor to form a small part of that team and help shape its future. I hope to be able to share more about what we’re working on when it’s ready!

What has been the most significant learning to date from your career path?

The journey from a small startup at Automatic, then to large companies at Facebook and Google, then back for a short stint at small company at Canopy before joining yet another large company at CNN has been nothing short of exciting! If I had to choose, the connective tissue between those experiences is that they’re all guided by a motivation to grow, explore the ways in which we relate with technology, and ultimately build a better future.

My focus on growth has helped me find opportunities to continuously challenge myself when I feel too comfortable in a role. The downside of that is that I never truly feel like I know what I’m doing, since I jump to something else when I’m close to mastering it. The upside, however, is that I’ve been exposed to a prolific number of opportunities and roles whether it’s through personal side projects, virtual reality, emerging technologies, social good, or design leadership.

Did you have any good mentors that helped you shape your design career?

I think most mentors serve that role without knowing. For me, I’ve had the fortune of cross paths with two really great people who’ve shaped the way I think about design.

Daniel Burka is a close friend and someone I’ve learned a ton from. When I joined Facebook in 2014, Daniel invited me for lunch at the Google Ventures office, where he worked as a Design Partner at the time. We were overlooking the Bay Bridge from the cafeteria and Daniel said something that I still think about today. He said something like: “Don’t get too comfortable. Don’t buy a Mini Cooper and live that lifestyle. It’s really hard to step back from it once you do.” There’s a ton of pressure to fit in when you join a large tech company; buy a Tesla, get a Peloton, go to meetings, and chase that performance review. Daniel’s advice rang in the back of my head throughout my experience at a large company and gave me the perspective I needed to keep growing. That allowed me to stay nimble enough to be exposed to more experiences, which I’m really grateful for.

Someone else that I’ve learned a lot from is Charlie Sutton, who is currently the VP & Head of Design for the Facebook app. I worked closely with Charlie when he led the VR team at Facebook and learned so many invaluable lessons from him. Namely, how to be patient and nurture harmony within a team. Not only does Charlie have an infinitely charming common wealth accent, he also has a unique eye for design and an even better eye for people. Witnessing how he balanced people and craft should be a required master class for all designers. Charlie taught me how to plant the seed of an idea in a team, then carefully water it to see it flourish as something bigger than you set it out to be. It’s no coincidence that he’s grown to be such an essential part of the entire company.

What is Avocode?

It’s an all-in-one tool for teams that want to code and collaborate on UI design files 2x faster.

How do you educate yourself?

I like to aim to be embarrassed by my six-month-old self every six months. That is to say, I try to find opportunities for education in everything I do, from the way I communicate, to how I formulate ideas, and manifest designs. That started by formally studying design from 16 years old, and continued as I surrounded myself with people smarter and more talented than me all the time. I try to curate Twitter to minimize the hot takes and virtue-signaling and instead elevate the many people who generously share ideas with our community. Admittedly, the public arena has gotten difficult to navigate and writing a tweet can feel like a high stakes game of Floor is Lava with your career. Luckily, I have a small group of peers and friends that appreciates the exploration of new ideas from whom I learn a ton every day.

What excites you about design in 2020?

This year feels like the beginning of a new normal. Going back to the way things were before feels like a distant platonic wish. I’m excited about what’s to come because it must be different than everything that preceded us. In terms of Design, I’m excited for what this global distributed experiment will do to the way we work and how we balance work and life. We have an opportunity to rewrite some rules, it’s up to all of us to make sure they’re an improvement, though.

What’s an interesting or fun fact about yourself we wouldn’t find on your social media?

I struggle to think that anything I do is interesting, but—if you must know—I keep a log of everything noteworthy I've done at gabrielvaldivia.com/timeline. I find it useful to check in on whether I've accomplished what I wanted each year. The answer to that question isn't always “yes” but it's a fun way to hold myself accountable.

What do you like to do when you’re not working?

I love playing, producing, and mixing music. Before doubling down on design, I played bass in several bands for over a decade. I love bass because it's what connects rhythm and melody and—just like design—it’s best when you don't notice it. Unfortunately, it's not so fun to play bass on your own. So now that I don't have the time to find a band, I dabble on guitar, drums, and the beep-boops in Logic. I released a solo album in 2019 called Blankets and have been working on a follow-up this year during nights and weekends.

Bonus Question: What is your favorite avocado dessert?

I… don’t like avocados or dessert! I somehow didn’t develop a sweet tooth at all, so my diet consists of extremely bland food like rice, bread, and popcorn. My friends tease me for eating only brown-colored food, so I wrote a song about it.

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