Tent Talks Featuring Ian Smile – Leadership & Community

Tent Talks Featuring Ian Smile - Leadership
Ian Smile
Principal UX Designer
Ian Smile is a Principal UX Designer at Veritone in Orange County, CA working with AI in the Enterprise Synthetic Voice and Ad Tech spaces.

On Friday, March 10 at 5:00pm Central, Ian Smile joined us for a live Q&A session “Leadership & Community.”

Session Transcript

[00:00:37] Chicago Camps: Ian, tell us how you got your start in UX and how the community has helped you navigate your career.

[00:00:44] Ian Smile: I went to school a long time ago before graphic design back during the early Macromedia days. We learned LINGO as our first entrée into interactive design back in the nineties before everything that exists now existed.

[00:00:57] Super early internet. I got started in graphic design was really influenced by David Carson, Peter Saville, a lot of guys that did album art, did band photography, did music magazines, things like that. I really wanted to design snowboards and skateboards. And like 25 years later, I got to design skateboards.

[00:01:18] Took a while to get there, but it’s been a journey. Back during the flash days, I saw it up and coming. I was seeing early internet games were Flash. So I was interested in that and just being able to do anything with motion was incredible. So I dipped into that on the side, got my first gig, knowing Flash with the promise of learning, HTML, CSS, JavaScript.

[00:01:40] I was hired on the basis of “you know a little bit and we think we can grow that” and then getting into UX, it was just an obvious progression for me where a good chunk of my career not thinking about the customer. I thought about getting a thing up on a FTP server basically, and that was just the way it was.

[00:01:59] There wasn’t a lot of conversation happening around usability or accessibility that I knew of or in my space once I started learning about it. It’s amazing how long we went without doing any of that, without thinking about content strategy. You have a copywriter and they write stuff and you throw a spaghetti at the wall and it sticks.

[00:02:14] Once I started learning about UX, I was pretty fortunate. I took a weeklong certification at Rutgers around UX, and one of the professors as a part of that was Marilyn Tremaine. Who was one of the special interest group founders and one of the pioneers of UX. Just hearing some of the old school PARC Xerox stories and things like that was really neat.

[00:02:35] Went to a couple conferences. I was living in Brooklyn by then, and just started meeting all these people, like Lou Rosenfeld was doing a happy hour. I started going to that. It was light design conversation plus networking plus beer in Brooklyn, so there’s always a cool group of people. Started meeting the right people and starting to have conversations around it. I just bought a stack of books, had that certification, and then just started dabbling until I started actually using some of the practice in my design process. I was in Brooklyn for 10 or 15 years. Moved out to California. I did a bunch of nonprofit work, and this gets into the community part, like obviously running BKUX was amazing just for the people that we met, we had a couple workshops that we did with Uday, Gagender and Steve Portigal, so that was really fun. And just being in a room with people that wrote the books that you were reading is always neat. Then moving out here, I started going to all these skate events where I had only seen these people in Thrasher when I was 13, and then you’re standing next to him or skating next to him, which is crazy.

[00:03:39] And that’s another part of my story with punk rock and skateboarding.

[00:03:43] Chicago Camps: You’ve been really turning your focus to leadership lately. How has access to, and learning from, the community you talked about helped you progress in your career?

[00:03:53] Ian Smile: It’s been the people around me. I’m a big believer, again, going back to the community and punk rock theme, you’re the sum of the people around you.

[00:04:00] It’s like setting up a band. You need certain people to make it work, including managers and guys to carry all the gear or whatever it takes. That’s the main thing is just being around the right people and learning in maturity where you learn, have better conversations, and I think that’s what it comes down to.

[00:04:17] Also with leadership and community, it’s a weird thing, especially within UX because titles aren’t really concrete. It’s such an abstract. There are so many different constructs of leadership and community and it’s like success is almost based on scale, and that’s a thing where it gets weird. Where if you’re not leading 400 people, managers, and layers and layers of people in an org, it’s not seen as successful.

[00:04:43] If you’re building and running a small team, you still have the same problems and challenges. That’s where it gets a little wishy-washy. It’s the same thing with community really is I started skateboarding, it was me and the curb. And then the kid across the street who was a couple years younger, he started skating the curb and then you meet the kid up the street who has the halfpipe and you start skating the halfpipe.

[00:05:05] That was the whole world to me. You meet these little pockets of people. I went to school out in Amish country, Pennsylvania, which is interesting. There’s a big punk rock scene there. There’s a really good skate park there. You’re not in New York, you’re not Philly, but you still have the legitimate punk scene because everyone’s invested and everyone’s contributing, and I think that aligns with design, too is you don’t have to be working at FAANG. If FAANG companies get all of the cache obviously, and it doesn’t hurt, having that your resume as we’ve seen in the last couple years, might not be that great. Like paycheck’s good. I’ve heard lots of mixture views on working a lot of these big companies and I have a lot of friends that have left some of the big companies to go work back at smaller companies where you’re not responsible for 50 Xing your revenue every year.

[00:05:50] Chicago Camps: How would you recommend folks find and get involved in the UX community today?

[00:05:54] Ian Smile: I think especially with the way the last couple of years went, we’re in a weird time of kind of post-geography, even though that sounds weird, but we are with the remote world and just with the level of access that everyone has to the internet, to everything on the internet, infinite learning. I think that’s really democratized design and it is easier. Like Twitter, I met a lot of great people. I don’t like how it’s gone for the last couple months for obvious reasons with Twitter, but I’ve met a lot of really great people. It’s given me a lot of access to a lot of really great people.

[00:06:28] Sharing selflessly is something that I prop myself on. I think that with the demise of some of the sharing platforms, the Tumblr’s, it’s very random and it’s all over the place. The idea of the personal blog, I still really like that concept, and I feel like you can put your personality sharing of what you’re learning.

[00:06:47] I feel like when you’re dumping it into the maelstorm of Twitter or any abyss of your choice, it gets lost. So typically I have a core group of people where we just share a lot of content with each other. I think that goes a long way, and I feel like those are the ties that bind us. It’s those little moments in personal sharing and getting to know your core, Dunbar 150 or less, knowing what they’re thinking and what they might like. I think those are the relationships that are gonna go a lot farther than going to your local meetup every week and hoping that you meet one person after two hours. And remember their name and don’t lose their business card after six IPAs.

[00:07:27] Chicago Camps: A lot of folks may not recognize that community is about what you give to it more than what you take away. How would you suggest that folks find a way to give back to the UX community today?

[00:07:39] Ian Smile: Sharing selflessly. I have a whole list of Punk Rock quotes in my head that I try to live by. Mike Watt, who was the bass player for Minute Men, amazing guy, super smart. He kind of had a saying, we jam econo. And his band had a pretty junked up bus and they had pretty junked up equipment, but you can play it and you can be a band like you can do a lot with a little. Punk Rock has proven that time and time again and now Green Day’s worth a trillion dollars and they started pretty small too.

[00:08:08] Join IXDA. Absolutely. You don’t have to rely on that. If you don’t have one in your city, go start your own thing. Biscuit from the Big Boys, who is a Texas punk band. He’d at the end of every show, he’d say, now, go start your own band.

[00:08:20] That tells it right there. There are a thousand quotes like that from punk guys, cuz that’s what it was. You’d go see a show and meet someone else and you hear a time and time again. I was in a show with this guy and we started talking at the bar and I had a guitar and he had drums and then they were the Descendents.

[00:08:36] That’s what it comes down to. It doesn’t take a lot. In the post-geography sense, we’re all basically connected. You can live in Alaska and you’re still connected to people in New York and with my current teams, working remote, it’s become a lot better for me cuz where I’m living right now, it’s a small community, but my teams are distributed all over the country and they have different points of view. And that all goes into the design, too, that’s a big deal.

[00:09:00] There’s a great documentary called Another State of Mind where one of the guys in Social Distortion, he says, we go, we load up this van, we drive across the country. We stay at some kid’s house that we got his contact info from Maximum Rock & Roll saying that they had a punk house there and you can sit up all night and talk about music and skateboarding. You’re separated by a million miles in a life. That’s the exact quote that powerful. It gives me chills every time I think about it, but it’s like we have that level of connection now and that’s super powerful and it’s a lot that I wish existed when I was coming up. I always think about that being a little bit older too. I always think about that is how would my career have been different if I had the level of access to everything under the sun with one search result? Jump into Google. You can learn anything.

[00:09:51] There’s so many frameworks you could just grab from . No code is a reality. You can do so many things. It’s amazing. You can become a chef. You can do anything. And I think that’s also another thing staying interested, which is a quote from Craig Stecyk, he says, the key to getting through this life is staying interested. And that’s where everything that you are interested in, when you share that, it makes you a better designer. If you’re a designer and you’re only in the echo chamber, you’re not gonna know that much. Versus if you’re digging into psychology, if you’re digging into architecture, if you’re learning typography, if you have a UX background but aren’t a good visual designer, you can go learn basic typography and chop things together pretty well.

[00:10:31] Chicago Camps: What is something you’ve learned about leadership that wasn’t clear to you before you took on a leadership role?

[00:10:37] Ian Smile: DesignOps is the biggest thing that I’ve been focusing on because you can blend in and you can just do your work or you can try to create changes that will help you do your work better.

[00:10:48] And that’s where, especially stepping into my current principal role, where I never had that level of buy-in. And just also the company I’m working at is great and I have spent a lot more time focusing on working with my product people and engineering managers and everyone looking across my shoulder people instead of any kind of up and down has been really helpful.

[00:11:10] Beyond that, really crafting conversations . The better you get at that. I’ve read a couple books just about conversations like Daniel Stillman put out a great book a couple years ago. Just having different kinds of conversations and approaching things from different angles.

[00:11:23] Also, as you mature, you have to be more collaborative definitely, but then also learn how to better frame conversations based on who you’re talking to, which I’ve never really thought about before. Because once you get in that hot seat, you might be presenting to the CEO more often or even have more visibility into the higher ups in a company.

[00:11:44] So really crafting conversations is something that I’ve been focusing on a lot.

[00:11:49] Chicago Camps: What’s the one leadership strength you really want to mature in the year ahead?

[00:11:53] Ian Smile: Product strategy. I’ve been learning a lot more about the business side of things and especially working in the AI/ML space because it’s so new. It’s not really new, but it’s new to a lot of tech and it’s a lot more mainstream now. Data lakes and getting into some of the engineering side of things, even if I can’t practically do it. Having basic understanding of what the possibilities are and what the capabilities are.

[00:12:15] Working with a customer success team more often is definitely a great driver in a lot of the design decisions that we’ve been making. Hearing a lot more from customers working with different industries. I’m in a good position in that my company is very diverse, so it is learning a lot of different spaces and industries that I’ve never even thought about before.

[00:12:35] Chicago Camps: Here’s a lightning round with Ian. Who’s your favorite skateboarder of all time?

[00:12:39] Ian Smile: I’d say Mark Gonzalez. Neil Blender. Jeremy Henderson.

[00:12:43] Chicago Camps: Acid Drop are no comply?

[00:12:45] Ian Smile: No comply. Ray Barbie crushed it on those.

[00:12:48] Chicago Camps: Favorite punk band?

[00:12:49] Ian Smile: I’ll go Minor Threat.

[00:12:51] Chicago Camps: Best live punk show you’ve been to?

[00:12:54] Ian Smile: I saw Dag Nasty. In Orange County a couple years ago and they were incredible cuz Brian Baker from Minor Threat plays with them and they did Minor Threat Minor Threat.

[00:13:02] Social distortion in Lancaster in 1996 was incredible. Mike Ness into the show, so that was really cool. And 2014 I proposed on stage of the Bouncing Soul show in Asbury Park that probably has to go first. I proposed on stage at the Stone Pony in Asbury Park Bouncing Souls Show right before Christmas.

[00:13:21] Chicago Camps: Last one. What’s your favorite music/culture documentarty?

[00:13:25] Ian Smile: I’d say Hype!, which is about the Seattle scene, not focused on Nirvana like all the other bands that were there that are amazing Gas Offer and Mono Men, and the Score documentary, which is about film scoring. There are a bunch of documentaries like that, but Score’s incredible.


Event Details
Tent Talks with Ian Smile
March 10, 2023
5:00 pm
March 10, 2023
6:00 pm
Tent Talks Featuring: Ian Smile On Friday, March 10 at 5:00pm Central, Ian Smile will join us for a live Q&A session “Leadership & Community” and we’re very excited!  Join this live session for free and take part in the...
May 2024