Fireside Chat with Khoi Vinh and Jeffrey Veen: “In-house vs. on your own” 37signals 18 Jul 2006

35 comments Latest by Ward

[Note: This is our first Fireside Chat, a round table discussion conducted using Campfire.]

In-house vs. on your own
We brought Khoi Vinh and Jeffrey Veen together to talk about the differences between working at your own firm vs. working in-house for a big company. During the chat, Khoi and Jeffrey discussed how they give design a voice at the decision-making table, client work vs. internal work, why designers are engineers, Hill Street Blues, and more.

About the chatters
Khoi Vinh is Design Director at the NY Times and creator of Subtraction.com. Previously, he was a founding partner at Behavior.

Jeffrey Veen is Product Director for Measure Map, now owned by Google. Previously, he was a founding partner at Adaptive Path.

Matt and Jason from 37signals moderated.

Sample quotes

Jeff: “It doesn’t matter how good your design is if it doesn’t get used.”

Khoi: “In many ways, the *less* design I do, the better it is…My job is to create the conditions under which good design can happen.”

Khoi: “It’s the classic problem of becoming a manager…We got good enough at what we did before that now we’re paid not to do it anymore.”

Jeff: “My favorite phrase in a meeting is, ‘You mean like this…?’ and someone draws something.”

Khoi: “The documentation that consultancies/studios produce is so often just trying to say, ‘Look how nice this is, aren’t you glad you hired us?’ When really, as a member of the development team, I’d much rather see a well-constructed document that cuts to the chase.”

Full transcript after the jump.

Matt L.
Khoi, what’s the biggest difference between your typical work day now versus when you were at Behavior? And Jeff, what’s been the biggest change since your shift from Adaptive Path to Google? What do you like better about your new job? What do you miss about your old one?
Jeffrey V.
Meetings!
Khoi V.
Meetings is right.
Jeffrey V.
At a large orgainzation, communication is different than in a small team.
Khoi V.
There are a lot of meetings for me — sometimes that’s about 60% of my week.
Jeffrey V.
Yeah, that sounds like my schedule.
Khoi V.
I know that the 37s philosophy is that meetings are poison…
Khoi V.
But I have the attitude that, much as I dislike them, they’re a vital and necessary part of what I do.
Matt L.
What % of these meetings are necessary/productive?
Jeffrey V.
Hmmm… I’m not sure I could quantify that.
Khoi V.
I’d say about 90% of the meetings I attend are necessary and productive. There are very few time wasters.
In a way, I’ve come to see meetings as central to the success of the design group I lead. They’re my opportunity to articulate the hows and whys of the design process.
Jeffrey V.
Meetings are a byproduct of scale,
For example, when we were working on Measure Map, we could come to a conclusion with five people very quickly, and launch something new.
Jeffrey V.
But at Google, there are far more dependencies.
Jason F.
Ricardo Semler, who runs a massive company, makes all meetings optional. This encourages meetings to be valuable or no one will attend. If your meetings were optional would you attend most of them?
Khoi V.
I’d probably attend about 75% of them.
Jeffrey V.
I would probably choose meeting by meeting, week by week.
Khoi V.
How are we defining meetings?
There are big formal meetings at the Times, when all possible attendees are invited…
Khoi V.
And then there are smaller meetings that might be scheduled on an ad hoc basis, or involve no more than three or four people sitting in one of the offices.
Jeffrey V.
There are meetings I attend to promote a specific agenda item. So I half-listen off to the side until the thing I need comes up.
Jeffrey V.
I agree that meetings can be poisonous.
When I feel a meeting going off into endless debate, I try to hijack them
Jeffrey V.
get my laptop up on the projector, or stand at the whiteboard and draw.
Matt L.
(picturing jeff with a bomb strapped to his chest at a meeting)
Matt L.
; )
Are you still "making stuff" as much as you used to? Seems like all these meetings would get in the way of actually producing designs or what have you.
communicating vs. producing
Khoi V.
I don’t make as much stuff as I do before, definitely not.
But… I have a philosophy that, in many ways, the *less* design I do, the better it is.
Jeffrey V.
Hahahaha.
Khoi V.
My job is not to design, that’s a designer’s job (though I try to do at least a little of it all the time). My job is to create the conditions under which good design can happen.
Jeffrey V.
The pace at which you can actually make stuff slows at a larger organization.
But to Google’s credit, there is much more emphasis on making stuff than at a lot of similarly sized organizations at which I consulted.
Matt L.
[re: the *less* design I do, the better it is.] why’s that khoi? because you’re focusing more when you do design something?
Khoi V.
Right… when I’m designing, I’m a terrible manager…
Khoi V.
My head is buried in the problem at hand, when I should be out there helping designers solve their own challenges, and helping to improve the business climate so that they can produce better designs.
Khoi V.
So Jeff how much time do you spend making stuff?
Jeffrey V.
That’s been a big transition for me, as well, Khoi.
Khoi V.
It’s the classic problem of becoming a manager…
Khoi V.
We got good enough at what we did before that now we’re paid not to do it anymore.
Jeffrey V.
I still spend a good chunk of my time doing actual design. But it’s more high-level stuff now. I don’t take ideas and flesh them out into actual pixel-level schematics and comps nearly as much now.
But I’ve stayed very focused on ensuring that level of detail doesn’t slip away.
I have almost daily meetings in which we discuss and debate every detail of the designs we’re working on.
Khoi V.
Most of the design I’ll do is either very low-level — a quick change here that might take 15 mins. — or at a much higher level, where I’m sketching.
Matt L.
curious khoi: "helping to improve the business climate" — what’s that mean?
Khoi V.
Helping to improve the business climate means that I’m out there, mostly in meetings, making sure that design has a voice at the decision-making table. I’m speaking up for the user experience, trying to make sure that the plans that are being concocted by people outside of the design group are in sync with what we’re doing inside the design group.
Matt L.
is that an uphill struggle?
Jeffrey V.
Khoi, that satement sounds like something we said all the time at Adaptive Path: "It doesn’t matter how good your design is if it doesn’t get used."
Khoi V.
Right!
Khoi V.
It’s a struggle, but I’m not sure I would characterize it as an "uphill struggle."
Jeffrey V.
it’s more like an education process.
Khoi V.
By and large everyone at the New York Times wants to do the same thing — deliver the news in as efficient and useful a manner as possible, and to do right by the Times tradition. So in that sense, it’s easy.
Khoi V.
It just takes negotiation, working with people, demonstrating the value of design to them.
Jeffrey V.
That’s exactly right.
Jeffrey V.
Google is, of course, very engineering driven.
so often "design" gets considered as a step at the engineering.
Khoi V.
Jeff, the daily meetings you mentioned, are those standing meetings? Or are they meetings arranged on the fly?
Jeffrey V.
Those are standing meetings.
Jeffrey V.
and they have a tight agenda - they’re almost scripted.
Khoi V.
That’s something you instituted or it was in place when you arrived?
Jeffrey V.
It reminds me of the way they used to start each episode of Hill Street Blues - with the chief running through everything and people reporting in.
Jeffrey V.
We started that culture at Measure Map, because we were all in different locations
Jason F.
*first mention of Hill Street Blues in a Campfire room EVER*
Khoi V.
I like that idea, actually.
Jeffrey V.
We’d start at 10:00 every morning with a conference call. 20 minutes or so to check in with each other. Then stay on IM for the rest of the day.
Khoi V.
I do a regular Friday meeting with my group so we can touch base. But it would be hard to keep it under an hour if we drilled down into individual projects. Maybe a daily, standing meeting is the right idea.
Matt L.
Re: process…Jeff, what’s the typical design process like at Google? how does it differ from the way you worked at AP? what sort of "high-level stuff" do you produce?
Jeffrey V.
There really isn’t a "typical" design process at Google. Teams are pretty independent in how they develop their products. Sometimes that leads to duplicated effort, but ultimately it’s one of the things that really works well here.
Matt L.
Khoi: As design director, how do you fit in to the process at the Times? Is the flow similar to the way things worked at Behavior?
Khoi V.
The flow’s very different! Mostly because the variety in scale is so different.
It’s a lot more fluid. At Behavior, we tried to tie everything to a strict methodology, and we had one big project to work on at a time.
Jeff, here’s another question: do you take more or less care when you produce deliverables and documentation in your new job, now that you have an altogether different relationship with your ‘client’?
Jeffrey V.
It’s probably not an issue of care - it’s more about the work those deliverables need to do.
When consulting, deliverables are much more about recommendations and future plan.
Khoi V.
Right, "care" my have been the wrong word…
I just found that I took an entirely different view of what purpose a document serves now that my clients are internal.
Jeffrey V.
when working in an organization with a team, documentation is more about recording the descisions we made together.
So, in our team design sessions, we ususally have a schematic showing on the projector, and we design in real-time, then send out a polished version soon after.
Khoi V.
How do you design in "real-time"?
Jeffrey V.
we generally start by filling whiteboards with ideas and potential solutions to the problem we’re trying to solve.
Matt L.
Re: "I took an entirely different view of what purpose a document serves now that my clients are internal." What do you feel is the purpose now?
Jeffrey V.
my favorite phrase in a meeting is, "You mean like this…?" and someone draws something.
Khoi V.
Right.
Jeffrey V.
When we agree on a direction, then someone records that very rapidly in a lo-fi schematic
Jeffrey V.
Then, the person responsible for that feature/screen/whatever take that schematic and works it into a more realized design mock-up
and sends that around for comment
Khoi V.
I’ve tried to avoid that, because I don’t want editors and product managers to feel like they can ‘design over a designer’s shoulder’ and ask for variations alterations on the fly.
Maybe that’s an attitude (mine, that is) that’s too ivory tower though.
Jeffrey V.
I agree, Khoi. But I try to be a careful moderator in those sessions.
Matt L.
Sounds like you’re trying to shield your designers from what we used to call "pollen." ("it’s a high pollen count day" was the usual usage).
Khoi V.
Matt: I came to realize after joining an in house team that the documentation that consultancies/studios produce is so often just trying to say, "Look how nice this is, aren’t you glad you hired us?"
Khoi V.
When really, as a member of the development team, I’d much rather see a well-constructed document that cuts to the chase.
Matt L.
For sure. We realized that with proposals too. So much of it was junk that no one *really* cared about.
Khoi V.
Yes.
Khoi V.
I was guilty of it at Behavior, certainly…
Khoi V.
Spending all night binding a document in a special way so that it appeared impressively designed.
Khoi V.
Using design as an ornamental kind of business lubricant, rather than using design to take action on a business goal.
Matt L.
Well said. It’s the contents, not the binding.
Khoi V.
My attitude now is that if I hire a design studio (we do on a rare occassion), I’ll hire the studio that returns a well-executed 2-page proposal over a studio that returns a well-executed 200-page, specially formatted proposal.
Matt L.
it must be interesting to be in the hiring a design studio role now.
(as opposed to the other side)
Khoi V.
I actually haven’t done it yet…!
Matt L.
Jeff, what’s the 20% time that Google talks about like in reality? Do you really spend one day a week on left field ideas? Since you made the switch, is there more or less time to work on pet projects?
Jason F.
Yeah, Jeff, I’m interested in the 20% too. Google says: http://www.google.com/support/jobs/bin/sta…
Jason F.
"Google engineers all have “20 percent time” in which they’re free to pursue projects they’re passionate about." — but what about designers?
Do you have time to play with some UI? To redesign a screen? To do whatever you want on the design side, or is this limited to engineers? And if so, how do you feel about that?
Jeffrey V.
But, we also arrived her via acquisition, so there are some very specific goals for us to achieve before we start dabbling in other projects.
Here’s one of the big things I had to learn when I got to Google: Designers are engineers.
That is, people who work on products are all part of "engineering"
Jason F.
JV, makes sense to me.
Matt L.
designers are engineers = what do you mean by that?
Jeffrey V.
Just like when I was at Wired, everyone who worked on the product was part of "editorial"
Matt L.
you’re either on the bus or off the bus.
Khoi V.
Right, the design team at NYTimes.com is a part of editorial too.
Jeffrey V.
It’s the way the company is organized. When you hear Google talk about "engineers", they’re really talking about people involved in product development. As opposed to marketing, legal, etc.
Khoi V.
Design should be a part of the business’s core competency, whenever possible. Not a satellite group orbiting it.
Matt L.
so would u say engineers are designers too then?
Jeffrey V.
I completely agree.
Jeffrey V.
I would say designers and engineers have an equally important role in product development.
Jeffrey V.
Different responsibilities, but the same role on any team - to develop a product that will delight users.
Matt L.
gotcha.
Jeffrey V.
I’ve been in kick-off meetings with clients who asked, "Why are designers in this meeting? Doesn’t that come later once we’ve got a prototype?"
Khoi V.
Awkward!
Jeffrey V.
That’s one of the misconceptions I’ve worked against my entire career.
Matt L.
warning flag
Jeffrey V.
At Adaptive Path, we used to do a kick-off exercise where we got all stakeholders to quickly sketch their assumption of what the finaly product would look like.
Khoi V.
That’s what I’m talking about when I say a part of my job is to make sure design has a seat at the decision-making table.
Jeffrey V.
Then, they would all stare at each other’s work in terror, realizing just how different they all where.
Khoi V.
I want to make sure a designer can walk into any kick-off meeting (and without me) and not be asked why they’re there.
Jeffrey V.
Sonds like you and I have similar jobs, Khoi. ;)
Matt L.
interesting idea to get stakeholders sketching out ideas.
Matt L.
Khoi, I want to bring up something you mentioned to jason a while back…
Matt L.
in that interview you wrote:
At the New York Times, we certainly don't have a Microsoft-size crew of designers and developers, but we're clearly larger than 37signals. Since I've been there, I've been consciously and unconsciously applying a lot of your philosophy to developing new products. One thing that strikes me is that, when it's been most successful, the project and team have been set up in a kind of "pirate" operation. Which isn't to say rogue, but it's been set up around, again, someone who's been exceptionally talented at software development... So the question is: Is this the only way to integrate your methodology into a big organization? Can a big organization ever fully integrate it except in pirate exceptions?
Matt L.
I’d like to ask you the same question. Can a big organization only Get Real in pirate exceptions?
Khoi V.
ML, I remember that.
Khoi V.
I think it’s an idea that would still need to happen under the radar right now, for a smaller project that doesn’t have a lot of focus…
Khoi V.
One of our challenges is when we build a new application or redesign a section of the site is that the sheer number of interdependencies is enormous…
Jeffrey V.
Yeah, I think there is a lot of merit in the rapid prototyping aspects of it.
Khoi V.
And that’s on the editorial side, the business side *and* the technology side.
So, trying to do that kind of project with just three people isn’t going to work.
Jeffrey V.
Exactly right. At Google, every launch - even Labs products - has to scale to an astounding number of users.
So much different than launching a little useful application and growing it over time.
Matt L.
Sure.
Matt L.
Is it rewarding to know there isn’t an end date to your current gig? Does it make you feel like you "own" your work more?
One thing that was frustrating for us when we did client work was the lack of control we had after a project was handed off to a client.
Jeffrey V.
That’s a great question, Matt.
Jeffrey V.
That’s exactly why I started developing Measure Map at AP.
Khoi V.
(Jeff: it does sound like our jobs are similar. :) It’s funny how that happens with two companies with such different backgrounds.)
Jeffrey V.
I missed developing a relationship with a product and the users.
Khoi V.
It is a *much* different feeling.
Khoi V.
I actually liked the discrete nature of client work, because every new client was a new education. But to my surprise, I’m very comfortable living with a product continuously, too. I like it a lot.
Jeffrey V.
And I also was frustrated with designing in a vacuum.
Jeffrey V.
For as much user research as we did in client work, it was very difficult to "learn by doing" with discrete client projects.
Jeffrey V.
Measure Map changed dramatically once we had working code and early users.
Khoi V.
Yeah, that’s a real advantage here — we’re much more willing to learn by doing than clients I’ve had in the past.
Matt L.
Wouldn’t necessarily expect that at a place like the Times. interesting.
What do you miss the most about your old place? What’s the best thing about your new place?
Khoi V.
What I like most about my new place is that the people are phenomenal and just a joy to work with. What I miss most about my old place is being able to bring my dog to work with me!
Matt L.
And Jeff, do people really do their laundry at Google?
Khoi V.
I wanna know that answer too!
Jeffrey V.
Yes, I do my laundry here. I admit it.

35 comments (comments are closed)

Two Cents 18 Jul 06

Jeff seems to be saying similar things that I have heard come out of Google, things that make me not want to work there. Engineers arguing about every detail over and over and non-stop meetings. Sounds like too many cooks in the kitchen.

Kandace 18 Jul 06

What an interesting read. Look forward to more of these fireside chats!

JF 18 Jul 06

Got any ideas for people you’d like to see in a Fireside chat? We’d like to have 2 or 3 people per chat.

Gayle 18 Jul 06

Fascinating! I’m curious though - it doesn’t seem like the 20% question got answered, it was sidetracked into the definition of “engineer.”

Matt Oakes 18 Jul 06

Very nice post there.

Working at a place like Google or Yahoo will obviusly be very different to working in a small company, however it sound sort of fun and different. The amount of meetings might be a problem but I like the suggestion of non-compulsary meetings to make sure they have some value, would make them much easier to live with.

Alex 18 Jul 06

How about Paul Graham and Joel Spolsky?

Adrian 18 Jul 06

Interesting chat, need to go over it in a bit more detail. I moved to a much larger company at the end of last year, and the lines of communication are always an issue…

How about Jakob Nielsen and Jared Spool? ;) Could be fun!

Marc Hedlund 18 Jul 06

Fantastic idea. I love the format.

For Jeff and Khoi, when you’re talking about “standing meetings,” do you mean regularly occurring, or meetings where everyone is literally standing up? (The latter is much discussed in the extreme programming world — the idea being that if people are standing, they’re more likely to keep things short and to the point.)

Thanks for posting this, and to the particpants for agreeing to do it.

Mark 18 Jul 06

“…Working at a place like Google or Yahoo will obviusly be very different to working in a small company…”

To some obvious extent, I guess. But within the context of this particular discussion on meetings, everything the Khoi and Jeffrey had to say about their experiences seems pretty typical across the board.

I’ve worked at ultra-large corporations and mom / pop shops, done freelance and fulltime consulting, and there was not anything (again, within the discussion of meetings) that they are experiencing that is unique in comparison to any other business, in my opinion.

ML 18 Jul 06

Marc: I’m pretty sure the guys meant a regularly scheduled meeting, not one where everyone stands.

sb 18 Jul 06

paul graham and anyone else.

shane 18 Jul 06

I’d love to see Jim Coudal and Seth Godin in a fireside chat discussing the problem of clients and upper level management getting in the way of great designers. Answering if the problem can ever be solved and how or if we just take the 37s/Coudal path of making great products and services for “our” people while taking very few client projects.

It appears the most logical solution to this problem has already been discovered by our 37s and Coudal Partners brothers but for someone who loves all facets, targets, and mediums of design it seems somewhat bittersweet to hop into one niche product, service, or market.

I hope it’s not off topic Jason but any insight from your experience here would be greatly appreciated.

Great article in relation to this topic:
http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2006/07/how_to_live_hap.html

Sharaf 18 Jul 06

I recommend having:

1) Jakob Nielsen and Zeldman together or
2) Kelly Goto and Jason F
3) Doug Bowman (another Googler) and Cameron Moll
4) Chris Campbell (wofoo) and Ryan Carson (dropsend)

my 2 cents.

Tony 18 Jul 06

I wonder how Jeff gets his laundry to work on his bike: http://veen.vox.com/library/post/cycling-to-work.html

:)

Tony 18 Jul 06

I wonder how Jeff gets his laundry to work on his bike: http://veen.vox.com/library/post/cycling-to-work.html

:)

John Topley 18 Jul 06

I’d like to see a chat between James Gosling and your very own DHH…

;-)

Jamie 18 Jul 06

I would love to see a fireside chat with Jason Calacanis and Kevin Rose about Digg vs. Netscape.

Sergio Rabiela 18 Jul 06

I know Greg Storey at Airbag got a little too big for his britches and recently hired Ryan Irelan to help him out with his workload. It’d be cool to see a chat w/ him and others who went through something similar to hear about the growing pains they went through and how it could have gone smoother.

Sean 18 Jul 06

I like that “designers are engineers” riff, definitely very true but not always easy to get people to see it’s the case.

Dave P 18 Jul 06

Guys,

Thanks for posting the entire transcript. I’ve only had the time to skim it right now, but I’ll be back to read it in detail! Well Done!

18 Jul 06

Paul Scrivens & Mike Rundle… just for laughs…

Andy Kant 18 Jul 06

The standing meetings (where everyone stands the entire time) mentioned by Marc Hedlund that are in extreme programming work very well for small teams. They are kind of fun too since it is a bit of a different atmosphere than a meeting where everyone is sitting around a table. It gets the participants more involved since the discussion has to keep moving.

Great new feature. I like Sharaf’s suggestion of Doug Bowman and Cameron Moll. I have an interest in finding out how Google runs their business.

Christopher 18 Jul 06

Kathy Sierra & anyone, John Gruber & anyone…

Again, the fireside chat is an excellent idea. Thanks.

Dave 18 Jul 06

I really enjoyed this chat. I would love to see future chats escalate beyond the field of webdesign and deal with design and technology in relation to society, education, and global development.

With that said, I would like to see any combination of:

Alan Cooper, Don Norman, Nicholas Negroponte, Barry Schwartz, Steven Levitt, Eric Brende, Bryan Lawson

ar 18 Jul 06

I’d like to hear from Ernest Kim and Scott Upton. I know they are no longer part of 37S, but I always liked reading their posts.

John Gruber get’s a nod as well.

Tamim 18 Jul 06

What about Stefan Sagmeister and David Carson?
Or
Neville Brody and Girogio Armani

the daniel 18 Jul 06

I would enjoy a fireside chat with Dries Buytaert (Drupal) and David Heinemeier Hansson (RoR).

Rimantas 18 Jul 06

Kathy Sierra, Seth Godin.
R. Semler, maybe?

JF 18 Jul 06

Ricardo Semler would be a treat for sure.

Design2Please 19 Jul 06

Great discussion! Can we have Doug Bowman and some day?

John 19 Jul 06

Go and study engineering for 5 years if you want to call yourself an engineer. Designers are no more engineers than a customer support rep is an engineer.

Andy Kant 19 Jul 06

I don’t know John, there is such a thing as user interface engineering (I pay for 37s’s products solely because of the UI) which is a skill that would be more commonly held by a graphics designer than an “engineer.” Have you seen the interfaces that engineers make? They only work for other engineers. I would consider designers engineers if only for UI.

I’m not saying that all “engineers” follow this template (I’m a software engineer and would like to think that I have atleast some UI engineering talent)…most UI that comes out of an engineer is awful.

Tony 19 Jul 06

Maybe I’m getting hooked on semantics, here, but I believe what Jeff Veen was saying was that designers are part of the engineering department, not that they thought of themselves as engineers. A subtle, but important, difference.

Vincent Lau 19 Jul 06

This was great. I’d like to see a chat with two others in similar work situations to compare if the process/problems exist/not exist. Would give an idea if it’s common.

I second the motion to have Seth Godin as a Fireside “chatter.” I find that he often brings an interesting view to any discussion.

Ward 19 Jul 06

Very insightful. One of the best SvN posts I’ve read. Look forward to more chats!