My decade in review (2011-2020)

My decade in review (2011-2020)

Jan 1, 2021

Some folks started counting it as a new decade at the start of 2020, and I mostly agree with them. Let's just say I procrastinated to write about the events of ten years by a year?

This has definitely been challenging trying to recollect events from each year; I've tried capturing the highs & lows through these years and have kept most personal aspects abstract intentionally. More than anything, this is a way for me to reflect and gauge my progress professionally. Going into my 30s, I wanted to capture my 20s to better understand myself.

2011 - The year of oblivion

Third year in my undergraduate pursuing Computer Science in India, I doubt if I had learnt anything that was even remotely close to being useful from an application point of view. Don’t get me wrong, I was getting better at logic, learning how control systems work, how digital signals are processed, and how microprocessors work; this set the foundation. However, my retention of these concepts were ephemeral. I was interested in building apps though; just pure hit and trial, lots of Googling, and learning from free online tutorials, I was learning how to build Android applications using JAVA. Little did I realize my learning would have been a lot faster if I had managed to retain the theories. Or better yet, if the theories had been combined with applications right from the start.

2012 - The year of my first paycheck

The year I graduated with a bachelors in Computer Science. 700 students were chosen to join the large Tata conglomerate as software engineer trainees; I was one of them. We were sent to Hyderabad for three months, a city that I fell in love with. They separated us into groups to train us in industry relevant skills. I was slotted to be trained in JAVA web development. From scratch. By 2012, I had been programming in JAVA for almost 3 years and this training felt like a paid vacation. I made the best use of my time in the new city to explore and relax before my actual job started.

By September I had moved to Chennai, my hometown, to start my time as a full-time employee. The job did not pay much (about 5500$ a year), so I decided to stay with my parents until I could earn enough to rent out a place — I was fortunate and consider myself privileged that I could do this. A lot of my peers were from different places and managed to rent out a place and contain their expenses within a similar salary.

Though I was employed full-time, I still had the job of finding a suitable team. I was advised to find a team that had prospects of a role in the US. I was not too keen on it and ended up picking a role as a front-end developer to work on an internal learning & development web app. Though the role was intended to be that of a front-end developer, I was also the one designing the app end to end working with three other back-end developers and a manager.

My mindset was still that of an undergraduate with no accountability until December of 2012 where I had my first real jolt. I was tasked with reducing the front-end package sizes as they were taking up quite a bit of time to load. I had mentioned to my manager that I would and hadn't figured a way to do it before Christmas. Come the day of launch right after Christmas and we were hit with tremendous traffic; the load times were pretty bad mostly thanks to what I did not deliver. I still remember being questioned on why it wasn't done yet - I had no legit answer because the truth was I did not try hard enough to figure it out. I realized that if this had been any other client-facing team, I'd have probably lost my job. I was lucky to be where I was when I learnt this lesson. I figured it out before the new year but this was the first real accountability nudge.

2013 - The transition to design

Most of 2013 was spent learning Ruby on Rails, how to use Git, collaborating with a team on ideas, creating a process for myself to design and develop web interfaces. Looking back, I consider 2013 the year I learnt a lot. I spent hours figuring out nuances of design, what constraints I had to circumvent in order to bring my designs to reality. I learnt aspects of product development lifecycle without even knowing that — I listened to feedback from thousands of users on forums on our product. This made me realize my biases and how important it is to acknowledge them in the process of designing.

This was the year I discovered Meng To, who at the time, was creating jaw dropping iOS design assets using this new magic tool called Sketch. I realized I needed a Macbook to even use the software. I was keen on wanting to learn this new tool. I made the splurge of getting my first MacOS device - a 13-inch Macbook Air mid-2013. It was over 1000$ back in India and with a little help from my father who offered to pay 50% of the cost, I could afford a new shiny Macbook Air. I went on to use this device until late 2019 and easily one of my most loved devices ever.

I bought Sketch (the first software that I actually spent money on) and started replicating designs of Meng To & Sebastien Gabriel. This was the first time I was designing websites on a software tool before building them. Up until this point, I was using GIMP (we worked on Linux at work) & Balsamiq to create wireframes. Most of the time, I would just sketch a few ideas and build them directly using code. To this front-end developer turned designer, this new way of testing designs before building them saved me hundreds of hours. It was during this phase that I realized how much I liked defining the why behind product decisions. I found myself spending more time at work discussing product direction, strategy, and planning validation sessions. This got me to consider pursuing design academically.

I was really curious if there were schools teaching this as a discipline and I stumbled upon Human-Computer Interaction. After some research and digging, I had a few target schools in mind — all of them in the US. I gave myself a few months to prepare for GRE. Competitive exams weren’t my cup of tea and getting a fairly decent score required me to prepare a lot — this was the first time I sincerely planned my preparation. For an average science graduate from where I’m from, this is really late blooming — most of my peers knew enough to take competitive exams seriously at least a decade before me. Hey, better late than never, right?

The later half of 2013 was spent on writing my statement of purpose, applying to schools, getting my recommendations letters in order, and learning the essence of HCI through a Coursera course — the first online course I completed.  Quickly I started liking how much I could learn if I spent a few hours every evening. My mind was then trained for instant gratification — if I couldn’t see results of what I was learning, I’d end up burning the midnight oil until I saw the results I was looking for.

I am thankful for one specific person at work who challenged me intellectually this year, made me work on a patent, and wrote a letter of recommendation once he learnt I was looking to study further in the US!

This was also the period where I had some sort of social life since graduation— I spent a good amount of time eating out, playing live gigs, hanging out with friends.  Looking back, this was a well rounded year.

2014 - The move to the promised land

I got through a few schools to pursue design in the United States. I had to pick the one that offered the most of what I wanted from a curriculum point of view, and more importantly a school that was easy on the pocket. I consider myself privileged and my parents have provided me with everything they can but schools in the US were beyond our means. Just the application process left a fairly big dent in our pockets. Fortunately, I have supportive family in the US that valued the importance of education. For the first year of my graduate studies, I was promised interest free loan from my uncle for the tuition (that I managed to pay back by 2016) — this meant a huge deal because this enabled me to pursue my interests — a privilege not many can afford. Now with the first year of my graduate tuition taken care of, I had to figure out my living expenses, and somehow land a scholarship to fund my second year. A lot of pressure? Maybe, but I was too optimistic to not take the leap of faith.

I spent the first half of 2014, before moving to the US, working real hard on improving my skill set. I enrolled to Treehouse and kept my online learning consistent. I had learnt a fair bit of web development and was skilled enough to build robust, efficient, & secure applications end to end. I spent the last few months in India freelancing alongside my full-time job. With my flair for design, I was also able to create sweet looking UIs that mostly gave me an advantage in the freelancing world. For the first time, I was working with clients in the US charging about 30$ an hour for my work. This helped me save up (what I thought was a lot) before my move to the US — all of which were exhausted after my first month’s rent & security deposit in the US.

July of 2014, I moved to the US. I had a month before my classes started to find myself a part-time job. Most of my peers found a gig as teaching assistants, and it took a bit of convincing on my end to land a job. After emailing a fair bit of professors and relentlessly shooting my resumes out, I found a job as a Python teaching assistant a day before my classes started. Funny part? My knowledge in Python was zilch — this meant alongside my full-time graduate classes, I had to be prepared for these undergrad classes too. I jumped right in. At least I did not have to worry about paying rent, I thought.

To be honest, I struggled in my first semester. I found it hard to balance classes, my assignments, my job, & adjusting to a completely new way of life. I hit a few road bumps, a few visits to the ER, and realized how expensive healthcare here was. I did end up landing an internship for the summer of 2015; I was probably the first from my cohort to land one which definitely eased things up and let me focus on my classes a lot more.

Overall 2014 was one heck of a learning experience. I had to make tough choices, went through emotional rollercoasters. It was a uphill battle. Looking back, I’d rather not have it any other way.

2015 - A few wins, a few disappointments

Bagging an internship by the end of my first semester was a definite boost to my confidence. As an international student in the US, I was allowed to work only 20 hours a week while studying. Luckily, I was only spending 10 of those hours working as a teaching assistant, and thought I should look for another job to make use of the other 10 hours. I found one as a web developer for our university’s library.  I was definitely getting better at managing my time juggling two jobs, my classes, assignments, and interviewing further to gauge if I could land another internship. I got super close to landing an internship at Uber before I messed up the final round — I panicked after looking up the interviewer.

PRO TIP: If you are someone who gets intimidated by credentials, don't look up your interviewer a few minutes before your interview.

I spent the summer of 2015 in Texas interning at a company where I designed & built proof-of-concept dashboards for potential clients. I spent a lot of my time writing scripts more than actual design thinking, and this got me a little worried. Though it was a fine mix of design and actual development, I was hoping for a role that was more product thinking focused than implementation. This made me think a lot deeper on what I actually wanted in my full-time role. I started writing my Medium blogs on design around this time — I wrote about micro-interactions, took small interaction design problems, and wrote about how they could be improved. I wanted to expand beyond being looked at a designer who can code.

Right before the end of my internship, I had managed to find a graduate assistant role back in school that took care of my tuition for the final year of school. I got the role of writing a Ruby on Rails application that aimed at improving the lives of the underrepresented — this role was extremely fulfilling and came as a huge financial relief. This meant I needn’t teach anymore; all I had to do was build an app 20 hours a week and focus on my courses.

In Fall of 2015, my writing on Medium landed me a chance to interview with Google for the first time. Up until now, I was not mentally prepared to start interviewing for a full-time role but this was too good an opportunity to pass up on. I was thrilled but super underprepared.

The first phone interview was a breeze, the interviewer was super friendly, and it was more like a conversation with a designer friend. We spoke about my role in India, my internship, and the future of design. Next up was a design challenge - this easily is one of my favorite parts of the interview process. A weeklong hackathon of sorts where I get to explore multiple ideas, critique myself, get peers to provide me with feedback, validate designs, and iterate. And of course, prototyping. I got good at prototyping ideas quickly. I would spend a few hours and have a working prototype of my ideas - this was multiple years of coding, designing, and rigorous critique sessions coming together. The design challenge took me a week to complete. I remember spending the Halloween night putting together a video to present my idea. I went a bit overboard with what was asked for - but I thought - hey, this was Google, I am pretty sure everyone is doing all they can! I sent in my completed design exercise and after a few days of apprehension, I heard back from the recruiter that I was invited for an on-site interview to the Google headquarters at Mountain View. I could not believe what I was reading - Google was willing to fly me to California for an interview. I had little over a week to prepare for my interview — I put together a presentation, looked up all possible questions on Glassdoor, Medium etc and practiced for hours. The same presentation over and over again until I could do it in my sleep.

I landed in San Francisco a day before the interview, my first time in California since I moved to the US. I was hosted in a hotel in Sunnyvale where I spent the evening relaxing, reading up on my presentations notes, and practicing mock interview questions.

The next day, as I entered the room for my first presentation, I was greeted by 5 designers from Google, one of whom I recognized immediately. The same Sebastien Gabriel whose designs I used to mimic back in India when I first started. I had a mini fanboy moment and was so thrilled to meet him. In hindsight, that might have been pretty awkward for the other interviewers there. Not sure if that was the best first impression!

The presentation was smooth, all of the whiteboarding exercises were great, and some of the interviews were a bit tricky but I thought I had given them convincing answers. Ah, the ignorance!

After 3 long weeks of waiting, I heard back from the recruiter that I did not make it. It was definitely a lowlight just before the new year. I reflected and realized that though my presentation itself was very well structured, I did not pick a good project to talk about. I spoke about a project that had a lot of 3D modeling, designing physical structures, & tactile interactions — I spoke nothing about designing interfaces on a screen. As this dawned on me, I felt stupid. Obviously I should have mixed it up — I did not connect with my interviewers because I put all my eggs in one basket.

2016 - San Francisco & the Silicon Valley enchantment

The one good aspect about interviewing with Google first was the level to which it helped me prepare for other interviews. Going into 2016, I had managed to convert my internship to a full-time role. I hadn't yet accepted the offer though - the reason? I wanted a pure design role — not design and development. In addition, I was looking for a team that had a full blown team with researchers, writers, and designers — where I'd report to a design manager and be mentored by other designers in the team. And oh, I was very specific about one other requirement — the role needed to be in the Silicon Valley. I interviewed a lot, bagged a few offers, but did not stop until the offer was based in California. Around March of 2016, I was in the final rounds with two companies in San Francisco. I flew down to San Francisco again for the interviews — I aced one and bombed the other. I finally had an offer from OpenDNS (then recently acquired by Cisco).

I moved to San Francisco — right into the heart of city — The Mission! It took a few weeks but I was smitten by the city. The food, the bars, the people, the work, and the vibe! I made a lot of new friends, learnt a lot of IKEA assembly, and paid a lot of rent for a hole in the wall.

My first real product designer role in the US was everything I was looking forward to — there was a dedicated design team, great mentors, autonomy to design with a dedicated engineering team & product counterparts. There was a fair bit of learning curve in the initial days to learn the nuances of cyber security. The complexity behind the problems I was solving was intriguing — I was working on a console that controls multiple dashboards at the same time. My role was all about designing for scale. How do I enable users to control something as complex firewall settings and apply it to a multiple of their clients at the same time? I also got in at a time when the product was going through a rebranding exercise after the acquisition— this gave me the opportunity to rework some of the choppy interaction paradigms that existed in the product. The engineering team I worked with were extremely focused and valued design input a lot. The team worked in 2 week sprints and we iterated continuously gathering feedback from users. My projects were split out in a way where I tackled tactical design needs every sprint, and in parallel worked on a larger projects that required a fair bit of research, understanding of constraints, and prioritizing needs of the users.

I was learning a ton at work, making connections with folks in the industry by attending almost every possible meetup, continuously writing about what I learnt, and more importantly enjoyed my time in Bay Area by hiking to new places almost every weekend!

2017 - Career growth & baby steps in investing

This was the year where I made significant contribution by shipping three critical projects, built a design system from scratch, helped create a process to document, update, & build new components, came up with a research template to synthesize findings from users, and learnt to embed accessibility in the design process.

There were months where I was stuck on a problem so complex that the product manager & I would spend about 5-6 hours every day brainstorming, whiteboarding, tossing designs in the bin, and starting all over again. The process was agonizing for a while — until we learnt to embrace certain constraints and acknowledging that we cannot solve for all the nuances. There were a few important lessons here —

  1. To take prioritized sizeable chunks that can be solved for in the next couple of months

  2. Place constraints on the scope of the problem to not try and boil the ocean.

These seem obvious but one can overlook easily when neck deep in the problem.

By mid 2017, I had a fair bit of successful launches — the one that stood out the most was a project that came as an ask from the sales team. A team of four took it up as a side project and shipped out a quick proof of concept that yielded over a million dollars in revenue in less than 8 months! The project then got commissioned further resources, and went on to yield a lot more over the course of the year. This win taught me to keep my feelers out to listen to internal stakeholders — I started reaching out more to sales, customer success, & marketing to understand the problems they were trying to solve to gauge if any of their problems could be productized.

This was also the year where I learnt a lot from my management chain (both my immediate manager and her boss). We had actionable quarterly retrospectives where we made small changes that showed immediate results. I am grateful for the autonomy provided to me by them — they encouraged self-driven projects ranging from building a design system to working on accessibility; yet providing me with candid & honest feedback.

2017 is also when I first started putting money into the stock market. I was very naive (still consider myself a beginner) until mid 2017 and had not thought about how I could grow my money. Looking back, it amuses me that I had an advanced degree, and still let my money to rot in a checking account that had exactly 0% returns. Heck, I did not even max out my 401k.

I did some very basic reading, put some money in some companies I believed in, and maxed out my savings. I also enrolled in the Employee Stock Purchase Plan (ESPP) at work that I was missing out on. Nothing drastic, no groundbreaking investment, but simple yet mostly naive steps to grow my money.

Traveled back to India towards the end of the year and ended up signing up for a fairly big commitment — decided to buy an apartment in India. This made me nervous because it meant signing up for a mortgage and any sort of debt made me squeezy. Took the leap of faith and went with it. Thanks to my parents who pushed me to sign up for the ambitious move — I am not sure yet if this is actually an investment (only time will well) but it is home now, and that makes me happy!

On the work front, I was getting comfortable towards the end of the year. I was working on interesting problems but I wasn't being challenged. This comfort made me uncomfortable. Coincidentally, a recruiter from Google reached out to me asking if I'd like to interview again. Once again, I wasn't prepared for an interview. I took a couple of weeks to put together a portfolio and agreed to get on a call...

2018 — Google & tying the knot

2018 was the most eventful year this decade with multiple life milestones.

My interview process with Google continued. The first three rounds were smooth and I was invited onsite again. I took stock of all the mistakes from the previous time. The big advantage I had this time was actual industry experience in the US. The two years at Cisco having worked with an amazing team that shipped products out regularly added a lot of credit. I was a little more confident this time around — made sure the projects I spoke about were relatable, the presentation was succinct, and had shareable data to support my claims & achievements.

The difference in my on-site interview when compared to my previous try was day and night. I felt comfortable, I was not afraid to challenge the interviewer, and looked at the interview as a give and take. I was just as interested in what problems they were solving as they were in mine. All my interviews this time were free flowing conversations. I felt good getting out of the interview.

After a couple of months of waiting, I got in. The hiring committee had given my packet a seal of approval. I found a team that I was interested in the next couple of weeks, and began my visa formalities.

I broke the news to my team in April; for some reason I was very nervous about this. I really liked my team and it felt like I was betraying them. I went through with it and just like I had thought, my team was super happy for me. To date, I am thankful to the team at Cisco who were nothing but supportive — they were my first true champions at work!

After a week's break, I joined Google. I kept pinching myself; the feeling was surreal. Meeting Nooglers (Newbie Googlers) on the day of onboarding, getting to know my product and engineering counterparts was humbling.

For the first two months, I felt like I did not deserve to be there — Hello, imposter syndrome. It was real and at its peak. I dove head first into my projects, and within the first couple of months had finished designing for a fairly complex Shopping Enterprise problem.

At the time I did not know if it was a good solution, I continuously stress tested my solution with different scenarios. What scared me the most was the scale — that's when my team of awesome product & engineering managers provided me the support and assurance. Looking back now, those solutions were elegant and scaled pretty darn well.

A couple of months after joining Google was my next big milestone of the year. I was flying back to India to get married to the love of my life! Since I had just moved jobs, I had only a couple of weeks of vacation. If you know anything about Indian weddings - 2 weeks is just not enough! My fiance (then) was super understanding, and did a lot of the heavy lifting — it still amazes me how she managed to get so many things moving considering she was still a student at the time!

Immediately after getting back from the wedding, I had an opportunity to fly to Zurich to visit my team there. This was my first time in Europe, and the first time in my career I traveled for work. Things got busy as the year progressed — I learnt something new almost every day, I was challenged with curveballs, a lot of my assumptions were proven wrong, and it was a humbling experience to iterate. I learnt how to work with teams in different time zones, gathering contrasting feedback from multiple stakeholders, spent a lot of time learning about the commerce domain, and working on ambiguous problems with no easy or direct solutions.

I saw the first year as a way to build trust with my team. I focused on earning my seat at the table, and for this I needed to deliver, show results, and be brutally honest with myself when things were not working.

Once I earned that initial trust, I was provided with the autonomy to explore. This gave me the opportunity to expand beyond the immediate tactical asks and create work for myself. It was amazing to see how a design-first approach started navigating the product in new directions.

2019 - Five countries & a promotion

2019 was no typical year for me. I invested a lot in personal growth. Got back into a habit of reading a lot — had my personal best of reading 17 books in the year. Reflected regularly, wrote down personal & professional OKRs. Developed an inclination to numbers — I was looking to gauge my progress but not to the level of an unhealthy obsession. Work took me to places, and gave me the opportunity to scratch my travel itch quite a bit.

I invested quite a lot of my time getting better at my visual design skills — I spent a good amount of time on digital art. This helped me develop my fit and finish at work.

WWDC 2019 inspired me up my production skills — I started paying a lot of attention to my presentations. I consciously weaved a story around every single presentation. This helped me get a lot of visibility. By the end of the year, folks started reaching out to me for helping them with their presos. Initially, I thought, "Hey, I am not going to pixel push". But I gave it a deeper thought after the initial knee-jerk stimulus. This gives me a chance to understand product strategy directly from our leads, and create presentations that go in front of people who are 3 or 4 levels above my pay grade. Do I really want to let this pass? I signed up. I had a chance to voice my opinion through these presentations and people were receptive. This reminds me of a quote from Viktor Frankl -

Between stimulus and response lies a space. In that space lie our freedom and power to choose a response. In our response lies our growth and our happiness. — Viktor Frankl, Man's search for meaning

Continuous product launches, gaining fair bit visibility in the org, consistent uptick in metrics, a part-time role as a Product Manager, and more importantly my peers, set me up in a decent position for a promotion. And I got it.

2019 was a year of continuous travel. I visited 5 countries — Germany, Czech, Austria, Ireland, & Switzerland. The highest I have ever visited in one year. I am grateful I had the opportunity to travel considering how 2020 turned out.

2020 - A pandemic & a doctorate

Early in January, I traveled to Zurich for work. I was reading on the news about how a virus was wreaking havoc in China on my flight back to the US. Little did I realize, that would be the final flight of the year I'd be taking. Come March and we were asked to work from home until the end of the year to protect ourselves from COVID.

As much as I thought that I'd like staying indoors and spend time working on things I love, too much time indoors periodically got to me. I miss the social connections, the micro moments in hallways, exploring different cafeterias for lunch, walking to different buildings for coffee etc.

However, I found myself a rhythm over time. For the first half of the year, I got back to polishing my web development skills. It had been over three years and a lot had changed. I spent a good amount of time learning React & Redux. I used the new skills to prototype proof of concepts at work — this helped with validation sessions just like in 2013. I realized how much I missed building things and started studying more on faster ways to install skills. I came across a book called Ultra learning and started using steps outlined in the book to learn skills by diving in head-first. I rekindled my writing after two years of not written a word — this time, I wanted to maintain a personal blog on my website.

Staying indoors led to me working more, and I did not do a great job creating a sense of balance. I took up a lot of projects and got into a continuous launch & iterate cycle. I was learning a lot about the industry, learning how to juggle multiple complex projects at the same time, but hit a point of burnout close to August. Luckily, that's when my wife moved to California to live with me.

Her moving here helped a lot! Thanks to her, I dodged a burnout. I started paying attention to my work hours and her presence helped me keep it within healthy limits. She also completed her PhD this year, and started her new role. We had a lot to celebrate ranging from our birthdays, her doctorate, her new job, Diwali and lots more. This kept our spirits high given the state of things around the world.

With the realization that I loved building things, I decided to take part in a hackathon hosted by our team. I thought it would be a good change of pace and would give me the thrill of learning again. I was the only designer participating in the hackathon, and I was a team of one. I've participated in a few hackathons before but never really won any. This one was even more challenging given the fact that all other participants were engineers from Google! Over the past few years, I've become very competitive in nature. This change in me is very different from how I was at the start of the decade. I gave this hackathon my fullest for 72 hours — with minimal sleep I built an app after learning SwiftUI, RealityKit, & ARKit from scratch. That feeling of building was unparalleled. I ended up winning the Hackathon and the competitive side of me felt fulfilled as well.

I've been spending a lot of time improving my financial literacy this year. The markets are crazy, and I did not want to be a dumb Robinhood trader buying stocks in impulse. I wanted to study the market history, understand from experts how they dealt with the debt crisis in the past, and what to do when things gets rough.

I'm closing the decade almost three years into Google, working in the commerce space, designing and shipping experiences that impacts people at a tremendous scale. Ten years ago, I'm not sure I'd have imagined things this way.

Moving into my 30s, the one aspect that I fear the most — settling for mediocrity. I am currently reading Ray Dalio's Principles and one quote from it resonates with me profoundly —

"I feared boredom and mediocrity much more than I feared failure. For me, great is better than terrible, and terrible is better than mediocre, because terrible at least gives life flavor"
— Ray Dalio, Principles

I don't get bored easily now, but I fear settling for mediocrity or the inability to move beyond being mediocre. This fear is deep rooted in how I was as a student at the start of the decade —  just a mediocre engineer. To counter this, I have been consciously integrating various skills to create a unique flavor that stands out. I'm too zoomed in at the moment to know if this is working or not. Only time will tell how this plays out.

Whatever the outcome is, I shall strive to continue designing & building products that I hope you have a chance to use. At least once!

On to the next decade!

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