Track Changes Podcast #1: Deep inside Facebook and Silicon Valley with Jon Lax (Transcript)
This is an unedited transcript.
Paul Ford: Hello and welcome to the first ever episode of the podcast Track Changes brought to you by the web and app agency Postlight in New York City. My name is Paul Ford and I’m a co-founder at Postlight and I am here with my other co-founder.
Rich Ziade: Friend.
Paul Ford: Friend, life mate Richard Ziade.
Rich Ziade: Hello Paul.
Paul Ford: So Rich do you have any idea what we’re going to talk about here today?
Rich Ziade: I don’t but what I’m really happy about is this isn’t brought to us by MailChimp.
Paul Ford: It could be, if we’re not careful.
Rich Ziade: I feel rebellious just being in a podcast without MailChimp.
Paul Ford: One of the main things that I’m excited about is that I have a lot of really strong feelings about how MailChimp came together as a product. By not having them as a sponsor I think we’re going to have an opportunity to really talk about things that are maybe a little difficult or problematic about MailChimp.
Rich Ziade: I think we should have a special two hour episode that just covers the MailChimp interface.
Paul Ford: That would be on the short side for me.
Rich Ziade: We can do this we are paying customers, it’s all good.
Paul Ford: Absolutely. We should introduce our selves people don’t know who we are.
Rich Ziade: They don’t.
Paul Ford: My name is Paul Ford I’m the co-founder of Postlight. I’m also a writer, I’m a programmer and I’ve been working in New York City and technology for about 20 years. Probably the thing that most people know me for recently is that I wrote an entire issue of Bloomberg Business week called “What is Code,” trying to explain code to the entire world. I actually got to explain code to the entire world which was cool.
Rich Ziade: My name is Rich Ziade, I did not write a full issue of anything. I have been in technology also for about 25 years almost now. I am an attorney by education and then I found Jesus and decided that whoa you can play around with technology stuff and get paid for it and in 1995 I bailed on the law and went into tech and since then I founded a company called Arc 90 in 2004 that was around for about 10 years. That got sold to a big electronic dance company. Appropriately.
Paul Ford: Sensibly.
Rich Ziade: I’ve touched it all, I know enough about tech to be dangerous and I like to design and I like to think about products, tech products.
Paul Ford: What I’ve noticed is that the engineers that you’ve hired are people who tend to make fun of you for your lack of programming skill.
Rich Ziade: That is inevitable. I don’t think…
Paul Ford: I think if you hire anybody good, that’s just what’s going to happen.
Rich Ziade: That’s just how it goes right I knew my New Year’s resolution for the last 11 years is to get back into coding and I have not been able to pull it off. I just read Wiki pages about the latest job descript framework which will die in 6 months.
Paul Ford: You know what I’ve noticed, even if I you don’t write a lot of code you can still have an enormous number of opinions about code. This is true for you and me, I still keep up on everything I’m still angry all the time.
Rich Ziade: Code is expression and if you’re going to express yourself you’re can expect feedback, you can expect criticism, judgement.
Paul Ford: Engineers love criticism.
Rich Ziade: They love it.
Paul Ford: Its one of their number one things, is to be told about, at the code level they’re fine, but when you get really to the meta level I don’t know about your language choice, it’s really fun to watch their faces.
Rich Ziade: I don’t know about your religion.
Paul Ford: I don’t know about your mom.
Rich Ziade: I don’t know about your mom, exactly.
Paul Ford: Let me ask you a question Rich, which what is Postlight?
Rich Ziade: Postlight is a tech product shop is the best way I would sum it up. We build stuff but you could build stuff as a general contractor and not really care about how the stairs look. We care about the whole thing the design, the materials, the experience, the way things lay out. It’s really product design and development.
Paul Ford: People walk in the door and they say I need an app, that’s usually what they say, I need an app that has a thing on it. Make a dog dance on the app.
Rich Ziade: That’s a particular division of Postlight that handles, dancing dogs.
Paul Ford: One of our growing verticals. Rich we have a show here today, a show.
Rich Ziade: We do. So what is track changes? Technology and culture I think that word that has been used by wired 11,000 million times.
Paul Ford: That phrase, you mean technology and culture?
Rich Ziade: Yeah exactly, this show is about how technology seeps into everything else.
Paul Ford: I just see that it’s a blur to me it’s always been a blur, I really if we’re going to do anything with this podcast I want to capture that. The line between technology and culture has always been incredibly permeable and really what happens is technology doesn’t last long enough and then somebody else comes along and says that culture now that’s not tech look it’s a book printed on paper and obviously there is thousands of years of engineering into getting that book into your hands. But that’s not a technology.
Rich Ziade: I think one of the things you and I have in common is that we’re at least we perceive ourselves as outsiders.
Paul Ford: Constantly.
Rich Ziade: When a prospect comes in I behave like a complete expert, but in fact I am an outsider. When it comes to technology. I think that’s a strength. We have engineers and the stronger the engineer the more hopelessly insider they are, I find.
Paul Ford: I think it’s they know what to build they know how to build it but it’s very hard for them to translate out into the larger world. There in a giant world that has 18 million other programmers in it. They’re thriving and succeeding in there and we’re by some flaw in our personalities not able to ever really feel like we fully participate and we’re also able to kind of go out and talk to people in publishing or law or architecture or whatever and explain what’s happening inside that word world of engineering.
Rich Ziade: That’s right, that’s right.
Paul Ford: So we’re going to try to do that with this podcast and let’s see how far we get.
Rich Ziade: Great.
Paul Ford: The first show we’re doing is going to be perfectly in tune with that theme, we have a friend coming in named Jon Lax who is the director of design of Facebook and he’s going to talk about what it was like to make the move from Toronto to Silicon Valley and the things he’s learned making a transition from someone who ran his own agency, was a designer, was a completely independent individual. He had a partnership with a man named Jeff Teehan and they had a big business together but he really called the shots to go and work inside a giant company inside a giant culture. Facebook and then Silicon Valley. He’ll be in in a little bit but I thought we should talk a little bit about our experiences dealing with Silicon Valley over the courses of our career. I think you and I have a different take on that. I tend to see it as it’s hard I internalize it I feel always like the valley is just a little bit better at everything then I could ever understand.
Rich Ziade: That’s interesting I don’t see that at all. I have a very New Yorker view of Silicon Valley. In New York the industry you’re in fashion, architecture, design, law is still not the game in New York. The biggest law firms in the world are in New York and yet they make up three and a half percent of New York. You can walk West and you’ll be in the garment district, you walk North and you’re in the other district and yet nobody dominates and that’s swirl of insanity is what I love about New York City. You go out to Silicon Valley and you’re like oh that’s a shitty painting.
Paul Ford: I would actually say that there is one true industry in New York City though which is real estate. One of the things I think about that all the real estate in New York City is worth about a trillion dollars and Google and Apple each are approaching a trillion dollars. The way that the culture and market caps so the way that our culture the way that our world is thinking about technology we’re saying that these companies, these entities which are built on abstractions are now each of them almost worth as much of every single building in New York City.
Rich Ziade: You’re scoring by dollars.
Paul Ford: Yeah but that’s a lot of value, that’s a lot of stuff going on.
Rich Ziade: It is a lot of stuff but my measuring stick is different than yours. Your scoring by dollars and I’m not scoring by that, I’m scoring by just richness of life and experience, yes there is billions in everything in New York and if you add it up maybe we lose but it doesn’t matter the fact that it’s all swirling in one place that’s amazing to me.
Paul Ford: I go out there there’s always this moment you get off the plane and I immediately go wow I could do this. Then you go past the yoga room and then you’re out into that sunlight and there is no clouds and you know you’re kind of in about an hour sitting somewhere eating granola on your way to a meeting in a blazer. It’s pretty pleasant.
Rich Ziade: To me is again I grew up in New York so when you take me out of this pace.
Paul Ford: I can’t get good pita.
Rich Ziade: Not to compare the valley to Western Pennsylvania but it starts to blur for me pretty fast when you take me out of this place.
Paul Ford: Really you roll your eyes at San Francisco?
Rich Ziade: I love it like a three day weekend a four day weekend I like it, would I not live there I don’t know. San Francisco is a city but everything scale just can’t compare, I got spoiled I’m in New York. The valley the whole way there is this San Francisco and this umbilical cord that connects the valley to it and you have to all the money is sort of being controlled an hour away and everybody wants to live in San Francisco and they have these shuttle buses that are taking Google people, it’s all bananas.
Paul Ford: I have to say you live in a world where you pretty much have to figure out which rich people are going to run your life and that’s just how life is. There are rich people are pretty exhausting for the most part. The rich people here are often kind of either funny or evil in interesting way. I wrote a big thing for business week that’s a Bloomberg property. Everything that I do I used to work for a not for profit literary magazine called Harper’s Magazine and that’s run by the charitable trust set up by the MacArthur not the MacArthur Foundation but like a, it’s too complicated to explain but just know that it goes back to oil. Then you’re out there and it really is like it is a very specific, we built this city on cloud services and hyper libertarian capitalism.
Rich Ziade: Right, you know I do want to say that as I think about Silicon Valley it turns out that I really really love it. Because in the future I may be going back there to raise money. Considering with all these criticisms and issues that I’ve raised, it turns out underneath it all is something really beautiful.
Paul Ford: I’m with you I can’t wait to go back and on the couch may be paid in overdrive or $180 to take me out to the valley and sit down with some venture capital people.
Rich Ziade: Who are just some of the kind of people that I’ve ever met.
Paul Ford: What they’re good at is listening.
Rich Ziade: And just being empathetic.
Paul Ford: They give you that … it’s never just Fiji water it’s a special kind, it’s just a more obscure island, that they’re invested in.
Rich Ziade: On a final note love to the valley.
Paul Ford: This is very, very exciting because in the studio, Argo studios on 26th street is Jon Lax, also Richard Ziade my business partner, but Jon Lax.
Rich Ziade: Hello Jon, great to have you here.
Paul Ford: Can I introduce you Jon?
Jon Lax: Sure go for it.
Paul Ford: Jon is the director of product design at Facebook which is a little startup company.
Jon Lax: Scrappy we hope to make big things.
Paul Ford: They are changing the way things are going on the web I think it’s going to matter what they are doing. Let me tell a little bit about you. You’ve been working in digital media since 1994.
Jon Lax: Yeah.
Paul Ford: You started at Shift Magazine in 1994 what was that?
Jon Lax: Shift was a publication out of Toronto I guess in some ways it kind of a wired but more focused on culture and the role of technology and culture and how it’s coming together really start up magazine when you can still do startup magazines.
Paul Ford: Was it specifically Canadian?
Jon Lax: No it’s editorial was very broad based, I went to Burning Man in 1995 and covered it.
Paul Ford: You are talking about that openly now.
Jon Lax: Yeah, that’s the first and last time.
Rich Ziade: The Canadian Burning Man?
Jon Lax: No the …
Paul Ford: What would be the Canadian Burning Man be like?
Jon Lax: Its just a barbecue.
Paul Ford: Nicer, don’t burn the man at the end. They are like no we we’re going to burn him.
Jon Lax: Right a lot of Molsons.
Paul Ford: You developed the first ad-supported site in Canada.
Jon Lax: Yeah so Wired kind of showed the way with the AT&T banner ad and we said that’s a good way to pay for my salary and got a few actually Molson’s, Molson Canadian was the first banner ad that funded the site and then Miss Vickie’s Chips was actually the second and then a handful of other ads. We were putting ads on the site in late 1994, 1995 I cannot remember the exact date but we were the first ones to start generating income.
Paul Ford: Where you building the site too back then?
Jon Lax: Yeah.
Paul Ford: I mean who else was going to do it?
Jon Lax: That was actually I got hired right out of J School I did an internship there. All the rest of my friends had applied for internship at the CBC which is the Canadian Broadcast Corporation that was the dream or maybe the Toronto Star or the Global Mail which are big kind of dailies newspapers. I said in 1994 when I did my internship and I had learned HTML that summer on my own because I was just super interested in it and I said this web thing I’m not that good of a writer or editor but I can build a web page and I pitch myself in my internship and said hey I’ll come build your website to publications and the only one that actually had a website and they had the URL shift.com back then. They were like we could use you because we have a website and we need someone to run it.
I coded it, I did all of the editorial, I hired writers, I edited on top of that because it was a start-up magazine I also wrote for the magazine on the print side, edited there and helped to do the layout because I had been taught Quark in J School and the art director there kind of took me under his wing. That’s where I started to learn design was by laying out the magazine and it taught me typography, top me grid systems and then you couldn’t really use any of that at the time because HTML because all we had was a table. We couldn’t actually layout grids in a meaningful way, you could kluge it but it was pretty bad. That’s where I started to learn design.
Rich Ziade: Talking about Facebook obviously is going to be really interesting and you can ask the question that everybody likes, tell us something about Facebook that we don’t know.
Jon Lax: I don’t know what you know or don’t know.
Rich Ziade: I hear things about the kitchen.
Rich Ziade: I’ve heard that is just a life of pleasure, like in ancient Rome.
Jon Lax: Here is something I will tell you about Facebook at least one of the things when I first went there and didn’t know much about it that shocks me. Menlo Park where the main campus is, when I got there … it’s the old Sun Microsystems campus. It’s set up in kind of a circle, the buildings are in a circle and inside it’s all open green space in a square. Over on that side of the campus the restaurants, like the cafeterias and there’s places where you eat lunch all kind of sit inside of this square. They’re done up in this Disneyland kind of way so for example there’s a place where you can get burgers there’s a salad place the burger place looks kind of like Coney Island there’s theater to it. There’s a Mexican place that has like a Mexican theme, there’s a BBQ place that’s like a Southwest.
Paul Ford: This is everyday?
Jon Lax: Everyday it’s just going. When you get there I’ve heard people have two reactions to this. My reaction was wow I kind of appreciate the theater of it kind of like when you go to Las Vegas you understand this is not the real thing.
Paul Ford: Its not the real Statute of Liberty but it’s hilarious and cool that’s it’s there.
Jon Lax: I appreciate kind of the theater of it. Then there’s other people who have a reaction which I’ve heard from ex Facebook employees, who say like who do they think they are kidding, I’m in Menlo Park. They react very negative to it but I actually really appreciate it.
Paul Ford: They’re angry that someone is giving them an experience with their burger.
Jon Lax: Yeah exactly, which I think is not a thing to complain about.
Paul Ford: No but people will complain about things.
Jon Lax: Then I now work at MPK which is called MPK 20 which is across the street from the Sun campus.
Paul Ford: What does, Menlo Park.
Jon Lax: Menlo Park so the buildings are numbered.
Rich Ziade: They don’t have time to stay the full words over there.
Paul Ford: MPK. What’s the building that is the brain center?
Jon Lax: That’s in MPK 20 now, it’s the Gehry design building which you can see online there’s lots of pictures of it. I may not get these exact numbers correct I think it’s about 440,000 square feet on one floor.
Rich Ziade: Cool.
Paul Ford: Cool, that’s nice.
Rich Ziade: A lot of golf carts.
Jon Lax: Funny story about that, the way it’s very large open floor plan and then there’s these walkaways almost like sidewalks that sort of circle it so that you can move between zones where your meetings are. You will see, so when I first got there you will see someone on a motorized skateboard go by you and my reaction was like oh this is every cliche about Silicon Valley just kind of scooting by me. After you’re in the building for a little while and it’s 440,000 square feet and it takes you about 5 minutes to get from one end to the other walking, you realize that this keyboard is actually a really sufficient way to move around. There’s actually a practical reason to move around the building that way.
Paul Ford: I’ll go every now and then I have some reason to go over to the Google building in New York City not even their biggest campus by far, right. I will go … I can never … there is two entrances and they’re both one is almost a mile from the other, I invariably go in the wrong entrance and it’s a half hour disaster.
Jon Lax: Getting to the other side, it’s a block, it’s a city block.
Paul Ford: But also it’s three levels of security and it’s only by the time you get to the third where they’re like you’re in the wrong place. You have to go back out and go through security again and you’re tired and frustrated.
Jon Lax: And late.
Paul Ford: You so don’t want to talk about ad technology anymore at that point. Rich when you met Jon what was he doing?
Rich Ziade: He was at a shop up in Toronto called Teehan and Lax and if you cared about design on the web you knew about Teehan and Lax, these guys were the polish and the quality of what they were putting out was just above and beyond they were consistently killing it. I had a shop in New York about the same size actually, we weren’t that different in size.
Jon Lax: Thirty, forty people.
Rich Ziade: Yeah about forty people, and I was envious in a terribly bad way of what they could pull off but we were kick-ass engineers. They can’t code like us so we’re still better that way.
Paul Ford: Whatever you needed to tell yourself.
Rich Ziade: I forgot why we connected.
Jon Lax: We had been working on on an app which was Flipboard before Flipboard and we needed a parser because we were ingesting stories and to trying to re Twitter basically we were unpacking Twitter links trying to present them into a magazine format on an iPad app.
Paul Ford: Did that have a name?
Jon Lax: It was called Tweet Deck. Tweet Nag, I’m kidding, it was called Tweet Nag.
Rich Ziade: That was the connection.
Jon Lax: Then we called you because we wanted to use the code for the parser that you guys had.
Rich Ziade: From there I feel like because we were both agencies we were about the same, size we were both principles and we just talked about stuff generally and we collaborated a bit and kept in touch pretty much throughout.
Paul Ford: Jon called you because you had written a piece of software that had made it very easy to read web pages and put them into a format that could be reused and that’s called readability.
Rich Ziade: Correct, so readability essentially strips down pages to sort of the bare text. Which is very useful because the whole world was moving two apps at that point where they didn’t want all the web cruft and the readability parser was very attractive it still is used a lot today in fact. From there we worked together on a collaboration and a future alliteration ability and just kept in touch.
Paul Ford: You guys did a ton of work for medium.
Jon Lax: Yeah and I think actually the connective piece on that was the readability work we worked with Arc 90 on the design of readability and Ev really liked readability. Connected us we got connected through that, that was a bridge over.
Paul Ford: Big platforms and when you talk about design I think when people talk about web design and you talk about something like medium, they’re going to think about that one page where there is an article, but what were you actually doing what’s the work?
Jon Lax: The story with Ev actually.
Rich Ziade: By Ev you mean Ev Williams the founder of Medium.
Paul Ford: Also had something to do with Twitter.
Jon Lax: Yeah and some blogging stuff.
Paul Ford: He’s a blogger I think that’s what he does. We’ve been asked to explain what we mean by that. Ev Williams is a very successful entrepreneur who created with other people he created blogger he went on to be the really one of the guiding forces behind Twitter and then moved on to create Medium. Kind of a pretty serious web entrepreneur.
Jon Lax: He had left Twitter in 2011 or depending what version he may have been asked to leave, but anyway he had left Twitter and he had reformed something called the Obvious Corporation which was actually the company that Twitter emerged out of and him and Jason Goldman and Biz Stone who were early Twitter employees and had been with Ev for a lot of his career had sort of reignited this Obvious Corporation. Ev had been thinking at the time about doing a publishing platform because that’s pretty much what he spends a lot of his time thinking about.
Paul Ford: He just does it.
Jon Lax: He just does it he just has a good track record building publishing platform. He had come to us and asked us to help prototype something called state. State was the best way that I can describe it was he was very inspired by Snowfall before Snowfall existed, the New York Times very rich Interactive Storytelling piece.
Paul Ford: Snowfall was I think it even won the Pulitzer Prize it was a story about essentially about an avalanche but it was incredibly rich multimedia of the style that used to almost be CD-ROM level. Everything was very interlinked and lots of animation, it changed publishing everyone got very excited about snowfall.
Jon Lax: If you think about design and you predate Snowfall, Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth iPad book version I don’t know if you’ve ever played with it, but it was done by Mike Madis, who at the time he then went to Facebook until I think he just left Facebook about 2 weeks ago. But Ev was very inspired by this new forms of storytelling that were incredibly rich and interactive and he felt like sort of an interest in that at the time he wanted to build a system that could generate that kind of stuff very easily. They had been trying to code it and we’re having difficulty envisioning the end product because if you think about that from a process stand point, building the system before knowing what the output is, it can be a little tough and it might be better to go here are the things that we want the system to create and work backwards from that to build the system that does it.
He had come to us and said can you help us we have a bunch of ideas and we want to see them played out in a prototype. We worked with Jason Goldman through the winter almost to Christmas of 2011 and we built this front-end prototype that was bunch of story types that were very rich and interactive. If you go to the Teehan and Lax site you can actually still find this there is some screenshots if you ever want to see it in the story where we talk about the story medium, this story is told as a bit of a introduction to it.
Anyway we kind of hand it over and my reaction was, this is really cool I don’t know how you build the software to do this, it felt like you could only do it in a way that Snowfall was built which was a bunch of designers and engineers.
Rich Ziade: Labor intensive.
Jon Lax: Labor intensive, yes, super labor intensive. Really bespoke stuff.
Rich Ziade: Costly.
Jon Lax: Very costly and has a short half-life in terms of editorial. He said thank you very much and we said you’re welcome and he paid his bill he Ill let you know what is next or the next steps. We just waited and we waited and waited and months went by and there was still nothing coming out of the Obvious Corporation. Ev had kind of gone quiet, he had gone dark and I think in around June of 2012, Jeff Teehan, my partner at the time got a direct message which is how Ev communicates primarily and said I know what we’re doing let’s talk. Jeff and I flew out to San Francisco.
Rich Ziade: Heavy.
Jon Lax: Yeah it was very cryptic, so we were summoned, I feel like we were summoned I don’t know if that’s the way he would tell the story.
Paul Ford: He’s like IBM those guys and I want to just get them in a room for a meeting and you’re are like we were summoned.
Jon Lax: His version was probably like I sent them a DM what is the big deal. I think from our standpoint it was a big deal. Jeff and I flew out to San Francisco and he presented a deck that he had, a keynote that he had where he had laid out Medium and honestly as I watch even to this day the things that he’s doing all of those ideas were pretty much present in that initial deck that he showed us. He is sort of executing primarily against that playbook that he showed us and even though there had been twists and turns along the way for me I can draw a straight line back to some of those ideas. Through July to December we embedded a team of five designers and an engineer, a front-end engineer into the team of Medium which at the time I think was only about 12 people so we were like only for five of the 12 people.
Paul Ford: Were you down in San Francisco at that point?
Jon Lax: I was down in the in the beginning and then I had to return to run the business at Teehan and Lax and Jeff and the other designers basically were two weeks on two weeks off in San Francisco in a hotel. It was not an awesome existence for them I think for six months. It was pretty grueling on their lives. I think that they launched Medium in September the first version that went public was in September.
Paul Ford: What was the typical design process where you in Photoshop or were you just editing stuff?
Jon Lax: A lot of Photoshop, worked very closely with engineers they would code it up we did builds every night. We were playing with a version of it every day, we were writing inside of it, we were dog footing it effectively which is the standard way you build product in the valley. You build something and then you use it yourself for a while.
Paul Ford: Did you feel prepared than when Facebook called you knew what you were getting into?
Jon Lax: Medium really for us kicked off a pretty big workload in the valley and so we worked with Google we ended up prior to actually going there. By the time I got to Facebook we had a few other both what I’m going to call large scare startup, like Google and Facebook type things.
Rich Ziade: Start ups.
Paul Ford: Little things.
Jon Lax: Well it’s interesting because we made a distinction in our business between enterprise clients who would be like fortune 500 who had primarily been offline businesses who were trying to deal with the online disruption and they behaved very differently then say a Google or Facebook which while they are a fortune 500 company their DNA is digital and they just have a very different way of operating.
Paul Ford: Like if a farm company called you up they are going to be very different.
Jon Lax: A financial services, an airline, yeah very, very different. We made that distinction so we called them large-scale startups because we didn’t know what else to call them. Then we worked with a lot of venture-backed startups both at very early stage and some who were more formed and we were helping them kind of get to the next level. By the time I showed up at Facebook I had a kind of range of product experience in different scales. There was a pretty common thread through all of them and how they work.
Rich Ziade: Interesting, so you can correct me here, but Medium was Teehan and Lax’s last big bang in terms of a major public engagement before you moved on to Facebook is that safe to say?
Jon Lax: I think it’s the one where we are very associated with although I think that there were things that we did for Google that are out there but we’re not allowed to kind of take credit for them in the same way that we were allowed to talk about the Medium design process and experience so we became very associated with it. We wrapped that project in 2012 and we were still in business for until the end of 2014.
Rich Ziade: Oh okay, so you’ve been there a year right. Are you loving it?
Jon Lax: Yeah, it’s awesome.
Rich Ziade: Of course you are Jon you’re on a podcast you’re going to say you’re loving it.
Jon Lax: Its awful, they beat every day.
Paul Ford: Do you find the hamburger stand is too ironic?
Jon Lax: I don’t I appreciate the theater of it all I also like Las Vegas.
Rich Ziade: What’s your favorite thing there?
Jon Lax: Do you mean in terms of the surrounding artifice or like the people?
Rich Ziade: I’m not going to answer that.
Jon Lax: I think that right now and they thing that I really enjoy is I am both participating in and getting the front row seat to watching a business operate that has never really existed in the history of business. How many companies are operating at the scale that Facebook is.
Paul Ford: What is that scale like?
Jon Lax: One point 6 billion people in the community
Paul Ford: Yeah whatever.
Jon Lax: Global people.
Paul Ford: Is there any sort of entity that touches more humans?
Jon Lax: Coca Cola.
Paul Ford: Yeah the World Cup maybe.
Jon Lax: There is a small number of places where the work that you do is going to impact the world at the scale and this company is part one of those and is arguably leading in it and I get this front row seat not only to participate in it but also watch it play out watch Mark and Cheryl operate.
Paul Ford: That’s Mark Zuckerberg and Cheryl Sandberg.
Jon Lax: I didn’t mean to name drop but.
Paul Ford: I just want to help the listener at home.
Jon Lax: Watching them operate is really interesting.
Paul Ford: Now are you in rooms with them?
Jon Lax: Sure.
Paul Ford: That’s part of your life now.
Rich Ziade: That’s interesting to me because there was a day when designed thinking would not have been in the room and it would not be considered I think this is an Apple effect. The idea that designers or design thinkers should be in the room driving and helping make major business decisions. If your position is and again I don’t mean to keep going back to your title, director of design and you’re at an altitude where your pretty close to the people who are making big strategic decisions about the company. IBM 1983 maybe there was a director of design but he was in a whole other wing.
Jon Lax: He was a brand person.
Rich Ziade: He was a brand guy and he wasn’t even close to executive management.
Paul Ford: It was a service, design was a service and along with marketing.
Rich Ziade: Credit to them to consciously realize you know what this is part of the game, if we’re going to win and from what I hear design is driving the agenda for what gets built, is that too extreme.
Jon Lax: That’s probably too extreme, there’s a few clarifications that I want to make. It’s not just in the room, my designers the ICs are in the room presenting.
Rich Ziade: What’s an IC?
Jon Lax: Individual contributor.
Rich Ziade: We have more time on our hands then you do Jon, you are a busy guy.
Jon Lax: So I need to actually use the full language.
Paul Ford: No one outside of Facebook knows what and IC is.
Jon Lax: I apologize.
Rich Ziade: We are civilians, you are in the military.
Jon Lax: The Muggels, you guys are like Muggels.
Paul Ford: I like that you are like IC you don’t know what an IC is.
Rich Ziade: What is it again?
Jon Lax: Individual contributor.
Rich Ziade: Individual contributor, it’s not even a title.
Jon Lax: This is not a Facebook thing, this is a very common thing in the Valley.
Rich Ziade: Do you have DGs there, decent guys?
Paul Ford: What about Abs for human beings.
Jon Lax: No the …
Rich Ziade: Okay you have the Cs in the room with.
Jon Lax: They will be presenting their own work.
Paul Ford: Its such an integrated work, it’s a brutal acronym.
Jon Lax: I think like all acronyms they fail on a lot of levels and actually I think Jeff Bezos has a famous memo about banning acronyms.
Rich Ziade: I think that’s right.
Paul Ford: We are going to find out that Amazon stands for something though.
Jon Lax: A to Z. Just to clarify, the designers will present their own work they will answer questions.
Rich Ziade: How much sweating is happening when a designer is walking in with their new widget to show Mark Zuckerberg?
Jon Lax: I think the first time it’s a little intimidating but after that I think most of them … there are some who have been there three or four years and are very comfortable walking into that room.
Rich Ziade: Fascinating that they encourage this.
Paul Ford: Do you know how insufferable they are going to be when they go to the next job?
Rich Ziade: First of all they are going to say things like oh I had a meeting with Mark today.
Paul Ford: I remember when I showed this to Mark.
Rich Ziade: Mark had a cold I had to keep a few feet away.
Paul Ford: Jon is here we should probably talk to Jon.
Jon Lax: I think to your point about design can set the agenda meaning that there are ideas or products that come out of a design or thought about something but really that designer then has to get people to agree to it and if you can create momentum and energy behind it, it does kind of it can be put into the world and it kind of moves through. There is a lot of I would say Facebook is a very bottoms up meaning a lot of agency and autonomy is given to teams and people to drive things upwards and there is very few layers from Mark to a designer.
Paul Ford: A product is born an idea is born where does that come from, that could come from engineering that could come from you?
Jon Lax: It could come from a variety of places, it could come from one of the VPs saying we really need to focus on this area and tasking a product manager to go and sort of think about the space and come back with a proposal and then assemble a team around it.
Paul Ford: Is that very data driving, they go out and do a ton of research?
Jon Lax: Sometimes it’s instinctual sometimes it’s a little bit of data some instinct some business thinking.
Paul Ford: Stickers, nobody was oh there is a 30.9% of people like weird oysters?
Jon Lax: No.
Paul Ford: Okay.
Jon Lax: That would be much more instinctual, this just feels like the right thing to do.
Paul Ford: Stickers by the way are a feature of Facebook Messenger where you can just insert goofy stickers. If you haven’t seen them you should go look at them because they’re weird and kind of amazing.
Rich Ziade: They are kind of important to how I communicate.
Paul Ford: I love Facebook stickers. So there is a stickers group.
Jon Lax: Yeah.
Paul Ford: Someone owns these components all over this organization.
Jon Lax: Yeah, once you’re inside Facebook you can look at the app now and understand that it’s actually a whole bunch of small groups working on parts of it that come together in an integrated whole that you experienced as a singular thing. But it’s really an incredible number of teams working against parts of the product to do it. A good example would be profile which is something that is in my group so while you may think a profiles if part of Facebook.
Paul Ford: Like my Facebook profile like my face, my name.
Jon Lax: When you click your name.
Paul Ford: I went to high school here.
Jon Lax: Yeah there is a team that would view that as a product, the language is a little we construct it to make sense but that’s a product in our language inside of Facebook and there’s a team that works against that and there’s multiple designers and engineers and product managers and then there are part of that.
Paul Ford: How big would it seem like that be is that like a giant, like a 100 people?
Jon Lax: No maybe 20–30 people in total. I’m talking data research design.
Paul Ford: One of the statistics that we’ve been freaking out about is that 800 people work on the iPhone camera. Giant enormous teams, so these are pretty small these are like a little company.
Jon Lax: Yeah I don’t have the exact data but I think that people have looked at revenue per employee and we are.
Paul Ford: You are doing real good.
Jon Lax: In comparison to other companies we kind of punch above our weight. I think that one thing the company likes and prides itself on is being able to have a small team of people work very with a lot of agency autonomy just to deliver and push the product.
Rich Ziade: It’s a huge antidote to politics and just human inertia that tends to pull things in different directions when you do that when you insulate them and give them that autonomy, there’s less of a likelihood if you’re so hierarchical and you can get pulled up and down the chain and power sense has trickled down and up, things don’t get done, I think that is great that they do that.
Paul Ford: The trade-off there is if you look at the Spotify desktop app, that’s like a bunch of little apps that are built by separate teams and it’s kind of a cluster. This approach is usable.
Rich Ziade: You have to cut it up right. I think there is a logical breakdown, the fact that there’s a que team at Spotify is a little insane right to slice it that way is a little bananas.
Jon Lax: We worked with Spotify so I have some insight into.
Rich Ziade: You’re not at Spotify you’re at Facebook.
Jon Lax: I’m at Facebook.
Rich Ziade: You need to give all the dirt on that end of it.
Jon Lax: When I was Teehan and Lax we worked with Spotify.
Paul Ford: Those contract don’t matter anymore.
Jon Lax: Those NDAs are out the window. What I see happening there at Spotify when I have talked to the design teams there and to the people there who I’m still friends with. What I think happened is.
Rich Ziade: Not anymore.
Jon Lax: I’m so sorry. I think that ability for engineers to push anything into the product at will was very, very valuable for that product to gain traction and product-market fit which is this obsession in the Valley and in digital products which is a thing that Marc Andreessen talked about which basically means when your product is working it just sort of goes logarithmic up and they call that moment product market fit. I think that …
Rich Ziade: PMF.
Paul Ford: Pretty good ICs will get PMF pretty quickly.
Jon Lax: I think it worked really well from then. Then it kind of flips over once you have that it becomes a problem because exactly your point there’s no unifying whole, it’s sort of chaotic. Teams then have to go in and try to rationalize the UI and work with it of course you have debt now which makes it difficult to do because that thing that got you to where you are is now causing problems somewhere else in the system. There’s always a tension in products when you design them which is if you try to do them from top down you get something that is very integrated whole but it tends to move slower and it can’t optimize in different places if you go bottoms up, you at some point have to rationalize and reconcile things.
Rich Ziade: Did your work, did your designs ever make it out?
Jon Lax: Some of them made it out, my impression with Spotify is they are working through a backlog to try and simplify the UI, it’s just a tech thing.
Rich Ziade: I paid for that thing.
Paul Ford: I paid for it too so I feel justified.
Rich Ziade: To criticize it.
Paul Ford: Search kind of works, it’s good I love it because it has all the music, I like that.
Rich Ziade: It has all the music.
Paul Ford: Then one day you’re like a podcast here not really but kind of but okay that’s my experience with Spotify. They added a whole new great big thing that I would never know. Are there any other ex clients that we could trash for you. Google, we’ve got Google, I’m an advisor to Medium sol I don’t feel comfortable with that I don’t want to trash them. Anyway let’s stop trashing his clients.
Jon Lax: One thing that we did that was fun on the last day of Teehan and Lax I had a stack of DVDs of our server of every project we had done since 2002 and I started just tweeting out screenshots like chronologically.
Rich Ziade: Fun.
Jon Lax: Here is the work, this is something we did for Delta Airlines in 2004 so that was fun.
Rich Ziade: Wild.
Paul Ford: You guys you’ve touched many of global brand with your hands.
Jon Lax: I have a career of working on a lot of big stuff.
Paul Ford: Is that something that you really wanted growing up at what point did you go I’m happy to be interacting with the fortune 100.
Jon Lax: I don’t that.
Rich Ziade: Its a trick question Jon be careful how you answer this.
Paul Ford: Were you seven years old.
Jon Lax: As a child in Toronto I dreamt one day of sitting in interminable meetings of fortune 100 companies.
Rich Ziade: With the Fiser.
Jon Lax: I tell this story because I actually remember this moment and for those of you who have been around the web for a while, I remember building some web page in 93 or 94 and putting it up on my university web service we had some horrific URL structure.
Paul Ford: Tilda Slash, JLX 39.
Jon Lax: Exactly. Then like a day later cracking open the log file and seeing that 14 people had been to the page.
Paul Ford: Fourteen new friends.
Jon Lax: They weren’t even friends, they were just numbers. I feel like I’ve kind of been chasing that dragon, the rush that I got is that I made something that someone at least visited or “used” was just incredibly compelling to me.
Rich Ziade: Sure.
Paul Ford: I remember looking at the logs and someone from London, you would be like whoa I have international impact.
Rich Ziade: Mind blown right.
Jon Lax: I think that my career has on some level just been chasing that up words up the curve.
Rich Ziade: So you’re very ego driven?
Jon Lax: I guess but I don’t think of it as, I just think of it as I like making things that people use.
Paul Ford: That’s a nice way to put it. I get the same thing where there is something magical about the medium that I think the people often don’t really talk about which is that ability to connect very very simply, very very cheaply to hundreds of thousands of people with one or two very little ideas.
Jon Lax: Yeah and I think that’s why I went into magazine journalism.
Paul Ford: Right.
Jon Lax: I think it’s the exact same drive of why in college I went and did I felt like that was the way to do that at that time was to write a magazine piece that people would read. I just happened to arrive at school in 1994–95 and so it just coincided with that moment in time.
Paul Ford: You seem happy with this transition.
Jon Lax: Yeah.
Paul Ford: You were looking to achieve things to get a certain scale.
Jon Lax: Yeah.
Paul Ford: You got it and you’re telling us that, is that the profile of the person that’s going to be happy in the world you’re in in Silicon Valley and Facebook, that person wants to achieve scale. Who should be making the move out to the golden coast?
Jon Lax: I think there is a lot of different things happening out in the Valley at different scales and resolutions. In general I would say that the things that are kind of valued out there are kind of big impact global-scale huge, huge things. I think people who are interested in working on problems that have those attributes should make that move. The one thing that I will say, I tell this to a lot of people ask me about that. I feel like if you work in finance and you really want to operate at the top of your game at some point you’re going to spend some time in Wall Street. If you work in film you’re probably going to spend some time in Hollywood. It doesn’t mean that you cant make films out of New York or somewhere else in the world but really I think if you’re going to operate at the highest level you’re going to spend some time out in Hollywood.
I think if you work in product design or engineering and you really want to work at a very high level, you probably should spend some time in the Valley. It doesn’t mean that it’s the only place to do this work but I think right now for this chapter of my career it’s kind of the place that I want to be right now.
Paul Ford: Its a charged word but you’re an insider now.
Jon Lax: Yeah I don’t know if I feel that way and that maybe the Canadian and being pretty new.
Rich Ziade: It’s just a year it will take time.
Paul Ford: You are on the inside.
Rich Ziade: He’s going inside, there’s only like an arm left.
Paul Ford: You and a bunch of ICs are on the inside.
Jon Lax: Yeah if you want to put it that way, I talked about it as having a front row seat.
Paul Ford: We talk a lot about that, Rich and I talk a lot about feeling like outsiders being here in New York City. Rich is less excited about the idea of Silicon Valley, I have to admit it holds a tremendous sway or me, like what are they doing now.
Jon Lax: I think this sway though should just be some incredibly competent smart people and when you get to interact with them on a daily basis and work with them, it’s impressive to watch people operate at that level. I worked with some really good engineers in my life but I have to say I work with a lot of really, really good engineers and the things they are able to accomplish. I’ve never heard no we can’t do that ever. I think that in some … if I think that some of my designer friends who work with IT groups or engineers they spend their whole life trying to convince the engineer that it can be done. That is not the problem that I have.
Rich Ziade: Interesting. You know there is also I will relive one of the meetings that I had with the VC out in the Valley in this was a major VC and he heard the pitch and he said I actually believe in what you’re doing I think this is a real space and what killed it, I had an agency in New York problem number one. Then he said to me this phrase this is his exact quote. I need you here. which I didn’t really understand or process, why do you care where I am this isn’t about being in … it’s not a trading point, it’s not a point where there is sort of all this interconnectedness and commerce that goes on. It’s this sprawl there’s a shitty mall down the road and why do you need me here. I’m building stuff that’s all virtual. Why do you care where I am. I said this all in my head as I was standing there in the parking lot crying.
Jon Lax: On Sandhill Road.
Rich Ziade: On Sandhill Road. I never really was able to decipher what he was talking about. I wrote it off as he wants me and check stuff out that’s all could rationalize. I think it is about, I think it’s about people and about just the quality of the meth they sell in the Valley is extremely high.
Paul Ford: It’s also the conversation there, you go to a coffee shop and you talk about platforms.
Rich Ziade: Its true.
Paul Ford: You go to the bar and you talk about.
Rich Ziade: They want you in that environment.
Jon Lax: I diminish, I was sort of similar being like this is ridiculous. I think that I have a better empathy for it now being there which is there just an incredible amount of talent if you have to build a team around something that you are doing, there is just more people there who are doing that kind of work.
Rich Ziade: It’s literally it’s just this pump that comes out of.
Jon Lax: Stanford and Cal and Berkeley.
Rich Ziade: They all go right to your company.
Jon Lax: This is the other thing to the word impact gets thrown around a lot in the Valley I don’t know if that’s a thing in New York I hadn’t really heard it.
Paul Ford: No our Cs talk about different things.
Jon Lax: Different things. There is this concept of, you have to have impact and everyone is kind of obsessed about having impact.
Paul Ford: Here we call it money.
Jon Lax: That is really interesting.
Paul Ford: WE don’t hedge.
Jon Lax: Because in the Valley they pretend like they are allergic to money.
Paul Ford: I think that money is different in Silicon Valley. I think that there is real money that people use and there is also abstract crazy Facebook coins that you spend to buy What’s App, but that’s that’s a different subject.
Jon Lax: I’m really interested in this, you don’t feel like with Wall Street and craziness in terms of people just passing money back and forth and people taking little percentage and the financial engineer and the relationship to money here is fundamentally different than on the West Coast.
Paul Ford: Yeah I think that it’s so purely abstract, we see the entire economy that the way the West Coast sees bit coin. The way it ties in here is where it ties into real estate, it’s who lives where, after 20 years in the city and Rich grew up here, your sense of there’s always a dollar sign associated with absolutely any indicator in New York City.
Rich Ziade: It’s also it’s New York City people are ready to claw your eyes out because you want to take the money that they have, that’s New York, it’s the struggle.
Paul Ford: You walk down the street and you see a church and you’re like God that should just be apartments it’s horrible is a horrible thing that happens in your brain. You internalize capital.
Rich Ziade: One last though, then you think Silicon Valley I think it’s also putting aside big coin and abstract and all that I think there’s a change the world mindset.
Jon Lax: There is.
Rich Ziade: It’s not about that they’re all running in the same direction.
Jon Lax: They seem to genuinely believe it.
Rich Ziade: Well it’s the meth.
Paul Ford: Do you believe yet?
Jon Lax: That’s a great question. I think changed the world is a it’s not just how I think and meaning that I think that the things I do can change the world but it’s not my explicit purpose that I stand there and I go I’m changing the world and I’m not so important.
Rich Ziade: So that’s a no. Jon it’s been amazing to have you.
Paul Ford: You are our first guest and perfect guest, thank you so much.
Rich Ziade: Really thank you for coming great to have Jon here.
Jon Lax: Wait this is the episode that you look back on episode 100 and go we didn’t know what the hell we were doing.
Paul Ford: What I’m looking forward to is next year you’re either going to be like I have to get out of this crazy.
Jon Lax: Send an SOS.
Paul Ford: Or you’re going to be like gosh the level of disruption that is headed our way I’m going to ride this wave.
Jon Lax: I look forward and mark your calendars Valentine’s Day next year.
Paul Ford: Can wait, thank you so much Jon Lax.
Rich Ziade: Jon thank you.
Paul Ford: If people want to get in touch with you.
Jon Lax: I’m on Facebook, I’m also on Twitter.
Rich Ziade: Friend him.
Paul Ford: Jon has a great name it’s J-O-N L-A-X it’s 6 letters total it’s a killer name. Congratulations on your name.
Jon Lax: Thank you.
Paul Ford: You’ve been listening to Track Changes the official podcast of Postlight and agency in New York City. We would love to hear from you, you can send an e-mail to questions at postlight.com with any questions you have about anything and we will try to answer them on this show. I am a co-founder of Postlight and my name is Paul Ford.
Rich Ziade: I’m am Rich Ziade and other co founder.
Paul Ford: We will see you again very soon.