Tell us a little about how you came to work at Facebook.
My first product design job, after a few years of doing interactive design in multiple advertising agencies, was at Nuance Communications as the lead product designer on the Strategy, Design and Innovation team. The majority of my work at Nuance focused on conceptualizing, designing and iterating on product concepts for different partners (existing or prospective) where speech recognition and natural language understanding where technologies at the core of those products. Fast-forward three years and with Facebook’s acquisition of Jibigo (a translation app) a new speech recognition team was formed and plans to invest in conversational understanding started to brew. The need for design presence in the team, with expertise with that type of work, was increasing. And that’s when my, at the time, hiring manager reached out. We met in San Francisco for drinks, talked about my background, Facebook, the role, etc and quickly I was sold on it. The following week I visited the FB offices where I met a few people in the team with hopes of getting an understanding of their plans, level of impact, ambitions for the team and the type of product work they’d plan to build. This only helped solidify my excitement for the prospect. Next step was interview, and after that I was in. In April of 2014 I joined Facebook as the lead product designer on the Applied Machine Learning team.
What does the role of Product Designer involve?
In most technology companies design hiring is based on individual and specialized skills, i.e., teams look for a visual designer, an interactive designer, a UX designer/architect, a prototyper, etc as individual people/contributors. At Facebook the company sees design(ers) a bit differently. They look for designers who’s specialty ranges a broad set of skills, i.e. they’re generalists in that they are experienced with visual design, interactive design, UX design, etc. Moreover, given that product designers at FB are involved in every aspect of the product development process, skills like product thinking, ideation and conceptualization are also very important to have.
Your work can potentially affect the experience of about 1.5bn people. Do you ever think about it? How does it change the way you go about things?
I absolutely think about it. Not only from a professional perspective, as in it’s my job, like you said, to work on products that can potentially reach that many people. But there’s also the personal point of view. I’ve always been a pretty self-driven and ambitious person, but who would’ve thought, when I was in my teen years, living with my parents in Lisbon, that a number of years later I would be living with my wife and our two beautiful daughters in the bay area, working for one of the biggest companies in the world, as design lead building products that have approximately 2 billion impressions per day—I had to look over my shoulder at a dashboard to confirm the number just now. But seriously, per day! That, to me, is pretty overwhelming, yes.
How it changes things: process-wise it doesn’t change much. I’ve worked in ad agencies, startups, and other technology companies besides Facebook. The way we go about building products, sure, has it’s differences, but the fact that we’re building them for “more” people, it doesn’t have shocking differences. The bar is set, the level of expectation is there, so it’s not because we have a larger user base that we make things better or bigger.
What is the best thing about working at Facebook?
It’s a tie between the people and impact. For the impact side just re-read my previous answer to understand why. Even after a couple of years of working here, it’s still humbly overwhelming to realize the level of impact my work has in people’s lives. Then there’s the people. This is obviously not proprietary to Facebook—I think it’s safe to assume that most “tech giants” do a pretty good job of hiring top talent. But I was pretty mind-boggled, and still am today, by the sheer intelligence and sharpness of the people that work here, the people I get to interact with day-to-day. Humble too, and with just the right amount of ego.
Is Work/Life balance possible?
That’s rather relative. There’s times of the year, for example when we’re really sprinting towards shipping something (new or an update) when things get a bit more hectic, but in general at Facebook I can’t really complaint about work/life balance. I try to follow a couple of rules to maintain a healthy work/life balance. It starts with planning, and goal-setting. I understand that in a lot of places those come top-down, meaning that your manager, or their manager, highlight what’s important and what needs to be achieved by a certain period. That mentality sometimes might limit or bound your personal roadmap and goals. But whenever there’s an opportunity for me to be involved (and I’ve worked in both types of environments), I always take work/life balance into account when defining that roadmap and setting those goals. Then comes what to me is the most important variable to work/life balance—being able to self-manage my time. I can’t, and won’t, set a goal to finish a project in two weeks, when I know that for prototyping alone it usually takes me—hypothetically—one week. That wouldn’t leave too much time to ideate, design, critique, iterate, and research. So all-in-all my personal recipe to work/life balance is (and I want to highlight personal as I know how controversial this is) to plan and goal-set accordingly (as an individual contributor I always try to be involved in the process as much as possible), and be self-aware (know your strengths, your skills and your speed). I try to make it as though both are (always) aligned and with that, in most cases, I manage a pretty healthy work/life balance.
Does a startup have to be in Silicon Valley to make it big?
There are two sides to this answer. On one side I believe that good ideas can come from anyone and anywhere. It doesn’t really matter where I am (visiting or living) and a great idea can come to mind. There’s a lot you can do with that idea. So long as you have the tools, the talent and access to the internet, you can develop any idea and turn into something—read a “startup.” But then comes the second part of the answer. That idea, be it great or small, if it’s to be successful, needs to solve a basic problem or need. And what better way to identify if it does, or doesn’t, than by talking to your (potential) customers. Silicon Valley, or the San Francisco Bay Area has people from all walks of life, regardless of race, economic status and political affiliation. In addition it’s also an area that lives and breathes technology. You can walk to a random Starbucks in the Peninsula and bump into an exec from a small or large company. People here are used to trying, to experimenting, to being the early adopters. This gives you a pretty constructive set of views that you then can take a apply to your idea. More than a “tech mecca” to me Silicon Valley is a mecca for access to a number of things, things I don’t doubt you could find elsewhere, but still, here it’s different. Of course it’s not like you can ring a “1-800-make-my-startup-big” number and get all that you need to do it, however, if you play your cards right, and have patience you could do it. In Silicon Valley you can find a willing and dynamic market, funding, infrastructure, distribution, and most importantly, experienced talent. Most of what you need to develop a successful startup.
How do you see the current Portuguese startup scene?
I wish I could follow it more diligently, but with my work and personal life (thank Teresa and the girls) there’s little time to indulge in that, but slowly and surely I’ve been immersing myself in it. And really I have only great things to say about it. Wouldn’t expect anything less, either. Whether it is a globally known fact or not, I for one see Portugal as an alpha for top talent. I could copy and paste from the countless articles that have been surfacing throughout the past several years where journalists and bloggers highlight the great achievements in tech that come from Portugal, and others that speak to what great Portuguese entrepreneurs have been doing around the world. From engineering to design, Portugal is still a source of inspiration for me. So my expectations are typically met whenever I hear or read about a Portuguese startup.