This week’s episode of Digitally Diverse features James Kwong, Chief Product Officer at Unleash Live. James discusses his career journey in the Australian design industry, from studying industrial design in university to starting his own agency to working in strategic design consulting. He then transitioned into product management roles before joining Unleash Live, a video analytics startup using computer vision and AI. James opens up about challenges he’s faced, including ageism as a young leader and his design degree not being initially respected. James reflects on coming full circle to lead with an agile, startup mindset and shares his approach to mentoring others now that he is in a leadership role.
Please note: This transcript has been auto-generated and may contain some errors.
Thank you for joining us for another episode of Digitally Diverse, a podcast that we do. A deep dive into the movers and the shakers in the australian design industry. Today we are joined by the wonderful James Kwong, who is the chief product officer at Unleash Live.
Thank you so much for joining us, James, thank you so much for having me. Appreciate it. So, for those of us who are unfamiliar with you, could you give us a brief overview of your career to date and, yeah, let us know where you’ve come from.
Absolutely. So I’ve always considered myself an engineer at heart, but when I grew up, I realized my mind is of an engineer, but my heart is actually in design. So I started my career as an industrial designer.
And for most of the people who don’t know, that’s product design. Literally anything that’s tangible, anything physical, from furniture through to products that you use every day. I started my career really diving straight into it right out of uni.
I was extremely fortunate to get a position right off the bat, but I found very soon working with a lot of medical products. So I was designing for the American Red Cross. The Australian Red Cross really focused on product engineering and very soon realized, I like it, but I don’t love it like anyone who’s in their early 20s.
Thought I could take on the world. Started my own business, really a design agency focused on branding products and really building from scratch. Then I realized I’m not that great at it in the sense that there were a lot of things that I didn’t understand, really around business, around marketing, around strategy, around sales.
So I went back into the jobs, landed a role as something called a strategic designer, and it’s something that’s quite common now. But ten plus years ago was extremely brand new. It was really at the confluence of consulting and design consulting.
So think of ideo and frog kind of somewhere in that space, did a lot of that for some time, really focused on technology and innovation. So we took a startup mentality and applied it to large enterprises and I got an opportunity to work all over the world on a lot of really cool stuff. Once I finished that up, I realized I was fortunate to get a lot of strategy consulting, tech experience, working as a designer, working with product teams, and found myself wanting to deliver products much better.
So I migrated towards the product side of things. And as someone mentioned, I feel like I could speak multiple languages, can speak design, can speak business, can speak product, and focused a lot on AI and various deep technologies. And then I moved to a company called Unleash Live where I was part of a founding team and really needed to wear those multiple hats, and here I am today.
I love that. So it’s kind of come full circle for you. It seems like you really initially loved that small business and really agile way of working and wanted to do it yourself.
Now you’ve built up all those skills and now we’re doing that at unleash live. So that must feel like you’ve finally landed in what your graduate brain wanted. Yeah.
I’m extremely fortunate for the opportunities that I’ve had, but I think what’s also really important was planning all those years. I always wanted sooner, everybody wants it much sooner. It’s been a long journey, but I’m glad for the opportunities I’ve had so far.
Love that. And I’m curious to hear, what is it that you’re up to at unleash live? Can you tell us a little bit more about them? Yeah, absolutely. So unleash Live is a video analytics platform.
What that means is we really work with providing data. We provide very specific data on visual sensors. So that could be a CCTV camera, it could be a mobile phone, it could be a drone, but I will say it’s nothing dodgy.
Just have to slip that in there. Absolutely. We care a lot about AI ethics and we don’t capture any personal, identifiable information, but essentially we help cities and councils make better operational decisions through data.
We help improve the inspection process for renewable energy, we kind of reduce operational downtime and improve safety for mining and resources. So we’re really leveraging cameras as a sensor to be able to do more alerting and make better evidence based decisions through data. Yeah, my brain is just like going, what’s the main aim for you folks at the moment? Is there a roadmap right now or are you kind of just going with the flow? Because it seems like everything, every time we talk about cutting edge tech at the moment, it seems to revolve around that AI piece.
Do you even kind of know what that tech is going to look like in the next twelve months? I think everybody has their own suspicions and their own hypotheses. We started the company about seven years ago. I’ve been there for five years and we’ve seen incredible change, but at the same time, it’s only really fast change when you’re deep inside the technology.
Right. AI has been around for so long, people don’t realize that any kind of touch up tool, the cameras that you use today leverage AI. So much of how you search uses AI.
I think it’s only now that people are really leaning into the topic and trying to understand what that actually means for us. We absolutely have a roadmap. What’s exciting at being at unleash live is our vision for the role of visual data.
It would keep us occupied for decades. It’s just a matter of is the technology ready? Are our customers ready? Is the world ready for the things that we’re building? I love that. So James, what new projects and challenges are on the horizon for you folks at unleash live over the next six to twelve months? Well, first of all, the challenges never stop.
Although I can’t reveal too much intricate details about the roadmap, I will say that working in the world of computer vision and AI, in a world where frankly, a lot of the product features that we’re building today just does not exist, I think a lot of the challenges are really trying to think about how do you bring to life groundbreaking features? There’s no previous UI, there’s no previous inspiration for if you’re creating a new application today, there are components around calendars and bookings or what a form might look like. But we’re literally translating what traditionally a developer does in deep technology and making it a lot more accessible for customers. So things like how do you configure a video stream? How do you apply AI? How do you tell the machine what kind of results to get out of it? I’d say those kind of nitty gritty feature challenges are quite difficult, but also building out a product suite, an entire ecosystem.
So we’re at that stage of the business now where we have product market fit. We’ve identified very specific features that are working really well for our customers, and we’re almost at the conjunction where we need to think about, well, which ones become primary versus secondary. And the analogy I always bring up now is any designer knows the Adobe suite, but there was a world where it was just Photoshop and just illustrator.
And as new products are being developed, understanding what does each one particularly do? What do you focus on? What features come in and out? I’d say really going from designing the really intricate details to thinking about how do all these different features, components really come together into a product. The whole aspect of that, it’s all one big greenfield project. It seems like you’re just trying to figure out what you can do and then how to do it.
It’s like mind boggling, especially for someone like me who’s, I’m aware of kind of the technology, but I’m not definitely deep in it. So, yeah, I think it’d be so interesting just to kind of figure out what kind of research and testing do you guys obviously tell me if you can, but what kind of research and testing is involved? I’d say so much. I’d say research is less of an activity, it’s more of a mentality.
I’d say that everyone at our company, no one joins having the expertise. That’s the reality. No one has the knowledge or expertise in doing something so groundbreaking and so Greenfield.
But that’s also what excites everyone to be there. So I’d say a lot of research is the moment someone finds a new technology, a new solution or a new tool, we have a great culture of just sharing that and getting everyone to quickly have a look and see. Well, what’s your assessment? Is it interesting? Is it not, is it real, is it fluff? Is it vaporware? And the whole mentality of being agile is test quickly.
Sometimes you can’t make a decision. So let’s carve out some time, give it a crack, do it on your personal time, make it a mini project and come up with some results. Does it look like it’s got potential, or is it something that we just got to wait till it’s a little bit more developed? Yeah.
And I mean, from that, it sounds like the culture with you folks is very agile, collaborative. Can you fill us in on what it’s like to work with the people at unleash live? Yeah, absolutely. First thing I would say is, this is the longest place.
Sorry, the longest time I’ve been in one place. And that speaks volumes to the kind of work that we’re doing, the teams that I’m part of. Because who you work with matters so much in a career.
Definitely. You spend more time with your colleagues than practically any person in your life. More than your partner.
Right. And the one thing that I found that’s really common with everyone at unleash is everyone’s extremely curious. There’s a strong desire to learn, there’s an openness to learn because it’s so cross disciplined.
We’re still a pretty small team, and you have the benefit of having to talk to sales and marketing and business and design and engineering and the AI team, and everyone really leans in to understand each other’s business units, because ultimately, you’re one collective having the same goal and vision, even though you’re in different teams. So I think collaboration is not just super key, it’s absolutely essential. Yeah, definitely.
It sounds like even after seven years, there’s still very much the startup mentality is alive and well. Everyone chips in where they need to and yeah, that’s really great to hear that everyone is leaning on that curiosity, especially in such a cutting edge field. I feel like that’s super duper important.
Yeah. And I think even the topic that we mentioned before, around everyone doing research, you’re constantly just feeding each other information. You’ve got to be a sponge at all times and it can be overwhelming.
But you also learn so much so quickly, and I think that’s such a big growth factor that a lot of people overlook in any kind of role or career, just your ability to learn. Yeah. And speaking of that, I know you mentioned that you started off in more of like the industrial design space.
Was there anything in particular that made you want to go into more like digital design and more traditional design? Yeah, actually. So when I was twelve, I really wanted to be an inventor. Like think Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell inventor.
And it wasn’t until I got into high school that I realized there is no job for inventor. No one hires an inventor. So the closest thing that I could think about was, do I become an engineer or do I go product design? Am I either designing the internals or the externals? I went with product design and I found that irregardless of the design discipline, there’s a commonality in the process, there’s a commonality in a desire for creation, a desire for innovation.
And I think at that younger part of my career, I realized that having a diversity of skill is not only important for communication purposes, but it kind of keeps you interested. I kind of feel like I have short term and long term ADHD. I struggle to stay in one job, one thing, for a really long time, and I envy those who can.
Right. So I always find my way of, well, how do I keep things interesting? How do I try something different? And I’m not taking a huge leap, it’s kind of a lateral leap. The better I am at digital design, the more I can think about ecosystems.
And I would say there was a pivotal moment in my career where my final year of design school, I asked my lecturer, I said, how can I get 100%? Just give it to me straight. And he said, you can’t. He said, if you design the best product in the world, you can only get 75.
And I was like, what this is rate? But then he said, if you could design a great portfolio of products, so multiple products that fit within a family, then you might be able to get 85. If you’re able to design and build out an entire ecosystem, including the portfolio products, all the brand, the product and services. Only then could you get to 9800 is a fallacy.
You can never get there. And I think that really stuck with me. We often grew up thinking, what’s the one product I want to be able to create? And I very soon realized, whether it was digital design or product design, you can’t create the whole ecosystem without a broader skill set.
And I think that’s what pushed me to better understand business strategy, digital design, different communication channels, physical products, because we live in a digital and physical world. So I didn’t want to limit myself and limit my career. Yeah, no, that’s something that I feel like all of us have.
One of those stories where a professor just brings us right back down to earth. Totally. Yeah.
It’s a really humbling and sometimes frustrating moment when we realize perfection is not attainable. But also leaning into that, and it sounds from the other side, it’s also quite liberating knowing that the world is your oyster and you kind of have to get out there and learn as much as you can. And you might never get that 100%, but that’s okay.
That’s not the point anymore. Yeah, it’s just all about expanding it. Yeah.
And it’s more than okay, but it’s daunting. Right? I think everyone feels like if you don’t reach that goal, it’s failure. And that is so far from the truth.
We’re limited by knowing what good looks like, but there are so many different variations of good, we just haven’t discovered it yet. I love that. So, James, going from that you mentioned before that you were from an industrial design background, then moved into all things digital.
If you had your time again, would that be something that you would do, or would you maybe do something a little bit different? The classic time traveler question. It doesn’t matter, actually, because I’m here today because of the path that I took. But I also have met plenty of other people who took very different paths to get to where I am.
I’d say that my path was fairly standard. It was the typical asian parent dream. Go to high school, go to uni, get a job.
Right. I contemplated TAFe when I was in finishing up 10th grade, but at the end of the day, I don’t think it really matters. I’d say you got to find out what really works for you.
I think everyone’s journey is extremely unique and very malleable. We all grow and mature in different stages at different speeds. We find our passions at different times in life.
We learn in very different ways. I was a terrible high school student. I was a pretty terrible uni student.
Picked up my game in the final year because I needed a job. But for the most part, I’d say, learn where you can. I think we’re fortunate that we’re in a day and age where employers are less concerned with your educational background and more impressed by your capabilities, your skills, your outcomes and what you can do.
And I think what’s more important is focusing on showing the world what you can do rather than relying on something that’s on a piece of paper. I can’t say I really remember anyone looking at my university or high school and saying, yes, that’s the reason why we’ll hire you. And I’ve also been on the employer side where I’m recruiting and looking for candidates, and I can’t say I pay any attention to where they’ve studied.
Having an accreditation could be great, but the merit is really in who they are and what they’re able to bring to the table. Yeah, 100% agree. I mean, me as a recruiter, I look at CVS and portfolios day after day and I will hands down, say, nine times out of ten I will look at the CV.
But the portfolio is where it’s at. And the communication skills is also a huge piece as well. If you can’t communicate what you know and what you can do and what you have done, then that’s my priority.
So yeah, I can definitely say it’s all well and good to have that really great theoretical knowledge. But yeah, I agree. If you can put that across really succinctly, then that’s going to count a lot more when you’re job searching.
On that note, is there any other advice that you would give to students or perhaps younger people who are thinking about getting into design or technology? Probably two, one, don’t stress so much. Easier said than done, right? Yeah, a lot of people delay making a decision because they want to figure it out and make sure it’s the right one. But the right choice is the one that you make.
You can always change, it’s not a problem. What’s more important is enjoy the process and just get into it. But I’d say more specifically, if you want to get into tech and design, start to ask yourself, what does technology or design mean to you? It means very different things to different people.
Find the thread about what you enjoy. I mentor quite a lot of people who always say, oh, I don’t know what kind of role I want in tech? Well, I just ask them what intrigues you? What are your passions? Doesn’t matter. If it’s about making music, taking photos, if there’s a thread around creation, if there’s a topic that exists, figure out what’s relevant for you and for the future.
I’ve heard countless of stories of people who have either found a path after doing some soul searching, but I’ve also seen just as many people who have carved their own path and created a niche role that really suits them. Now, that’s definitely the exception, not the rule, but I would say really learn in the ways that resonate with you. Right? Think about what does self education mean to you? Some people like being told.
Some people like to watch videos. Some people like on the job. Like real world experience, I think just find what makes sense to you and just lean into that.
Yeah. Finding your own learning style is a game changer. I think so many people don’t like that school or uni learn by reading, or learn by hearing or seeing.
But once they’re actually out working, it’s like a light switch goes off and they’re like, oh, okay, I get it now. I know how to do this. Or they realize their passions because they just never had the chance to actually do it.
Getting out there and getting that real world experience is so, so important. Would you say that when you’re looking for a new designer to come on your team, would you perhaps look at that self education? So, like the boot camps and the online courses, would you say that they were important? Or would you probably recommend people go to more of like, a tertiary situation? It’s a tough one, because I’ve spoken to a lot of designers, a lot of hiring managers as well. And I’d say the verdict on self education through courses, tertiary or otherwise, is kind of like split.
I know a lot of people who think just because you did a boot camp doesn’t make you as competent as someone else. But at the same time, I think doing it is such a great way of getting a base foundations right? There’s information available, but what you normally get out of it is a project, a process. Like, you’ve been through it at least once.
But I’d say what’s more important is to build on that, because otherwise you’re just competing against dozens, if not hundreds of others who went through similar, if not the same, boot camp. So really finding a way to differentiate yourself and be able to stand out from the crowd is so important. And anybody who’s willing to do one more project, whether it’s a personal one or one additional internship, their portfolio just increases in number and in depth and in scale.
So I wouldn’t stress so much about where you get your education, because I also know cost is very prohibitive for a lot of people, as is time. Not everyone has the money to just say, well, let me try and invest a couple of months, and however much money, thousands of dollars potentially, to be able to do it. Some might say, well, you can use that time and that money to create some really good projects.
But I think education in general is a useful one because it also builds your own confidence, if that’s what you need to do as a step in the process. Absolutely. You also get to meet new people, make new connections, fast track the process a little bit, but keep in the back of your mind, your ultimate goal is to get a job, get into a specific career, tailor everything you’re doing, and just be super mindful of that.
Yeah, 100% agree. There’s definitely so many people who are doing the boot camps now, and they are great because you’re right. They allow people to be connected with other students or other people in the industry, and it really does set you up quite well for the amount of time that you can invest.
But, yeah, totally agree that that time could also be spent just like, working on your own portfolio, working on your craft in your own time, equally as important. So, yeah, love that. Yeah.
I mean, the pessimist in me always kind of brushes aside, and we always value someone who’s had real experience. I think the portfolio is where it really sinks. It’s a blank canvas for you to really demonstrate whatever it is you want to, whether it’s breadth and process, whether it’s depth, whether it’s a specific stage or specific discipline and design, I think the boot camps give you the broad foundations.
So it’s like, if you think of the t shaped designer, it’s extremely broad but extremely thin. I think if people go into it knowing what discipline they’re interested in, they can apply that lens so that everything that they do, everything that they touch has that sprinkle, so that when they’re presenting and pitching themselves, it’s an evident thread that they can talk to. It’s a small thing, but it makes a huge difference.
Definitely. Yeah, sometimes the broadness. Yeah, it’s a blessing and a curse in a way.
So, James, is there anything that you do on the daily that inspires you, really lights you up to do what you. Absolutely. Even when I was a product designer, the only thing I wanted wasn’t fame or fortune or a lot of money, but they would be nice.
It was to see the thing that you’ve created come to life. And I think in the product design cycle, it can take up many years even for something that you create, to really be manufactured and put onto shelves. And as much as I always dreamed it, and I saw that a couple of times, I think moving into digital and tech and the speed in which development happens, you get to feel it in an app, on a browser very quickly.
So I think being able to see the whole process, from idea to pen and paper to the whole design process, and then finally execute it, is extremely rewarding. Right. And I think what’s more important than just pumping stuff out for the sake of it is for me, having a positive impact.
We have enough stuff in the world, but if the outcomes of what I’m creating are able to improve someone’s life, even just a tiny bit, that gives me the drive to keep going. Right. It gives me the satisfaction that I’m able to do that.
And at the same time, I’m also a bit twisted. I love problems. I love difficult problems.
In fact, the more challenging they are, the more I’m inclined to want to solve them. Maybe because it is difficult, maybe because it requires additional mental fuel. I think being able to tackle the problems that most people don’t want to and still yield a positive impact and see it in the flesh, that’s extremely rewarding.
Yeah, no, that’s fantastic. I was speaking with someone, I think, a couple of weeks ago, and they mentioned that they had a similar background to you, where they started off in industrial design and then went more into the digital space. And they really loved, similar to you, like the ability to iterate really quickly and really often and just be able to constantly improve, because physical products, they take so long for any version really to come out and be tested, where digital, you can just, every day you could be making tiny little tweaks and updates, and they found that really rewarding to be able to always be iterating.
So, yeah, sounds pretty similar to you in that it’s one of those things where you can always be improving and always finding the pain points, but then also always coming up with the solution as well. One other thing, you just sparked a thought. I think a lot of people also mistake all digital to be the same.
And especially those trying to get into a career, they’re very inclined to only lean towards the big companies because it comes with the name, the security. And frankly, when you’re much younger, you’re not aware of the entire scope of what’s actually possible. I mention it because a good designer friend of mine, he used to work in a really large company, probably it’s large mobile company in Australia, and the designs that he worked on, it took a year after he left before they even made it to market, and he was there for two years.
So don’t think that just because it’s digital, it also always comes up very quickly. Businesses are a really large machine and it can really kind of grind down to a halt as well. And I think sometimes that’s the benefit of working with a smaller company.
The impact that you have is much greater the speed and velocity that smaller companies have to move to be able to catch up, keep up and grow. I think there’s a big benefit in that. So anyone who’s thinking about dipping their toe or getting a start, I wouldn’t be too fast about where I’d say, just get in there, have something to show, and build that portfolio from day one.
Yeah, I think I agree. And you’re so right. Like those bigger companies, I speak with designers all the time who will pretty much say, like, I love working at this bigger company.
They have really great resources. However, I feel like a tiny little cog in a big machine. And for some people, they love that.
They love just focusing on one small part of the product or the platform and really nailing it and really getting into that nitty gritty. But there’s no right answer. Right? Like some other people just really love working on a broad scope of things at a startup and being able to try everything and get their hands dirty with everything.
So figuring out what you like and what you want to be doing and how you want to be doing it is super important thing to be doing when you’re at that junior midweight stage of your career. Absolutely. Yeah.
Well, I would love to hear about. I mean, you’ve given us a really broad overview of your career to date and all of the incredible impacts that you’ve had. But I’m curious if there’s any speed bumps that you face, James, and how they’ve shaped your career.
Too many. But I think it’s a great question you ask because I think too often people talk about their success story and they don’t realize how much change, challenges and pain they have gone through to get there. I would say that an industrial design degree doesn’t hold a lot of weight in the industry.
It’s a very small market. It’s not the most known, and frankly, it wasn’t the most respected bachelor’s degree. Right.
And there was a time where that did count against me. When you’re competing against design schools or other different degrees, that’s something that I had to overcome, both mentally, but also in my portfolio, in the things that I could show, that I could do. I would also say that I was pretty lazy for the beginning part of my career, and I was a bit of a late bloomer.
It wasn’t until kind of my early to mid twenty s that I decided that I wanted to just focus, pedal to the metal and really accelerate my growth. And that came with a lot of pushback as well. Put myself in a lot of uncomfortable positions where I had to ask for opportunities, because if I went with the natural flow of things, that senior position that I wanted, I remember very specifically asking my boss, how do I get to that role? And he said, well, we have a very specific growth plan.
Each role has three different tiers, and then you move on to the next one. You are down in this bottom left corner if you want to make it to this top right. It’s about a ten year journey, and it broke my heart.
But the first thing I said to him was, how can I do it in three? And although he laughed at me, he said, if you’re serious about it, these are the things that you need to work on. And that was such a blessing because someone’s given you a bit of a map to say you are lacking in these different areas. And they gave me a plan to work on that.
So as I went through this accelerated journey, I very quickly got into a position where I was quite young for my age, for the roles that I were in. So I was senior fairly quickly. I was presenting to senior clients.
I was given some very high profile projects. However, I did realize that ageism, both actual and perceived, definitely worked against me. So a lot of people would prematurely judge my capability purely based on my age.
I looked a little bit younger than I actually was throughout my 20s. Asian genes, for better or worse. And it was challenging, especially when I worked in Asia, where it was extremely hierarchical.
Only the most senior people would have the opportunity to speak in a room. It’s extremely based on tenure and age. And coming in as an expert, I had to really navigate and tread quite carefully and really prove myself over and over again.
It meant that I had to mature faster, even optically. And what I mean by that is how I communicated, how I even dressed, how I even looked, how I presented myself, because optics really matter. You may be the most kick ass designer, kick ass tech person, but unfortunately, we’re still in a world where there is a degree of judgment that happens before you even get the opportunity to show that.
Now, that’s not the case for every industry. But I would say building your story, building your narrative, not just on how you look, but how you act, how you communicate, what you do, that was super important. But there were some real challenges.
Moving to different countries, working in different languages. I was really blessed to have opportunities working all over Europe, Asia and the US and doing design research with thai customers. When you don’t speak the language and needing an interpreter, it’s its own challenge.
It’s a fun challenge, but if you really want to expand your portfolio, your learning and skill set, you kind of have to push yourself in slightly uncomfortable positions. Yeah, I think that comfort with being not comfortable, uncomfortable, super important. And it’s not as if anyone can push you.
You could have just stayed on that ten year plan, but you were like. And you would have got there eventually. And most people do.
Yeah, and most people do. But it’s like something to be said about. Actually, no, I’m not okay with that.
How do I get that going and asking that question and having good leaders around you who can build you up. Yeah, but I think it’s also important to not be arrogant about that. I’ve also worked with plenty of people who think they’re top shit.
And sometimes you also have to respect. There is a process. You can’t learn public speaking skills overnight.
You can’t learn written communication skills overnight. You can’t learn business strategy. You don’t have the experience of conducting dozens and hundreds of hours of research.
You have to put the time in, and as long as you’re aware of that and are willing to put in a little bit more or find what works with your energy and your pace, I think that’s when you can get the most out of it. Yeah, that’s a really great point, finding what works with your energy. Because I feel like there would be so many people who, that ten year plan would probably work with their energy and they would be fine with that.
But, yeah, you were able to realize and be quite self aware that I can do more. So let’s get that rolling. So good.
And I guess with that being said, you obviously are in a leadership position at the moment and have had a pretty accelerated career. How have you found that journey into leadership? How have you found that? It’s a good question. I think following on from what I said before, I think there is a degree of you have to have a clear vision in mind.
And I think self awareness is really important because sometimes people want to be in a leadership position and I ask them, why is it the renumeration package? Is it ego? What is it? And for me, it was pretty simple. I’m better being the lowest rung, hands dirty worker and being someone who’s more of a direction setting, strategic setter and able to think about the big problems in the middle. I’m all right, too.
But for the most part, I found that I am more effective and I can deliver more value and create more change because I kind of see myself as a co captain. I’ve never wanted the responsibilities or the pride and glory of being a captain, but I’ve always enjoyed being a great support and I’m okay with that. And I think being in a leadership position also allowed me to give the right advice, guide and mentor people in the right way, steer the ship in the right direction, and trust the team will be able to do the day to day extremely well.
I’ve been through that, but I’ve also seen bad leadership, and I think that’s what drove me to get into a leadership position. But I think your question really was like, well, how do I get into that? And I think the most important bit was, I used to tell people I have a ten year plan. It’s a lie.
I had a ten year guide because no one’s great enough to write such a clear plan. But I did feel like I looked at different leaders and said, well, what was it about them that I want to be able to emulate? I want to be able to give a great presentation. I used to joke, I want to be a TEd speaker.
I wanted to be able to be someone that has the global experience. I wanted to be able to guide teams of a certain size. And I think by having those big goals, only then can you kind of look back and say, well, what do I need to get there? What kind of credibility do I need? What kind of networks do I need? And I thought about it quite strategically.
So my ten year plan was a rolling tenure plan. I would just say, look, let’s not worry about the things that are eight years away, regardless of what I want to do in the next year or two, I need to have had x amount of experience across these kind of topics. I wanted to be able to speak in a certain way and that constant pursuit and taking those opportunities are important.
I do believe in you miss 100% of the shots. You don’t take right, because when someone’s looking for a promotion, well, you need to let people know you want it too. Knowing that you may not get it, or if you have a preference for certain projects or certain topics, it’s not a bad idea to be vocal in sharing your intent.
You may not get it, but I’ve been on the other side where I’ve had to assign different people to teams, and for me, it doesn’t bother me which designer goes on, but if I find out that, oh, I’m working on an agricultural project and Sarah on my team has a huge passion for it, well, why not guide her to that? I get a better outcome. We get a better outcome as a team, and she gets to grow. So I think being able to share your intent, be patient, be always on the lookout to seek opportunities, but also continuously grow and feed yourself.
If you’re not doing all of those things, you’re not constantly growing. And unfortunately, it’s still a triangle. There’s only so many leaders at the top, so you have to find your way to kind of filter through each tier, and the only way to do that is to keep growing and ideally, faster than your peers, faster than the others that you’re competing with.
But you need to know where you’re aiming. Otherwise you’re just putting a lot of energy into possibly the wrong things or in the wrong order. Well, with your ten year guide, did any of those goals change throughout your career, or have they stayed pretty steady? No, all the time.
Yeah, that’s why I became a guide. No longer a plan. But sometimes it’s like being in a startup, it’s about pivoting.
I knew very early on that I wanted international experience. I missed the mark. I went a year or two later than I planned to, but it’s because there was a great opportunity here that I wanted to fulfill.
So I just shifted and said, you know what, I’ll still stay in Australia for a year or two, but what other skills on my guide do I want to work on in exchange? So the order changed. You know, when I got an opportunity to move to New York to work, I jumped on it immediately. It’s a place I’ve always wanted to go.
It wasn’t on my critical path of where I wanted to know. It was a great opportunity. And you kind of go with the flow and adjust accordingly.
Even if you had the perfect plan, there’s so many things you can’t control. Yeah, definitely the economy, what’s happening in your country, your family and personal situation, your own goals and desires. I think it’s important to stay kind of like fluid and limber, but just remind yourself and just keep checking in with yourself.
Yeah, I think that’s the most important thing. Right. I’m a big advocate for always checking in with your goals or with your guide.
And if you’re not changing those goals, it’s just going to get stagnant. Right. Like, things are always changing around you.
So that should be a reflection into what you’re aiming for. There’s nothing wrong with changing your goals and your plan because, yeah, you’re right. You just have to be agile with it.
But I’m also curious if you have any advice for people who are wanting to get into your industry. So, like deep tech, AI, machine learning, would there be any advice that you’d give? Learn. And learn is daunting, right? It could mean like, oh my gosh, how do I get into it? I think information today is so accessible and available in so many different formats, right? It could be courses, it could be video, it could be playing games, right? There are so many ways to learn, I think in terms of tech, and I’ll definitely speak on behalf of more like AI and machine learning.
I think it’s always useful to understand what is the role of the technology that you’re interested in both now and in the future. If you’re not thinking about it, then it’s really difficult for you to want to engage in it. And even if people go, oh, I think that topic is cool.
Okay, why? What’s cool about it? And I think having the right conversations with people that stimulate that thinking is really important. I’d say you kind of have to dream and visualize what you want to get out, what you want to do in that space, and look at what are the trends that are currently happening, and is there a trend or a wave that you want to be able to ride and eventually maybe peel off or just continue to ride, or alternatively, carve your own path. I remember a critical moment where I read a really short National Geographic documentary on this photographer.
He had the dream. He loved taking photos, and his dream was to capture the most amazing photos in the world. He repaired a lot of cameras and he found that he wasn’t the best photographer in the world, but he found a very specific position.
I think it was in Nikon, the camera company, and he essentially created a job of one. So all of these photographers who take the best photos in the world are in extremely harsh environments. They’re like hiding under snow tents.
They’re like submerged in water. And their equipment, frankly, can’t do the job that they want. So they’re always looking for ways to hack it.
So they send it to this guy, and he specializes in tweaking the cameras and building custom triggers, custom lenses and custom hoods so that they can do what they do. And he gets really close to the photographer he built. He has this great personal relationship and some of the best photos that are taken in the world.
The moment they’re taken, they’re shared with him, and he gets a little piece of. This is what it’s like to be in front of a siberian tiger. So he found a way to connect with photography and technology and really crafted his own path.
And he’s been doing that for decades now. And although that probably won’t work for a lot of people, I found that extremely inspiring for what is your version of what you want to be doing? Yeah. How can you be involved with the dream or the goal or the guide? Exactly.
Even if it’s not the front and center person, how can you be involved and still make that impact? Yeah. Amazing. Well, I’m also curious about if you consume any content or other podcasts, books, youtubers, anything and everything, what do you like to listen to and watch? I’ve always dreaded this question because every time I watch a podcast or listen to some kind of log, everyone has all these amazing resources to share.
And I mentioned before, I was a terrible student, and I kind of still am. But I think consumption of content is important. And I think of it in three different categories.
What is something that you do or consume that helps you grow? What is something that inspires you and what keeps you? And the third one is what keeps you relevant. So I’d say when it comes to growth, the only books I’ve almost ever read are all self help books. So books around, like understanding your own mind, your body, improving your memory, some of the real foundational soft skills about being more self aware and knowing how to think and make the most of yourself.
There are a couple, I think. One that’s particularly interesting is called tools of titans. It’s literally a cheat sheet.
It’s a book of all these tools taken from all these different industries with different frameworks and ways to be able to solve problems. It’s just a great one to at least dip your toe into what’s possible before you kind of go a little bit deeper. In terms of inspiration, I actually like to watch documentaries.
I think documentaries for people who have done amazing things is always great. I recently read I’m a big Nike fan. I grew up just loving the story of Nike.
So I read Shoe Dog by Phil Knight, and it’s not a glamorous story, it’s actually a story of just how difficult and how much kind of mental grit you needed to have to get to where you are today. And inspiration doesn’t have to be super serious. It could be rock climbing, it could be sports, it could be anything at all.
But find something that makes you feel alive and makes you feel like, well, I can do that too. Or what’s the Netflix series on me if I were to make it one day? And then the last one is relevance. I have always used an aggregator, so I use something called feedly, and I aggregate feeds across topics of AI, design, technology, gaming, startups.
And every single day I make it a habit of what’s on my feedly and it just curates my 2030 articles of something that I need to do on a regular basis. And I also say, don’t sleep on social. Social can be good and can be bad.
I won’t judge your own habits. I’m a bit of both. But I think social can be also a great way of curating content anywhere from design, technology, trends, examples, even if it’s just a jumping off point, learn about the topics really quickly and then do some research and go a bit deeper.
So I’d say the only one other podcast I do enjoy is all in. It’s more of like a venture capitalist technology one, but it covers really big, important topics and quite a lot of depth with experts who really know what they’re talking about. Now, it may not be on the design skills level, but it kind of gets you thinking about these big topics and conversations that the world is having in technology, in design and in product.
And it’s a great starting point to know what you need to know. Yeah, I think it’s a really important skill for anyone really, that works in tech to be just aware of what’s going on in the broad scheme of things, because design is like, it is a very important part of tech, but it’s not the biggest, unfortunately. So it is super important to know there are other factors that come into our industry from other spheres or other areas.
So just to keep your finger on the pulse, I think is super important. But yeah, I think what you consume I think is very normal. I feel like there’s lots of other people who live and breathe design, but when they want to switch off, they don’t want to consume any design specific content, which is fine sometimes your brain just needs a break.
Totally. Don’t get me wrong, I have bookmarks for a whole bunch of different kind of like design inspo sites, but I think sometimes it doesn’t leave you. You could be watching just a great tv show and be inspired by the fashion, the design, the conversations that kind of happen.
But what you said about keeping your finger on the pulse, I think another way that I love going about it is find other people, friends or otherwise, who just love talking about these things and normalize just sharing articles and sharing random things. I have a chat with a couple of friends that I went to uni with, and we have common interest around certain tech topics and science topics. And anytime someone sees something new that interests them, they just send it.
And now we’re having a conversation about superconductors, LK 99 and whatnot. Right? And it’s just information. Worst case, you skim it or you don’t read it, but at least you know what’s available.
Yeah, 100%. There’s so many different communities online now that they might not be your best mate who you could send an article to. It could be like slack channels, or it could be on medium.
Or there’s so many online communities that you can connect with people who are interested in the same things as you are. Twitter or now X. It’s endless.
It’s almost overwhelming sometimes, but it is really exciting. And I feel that since we’re on this podcast and the whole point is to share more, I’m just a huge geek, right? Reddit, discord, Telegram. There are communities everywhere who’s just constantly sharing information and getting opinions.
And I think if you can be level headed about consuming and coming up with your own thoughts about it, I think that’s what’s important. Don’t just be swayed by what you read. There’s also a lot of crap out there, a lot of fake news, a lot of real news.
But I think if you can have a think about what’s important to you, take it all in. Think about how it helps you grow, how it inspires you, and how it’s relevant for any conversations that you have today or in the future, I find that a very useful framework for consumption. Yeah, no, I 100% agree.
Speaking of where you find your information and who you chat with, do you have any mentors that mentor you or any business leaders that inspire you? Yes, actually, on the topic of mentors, it’s something that I’ve had a mentor ever since I was in university. I love that. And it started off with a, this is the assignment.
This is who you’re assigned to. But very soon, I saw the value in, well, they’re there to teach. Why not leverage information and knowledge from the people who are there to teach you? So throughout my entire career, even the moment I got into my first job, whether that company had an official mentorship or program or not, I would always find someone who was extremely capable, whom I wanted to learn something from, and ask, is it something that they can share? Is there any information they can share with me? How can I learn faster? How can I shadow them? Even going back to the whole, seize the opportunity and don’t be afraid to share your intent, you’ll get pushback.
Some people will be like, no, I don’t have time. That’s okay. Right? So I think having mentors throughout jobs is so great, but also, even when you leave, it doesn’t mean that you can’t have a mentorship relationship with them.
I still have a friend of mine who was an ex colleague, Shiman told me when I was much, much younger. And now we both have senior positions in different companies. In Australia, we co mentor each other.
But I still go to her with big problems. And sometimes it’s nice just to be able to speak openly, put things into words, get some advice back. I’d say, find mentors wherever you can.
I’ve mentioned before where I do mentorship on the side through certain programs and platforms, and also just personally. And I do that because I want to give back and I see the value in it. And if there’s a mentee who really listens, and I can see that they have the strong desire for growth, I think every mentor also gets mentored when they’re mentoring.
Right. But then on the topic of business leaders, ironically, not so much. I know a lot of people put certain business leaders on a pedestal, but I think because they’re super inspiring and they’ve done amazing things, but everyone has their own story.
You don’t really know what their path really was like. You don’t know that if they came from a fortunate or unfortunate family, what connections were given to them. So I kind of take them with a little bit of a grain of salt.
I find that business leaders that inspire me are the ones I work closest to, and it could be something as simple as the owner of my local know. They came from really humble origins in Egypt, and now they’ve created this amazing brand. And I want to know more about that or the people that you work with day to day.
I’d say that every company still has a leadership team. I would look at them and say, what are the things about each person that you love and you want to be more like, and what are the things that they do or don’t do that you would do differently if you were a leader? And that’s been the principle I’ve kind of lived by. I’ve had great managers and leaders, and I go one day, I want to be as humble as you, I want to be as empathetic as you.
And there are others where I said, well, I would never do that. And that’s baked into my values for when I become a leader. And I think being more mindful of it is really important.
Yeah, that’s actually a really great point. Like keeping that lens really close to and on those people that you deal with day to day, it would probably be, obviously, it’s a lot more immediate, but you would be able to learn a lot more because I feel like you’re seeing it in action every day rather than like, oh, I really learned a lot from that Ted talk that I saw or, yeah, I think that’s really important to be able to learn from the people around you in the moment. I like to end the podcast with one of my most favorite questions, James.
So if you could give your younger self some career advice, what would it be? This is something I learned way too late, but there’s a 70, 20 and ten rule that I love. Spend 70% of your time thinking about the present, 20% of your time on the future, and 10% of your time in the past. I think that ratio really spoke to me when I learned about it just about a couple of years ago.
Because when you’re younger, you’re always dwelling on my future, what’s going to happen, all this uncertainty, and then you get a whole different kind of anxiety about what you know, what you don’t know where you want to get to. You spend a lot of time reflecting on your past and often beating yourself up about what you did, do what you didn’t do, but you’re not that mindful about the present. And I think that rule may seem quite simple, and it’s easier said than done, but it could be spend the 10% to reflect on the past and focus on the celebrations, but also, what are the things that you would change and do differently? I think time on the future is really important because have a dream and have a plan of what it is that you want to be able to do.
I’m a huge daydreamer, probably spend way too much time doing it, but the 70% is, take the time to synthesize that. Take the time to be like, well, why do I feel that way? What is it about the future that I’m excited by? What can I do today that just inches me a little bit closer to that day after day after day? And I think that rule also applies to how mindful you are with friends or playing sport or doing anything. Your mind can always be in other places, but if it’s right there, and then you can be more mindful about, what am I hearing? Why am I doing this? How can I improve? And maybe the last one that’s tied to that is, don’t worry so much about the future.
Like, you don’t know how it’s going to go. It’s not going to be exactly how you imagine it. There are all these different paths you can take, but it’ll be great regardless.
There’s an infinite number of ways that you can have fulfillment, joy, sense of purpose, or reward. It may not be exactly how you think it would be, but it will come. So you just got to believe in that and have an open mind.
I love that. Thank you so much for all of your nuggets of wisdom today. I have learned so, so much.
And, yeah, thank you so much for joining us. I really appreciate it. No, I really appreciate you giving me the time and the opportunity to speak to others.
I really enjoyed it. So thank you so much for having me.