Startup Life: Unscripted #36 with Chad Ackerman, Founding Design Lead at Motif Analytics

From Google Maps to the forefront of analytics innovation, Chad dives into his transition and the creative dynamism of startup culture at Motif Analytics.

Startup Life: Unscripted is a TNG Media newsletter, as part of The Nudge Group, where we feature candid conversations with startup operators about their career journeys and experiences. If you received this email as a forward, you can read all our past interviews and subscribe right here.

Welcome to another edition of Startup Life: Unscripted! Today, we sit down with Chad Ackerman, who transitioned from a major role at Google Maps to leading design at Motif Analytics, a startup aiming to revolutionise data analysis. Chad shares the nuts and bolts of moving from big tech to a startup environment, offering a candid look at the challenges and rewards.

Key interview takeaways:

🔄 Career Transition: Chad shares insights on moving from Google to a startup, emphasising the learning opportunities and new challenges this change brought.

🤝 Team Dynamics: Exploring how working in a small startup like Motif Analytics differs significantly from his time at larger tech companies, particularly in terms of collaboration and decision-making.

🎨 Skill Synergy: Chad talks about the advantages of blending design and development skills, and how this combination enhances product development at Motif Analytics.

🛠️ Adapting Strategies: He discusses maintaining a flexible design strategy to stay aligned with the fast-paced startup environment, including adapting to rapid shifts and integrating new technologies.

Hey Chad, jumping from a giant like Google Maps to a startup must've been a big leap! Can you tell us what sparked that move to Motif Analytics and how your past gigs shape your work now?

I had a successful career at Google, building two teams from the ground up in Cloud and Maps; so the next logical step in my career there was to step fully into management.

My “aha” moment for deciding to leave, from a career perspective, was that I’d mostly be learning to work better at Google if I stayed. I like to design my career (and life) around optionality, so it was time to put myself in a scenario where I had a chance to keep learning more broadly.

I started my career at General Electric, then Google, then Radar (series C startup), and now Motif (seed stage). While the company size kept shrinking, a common thread across all of my jobs was that I was designing complex products and services for users with a high degree of expertise.

Motif is attempting to solve sequence analysis the right way, for the very first time. We’ve taken no easy routes to get here (maybe to our detriment) from designing our own query language, novel data visualisations, and new interaction design paradigms not seen in other data analysis tools.

Working in a startup can be a whole different ball game compared to big corps. How's the vibe at Motif Analytics different from your time at Google, especially when it comes to teamwork and making decisions?

I have the pleasure of working with some of my old colleagues from Google, so a lot of the things we loved about Google we brought with us (go/ links are the bomb). I was fortunate to work at a series C company before Motif which taught me a lot of the tools and operational rigour needed for working in a fast paced environment. Some specific examples include:

  • Slack serves as the facilitator of asynchronous collaboration and decision making v.s. emails and meetings. This way of working takes some getting used to, but works great for a smaller company and team.

  • Loom is the killer tool for asynchronous design critique. We tried Slack at Radar, but static mocks with some bullets just cannot communicate the richness of an idea. At Google we used long form docs shopped around for weeks. At Motif we make unscripted Loom videos which balance the need for higher fidelity and the speed of async communication.

  • We only have an office one day a week, but that day is always a lot of fun. 80% of the day is not heads down working, but often spent collaborating huddled around a whiteboard or laptop. We actually solve a lot of small wish list features or bugs while in person which keeps the product stable and the team motivated.

You've got a unique mix of design and front-end skills. How do you juggle these hats at Motif Analytics, and what cool perks does this skill combo bring to your table?

I’m very much a generalist designer. You say I bring a lot of skills, I say I’m simply impatient and have learned how to build my own ideas so I could see them come to life quicker.

I’ve found my broad skill set fits in well at these earlier stage companies because there isn’t a marketing department, a user research team, a brand designer, animators, and all the other perks we had at big companies.

This means when I want to animate something to go into our docs, completely redo our marketing site in Webflow, or clean up some of our UI components in the product, I’m afforded the latitude to just do it.

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What's a day in the life of a Design Lead like at Motif Analytics? Can you break down how you tackle your daily to-do list and keep all those plates spinning?

Spinning plates is a great analogy, though I often say I’m playing 5 games of shuffleboard, leaving some of them unfinished at times. At startups you have to find really creative interim solutions that keep the game going, even if it’s not quite done, with a focus on what you want to learn next.

For example I may come up with a solution that has a solid concept, but the visual execution just isn’t elegant yet. What’s more important at this stage for Motif is to make sure the concept lands with our users.

Startups are known for their need-for-speed changes. How do you keep your design strategy agile enough to keep up with all those rapid pivots at Motif?

The best advice I’ve gotten here is to design as little as possible, and redesign often. I think I was doing some of this naturally through the methods I described earlier, but this mantra really landed with me.

The hard part is keeping an eye on quality, something I feel design owns in a product. Luckily I’m able to get hands on enough with the code to keep us in check when the design debt starts adding up.

You've seen a lot in the design world. Where do you see the future of the industry heading in the analytics space, particularly with the integration of AI and machine learning technologies?

In its current form, AI is doing a great job helping solve questions that have a clear correct answer (I hear GitHub’s Copilot is great for engineers). Where I see headroom is helping find the “right” question to ask of our data.

What we’re trying to do at Motif is leverage the LLMs that were designed to predict the next word in a sentence and adapt them to predict the next event in a sequence. Getting us closer to leveraging this technology to ask better questions of our data, not just how to write better SQL.

Finally, do you have any go-to resources, like books or podcasts, that have been particularly helpful for you to navigate the startup world? Would love to hear your recommendations!

I’d love to hear yours, too! I’m a fan of long form content so I feel I learn best when reading a book or listening to longer interviews on podcasts. A couple from recent memory that have been useful for me at Radar and Motif:

Lenny’s Podcast is full of really great interviews from prominent players in the industry. When I don’t have time to read all the books on my list (with a 1 year old and a fledgling company that’s most of the time), he is my go to. His interviews with Geoffrey Moore and April Dunford were particularly useful when thinking about our early adopters and positioning.

Finding Our Way is a great design focused podcast that often feels cathartic as a solo designer. I love my team, but it’s helpful to stay connected to the design industry at large.

I still dust off my copy of About Face when I’m really in the weeds on an interaction design problem. The examples are dated but the frameworks and depth of thought provided are still really valuable. Even if just to crib the language to win an argument with your CEO or engineer.

From the Startup Life team

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