Peaceful reflection

Ten years ago today, excited yet somewhat anxious, I boarded United Airlines flight 955 from London Heathrow to San Francisco. I was working at a small agency at the time, designing websites for estate agents and other local businesses. Freelancing during evenings and weekends, I had recently started working for a small start-up called Ning, based in California. A few rounds of design later, I was offered a job and now booked on this flight so I could get a taste of the company.

I’d never visited America before. Besides wanting to know how this English-speaking country differed from my own, I was curious about the burgeoning technology scene in Silicon Valley, one slowly emerging from the wreckage of the dot com crash.

While Ning may have been small, it was the focus of much attention: one of its co-founders was Marc Andreessen, co-author of Mosaic and co-founder of Netscape. He and fellow co-founder and CEO Gina Bianchini were building a platform to help individuals create social networks around different interests. This was very much a nascent concept: MySpace had recently overtaken Friendster as the network of choice, while membership of Facebook was limited to college students. Twitter would be several months away from launching.

I was picked up at the airport by Gina and two product managers, Athena and Kyle. Even though it was the middle of December, the weather was bright and warm, as was this welcome party. As we drove from SFO to Palo Alto, I asked questions about the different things I saw whizzing past my window, no matter how inconsequential.

Palo Alto was a small, quiet town unbefitting a global centre of innovation. There were few features of note, except perhaps a British-themed pub, the Rose and Crown. Colleagues would be quick to recommend it, yet beyond a few photos of the Beatles hanging in the toilet and Guinness on tap, its theme was insubstantial.

Ning was based in an unassuming three-storey building, on a floor above a cosmetic dental practice. A dozen or so employees sat in a long room, with a few meeting rooms and small offices on one side. Every spare wall featured a whiteboard, and most were covered with scribbled network diagrams. It wasn’t glamorous, but this space was filled with positivity and potential, an atmosphere I found alien yet intriguing.

I ended my week of discovery accepting the role of lead designer, not difficult given the six-figure salary attached to it. The offer was well timed too: the agency I was working for would close down just a few months later. For the first time in my life, anything seemed possible. What a thrill!

Accepting this job required moving to the US, pending a visa application that would take nine months to complete. Thankfully, I was able to spend the first three months back in Palo Alto, getting to know my colleagues and the country that would soon become home. That this relocation was temporary, and the platform still in the early stages of development, meant the pressure was off: I could relax and embrace these new surroundings.

Those three months passed by quickly. Returning to the UK, I found myself removed from the people I had got to know so well. Conference calls reinforced this distance: a poor quality line meant every meeting felt like I was submerging my head in a fish tank, into which my only contributions could be a gurgled “hello” and “goodbye”. Thankfully, most of my interaction with the company took place via phone conversations with Gina, during which I heard her perspective on company developments – but by no means all of them.

Visa finally in hand, I arrived back in California that September, only this time I was greeted by an over-worked and demoralised team. I soon found out that the company had committed itself to an ill-judged and now severely delayed project that involved white labelling the platform for Playboy. Morale would improve as new projects were initiated (and this one was canned), but the honeymoon was over.

There was some good news. While I was away, the design team had doubled, with the arrival of David, an interaction designer. Theoretically my subordinate, David displayed a wealth of experience and depth of knowledge that only highlighted the shortage in mine. Whereas I would create pixel-perfect comps that reflected that week’s particular product strategy, he recognised the need to take a step back, understand broader goals and build consensus. He was also particularly good at spotting the straw man arguments to which I had become accustomed.

Collaborating with David was a fantastic and valuable experience. I quickly realised that being a capable and effective designer required developing skills beyond the reach of Fireworks. So why was I in a role for which I was so ill-equipped? During chats with Marc at the neighbouring diner, beyond getting his perspective on technology, politics and company strategy (conversations I now wish I’d recorded) he’d encourage me to seek a managerial role. At the time, I shrugged off his advice, not least because I had no desire to manage people. In retrospect, I suspect naivety and malleability were seen as a useful attributes for those below him.

I gradually became tired of the company’s controlling nature, of which these chats formed a small part. I was encouraged to stay in Palo Alto, rather than move to San Francisco. Once I did, it was suggested I use a mobile dongle so I could work on the train (work was never confined to office hours). My blog was scrutinised, the content of posts questioned, my desire to document lessons in this way curtailed or censored.

As my interest in social networking waned so did my faith in Ning. The content of all-hands meetings became unconvincing; with the company floundering as competitors grew stronger, its valuation would still increase. Disillusionment, frustration or disagreement were rewarded with pay rises and more equity, the prevailing wisdom such that any problem could be solved by throwing money at it. This contributed to an underlying sense that what I was seeing and hearing was largely cosmetic, my inner cynic only capable of believing so much. At the same time, I began to feel torn between two countries: this one full of potential and intrigue; the other maybe less glamorous, but ultimately where I longed to return, home.

By the end of 2007, the fateful conclusion to this adventure grew nearer. Attending An Event Apart that October, my eyes were opened to other possibilities and new creative endeavours. During the first break on the second day, I phoned my direct manager and handed in my notice. I say notice; having indicated my wish to leave, I was quickly shown the door.

I had spent almost two years at this company, one imbued with my personality: in-jokes (“blame Paul”), recycling initiatives (potato-based forks!) and distinctive design (I dutifully resisted the worst aspects of the web 2.0 look). Now I was shut out, this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity squandered.

While it’s easy to focus on the negative aspects of my time at Ning, to do so would be unfair. I made a number of friends, many of whom I still see and speak to today. I gained new perspectives that influenced my politics and informed my interests. It also gave my career a tremendous boost (during the course of my employment with Ning, I was introduced to Clearleft, a company I would later spend five years working for).

That I feel compelled to mark the anniversary of that initial flight, however, suggests that while the bitterness following my departure has long since passed, questions it instigated remain unanswered.

During a conversation with a friend and former colleague a few years later, he suggested my experience wasn’t typical, and that I should try working for another company in the valley. I felt unable to do so then and still do so today. Had my experience at Ning informed this judgement, or had I subconsciously reinforced it after the fact? After all, there’s no shortage of criticism being levelled towards the valley, whose selfish and inconsiderate motivations grow ever more loathsome and asinine – I’ve been hating on Silicon Valley before it was cool!

Thinking back to the job offer I received ten years ago, I doubt I could muster the same excitement were I to face a similar proposition today. I’m thankful I don’t need to measure the success of my career by how close I am to working for a technology start-up; been there, done that, got the Ning-branded T-shirt, cap and mug. Yet it’s also telling that I should consider this a measure in the first place.

Perhaps that’s why I get animated when people ask me about moving to the Bay Area, or working for a start-up. I have to check myself before giving any advice, saying something like “experience may have clouded my judgement on this”. Visits to San Francisco remain tinged with thoughts of what might have been, and reignite an internal debate as to whether I would have wanted it anyway.

Ning means ‘peace’ in Chinese. It seems I’ve yet to find mine.