In late 2017 I got a call from a senior leader at Oracle. They asked me if I was interested in coming to be a designer there. I’m embarrassed to say that despite being in the high-tech industry for multiple decades, I didn’t really know what Oracle might need help designing. I imagined there was some user interface for configuring databases, but I didn’t know what else. I learned quickly that Oracle had a comprehensive suite of cloud applications for running large businesses and those apps had lots of users and an enormous amount of user interface. And while Oracle had talented and thoughtful designers, they were looking for help to elevate their user experience to a new level.
To be quite honest, I was skeptical.
I didn’t know what to make of Oracle. I didn’t know what to make of enterprise software. And I didn’t know what to make of their professed commitment to elevating their user experience. I asked questions. Lots of questions. What kind of latitude would I have? What kind of resources would there be? What kind of support would there be? Ultimately, I believe that designers don’t create the user experience, but company cultures create user experience. And if you want a great one, every single person at the company has to be on board. And making that happen isn’t just doing user experience design, it’s changing company culture. I’ve done enough upstream swimming in my career to know that changing culture in a place that’s not receptive is a difficult proposition at best. The folks at Oracle said they were serious about all of this.
On the off chance that this could possibly be true, I took the job.
The first thing that struck me about Oracle was the people I met. Collaborative, authentic, introspective, and eager to grow and improve are the first impressions that come to mind. I know there are people like that at every company. But I was surprised at how consistently I found these qualities in the people I had come to work with. They were patient with me. And they needed to be, because despite the commitments to change from senior leadership, I was still skeptical. I’ve been lucky to have some fabulous opportunities in my career, but the opportunity to really redesign the experience for a tech icon from the bottom up seemed too good to be true. And maybe, a small part of me, thought it couldn’t be true, because if it were, why would they have hired me?
And in the first weeks and months of my job, I realized that they were actually serious. You would think that my first reaction to the realization that this really was the job I had dreamed of would be excitement. And it was, for about a minute. But the next reaction, the stronger one, was fear.
First some context. I didn’t start out as a designer. I started out as a product manager (or as it was called where I was, a program manager). I learned early in my career that designers were the magical ingredient for turning good products into great ones. And I was lucky to work with some pretty incredible designers that welcomed me into their world. I was even lucky enough to co-lead a creative agency for almost ten years with the best designer I’ve ever worked with – Jenny Lam. And since we were very small, there was no choice, I had to draw too. And I drew a lot. I think it was somewhere in year seven that Jenny finally came to me one day and said “I think you can call yourself a designer now.” I was floored. But after seven years of her patient mentorship and coaching, I had earned her trust as a designer in my own right. That was a really good day.
But now, the job I had wanted, to help design an entire company’s experience, was mine, and I wondered if I was really up to the task. It was easy to want it when it seemed like there was no hope of ever getting it. Be careful what you wish for. After a bit of anxiety and stress, the answer finally came to me. If I could convince all my friends who were way better designers than me to come work at Oracle, and they could convince their friends, and we could rally with the great designers and researchers and engineers and product managers Oracle already had, we might be able to pull it off. Needless to say, I called the best one I knew – Jenny.
The job I had prior to coming to Oracle gave me several gifts. One was the gift of a growth mindset. Or at least the aspiration to have one. And because of that, I genuinely believe there is almost always more than one good way to get something done. More than one valid approach. And more than one successful outcome possible. That said, I believe that there are three important principles that companies, which I love all share. Companies like IKEA, or Disney, or Apple, or Starbucks.
1. They believe that every single interaction with a customer (or the public, or a partner, or an employee) contributes to the overall user experience. The user experience isn’t just the user interface. It’s the product and the marketing. It’s customer support and sales. It’s digital and physical.
2. They believe that every one of those interactions is an opportunity to tell a unique and differentiated story. Not a list of features and functions of their product, but a story about why they come to work every day. A story about why their company exists.
3. They believe that telling that story effectively and beautifully is every single employee’s job regardless of their role or function. Those companies are design led, not designer led.
That is the user experience that I have always wanted to be a part of crafting. That is the experience that I’ve always wanted to have at work. And, that is what Jenny and dozens of our industry friends banded together with many Oracle veterans to do.
My boss manages one of Silicon Valley’s most innovative and sizable teams and is responsible for multiple applications’ product lines at Oracle. He’s got a significant amount of responsibility. But, when he’s asked about his role, he says he “takes care” of those businesses at Oracle. I think Jenny and I were both inspired by that. Jenny and I, and the great leaders we work with were tasked with taking care of the Oracle user experience. And for the last eighteen months, that’s what we’ve been giving our all to do.