What was your early childhood experience like?
Early on I learned that I was living in two different worlds. Going home was like living in a completely different culture. Everything from the types of conversations I had, the way we communicated, the food we ate, and what the space looked like, was so different from the external world.
My parents immigrated to New York City before I was born. My dad had been in New York for a couple of years. The year my mom and older sister came to New York is the year that I was born. It was a new environment for us all.
My mom would make me lunch, and I would be at school, and people would ask “what is that?” or “why are you eating that?”. There would be times when I couldn’t eat things in class because I’m Muslim and we don’t eat pork. There was always that layer of having to explain things. There I was, a kid who didn’t understand anything, having to explain Ramadan to other kids. These are things that I still have to deal with today.
There’s a lot of explaining, but from an identity perspective, what’s challenging is having to live with two senses of identity. I think the way my family knows me is different from the way my friends know me, and my co-workers know me. I’m juggling these multiple identities and have been doing this from a really young age too. I don’t know if a lot of people can relate to this, unless you’ve had to navigate two vastly different cultures as well.
What is the biggest difference between Somali culture and American culture?
What’s really unique is the values and what it means to live a good life. That’s the kind of thing that comes up the most these days. For me, and I think more so in American culture, there’s a greater sense of individuality – someone striving for the best for themselves and doing the things that make them happy and fulfilled. That’s driven by the idea of the American dream and the belief that anything is possible.
Somali culture has something similar at first, but it kind of ends at going to school and getting a job. That seems too complacent for me and that’s not what I’m after. From that point on there’s this cultural pressure to get married, have kids, and buy a house. Those are just fundamentally things I don’t truly desire at this point in my life.
How did you start learning design?
Back in the day we would have Myspace pages, and there were people who would make custom HTML layouts where they would have these flashy GIFs, and really cool text effects, and really cool brushes.
One of my friends started to do that and I asked “What is this? How do you do this?” and he told me about Photoshop. Then I started learning to do that stuff, and it was really because I wanted my page to look cool so people would think I was cool.
That’s what my initial exposure to design was. I didn’t know the true value of it. It never occured to me that the websites I was on were designed as well.
In high school, I would use graphic design and other creative techniques to make funny videos. That led to music, and making album artwork, and things like that. When I got to college I wanted a way to bring these skills together that was marketable and economical.
I really just wanted to be in the music industry. Working for a label, or managing someone cool, or just being involved in some way seemed exciting to me. We made a song in high school that got a little traction back in my hometown and it was fun, so I really wanted to be in the music world.
This is where the story gets cheesy. I got my hands on the biography of Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson. It never occured to me that design and technology had this element of excitement, changing the world, and doing things that had an impact on people. It’s all of these things that you’ve grown into and consumed but never really reflected on as “someone actually built this”.
That’s the thing about design, I was always exposed to it but just never recognized that someone put a wireframe together and designed something that we now use. After that I really wanted to be in tech.
I found a job in my hometown working for a consultancy as a marketing intern. At this time I was obsessed with companies like Google, Facebook and Microsoft, and thought they were innovative and cool, and I wanted to work there. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do, but I knew that marketing was the way I could bring together my skills of being creative and doing design, video and photography.
At this internship, I learned more about tech and the different components of it. Everything from solution architecture and software engineering to the design. There was Psychology and Human Computer Interaction and all of these different things that came into play in building a product.
At the time, the company that I was working for acquired a design studio, and I befriended a lot of people that worked there and learned from them. The thing that I gravitated towards in the marketing team was designing a lot of the different marketing assets that we needed. Everything from brand identity, to web layouts, to print stuff. I started to see that these people were working on apps and that became interesting to me too.
What is the first app you designed?
I think one big recurring theme of my adult life is that I thrive off of being around people. Having friends and bringing friends together is something that I was passionate about. I would always try to bring people together and create friendships.
When I was in college, it was right around the time when dating apps were becoming popular. Tinder and Bumble were relatively new. There was a focus on social discovery but it was so focused on dating, and I thought what the world could benefit from was more friendships.
So I had an app idea based on this, and I was talking to one of my developer friends at work about it, and he was like “Let’s build it! You can design, why don’t we just build this?”
At this point, I had never even heard the word wireframe besides maybe in passing. I was fortunate to be around some really talented people that I worked with who helped me learn.
My coder friends also challenged me to think about frontend development. So I went on FreeCodeCamp and learned HTML, CSS and JS. I started learning more about startups and entrepreneurship. There was a lot of great content online, like Paul Graham’s essays about startups. We even applied to Y Combinator.
This was my first time really learning product design. From an early age, it was never the medium that excited me, but rather what the medium enabled. I didn’t want to make graphics because I liked to make graphics. I made graphics because I wanted to look cool. I didn’t make music because I loved producing. I made music because I wanted to make people laugh, and I wanted to have fun with it.
I think that’s what brought me into design. I realized the skills were incredibly valuable and could enable me to do things that I cared about. It was a skillset that would be marketable and enable me to work at those companies I wanted to work at, and pursue projects that were interesting to me. That’s when I realized that I didn’t want to do marketing anymore, and it was time to find a way to get into product design.
How did you get your first product design job?
I started working on case studies, and applied for a job in the crypto space, which was another thing I became interested in after college. For the job application, I had to redesign a desktop crypto wallet app. They gave me some user friction points they were trying to solve, and some user stories. I designed an app based on that, and asked people that I knew for feedback.
I didn’t get the job, which was a good thing, because it gave me a portfolio piece. I coupled that with the stuff I’d been doing as a marketing designer and started applying to places.
I had my marketing work which showed that I was a visual designer. I had the designs from building my own app from scratch, doing user research, and working on prototypes. And I had a case study of a product that had users and had problems, where I could show how I thought about approaching those problems. It became about storytelling, selling myself, and trying to find a place that would give me a chance to grow.
I ended up at Storj, which is where I work now. At the time they were an early stage startup that had just raised funding and were working to build a decentralized storage service.
I had that case study in my portfolio which was relevant to crypto. At the time, no designers were really thinking about crypto stuff so they were like “Wow, this designer understands crypto.” So I kind of fell into that, and I’ve learned a bit too much in the last two years of being in the crypto world.
They say a year at a startup is like three years at a regular company, and that’s so true. I’ve really leaned in and haven’t lost my curiosity. I’ve become a lot more confident as a designer, and it’s been a really great journey these last two years.
What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve dealt with?
Being a person of color in tech, and coming from a background where I wasn’t really encouraged to speak up in the household, standing my ground is something that I’ve really had to work to get better at.
People might have their opinions, but I need to be able to push back on that and tell them that they might be an executive, or have a lot of experience programming, but they’re not thinking about the user’s need, and not thinking about the research that we’ve done, and not going through the process of design thinking.
Being able to get better at that has been a hurdle, and I think that being young, and being a POC, people don’t give you the same level of respect or value your expertise as much. So you have to fight for it, which is very unfortunate. I’m not the greatest at it, but it’s something I’ve gotten better at, and I need to continue getting better at.
Another challenge is making sure that your contributions are adequately recognized. There could be a situation where there’s some great thing that has come along that wouldn’t have been possible without you, but someone else gets the credit for it. Being able to say “Actually no, I did that.” and making sure people know that it was you is important, because sometimes people can take credit for your work.
Another big thing is being improperly levelled. That’s something that you hear a lot of industry wide. People from underrepresented backgrounds are often under-leveled because the levelling can be very subjective.
That’s a larger conversation that people need to have. It’s like now I have to validate my work and my abilities to people when it’s something that they should already know. And I know the person who might not be like me, who might be a white man, probably doesn’t have to do that.
Is there anything that you want to say to the tech community?
Oftentimes we group all the different things that people are into just “Diversity and Inclusion”, “People Of Color”, or “Underrepresented In Tech”. It’s a very slippery slope to do that, because there are so many different characteristics and things about people that you need to understand.
As a Somali-American, I have a different experience than a Black American. That’s a totally different life experience, and a different set of microaggressions and things that this person might be navigating, that even I don’t entirely understand. And we need to be cognizant of that, and not just think about our struggles and challenges in the workplace as the same, because they’re not.
We should create the spaces for people in these different communities and intersectionalities to engage and talk.
I think that what white tech likes to do is say “Yeah, we’re not doing a good job”, and listen to complaints/feedback, but not really do anything to improve.
I actually have heard about some cases like this, where companies lose people from different ethnicities and backgrounds because they aren’t listening to folks like us.
If they were, then things could be better, but I don’t think they are, or at least not enough. There might be a moment of concern, but then it's business as usual.
However, this isn’t to dismiss the great strides some companies are making though. Building ERGs, D+I councils, and having folks at the exec level you can voice concerns with and feel comfortable talking with. These are all really helpful things I’ve heard about and seen.