You've been gone from Olin 5 years now. What have you been up to?
For a while I was in New Mexico, working for a couple of clean-tech startups as part of the Noribachi Group. It was a really dynamic company where I learned a tremendous amount, but I stopped working there when they moved to Los Angeles. I didn't want to leave Albuquerque at the time.
What I saw on my morning commute in Albuquerque. Who would want to leave this?
At Noribachi, I experienced first-hand the potential of a small group of motivated people working together to manufacture something new. The company builds industrial lighting with high-power LEDs, with installations all over the world. In fact, I even built the ones that currently light Olin's campus. Noribachi is still doing well and growing, they're doing some amazing things.
After that, I started Combine Coworking, the first coworking space in Albuquerque. I did it because I needed a physical place to work, but it was difficult to find anything that wasn't a coffee shop. There weren't any coworking spaces in Albuquerque, so I created one. Nothing too fancy, just tables, wifi, coffee, and people working on (their own) interesting stuff.
The Combine Coworking space. Great space, but folded after 4 months.
We bootstrapped the space and built a community, but after about four months, we admitted defeat and folded the coworking space into an existing organization. Even though we had a community, it wasn't enough to make the space profitable, or even break-even. I appreciated that time, though, because I learned a lot about starting a business, and it gave me the flexibility to apply to grad school.
I then spent two years at another clean-tech startup called MIOX. MIOX is an industry leader in on-site chemical generators for water disinfection, which more or less means they manufacture integrated electrolysis systems that make a better version of bleach. I did engineering project management for them, eventually guiding a lot of skunkworks-type projects, and pushing the limits of the technology. My favorite was a project adapting MIOX technology for disaster relief for a global NGO called Operation Blessing. They tested the technology to Haiti and to the Philippines after the tsunami, and that led to creating a 'water treatment plant in a box' for them. It was a fascinating experience and I learned a ton.
The Euphrates water-treatment-system for disaster relief being set up for testing in Haiti
After that you got in to Stanford Design School! Tell us about that...
If you want a graduate degree in design from Stanford, you generally have two options: the ME design group or the Graduate Design Program (what I'm in). The infamous Stanford d.school doesn't grant degrees and you can't enroll in it, but any Stanford grad student can take classes there. I'll say more about the d.school in a bit.
It took me a while to understand the distinctions between these programs at Stanford, so I'm happy to explain, and to answer questions anyone has about grad school at Stanford.
The ME design group (where there are also a few Olin alums) is where you go if you want a PhD in design. It contains labs like CARS and the Center for Design Research, which does research and grant PhDs. Alums like Joe Funke '10 and Nick Martelaro '12 can tell you much more about those programs.
On the other side, my program, the Stanford Graduate Design Program, is a joint program between the mechanical engineering and the fine arts departments. Based out of a space called The Loft, it's been around for more than 50 years and it only grants masters degrees.
Some of my colleagues setting up an art piece for display at the Loft
My program is a great chance to go off and explore things at Stanford, meet new people, and work with faculty members who do interesting things. You have two years to gain exposure to exciting research and to practice what you've learned, particularly in the area of design leadership. It's a place for you to push yourself and explore almost anything you want in the area of design. For me, I'm taking the opportunity to delve further into systems and sustainable design.
Other programs may give you more depth or focus, but the Stanford program has the most flexibility and one of the best pedigrees.
OK, now switching gears to Stanford's d.school. It isn't its own school - it isn't even its own building. Rather, it's an institute (the Hasso Plattner Institute for Design to be precise) where no research is conducted and there are no advisors. Anyone who's been through UOCD will feel right at home in the multidisciplinary courses full of whiteboards and post-its. Since anyone can take classes at the d.school, it's a place to collaborate with people from other disciplines; however, that means many of the classes can feel a little basic to people (like Oliners) who are used to design thinking.
Studio 3 at the d.school. Look familiar?
One big benefit of Stanford design, whether it's the d.school or the design programs, is the exposure to industry. Stanford does a lot of work with companies in the design space. Their executive education and sponsored courses lead to tremendously varied and exciting kinds of work.
Overall, Stanford's reputation in design is growing like crazy and it's a very dynamic time to be here!
What advice do you have for current students who want to go into design consulting?
In my experience, it's not easy to get jobs with design consulting firms. There aren't a ton of them, they run lean, and they want to see a lot of experience before they'll hire you. Hiring is often done at the last minute, and they will want to see a portfolio.
Learn as much as you can while you're at Olin. Meet people who will push you and take advantage of the connections that are available to you. Save everything you do and build a strong portfolio. This exercise alone will help to contain, condense and clarify the work you've done.
Probably the biggest trap students fall into is showing everything. Treat your portfolio like a design exercise and show only your 3 or 4 best projects. In your early career, people are more interested in self-direction and passion, so find projects that show these capabilities, while also displaying your skills. Like everything else, your portfolio's purpose is to give you talking points, not tell your life story.
It seems a lot of Oliners are looking to do design in the Bay area - do you see much of that work there?
There is a lot going on in San Francisco, but the growing opportunities I see are not necessarily in the physical product design space. The focus here is more about design in consumer internet work, web development and mobile apps. I don't see an overwhelming amount of hardware design opportunities - and while they may be out there, you'll also find a ton of very qualified applicants, many of whom have Master's degrees. If you're interested in hardware product design, the Bay is definitely a concentration point, but so are Boston and Seattle.
I'd encourage people who are interested in hardware design to find one of the many smaller hardware companies that are blossoming all over. Many of them are building in-house design teams, and those are places where you can get in, and have a significant impact from the start.
You have a 2-year old and another on the way in September. How has being a Dad changed you?
My daughter Adrienne really changed my priorities. Grad school can be all-consuming, but having a family really does put it all in perspective. I realize there are things professionally that I am missing, but I go home every day and my daughter gives me a great big hug. Or she ignores me. Either way, my family is absolutely the best part of my life. It's a blast!