Mark Congiusta User Experience | Design | Technology | Innovation | Leadership
There’s more to a person than their résumé. And while I could bore you with titles, dates, and buzzword laden bullet points, that is but a small part of who I really am. For example, one might wonder:
- “Has Mark ever hand animated a Beatles song?”
- “What career successes have surprised Mark as much as anyone?”
- “How many different topics can Mark talk about for 5 minutes straight?”
I can’t have all of that ambiguity on my conscious.
We are the sum total of the stories that trace our path through life and the lessons we learn along the way. So here are (more than) a few of mine.
Beginning at the Beginning
I was born long before Facebook ruined face-to-face interactions, when Tubes were not You but rather cathode ray and hulkingly outsized. Instead of being mobile, phones had cords—squiggly, stretchy, knotty cords. Sports were played by throwing actual balls at other people, not their counterfeit digital equivalents (both the balls and the other people). We subsisted on but a single flavor of Dorito, and our handful of TV channels offered no recourse were you to ever miss the rigidly singular timeslot of your favorite show. The goode olden tymes…
Elementary School My Dear Watson
I attended elementary school at Public School 203 in Brooklyn New York back when the cutting edge scholastic technology of the day peaked at incandescently illuminated overhead projectors and multicolored chalk.
My first mentor in the dark art of design was a dapper visual arts teacher who challenged us to incorporate creativity into all aspects of our studies. He once had us animate a stop motion version of The Beatles’ “Ob La Di, Ob La Da” for an assembly of mystified parents who struggled to connect the dots between this and their child’s “education”. My anatomically correct renderings of the choral refrain “…Life goes on, BRA!” were considered particularly scandalous.
The elements of elementary school:
- Education, education, education. My parents were bullish on the power of education to transform lives. Success was measured by one’s ability to empirically understand the world, make sound judgments based on comprehension of the facts, then being able to debate and defend those decisions with intellectual honesty. Education as journey, not destination.
- You’ll meet many people in your life who are rooting for you. Keep giving them reasons to cheer. I have been lucky enough to meet more than a few people who have selflessly and wholeheartedly gone out of their way to encourage and support me to my lifelong benefit. In turn, I owe nothing but my best effort at all times.
- Putting away childish things isn’t always a good idea. One unfortunate outcome of maturity is the loss of youthful passion which fuels the most aggressively successful acquisition of knowledge and skill that we will ever experience in our lives. Act your age only when appropriate. Act much, much younger whenever possible.
Hockey Grows in Brooklyn
I grew up playing roller hockey in Brooklyn. It was exactly as violent as one might assume.
Extra! Extra! Boy Delivers Newspapers!
My first paying job was delivering newspapers for the New York Daily News every morning before school. To clarify, by “paying job” I mean that I profited solely from the generosity of my clientele as my cut of each paper’s .25¢ cover price put my take home pay somewhere between destitute and owing my employer money.
The headlines from what I learned being a paperboy:
- Do a good job even if no one cares. Not every customer was impressed that their paper sat on their porch before the sun rose every day, but it got there like clockwork. Not everyone appreciated that I would double bag my papers on rainy days but I did it anyway. A commitment to doing the right thing should be even more important to you than it is for your customers.
- Honesty may be taken advantage of. Be honest anyway. Sometimes papers would go missing off someone’s porch and I’d get a phone call asking where their delivery was. Other times the stack I got from the supplier was short even though they swore they sent me the correct number. So what? I’d go to the store, buy a newspaper out of my own pocket and deliver it. It was my job to make sure customers got their morning paper and I do my job regardless.
- How’s a kid supposed to make a living now? Thanks Internet! *shakes fist* I can’t remember the last time I bought, never mind read, an actual newspaper in paper form. It’s a little sad to know that my kids won’t have the opportunity to make a few bucks every week in their early teens riding around the neighborhood throwing papers onto people’s porches before school. This must be what the last blacksmith felt like.
Monkey in the Middle School
After graduating from elementary school with high honors in being a kid, I was sent to my local middle school: Roy H. Mann* Intermediate School 78.
Academic pursuits at this time mostly consisted of staring in the mirror wondering exactly when my downy chin was going to finally require me to start shaving it.
*No, I have no idea who he is either.
Awkward lessons from middle school:
- The only guarantee in life is that you’ll do just about as much stupid stuff as the next guy. People who claim to have no regrets in life have obviously never made the transition from adolescence to teenager. Eventually I came to realize the universality of the human condition and while not offering universal absolution, did allow me to take a more measured approach to true crisis management.
- Work hard even when it’s not cool. I spent a fair portion of my youth trying to fit in. Eventually I realized what a waste of time this was. Do what you love and eventually people realize that’s actually what’s cool. Or you just stop caring what’s cool. Either way really.
- The hardest thing to learn in life is how to act around someone you like. While I may have identified the challenge, I have yet to master an effective strategic response (to which my wife will attest). I am relatively sure that traits such as self-confidence, kindness, and the ability to make someone laugh all factor in, but the precise calculus continues to elude me. Fortunately, we are biologically wired to keep trying to crack this nut. The lucky ones outlive the search for the answer.
Art for the Masses
My first gallery showing debuted in the Brooklyn Museum. My piece was a collage commemorating the 100th Anniversary of the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge. The piece, now lost to the ages—doubtlessly nicked in some late night daring art heist—was displayed in the “New Artist Gallery”. I was particularly proud of my hand stenciled New York Daily News front-page recreation of the renowned bridge’s opening day.*
Years later I would actually get married on this same bridge under the arches of the Brooklyn-side tower. No purpose built cathedral could possibly be a more majestic setting for such a ceremony.
*Post-submission I discovered that the Daily News did not begin publication until 36 years after the Brooklyn Bridge was completed. I assume the museum’s curator simply took pity on me by displaying my historically laughable piece.
Death to Chickens
In addition to my earlier career in journalism distribution, I held several other odd jobs along the way, with none odder than working in my family’s live poultry market in Astoria Queens. It was backbreaking work that started at the crack of dawn and ended well after dark, but it paid the bills, or in my case, as an adolescent without any institutionalized debts, it comfortably supported an outsized comic book habit.
Killing chickens is about more than just killing time:
- People will pay for the product that they want. We were considerably more expensive than the local supermarket with their cellophane-shrink-wrapped, skinless, boneless, tasteless, chicken parts. We delivered a product exactly as our customers wanted within the specific parameters they wanted it. That doesn’t always come cheap but that’s the premium some people are willing to pay for a superior product.
- It’s the little things. Sometimes I would walk up to a chicken coop, reach into one, retrieve a freshly laid egg and hand it to a customer for free and for no reason. Never failed to make them feel special, and they never failed to come back.
- Everyone has to shovel sh*t. Maybe not literally in every job (but uncomfortably literal in this one). No job is perfect and there are always going to be tasks that don’t bring the glory but are necessary to pay the rent. And when you see the boss shoveling it one day, you tend to grumble less about it when your turn comes around the next.
Peter Stuyvesant is My Mascot
For the next stage of my public education I enrolled at Stuyvesant High in Manhattan, a specialized math and science magnet school. In violation of all stereotypical teenage, angst-ridden cinema, Stuyvesant turned out to be among the best four years of my life.
The work was hard, the standards exceedingly high, the competition intense but for every advanced calculus class there was also the freedom of having the run of the greatest city in the world. Technology in the classroom was an emerging luxury in these years and while I took as many programming and computer science electives as I could, in general the time I spent honing my technical chops was my own.
High school: where everything is a learning experience that you totally ignore at the time:
- Responsibility will get you everywhere. My daily commute included a bus and 2 subway transfers each way for a combined 3-hour daily round-trip. In between I visited every corner of New York City, even the ones I shouldn’t have—very often, especially the ones I shouldn’t have—unsupervised. Independence is too often a skill we learn to acquire after we already have a compelling use for it.
- You will never be the smartest guy in the room. I arrived at high school convinced of my own brilliance. I left it knowing that success is guaranteed by one single thing: your ability to work harder than the next person.
- Sometimes you gotta play hurt. Excuses are a great way to ensure you can feel good about accomplishing nothing. You will not always—or maybe even most of the time—succeed, but you must always try. Even when you are not up to the task. Especially when you are not up to the task.
Banging Heads and Forgetting Names
I played high school football with little regard for personal safety. As these were the days prior to our modern understanding of the lasting effects of concussive brain injury it’s probably for the best that I have no recollection of most of it.
Age of Enlightenment
Shuffling Off to (College in) Buffalo
For much of my early life I was certain that I was going to be an architect, but here I began to shift my focus from the macro-scale of livable structures to the related discipline of product design. I became fascinated by the intimate relationships that people had with objects. Holding, manipulating, feeling—yes—interacting!
Even as page layout, image manipulation, and schematic drawing became exclusively digital activities we still concentrated on developing a strong foundation in the analog arts. We hand crafted fonts, assembled presentation boards using fingertip atomizing X-Actos, went well over the recommended lifetime allowance of spray fixative inhalation, but mostly we sketched and sketched again and sketched some more. It was upon this bedrock of literal handiwork that I developed a sound understanding and appreciation for the mechanics of design.
Oh the things you learn in ivory towers:
- If you can’t find the pleasure in learning for learning’s sake you are a monster. The best class I ever took was an analysis of the tactics of primitive warfare. I have been taught the basics of geology, African American cinema, post-structuralist French philosophy, the physics of light, and bookbinding. If I ever hit the lottery I will go to college for the rest of my life and amass degrees the way some people collect commemorative plates.
- Find what you love and do it, or other people will be more than happy to tell you what you should love and be doing. Unhappiness is the byproduct of adopting someone else’s vision for how you should live your life. Advice and guidance are valuable; command and control are not.
- Failure maybe isn’t so bad after all. You are going to fail. Not might—will. Embrace failure as much as you steel your desire to overcome it. Once I learned to contextualize failure things really got interesting.
Building a Career Building Buildings
I grew up idolizing the daring iconoclasm of Wright, the delicate power of Mies, and the soaring pageantry of Gaudi. From a very young age, my destiny was clear; I was going to become a global architecture superstar.
My professional master plan was two pronged: a required course of study in an accredited institute of higher learning, and employment in a renowned firm. Once accepted into college I set about addressing the second part of my strategy and was more than fortunate to have secured a series of summer internships in one of the world’s most distinguished practices, Kohn Pederson Fox Architects.
You can’t build a skyscraper without learning a few things along the way:
- If you want to make God (or his [or her] secular equivalent) laugh, tell him (or her) about your plans. The problem with my occupational vision was—as I guess holds true for many childhood dreams—the reality paled in comparison to my constructed fantasy. The journey was still fascinating, but as it turns out, what I was really searching for was new ground to break philosophically rather than literally.
- Fake it until you make it. I imagine that every wet-behind-the-ears intern has that single moment of paralyzing fear where it becomes shockingly apparent that you are hilariously unqualified for the task at hand. You can either quit or just go ahead and do the damn thing. Sure, you are going to suck at first but it beats quitting any day.
- You can easily judge the character of a person by how they treat those who can do nothing for them. Any quality internship is a series of calculated learning experiences handed down by real live professionals who’s sole intention is to pass along a little bit of practical knowledge in the preservation of their craft. I learned tremendous things about treating others with respect predicated not on your own self-reverential worth but as an investment in the future potential value of others.
One Bathroom to Rule Them All
While at the University of Buffalo I was fortunate enough to participate in a National Institute on Aging research grant with one of my professors designing an accessible bathroom that could be reconfigured to suit an individual’s specific needs within a wide range of physical capability. I learned more about the practicalities and realities of product design on this one project than I did in the rest of my educational career combined.
It’s not about minimizing what you can’t do, it’s about maximizing what you can:
- You are designing for your user’s needs, not your own. The hardest design lesson I ever had to learn was “because I like it” is a woeful rationale for a design decision. Empathy is what separates stylists from designers. If you prefer to be selfish, go into fashion. If you want to design solutions to real problems, learn to engage with and trust people.
- It’s not universal design, it’s design. It’s not accessible, it’s designed properly. The last minute realization that you forgot to account for the needs of users with sensory, mobility, or manipulative abilities that skew from the mean is no way to solve anyone’s problem. Good design is inclusive, not an afterthought.
- Design is rarely about genius. It is always about perseverance. If your first design solves the problem, you are not good, you are lucky.
Master of My Own Degree
With bachelor’s degree in hand, I made a spur of the moment decision to delay turning pro and instead pursue a graduate degree in industrial design at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence.
At RISD, our syllabus covered the traditional prototyping, visual expression, and critical thinking curricula, but—by choice—I spent much more time in computer labs then I did in the wood shop. I was trying to understand the impact that computers were having on our creative process, knowledge taxonomies, and the thin membrane between the real and virtual worlds. I struggled against the beige, boxy form factors of most electronic housing. I played with the tactility and mobility of computing power as hand tool rather than destinational object. I strapped electronic devices to my body in an attempt to tease out the dividing line between man and machine. I tried to think about digital input devices as malleable surfaces that responded to gesture and motion as an alternative to tool-based interfaces. Definitively I was more unsuccessful then not but I did have exhilarating moments of clarity and generally a great time along the way.
You learn lots of things over lots of years in lots of colleges:
- You don’t have to stop learning but you can’t stay here. I spent a considerable amount of time learning to hone my design instrument. The stakes are much higher outside the classroom and while education for education’s sake is a reasonable transition into professional maturity, the jump out of that nest still needs to be consciously made.
- If you’re not having fun that’s your own fault. Some people prefer a stern single-mindedness, as they seek to solve the problem at hand. I myself would rather eat paste. Hard work needs to be balanced by strenuous play as much as possible. We get a short ride on this planet, might as well enjoy it while you can.
- You get forgiven a lot of stupid things once you can make people laugh. The most important tool in the arsenals of inspiration, motivation, and innovation is—in my opinion—humor. Laughter begets happiness, which enables play that drives serendipity from which comes innovation. Even if the road paved by humor is more winding, the trip itself seems much, much shorter.
Days of Wine and Résumés
I Am Not a Number…I Am a Freelancer
What freelancing offers in terms of the sheer terror of maintaining continuous gainful employment, the desperate optimism of billing and invoicing, and the self-delusional belief that “sure, you have the skills to pull this one off,” it more than makes up for in the liberating freedom to say “I’ve had just about enough of this” before moving on to the next challenge. I have contracted across a range of design disciplines: industrial, graphic, motion, web, as well as a few others that I may or may not have had the slightest inkling as to what was required of me at the time. It’s a quasi-appealing lifestyle, if not too ambiguous for my personal taste.
There are no free lessons for freelancers:
- Knowing when to say “no” is much more important than knowing when to say “yes”. Challenging myself with assignments outside my comfort zone are envelopes I am happy to push, but not every contract need be signed in the blood of my own creative doubt. I own my own career and with it, my own satisfaction. And sometimes, the path to fulfillment is paved with “no”.
- Know your strengths. Your weaknesses will be pointed out plenty. Being able to give a clear, honest account of your skill set is a valuable—and unfortunately rare—well, skill. Articulating your own strengths not only allows you to be more efficiently successful, but also makes self-improvement efforts more targeted and valuable to your overall personal development.
- He who would give up freelance for a little job security might just be right. It takes a special kind of person to be a full time designer for hire. While the flexibility and diversity of a contractor lifestyle is not without its merits I am someone who tends to feel more comfortable within a structured continuity that allows me to concentrate on the work itself rather than the acquisition of more work.
Internet Bubble Boy
My first “real” job was as the interactive department of a (now defunct) mid-sized advertising agency in New York. Note that I was not hired to be part of their interactive department; I was in fact the whole entire department myself. I did the design, production, testing, analysis, and maintenance of every digital artifact that went out the door.
This was during the Internet gold rush where everyone was trying to figure out how online advertising was supposed to work, how brands could use it to reach people, and how real people actually behaved when using it. We wanted answers as much for ourselves as for our customers. It took a lot of trial and error, but over time we actually became not horrible at it.
Learning on the fly while learning to fly:
- If you can’t spot the web guy at the table and you are the guy with the longest hair and not wearing a tie, you are the web guy. When you are the only one in the room who knows how digital stuff is supposed to work, your anti-corporate style is just part of the theater. I’ve sat in many more than one meeting wearing shorts and a t-shirt while everyone else dressed in high-end business attire would nod knowingly as I was introduced as the “Internet guy”.
- Ignorance is no excuse for inactivity. There is a world of information out there just waiting to be understood and the only excuse for not doing so is that you are too lazy to do it. Knowledge is no longer scarce, it is as ubiquitous as air. Drive and adaptability is where value now lies.
- If you can’t stand the heat find another kitchen to cook in. People move on, willingly or no. Priorities change. Mission statements are rewritten and, even more unfortunately, people change themselves in order to believe in them. Loyalty is indeed a grand thing, however loyalty to oneself is non-negotiable.
At some point, much to my own surprise, I wound up as the Technology Director of an ad agency in Durham North Carolina called McKinney. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that their office was jaw dropping. Or perhaps it had to do with the fact that their work was some of the most original I had come across. In truth it mostly had to do with the fact that they knew exactly what they were doing, and I wanted some of that.
There was a quasi-Renaissance of digital creativity going on where ideas around social platforms, engagement, and “users” were starting to change advertising from a broadcast model to a conversational one. The more I concentrated on the underlying technologies, the more I missed the broader vision required to develop not discrete applications but rather overarching strategies. My architectural urges needed to be fed and I longed for a place to build where now nothing existed.
Things a southern gentleman learns:
- You don’t have to be able to do their job but you do have to know what it is that they do. When you rely on someone else to get something done yet remain willfully ignorant of what they really do, this is your single most precarious point of failure. I spend time with media planners, broadcast video engineers, and human resources coworkers so that when it comes time to decide which media plan makes the most sense, or how we’re going to stream live video, or when we need to hire a new team member, I know exactly where to start, who to talk to, and how to find the answers I need.
- Technology: the cause of—and solution to—all of your client’s problems. “I guess we could do a rich media campaign?” is not so much a question as a flag of abject surrender. Never, ever do just because you can.
- All it takes for really cool stuff to happen is for good people to do nothing. There are 2 types of creative leaders: those who dictate direction, concept, and execution, and those who do not suck at their job. Hierarchical processes lead to repetition of the same concept over and over again. Hire the best people you can and turn them loose. Success will follow.
II BBDO @ IRL FTW
For some reason, I decided that it would be a fabulous idea to uproot my family and pursue a proverbial pot of gold across the Atlantic. After many cold calls, many early morning international calls, and more than a few close calls, I decided to accept a position as the Head of Interactive at Irish International BBDO and Proximity in Dublin, Ireland.
Irish good fortune had delivered me to an agency of brilliant people, outsized creativity, a client list the envy of friend and foe alike, and a keen sense of the transition in global advertising as digital played havoc with conventional media wisdom. Being the guy with whom the buck (read: Euro) stopped was exactly the role I wanted—and even needed—at this point in my career.
Eventually however, an opportunity to recalibrate towards product oriented design would present itself so I leapt, faith and all.
Some important lessons learned from the top of the org chart:
- If at first you don’t succeed, take as many cracks as needed until you do. Resiliency is the engine of success while curiosity is the fuel. Talent brings it all together in the end, but hard work—and the ability to motivate others to relentlessly seek success—is the irreducible variable.
- Buzzwords, memes, and fads do not a sound business strategy make. The emergence of social as a marketing channel is as notable for what it definitely is not as for what it might possibly be. Crafting sound marketing and media strategies is about understanding customers first and not the hysterically optimistic promises of platform targeting.
- If you have a story, tell it. Someone is bound to want to hear it. You can still be successful, and even impactful, as a quietly driven individual, but the ability to explain, encourage, and excite others is the stuff of true leadership. And with the emotive quality of storytelling you become something even more important: memorable.
Five Minutes of Fame
I enjoy talking in front of random strangers about things I may or may not know anything about. At one time I held the regular gig as the Ignite Dublin opening act. I thoroughly enjoyed the constraints of the Pecha Kucha format and the additional challenge of seeing who would fold first: Ignite Dublin or my ability to string together a couple dozen slides on a subject I am tenuously knowledgeable about. Eventually I moved away from Ireland so I suppose that Dublin beat me, but I will be back. As soon as I can figure out what the topic of my next talk should be.
Those Who Can’t Teach Usually Can’t Do Either
Quite simply, I love teaching. Sharing practical knowledge and cautionary tales of the impractical, throttling ideas until they break, and challenging (or defending against the challenge of) the accepted orthodoxy are treasured moments of intellectual play.
I have been lucky enough to have guest lectured at many institutes of higher learning and to have held an Adjunct Professorship at Dublin City University. Whether it is discussing the finer points of digital marketing, the mysteries of human-computer interaction, or the sweet science of user experience, I inevitably manage to learn more than I am ever able to teach and rarely do I leave the instructor’s pulpit without a pang of regret that school is out.
If one were to teach, one should also be prepared to be taught:
- Teachers deserve the summer off. The preparation that goes into a well-crafted lesson plan is onerous, and failure to “do your homework” as a teacher will not be lost on your students.
- Few things beat the simultaneous illumination of many metaphorical light bulbs that you helped to power. One of the greatest moments of selfless satisfaction in all of life is that instant when you walk the intellectually curious to the precipice, convince them that they have everything they need to safely step forward, then watch them jump…and fly. Euphoric.
- Share your wisdom and it will come back to you tenfold. The best teachers all have one thing in common: an intellectual honesty that allows them to be open to the ceaseless intake of knowledge as well as the generous outpouring thereof. Teaching is as much about self-enlightenment as it is about instructing.
The Cisco Kid
While I have no problem grokking technology, I had never worked for a pure technology company. While I have built many applications, I never led a dedicated software design team. While I understood users/consumers/customers/people, I never dedicated the whole of my attention to solving their problems alone. That is until I was offered a job running global user experience teams designing enterprise level communication, collaboration, and security products for the world’s preeminent IT company, Cisco Systems.
Even now I remain a designer at heart and a leader in practice. I try to stay infectiously curious, striving to elevate the products I work on, and the people I work with, to even bigger and better things day after day. After all, if you’re content with what you are doing, what is there to strive for?
Big pond, bigger fish, biggest lessons:
- It’s never too late to reinvent yourself. Inevitability is a curse that must be guarded against at all costs. If you’re not happy with your current situation, change it, or keep the complaints to yourself.
- Don’t ask for permission or beg for forgiveness. Just do a great job and leave it at that. The greatest collaborators I’ve ever worked with have one thing in common: they never come to the table to discuss a problem without also bringing a solution. And the very, very best of them come with a solution they have already implemented.
- Productivity is not where you’re from, it’s also not where you’re at. Having been a remote worker for the past several years I can confirm that yes, it is possible to collaborate, maintain, and even increase, productivity working geographically separate from the rest of your team. It requires discipline and great flexibility but it can be done. Plus you almost never miss dinner with your kids.
A Work in Progress
So that’s me, a happily married, father of three amazing children, lucky enough to work in a job that I love, collaborating with amazing people around the world on a daily basis, making awesome products for brilliant customers. It’s a pretty good life, and one I’m exceedingly grateful for. With a little luck, I’m just getting started.
And with a little more luck, one of these days I’ll actually manage to figure out exactly what it is that I want to be when I grow up…
Meanwhile, on the Internet…
It’s a Digital Life
I probably spend too much time on the Internet in spite of my occasionally sincere efforts to the contrary. Trends come and go (I haven’t visited my Facebook page in several years, I have a sparsely populated Google+ profile, and am pretty sure that you can still find me on MySpace if you look hard enough) but I try to give each platform a fair shake before I abandon it to the dustbin of my digital life.
I’m still pretty active on Twitter, am a regular visitor to LinkedIn, and am not shy about telling people all about.me. I do run a blog type thing devoted to curating user experience topics I find interesting. When I find the time and inspiration I try to post stuff that I design, draw, or otherwise create on Tumblr or Dribbble, and have been known to upload the odd image to Flickr. Whenever my love ⁄ hate relationship with the presentation tools I work with yields something that isn’t horrible I’ll post it to SlideShare and I’ve assembled some of the talks that I’ve given in a YouTube playlist. Also, just to show that I’m more than a walking collection of 1’s and 0’s, here’s a list of books I’ve read, am reading, or will hopefully read soon, as well as a catalog of the adult beverages I have sampled while leaning towards the latter segment of my work ⁄ life balance. And if you are looking for insight into my family life, feel free to check out an online diary I wrote about the first time I met each of my three children Aelex, Matthew, and Olivia.
Other than that, go ahead and Google me. Our lives are all an open book these days anyway…