Let’s start from the beginning. Tell me a bit about your early years and where you come from.
I was born and raised in Atlanta. Growing up I was very into a lot of different things. Things that moved, provided utility, and looked beautiful. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do; I just knew that things I could kind of put together were really exciting to me. When I was little I was actually very obsessed with Bentley & Mercedes-Benz and the cars they designed. I would print out pictures of the cars and look at them. My dad would always ask me, “what are you doing?” and I was like, “I really don’t know. I just think they look very nice and someone created this.” Just like really early on I always was trying to figure out what was it about things that people could put together and what made them special and what could I produce one day for the world.
What did you think you were going to be when you grew up? What direction did your parents see you going into?
When I was growing up I was pretty much like a normal kid growing up in Atlanta, especially in the southern part of Atlanta. Just being in the south in general—most kids were like just into sports, like school activities, things like that, clothes and stuff, Air Force 1, Nikes and Jordans. Although, I always believed in things that made someone feel a way. Whether it was an S class Mercedes for the successful CEO or a new pair of Nikes for my childhood friend.
I played sports. I played baseball for ten years. I also played basketball when I was in junior high. And so, for a while, I thought I’d want to play professional sports. And then after I didn’t do that, I wanted to make a lot of money doing something. I didn’t know how I was going to do that. Up until that point I viewed money as a feeling that anyone could obtain. I still do in some cases.
My family was always super supportive of me building a life I was proud of. They just knew that whatever I was going to do, I was going to be very passionate about it. It was very different from anything they all pursued themselves professionally. My mother was a teacher for 30 years. She taught language arts. My brother is actually in law enforcement. My dad was a PM for the City of Atlanta. He actually helped lead electronic payroll for the city and other projects. So, they were all very different and passionate about what they did as well.
What was the moment when you discovered design/tech and was like, “Oh man, this is it!”
By the time I had joined Myspace, and I was introduced to HTML, it was life changing. I think myspace is one of the greatest things ever because it made kids learn how to do things and build their own things without them really even noticing what they were doing. That was so powerful. I thought that was just so important, and that happened for me.
I discovered a website where you could go and get a layout of custom backgrounds and stuff, and it was called freeweblayouts.net. And the two individuals who owned it were actually two African American guys. They were like 22 years old and had built the biggest resource site for myspace. And I just thought it was so fascinating and inspiring. When I went to the site and processed the idea that people made graphics that had code in them and were a resource and a utility, to an extent, it threw off a light bulb. The first day I saw the site, I was like, “Okay, I’m going to do this one day. I don’t know how, but I want to make this stuff.”
A year later—maybe a year, it may not have even been a full year—I had found the owners on Myspace, and I kept sending them messages. I spent many nights and weekends just learning photoshop and making my own layouts. I made some dumb stuff. I made a layout with my face. It was really weird, but I got better.
I learned to just find people that worked on the site. They had designers all over myspace. I would study their layouts, and I would go to the site everyday to see what they were building, what they were making.
Then one day I reached out to them. I was like, “Hey, please check out my work.” And the one of the owners actually read my message. When I just saw he read it, I was freaking out. And he replied, and he was like, “Hey Bro. Nice work. Let’s chat on AIM.” I was so happy. From there we talked for a while and I want to say two or three weeks later, I had my first layout on the site. It was like an Alicia Keys layout or something because she had an album that just came out. Looking back I guess an Alicia Keys myspace layout was the first thing I shipped. [laughing] I want to say like 20,000 people were using it within a week. It was pretty surreal. It was a serious moment for myself. When I got my first paycheck, I was like, “Well, I’m making money, so yea, let’s do this.” And that’s really when it started.
That is amazing.
Yeah, and actually they did not even want to hire me in the beginning. because at the time I was 14 so like legally, I couldn’t work anywhere. My dad was receiving my paychecks and they just really took a chance on me. I was really excited because at 14 what else could I do? Work at a golf course or something? It really kind of changed my life.
I love that. So, walk me through what happened from there.
Fast forward to college. I met Nathan Fwamba via Twitter, who is now a really good friend of mine.
When we were like 18 he moved to SF. He was telling me he was building products. It took me a while to truly understand what he meant by that. At the time, I knew a little bit about apps. I started dabbling into xcode a bit but wasn’t a pro at it.
Sidenote: I built this really weird Twitter client. It was called Just Tweet, and it was literally like me designing graphics that I would make for t-shirts and putting it into an iPhone. So it’s like gradients, bevels everywhere, one little input field where you just type a tweet and it would automatically send it to your timeline. It was really cool. It would probably be really nice now if I redid it.
I kind of got to talk to him and learn about things about what he was working on. He was also making a lot of money. But more so, I just wanted to see if I could actually take the things I was doing in Photoshop—like make them move—and see if they can work them in a different space for a different purpose.
I really got into UI then. I was like on dribbble everyday. I had just found dribbble. I was stealing shots on Dribbble, recreating them at home and then trying to make sure they were identical to the original. It was literally like my Kanye West “5 beats a day for 3 summers” moment. Soon after Chris Tauziet had sent me an invite to officially join Dribbble. He was working at Apple in Paris at the time or had either already joined Parse. Shortly after I got some shots up a startup in Atlanta reached out to me on Dribbble. They wanted a designer to come in and help during the summer, and I was like, “Okay. I’ll do it.”
So, I joined for the summer and I had no idea how a business was run. I finally discovered how we were in a time where apps were becoming businesses and businesses were becoming apps. I learned a lot about releases and working with engineers. I never really knew what it was like to work with an engineer. I was excited. I got to build an app. I got to sort of leave my mark while I was there, and it was cool. I had a brief reality of what it meant to be the only black employee just shortly after I joined. There was a guy on the leadership team that was also a board member at Cox Enterprises here in Atlanta. At my first company meeting he joined (with his family idk why) to visit the team and hear updates. Since his last visit myself and another person had joined. When it came time to learning who was new he asked. “ Who’s new here?” Shortly before I raised my hand he stopped and said, “ Wait! raise your hand if I sign your check!” The rest of the company chuckled as if it was funny. His wife and kids also had a laugh. (I still have no idea why they were even there). It was when I began to realized this space was missing people like me and It wasn’t settling with me too well.
I was not offered a chance to continue working at this particular company after the summer while the other summer intern who was caucasian did receive an offer. I’m not saying it had anything to with race but yea I don’t have much else to go off of. I had more of an impact at the company at the time. I was the only designer. The other intern was like the 5th engineer doing bug fixes. Yea.
After that, through college, I was continued my passion for products and apps. I was making concept projects working on stuff with friends, but I really built my own confidence. I hadn’t done anything revolutionary. I was just making stuff just to be making it. Junior year of college, Razorfish reached out to me. They were like, “Hey, we want you to come work in our Atlanta office.” So I spent the summer at Razorfish. That was pretty cool at 20.
From working at a startup and then going to Razorfish, by the time I got there I started to notice a trend that I was the only black person in the room. But at all these places I was noticed for my worth. I was touching the product everyday. I started to think why nobody else like me was doing that, especially in Atlanta.
So I brushed it off and I did the thing at Razorfish, I traveled a few times. I did a concept project for Netflix, which was really exciting. I just kind of left and was like, whatever, it probably just happens in agencies.
I met Jared Erondu sometime after. I was like, “Whoa, there’s another one. Just like me, like Nathan! [chuckles].” It kind of opened my eyes a little more to the idea that we do exist in this space and we do have an impact bigger than we kind of realize sometimes. We have an impact to our culture and to so many individuals around the world who find utility out of what we do. And from there, I tried to take what I was doing a lot more serious because I felt like I had a purpose to do it.
I started to spend more time on my work, thinking of bigger ideas like things I could work on. Soon after, I emailed Aarron Walter at MailChimp. I went to Aarronwalter.com, sent him an email, said, “Hey, I really love what you guys do at MailChimp. I live in Atlanta. I really would love to chat and learn more about what you’re doing.” Never heard from him. He didn’t respond. I was like, “You know, it’s fine. You know, he’s a busy guy, whatever.”
I get to my senior year in college. The first semester of my senior year—in that summer prior I spent times talking with Nathan and figuring out things for what could be next. He just kind of told me, “being out in SF I’m looked at a certain way because I’m basically your age and I’ve done a lot so far and I’m black. We need more of it. You need to keep doing it, you need to find your way.”
After not hearing from Aarron Walter for a while, MailChimp had an opening on their website to hire a product designer. I was like, “I’ve never been a product designer, but I’m going to apply and see what happens.” I applied on the first day of the semester. This was like September 2014. One of the recruiters looked at my LinkedIn like 20 minutes after I applied. I was like, “Woah!” I thought it was pretty fast. I didn’t know what to feel, but I was very excited. They ended up calling me like two days later and they invited me to the office They said, “Hey, we really love your work.” I was like, “Really? It’s not really shipped anywhere. It’s just me making stuff.” “No, we love it, we want you to talk to some people here.” So I met with a couple of engineers, a couple of recruiters. I basically got through the interview process and my last interview was Aaron Walter and I was just like, “Whoa,” [chuckles]. I was like, “Really? I’m going to sit with Aarron Walter?” Because before I was there, when I was doing my interviews, they were like, “Yeah, Aarron kind of like does his own thing, works on his own projects. He’s doing like a secret thing right now.” So I’m like, “OK, he’s probably like the guy I’ll never see.” Then when the recruiter called me and was like, “Yeah, as the last step, Aarron Walter wants to meet you.” I was just like, “What?” It was really cool.
So I met with Aaron and I was just brutally honest with him. I was like, “I’m super excited about this stuff. I want to do it. I want to continue to grow. I need to be on a team in order to do that and feel like I’m growing and do this in sort of a system.” I just kind of told him, “You know, I’m a student. I don’t want to be there. I want to make things. He kind of nodded his head at a lot of stuff. I was like, “I don’t know where this is going.” But I was honest with him. I can’t be upset with myself.
I want to say the next morning the lead recruiter at MailChimp emailed me at 6 AM and said like, “Hey, we’d love to talk to you on the phone soon.” I was like, “Okay.” She called me later that day and she said, “Yeah, Aaron Walter loved you. He like raved about you.” I was like, “What [chuckles]?” I was like, “Really?” She was like, “Oh yeah. And also, Aaron Walter is working on a special project with about three other MailChimp employees and they want you to do it with them.” I was like, “That’s a lot.” But I was like, ” yeah, of course. I’ll do it.”
I started working at MailChimp. Haha. My first day, we were literally in a room; there was three of us, me, Aaron– Aaron didn’t even have a desk. He was just at a table. Federico, one of the UX developers, and Fernando, who’s a researcher. I was literally thrown into something I had wanted to do for so long. I didn’t really have a plan. I just kind of learned it at MailChimp. I enjoyed it. I think Ben Chestnut and Dan Kurzius are some of the greatest cofounders I’ve ever met. They’re really awesome.
I was also fascinated that MailChimp does have more African-American employees than a lot of places. I was one of the only African-Americans working on the products. There were other African-Americans there, but they were like support. And I was like, “What is happening? What is going on?” I was thinking, “There’s got to be some reason why this is happening. I really don’t know.” I think that’s a story that a lot of people need to hear because every job I go to, I’m very excited to start it. I’m just going into a world that’s not the same as mine but we all have this passion for building things. It was kind of fascinating, I’m sitting there thinking at MailChimp, “How many other kids are like me, at all—still in school and interested in a creative space, interested in apps, interested in making things but they feel like no one like them is doing it?”
Even to this day, it’s totally become very frustrating, but I love that it’s becoming a focus now. People are starting to pay attention to it. I still think talking about it and acting on it are very different things, but I definitely think it’s in a better place now. I mean I’ve had a fun run so far. I’m 22, but I just wonder how many companies I’m going to go to and be the only one. Or the second.
I think back to a few days ago, Kanye was being Kanye and tweeted something like—everybody in SF is listening to rap music. It’s a very true statement. It’s amazing to see this whole culture become so big in Silicon Valley now. The diversity numbers don’t reflect the culture that everybody wants to be a part of, everybody wants to portray. It’s like, “Why does everybody like it? We don’t get to work everywhere, feel accepted everywhere.” It’s weird but I definitely think it’s not by mistake that we’re so impactful. I think Silicon Valley has such a fun opportunity right now to do something.
I’m curious to know more about your experience—not just being black in tech, but being young talent as well
So my age has never been a serious issue fortunately. Although I have had some bumps in the road. When I left MailChimp I was told things like, “I want you to experience more.” At the time it came across differently. To me it sounded like, are you saying that because I’m 21 and I have to go to school tomorrow or are you just saying as critical feedback.
The other thing is burning out. I personally feel being a designer in tech in my early 20’s kind of has a bittersweet effect on me. I have no idea what I want to do at 25. Even some days now I just want to walk around my apartment listening to Young Thug through my Sonos system. Nothing more. Most days I just want to work from home and watch Keeping Up With the Kardashians. Some days I just want to tweet. I want to make sure I enjoy my 20’s. That’s the point here. Do I want to make apps in five years? Because I’ve been doing it for the past two years professionally? It’s only been a couple years of me actually shipping things. Do I want to do this later, when most people are finishing up grad school, really getting their career started. Do I want to retire at 26? Like a lot of people will be designing for the newest iPhone, whatever size it is. The newest tablet, etc. I don’t know if I’ll do that. And it’s very scary because for the few years I’ve based my life off of this. I love products, I want to make products. Now I don’t know what the future is. What the product is. I told myself I may not want to open sketch, I may get sick of it. I think there are much bigger problems we can solve for. I strongly believe women deserve a lot more. I want to build things for them and I currently am. Autonomous driving and automotive UI’s also interest me very much. Building around cancer is very close to me without question.
I’ll be honest—it isn’t all just about apps, valuations, and startups anymore. I lost my father in September to cancer and my family has taken a much bigger role in my day to day. So has staying in Atlanta. For years I didn’t see the reality that is now in front of me. You know, I’ve talked to all those companies that you get to visit all the time and go shoot at. Like I talk to them, and the question comes down to, “Justin do you want to come to SF, New York, London, Seattle?” It’s like, I would love to, but I can’t do it. It’s not the right situation for me. You know, my family circumstances have changed, and I’m in Atlanta. Two years ago I would have been like, “Yeah, of course I’ll move to SF.” San Francisco was a dream of mine since 2011. Nah, it doesn’t work for me anymore. It’s very tough.
What advice would you have to guys with similar backgrounds to you, like maybe young people of color, who are really interested in tech but just feel like it’s impossible to get into it?
Tech is one of those things where if you really believe you can—engineers and people in tech will tell you all the time, everything is possible. If I believe I can design something, I know it can be built. I think staying passionate and staying curious is very important. Try things, meet people, and just really care about what you’re doing. That’s really what helped me. I think there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, you just have to want it bad enough and you have to really believe that people of color do have a place. I mean, you can do it. Tristan Walker can’t carry the torch forever. There are far too many more problems out there. Although he has helped lay an amazing foundation. We need so many more who are passionate and willing to build things for the future.