Okay, so let’s start at the beginning, tell me about your early years and where you come from.
I was born in the Philippines.
When I was 9, I moved to New Jersey with my family. That’ s where I grew up and went through the most awkward part of everyone’s lives, and then moved to Philadelphia for college. That’s the short story. 10 years later I moved to San Francisco for work.
Alright, let’s dig in. What was spending your first nine years in the Philippines like?
It was wild! I mean, I had nothing to compare it to, right? I was expecting everything to be that way. I went to a Catholic private school—all boys. So, just to jump ahead really quickly, when my parents moved me to New Jersey in third grade, it was the first time I shared a classroom with women, and I was flipping out, I was like, “what is this?” I was also just the only brown kid in class, so it was doubly weird. It was like, I don’t know what to do, and I’ve got this really thick accent but I’m also really good at everything, like how does this play out? Why can I do math that these kids can’t do? It’s hard to explain. It was just like I had—I was forced to memorize everything. Growing up in the Philippines, you go to Catholic school, they teach religion, and science, and math all at once. So, I never really distinguished one from the other.
Yeah. So, you’re doing your weird math equations, and also memorizing prayers in Latin the next class. And I remember certain classes where I got into a lot of trouble because I would just keep asking a lot of questions. It was specifically the religious ones. They would tell us the difference between heaven, and hell and I was like, “Yeah, but what happens if? What
if you do this? Is it still that black and white?” Looking back, what I really wanted was this philosophical back and forth, but I didn’t get that as a kid. Everyone just told me, “No. Just deal with it.”
I remember that growing up.
It’s frustrating, but I didn’t really know how to process that until later.
There’s other stuff that I was going through in my childhood as well. I remember a volcano erupting—an hour and a half from my house, and I think. I think it was 1991. Mount Pinatubo erupted around my mother’s birthday. And I remember having to go to school the next week, everyone’s desks covered in ash and we had to wear face masks to keep from breathing it in. Since it’s that close, the ash from the volcano finds its way inside of everything, even containers of food inside the fridge.
What else… Just 5 years before that my parents were involved in [chuckles]— I don’t know what to call them. I guess they’re like political rallies? I wasn’t conscious enough to know what I was doing there, but I knew that it had something to do with a revolution. This is going back to 1986. The “People Power Revolution”. The country was under Martial Law, it was pretty oppressive, and my whole family was on the side fighting to overthrow the Marcos regime. It was the right side to be on.
One of my mom’s favorite photos is of me sitting on her lap, with my thumb and forefinger making an “L” at the camera. “L” stands for the word “laban,” which translates to “fight” in Tagalog.
Unfortunately I don’t know a lot of details about it other than I think there was just one anecdote my mom likes to tell. She brought us to—her and my dad brought me to this big crowd. Might have been a demonstration but—like tied me to a tree so that I couldn’t get lost or get kidnapped or something.
It was sort of like a hack. You’re trying to just like make sure that this wild little runt doesn’t get away. Kinda like how you might park your dog outside of Bi-Rite.
The life of an activist baby.
I guess! They didn’t have those slings you would have in The Hangover.
Just like, strap me to your chest, geez. [laughter] I’m joking, I’m sure I was probably too big to be in a sling anyhow since I would have been two years old.
When was the moment when you realized your background was unique in a new context?
Transitioning into suburban American life was strange. I didn’t understand it. You had shows like Boy Meets World, Saved By The Bell, this show Clarissa Explains It All… and it seems cool, but what’s with this guy walking through the window to her bedroom to a guitar riff? How is that ok? I didn’t understand that this was meant to be “normal.”
I really had hard time making friends, because I had different experiences to draw from didn’t have much explanation. My parents went through the same stuff, so they were in the same boat trying to adjust and determine how to fit in as immigrants.
Why did they move if you were all there in the first place?
No doubt, this idea of the American dream, and having more opportunities.
How did they adjust?
My dad adjusted pretty well. He moved ahead of us for two years, and during that time my mom had like three jobs, and I was in school. I didn’t see her much, because she was teaching and she was working at this ad agency, and my dad was overseas trying to settle down and get a good job. He bounced around from California to New York, and ended up in New Jersey. And finally when he had it on lock, he was like, “Alright. It’s lit fam, come through.”
In those exact words I’m assuming?
Exactly how he said it. [laughter] He’d would never say that.
When did you first realize you were a creative kid?
Since my mom worked a lot, I had a lot of time to myself in the Philippines. And I think a lot of that creative energy came from not being allowed to go outside the walls of my house.
Sure, I had a yard and was allowed to run around it. And this part I’m usually careful about explaining. Because as soon as I start saying like, ”We had drivers, and nannies, and people who took care of me.” It sounds like I grew up wealthy, but that’s not the case. I think it’s pretty average. It’s a different type of middle class suburbia, my childhood setup in the Philippines.
My only good friend in the Philippines was this German kid. That was it [chuckles]. We would pretend we were like astronauts, or super soldiers, or superheroes. Normal kid stuff, but it required an extremely active imagination since my TV only had 2 channels and didn’t have anywhere to go.
I also used a lot of that time to put things together. For example I was fascinated by the concept of a pinball machine. I’d never seen one in person, so I started making them out of cardboard. And I would put on magic shows and plays and hire my little brother as the help. He was terrible at it of course.
It wasn’t until much later, in high school, where I realized all that creative energy made sense as art. I had a way to channel it. And it was going well enough that I thought I had a career in fine art. Wanted to go to school for painting, that’s what brought me to Philadelphia.
Tell me about your early work experience, like you started your own company, you worked in the music scene. Walk me through those first years.
It was kind of accidental. Like everyone else, I had no idea what I wanted to do. At this point I was enrolled in a graphic design program, fresh out of a ska band I used to be the singer for in high school.
I had a lot of experience working with friends and other bands designing a ton of merch and eventually websites too. It carried on during college at Drexel University, as a means of making extra spending cash. It was a steady flow of work, and eventually it led to having contracts with people at record labels and management companies.
At Drexel, your junior year includes a 6-month co-op/internship program at a real job. My classmates all ended up getting jobs at print studios and ad agencies, but since I was already working out of my dorm room making websites I decided maybe this is an opportunity to go legit.
That’s when I set up—are you ready for this early 2000’s nerdy-ass name?—I created a design studio called Shiftcore. Instead of interning somewhere, I started a company. At the time my business partner was actually a former client, someone who manages musicians. I decided it made sense for him to manage me, and the administrative part of the business too.
I worked with Drive Thru Records. You might remember them from bands like New Found Glory, Midtown, Something Corporate, The Starting Line, Houston Calls… There was a time I was working with Fueled By Ramen, and Crush Management, who at time had just signed Fall Out Boy, Paramore, and The Academy Is. Of course they hadn’t yet become as big as they would go on to be, but at the time it was fun to build their promotional Flash websites and online music players, designing shirts and album art whenever I was asked.
Being a sole proprietor and having 3-4 contractors forced me to grow. I had to learn a ton of things on my own. And it was a very messy time to be building MySpace pages and websites.
It was really exciting! While the work was steady and I enjoyed starting a ton of new projects often I had no idea how much I should be getting paid. I was extremely bad at calculating how much things cost.
One time this band called Armor For Sleep paid $65 for a shirt design. I was told it’d only be used for their tour, so I figured sure why not. 3 months later I was on vacation in Hawaii with my family and I saw it hanging at a Hot Topic. They sell for $30 a shirt. Come to think of it, each shirt also sells for $15 at a show, so you can imagine what I got paid was nothing compared to how many shirts were eventually sold. I didn’t make that mistake again.
Looking back, I definitely failed a lot! I would miss deadlines and meetings, because it’s college and everyone parties, I lacked discipline. That was probably the most challenging part, something I didn’t realize I was going to suck at.
Shiftcore shut down a year after I graduated from college. By then I had a full time job at an online treadmill retailer as their “web designer.” I don’t need to explain why it was terrible, but imagine a room of car salesmen telling you how to design something, and how the internet works, and try not to roll your eyes.
They fired me when they outsourced my job to a company in China. My morale was super low. If you can believe it, it was extremely difficult to find a tech job in Philadelphia at the time—so I was unemployed for close to a year. In that time I was a dog walker, prison zombie, production artist, etc. Just trying to keep busy mostly because it’s important to have that hustle.
Eventually I started over. I started Big Red Tank with one of my friends. I promised myself that this time would be different, that I would be much more thoughtful and intentional about the work, and that I wouldn’t take things for granted. Though I was still inexperienced, I definitely had that spark.
Because of our size—two people—and because we were looking for full-time jobs during the day we decided that this business model was only going to fly if we focused on one project at a time. And this went on for a few years, as a side hustle to our day jobs working at agencies and studios.
While that was happening, I was offered a job to work at QVC. This was around 2010. You know, primary competitor to the Home Shopping Network. Where you can buy things you see on TV by picking up a phone. I was one of two original members of the team that designed their mobile shopping apps. I had to line up for an iPhone not because I wanted to, but because I needed to have it to do my job and I didn’t think the company really understood where the market was going just yet.
Two years later, I ended up working at a very progressive digital agency in South Philadelphia. This was where I really solidified my connection to the heart of Philadelphia. It was a house on the corner of Federal St. and Passyunk Ave. The agency is called P’unk Ave, as an ode to its own address, but also because of its ideals.
P’unk’s mission is to do good work for good people. But in order to do that sometimes you have to create new products, new paths forward, and that was a pretty punk rock attitude to have. It was very a very good fit for me, and my history working with people in music. It really jived with my overall ethos and outlook, and they value autonomy and mastery, which is all about doing what you have to do to do good work.
Interesting. I feel similarity to you, I think, in that I’m very stubborn about what I want to do and what I find a waste of time, which is why I didn’t go to college much.
And I’m wondering if that stubbornness of just doing what you want to do is why you had that entrepreneurial bug so early. Basically what I’m getting at is—why in the world did you start those companies so early and so young?
I suppose that is a curious thing! I mean, I didn’t set out to do it to be a CEO of anything, and I didn’t care so much about owning or running a company. I definitely had issues with authority and being told what to do so I figured why not just be my own boss? <laughing> And that’s probably why I failed at it. I didn’t approach it as a business, I approached it as a project.
I didn’t have a plan. In order to keep the lights on, I had to design. I had to create, and I really just needed to make sure I had next month’s rent. And for me, on paper that was like three projects.
Really short-sighted. It took a long time to kind of break out of that, but I suppose that is the way it goes if you have so much ego and pride that keeps you from seeking help and mentorship.
Yeah. In the meantime you were getting super involved in the Philly scene, like the tech scene.
Right, we didn’t have one.
Tell me more about that.
In 2007, one of my best friends (now a published author and literary agent, Eric Smith) was the online content coordinator for GPTMC, so it’s Greater Philadelphia Tourism and Marketing Company. And they had a website called Uwishunu, it was a blog for things that were worth checking out in the city. I think it was a good position for him to be in because he had just moved to Philadelphia pretty recently was discovering things about the city on his own. He had a lot to write about.
As for myself, my day job at that treadmill company had me commuting an hour and a half west of the city, so I rarely spent time in the city. I craved a community of likeminded people. I also had a lot of free time at work.
So because of this we started a blog called Geekadelphia. This blog was our outlet to kind of talk about the things we were interested in. I was very interested in being a stormtrooper at the time. I was a registered stormtrooper for the 501st Legion, shadow trooper TX-5882.
Are you familiar with them at all? No? I’ll just show you what that looks like. Here, I have a picture in my phone of me with my armor at work. I just posted this to Instagram a week ago.
Are you kidding me?
Oh my God.
It’s a non profit costuming organization, obviously Star Wars related. As the 501st, we would participate in parades, comic conventions, charity walks, children’s hospital visits. The armor and costumes we built were cannon. It was only out of the movies and what was official in terms of story line, using the same techniques used in the 70s.
Vacuum formed objects, all the fabric stuff is stitched together because there was just stuff you couldn’t find in stores. So, I built that suit myself, I built two of them. Having built an “accurate” one was the price of admission to get into the organization. In order to be a member, you had to have an approved costume. So, I was writing about that process on Geekadelphia.
And Eric would also film me walking around Philadelphia in my armor. <laughs> Pretty compelling content right?
But you can imagine the type of people that were interested in engaging with this. We struck a chord with a lot of likeminded people. All of a sudden there was a website that talked about geek/nerd tech related things in Philadelphia. And then the Twitter account followed. Everything from a screening of the Battlestar Galactica finale (complete with a cake shaped like a battlestar) to comic conventions in the area.
This, to my knowledge and complete surprise, hadn’t existed before. On more than one occasion, local news came to Eric’s house to interview us. After 2 years of this, we were picked by Ford motor company to represent Philadelphia in a marketing campaign for the newly relaunched Ford Fiesta, in the style of a YouTube-driven reality series.
Sure, it started with pop-culture, Star Wars, Halo, and video games… but quickly expanded to coverage of game companies like Cipher Prime…co-working offices like Indy Hall (which preceded WeWork)… and startups like Curalate.
We realized eventually that something was happening. The community we had been building was starting to do really crazy (and socially good) things, so we wanted to recognize them. We put on an awards show. What would a website called Geekadelphia call it? The Philadelphia Geek Awards, of course.
We honored scientists, teachers, students, hackers, designers, comedians, artists, civic leaders and it seemed like all of it was overlapping with technology. And we intentionally focused on projects that were good for people of the city.
Oh, and it was a black tie affair. The fanciest attire was encouraged. As geeks we never really had a reason to dress up the way they do on the Hollywood red carpet so why not create a reason?
The setting for this It was the Academy of Natural Sciences, along the Parkway. It’s a great part of the city where all the museums are. It’s dignified and central, easy to get to and easily memorable. Of course we had no budget the first time around. We called in so many favors that year, and Eric and I spent our own money to get things done. But it was spectacular, I mean cocktail hour with dinosaur skeletons hanging out next to you and dioramas of cavemen? That was fun. We kept hosting it there.
Because of its success, we had great relationships with the Academy and others in the tech community. It became one of the marquee events every year in Philadelphia. Our planning committee went from 2 people to 8 or so. It’s a lot of work! I don’t run it anymore. In addition to being the co-host and one of the main panel judges, I was the art director, so I would do all of the visuals (branding/identity), and the design of the show itself with the help of killer visual effects by friends I contracted.
What was it like building all of that stuff for your community and then ditching? Moving across the country?
It was painful. I wrote about it when I left. It was something that was—I had done all of these things, not for myself, but it ended up defining who I was in Philadelphia. Leaving that felt almost as if I was leaving part of myself behind.
Leaving everything I was invested in. Coming here to only do one job. That was hard.
What brought you to Silicon Valley?
I met a few people at Brooklyn Beta in 2013. It was a good event. In terms of conferences, especially in the design community, this one felt very warm, like a family gathering of all the people you’ve worked with, and their friends.
Like any good attendee I made it to some drinking events, and was invited to a FB house party.
Do you know Joey Flynn?
So me, my boss and Joey were just talking in the back yard about football for like an hour and a half, and I was like, “Oh, man, these Facebook people are super chill.” I remember Barton Smith was there, along with Austin Bales, and a couple of other folks that I became friends with later on.
So I started the application process kind of in the back of my head knowing, “Listen, I’m just going to take a chance.” I never really thought in my dreams that this could ever happen or that I would be hired by Facebook, but these folks seem like they’re on the same level about doing good things and we think the same way.
Even if I was happy in Philadelphia I was curious to see if this was even possible. I also wanted to work in the product space, instead of client services.
But then when I went in for my onsite interview. I feel like I bombed my presentation, maybe being overly critical here. [laugh]
The interviews went really well. I think despite the fact that I was really nervous, I think that one on one conversations with people was the reason I got the offer. I was also restless. I loved starting new things, and I didn’t require instructions. I liked solving problems and having so many constraints along the way made me really scrappy.
What were your first impressions of Silicon Valley?
Oh, I hated it.
It was terrible. I had a 12 minute bicycle commute in Philadelphia. Working at Facebook takes me outside the city—they have to shuttle us in this prison bus for like an hour and a half just to get to work and then once you’re there you’re bombarded with data, information, conversation, and really hard challenges. The job is to parse this as best you can and figure out the best solution as fast as possible… and then go home on that same prison bus in a city that you don’t know anything about. A city that doesn’t know who you are, and couldn’t care less. You’re new in town, working in tech like everyone else.
Moving here was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. And it’s not the act of moving that was hard, I’ve moved more than 10 times in the last 10 years. It’s what happened after I moved that was difficult to get through.
I went through a rough break up a year after moving here. I was engaged when I moved to SF, and my fiancee and I were living together for only a year before that so we were still trying to figure out how to be around each other that much.
Adjusting to a new city, starting over completely without our friends, all of this forced us to deal with our hangups with ourselves and each other and when it came to its conclusion… I was left feeling like moving here was almost a mistake.
Wow. That’s really intense.
So that was kind of the culmination of my displeasure with Silicon Valley. I was like, “Fuck this place.” Not only did I give up everything that had made me happy—I was struggling with proving myself again and neglecting a lot of what my relationship needed.
But I’m glad I don’t feel that way now.
How did you turn it around? Where did you find support networks? What did you have to do?
I had started to form this group of friends at work who were also pretty weird on their own. They had quirks. I liked that they were different from the typical white male stereotype of Silicon Valley. It made me comfortable and helped me feel like I belong because of their differences. If they were extras on Men in Black you might think they are aliens. That kind of people.
It made me happier to know that these people who are equally smart and talented as everyone else in Silicon Valley have these things that drive them to be so unique and so wierd. I just wanted to be with them more. So our group of friends was my support network. As a joke we call ourselves Brick Squad.
Oh man. Waka is my biggest rap crush.
So things started to pick up from there. That’s great. It may be different now than it was then but what excites you about your work? What activates you?
It’s funny. The work that I do now was self-initiated. We didn’t have a music team on Facebook. I joined this Hackathon (a Facebook event where you get to build whatever you want) in January of last year, and answered a request by a team asking what if you were able to express who you were through the music that you listen to…to your friends on Facebook.
It seems simple, right? Like, you should be able to do this easily, but we discovered that there were a number of things preventing us from doing so. We don’t have to go into the details right now but the important part about being to express yourself through music is having someone know what it sounds like. So when you share that Bruno Mars song I should be able to listen to it so that I can understand what you’re talking about. Yea, sure I could open Spotify or iTunes and look for the song, but I’m talking about listening to the song in that moment, when you’re reading the post itself.
Anyway, normally the team that gets together during a hackathon builds a prototype of the idea overnight, so that we can present it to everyone else the next week. In this case, there were so many difficult business/legal logistics to tackle that we had to start with the most fluid concept – which required prototyping an interactive demo as fast as possible. For me, at that time, that meant using Apple’s Keynote to animate everything.
Long story short, the demo resonated with people. Eventually one of the PM’s I worked with that night would go on to show this work to Mark in person, and that set the wheels in motion for our team to come together. I came back to be the sole designer for this full-time, launched our first product 6 months later, and here we are a year after it started!
Yeah. And that worked out great.
I’m lucky, yeah. And I redeemed my sanity after that because I had something that I cared about emotionally that I could really devote my time and attention to.
Let’s see. You talked a bit about your otherness as a child moving to Jersey. I’m curious how that’s continued to manifest through your career and then here in Silicon Valley. I know how I feel otherness, I’m curious to know how you feel otherness here.
What do you mean by otherness? What does that mean?
For me, personally, in tech it was like—where are the other me’s?
I see. Yeah, yeah, yeah–
Where are people who came from small redneck towns and didn’t go to good schools and don’t have money. Like where are those people?
Yeah I don’t have a pedigree. Like I didn’t go to U-Penn, I didn’t go to CMU which has some of the best programs for what we do in product design. I wasn’t disciplined, you know? I partied too hard, I drank too much. I just didn’t see things the same way that I do now. Of course I still do some of that, but my job comes first. I’ve got to do it well so that I can provide a thing that serves people, and that makes me feel good about why I do what I do.
As far as finding other people, I went back to how I did that in Philadelphia. It was a matter of respecting other people’s efforts and projects and just getting to know them. Acknowledging that they exist in tandem with what you’re doing. Because, if I had these questions, it was inevitable that other people had the same ones. I started mentoring—I started managing actually.
I became Product Design Manager at Facebook for like eight months. I started going to—we have boot camp. I would take them out to lunch. Almost every new designer that came through for like a solid ten months, I had interacted with them at some point in time. I just put myself at the top of the funnel, meeting as many people as I could. I knew there had to be other people like me.
How do you feel about the state of tech in 2016? What is exciting to you and what frustrates you?
What excites me about it is how intentional our efforts are about making sure that what we do is useful for people, and helps people. We’re not building trinkets, at least I don’t think we are. I don’t believe that we build things just because they’re fun. There’s always room for that and we should allow for that to happen, but that shouldn’t be the only thing we do. If the main thing we do is like make a joke website, I might rethink it.
But if the main thing we do is to protect and serve a way for people to really connect and have a voice, that’s an outstanding goal. And I think we’ve all kind of matured as an industry—It’s nice to see that more and rely on a strong moral compass.
More and more people that we work with are having kids, getting married, and they’re starting to see life differently. I’m glad it’s not just about building another cool app.
Yeah. For sure. How do you think that your background and all of your life experiences impact the way that you approach your work?
Oh, that’s a good question. Well, it might sound trite, but I can always wonder like if the thing that I’m creating, does this bring value to somebody across the world, like my aunt who’s still living in the Philippines, would she care about this–does this even matter to her at all?
If her answer’s yes, then I think I’m heading in the right direction. And then there’s all the things that I’ve tried and have failed at, that help me understand how to make decisions and not be so reckless. So that’s always helped, and I think that’s the result of having so many different jobs and so many different side hustles in Philadelphia.
I was a Stormtrooper and I was also a zombie at Eastern State Penitentiary, and I walked dogs for an entire summer. I was jobless for a year; I was an intern at an creative agency, undergrad adjunct professor, awards show co-host and producer…
Whew. Product design is my only job right now, I’m so used to having so many all at once! And I’ve held many different roles and have moved to a lot of different places, and I think that has given me the ability to empathize and understand. Yea that helps with the work that I do, but it also makes me a better human being I think.
Where do you see yourself in five or ten years? Do you think you’ll still be here?
I think I’ll still be in — well, no, I think I’ll still be working in Tech but it will probably be back in the East Coast.
I feel like I belong in the East Coast and I don’t consider myself a Californian. As much as I really love the landscape, beauty, and weather I miss being in the company of others like me back East. I followed the work here, after all. Perhaps it was what I needed to do in order to more fully realize where I wanted to go.
I’m curious to know your thoughts on how other cities could better adopt tech and tech could better adopt other cities. Does that make sense?
I think it has to come from wanting to solve a problem in that place, right?
If we want tech to be more of a focus, we would probably need to address the shortcomings of that city or place and then use tech as a tool to solve them. In doing that we would get different groups, organizations, businesses working together to adopt tech into that solution.
Earlier in my career I would keep running into dead ends whenever I wanted to push tech as a way to solve business or civic problems. Eventually I was able to find the right people to help me push with it, and with each scenario the results spoke for themselves.
I think New York City and Philadelphia are really good at this. Sometimes it’s because the people in the position to move tech forward are also working in city hall or are also in charge of education in schools. So if they want better opportunities for tech to grow in Philadelphia, they need to accept that it is challenging, there will be people that disagree, and that’s okay but it can definitely work.
What advice would you have for folks of similar backgrounds who are hoping to get in tech, or just work on something that they really love? What do you wish you’d known in the beginning?
What do I wish I’d known? I wish I had known to get over myself earlier. Wish I’d exhibit more humility and asked for help.
Just because I’m good at something doesn’t mean that it’s enough. It’s just one part of it. Being good at something is not what makes you a good person, it’s not what makes you a good collaborator, team player, or leader. It doesn’t give you real friends.
I think if I had known that earlier, I would have been better off, and not made as many mistakes maybe? But I don’t know, on the other hand I really like having made those mistakes, now in hindsight [chuckles].