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Going beyond the skillset mold

Fail Faster

Episode 424


30 minutes

Join us in this insightful and inspiring podcast as we dive into the world of product and software design with Jonathan Madera, the VP of Product Design for Data Accent.

Jonathan shares his journey from childhood dreams of being a computer animator to becoming a successful designer and entrepreneur. As we delve into the world of data design, Jonathan reveals the challenges of simplifying data access for small business owners and the role of AI in making the user experience delightful. Get motivated and gain valuable insights in this podcast for aspiring designers and creatives!

Podcast transcript

Vandana: Welcome Jonathan to the Fail Faster podcast. How are you today?

Jonathan: Good, good, and you? Thanks for having me. 

Vandana: I’m great. Thank you so much for joining us. Yeah, we can’t wait to get into your world and see the world of product design and software design from your perspective and your lens. 

Jonathan: Yes, excited to have this chat. 

Vandana: Thank you. 

Jonathan: Absolutely. 

Vandana: All right, let’s begin by just a little bit of introduction about you, Jonathan, so our listeners know who they are listening to, please. 

Jonathan: Sure. Yeah. My name is Jonathan Madera. I am currently the VP of product design for Data Axle. My background, I’m born here in the United States to Puerto Rican parents raised in New York. And then when my dad retired, he moved us to Puerto Rico. And in Puerto Rico is when I decided, I always knew I wanted to be in design, do something creative. At that time, my sister lived in California. And once I finished high school in Puerto Rico, I asked my sister if I can move in with her while I studied in San Francisco and, and Sunnyvale. And that’s exactly what I did. And the rest is history. 

You know, it took a little bit of time to break into the design industry. But you know, my very first job was as a visual designer, I was creating coupons for El Avisador. It’s sort of a Latin penny saver, I was stuck in a little room designing. And it’s funny, because friends of mine that would go visit me told me after they’re like, man, I felt really bad for you being in that little room designing. And I didn’t see it that way. I was like, finally, I get to break into the design industry. It was a dream of mine to do that for a living. And so it was just a completely different outlook on it, or a completely different way to see it than what my friends had told me. So I was just happy to be able to design. It didn’t matter what I was, who or what I was designing for. But I put my very best into it.

And then from there, I went into more of the digital space. So I went into PayPal, and then I worked for a company called Delivery Agent. So we did shop stores for like, big networks. And for shows like The Office, Deal or No Deal, did the website, the shop website for Jackass, the movie. So I started doing bigger and bigger projects as time went on. 

Vandana: How cool. Wow. And when did you know that you wanted to be a designer? Like what age was that? 

Jonathan: Oh, Since I was a little kid. Yeah. I come from a family of artists. And honestly say, all of my siblings and my parents, in one way or another, were very, very creative. My mom always did some type of, you know, design with jewelry or things around the house. She was always making designs and crafts with napkins, anything that she could get her hands on. And my dad was a welder. So he’d always draw out and scribble on a piece of paper or a napkin, different, different designs and patterns that you’d see on things that, you know, like gates, right. And, all of my siblings are all artists also. And so ever since I was a little kid, I remember seeing Toy Story and saying, I want to be a computer animator. And that’s essentially what I came to San Francisco for animation, computer animation. 

Unfortunately, I didn’t get to finish that I had to transfer to a different school. And I ultimately ended up studying graphic design, which is, you know, you know, very high level education in design, which you could pretty much take any direction from there. But yeah, that’s, that’s a little bit of the background of how I knew I wanted to get into design. 

Vandana: How cool is that? Very good. And congratulations for making so far. And I do see that you also won an award. Tech for a better world. Can you share more about that? 

Jonathan: Yes. That was a fun project. I worked with a business partner at the time, he was contracted by a company called Independa. And basically, they had a smart TV app for the elderly in senior housing or for the people that would take care of them. Well, they basically had a TV and they had an application installed in that TV. And then the caregivers would set it up. And in that application, it would remind them during their TV viewing experience when to take their medication, they had, you know, some events coming up like bingo, or Zumba, whatever it was, whatever activity they were, they were part of. And so we were tasked with redesigning, not not just visually, but the full experience. And that was a really, really eye opening experience and project. It really, really makes you and forces you to see things through a different set of eyes. What you and I make think is, is a good user experience for somebody that is in their 80s. 

And, you know, doesn’t really interact with technology, for them to see, be aware of features and know how to interact with them. It was totally eye opening, but that went on to win that award. And we’re thrilled. We’re very happy with the outcome. 

Vandana: How amazing is that? Wow. And that was like, seven years ago. Yeah, that was a while back. Yeah. Very cool. Wow. I think that is such a great way to bring creativity into their world. And that’s where tech should be. You know, we should be using tech for things like these. I’m so happy that you, you know, you were able to contribute and make an impact in their lives in that way. 

Jonathan: Same here. Thank you. Yeah, I mean, I didn’t know the impact or even how fulfilled I’d feel after the project. But once you go into user testing, and you see the feedback that they’re giving you sometimes, I mean, most of the time is bad. It’s like, you know, I don’t want to be I don’t want my TV experience or watching experience to be interrupted. I don’t want to see reminders about, you know, family photos, like they didn’t care as much as you and I would think, right. But at the end of the day, we’re designing something that makes their life easier. And many people did see the value in that. And so it was it was awesome to be a part of. 

Vandana: Super, super. And can you also since we are called Fail Faster, would you like to share some stories about hiccups along the way? Not only just I mean, any anything any project if you want to share how you were able to manage that handle that and grow from that? 

Jonathan: Yeah, sure. I mean, you know, the only way we grow is through well, not the only way but a lot of our growth is through failure, right? We learn a lot. Unfortunately, it’s at the wrong time. Sometimes it’s at the launch, right? So that’s something we didn’t foresee. I worked for a summer tech camp company. And one of the things that was really interesting was how do we make so they had over 160 courses and over 80 locations. I mean, since then, I’m sure they’ve grown a ton more. And so it was very, very difficult for whoever was the website to be able to find these courses, the right course for their kid to make the selection and check out and also add a number of different courses right over the course of of the summer. 

And so one of the things that was really interesting is we we made it very easy for people to find things to the point where people were spending much less time on the website. And so we saw it, what would be seen as something positive for a lot of people, right? Okay, we’re, we’re allowing them and we’ve made this experience so easy for them to find the right course for their kid, right? Now, it actually ended up being a bit of a negative thing for the business, because now they weren’t spending enough time exploring other courses, potentially understanding the value, the full value that they would get right for the people that weren’t purchasing the course. So then we needed to, to start adding a little bit of friction in that in the customer journey, to be able to make sure that they’re understanding the company’s mission, make sure that the parent really understanding all of the value that they’re getting for, let’s say, I mean, it wasn’t cheap, it was over a grand a week. 

So we wanted to make sure that the parents are understanding everything that their kids are getting out of a week’s time. And so we needed to start sprinkling in more information, making more of that information accessible through the navigation, right, doing more of those popover menus in the navigation or mega menus where everything slides down, but we’re delivering information through the navigation. So it was really interesting. Although, at first, it seemed like somewhat of a failure, we were able to find solutions quickly. And, of course, you know, we, we did what we could to improve that experience. And, you know, ultimately, it ended up working out for everyone. 

Vandana: Super. And let’s come to your current role, Jonathan. I know you’re working on super complicated things at DataXcel. Would you like to share some of the excitement in this role, some of the new things that you’re exploring, as you as you serve your clients? 

Jonathan: Yeah, we have quite a bit of products. Also, we’re a data company, and we sell data as a product. But right now, so we serve anywhere from sole proprietors, small business, medium business, to all the way to enterprises. But right now, we’re working on a product called Sales Genie. That’s more focused on the small business owner. Basically, they, a small business owner may need data to market to a particular group of people, or an audience as we call it. And then with that data, they decide what they’re going to do. Are they going to direct mail them? Are they going to email them? Are they going to call them? 

They’re going to go door to door knocking on their door, sending out flyers, whatever it may be, we are creating a system where we make it extremely easy for a small business owner, which what we’re learning or what I’m learning is not all of them are as as tech savvy as we think they are, right. And so we’re trying to make this as, as foolproof, and not as intimidating as a small business owner would expect a data company to be right. And so I often say, you know, let’s make the Fisher price version of this. Because that for me is, it takes a lot of the thinking away. 

It also gives the user peace of mind to be able to see something that can potentially be a bit stressful to be able to go into a platform to get data and then to figure out what to do with that data to make it as easy as possible for them to say, Hey, what are you looking for? Who do you serve? I mean, what what industry are you in? Who do you serve? And how do you want to reach out to them? It’s as simple as that. And we’re doing a really, really good job to be able to hit those goals. 

Vandana: Super. And what are some of the challenges that you see, you know, as you are serving them or as they are adapting to the products that you are launching for them? 

Jonathan: Yeah, um, I think a lot of people don’t take the time to really read and explore a product, right? So they immediately go to customer service and say, Hey, can you walk me through this? Can you do this for me? So that’s one of the things that we’re trying to do is how do we reduce the amount of incoming calls or inbound calls and make this experience as easy as possible for them to understand that they could do it on their own. 

That’s challenging. Because again, right, we try to do things with coach marks, we’ll call out a wizard or walk through and say and guide them through that experience. But you and I know and everybody knows not many people read what’s in front of them, right? Sometimes they’ll skim or scan the page. And just the first thing is a knee jerk reaction is that they X out of these things. That’s one of the challenges that we face. And, you know, along with many other ones, but you know, that’s the first thing that comes to mind. 

Vandana: Yeah, yeah. And I also, I want to know, as you are, you know, as you train your internal teams, let’s get into some of the things that you’re doing in house to, to be able to have the organization deliver at a more mature rate and more mature, you know, processes. So some, some of the things are, some of the companies have challenges in, in hiring the right folks. Could you talk about what kind of skill set and how your approach to getting the right teams on the right jobs? 

Jonathan: Yeah, I would say my approach is not, I don’t think it, it, it aligns with a, with a lot of folks out there, the way that they look for talent, to be quite honest. And this is nothing new. I, I’ve always been like this, ever since I’ve been in a position to, to have influence in who we hire, I would say about seven years now. And I just, I just look for energy, enthusiasm, desire to learn, be malleable, because a lot of the things we do, you could learn it, right. And, and so I, I think it’s really important to find that person that has that enthusiasm, right? 

At that point in their life, they’re really excited to learn, to soak in as much information and knowledge as possible, and their, their output and their dedication, how much time they put in, how much effort they put into their work early in their careers is, is, is impressive, really. So, so I look for, for that more than anything. And usually that turns out to be junior people more on the junior end of things, right. So I’ve hired a lot of people straight out of boot camps, people I hire that don’t even have much of a portfolio. 

I’ve hired people that after, you know, straight from a boot camp, they’re with me for about five, six months, and they go on to get a senior job somewhere else. Some may, some may see it as like a negative thing, like why did they leave that quickly, I see it as a positive thing, like, you know, they went from not having a portfolio to now getting hired as a mid or, or a senior company at Chase Manhattan, or Capital One, and these are real, real experiences. I think the, the process that we put them through, that I put them through in my team is, in a way foolproof, because it’s almost as if I put the gutters up, right, like, when you go bowling, you put the gutters up. I have a framework put in place, where they’re able to see the different phases and design what to do at a particular phase, questions, let’s say, if it’s a kickoff meeting, I give them examples of questions they can ask. I point them to articles. 

So all of that is, is, is something that is accessible for them from the first day that they join. And, you know, I think, I think with that framework in place, I feel very comfortable and confident hiring people that don’t have, you know, they don’t come from Google, Facebook, they didn’t study in Stanford, you know, like those things don’t matter to me that they’re not important to me. I’ve seen how, how successful I’ve been in mentoring and training some, some folks. 

Vandana: Amazing. What a great way to, and I love your confidence in this, you know, everybody’s chasing the next shiny degree. And, and you’re like, Oh, bring them over. And I, all I need is their enthusiasm and energy and malleability, which is actually so true. Right? I mean, yeah, those are life skills. So I hope colleges can teach that. 

Jonathan: Exactly. I mean, I see it in me, you know, that I’m not the best interviewer, maybe, maybe some folks listening to this might agree, but I’m not the best interviewer. But I feel like I am, I have a creative mind. I’m a storyteller. And for those folks that talk with me over a period of time, they know that they see that. And it’s really hard to show that on a resume. And, and so I’m very mindful of that, right? When I have a position open that I need to fill, I see beyond what’s there in the resume, or, or, you know, the opportunities they’ve been given, right. And by that, I mean, their portfolio, their portfolio might lack in a lot of things, but were they given the right guidance? In a boot camp, right? 

Say there was 3040 students, were they given the right guidance? Were they given a good project that aligned with their strengths, you know, things like that. So it’s, I feel like that’s important to keep in mind. 

Vandana: Absolutely. And, and this, the space that your company, you know, is working is also very, you know, forward looking, right? It’s like marketing, it’s fundraising products, all kind of can make or break a brand, right? Like, that’s so, so important. So what are some of the trends that you’re seeing in this space? It’s an ever evolving space you’re in? What are some of the things that we don’t know being outside of where you are? 

Jonathan: Well, there’s, there’s, we know that AI is, is being used everywhere, right? And so that’s one of the things that we’re trying to leverage right now is how to, again, same theme that along the same lines in the same theme, as I was speaking earlier is, how do we make this experience a lot easier for our users, right? For somebody that’s going in, and we have a lot of filters that somebody can use and, and, and apply to their searches. And so with all these filters available to them, somebody may think, well, which ones do I choose? 

And which ones do I use and apply that will narrow down my search results and give me the data for an audience that is perfect for my business, right? And so we’re trying to leverage the, we’re trying to leverage AI for that also where a user could say, you know, this is where I work, or this is, this is the industry I work in. This is the audience I serve. This is my goal. Give me an idea of the filters I can use. And so that’s one of the things just to give you an example of us trying to keep up with the times and technology and how, how it’s progressing, how to use that and how to leverage that in our product also to, to ultimately make the user’s experience just a delightful one. 

Vandana: Awesome. And what are some of your ambitions, Jonathan, like if there was something that you would be super excited to achieve and call your all your efforts in this year towards success? What is that one or two things that you’re, you’re aiming to do this before this year is over? You know, I’m trying to set lofty goals for myself. I think that when you get to this position in leadership, you do a lot less of the creating of the work of that type of work, right, that you’re used to. 

Jonathan: As I mentioned, I am a creative person at heart. So I love to now and then just roll up my sleeves and get into the files and get some of that work done and do the dirty work. And so I would love to design more with the team. I am a believer in teaching by example by doing the actual work also. Aside from that, I have side projects that I do that really helped me keep my skills sharp, but also that creativity. It’s that creative outlet for me. And so I started a golf brand last October. And so the goals really that I have for my day to day job are very different from what I have in my project. So they’re two completely different things. But what I try to do, you know, I took a leadership. 

I took a leadership program last year. And one of the things that they say is do things that make your palms sweaty. I pretty much live by that now where even if you didn’t achieve the goal, the amount of progress you did, in your attempt to achieve that goal is still much better from where you started. And so in anything I do, be it my day to day job at Data Axle, with my team, with my peers, and then in my side project, I try to pick really lofty goals. And yeah, you know, make sure that they get my palms sweaty. So that way, I’m a different person at the end of that, of that process. 

Vandana: That’s amazing. And what is so give us a little bit more about your golf initiative, like what, I see you’re a founder of that. Can you? 

Jonathan: Yeah, sure. Um, again, I, as I mentioned, I started this, because I felt there was a need, or not only myself, right? At first, it was just for myself, I was like, you know, what do I do to keep my, my creative skills sharp, have a creative outlet. But then I started noticing there was there was a need in the golf industry to represent underrepresented groups, right and minorities, specifically Latinos. So the name of the of the brand is called Buena Gente Golf. Buena Gente means good people. 

It’s a in a way recognizing our ancestors or the people that came before us. It was very common back in the day for someone to in Latin culture, and I’m sure in other cultures also, for someone to invite a random person into their house and serve them up a plate of food is just that that a southern hospitality that they call right. And I wanted to bring that hospitality into this, this game of golf, which is, you know, for a lot of people, it has a bad reputation. You know, that’s for the leaders of the white collar or for people that have a lot of money. And, you know, not to say I’m the only one, I think there’s a lot of brands that are doing this same thing. I just felt that for Latinos, there wasn’t anything really that represented them, right, or something that they could wear that they feel that they were they were represented. 

And three months after I started it, I I made a decision that made my palms sweaty. And I went to the PGA show, I got there with almost like no product, right. And I was scrambling to at least get some prototypes, some samples of what my clothes would look like. Literally a week before I went to Florida for the PGA show, I got some samples, I went to the booth, and in my booth, I just had samples of my vision. And by the end of the three day PGA show, the brand was featured in Gulf Digest. And, and other folks that had interviewed me, it’s just kind of took off from there. And it’s been so fun ever since. So yeah, it’s it’s been a blast. Oh, wow. How cool is that? And what a great idea to shape, you know, and bringing some, bringing your values into a brand that, that, you know, you call your own. 

Vandana: That’s amazing. Thank you. Thank you. Awesome. Well, is there anything else, Jonathan, that you would like to share that I haven’t asked you that has been on top of your mind? Anything at all? 

Jonathan: No, I think I’m, I think I gave you some really long winded answers. And even I might have, might have thought were interesting enough to add in, in some of the responses to your questions. I think I covered that I really hope that this is useful or helpful for some of the folks that are out there, potentially looking for, for, for work. And they’re starting out in this industry. I know it could be very, very difficult. And I say this as, as you know, some parting words. I’ve been there. And oftentimes it, it’s, you could feel a bit down, right from going through so many interviews and, and feeling rejected time after time. But there is always, there’s always someone out there that can see your potential. 

And it’s just, you know, rubbing shoulders, reaching out and rubbing shoulders with the right people in the industry. There’s always people that are willing and able to give up their time and dedicate some of that time to helping you out. So hopefully that helps some of the listeners in their, in their journey to find that next gig. 

Vandana: Absolutely. I think, yes, you, you did share a lot of great insights and tips and a lot of reassurance, you know, for folks who might be in the transitioning phases of their careers. So thank you. Thank you so much for joining us. This was wonderful. And I wish you all the good luck and lessons in whatever you’re doing, Jonathan. 

Jonathan: Thank you. Thanks for the invite. And thanks for having me. 

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