Salih Abdul-Karim

Salih Abdul-Karim

Dec 20, 2020

Salih is an experience designer at Airbnb, focused on bringing motion and animation to the company’s web and native platforms. Before this, he worked at Square as a motion graphics designer and spent nine years designing and animating commercials for television in New York.

Was there a moment that solidified your thinking on whether to be an individual contributor or to pursue management?

I wouldn’t call it necessarily a “clicking,” but it was increasingly obvious to me what part I was most excited about. I didn’t stay up late at night thinking about how to mold a team, I stayed up late at night working on projects.

It just let me know that I’m still not done doing this part. I’m still very much interested in getting my hands dirty, making stuff, building stuff – so much that I’ll be in bed and I’m just thinking about the projects. I can’t sleep, I’ll get up early, I’ll work on stuff.

So I don’t think there was necessarily a moment, but I think at some point that won’t be the case anymore. I might get tired of doing the work. There might be some younger, better, people around me that are doing better work in a faster time period, in which case I don’t think it’ll still be as fun or exciting for me.

I have been asked to be a manager before, but each time I think about that question I just keep thinking about what’s the most fun part of my job. That’s still the creation part.

How did that conversation go when someone asked you to be a manager?

I actually considered it. You know, as you grow as in your career and you grow as an IC, you do need to add other skills aside from making stuff. You need to add skills like mentorship, you need to add skills like speaking, you need to be able to present, you need to be able to do a lot of this other stuff.

And once you start to grow those skills a lot of people will say “Whoa, you’re itching to be a manager.” Really, I wasn’t itching to be a manager, I was just itching to be able to talk about my work better.

The tension for me is that in order to keep growing in your career – as far as scope and compensation – you have to increasingly accept less and less of the craft work as your day to day responsibility. Has this been your experience?

I think that’s true. I think it’s been less craft work, but it’s been more explaining the craft work, explaining how I came up with the craft, trying to help other people mimic the craft work. I’m writing guidelines for the craft work that I’m doing...so it still revolves around the craft.

I do animate less now than I did five years ago for sure. But I’m not focusing my effort on building teams, or how to guide people’s careers. I may be trying to help them level up a craft, but I’m not necessarily doing what a manager is doing.

Have you ever heard this thing where people say you need to have passive income? When your income is so directly tied to your time, that only gets you so far. When you have passive income, you make a thing, you give it out, and it makes you money and you don’t have to do anything. And that’s the way I think about that tension you’re talking about: when you’re an IC earlier on, every hour is money. The higher up you go, you have to find ways to do your craft without even doing it – you know what I mean?

Yeah, and that’s where the education, the mentorship, and the documentation comes in...

Exactly.

I imagine for a lot of people that kind of work is basically like being told “We just want more of you, even though the ‘more of you’ won’t be as good.” Do you feel that way?

Yeah, the real challenge is how do you get the ‘more of you’ to be as good?

How are you doing that?

I don’t know if I have a good answer, ‘cause I’m not at that part of the journey. But I think that it’s about these things like mentorship, speaking, and being able to really articulate “why” in a way that is going to resonate with everyone. Because you can’t just say “Well I did it like that ‘cause I felt like it, and it looks cool” or “I did it like that because I’ve always done it like that.” That’s not a way to help someone get to the same level of quality.

If you ask really senior or staff level designers where they spend most of their time they might say “Oh I’m writing documents” or “I’m in spreadsheets” or “I’m in meetings.” Those things are high leverage uses of your time, where you can pass along your knowledge and really change the direction of things.

But there’s a trade-off: The more time you spend in the docs, and in the meetings, and answering “why?” the less time you’re spending executing on the craft. How do you find balance with your time to do both of these things?

I find that balance by just putting myself in position to be responsible for the work. When a project comes in, or someone needs my help on a project, my first instinct isn’t always to give guidance or delegate. Oftentimes I may not have the time, but I’ll make the thing. There are times where it’s not really a big project, it’s a small thing, but I’ll still do it anyways.

How do you stay interested in something like Lottie for so long? Do you get bored?

No. The interesting thing about Lottie is that I don’t write the code for it. I just use it, like everyone else. I use it and I try to understand how to make things more efficient, or how to use it better, and see what we need to change to make it a better tool. I can take that to a team and actually make it happen.

For me to stay motivated, it’s just trying to continue to make things more efficient, trying to make things better. Everything can always be better.

“This time I’m going to try to make it better by trying to make file sizes smaller. Okay, now this project I’m going to try to make it better by seeing if we can use images. This time I’m going to try to make it better with dynamic type.”

Each time I’m taking different angles, but it’s still the same project.

It’s inspiring that you can stay so motivated on one thing for such a long period of time. Is there anything outside of work that fuels that motivation? Or is it really a pure interest?

Maybe Lottie is a unique case, because it’s one of the only things that exists that does what it does. Maybe if there were 10 other different kinds of Lotties that tons of people were using, I don’t know if it would be as interesting.

There’s a uniqueness element.

There’s a uniqueness, for sure. There’s a foundational aspect to it. It’s foundational to a lot of people. It’s like if you ended up working on a map API, or a map system that thousands of other companies used, right? It’s leverage and it’s...it’s that passive income thing. You found a way to make your work, and now other people are depending on it for theirs.

How do you know if you’re getting better?

It all depends on what people are asking. If people were still asking me “Hey can you animate this heart?” or “Hey can you animate this commercial?” – well that’s the same question I’ve been getting for years now.

But increasingly, people ask me “Hey I want to animate a heart, how do I animate mine the way you do?” Or “Hey, I saw the last six things you worked on. I want to figure out how to do that kind of work.” Those are different questions.

They’re more unique to you specifically, and less about some abstract implementation process.

Yeah. The question you get earlier on is “Hey can you make this heart?” That’s very straightforward. But “how do I make a heart like you would make a heart?” is hella abstract. Because now you have to try and understand your whole history and how you got to that decision.

So you would say, “well I worked on one of these things 12 years ago and I learned this, eight years ago I worked on one and I learned this, two years ago I worked on one and I learned this...” Then you write a doc, or an article...it’s like becoming an author on a thing.

What advice do you have for someone interested in following the path that you’ve taken?

You have to use some of the same skills as managers. Some of those skills you can’t avoid: you can’t avoid understanding how to talk to people, you can’t avoid understanding how to sell your ideas, you can’t avoid mentorship. When you get to a certain level, you’re gonna be asked to be a mentor because you’re the person in the room that knows the most.

Are you more excited about sitting down and doing the work? Or are you more excited about leading a team, or building a team, and seeing it grow from five to thirty five people?

To me, it’s about what I continuously think about when I’m in the shower, or when I’m sleeping, or when I’m bored? You know, you always have these like thoughts about stuff – I’m sure that when you were thinking of doing this project, it’s just something you keep thinking about – it’s just a bug. And if your bug is how to get better at your craft, then by all means continue doing your craft.

Maybe a slightly different take is: I remember early on in my career I was seeing people who were doing the kind of work that I wanted to do. The quality of their work was like...there. And I would look at my work, then I would look at their work, and knew I got to get there. And I only got there by just doing it and doing it.

And then I got to a certain level where I look at a lot of my contemporaries and sometimes you can’t tell whose is whose because the quality level is close. To me, that’s how you know that you’re getting to a level where the craft is not necessarily the issue anymore. If you feel like you’re as good as the people that inspired you before, it becomes a lot more about the softer stuff, like trying to help people understand how to get to that place.

What are the trade-offs of the path that you chose?

I’ve only done this role at one company, so I want to preface that Airbnb is the only place where I’ve been this kind of IC. So I don’t know exactly how it is at other companies.

But I do know that as a manager you will have reports right off of the bat. As an IC at Airbnb, you don’t always get reports. There are some ICs that kind of get reports – they’re not reports, they’re like people who are working on the project that you’re on. But where I am is kind of in between – you may not have anybody who you can say “Hey can you go do some of this dirty work for me so I can do something else?” You end up having to do all of it, which is not always that awesome.

And you’re responsible for the work. So I would say that’s a trade off: you don’t always get resources you need.

One other tradeoff, specifically at Airbnb, is that depending on where you are in the org, there are decisions that get made by a design manager who may not be a senior IC. So what that means is you have to do one of two things: I think you have to either make yourself so indispensable that people will bring you in to th meeting. Like: “There’s no way for us to do this without this person.” Or you have to be so foundational to the execution of the project. Like: “Nobody knows this map API better than Jane, so she has to be on it,” right?

Or you have to network the hell out of the place you’re at so much so that you have your fingers in the ground and you know what’s going on. And you can slide in: “Hey, Bobby! There’s a map thing happening right? Hey I’m gonna join, is that cool?”

Let’s get specific with titles. How important do you think titles are in the kind of work you’re doing?

It depends a lot on the company. For some companies it’s very important because people won’t even let you work on things if you’re not a certain title. At other companies, like Airbnb, they‘re not as important.

What really matters is what people ask you to do, or how people ask you to contribute. That is more important than your title. And I think working at a startup, that’s often the case because everybody’s wearing multiple hats.

A lot of times a title acts as a proxy for credibility or skill. And being able to have that title is practically useful: you get invited to meetings, you get bigger projects, you’re trusted more to do the work.

Totally. There will be places where you don’t have to earn the trust. The trust is implied through the title. But there are other places – Airbnb’s a good example of this – where the relationships are really the most important thing. I have a relationship with these five people, they all know what I can do, so it doesn’t matter what my title is. It matters what these people know about me, and how I work, and what I can do. So even if my title goes up, they may not ask me to do anything different.

But at another place where you may not have all those same personal relationships, you may need to rely more on the title to do things, or have people ask you to do the things, you want.

In an organization like that, where the title is really important to getting invited into the room, that’s where I feel like a lot of designers fall off the IC track. Because in order to get that title, you’re required to do a lot more stuff – the things that we’ve been talking about – that aren’t the craft work.

A designer who just wants to design is all of a sudden being asked to go to more meetings, write docs, mentor, and do all this other stuff. All of this just so they can have the higher title, so they can have the extra credibility, so they can get the more interesting projects...it’s like this self-perpetuating cycle of burnout and disappointment.

Yeah, I can see that. And I think it’s unfortunate because at the end of the day we’re all people. We’re all unique individuals, and to look at someone as though they’re a title instead of looking at what that person does...that stinks. I feel like sometimes it’s counterintuitive because you could not recognize people for the things that they could be doing, or for their growth. I feel it’s a manager’s responsibility to help put that person in the right position, too.

If you are an IC and you need to get to the next level, you have to already be doing the work at that level. And I feel like that’s part of a manager’s responsibilities, to help you be positioned to do those things to get to the next level.

It’s tough.

What have you learned about avoiding burnout?

I take a long view. I’m not thinking about what I can do in three months, I’m thinking about what I can do in three years. Pushing hard and burning out on a single project doesn’t make sense to me. The way I think about it is that when I get a new project I try to make it clear in my mind: “what do I hope to gain from this project?”

And usually that doesn’t involve working all kinds of crazy hours. It’s just making sure that the people I’m collaborating with are happy, that they like my work, and that I’m building positive relationships along the way.

There are plenty of projects where I don’t feel like it’s necessarily my best work. But I’m not trying to make the best thing I’ve ever made, every time around. What I’m trying to do is add to this thing that I really care about, that I think I’m going to be thinking about for three years.

If you take a long-term approach, you say “you know what, I’m going to try to be working on something for a long time. And each time I work on something I’m going to focus on one aspect.” And that becomes good enough, as opposed to burning out.

My career, it’s a marathon. It’s not a series of sprints. If you ever did an interval workout, you like working out really hard and fast and then you take a break. And I guess that’s that’s a fine way to work out. But if you’re doing that with your career, and you have not made the decision that after finishing this thing you’re going to catch your breath and come back and sprint again...then you just start sprinting forever and it’s not sustainable.

You have a much more incremental point of view on the work that you’re doing, which I think is required to have a long term outlook.

I look at the work I was doing 10 years ago, and it’s all crap. Hopefully in 10 years I’ll think the work I’m doing now is crap. So why would I burn out, if I know that it’s still crap in 10 years? Why would I burn out on future crap? It’s about learning and growing and being able to take some of that work with me as I go, you know what I mean?

I hope that 10 years from now I’m able to look back at the work I’m doing now and see the thread through it and say: “I’m doing this thing now, only because I did that thing ten years ago...”

I love it.

There’s a story about Picasso, where he was in a coffee shop and he’s scribbling on a napkin. He was later in his career, an old man, and he scribbled these beautiful things on the napkin just for fun. So he starts to crumple it up and throws it in the trash, and a lady says “oh, can I have that?” And he says “no, you can’t.” And she replies, “But it’s a crappy thing on a crappy napkin!” And he says, “but it took me 60 years to learn how to do it like this.”

And so when you’re following your career through a thread like that, understanding that it takes ten, twenty years to understand how to do something in a certain way, then you don’t feel like you need to burn out on it now. You just need to follow it through.

I think a lot of people in technology, and especially in Silicon Valley, are impatient. The industry moves quickly and everything around us in the world is about instant gratification. Are there times where you feel that impatience? Or have you found a better mindset for long term growth?

Sometimes I feel like that. Sometimes I do wish that I could’ve had more time on a project, or worked a little bit more to get it to a certain level. And I would just wish that this thing was done already, and I just want it to be better and better and better. There are of course times where I feel like that, for sure.

But most of the time...no. Because I keep trying to remind myself that I’m on a long race here and I need to remember to just bring my work with me so I can continue to evolve it.

I think there’s a mentality, like you’re saying, in Silicon Valley and software and tech, that since the company is growing so fast I need to grow fast too. But I don’t know if there is a single industry in human history that really has grown that fast. Everything that exists today is the product of decades of evolution, even the silicon that’s in our machines.

Yeah, I remember when the first iPhone came out. That felt like a big leap. But everything they built existed in another thing before that, they just put it together, you know what I mean? So I don’t know, I think maybe I’m lucky because I spent most of my career in television so I have a slightly different point of view with experience in two industries.

I have a friend who’s an architect and his projects take seven years. He has some projects that take over twelve years. You’re like “Oh my God!” but he’s like “So? That’s architecture.”

I’m literally on a cadence where if I haven’t shipped something in a month it’s stressful.

Because everybody’s shipping stuff all the time! But I don’t know if it has to be like that.

I haven’t met a lot of designers that came to Airbnb that were in other industries, and I think that experience is a useful thing. When you’ve done something else before, you bring that with you. It helps you see things for what they are, and not for what you expect them to be.

I’m the person in your story that worked at a startup in college, and just stayed in that world ever since.

Now I’m gonna ask you a question: If you looked at everything you’ve been working on from that day you got to college to now, do you see any threads?

Oh yeah there’s a thread.

What I’m saying is if you just focus on the thread, you don’t have to rush. Because the thread is not going anywhere. It’s been there, and it’s still here.

I’m too impatient.

But the thread is not going to disappear.

The thread weaves together external motivations like recognition and reputation and compensation. And that stuff, well, unfortunately it’s really motivating for me right now. And obviously those things are motivating for a lot of people, but I think that there is a higher plane of existence where you’ve satisfied those things and it becomes more about searching for your own expression of the work, or just feeling really satisfied doing the work.

Okay, another metaphor. Take a basketball player. He can’t say “I gotta be the best, I gotta win the championship, I gotta become MVP.” That doesn’t mean anything. A designer saying “I gotta get recognized, I gotta get awards, I gotta get this title...” These are all abstract things.

The players that win the championship say “I got to go work on my jump shot, so I’m going to do a thousand jump shots.” They get obsessed with practice. Then they get obsessed with being better than themselves. They get obsessed with looking at tape and analyzing their game, and understanding the game. And that’s actually the thing that gets you to win the championship, not the other way around.

So the thing that gets you to the titles and the money and the recognition is the love and commitment to the craft and the work itself. The total dedication to it.

I always wanted a shortcut, but the more experience I have the more I realize that there are no shortcuts. You’ve just got to do the work. And that realization just becomes more and more concrete and clear. I realized that I know things, but the only way I could have learned these things is because I learned all of these other things before that...there’s just no way to go from one to the other without having that gap filled in with doing the work.

There is no way. And if you know that, then it’s okay. There’s a hell of a lot less burnout when you understand that you’re walking across the country and you’ve got this bag, and you’re putting rocks in the bag as you go. And the closer you get to the other side of the country, the bag is super heavy. But you can keep going because you’ve been carrying it for so long.

There are no shortcuts. Most of us live pretty long lives, and have pretty long careers – you get to do a lot. So there’s no need to rush it. You’ve got time, just like everybody else.

The world is moving quickly and I’m an impatient person. But I’m working on it, I promise. I think there’s just more access to seeing people hit their own individual milestones. And in aggregate, it feels like every day everybody else is hitting some milestone, or a new level of craft, or a new level of skill.

It becomes hard to untangle that, and recognize that it’s lots of individual, very long threads. But it all comes together online, and you’re like “Oh, where’s my place in this tapestry?”

That’s the social media problem. You don’t get to see people walking across the country picking up rocks. You just see them on the other side.

Recognizing that is the first step. Then I think you have to question if it negatively impacts your self image and self confidence. Or is it simply a motivator and inspiration? There are different ways to internalize these things, and it doesn’t always have to be negative. I think it can be inspiring to watch people be really successful, and make tons of money...and you don’t have to judge yourself against it.

Yeah It can be super inspiring if you have the right perspective. If you know that with a certain amount focus on your practice, and that after putting a certain amount of time in, then you’ll be at the same spot whenever that spot is ready for you.

It’s just not practice. I do think that maybe this is another thing that senior ICs have to do. You have to put yourself around certain people purposefully. If you were seeing all these people doing all this amazing stuff, you have to figure out a way to be there, to put yourself in that spot, to go work at the company where that person is working.

Go be at these places. And you’ll probably see that “Oh, they don’t know what they’re doing either.” But then you might get to soak up some of the things that you’re looking for.

Gems

We’re all unique individuals, and to look at someone as though they’re a title instead of looking at what that person does...that stinks.

I’m not thinking about what I can do in three months, I’m thinking about what I can do in three years. Pushing hard and burning out on a single project doesn’t make sense to me.

The thing that gets you to the titles and the money and the recognition is the love and commitment to the craft and the work itself. The total dedication to it.

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Staff Design is a project by Brian Lovin