Ask Alex: Life, liberty, and the pursuit of Silicon Valley

Introduction

Alex Banaga is an accomplished UX/UI designer working for a startup in San Francisco Bay. He garnered a strong following on the Dribbble platform (a social media site revered by designers), and worked directly for the Jelly team (which included Twitter’s cofounder Biz Stone.) I first met Alex in high school — we shared classes in U.S. Government and Sports Entertainment Marketing. Over the years, our paths crossed again and I took the opportunity to interview him personally.

Question: To start off, what do you do, and what should your audience know about you?

Answer: I design websites, I code them, and I help companies grow through visual design. At least that’s what I get paid to do. What my audience should know is that I started in high school. I accidentally got placed into an advanced web design class. I did not want to take another year of spanish, so I got placed in design instead. During that time, what stood out me was the level of passion my classmates had. There was also a lot of money to be made in the industry, and I recognized it was still budding. Seeing the potential, I took advantage of it.

Question: How did you get started in your field?

Answer: I decided not to go to college. As I mentioned before, I was accidentally placed in a web design class; that’s the field I jumped right into. I knew a mother of a classmate who worked in real estate. She needed a website done, but did not know where to begin. She offered me $800…keep in mind this was back in the day when I just got started. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I convinced her to give me $800 to develop a website to her liking.

So, I built my first site using html, css, and Adobe Fireworks. I spent my whole winter break working on that first project. This led to further design projects for websites, logos, and flyers. I created a Dribbble account and started showcasing my work, which caught the attention of Digital Telepathy. After landing a job offer, I worked directly out of high school working for one of the top design firms at San Diego. Well, that’s just the beginning.

Question: What skillsets did you have to learn as a designer?

Answer: Learning to work with people and taking “no” for an answer is very important. For front-end development, I learned HTML, CSS, and design — by design, I mean learning color theory, learning how to illustrate, learning how to design for mobile, tablet and web applications. Those are just a couple of them, and these skillsets come with time. There’s a platform called Dribbble in which I get a lot of my inspiration from. It’s where a lot of people also find me.

Question: Who are your major sources of influence?

Answer: My biggest influence came from those outside of the field. [They are] Kanye West, Drake, and J. Cole. I say this because their creativity cannot be controlled. They see a vision and they follow through to no end, no matter the odds. I see a lot of myself through them.

When I first started, I took an online course from a guy by the name of Michael Locke who was a UI [User Interface] designer for Yahoo! He has a great design course off of mlwebco.com. It is arguably one of the best courses I have ever taken. I only took that course in its entirety. Everything else to this day has been self-taught. All the other courses I tried took too long, and beat around the bush. Michael Locke gave me exactly what I needed to do anything in the web design industry. The course is $89, which I thought was severely undervalued for what it offers. He perfected a lesson plan that helps people like myself get into the industry.

Question: Now, You made repeated recommendations about the tech industry, and remarked on its lucrative opportunities. Why do you recommend the industry?

Answer: I don’t recommend the tech industry. In fact, I want as little of an amount of people in it as possible. Nonetheless, it’s a good industry to work hard and love what you do… whether that is coding, illustrations, or bringing concepts to life. It’s one of the few industries where they listen to the creators. In a lot of other industries, there are small groups in charge of the entire pyramid. I’d like to add that the tech industry is like the wild west; anyone can do anything.

Question: What are some of your greatest successes and challenges? For the challenges, how did you overcome them?

Answer: The biggest challenge was convincing myself that I could do this on my own. I always thought that I needed someone, a certain connection, to get me there. Once I realized everyone that is doing their own thing, especially if they are above you, they are not going to help you. You really have to do it yourself.

Question: Do you believe in mentorship?

Answer: Mentorship is valuable, but my mentors had nothing to do with the tech industry. A mentor is good to have, but he or she needs to grow you, stretch you, and address your pain points. The mentor shouldn’t just be a reading buddy who hands you a book and pats you on the back for something that doesn’t mean anything.
Question: What readings would you recommend for personal growth?

Answer: I have read a lot of books, and there’s not one that made me think, “Oh my God! This is so good!” Because I’m in the design industry, creativity is highly sought after. There is a lot that goes into making a project look good, while also delivering excellent user experience. One of the books that taught me the most and is still relevant in my day-to-day is Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon. The book offers insight on creativity, the trials and tribulations of being an artist, and how to get into the spotlight faster.

Question: Back in 2014, you had a similar interview posted on dmkthinks.org. Now that you are 21, what are some new perspectives you gained?

Answer: I learned the value of working hard, staying true to yourself, and believing in yourself even more. If anyone is trying to get in your way by stopping you, you can stop them back. At least in the industry I am in, playing nice gets you nowhere. Play hard, play rough, and win. That’s all there is to it.

Question: Where do you see yourself in 2020?

Answer: In 2020, I see myself at the top of the design industry; take that back, the whole tech industry! I see myself owning a product, rather than being a part of someone else’s product. As designers, we are always working on other people’s projects. I got a really great opportunity working for Biz Stone at Jelly. That man’s knowledge is inspirational…one of the most insane people I’ve worked with. But now is the time to do my own thing.

Question: What separates you from the crowd?

Answer: First off, I didn’t go to college. Second, no one in my whole life wanted me to do this. No one told me to become a designer, or venture in Silicon Valley. This is a vision I had and followed through with. I will outwork everyone. I am also more arrogant than a lot of people…which is a good thing. I don’t need anyone patting my back and telling me I did a good job today. I tell myself I did a good job every day, and I am self-motivated.

My friends and family have described me as a risk taker. But I don’t see what I do as a risk. A risk is jumping off a cliff and hoping to survive. What I do is identify areas for growth and pursue them.

Question: In regards to your current position at Jelly, what does the company do? How does it differentiate itself?

Answer: Jelly is a Q & A search engine. You can download our app or go on our website (askjelly.com) and ask questions that are really hard to find. For example, If I am going on a trip to Hawaii I could ask “I’m going to Maui on July 27th, arriving around 6:30 pm, and staying at the X & Y Village Area, what’s the best chicken katsu place?” We would take that question, wire it to a user with knowledge on this topic (a local), and get an answer.

Competitors such as Quora are more for the answerer. They provide lengthy paragraphs — which is great — but you generally need an account to view additional responses. Yahoo! Answers is comparable, but it’s a toss-up on the quality of answers, and also requires an account.

This past month, Jelly got acquired by Pinterest. We are still figuring out if Jelly will be beneficial for Pinterest, or what direction they will take it. Pinterest provides a robust search engine for rare or hard-to-find items. Jelly has a very similar style, in the sense that what the user is looking for takes relatively little time.You can get the answer you are looking for right away with Jelly, just like how you find what you are looking for with Pinterest. They could work well together, with Jelly’s accomplishments on the technical side and Pinterest’s visual design and audience.

Question: I heard that you had an interview opportunity with Google. If you are already invested with Jelly, why would you take an offer at a different company?

Answer: So Jelly got acquired by Pinterest, and I don’t see myself growing much more through Pinterest. They already have a really top-notch design team, and the style is intended for an older audience. They have a successful product, and I want to help something grow. I don’t want to be thrown in someplace that’s already good; I want to help make something good.

Google is constantly rolling new stuff out, and I want to build from the ground up. On top of that, they allow their employees to work on side projects, which is a very rare thing to find. I’m always working on something.

Question: Thank you for your time. Do you have any closing remarks or advice?

Answer: If you are a designer and you are trying to take my spot, good luck. Work hard, stay true to yourself, you need no one. Just keep going.

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