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.

Ask Jim Schnepp: How Data-driven marketing is Closing the Gap Between Business and the Consumer

Jim Schnepp is a highly-respected solution sales leader that builds world class sales organizations through customer partnerships. For three years and counting, he serves the role of Regional Vice President of Sales in Salesforce.

Salesforce is a cloud computing provider that delivers Customer Relationship Software entirely over the internet. I met Mr. Schnepp through the College of Business Administration Professional Mentor Program. As a mentor, he provides insight and experience from the field of sales and marketing, as well as a well-established network of connections. Fittingly, I chose him as a candidate for one of my one-on-one interviews.

1.) Question: As with any Q & A, I’d start off with an introduction. What would like to tell my audience about yourself?

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2.) Question: What are some current projects or clients that you are working with?

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3.) Question: What is data-driven marketing, and how does it impact the consumer?

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4.) Question: Why does big data represent the future?

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5.) Question: How does CRM close the gap between the business and the consumer?

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6.) Question: What can we learn from successful applications of data-driven content such as the Netflix series “House of Cards?”

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7.) Question: Do you have interesting readings to recommend to my audience?

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8.) Question: Thank you for your time. Do you have any closing remarks?

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Ask Jonathan: the roles of soft & hard skills as a lead engineer for NASA

Jonathan Brown serves as the Engineering Integration Lead for the SOFIA Program at NASA. His passion for electronics and the engineering field reflect through his accomplishments and words of wisdom. I have gotten to know Jonathan personally over the years. I admired his rare combination of soft and hard skills. For those who are either interested in pursuing the engineering field or would like to hear an intriguing perspective from an experienced leader, this blog post is for you.

Question: As with any Q & A, I’d start off with an introduction. What would like to tell my audience?

Answer: I want to first point out that you need to be adaptable. Things are bound to change in the span of one’s career, whether they are within your realm of control or not. The only thing you do have control over is how you respond. You have to be flexible in order possess value and excellence. That being said, the only limitation is your ability to adapt.

Question: What do you do now?

Answer: My latest title is the SOFIA Program Systems Engineering Integration Lead. I oversee the engineering and integration process control for the CPU program for NASA. SOFIA stands for Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy. It’s a heavily modified 747 aircraft with a retractable garage door on this side. It houses a very large IR telescope. The program is not only multicenter but international; we have a partnership with Germany. It’s one of the largest research programs currently on the west coast from either Ames Research Center or Armstrong Flight Research Center. It’s a very demanding, challenging, and fast-paced program. It provides a lot of interest in an area that up to this point I have not put much effort into. However, this is something that I have to change; the better I understand the scientific research, the better I can serve my current role.

Question: What are current projects in development you would like to share?

Answer: The SOFIA Program at present is based on looking at the galactic center. They are developing extremely sensitive detectors to determine where the waterline is and the protoplanetary development process. In other words, we are feeding our knowledge on the creation of the planets and the greater galaxy.

One of the challenges with IR telescopes is distortion from water vapor in the air. Land-based telescopes are at an extreme disadvantage, due to the moisture in our atmosphere. By flying at an altitude of 40,000 feet, we can get above 98% of the water vapor. This allows us to get a much better detail of IR signatures. That’s the advantage of SOFIA to land-based systems. Also, when compared to orbital systems, the plane lands daily. This means that as our technology improves, we are able to replace current equipment on the plane much more quickly and at a lower cost than satellites.

Question: What is your educational background and/or credentials?

Answer: I graduated as a valedictorian from Valley Christian Academy in California. From there, I went to the local junior college [Hancock] for prepatory coursework. While at the community college, I held a position in an oil company. Since broad-based engineering exposure is always beneficial, I did not solely focus on electronics.

Afterwards, I went to Cal Poly for a year and a half. When I got married, I needed a stable job. Therefore, I did not complete my degree at the time. I started off with contracts at Vandenberg Airforce Base. My work grew from entry-skillsets to electronics design. Then, I held specialized roles in ITT and FCC. While at Quintron electronics, I helped develop telecommunications systems for the military.

Several years into my work, I finally got back to completing my degree with a B.S. in electronics. As a side note, I’d strongly encourage folks to stay — if at all possible — to finish their degree without interruption. All things considered, I got exposed to various engineering specialties. I don’t consider this lost time or opportunities.

As I mentioned, I took a bit of a detour. At the same time, I varied my type of work from hands-on to management. I worked as the Branch Chief and then the Deputy Director for Safety and Mission Assurance for Armstrong Flight Research Center. This definitely entailed more soft skills than hard skills. Now that I returned to engineering, I’m fortunate to know some very sharp individuals that work with me. I provide the leadership and direction for them to excel.

In 2000, I got an offer as a contractor from Edwards Airforce Base. In 2004, I became a Civil Servant at an assistant safety group. From there, I went up the ranks to my current title [Systems Integration Lead for SOFIA].

Question: What inspired you to move from engineering to management, and vice-versa?

Answer: In some respects, it was an opportunity that I did not focus on. I wanted to stay more technical; the idea of moving into mid-management meant straying away from the passion of designing electronics systems. At the same time, when there is a need, you do want to help the organization you are part of in any way possible. Ultimately, I saw this as an area for personal growth and to try something new. To be quite honest, I greatly appreciated taking a path that I otherwise would have not considered. You have to be open to learning new things.

Question: What do you believe is more valuable? Soft skills or hard skills?

Answer: You will always have technical experts on the hard skillsets that are absolutely mandatory to accomplish great things. But without the soft skillsets, you will find yourself very limited. The issue is not what is more valuable. If you want more opportunity, improving the soft skillsets is necessary for leadership.

You can have a great career staying solely in the technical field and applying the hard skillsets. However, you may find yourself limited when forced up or out of an organization. To remain competitive in a field, I recommend taking time to develop soft skills.

Question: What do you recommend to those interested in your field?

Answer: If you have an interest and aptitude for math, science, or physics, I’d encourage that person to at least consider this field. The majority of folks may not ever become independently wealthy through this, it’s a route in high demand with steady work. There is always activities, projects and programs in the public and private arena that need engineers. As a discipline, it’s one of the greatest pleasures I could possibly find.

There are individuals who are solely motivated by the profit margin — the idea of getting rich and famous inspires advancement. Others are equally as motivated by a sense of duty and obligations to their community. You cannot dismiss one or the other as being more valuable overall. Nonetheless, one’s motivations and values are factors for consideration when deciding on what sector to work for.

Question: Any closing remarks?

Answer: Even though I’m still in the field that I started out in, the fact that it turned into a career was because I established the options early on during school and after school. I focused on making a living — or career, as I use these terms interchangeably — and then continue the process of learning and maintaining interest. Learning doesn’t stop when you get out of school, especially with any technical field. Given technological or personnel changes, you must always strive to understand and learn. That’s a capacity that, oddly enough, not everyone shares.

I highly recommend that if someone does not already have an innate interest to find out how things work and continue learning, he or she must find a way to foster it. That’s the difference between someone who has a job but is ultimately edged out of their field versus someone who is active and with a future.

A Thoughtful Analysis after an experience with MLMs:

I was on the sales floor at Target when I overheard a conversation between a young couple about transferring colleges. My ears perked up when my university was mentioned, so I took this opportunity to speak with them.

Our conversation started extremely well. They asked me what I did, so I explained my role as a wireless sales manager and the university I attended. Likewise, I asked them what they did for a living. The boyfriend briefly describes his role as a technical controller for marine corps recruiting. His girlfriend mentions her full-time classes at Mira Costa, and that she works full-time as well.

The boyfriend then mentions in passing that he owns a side business. His eyes lit up as he remarked on early retirement goals. Intrigued, I asked him about it. With a change of tone, he explains that it’s too complex to explain in one sitting, but he would be willing to sit down with me over coffee and go over this opportunity.

My curiosity began to grow, especially since he mentioned passive income streams. I agreed to meet with them, and met with them the following week at a café in Carlsbad.
The husband, whom I built a rapport with over phone conversations, explains that he wants to get to know me better and build a level of trust before he tells me more about the business. I agreed, and my feelings of antsiness temporarily subsided.

Then came the book. He asks me to finish reading a book for our next session. I glance at the title, which reads “Business of the 21st Century.” I recognized the author Robert Kiyosaki, a respectable financial guru noted for other published works.

The following week, I go on a highlighting frenzy during my off time. I noticed “network marketing” mentioned a lot throughout the book, which hinted at what I was expecting. By no means did the book offer an action plan, but rather a collection of curated anecdotes that served as motivation.

The following meeting, I meet with my “mentor.” Again, words like “building trust” and “opportunity” are peppered in the conversation. He continued to probe my brain for interests, goals, and values. At the end of the meeting, we agree to meet at a house in Carlsbad to network.

5 Lessons Joining Greek Life Taught Me

In business and life, relationships are everything. The ideology emphasized by networking is that who you know is more important than what you know. By reading this blogpost, it’s safe to assume you have some degree of interest in the topic of Greek Life, and heard about the networking benefits that these organizations provide. If you are still pursuing a degree and on the fence about Greek Life, here are 5 valuable lessons that I learned as an active member.

1.) Prioritizing Education

One misconception about joining Greek Life is that members have a lower average GPA. This idea stems from belief that fraternities and sororities foster an imbalanced work/life environment. This couldn’t be farther from the truth, especially for reputable organizations that are recognized by the campus.

At CSUSM, the Student Life and Leadership Office recently compiled an infographic, noting that the average GPA for the students in Greek Life is higher overall in comparison to those not involved in Greek Life. This is reinforced by the Fraternity and Sorority Life admission requirements, which state, “Any student who does not meet this minimum 2.5 GPA requirement is not permitted to go through recruitment and may not receive an invitation or bid from any fraternity or sorority with the exception of NPC sororities that determine their organization’s minimum GPA.” Like federal laws, the eligibility requirements set by the campus represent a minimum. Most discerning organizations tend to raise the bar at 2.75 or 3.0 minimum, since long-term membership retention requires individuals who prioritize their education.

2.) An Emphasis on Values

What do all Greek organizations have in common? They all have mottos, creeds, and ideals, aimed specifically at character development and refinement. These ideals fall under four areas: service, social, scholarship, and brotherhood. A well-run organization with effective leadership will balance these elements, and provide networking opportunities that go far beyond the undergraduate years.

Coming from a background with little knowledge about Greek Life, I received limited exposure through the media. The media, however, only offered an unrealistic and distorted lens. There’s a plethora of movies and shows (Animal House, Blue Mountain State, and Neighbors, to name three) highlighting the stereotypical fraternity and sorority culture; a focus on parties, alcohol, hazing and debauchery.None of these aspects resonate with me in any way. I would have likely never joined Greek Life if I kept a closed mind on the topic. However, during my freshman year, my former resident advisor enlightened me on this topic, and he encouraged me to give it a shot. I’ve been in Greek Life from that day forward.

3.) Leadership Opportunities

Greek Life is yet another outlet for leadership development. During my time as an undergrad, much of my opportunities came through networking through the fraternity and related organizations. I took the chance of running for student body president at CSUSM, knowing I had a strong network as leverage.

What do you see yourself leading in five, ten, or even twenty years? If you want to head one of the nation’s largest corporations, let’s not forget that 43 out of top 50 are headed by fraternity men. What about the U.S. Supreme Court? Likewise, 40 of the 47 since 1910 were fraternity men. In fact, 76% of all Congressmen and Senators belong to a fraternity. And to boot, 63% of the U.S. President’s Cabinet members have been Greek since the 20th century.

The point I’m making is that there are endless opportunities for leadership; they all start with getting involved.


4.) Power of Alumni Networks

There is a well-supported theory that you and I both are connected to anyone on this planet by no more than five intermediate acquaintances. It is referred to as six degrees of separation, and this concept is especially powerful with the emergence of rapid communication technologies.

What if you could personally close this gap by connecting with people through a shared membership? That is a benefit of Greek Life, and it provides the intimate setting for strong bonds to form.

5.) Greek Life is lifelong

Most importantly, Greek life extends beyond the four years of school. I can testify the validity of this statement, especially after attending alumni nights each rush week in Sigma Chi. Members that graduated 30, 40 and even 50+ years ago from all parts of the world take time to make it out to an event…for what? Obviously, something of great value has brought them together, taking time away from work and family obligations. And that is the power of lifelong membership.

Conclusion

The sororities and fraternities across the nation are as diverse as the cultural fabric and people that tailor them. There are organizations that fit the stereotype and those who break the mold. The key factor to networking success is finding an organization that best suits your passions, and provides an environment conducive to success in your career (or whatever you pursue).

References:
https://www5.njit.edu/greeklife/directory/facts.php

http://whatis.techtarget.com/definition/six-degrees-of-separation
http://collegelife.about.com/od/cocurricularlife/a/GreekLife.htm