Our thinking

Interview with Phil Clark

1 November 2016

Recently, Matt Luedke, a Mobile Engineer at Exygy, interviewed Phil Clark, Chief Operations Officer at Exygy, as part of the Exygy team member interview series.

Phil Clark and Matt Luedke

Phil Clark (left) and Matt Luedke (right)

Where is your hometown?

I’d say my hometown is Portland. I was born in Tacoma, Washington, which is the “Tac” in SeaTac airport, and lived in the Seattle area until I was 6. And then moved down to Portland. Then I lived in Portland until I was 18 and went away to college. My parents are still there.

So probably not a ton of memories of Tacoma then.

Funnily enough, my oldest friend is from when I was a kid in Tacoma. Her name was Caitlin, she lived on the same block as me. She was my best friend and her parents worked at an international school. One of my earliest childhood memories is losing my closest friend because her family moved to Saudi Arabia because her parents were going to teach at an international school there.

When was your earliest project where you used your current job’s skills?

My mom started a graphic design company when I was a kid. And she’s always been an artist; now that she’s retired from her day job she paints full-time. So I grew up in a house that was really arts-oriented, very welcoming of arts: going to museums, drawing, painting, watercolors, making stuff, building things. I spent a lot of time in the workshop when I was a kid, downstairs in the basement just building shit.

I distinctly remember one time when I was probably like twelve, my mom asked me to do some work on a project using QuarkXPress, which is a graphic design program– it was the program that everyone used to do layouts for print publications. My mom was working on a magazine, and she had me help with the layouts. This was back in the day when having a color computer monitor cost a lot more than having a black-and-white one, so my mom had this setup with two monitors– one was color, and the bigger one was black-and-white. Through my mom I got a sense of what it takes to run a design business. It was super valuable. I think that’s what planted the seed for me wanting to start and grow a design business. She was stressed out a lot, and worked a lot–

And that appealed to you–

Ha, I was like “Yeah, I’ll sign up for that!” But she really loved art, and I got to see her connecting the way she made a living to something that she was really passionate about, and that made a big impression on me.

Did you always know that you’d end up in the Exygy-like tech world, or was there a moment where you changed direction toward this?

I think that I started having a very clear idea that I wanted to run a design company when I was in high school. In my math binder– it was a fancy one with a clear plastic cover where you could put pages behind the plastic– I created a logo for a design company. It was called “Fission Studios,” and I carried that around in my junior year. My career has wandered quite a bit off that path, and then found its way back.

So I know you did Teach for America– when you did these other career things, was it kind of in the back of your mind that you still wanted to start this studio?

Going to college was really formative in some really positive ways and in some really destructive ways. One of the ways it was challenging for me was that I couldn’t see myself and my interests represented in what my college had to offer. I remember going through my freshman year and I got straight A’s in all my classes, but I wasn’t passionate about anything that I was studying.

And when I learned about this Independent Major program, I was like “Cool! Independent Major! Finally I’ll be able to construct a curriculum that’s aligned with my interests.” I remember I wanted to do something that was very design-focused and was about making stuff. I was like, “animation! I want to do something with animation!” I met with the head of the independent major committee after submitting my first proposal to them– and this really broke my heart– she said “this is not the right place for you, if that’s what you want to do.” And I remember feeling really crushed. I had approached the independent major committee because I was excited about finding a way to feel at home, and her response was basically, “this can’t be your home.”

That, coupled with an experience I’d had in high school when I was looking at colleges, was really a one-two punch.

So the previous experience was when I told my parents I wanted to go to the Rhode Island School of Design. I didn’t go to look at the school. I was like “I want to go to the best design school. Ok. That’s Rhode Island School of Design. I will go there.”

And they said “you can go there, but we won’t pay for it.” The message effectively was “we don’t see the value in building a career around design.” That the point of going to high school was to get into the best college that you could and the point of going to college was to position yourself to be a successful adult. My dad had told me that, and he effectively said, “going to design school will not make you successful.”

So you had that memory of working with your mom on design stuff. That was her career, but why do you think it was different when it came time for you to choose?

I have two thoughts on it. One is: I remember reading an article a couple of years ago that said “who would have guessed that going to design school would lead to being in one of the best job markets of the last thirty years, given the rise of the tech industry?” And there’s so many people who have gone to great design schools and gotten snatched up by really awesome companies. So I think part of the answer is that no one, including my parents, could really see the ascendence of the tech world and the premium that would be placed on great designers. There’s a market blindness factor.

The other factor is that my parents both went to liberal arts colleges. I think my dad in particular, who was super well-educated at private schools his whole life and is a teacher, had a very specific view of what a quality education looked like. So there was some bias there.

So there was that message about college, and then the independent major committee was like “nope. We can’t do that. This is not the place for you.” Those things ended up causing me to fundamentally question the path that I thought that I wanted.

The nail in the coffin was this internship that I had after my junior year of college. I said, “I’m still interested in doing design work. And I know that I need to find a way to make design pay the bills.” I had really internalized the idea of the starving artist– I was like “I’m not going to be a starving artist. Why don’t I go work at an advertising firm? Those people make money.”

So I interned at an advertising firm and I worked my ass off. There were ten interns and everyone was like “Phil, you’re the best intern.” I was like, “Yes! That’s awesome. I feel really good about how hard I’ve worked and what I’ve created,” and the people that I met were incredibly talented. And I realized that I never want to work at an advertising firm ever. What a fucking corrupt place. Prostituting all this skill and talent to sell stupid shit. I don’t care.

And so at that point I just kind of threw my hands up and was like, “alright, fuck it. I’m just going to do something where I know I’m making a difference in the world. I’m just going to reset. I will apply to the Peace Corps. I will apply to Teach for America.” And my best friend was in the Navy, and I was like, “maybe I’ll just fucking join the Navy. No one can question that’s a good way to spend your time!” My parents, when I told them that idea, were like “… you could die… You should reconsider.”

So I ended up joining Teach for America and teaching for two years in Brooklyn. And that was incredibly eye-opening.

So, it seems like education must be in a totally different realm from being a COO at Exygy. Are there any surprising things that you learned during Teach for America that come in handy?

There’s a lot of that. Teaching was an incredibly instructive period, and super formative. Teaching relates to being at Exygy in a few ways.

One is that I really started to understand the real inequity in the world, and how much of a difference there is between people who are privileged and people who aren’t. I taught at a school that was about 85% free and reduced-price lunch, mainly black kids who had grown up in a small radius around the school in Brooklyn. Crown Heights was their whole life. And they were such great kids. A lot of people understand, intellectually, that there’s real challenges around the food system, the education system, or that racial injustice exists in the world, but they don’t have the opportunity to actually experience that firsthand. And living in that for a couple of years opened my eyes and solidified a commitment to finding a way to do good. I knew that whatever I did, I needed to be doing something that would help other people.

And it also sent me off on a tangent. Being in Teach for America, I started to get a sense of “oh wow, there’s this whole world of policy, of people doing work in cities, the education system.” Not just being in the classroom but schools, and districts, and cities, and states. The way that education exists at all these different levels– that’s a whole universe that I could learn about! I got really intrigued by the idea of getting more perspective to better understand how the education system got so fucked up. New York City was really bad, educationally, and I wanted to understand it. And that’s what led me to the Coro Fellowship in Civic Leadership and Public Affairs, which I did in New York right after my two-year commitment. I did Coro, then I was on staff for Teach for America here, then I started my own design company.

So you mentioned being on a tangent– what brought you back toward Exygy then?

My experience going into Coro was “I want to understand education at a higher level.” The fellowship is structured over the course of a year to allow you to take on small consulting-type projects in a variety of organizations in a variety of sectors. So you work for a city agency, you work for a business, you work for a non-profit, you work for a union, you work for the government, you work on a political campaign. It’s these six-week placements. And you go in, you’re given a finite problem, and you’re supposed to solve it.

And I think that what you think that you’re doing is different from what you’re actually doing. When I was like twenty-four, I thought I was being given real responsibility. Looking back, I was doing nothing valuable but it was a really good learning experience. Critically, the other part of the fellowship experience is that it focuses on leadership development. You’re with a cohort of eleven other people who are super smart, super inspiring, and have done cool things, and the focus for the year is on how you grow as a leader. I learned a lot about myself and how I show up with other people, and that directly translates into ideas, values, and practices at Exygy. And I have more good friends that came out of Coro than out of college. It was an incredibly strong bonding period.

When would you say you “started” at Exygy? Was it freelance or full-time?

I was running my own design consulting company for three years. It was just me. I started working with Exygy, they were a client of mine, starting in Fall 2011. We worked together on a project for Singularity University. I remember being excited about the project. The project manager at the time was Aaron Hanson. I submitted all my designs to Aaron, then I was on BART the next day and messaged him “did you get the designs?” And he was like, “holy shit, these look amazing.” And I thought, “these guys are going to be a good client.”

And I worked really hard, and the work was good, and increasingly Zach and I did more and more stuff together. There was no design team at Exygy. It was becoming clear that I was providing a lot of value to a lot of different projects and at a certain point Zach and I had a series of conversations over about six months to find more ways to work more together. Then we decided to join forces, and I joined the team as the Chief Creative Officer. My goal was to create a design practice at the company and to build out a team.

How has your work at Exygy changed since you started?

I started out as a contract designer, doing UI work primarily, then more of the UX focus, and then more work interfacing with clients. Then I was running design for whole projects, then running design across all the projects, then I joined the team full-time. Then we hired someone and I was running a team of one, then of two. I think there was a big shift at the end of 2013, when I said “Zach, I think there’s a number of things we’re doing wrong or that we’re not doing at all. We should fix that.” Some of it was really basic stuff. I remember being shocked that people weren’t keeping accurate track of their hours. I remember being shocked that there was no way of projecting workflow into the future. I was like, “if you make money billing your time, but you don’t know how your time is going to be spent in the future, how do you know you’re not double-booking yourself or that your revenue isn’t going to fall off a cliff? How do you keep from waking up one day and going to work and saying, ‘oh shit we don’t have anything to do!’”

So I started getting focused more on those business fundamental problems. How do we start tracking staffing into the future? How is staffing what we want to be doing, versus what we’re actually doing? Compare. And then that just continued to expand. Zach, to his credit, knew where his strengths lay, and he was like, “yeah, you should help run the business.” So it gradually went from me taking more of a look at staffing, to more financial projections, to weighing in on business development. At this point, it’s pretty much everything except actually doing project work – a total inversion of my roles!

Was that something that you knew you wanted to do when you joined Exygy, or it just happened and it fit?

I told Zach in one of our early conversations, “If I wasn’t at Exygy, I’d be doing what you’ve done– building a larger firm.” At the time Exygy was about six people including me. And one of my calculations when I was deciding whether or not to join the company was: what does Exygy have to offer that would be either hard or time-intensive for me to acquire? And the answer was “engineering talent.” I thought that it would be hard for me as a designer to build out a team of full-time, talented engineers. I saw that Zach had done that, and I figured that he was probably several years ahead. So I saw the opportunity to join the company as leap-frogging a few painful years of building my own business. So it was clear to me from before I started that I wanted to help run the show. The way that’s ended up happening, being more operationally and strategically focused, wasn’t something I could’ve predicted.

Do you miss doing design stuff?

Yeah, sometimes. Talking about design strategy– that’s the stuff I miss the most. There’s this melee, this muck of business strategy, product requirements, vision of the organization, the budget and timeline, different people’s interests– all this shit shows up. And a big part of being an effective designer is knowing how to navigate that successfully and being able to see the landscape, and to deliver something that works and is functional. I think a lot of people don’t fully appreciate that as part of what it takes to be a good designer. How do you not just deliver a solution, how do you deliver a great solution in the partner’s context? So I miss some of that. I think I was really good at that– at helping organizations figure out their own shit at the same time that we’re building something. Now I just help Exygy figure out its own shit.

Do you have any heroes in your field that you admire? Or just any outside the field too?

I think generally I really admire people who know who they are and know who they’re not, and work really hard to be the best version of their true selves. There’s a lot of people who fit into that. I read Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs in like a day and a half, thinking “this is the best book ever!” The reason I liked it so much is because it painted a picture of this guy who didn’t give a fuck about what people thought, and he just went about manifesting the way he thought the world should work. And of course there’s a lot of unique privilege wrapped up in a straight white guy from the U.S. in a reasonably well-to-do family having that worldview of “yeah, I’m going to just make it the way that I want it.” That mindset can only exist in a person of that background. But I really like some of Steve Jobs’s maxims.

I’m reading an incredible article about Sam Altman right now in the New Yorker, he’s the president of YCombinator. The scope of his ambition is mind-boggling. My perception is that over time, the sand of reality tends to work its way into the gears of our own dreams and ambition, and those wheels don’t turn as easily by the time we’re in our late twenties or thirties. Reading this article is just the kind of refresher I’d needed of late; a reminder to practice asking the question: “what would I do if I knew that I was going to be successful?” Or: “what do I need to do, given what my values are?” That’s what I look for in people. I admire people who manifest their dreams and values. It’s something that I try to cultivate, being the best version of myself and using that to make a difference in the world.

I used to have this dream as a kid. It was about flying. And the way I would fly in the dream is I would go outside, and I would fall over backwards. If I really truly believed that I could fly, then when I fell, I would levitate and suddenly I’d be able to fly around. If I didn’t believe, if there was doubt, then I would just topple backwards onto the ground. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve felt like there’s a deep nugget of truth in that, that our doubts and our deepest beliefs end up determining what we’re capable of. If you can find a way to tap into your deepest desires and have the courage to bring them into the world, then the universe will conspire to help you make that a reality. That’s the aspirational mindset, the wildly successful entrepreneurial mindset at its core. Being able to look at a wild and crazy idea and say to yourself, “I can make that work.”

Phil Clark is the Chief Operations Officer at Exygy, and Matt Luedke is a Mobile Engineer at Exygy. Be sure to check out more in the Exygy team member interview series here.