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How To Ask A CEO To Create A Job For You

Digital designer Erika Hall on how she translated an early obsession with the Internet into a pioneering design career.

How To Ask A CEO To Create A Job For You

Khoi Vinh: You were interested in technology as a child. Did you think then that you would work in tech?
Not necessarily. I was surrounded by technology in a way I didn’t realize. In the fall of 1988, at Dartmouth, they introduced an email system, BlitzMail, which looked a lot like Eudora, and all the students used email. Here it was, the end of the ’80s, I have a networked computer. I send my papers to the library laser printer and then go pick them up on my way to class. I’m learning HyperTalk. I just thought, “Oh, everybody has Macs. That’s just the next evolution.” Then I graduated and found out 3% of people have Macs. I saw Windows for the first time and I thought, “What are you people doing? This is hideous. This is really horrifying.”

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Technology had always been in the background. [As a pre-teen, Hall had a subscription to Omni, a magazine dedicated to science and science fiction, and her Christmas and birthday wishlists were topped by proto personal computers like the Atari 800 and Commodore VIC-20.] Maybe I had a very early version of that “everybody should code” mindset. I’d always had really nerdy and geeky friends. The first guy I dated in high school was already programming for NASA.

This was just something that really appealed to me, especially coming from Los Angeles. It seemed more substantive. I thought, “We’re going to make things with technology, and it’s going to be awesome.”

So, I had this stupid VC job [as a receptionist] and thought, “Okay, what am I going to do now?” One of my friends had Lynx and showed me, “This is the World Wide Web and all of these different servers are connected.” Then another friend of mine who worked at Apple said, “Oh, hey, here’s this thing called Mosaic.” My reaction was, “This! This is everything I’m interested in. This is everything that interested me in philosophy. This is everything that interested me about design and being an architect. This is everything that interested me in publishing.”

Omni Magazine/via Archive.org

So when you saw the web, you said, “This is what I want to do.” How specific was that idea? Was it like, “I just want to do something in this industry” or was it “I want to be publishing here” or “I want to be programming”?
I wanted to somehow be involved. At that point, everybody was making it up as they went along. At the time, we were asking ourselves, “What is this for?” There was no commercial Internet. Having things online, being able to communicate asynchronously, always being networked—that was what I loved about being in school and communicating by email, and hating the phone. That was so natural to me.

I saw that and I thought it was exciting and I wanted to be involved in it, but I wasn’t totally clear on what that could be. What kind of job can you do with this? So I just started calling people up: “Hey, I want to do Internet-y things.” Something that I totally recommend is calling people up or emailing people and saying, “Hey, can I buy you coffee and have you talk about your career?” People will do that, and I totally did this.

Who were you calling up?
It was tech publishers and maybe more magazine-oriented people. Because of that, it ended up that somebody at IDG Publishing got my name.

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The Commodore VIC-20Flickr user Dejdżer / Digga

So you were calling people looking for job opportunities?
Or just looking to talk. I’d say, “Hey, I’m interested in this stuff.” Again, the willingness of people to just talk to you is real. This is my number-one advice for anybody starting out in their career and especially after interviewing a lot of people for jobs. Having a thing you want to do in an industry and being super-excited about that thing is the hugest asset. If you just come in to a place, even if you say, “I want to have coffee,” and you talk to somebody who’s in a particular field and you say, “What you do is so kick-ass and I want to do it. Tell me how you did it,” that person is going to want to help you.

Sometimes people are kind of shy. They think, “Oh, I’m going to wait until there’s a job opening” or “I don’t want to take somebody’s time up.” Seriously, that’s a break for somebody who’s really advanced in their career. As long as they have any free time at all, they’ll say, “Oh, God, I could talk to all these annoying people I work with or I could go talk to a young, idealistic person who’s going to look at me like I’m their hero and talk about myself for an hour.” That is candy to an experienced
professional.


And it totally worked. This was ’94 or ’95, at this point. I’d quit my stupid job and I’m running out of money in my checking account. Then the phone rings and it was somebody at [the media company] IDG in San Francisco saying, “Hey, we have this research job. Would you be willing to just come in and we’ll give you 15 bucks an hour.” My reaction was, “Wow, that’s so much more than minimum wage. That’s amazing.”

The CEO of this particular business unit said, “I’m trying to figure out whether we should start a publication about the web and about HTML. I want you to talk to people and gauge their interests.” So I just got this list and—I can’t even explain to you how much I hated talking on the phone, how much the phone just filled me with anxiety—but I knew that, once again, I’ve got to call random strangers and ask something of them. I wanted this so much, I had to overcome this horrible social anxiety about talking on the phone. That’s why I love the Internet.

But I managed to get people to talk to me. I’d shown a certain amount of moxie, so the CEO of this IDG business unit that published four or five magazines hired me to be part of the exploratory Internet team. I don’t even remember if I had a title.

This is exactly what they say happens in books. You talk to people and then somebody makes a job for you. It was like ]What Color Is Your Parachute?[/i] by the numbers. It was amazing. The greatest part about that job was that everything was just starting. Nobody knew what anybody was doing. I had a salary and really ill-defined responsibilities. It was just us trying to figure out how this publishing company was going to get into the Internet business.

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This interview was condensed and edited with the author’s permission. For more of Halls’ interview and interviews with more digital designers, buy the How They Got There e-book here.

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About the author

Khoi Vinh is Principal Designer at Adobe, where he is charged with aligning Adobe’s design initiatives more closely with its customers, its partners and the community. Previously, he was design director for The New York Times

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