Joachim Dreimann

"Power in the UX team is a soft power"

What kind of kid were you at school?

I was a rebel definitely, all my teachers remember me as such. I liked to question authority a lot. So I did well in tests but not so much in homework generally speaking. I grew up in Germany and it has a very different schooling system especially in the later stages. I didn’t enjoy school that much.

“I think that gave me a reputation for not following the system.”

In what ways is the schooling different in Germany?

You are much more separated, not just by ability but also by interest and that happens much earlier. So by age 12, the schooling splits into different types. A school that aims towards more manual occupations, a school which will generally drive you towards office work and one that is the path to university. You can’t actually go to university unless you graduate from that type of high school. Because that school is picked at age 12, it is either your teachers, parents or your grades that pick the path very early. I started the university path but because I wasn’t doing my homework (rebel) I was moved between all of them. Eventually I graduated from the highest one at the end which is uncommon and caused a lot of paperwork for everyone. I think that gave me a reputation for not following the system.

Is there a difference between how engineers are seen in Germany, compared to Britain?

Huge generalisation but yes, I think there is more of an appreciation of the act of creating a thing and having the knowledge to create something (in Germany). What feeds that is when you start your first job in Germany there is a training period, similar to an apprenticeship, but it is very structured in Germany. The last time I looked (admittedly ten years go) I think there were 450 jobs to pick out of a booklet you are given at the end of school. So you pick a job and a company will train you. Your time is then split 50/50 between schooling and the business.
That then lasts three years, after that you can choose a set of specialisms and continue to train. This allows, particularly engineers, to become good, know what good is, and employers know that person is good because because they have completed the schooling and exams alongside working. So it’s very easy to specialise, and something like engineering has a very clear path, whereas something like management, there isn’t such a clear path with that system.

In Britain, often management becomes a war of attrition. The people who’ve been there the longest will end up as managers. In Germany if you want to be in management you would pick one of those management occupations in the beginning and you specialise as a manager fairly early on.

“I said that in a meeting and that was the end of that job”

How did you get into UX design?

I took a pretty circuitous route. I was always obsessed with achieving something. So I wanted to start a business or wanted to get a certain job but sooner or later I would get frustrated with something that would hold me back. When I came to Britain, I had a qualification in business and I had some work experience in Germany. I needed to learn English so I took a call centre job selling life insurance. That was really in-depth and tense and I had to do pronunciation training for words like hypertrophic cardiomyopathy which we would say a lot.

One day they did an interview with some members of staff because they were hiring for business analysis roles. One of the questions they asked in the interview was “If you were CEO, what would you do?” and I had lots of ideas. So they gave me a job.

I started working on a business improvement project and I found a good way of managing this was running a blog for the company with open anonymous comments. We also got high level people to write blog posts. It was a really interesting phase, this was 2008. Often the ideas would be things like; someone from the call centre pointing out that a letter that was going out was wrong. But then it turns out changing a letter costs thousands of pounds and there was no budget for this. So I was frustrated at not being able to fix the things that were causing problems. Eventually we started a database and gave the person who raised the problem the responsibility of fixing that thing with our help and support.

I felt that was a great approach and that got me to a job in London at the HQ, where we were trying to do that globally. I was seconded there but I didn’t think the priorities were right, my secondment was stopped and I had a month of garden leave to re-evaluate. I felt the frontline who were raising these ideas weren’t being taken as seriously as they should be. I said that in a meeting and that was the end of that job (laughs).

From there I started a business around augmented reality that failed, this was 2009, and I thought AR was going to be the new big thing. I wanted to make a ‘youtube for augmented reality’ so you would upload your 3d graphic and I would provide the technology so that you could see that in your 3d space. For instance, if you were buying furniture and you wanted to see how that would fit into your room, you would upload the furniture graphic to the platform and you’d be able to place it into your surroundings. I just didn’t have the technical skill to do it, I moved back to Sheffield and worked on it here as it was cheaper, tried to raise money with Yorkshire business angels, went to Germany to raise money and got quite far but I couldn’t realise the project by myself. I couldn’t raise the money quickly enough, I didn’t have the skills to do it myself. There were some problems as this was 2009 and it was mainly webcams, there wasn’t the prevalence of tablets and phones with cameras that there are now. So I realised it wasn’t viable and stopped that.

To get an income quickly I joined Plusnet in technical support, they were hiring lots of people at the time. They offered me a placement in QA, I wanted to work as a business analyst but they didn’t take me seriously enough because I was on the phones. I was complaining about that very thing down the road at the Rutland Arms pub to a group of people I didn’t really know in the “Geeks In The Pub” meetup. One guy across the table said “oh you should work for us” and I said ok yeah, who are you and he explained he was the director of Engineering at Wandisco. It wasn’t really the context to follow up seriously at the time so I didn’t do anything. Then a week later he met me again, invited me for an interview, and I became their first UX design person.

At the time it was very strange because he was showing me round during the interview and pitching the job to me, but he’d not seen my CV, not seen what I’d done, didn’t know anything about me and ended up giving me my dream job. It turned out that he worked at Plusnet in the early days and knew everything about me because he had spoken to the people there.

How familiar with UX were you at that point?

I was familiar with it from user groups, people were talking about it but those people are the edge cases, the most interested and engaged people. So I’d heard the term but it was my first UX role, although in business analysis I was looking at what people wanted and needed anyway so I could draw a line between them. It was the first time I was paid for programming as well. I’d coded before and ran my own forums as a teenager but it was never professional. I was just given a chance there, they had some faith in me for some reason. I learned so much every single day it was incredible the way they kept supporting me in it.

When I was telling my family I had a job in UX they didn’t think it was a thing, they had never heard of it. They thought it was odd how people in England got jobs in pubs without qualifications (laughs).

“So we need to sell it. And to sell it, someone has to understand it first.”

Its quite a complicated product at Wandisco isn’t it?

Yes, but simply put, our product applies something called Paxos algorithm to create a system for reaching a decision on whether to do something or not. So, for instance, if someone makes a request to withdraw money in India but then a second later someone makes a request to withdraw money from the same account in California, how do we know the system is using the most up to date data in each case? That is essentially the use case for our product.

So we had our first successful commercial product by applying this to SVN (Subversion – version control software) and companies like HP bought it and this did very well. The next big thing that came along was ‘Big Data’ where we were able to solve a similar problem of working with data existing in different timezones, essentially guaranteeing customers the same data everywhere.

So we are now in a position where IBM resell our technology, and if you move data to a cloud service such as Amazon, Microsoft or Google, it is our service that is the promoted tool for any one of those companies.

So where does a UX designer come in?

So we need to sell it. And to sell it, someone has to understand it first. It has to make sense to them, they need to visualise what is happening in this black box that they are buying, essentially. That is where UX comes in.

In the early days, we had just proved that this thing worked and it could do what it could do, the next stage was to build something on top of it to manage the tool over time, customers will need to configure it, expand it, deal with problems, set up security etc so there is UX there in making that experience as easy and as frictionless as possible.

“Our power in the UX team is a soft power”

How big is the team?

The UX team is just two, myself and Jessica. We also have a larger UI team of 8 multi skilled Java engineers. The UI team have a good understanding of HTML, CSS and Javascript and will implement things with UX direction.

Our power in the UX team is a soft power and we try and influence developer’s decisions every day. We’re not prescribing in great detail the exact approach to everything but we will give them good guidelines and we have a pattern library and an active style guide. If you change the style guide the product will update.

In the early stages of my role, I spent time designing the visual style of the product, thats fairly settled now and its more about making the tooling effective. I realised that the best way to create the best user experience was to make the tooling so frictionless that a developer who’s focus wasn’t UX could interact with it and get what he wanted out of it easily.

“I have proven that if you listen to me, you won’t get hurt and we will achieve something good”

What are the big differences between startups and more traditional companies?

I’ve been at different ends of seniority in both kinds of companies and I think one positive thing is that at Wandisco, I nor anyone in my team leads by position, force or salary. I think a lot of people at the company could not tell you my exact title, they’ll just know this is who I go to if I want to know how to make things clear.

In a previous company, people weren’t doing things until I said, look I’m the business analyst, I know where the budget comes from, I know where the customer requirements come from and I’m your catalyst for this now so this is why you should believe me.

At a smaller company, the dynamic goes a bit more like ‘I have proven that if you listen to me, you won’t get hurt and we will achieve something good’.

So a good example of this is when we hired Jessica, the other UX designer. At a larger company she would probably be expected to keep her head down for a while until she has earned the seniority to be listened to but thats not how it works here. If she has an idea people will initially give her a chance and if it turns out to be a good idea or people enjoyed working with her, she will have more influence next time. So it is more of an earned meritocracy in that way. If we start doing things wrong I’m sure people will stop listening to us.

In the case of when my secondment was cut short at Aviva, I felt it was earned privilege that won out, and that if I had an idea it had very little merit up against that.

What people, products or companies do you admire?

What I really admire is Sheffield Digital who are a group in Sheffield. People don’t shout enough about whats working in Sheffield. You can’t just wait until the newspapers are interested because they are going to look for that ‘raising £1 Million’ story. And that happens sometimes but actually there are so many people that have good careers and good lives that we just don’t know about yet, so I admire the drive behind that team to make that more visible.

Another one would be Hans Rosling, a Swedish statistician. He did a TED talk about how the third world is a term that doesn’t mean anything. Taking the data and visualising it in a way that everyone gets that there assumptions are completely wrong.

What is your biggest professional mistake?

I’d say it would be back where my secondment was cut short. It’s a massive company and by being more abrasive than I would be now saying that I didn’t think the process was right, I lost the influence to make it better for so many people. Wield soft power wisely.

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