Dantley Davis has been a mainstay in the Silicon Valley tech and design community for almost 20 years. His work at PayPal, SAP, Yahoo!, Netflix, and Facebook have all led him to his current role as VP of design and research for one of the most well-known websites in the world -- Twitter. So as you can imagine, I had a lot of questions to ask him, and Dantley was gracious enough to give some insight into what he does and on his perspective of the current tech and design industries. Our wide-ranging conversation touched on a number of topics, but first, Dantley talked a bit about the behind-the-scenes work that goes on at Twitter, including the team he leads, diversity and inclusion efforts, how decisions are made at Twitter (such as their latest redesign), and yes...even Black Twitter. Dantley also shared his story of growing up as a military brat, learning to code and landing in San Francisco during the Browser Wars, and spoke on how he stays authentic to himself after being in Silicon Valley for decades. Dantley Davis is a true design leader, and even if you haven't heard of him before this week's interview, chances are that you have experienced his work in some small way. He is truly a pioneer in this digital age!
Dantley Davis has been a mainstay in the Silicon Valley tech and design community for almost 20 years. His work at PayPal, SAP, Yahoo!, Netflix, and Facebook have all led him to his current role as VP of design and research for one of the most well-known websites in the world — Twitter. So as you can imagine, I had a lot of questions to ask him, and Dantley was gracious enough to give some insight into what he does and on his perspective of the current tech and design industries.
Our wide-ranging conversation touched on a number of topics, but first, Dantley talked a bit about the behind-the-scenes work that goes on at Twitter, including the team he leads, diversity and inclusion efforts, how decisions are made at Twitter (such as their latest redesign), and yes...even Black Twitter. Dantley also shared his story of growing up as a military brat, learning to code and landing in San Francisco during the Browser Wars, and spoke on how he stays authentic to himself after being in Silicon Valley for decades. Dantley Davis is a true design leader, and even if you haven't heard of him before this week's interview, chances are that you have experienced his work in some small way. He is truly a pioneer in this digital age!
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Maurice Cherry: All right, so tell us who you are and what you do.
Dantley Davis: Hi, my name is Dantley Davis, and I'm the VP of Design & Research at Twitter.
Maurice Cherry: Well first of all, congratulations on the new role, you've been at Twitter now for what, about three months now?
Dantley Davis: A little shy of three months.
Maurice Cherry: How's the experience been so far?
Dantley Davis: It's been amazing. I'm having the time of my life.
Maurice Cherry: That's a rarity for someone to say that they're having the time of their life at work. Well, what's a regular day like for you at Twitter?
Dantley Davis: My day is comprised of basically two halves. I spend half my time with Jack and his direct reports, and then I spend the other half with my leads and the team. When I'm with my team, it involves looking at our recruiting pipeline, reviewing work, helping my directs get unblocked as it pertains to just core development work. And I spend a lot of time reviewing portfolios and finding candidates of diverse backgrounds.
Maurice Cherry: Yeah, I spoke just recently with actually a mutual colleague of ours, Forest Young. We spoke last week actually, he was telling me about some of the diversity work that you're doing at Twitter. Can you speak a little bit about that?
Dantley Davis: Yeah, so systemically at the company level, we're decentralizing our offices. What that means is that we have a pretty considerable amount of our employee workforce in San Francisco, and we have a good presence in New York, and we actually want to move those offices to other locations around the world and hire people where they're at.
Dantley Davis: I think one of the things that is an advantage of Twitter being a worldwide service is that, if we can hire people in the communities where they're from, those diverse perspectives and points of view get brought into the product itself. So my personal point of view, and this is echoed by the senior leadership of the team, is that one of the most effective ways that we can actually have a diverse workforce is allowing people to work and live in the communities that they're most passionate about.
Maurice Cherry: Nice. And now you've worked in design leadership positions at a lot of well-known companies, at Yahoo, at Facebook, at Netflix, which we'll talk about in a little bit. What attracted you to Twitter?
Dantley Davis: One of the things that resonated with me about Twitter was the public conversation, and the culture that gets represented on the platform. So that's everything from Black Twitter, to the NBA, and social movements, going from a hashtag to social movements. And the power of the Internet I think is represented in the people who use the platform, and I wanted to be close to that. It's actually one of the reasons why I went to Facebook from Netflix, was to use my design background to have a positive impact through technology. And at Twitter, I feel that I'm able to do that more directly as it pertains to the communities that use the platform.
Maurice Cherry: Now, I have to ask this, just because you mentioned Black Twitter, and I'm going to assume the answer to this is yes, but does Twitter know about Black Twitter? Like, Twitter HQ, do they know that Black Twitter is an entity, is a thing that's out there in the world?
Dantley Davis: Oh, for sure. Black Twitter is very much known about at Twitter, Black Twitter is talked about at the highest levels of Twitter.
Maurice Cherry: Really?
Dantley Davis: We love that community. I'm a member of that community, and it's a very important aspect of the product experience and the culture of the company.
Maurice Cherry: Wow. Speaking of the culture of the company, what's the design culture like there?
Dantley Davis: The design culture is very open. The team is comprised of folks who are entrepreneurial, they're curious. The team is a strong partner with our engineering and product management colleagues. So it's a very vibrant design culture.
Maurice Cherry: What does specifically the design and research team look like? Because I'm assuming that's what you're over as VP.
Dantley Davis: When you say "look like", what do you mean by that?
Maurice Cherry: What is it comprised of in terms of types of designers, types of researchers?
Dantley Davis: So on the design side we have both generalists, product designers that do both interaction design and visual design, and they might have strengths in one area over the other, but they can do both. And we have specialists, so we have illustrators, visual designers, motion designers, art directors, creative directors. And on the research side we have quantitative researchers, so these are folks that deal with data at scale.
Dantley Davis: We have qualitative researchers, and these folks spend a lot of their time out in the field either doing field research and validation of work that we're doing, and also ethnographic research where they're spending time in the lives of Twitter users and Internet users to understand their motivations. And then we have a cohort of user testers that work to get signal on the product mechanics, and that feedback is then given back to the core product teams for iteration.
Maurice Cherry: It sounds like there's a lot of data then that goes into design decisions, if you have that sort of breadth of qualitative, quantitative, ethnographic research and everything. A lot of that plays into the decisions that are made, so they're not just made randomly at a whim, it's coming from a place of truth, in a way.
Dantley Davis: For sure. There's a great deal of intuition that goes into the work, and then that intuition is measured by feedback that we get in market. Nothing is done in isolation.
Maurice Cherry: What's been the biggest challenge so far?
Dantley Davis: I think one of the challenges for me personally is ramping up in the context of this new team and getting to know everyone, and at the same time working with my other team, which Jack directs, the heads of engineering, heads of product management, our CMO, CFO. And ensuring that the conversations that happen in that context, I can transparently provide that feedback to my team, and that they also get to know me. So I've been spending a lot of time with them, dinners and outside of core working meetings, just so they understand my perspective and point of view.
Maurice Cherry: Okay. And now, because these design decisions are fueled by research and fueled by data, what have been the best ways that you've found to explain that data to stakeholders to inform those decisions?
Dantley Davis: That happens in a few ways. More traditionally we have research reports that the researchers distribute to the product teams. Those come in document form. There's the TL;DR version of that research, so that the product teams have the ability to get the highlights without having to go and do a deep dive.
Dantley Davis: We also have reviews of the research so that the researchers can field questions from the various stakeholders across our product groups. That can lead to additional research for clarification, or it can lead to a really good, healthy, vibrant discussion about an insight that might have been discovered.
Dantley Davis: And then an approach that I've used in the past that we're working on at Twitter is to actually do documentary-style recording of the research when we're in field, to tell the story and the narrative of what's happening with people in their lives. And so we can show the nuance of communication between individuals, the both joys and pains that people are experiencing when they need to share from a particular point of view to their community. I think that will go a long way in bringing some heart to the research findings and having a more empathetic connection with the research and the product teams.
Maurice Cherry: Interesting. So these documentary-style features, are those just screened internally so people can get a better sense of how Twitter is used out there in the world?
Dantley Davis: Yes, but I do want to make that more available to the public. I do have aspirations, as does Jack, to make our work transparent and more public. We're just early days in figuring out how best to do that, but that is the plan.
Maurice Cherry: Twitter TV. That could be a thing. I mean, people live-tweet television shows, that could be an option, you never know.
Dantley Davis: You can binge watch research on Twitter.
Maurice Cherry: There's probably a subset of people that would really like that though, for real. So, speaking of that data, of course a lot of people that use the platform have a ton of ... We'll just call it feedback, they have a ton of feedback about what Twitter should be doing, how Twitter should look. I mean, even here at Glitch, one of our other podcasts, Function, we did a whole episode on Twitter having an edit button. What are some of the things that you hear from people, just regular users, about ways that they want Twitter to change from a design standpoint?
Dantley Davis: It's wide and varied, I do hear quite often about the edit button, I am also a proponent of having the edit button. I also hear that people want more control over their tweets, so they don't always want wide distribution of their tweets, and if someone retweets them, they want to understand which audience will see that information. And if they get at-mentioned, they also want the ability to prevent that from happening, so they can lock down their content.
Dantley Davis: There have been suggestions from folks around interests, and having more interest-based conversation being prevalent on the service. I've heard a lot about customization. I couldn't talk about this topic without mentioning ... I get mentioned quite often on Twitter about this, and that's dark mode for Android, which is coming, I promise you it's coming.
Dantley Davis: So there's a lot, it's varied, and depending on where you sit, even from a topic and interest perspective, you might have some very narrow feature requests specifically for that domain. As an example, there are a lot of stock traders on Twitter and they want a ticker on Twitter, that's a very specific thing that they want. And we take that feedback and we try to identify how we can provide the most value relative to our team size on new features that we can ship for folks.
Maurice Cherry: Yeah, one thing that I know I've heard of recently is ... Well, of course Twitter recently has had a new redesign of its main web-based interface, and it appears to be very narrow just in terms of the width of the actual view of the service. And I'm on a widescreen monitor, so I can't really talk, I have one of those 34-inch curved widescreens, so everything has extra space. But when it comes to design decisions, I would imagine you all are looking at a lot of data to be able to inform what types of choices are made when it comes to that web-based interface.
Dantley Davis: Yeah, there's a whole host of variations on density that the team has worked on. And one thing to call out is that the web work is a work in progress. We're not done. What we shipped is basically the one, and the team has a roadmap of iteration including working through density and allowing the browser window and density to scale relative to the browser size. But, as you know working in products, you strike this balance between shipping early versus perfection. And if we worked through perfection, we'd probably never ship.
Dantley Davis: So the team made a decision on what they felt was the minimal valuable product, and that's what's out today, and they're going to continue to iterate and work on it. The core reason for the redesign was actually not the redesign itself, it was the tech stack, the Twitter web tech stack was archaic, and just simple changes meant months of development. So this new tech stack enables us to make changes rapidly in days, or hours in many cases. And so you'll see a lot of updates based on user feedback.
Dantley Davis: And the team very much have their ears to the ground so to speak in terms of how people are using it, the feedback they're receiving, and they're prioritizing that feedback. The website will change and evolve based on the feedback.
Maurice Cherry: Okay. And also I know a lot of folks, I've even voiced this concern too, just about the timeline itself. I think it may have happened a couple of months ago where Twitter now gives you the option to switch between a chronological timeline and more of an algorithmic-based timeline. And I'm assuming the algorithm is to improve the user experience, and that algorithm is based off of research or data, like you mentioned before, with other features. What balances that interest between what people want to see in their timeline, and then interest from advertisers and revenue goals and things like that?
Dantley Davis: Well, the core thing is we want to create a great experience, and with the chronological timeline ... And I'll speak about these feeds in general, independent of just Twitter, because there are a lot of similarities whether it's Netflix or Facebook or even Instagram, where if it's chronological, there's a lot of work that the user has to do if they haven't been in the timeline for a while. That's a lot of tax put on people to try to catch up.
Dantley Davis: And while some of us have a lot of time to spend catching up, a lot of us don't. You look at the number of sessions that mobile users have per day and the number of seconds they spend per session, you just can't get through all the content. So most apps have made a decision to have an algorithm-based timeline, and Twitter made that same decision.
Dantley Davis: The other benefit of using an algorithm is that you can surface relevant content based off of how you view and interact with the content that's in your timeline. The goal is to actually make the timeline more helpful to you. So if you spend a lot of time on Black Twitter, or you spend a lot of time with sports, those are signals that the algorithms can use to get you more content similar to those particular interests that you're spending a lot of time hunting for.
Dantley Davis: Now, what Twitter had done is to give people a choice. So you can use the timeline based on those recommendations driven by the algorithm, or you can switch to a chronological view of your timeline. That user control has actually been viewed fairly positively because there is control in the hands of the user. Most apps have chosen not to provide that control.
Dantley Davis: And those are decisions independent of ads. Ultimately we just want to create a great experience for people, and if they find value in the service, they're finding the content that they want, they're connecting with the accounts that are meaningful to them, then the ad side will take care of itself.
Maurice Cherry: That's interesting that you mention that the algorithm's kind of about people that are ...
Dantley Davis: Of itself.
Maurice Cherry: That's interesting that you mentioned that the algorithms kind of about people that are like sort of trying to catch up for the day because now that I think about it, a lot of the people I know that don't like that change are people that are always on the service. Yeah and other places do this too. Instagram ... well Instagram probably does it to a much different degree because my timeline tends to be all out of order, but like even LinkedIn does it, you'll go and they have top or they have recent and I normally want to see recent, but that's because I'm always on LinkedIn. I don't necessarily want to see the top stuff because I may have already seen it. So that makes a lot of sense.
Maurice Cherry: Then one more kind of Twitter question and then we can sort of move on past that. In the spirit of making sure that you're creating a great experience for people on Twitter. So in the vein of making sure that you're creating a great experience for users, how do you take sort of negative interactions that happen on Twitter and use that to sort of feel things? I'm thinking most recently, this example of Jack actually trying to have like a public conversation via Twitter with a journalist ended up sort of devolving into chaos. How do you use encounters like that to improve the experience of using Twitter?
Dantley Davis: It's a good question and one of the reasons why I felt compelled to join the company. I want the platform to be healthy. I want to see the best of human behavior and not the worst of it. It points to how in a very focused conversation amongst two people, the internet can basically drag that conversation in a completely different direction and then no one really benefits from it.
Dantley Davis: So to up level the topic, the company's number one objective is health. Health of the platform, health of the ecosystem to enable people to have healthy and constructive public conversations on the platform. And then there's a number of initiatives that we're working on to enable that to happen. Some of it is around our terms of service and our policies, which the design and research team is working more closely with our, our legal team than ever.
Dantley Davis: And in other cases it's actually making product changes that can have positive impact within Twitter itself. Some of that goes back to some of the earlier things I mentioned around giving users control over who sees the content. We've recently tested the ability for people to hide replies.
Dantley Davis: We do feel like that it's important in the context of the public conversation that the record is shown. So those replies are hidden and if someone wants to see them they can, but they're hidden, you know, we'll likely explore other moderation experiences. And just to tie this back to the olden days of the internet during internet forums, you had community moderators that offered the check and balance in these conversations. And you know, Twitter doesn't have a community moderator, but I can see a world in which something like that is of interest.
Dantley Davis: I can't say specifically that's what we're working on. But that model has worked and I think there's other services like Reddit that have also introduced moderation. So I think it's going to be a combination of people, policy, and product changes over time. That's going to get us to a place where two people can have a conversation and not get dragged.
Maurice Cherry: Yeah. I was just thinking of some older Twitter like services that offered some of that level of, I don't know, kind of like granular moderation. Do you remember Pounce? I might be showing my age here by saying in these things but do you remember-
Dantley Davis: I do remember Pounce. I'm old school. OG.
Maurice Cherry: Pounce. I think Plurk, Plurk is still around actually, that surprised me. I found that out the other day. But they have sort of the similar thing where you can make a post and then really control like who sees what's and even who can comment on it. Like it can only be followers. It can only be, I don't know, people that's subscribed to a certain hashtag or something like that.
Maurice Cherry: Whereas now kind of the option is it's either you're public or you're private and you kind of just have to do a lot of the moderation on your own. There's no built in feature or tool that helps you do that.
Dantley Davis: Yeah.
Maurice Cherry: So before Twitter, you were the design director at Netflix. That's actually how we first became acquainted with each other. And the work that you've done in Netflix has really helped make Netflix a household name and you were there for a long time. What was it like there?
Dantley Davis: Yeah, I was there for seven years. It was an amazing experience. When I started at Netflix, I was the lead designer and Netflix was a DVD company and I love the culture of Netflix. The way that they describe is around freedom and responsibility. So no one was there to tell you no, but if you messed up too many times you were fired.
Maurice Cherry: I think that's anywhere though.
Dantley Davis: And you know, it was a very creative place. It was one in which experimentation was encouraged. Reed Hastings described it as an annual experiment, which it very much felt that way. My job changed every year. I started working on the website and you know, I worked on the TV interface and the mobile interface and the kids' experience and second screen and you know, seated some of the early ideas around interactive TV. And it was just an evolution as streaming was evolving. It was just a very magical time.
Maurice Cherry: Now I want to go more into your career in design, but before that I really want to learn more about just sort of like where you came from and how you've gotten to this place of where are you from and was design kind of a big part of your childhood growing up?
Dantley Davis: So I'm a military brat and with military brats, whenever someone asks a question it takes a while to explain it. So I was born in Kunsan, Korea. And I'm half black, half Korean. My dad was in military for 24 years and we traveled a lot. Every year and a half we moved to a different base. And I wouldn't say design was a big part of my life, but building things were. When I was a kid, I would take apart all my dad's radio equipment that he bought when he went overseas to Japan and brought back.
Dantley Davis: So literally I would get a screwdriver and disassemble all his radio equipment and he felt that he should channel this energy that I had and he bought me a second hand computer when I was eight and I learned to program visual basic. And from there I was modifying computer games and doing a whole host of things in gaming as it pertained to both code and modeling.
Dantley Davis: So I was doing 3D modeling and that led to me creating new textures and the like. And I built radio control cars and RC airplanes and model kits and you know, those model kits I painted and weathered. And so just this notion of making things was always, that was always part of my life.
Dantley Davis: And it wasn't until I got to high school that a teacher told me that I could have a career in graphic design and it was something I'd never even heard of and I had no real concept that this hobby that I had of mine that I actually tried not to talk about because it was not cool to be a computer nerd back in the early nineties in Southern California. That was when I realized that this could actually be a career for me and that's really how it started.
Maurice Cherry: And then you went to the University of San Francisco, you got your undergrad degree there as well as your master's degree. What was your time like there?
Dantley Davis: My time at USF was great. I think the most informative time for me was getting my MBA. That was crucial for me because then I was able to connect the vocabulary of what was important to executives and business leaders to the design work that I was doing. So it was no longer just about design from a feeling perspective or craft perspective, but it was also designed from an ROI point of view as it pertains to benefits to the business. And that vocabulary allowed me to translate the design work into ways in which I could bring value back to the business and value to customers.
Maurice Cherry: Now let's talk about your early career. I mean you were there in Silicon Valley in like those, I think it was like the ... What ... post bubble days.
Dantley Davis: Yeah.
Maurice Cherry: I'm guessing this is around like 2002, 2003 something like that.
Dantley Davis: I was there in '96.
Maurice Cherry: Oh, Oh, Oh, okay. All right. What was it like working in Silicon Valley in those days? Because I mean that was really '96 was around the time when I guess the browser wars were really kind of in full effect.
Dantley Davis: Yeah, it was an interesting time. I mean just right before coming to San Francisco I was in LA and I was working on websites for DJs at a hip hop station in LA and that's how I got discovered. There was an agency in San Francisco that see my work and asked me to come up and spend some time with them.
Dantley Davis: And going from LA where it was ... it's car culture, it was obviously very influenced by the movie and film industry. And as I mentioned earlier, I had to hide my passion and love for technology. And coming to San Francisco in '96 I felt like I found my tribe. It was cool to be a nerd and I could just literally let my hair down. I had long hair at the time and be me. And it was a very freeing moment for me.
Dantley Davis: And during that time, I mean, I was 18 years old and I knew how to code. I knew how to use desktop publishing tools and I had these skills that were rare. So it enabled me to get access to projects into a work that I probably had no business working on. And it was at the time, you know, experience that was about learning and experimenting. There was no right answer because no one had really done it before. And I spent a lot of my time just trying to hone my craft and become an expert at both being a designer and a developer.
Maurice Cherry: And now Silicon Valley and really the whole like San Francisco Bay area has just exploded because of technology. I mean we're talking '96 with the browser wars and then you got the .com bubble. And then of course now this sort of massive growth that's coming out of Silicon Valley. I just want to know like being there for over 20 years now. Like what is it like navigating that world? I mean certainly we hear a lot of, I think really negative stuff about tech from Silicon Valley, you know, tech bro culture and things of that nature. How do you navigate that world and stay authentically you in that environment?
Dantley Davis: You know, when I came to the Valley, I was the only brown person I saw. Unless I went to Oakland or [Toner's Point 00:11:43] San Francisco, I got my hair cut. Black people just did not exist in Silicon Valley. And I remember walking into an elevator of a company I was at. And the janitor who was black came up to me and shook my hand and he said I was the first black person he had ever seen go in that elevator.
Dantley Davis: And it hit home for me because I wasn't a tech bro. I was a brother in tech, but I was not a tech bro. And you know, I worked well with the teams during the day, but then when they went out to the bar and socialize in the evening, I felt like an outsider. So you know, I spent my free time just in the lab making sure that there were no kinks in my ability to do great work, so they could never use that as an excuse.
Dantley Davis: My dad told me, and I'm sure a lot of people of color have heard this, that you have to work two times harder than the people around you. And so when they were at the bar, I was working on being a better programmer and being a better designer. I was fortunate that I was single and I had all this free time to do that. The main difference in that particular area, which is diversity between then and now is that there's a lot more brown people in the Valley now than there was then. There's a lot of folks who've come all over the world and have a lot of different experiences both as you know, black Americans and folks from Africa and Caribbean countries who are in the Valley now trying to find their way. And that's great to see. The number is still relatively small compared to the percentage of Brown and Latin X people that are in the United States. But I don't feel like I'm the only one. I've literally am not obviously the only one anymore.
Maurice Cherry: Right. But I guess in terms of like I guess I'm just curious because you've worked at these really big companies where certainly conversations around diversity in tech have always popped up. They've been at Facebook, they've been at Twitter. I would imagine they've also been at other companies that you've been at. How have you seen sort of the conversation changed over the years?
Dantley Davis: Early in my career, the conversation never came up. In fact, if it did come up it was because someone made a racist comment. And then that's what we were talking about with the racist comment. But literally it didn't come up unless it was negative. And early in my career I was, you know, I was afraid to bring it up because I was the only one and I had no support. And when I saw another black person, I like ran to them, they became my best friend because I, in a lot of cases, just needed someone to talk to and how to navigate the situation. And there were times where early in my career I would walk into a meeting with a senior person and I would get sized up. I mean I grew up in LA area for my high school years.
Dantley Davis: So I understand what it means to be sized up. And I was being sized up the way I took it was, you don't belong here and I'm asking you these questions to make you feel uncomfortable. So I just kept my nose down and ran this kind of contradictory. I kept my nose down as it pertained to diversity because I didn't have any support. But I ran to the hardest problems at the company regardless of what company I worked at. I made sure I worked on the highest visible, hardest problem there and made sure I crushed it and that gave me more responsibility.
Dantley Davis: I was always then asked to work on the hardest problems and I felt that by just being there, by doing the work, by providing value, that I was showing the people who were sizing me up, that I deserve to be there. And for probably the first half of my career, that's how I approached the situation. The latter part of my career, and this is mostly associated with my dad, he had passed in 2010 and just to give you some context on him, he raised my sisters and I as a single parent. He joined the air force so he wouldn't get drafted to-
Dantley Davis: He joined the Air Force, so he wouldn't get drafted to the Marines during the Vietnam War. He did two tours in Vietnam.
Dantley Davis: So he was raised in Brooklyn. He has these three kids that he's raising, and he had us read at 10 Malcolm X; Black Robes, White Justice; Manufacturing Consent by Noam Chomsky. This is part of summer reading for us.
Dantley Davis: And he saw that in me that no matter how successful that I became in my career, I needed to bring other people with me. Like when he was alive those were the conversations that we were having was like, "What are you doing to bring others with you?"
Dantley Davis: So when he passed, I felt obligated to speak on his behalf to make sure that the culture that I was so connected to was represented in the work that I was doing. And so every chance I got, I made sure from research that we are doing, data that we are gathering, and product vision that we're defining, that the underrepresented groups that were so pervasive and using technology were at the table. That that point of view was spoken about, discussed, the research was done with them, about them, for them, and that I was able to connect that back to value to the business.
Dantley Davis: So it wasn't just, you know, that we were doing it for reasons that Dantley thought we were doing it for. It was because it was actually good business to do it. And I spent the last 10 plus years of my career in every corner of the work. I do focus on that and it's worked.
Maurice Cherry: So it sounds like you've connected this greater purpose to the work.
Dantley Davis: For sure.
Maurice Cherry: Yeah. Now, having worked at a number of these different companies in leadership positions, I'm curious, what do you think is probably like the single most important skill that a designer needs to possess these days? I mean, aside from general knowledge of design, of course, but what do you think is a skill that they need to possess?
Dantley Davis: So I'll say that there's two.
Maurice Cherry: Okay.
Dantley Davis: The first is business acumen. So understanding how to talk about your work relative to the business impact it's going to have. Otherwise, it's just an art program. So, that's number one. The second is curiosity. I look for designers who have tremendous amount of curiosity about other people. If you have that curiosity, you're not looking under the same rocks for the same answers. You're trying to understand the motivations in other people's lives. These people may have lived in a different country than you. They might be a different gender, skin color, socioeconomic differences. That curiosity is so important to having an amazing design career and creating great products.
Maurice Cherry: Are you where you want to be at this stage in your life?
Dantley Davis: That's a great question. I think in many ways I am. I have an amazing family. I'm doing the best work of my career. So from, you know, checking boxes of the things that you aspire to when you're early in your career, I'd say yes. But in terms of what I want to do outside of my career and the impact I want to have on my community, I'd say no. I feel like there's still a lot that I can give to the people that that look like me, the folks that don't have support and representation. There's a lot more to give there.
Maurice Cherry: Do you have an idea of what that would look like?
Dantley Davis: Yeah. I think at some point it might be starting in a company specifically focused on this endeavor. In other cases it's spending more time with kids in underrepresented groups to show them that to be part of tech you don't have to necessarily be an engineer. I've had conversations with junior high school kids and high school kids, and when I talk to them about tech, they automatically assume that they need to be good at math and science, which of course are important topics, so stay in school kids. But then I tell them, you could be a creative director at ESPN, you can be an art director for the NBA.
Dantley Davis: And these are kids who literally in their minds they thought that their only way out of their neighborhoods was through sports. It blew their mind that there was another path to where they can still be part of sports and have a career, and I want to spread that message more.
Maurice Cherry: And now speaking of spreading that message, you're going to be speaking at AfroTech this year, right?
Dantley Davis: That's right.
Maurice Cherry: Can you tell me a little bit about what you plan to get out of it?
Dantley Davis: You know, the thing I love about AfroTech is just being in the presence of so many amazing brown people that also have a shared connection to tech. And so just that experience alone is one of the highs.
Dantley Davis: Also just as a plug, I'll be there recruiting for all types of roles for Twitter, from, you know, technical roles to marketing roles, to operations roles. So I'm going to be spending a lot of time with prospective candidates and anyone who will talk to me about roles at Twitter. And as a plug, we have an office in DC and Atlanta and New York, San Francisco. We want to hire people where they're at. So that will also be a big part of my time at AfroTech.
Maurice Cherry: Nice. How do you stay creative outside of work? I would imagine there's a lot of meetings that you have to go through, and there's a lot of data you have to evaluate. At the end of the day or really I'd say even maybe on the weekends or something, how do you keep that creative spark going?
Dantley Davis: I play a lot. And some of that play extends to when I was a kid or stems from when I was a kid. As an example, I'm still big into radio control vehicles. I fly model jets, they're 12, 13 feet long. They run on jet fuel. I build them, paint them, fly them. My son does this with me now, although he's six so he doesn't fly the big ones, he flies the small ones.
Dantley Davis: I also do some photography work and aerial videography work with a cinematographer. That enables me to get back into editing and storytelling. So I just make play part of my life. And oftentimes, you know, I keep a moleskin notepad next to my work bench, and problems that I was stuck on at work get solved when I'm working on a side project or a hobby-related project.
Dantley Davis: So I just incorporate that. And then in a lot of cases, you know, some of the things I do as a hobby, whether it be racing cars or riding dirt bikes, means I'm outside, I'm in nature, and that inspires me as well. Also, it gives me a sense of Zen and enables me to decompress, which is also important, especially as a black male. You know, we all know about the stresses and the physical condition of what stresses can do to us. It's important for me to have that release.
Maurice Cherry: Are you finding that your kids are getting interested in design now at their ages?
Dantley Davis: My kids are, you know, really young. My daughter's two, so design for her is coloring Disney princesses. My son's six and he doesn't really understand design, but he does understand making things, just because he sees me make things. So he, you know, is an avid Roblox and Minecraft player. We paint radio controlled car bodies together. He tries to take something that... a toy that is off the shelf and he'll start to modify it, whether painting on it or, you know, making it better for him. So I'm starting to see some of that happen with him, which is really cool.
Maurice Cherry: Nice. What are you the most excited about at the moment?
Dantley Davis: I'm really excited about Twitter, you know, a year from now where we have a product that has less toxicity on it, that's healthy. People can have the ability to share their point of view in a constructive way and feel safe on the platform. I'm really excited about the prospect of enabling communities to thrive on that platform and to be able to connect with one another and work together to solve big problems that we're having in society in the world, without trolls taking those conversations sideways.
Dantley Davis: I think that by designers having this conversation with other designers, with other companies, we can make a better internet. And I think it's only going to happen by us being openly transparent about our process and how we get there and working together. My hope is that more designers are having this discussion in addition to having discussions about pixels. The policies associated with our products are more important right now than the pixels.
Maurice Cherry: Right now in your career, when you sort of look back at all the work that you've done, what do you wish you really would have known when you first started?
Dantley Davis: I wish I would have known that it was just going to be all right. You know, I stressed so much early in my career about being perfect by being the hardest worker, by working the most hours, sleeping under my desk. And you know, having some balance would have been great. And if I'd known back then that things would have worked out, you know, maybe I could have had a little less stress as I was on that journey.
Maurice Cherry: What does success look like for you now?
Dantley Davis: For me now success means my team being successful, that the designers on my team are doing their best work, that they're seen as the best design team in the industry, that they're making profound change towards positive social conversations on Twitter as a platform, and they're doing the best work in their careers. The next year I'm hyper focused on that.
Maurice Cherry: And speaking of the next year, even kind of moving forward from that, where do you see yourself in the next like five years or so? What kind of work would you like to be doing?
Dantley Davis: I have this aspiration to work in TV again. You know, I kind of worked in TV when I was at Netflix, and I do enjoy the process of storytelling. And you know, there's a lot of interesting things that I've seen in the Valley over the last 20 years, stories that I think could make some interesting content for TV. So if I squint, I think somewhere in the future I'll be doing that.
Maurice Cherry: Okay. Writing for TV, maybe? Something like that?
Dantley Davis: Possibly, yeah.
Maurice Cherry: No, it's not a bad idea there. Well Dantley, just to kind of wrap things up here, where can our audience find out more about you and about your work online?
Dantley Davis: You can find me on Twitter. I am @dantley, D-A-N-T-L-E-Y.
Maurice Cherry: All right, sounds good. Well Dantley Davis, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. Thank you for entertaining all the questions I had about Twitter. I knew that when I would have you on the show, people would want to know all sorts of stuff about Twitter.
Maurice Cherry: So I thank you for being able to answer the questions that you were able to answer, but also just to talk about what your experiences were like, you know, being a black man in Silicon Valley for this long, as well as being a design leader, because there's not a lot of us at that level. So being able to talk about the work that you're doing and the impact that you want to have, I think is not only just super important, but it's also great in terms of visibility, so others can see that this is a model that they can aspire to as well. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.
Dantley Davis: Oh, thanks, Maurice. It was a pleasure. Hope I can do it again.