Andy Cargile, Upnotch Mentor and Senior Director, Gaming & Edutainment at SMART Technologies, is a seasoned UX leader in both hardware and software products with a relentless passion for the user experience. For over 30 years, he has practiced user-centered design, design research and strategy, and interaction design in startups, consultancies, large corporations, and higher education.
What is your superpower & why?
User experience and applying it to every aspect of the design process. User experience means that the end customer experience that you provide them in a product really wows them. But user experience also can be applied at every single level, that's why I found it to be very successful. If you create empathy for those that you collaborate with and put the user experience lens on it. Everybody is your end-user, and understanding their needs makes you more successful.
Have you ever had a mentor?
I have! I've had one official and one unofficial.
I had an official mentor at Microsoft and he was able to help me understand the large company environment. The best, most profound mentor I had was a guy named Skip Walter. He was one of my professors in Grad School. I always was interested in startups, and Skip was a serial entrepreneur. He taught a class on how to create a startup, all the things that go into it, and the thought process.
While I felt like a very strong designer at that point in time, I didn't really understand how to apply design and user experience into a product and make it something that could cause anything from disruptive innovation to truly empowering user experiences. Skip was somebody who really helped me understand the business side. So much so that I actually started in his first startup after his teaching, a small company called Personal Health Connections. Then we joined forces with another health provider and were one of the first innovators in the space. Then I actually worked with him on a second startup, a decade down the road. It was a pretty successful startup!
Watching Skip use his mind to connect multiple different kinds of needs across multiple different disciplines and really apply the equation of how we can bring value to the space... that was such a great superpower to get from him!
Tell us about a time when a mentor has helped you accomplish a specific goal.
It involves my second mentor, Brett Ostrom at Microsoft. Brett had been at Microsoft for a number of years, and really understood the mechanics of a large organization. I hadn't really been in a large company like that before. Brett was helping me navigate how you get things done there.
For example, I was competing with other peers on how to get a budget. What I learned from Brett is something that I apply still today, which is: Have your details straight. What I did was I delineated everything I needed in the budget, I could explain absolutely every detail that I had in there. That gave me a ton of credibility when I went to get my budget, competing with my peers where they didn't have the same answers. I had no problem getting the budget I did.
Can you describe a time when a mentor pushed you further than you thought was possible?
I'm a designer, I have an ego, and I'm pretty edgy. It's really hard to push me outside of my comfort zone because I'm always willing to go someplace else. But Skip, my mentor, did that once. I was working on information visualization and it was working out pretty well. It was a little challenging for the development team to build some of the 3D concepts that I had. That's what would have made this super successful in my mind.
Skip asked one question, I still remember it. He said, “Why does it have to be three dimensions?” I had put a constraint in my mind that didn’t need to be there and I hadn't explored beyond that. We eventually came up with a much, much better solution because he asked a critical question and questioned me on my assumptions. That really pushed me beyond what I was able to do.
Any advice your mentor has given you that you can share with us today?
It was an unofficial mentor and I wasn't really looking to this person for mentorship, despite the fact that they had a lot of good insights. It was in a company where the product that we were working on had to be sold to end-users and I was having a few challenges with folks in the sales team. His advice to me was, “Embrace sales, you'll make your job a lot easier. Figure out how to make both sides happy and don't think of them as science. If you embrace the sales team, they will be your best champion.” Once I embraced the sales team, they were asking me for details constantly, that was really a change in perspective.
Looking back, have you gotten terrible advice that you can share?
There was a time where I got advice that wasn't as helpful as other advice I've been given. I was working on an innovation project, which was very different from the company's product and the company's brand. It scared a lot of people, intimidated a lot of people. Maybe because it was different?
It could start generating revenue in a different way from the way we typically generate revenue. The advice to me was, “Drop this project - it's going to create a lot of friction and if you want to go through the ranks here smoothly, you don't want to ruffle any feathers.”
I understood the advice but I wasn't particularly interested in going up the ladder. What I was interested in was really doing something that made a difference for our end users. So I kept working on it, I changed the parameters of it and it became kind of a night job, a passion project. It didn't affect my day job so it took a lot longer in that timeframe but eventually, I was able to get this thing done to a point where people could see what it was and see what the value was. Then it started taking off. I was happy that it was one piece of advice I didn't take!
What makes a great mentee in your opinion?
I think the most important thing for a great mentee is listening. There are always smarter people than you, more experienced than you in some areas, but not all. Regardless of how much experience you have, or how good you think you are, you can always learn from somebody if you turn on the listening lens. I think the best thing a mentee can do is recognize where limitations are and learn from people who have different skill sets.
Why do you mentor?
I want to give back. Nobody can do it on their own. I've had people throughout my life that have helped me in a lot of different ways. Those people who mentored me, did it for the same reason they want to give back, they see somebody who has a lot of value to give, and they want to help that person get to where they want to get. I mentor to pay it forward.
What's the weirdest or strangest thing that you have asked your mentor?
The weirdest thing that I ever asked a mentor was, “How do I get to VP?” The reason why it was a weird question for me to ask was, I really didn't care about being Vice President. I really actually didn't want to do any of the things a VP would do. I was super happy with what I was doing. It was more of an ego thing, somebody just got promoted so I asked what I needed to do to be a VP. I had no desire whatsoever to be one. I got a really good answer from my mentor, he said, “Why do you want to be a VP?” And that was exactly what I needed to hear.
How would your mentees praise you?
They would say that I'm always there for them. I think that's a really important thing, because you never know when you need a mentor. I push them out of their comfort zone, I think they would all say that I do that a lot. It feels uncomfortable but they've learned something really good as a result of getting pushed out of their comfort zone.
When was a time you helped a mentee solve a big challenge?
It was in the discipline of user research. This person really struggled with it and needed some help figuring out how to be successful at it. We talked a lot about turning off your brain when your brain is telling you, “This isn't fun. This isn't what you should be doing.” I said, “Tell yourself you can do it, rather than finding all the reasons why you can't do it. Try that.” That helped because they went in with a different mindset. It really helped to get past that initial barrier that they had built in their head.
Any embarrassing moments early in your career when you were thinking, “Oh, no, this might be it.”?
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