In each episode of our podcast, we talk to amazing product builders to learn about how they work, their processes, tools they use, and things that inspire them. It's an opportunity to get a sneak peek into how other builders and makers do their jobs.
In this episode, we interviewed Jeff Anders. He is one of the co-founders of Ambrook where he leads design. Ambrook helps make sustainability profitable in natural resource sectors. He previously led the design team at Scale AI, was a product designer at Facebook, and ran a design agency called Minimill.
In our episode, Jeff shares how designers can transition to management.
Irtefa: Hey, everybody. Welcome to the hundred percent Design Podcast by jam.dev. Today we have Jeff Anders as our guest. Jeff leads design at Ambrook. Ambrook's mission is to make sustainability profitable in agriculture. He leads design and started the company as well. In the past, Jeff worked at Facebook and Scale AI as a design manager and has a unique path to how he ended up in design. Jeff has a special place in our hearts at jam.dev. He actually designed our logo, and that's how we got started working with Jeff. Jeff, we're so excited to have you here. You have a very seasoned career as a designer. You worked at Venmo, you worked at Facebook, and you were at Scale AI. What made you start a new company?
Jeff: Yeah. Hey, great to be here. The motivation for Ambrook was totally around wanting to get involved in climate tech and have an impact with the skills and interests that we had. So, that was the main motivation, and when I teamed up with my co-founder, we all brought a piece of the puzzle there in terms of finding what we wanted to work on within climate change and having an impact there.
Irtefa: That's very cool. And do you wanna talk a little bit more about Ambrook?
Jeff: Yeah, absolutely. Ambrook is a company that we started about a year ago. Our goal is to make sustainability profitable in the natural resource sectors. So right now, we work with farmers and help them be more profitable and sustainable. We're really interested in aligning the economic and environmental incentives in these industries where we can create software to help people better manage and track their finances through all sorts of different modern FinTech tools that, at the end of the day, help them tie their sustainable practices to their bottom line and make, climate aware practices, really practical and economical decisions for the business.
Irtefa: And that's really cool. And I was looking online, and it basically said, y'all make sustainability profitable. So you're incentivizing farmers and other sorts of creators to build farms and grow things in a sustainable way and incentivizing them to do that. How are y'all doing that?
Jeff: Yeah, so a really easy way to think about this is that the resources that we use to make agriculture happen, water, power, fuel, seed inputs, those all cost money, and to reduce your impact on the planet by better managing your natural resource usage is something that, will save farmers money and will potentially make them more money. And save their time along the way by, perhaps, putting less time into an unprofitable crop in a very diversified operation. That's something that before would be really hard to understand and track manually on pen and paper or Excel. And with our software becomes far easier. So that's just one example of a number of different ways that you can tie sustainability to the bottom line. And make a win, win for the business owners and the people on the planet.
Irtefa: That's wonderful. Before you started a company and before you were part of before you started your career as a designer when did you know that this is what you wanted to do? That you wanted to be a designer?
Jeff: Yeah. I actually studied mechanical engineering in school back at the University of Maryland. And there was a sort of gradual turning point, I guess, where I realized that the side projects I was doing on the side, with our startup incubator and for different student groups across campus, making t-shirts or websites or videos for them was. Way more fun than what I was doing with mechanical engineering. It was a far more engaging, creative outlet for me. So, towards the end of my school, I gave up after four years and entirely switched to the product design world, where I continue to work today.
Irtefa: How hard was it to make that? I'm not gonna say make that transition, but more like being in that degree mechanical engineering degree and landing internships in design because that's what you did. How hard was that?
Jeff: Yeah, I mean, it was definitely interesting to see my classmates taking jobs with Boeing or Lockheed Martin or other sorts of like pure mechanical engineering companies. While I had my first startup experience with Venmo and then later with Autodesk and Creative Market. I don't know. It was like living two different lives. And I decided then to make it just one life by going all in on digital product design. One of the things I've learned in my time as a designer is that you're pulling inspiration from all sorts of different fields, and mechanical engineering, for me, is a huge one. Thinking about structural integrity and the way that physical products are built and designed is something that has a lot of parallels to the infrastructure that we have in our digital apps or the way we create those. So there, there are a lot of parallels and no regrets from that time even though I don't really use my heat transfer and static formulas anymore.
Irtefa: That's funny about static formulas. You said something interesting. There's a lot of things that are similar about building a physical product and then applying those same principles in digital product design. Where do you get your inspiration from?
Jeff: Yeah. One of my favorite things to tell younger designers is once you get to a certain level of like competency as a designer, you sort of plateau your learning by reading more and more design tips. It's more interesting for me these days to look at things like architecture, urbanism, and economics to learn different ways of doing things that, that maybe are actually innovating within the design field instead of just leveling up within things people have already tried. So, economics is great for looking at how to motivate people like that, the study of how to distribute scarce resources like the, there are so many parallels to how you can create like user experiences. Architecture, I love it. There's this thing in architecture called the parti, which is like how people circulate through a space. And it's very similar to the flows of our design screens and product flows. There are so many things I'm learning from those that I bring into my work, and especially now that with Ambrook, it is a product that has real-world consequences and real-world-like physical manifestations of the things that appear in our app. It is even more important for me to be like, engaged in these other spaces.
Irtefa: Oh, what's an interesting space? First of all, I've never heard a designer say that they get inspiration from economics.
Jeff: Oh, Planet Money, all those types of podcasts and blog content out there. I eat that up.
Irtefa: And it's interesting you say that it sort of teaches you how to incentivize people, how to motivate people, Right. And then using those economic factors to drive people in certain directions. And as a designer, you're spending a lot of time. There are two parts to this, like motivating people around you but also leading the user in a certain direction using those principles. What are some interesting places you're looking at right now for inspiration? Anything new and unusual?
Jeff: Anything new. I mean, the ones I just mentioned truly are like in my reading and listening queue all the time. One example of something that we look at a lot as an agricultural FinTech company, the concepts like governing the commons or, similar ideas from economics, like, how do you distribute resources or help people make decisions when the greedy algorithm would have them do something that doesn't benefit the whole? That's just so fascinating in our space. You have things like adding liquidity to certain systems like water treating, for example, which is a core part of agriculture. Agriculture consumes about 75% of American freshwater. So, to govern the commons, as they say, is to create incentives and liquidity for people to be able to move those resources to people who can use it more effectively and without systems or products that can help do that or policies that can help do that. The greedy algorithm would have people produce like low-value crops with those resources instead of going to people who could use it more effectively. So that's one example of maybe a more strategic part of our work and not so much like a tactical design flow that I've made using like this external inspiration, but as a design founder, our role goes far beyond the UI and into these sorts of systems that require some outside inspiration.
Irtefa: I'm curious now. I mean, it's really cool that you are bringing this sort of thinking into the app tech industry. Why aren't people thinking about it this way, in commons, like these companies that are already playing in this space, why aren't they taking this approach? Because it sounds more appealing, like for everyone, right?
Jeff: Yeah. Good question. In AgTech, there's a lot of systems at play here. So, one is that agriculture right now is quantitatively the least digitized industry in the world. And the oldest. So we refer to a McKinsey study that was shared with us a while back where like at the very bottom, you have agriculture followed by healthcare and construction and a few others, but just the state of the world right now is that there is not enough software to help with things that are solved in other industries. From baseline, Maslow's needs of a business like connectivity or like basic financial money movement software that's designed for these farms and agricultural producers it just doesn't exist in the depth that we have in things like enterprise SAS or like consumer products.
Also, a lot of the effort that goes into agriculture is focused on what are called field crops or row crops. So that's things like wheat, corn, and soybeans. These are like the agricultural juggernauts of the United States. A lot of the other types of agriculture like specialty crops, livestock, and aquaculture does not get the same services. So a lot of the biggest names in agriculture are serving those mono crop operations, which oftentimes have more predictable systems in place, like more repeatable across different operations. Whereas in specialty crops, you might have a diversified operation, that's planting strawberries and 15 other types of berries, and they have chickens, and they do eggs and, that's just far more variables at play. AgTech has not made its way all the way down to these less juggernaut parts of agriculture. And that is changing. We are one of many folks who are focused on the whole agricultural spectrum with our tools. But, so far, the incentives have been to work with those row crops exclusively. And maybe one more thing is that our team comes from a variety of different backgrounds. We bring a lot of perspectives from FinTech, from healthcare, from enterprise, SaaS, and dev tools, like we bring a lot of different perspectives into it. I think we're able to pull that into our apps and our features and our designs in ways that other AgTechs which source exclusively from the agriculture industry are not tapping quite as much. But we are seeing that change too. We are seeing more and more people get involved here, which, a rising tide raises all ships. So we're really excited about that.
Irtefa: That's super exciting. Sometimes an industry just needs a different perspective. It sounds like you are approaching this sort of industry that's way behind everyone else in terms of digitization. And bringing all the new lessons that y'all learn in Enterprise, SAS, other consumer apps, all those different industries and sort of applying those lessons there. Super cool.
Jeff: At the same time, it is really important to have a level of humility in all of this. I mean, there are a lot of AgTech companies that have come and gone because they only bring their own perspective. And one of the things that we're really aware of is that because we come from these different backgrounds, we have to put extra time into our customer discovery, UX research, spending time, and building relationships with our farmer community. And that is a big part of our decision making is like, how can we augment what we bring to the table with just listening to the people who will use this even more than a company that might otherwise have to?
Irtefa: Totally. Okay, so, next question, curious about what tips or tactical ideas you have to level up designers who are listening to this podcast?
Jeff: Yeah. One of the things that I think I can bring to this conversation is around how to get into management. I knew from the first day I started as a designer that like working with people was part of a set of design roles that I'm really drawn to. People would have to set expectations with me, like, okay Jeff, you're a new grad coming out of school, you're not gonna go right into management. I think there were a lot of things that I tried to do to prepare like leadership skills or managerial skills while working as an IC to work into my dream role, which I was able to lead the design team at Scale AI and have designers that I supported directly which was just such a fulfilling experience.
And now, as a founder at Ambrook, like a lot of my time is on team management as well, even though I don't have any direct reports for design at the moment, though that's changing. We have a few open roles. Come work with us. There are a lot of things you can do if you have this, like a lagging promotion mindset, which I picked up at Facebook, which basically exhibits the behaviors of someone who would be in the role that you want to be in, in order to be considered for that. So as an IC designer, there are so many things you can do without having direct reports. You can find people inside or outside of your company to mentor and help level up the skills needed to help someone learn to design. It is a similar skillset to like supporting a team as a manager being a peer mentor on your team, helping onboard the newest team member, and opening yourself up to questions or having them shadow you. That is a similar great experience creating any sort of like programs or ERGs within your company. That all is like so useful to demonstrate your capacity as a manager. So going from IC to management, and I always think about management as the three Ps you have, product, process and people. As an IC, most people are usually focused on their product outcomes and deliverables that they're responsible for directly. But how can you, like, influence your team's process? Can you introduce or soup up a newer existing tool to make it more useful for the places where the gaps are? Can you support people like emotionally on your team when they need it? Those are the people and process side of management that anyone can engage with at any time. As well as of course, product leadership, proposing new features, and being able to scope inspect something from zero to one is like a critical skill set as well.
Irtefa: This reminds me of, and I'm paraphrasing here, there's a saying where like you should start dressing like the role you want, not the role you have. This reminds me of that, but with more technical advice than just dressing up as someone, basically suggesting doing things that you can do as an individual contributor, to sort of level up personally and then show it to management. Thus, you are capable of doing those things, and you naturally slot into management when you do those things like mentoring others, taking initiatives, starting ERT, and things like that. Super cool.
Jeff: Yeah, and to use your language, some of it is showing to existing management in a medium or large company, but it's also super valuable in a small team or a startup or an agency. A lot of times teams grow and introduce management as needed, and to say I will try to absorb those gaps right now is a great way to understand what the managerial needs of the team are. Right. Don't hire a manager if there is no management work to be done. But once if you're, say, the only designer or design lead of a small team, like finding the places that you can plug into those products, people, and process gaps can help define the future role of management on a team.
Irtefa: What are your go-to books that transformed you as a designer?
Jeff: Yeah, so I was thinking about this, and I tried to pick ones that maybe aren't brought up in the design context a ton. So, yes, The Design of Everyday Things was extremely important to me in my career. But the two that I thought of for this were a book called Zany Afternoons and a book called Let My People Go Surfing. So, Zany Afternoons was a book that we had around my house growing up. It was just such a wacky book of like fake advertisements for World War II-era vehicles and like lifestyle goods that don't and shouldn't exist. But there are these like beautiful illustrations in the like classic retro-futuristic aesthetic of, people with, double-wide cars and people eating sit a sit-down restaurant on the wings of an airplane and just these like totally wacky scenarios that were very entertaining as a kid. But I think it was like only in retrospect that I realized it was a pretty inspirational book in terms of taking something that you're very familiar with and changing one or two variables about it to see how the experience would change. And yeah, that probably had a very outsized impact on me because it was perhaps my dad's favorite book and a book that I read constantly and would just flip through as a routine. And so that's a great one, Zany Afternoons.
And then Let My People Go Surfing is probably a more popular book these days. It's about Patagonia's management style, and it reinforced an idea that many of us have that there are not extremely rigid ways that you have to run a company or a team. And if you have certain values that maybe you weigh more than traditional values or alongside traditional values, you can create a culture or a team or a process that supports that. So, if people at Patagonia really enjoyed outdoor activities and they created systems that, at the end of the day were net good for the company by keeping people engaged and retained and happy while also addressing a key interest of the staff at the company like that's definitely a way that I like to run teams and something we bring into Ambrook all the time. We don't have to do something this way if people don't enjoy it. Let's make sure that, like the processes, the meetings, and the tools we choose to use, the benefits are all things that like support our interests and our values.
Irtefa: Yeah. I love that book. Let My People Go Surfing, right?
Irtefa: What are some podcasts you're listening to?
Jeff: Some of the ones that come to mind recently, again that are not in the 99% invisible league of designer favorites, a recent favorite has been How to Save a Planet with Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, and Alex Blumberg. They're great. They kind of like bring up a different topic within climate change and have either given me more detail about something I've, been actively researching or exposed me to totally new concepts, like the importance of kelp in the climate fight. Another cool one is all, Ologies, the idea is to pick someone who has this hyper-specific expertise and just get all their geeky favorite fun facts out about that, blank ology. I love that one. And similarly opened my eyes to a lot of just really interesting things about trees or cartography or, all sorts of like little micro interests.
And another one that I like definitely listen to every new episode for is called the Energy Gang. My co-founder Mackenzie actually introduced me to this, and it's just such a like, rational, practical view of how the energy system works, how the grid works, and how climate incentives line up. And I learn something new every time. And occasionally, it'll make its way into our work at Ambrook or, at least help us understand and make sense of new policies that are coming on with the new administration here in the States. So, that has been another favorite recently as well.
Irtefa: Super cool. About the energy grid podcast. Do you listen to an episode about it? By the way, I didn't listen to that podcast, but I'm just curious, what happened in Texas earlier this year when we lost power for a few days?
Jeff: Yeah, absolutely. The situation in Austin and in Texas was covered pretty immediately. In fact, the source Energy Gang helped me make sense of that. Where usually like well-intentioned, or at least externally well-intentioned people, like people who frame themselves as well-intentioned have variable rate energy rates, may save people a few bucks during normal times. But with the freezing scenario, all the snow, and frozen pipes happened in Texas what was a variable rate based on demand became a nightmare scenario where people were paying thousands and thousands of dollars. And when we talk about aligning incentives in economics and the environment like this is it’s so, so relevant and shows how even a creative system can fail. Texas has a lot of other systemic issues going on with their energy grid. But it's fascinating just to see how the failure cases of something designed to help people are at least framed as helpful to people which got enough people to sign up for it and then totally failed during this emergency crisis.
Irtefa: Yeah, that was quite an experience. Jeff, working as an individual contributor now as a co-founder and also at some point as a manager, you probably learned a lot working with PMs and engineers and all the other people who work closely with designers. What advice do you have for them on how to work better with the designer to create amazing products?
Jeff: Yeah. I think the best way to build empathy or earn your seat at the table, or whatever interdepartmental improvement you want to make, the best way to get started with any of that is just to build what you design or do the step that you know, one of your peers in a different department on your team, would do. So if you're designing a website, practice building that website at least once. Do the marketing campaign drafts once and just build that muscle for what your teammates go through. Try to understand and be able to anticipate how they would interpret something, some deliverable you've given to them, or an opinion you may have.
I started building my own websites pretty early on, even though I might not know the latest react syntax to make something modern today I understand high-level concepts, and it allows me to communicate with those folks way better. So, if you find yourself stuck with I can't get anything across to engineering, or something like that, one of the best ways to mend that relationship or begin to empathize with their life is to just start learning about it and be a practitioner yourself.
Irtefa: So, just flipping it on, for product managers, engineers, to work well with the designers, try designing something to grow empathy for the designer you are working with. Super cool advice.
Jeff, it was amazing talking to you. I learned so many different things, so many golden nuggets, and I can't wait to share this with our audience. I keep forgetting that we're not a radio show; we are a podcast, so people will be listening to this when we put this out. Super awesome having you over. Jeff, thank you so much for your time today.
Jeff: Yeah, thanks so much. Bye.
Here are links to things that were discussed in the podcast: