SHOTA PANGILINAN, Product Designer @ Spotify

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SHOTA PAN

Hometown: Los Angeles, CA
Years lived in the city: <1
Age: 22
Occupation: Product Designer
Company: Spotify

I sat down with my friend Shota at Think Coffee on the corner of E 21st St and 3rd Ave one blistering cold day in December. We had originally wanted to go to Rolf's Restaurant across the street but we didn't want to wait an hour in the 10 degree weather. And it turned out to be a good idea, because we ended up talking back and forth for five hours, discussing things from what happens after death to the NY raving scene (he's been to a lot of shows).

Shota hails from sunny California and went to school at The University of California, Berkeley where he majored in Cognitive Science. He didn't expect to move to New York but a full-time offer with Spotify as a Product Designer brought him to the city (fun fact: he didn’t actually use Spotify before he started working there). He's also a photographer, a rave connoisseur, and drinks a lot of coffee.

We discuss Shota's favorite parts of the city, what a product designer really is, and why the morning is his favorite part of the day. 

Steph: What was your first memory in New York?

Shota: The first time I had gone to New York was when I had found out that I had landed an internship at Spotify, in their US headquarters. It was really last minute, so a week later I flew into New York and I crashed on my friend Jessica’s couch for awhile until I could find an apartment. They live on Broome Street in the Lower East Side. That street is right next to this really cheap eats place called Shu Jiao Fu Zhou cuisine. I came on a really hot and humid summer night. So I had a really bad first impression of New York being hot, dirty, and cramped.

Did you want to move to New York?

Not really. I really love California, especially San Francisco which is near where I went to school.  Moving to New York, being so far from family and better weather was never something I expected I would end up doing– but I’m very glad I did.

What's your favorite part of the city and why?

I really like Lower Manhattan. I live in the East Village and often mill about the L.E.S. or Chinatown/SoHo. Still, if I could choose one place I really love, it would probably be Central Park. As cliche as that sounds, it was the first time following my rough first impression of New York that I really had begun to see the beautiful nuances of New York’s vibrant culture. I remember walking up that main walkway towards Bethesda Fountain and being in awe of how majestic it looked. 

What led you to move here?

After an internship with Spotify led to a full-time offer. Ironically, I hadn’t really used Spotify very much until I joined.

How did you get your internship?

 Design team at Spotify

Design team at Spotify

One of the lead designers on the Spotify for Artists team had posted on Twitter about an internship opening. I was looking out for positions following my graduation from UC Berkeley, so I followed up by emailing him my resume and portfolio– and the rest is history. He’s still my mentor and manager today.

Did you specifically want to work for a music company like Spotify?

Yes and no. I knew that I was going to end up in technology, but I wasn’t so sure what types of problems or what industry I was going to tackle. Coming out of college I wanted any type of experience, in order to learn and grow. But it was just a lucky happenstance that I landed a position with a great music and technology company. I eventually want to use design to tackle a field like mental health, disabilities, or medical technologies.

What did you study in college and how does that relate to your job now?

I originally was a neuroscience major, who eventually transitioned into Cognitive Science. At UC Berkeley, the major is extremely interdisciplinary, where I took classes in Computer Science, Psychology, Design Innovation, Philosophy, Anthropology, Linguistics and Microbiology. I ended up getting a degree in Cognitive Science, with a concentration in Design Innovation and minor in Linguistics. I think my background reflects a lot of what product design’s functions are. We use interdisciplinary viewpoints to help use design and create solutions to solve user needs. You’d be surprised by how much of design thinking is rooted in the technical and social sciences and how it to relates to good product solutions.

Can you describe the difference between the tech scene in Silicon Valley versus New York?

It feels a bit less gross to be a product designer here. I don't know if you've been to the Silicon Valley, but there's this strange “tech bro” culture there and you still feel that with some of the designers. Because of how diverse and uniquely creative New York City culture is, you don’t feel a part of a homogenous blob of tech. If anything, you see more finance bro or fashion bro. But I guess the only downside is that it’s a bit frustrating when people don’t know what my job title does.

I felt like in SF there’s this stigma that if you don’t work in tech, you’re a little less important.

Yeah, people in tech can make you feel like you’re not making money if you’re not at a startup or working at a big tech company. It’s really noticeable at my college, where everyone loved to tell people about their internship at Facebook. But then you come to New York and  you see finance dudes making money, like millions of dollars on a merger, and you're like “oh s***, yeah, my tech money is nothing.” Their salaries are ridiculous. You also see those in the fashion industry making high or low, either making nothing or making a lot.

In New York, I feel like the pursuit of your dream is what's important here. So even if you're not making money yet, but you're striving towards something, you’re still respected regardless of the field you’re in.

Yeah, I think the creative culture is a lot stronger here which I personally like. It’s really a passionate city. I could see why people choose to lose themselves in this city, with all its people and vibrance. How is Austin, though? (Note: I went to The University of Texas at Austin). I know that Austin has a burgeoning tech culture. Isn’t it called Silicon Hills?

People call Austin the little brother of Silicon Valley and because it’s newer, it’s still trying to create its identity. Because of that it's very open-minded and still malleable. It tends to be more chill and laid back than Silicon Valley. In a metaphor, I would say it’s a toddler, instead of a high school senior trying to apply to college. A lot of companies are trying to leave Silicon Valley and establish Headquarters in Austin in order to have that positive culture. I know that the CEO of Outdoor Voices (athleisure brand) specifically picked Austin to set up HQ for that reason.

So back to your role, what exactly is a product designer? What do you do at Spotify and can you walk me through a typical day?

Everyday is a little different -  it depends where you are in the year and current quarter and where you are in the product lifecycle or where the company as a whole is at. So our product Spotify for Artists was launched a year ago and it’s still building it’s foundations. So now we're trying to move forward and make it into more of a vibrant product for artists and managers.

For those who don't know, ‘Spotify for Artists’ is a platform built by Spotify in order to allow Artists to view streaming analytics, to engage with their fans, to report feedback to us and just have more power over their Spotify account overall. They can manage their profile, edit their profile pictures, set an artist pick, engage with their fans and better understand their listeners. There is a statistics analytics dashboard to view where your listeners are from, if they’re male or female, and shows over time what playlists you've been added to. In the future, we're going to have other features but these are the very foundational ones that we felt the artists needed immediately. We just want artists to see very transparently how they're doing on Spotify and what they can do to engage with fans. Eventually it's going to be more but I can't say anything about that now.

You can also see when your ranking has gone up or down, like “Oh you went up here, but that’s because you were added to a playlist like Rap Caviar.” We’re hoping to build more insightful tools like this in the near future.

Day to day, it’s a lot of working closely with your product managers and engineers. As a product designer, you function independently. Spotify runs in their famed teams called “squads” within its R&D (research & development) department. Most squads are made up of  a trio featuring one design owner, one product owner, and one tech owner. Within that, we have a team of either front-end engineers or back-end engineers or iOS developers, whatever that team specifically does. In my team I have two front-end developer, one back-end developer who is also the tech owner, one product manager and then me.

We set goals for the quarter and we draw out the roadmap for how we're going to build these different features, what we're going to build, and – so it really depends on where we are on the road map in terms of what we do on a certain day. Right now I'm in the initial ideation process so I can't say what I'm doing but it's all about working with other stakeholders to figure out what the product is that we’re going to build and how it’s going to work. We look at things like what is it going to feel like, what is it going to look like,  how it's going to be incorporated into our different platforms since we have web, desktop and mobile, and how does it work within a our system. So overall we think about how we’re going to incorporate this product into our platform as a whole. For the next year we're going to be planning what we're going to be building. We just finished executing a large design feature this summer that we pushed to finish by the end of the year. We also built a bunch of iterations of the current feature we’re revisiting.

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Is this where you see yourself going long term and what is the career path of a product designer? 

The career path tends to be an associate/junior product designer for the first year and that's currently where I'm at. Then after that you become a regular product designer (for 3 to 5 years), and after 5 to 7 years, you become a senior product designer. After that you can become a principal designer with 9 to 10 years experience, and then after that you choose between either becoming a design manager or principal, but once you become a manager, you no longer do actual design. We call it an “IC” meaning “individual contributor” where you don't actually design anymore, you focus on managing design teams and focusing on design strategy. At one point design leaders eventually become more product and strategy thinkers.  Some product designers are similar to a product manager where they can often think in the same way. I talk to my VP of design and I ask him questions like “what's the difference between your role and someone else's role of similar rank? Or what's the difference between a design lead vs a product lead at that high of a level?” and he told me that at one point it's mostly the same thing so they work closely with a product lead, but use their design speciality as a powerful asset. Anyways, after you split off into the management route, you  later can become director and then VP. That takes much longer to reach in a career. I think my director or VP are like 40 or 50 years old. There are other routes outside of Spotify but this is just our organization. For example, some companies have a design executive - it’s CDO for chief design officer.

I think this is where I want to be in for the long term.  Product design is a fun and lucrative field. I'm lucky to be able to have gotten into it at this age cause it's really hard to get into it as a new grad just because it's so oddly interdisciplinary. It's very hard for people to have the required skill sets before going into the job. But in terms of what industry I see myself in and how I apply my skills, that's something that I want to eventually change paths in. I think music and social isn't exactly my passion but being a product designer in the field and utilizing design thinking is the path I still want to go down.

The one really cool thing about being a product designer is that you don't have to be any specific major out of college because there's no specific major for it. You don't have to be a business major to be a product designer, you have to be somewhat business-y to be a product manager, but for product design you can come from more technical backgrounds; you can come from a visual design background which is what a lot of people come from - which a lot of people don't consider to be a prestigious major, but once you actually start doing the work you see that people who do visual design actually have a very strong sense of thinking and dealing with problems– and so anyone can really tackle a problem with design under product design. I think that's the really cool part about the field. I've seen English majors, anthropology majors - anthropology is actually one of the foundations of design, as they helped create design ethnography. Design ethnography is basically user research like following someone day-to-day life seeing how they interact with things and understanding why they use things and where they use it to solve products for that user or user group, the root of human-centered design.

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 So you said that music or social isn't necessarily your passion, what would be your passion then?

Before I was a cognitive science major, I was actually a neurobiology major.  I’ve always been interested in helping those with mental health issues and disorders.  I seen a lot of mental health issues in the world and among my own circle. Alongside that I had a best friend who had a little brother with Down’s Syndrome and I had volunteered a lot for special needs kids, so I feel very strongly towards the disabled community. I want to eventually get into a field that does therapy or helps people in a specific way to enable people who seem disabled by the world around them. Right now the career path I’m on doesn't necessarily do that out right but I think that the design thinking skills that I have can be applied to any problem.  I'm not exactly sure what digital product can help people but I think that there's a place where we can enable those people with our holistic way of thinking.

You mentioned therapy. Often times we think that therapy is only for those who have been diagnosed with a mental disability, but actually everyone can benefit from therapy. It’s a really healthy thing, but our society has stigmatized it to where people think you can only go if you have a problem.

Yeah, it can only make you better. And it’s a different dynamic than talking to someone sho is your friend. Like your friends can be a different type of therapy but I think it’s beneficial to talk to someone who is trained in the field. I've never had therapy myself but I feel strongly about it.

Yeah I went to therapy once in college when I had a little bit of anxiety and during my session, the therapist basically said that we tend to think that we are not normal and that our problems are unique to us, but really most people tend to struggle with the same issues. People just don’t talk about it. You might think something is the end of your world, but more often than not, you end up being fine in reality.

One thing I would say, though, by the way, now that we're all fine is that I've actually thought about it for a while now, but my whole life I've been up and down and I thought that once I would get a full-time job everything would be up and up. I am on the up-side right now but the thing I’ve noticed is that there are downturns always in life so I'm really curious when the next downturn will be and what it's going to be like cause usually before it was about grades and my future and relationships, but now other than relationships or job stress, which is a different type of stress, what is going to happen to me? I don’t know.

It’s the quarter life crisis next, which I see my friends going through. I’m ready for my SouthEast Asia trip - that tends to be the popular route.

You should look into this thing called Remote Year. I don't know if you can do your job remotely, but I've been looking into it for next year. You just travel the world and everyone in that cohort works remotely for their company. They set up shop somewhere and everyone has guaranteed Wi-Fi and you just do your work in Thailand or Vietnam or wherever. My friend is doing it for Spotify and spending every month in a different country.  I know that companies like IBM have had employees do it.  And the cost of a trip per month, including rent and everything, is $2000 which is cheaper than my rent in New York City.

The rent in New York is ridiculous.

I think ⅓ of all New York apartments are considered “luxury apartments”, meaning that they’re all more than a million dollars.

Where do all these rich people come from who can spend $7000 a month on rent...speaking of New York, what is the first thing you do when you wake up in the morning?

I set like 30 alarms because I have trouble waking up now that I'm in New York for some reason, but I also wake up really early. Usually I wake up around 6 or 7 am. My workday doesn't actually start until 10:30 am because tech... but I just like being really early. I really like mornings. I'm a very morning person but it's harder in New York for some reason. I think my rhythm is still off after moving from California.

Do you sleep later?

I've been sleeping later recently like 2 or 3 a.m. but I've been trying to sleep a lot more.

That’s like four hours of sleep.

I know, I feel it in the mornings.  But I really like getting up early before the city wakes up. It's nice seeing the world wake up. That sounds really cheesy but I enjoy that feeling, like seeing Chinatown specifically. I don't work in Chinatown, but seeing the old ladies set up and open up their buildings is so cute. It’d be the same thing with LA or any other city. Cities tend to rise and go to sleep together. New York doesn't sleep as quickly as other cities but it wakes up all the same.

As I wake up, I tend to check my phone for Slack messages in case something happened overnight on Slack that I didn't know about. Like incidences I can't do anything about if they’re technical, but I can see it and know about it or be educated about it and try help them out if I can...which I can't. Then I shower, get ready, leave.

I go to the City Bakery before work. It's on the street I work on and I get an egg wrap. I REALLY like eggs in the morning. If I could eat any meal all day it would be breakfast all day everyday.

Eggs are so awesome.

Eggs are awesome cause you can make eggs in so many different ways! And you can make them taste like anything too if you add something to it.

And it gives you protein!

it gives you protein; it feels like a carb, but it's not. I love eggs.

Then after all that, I sit at my desk. I want to start incorporating more cool things in the morning and after work but since I just moved here I'm still settling in my body and stuff.

The days go by so fast here.

I know, even if I didn’t do much at work, once I get home, I’m like “I need to eat Popeye's Chicken and go to sleep.” I've also been gaining weight because of the cold. I don't know, I think the cold is making my metabolism slow down or something

Wait I thought the cold made you lose weight.

No, my legs are getting big!!

People are lying to me then!  They told me that the cold makes you lose weight.