In March 2019, my friend and colleague Liwei Wang and I set out to curate a conversation about design in business. We were piqued and intrigued by a recent McKinsey report about the “business value of design”, a report which places design on a pedestal while largely leaving designers out of the conversation defining “good design”. The interviews we conducted and articles we solicited, as well as our full editor’s statement, can be found in this issue of Yale Paprika!, Yale’s student architecture journal. The interview below is a part of this conversation.
Tom Tang (M.Arch I 2009) is a former architect who now works as a Software Development Engineer at Amazon. Tom and his wife, Yijie Dang (M.Arch I 2011), both graduated from Yale School of Architecture. (Note: Yijie left McKinsey in 2017 to raise their new baby.)
Cyndi Chen What does life after architecture look like for people who have gone into the business world?
Tom Tang I think leaving architecture is hard because for most people in architecture it’s all they’ve ever known. Architecture focuses on a specific problem; you have a site, you design according to some program, and then you create something interesting within those constraints. Leaving those constraints is terrifying.
But for my wife it was liberating. She was always interested in McKinsey.
What surprises me is that I still daydream about going back to architecture. If I think about the thing I miss, it’s the freedom to design. I feel a little bit of it while building software, but there’s just isn’t a fluidity of concepts as in architecture. I think it’s also a different kind of imagination. Imagining space is a thing that comes naturally to architects.
CC One of the things that prompted this issue of Paprika! is that design is becoming a very popular buzzword in the business world. How do you think the agency and the creative freedom of the designer has changed in the last year?
TT From my personal experience, I don’t know if design plays a bigger role than before. It seems like design has always been there. The trends have changed, the tooling has changed, but at the end of the day it’s not really about design. It’s about meeting a core business need, and design is just a way to conceptualize the user experience. For example, on my current team we have a user experience (UX) designer. I would say that she has very little say in the overall user experience, and her role is mostly cosmetic.
This may also be because I’m at Amazon and not Apple. I’m sure people at Apple would have a different opinion.
CC Can you tell me more about the creative freedom with architecture? What did that feel like?
TT At work these days, I do a lot of systems design and systems architecture. What I try to do is apply some ideas that I learned from real architecture. The thing that architects do well is identifying key problems and addressing them in a unique way. What I experienced in architecture was also an appreciation for out-of-the-box thinking and novelty—some solution that nobody else had thought of. I really appreciated that.
With software design, it’s really, really difficult to get people on board with solutions that seem unique or different. It is typically met with the enormous challenge of proving that every aspect of it works as expected. With architecture, you can look at a solution and very quickly assume a lot of things about how it might be implemented in the real world. With software solutions, every new idea brings extreme uncertainty.
CC Are there other ways that architecture has affected your professional life?
TT The most valuable thing I gained from architecture school is my ability to deal with criticism. A lot of people in the professional world are not very good at this.
When you’re an architect and you present your idea, and every single critic rips it to shreds, you’re doing it right. If nobody rips it to shreds it means your project is boring. In this environment, you get used to criticism fast. You learn how to really love a project but stay sufficiently emotionally detached from it to accept the criticism.
I think that’s a valuable skill no matter where you are. This is going to sound really cheesy, but architecture reviews taught me how to be brave. Now I have a kind of technical fearlessness. I can present something that I don’t completely understand and use the criticisms levied against me to find the answers I need. This ability surprised me a little bit.
CC Is there a difference in the type of criticism you see in the corporate world?
TT In the corporate environment—and I don’t know if this is good or bad for my career—I will push for bold ideas. Most other people are not willing to go that far. For example, one of my co-workers tends to look for existing solutions to problems. My approach is to take a bunch of different ideas and combine them into something new. That’s generally met with a lot of criticism and skepticism. Although, I would say that if I was doing the same thing in architecture there would also be criticism and skepticism.
CC But in architecture there is the appreciation for the novelty of the solution, right? I feel that in design circles, even if people hate your idea, they appreciate the fact that your idea has sparked something new in their own minds.
TT That’s just not true when it comes to designing software systems.
CC Can you summarize what you and your wife gained and lost from leaving architecture?
TT Primary gain: better work hours. Way better work hours. And better salary. That’s very important.
Loss: this is super lame, but the use of the creative side of my brain. However, I think there is something deeper than that. I don’t think about novelty as much. I stopped looking for design. That’s something I really miss.
For my wife, I think she gained a capacity for very tight logical thinking. I think that’s something she didn’t have before McKinsey.
CC So that’s not something that’s emphasized in architecture.
TT No. I think in architecture it’s more about making lateral connections because that’s what gives you conceptual freedom.
In terms of what she’s lost…if there is one thing she really enjoyed in architecture it would probably be the camaraderie, working on tight deadlines with people like you on a really hard problem. Going through that grind together. But she has a little bit of that at McKinsey.
CC Does she also daydream about going back to architecture?
TT She’s very happy with her time at McKinsey and very happy to have left architecture.
The one holdover for her is that we have ridiculously high standards for where we live.
It’s impossible for us to find a house to buy because no house is up to our standards.
I guess we’ll just have to wait until we design our own.