s4e01: umbra 

by danhon

 0.0 Station Ident

8:25am on November 29, 2016. Happy birthday, me. Today, a break from the usual newsletter programming and a continuation of s2e33: Black Design[0]. I am, of course, the kind of person who starts NaNoWriMo at the least best Mo of No. Posting this (of which, I’ll post more… infrequently… maybe?) seems like as good an excuse as any to switch to a new season.

[0] s2e33: Black Design

Have a good day, everyone. It’s okay to feel angry, and the only one who can tell you whether feeling angry is warranted is yourself. Be kind to yourself and others. Assume everyone’s trying to do the best they can, until they show otherwise.

As ever, send me notes. See you on the other side.


1.0 umbra


Wednesday, February 10, 2017


Matt was in a foul mood this morning and had shut himself away in One, the meeting room with the large, black conference table and the Polycom with a custom red paint job that in a company with a higher Whimsy Score on Glassdoor (not a real thing, I need to remember to write that down for work) would have a name like Monolith or Kubrick.


Matt being shut away meant that the review we were supposed to be having wasn’t happening. Instead, I slacked a copy of the Emotional Labor PDF Metafilter thread to Rebecca, the agency’s head of creative resourcing because at least part of me thought that she’d get something out of it and the other part of me though that it would be funny. Turns out it wasn’t exactly that funny in the first place.


It’s not like Rebecca didn’t know that she was already acting as a den mother to the creative floor (Top five den mother things that Rebecca does: 1) keeps a list of good doctors as reported by her charges; 2) keeps a list of good psychiatrists and therapists; 3) aggressively reminds people to take vacation; 4) spends (uncompensated) time during the day listening to peoples’ shit; 5) controversially, spends so much time on doing emotional labour for those in her care, she doesn’t have time for her own relationships).




Matt had shut himself away and wasn’t responding on any sort of messaging app. Stacy had even spent a few minutes trying to look up his phone number (no luck), to try calling him as a last resort. Other Tom thought he was hiding because he’d gotten the not-black-enough reaction on our latest review from Karla. The not-black-enough reaction is one of the few custom emoji we run on our instance (Whimsy Quotient, again) and is a high-information-density reminder that a particular piece of work isn’t… doing as much as it could do to make sure that user needs are being met.




I am alanchen@umbra. My business card says that I’m a Senior Designer at umbra’s San Francisco office. It isn’t a fun business card. It’s a very serious business card, and Dan, Karla and Tom have gone on record saying that there’s a time and a place for whimsy, and that those spacetime coordinates won’t ever be found inside umbra’s lightcones.


Just like the business cards, there isn’t anything fun about any of the San Francisco office: unlike most of the startups colonizing Bay Area buildings like a sort of ophiocordyceps unilateralis, our office doesn’t have any esoterically named conference rooms. There’s no pinball machines or arcade machines. (At least, not for free play. There are some, but they’re in labs or reference books). There aren’t any brightly colored hallways adorned with commissioned art. Instead, our building looks like a more professional, better designed and somewhat mentally healthier version of the inside of Lucasfilm’s offices out at Skywalker ranch.


Walking around Google’s campus, you might see a life-size dinosaur skeleton or a replica of the first commercial sub-orbital spaceship; walking around Facebook’s campus, you’d see inspirational poster art about how awesome it is if you break things as quickly as you can and have some sort of ineffable Gehry-ness infuse into your non-duality sense of being. Walking around our office, you’d see a bunch of quiet open working areas, lots of closed office doors (better productivity, right?), an LED-lighting significantly better than the kind most people would only ever see on a Dreamliner, and conference rooms where people still have trouble connecting to the A/V.




These are the applications in my Dock:


  1. Finder (duh)
  2. Siri
  3. Safari
  4. Chrome
  5. Mail
  6. Calendar
  7. Address Book
  8. Notes
  9. Messages
  10. Twitter
  11. iTunes
  12. Slack
  13. Illustrator
  14. Sketch
  15. Photoshop
  16. Terminal


I share a house with Caitlin, Tom and Amy in the Mission. Caitlin owns the house; she’d joined empathy_engine early on enough that when we got acquihired her options were actually worth something. She cashed out enough to buy a place in the Mission when we arrived three years ago, and since then, a) the house has become more depressingly unaffordable and b) the rest of her stock has become even more depressingly valuable. The options that I had in empathy_engine converted to an anaemic amount of stock in our acquirer which means that while they won’t ever be enough to afford a house here, I will be able to visit New Zealand before it’s mostly underwater (Ha: a stock options valuation joke).


Caitlin is just one of many friends who, by dint of luck, have a net worth in the hundreds of millions. I have a net worth that might actually be negative, if I had the courage to properly look.




umbra’s a black design company. “Black design” got coined five years ago when umbra were profiled by Fast Company (the magazine, as the cover story. Not some throwaway piece on the website that serves as Hacker News bait, this sort of thing is important when you’re trying to explain to your parents what you do) as being the design company (like Frog or IDEO but, you know, good at Internet stuff?) behind the then-outrageous Chinese citizen reputation ranking project that had leaked out.


At the time, everyone (that is, the insular industry) was going crazy over design fiction and whimsy and making things playful. umbra aggressively went in the other direction: selling design as a way to control, for greater profit, to the highest bidder.


Those Tide-branded Dash buttons, to make it easier for you to order laundry detergent? umbra. Algorithmic surge pricing, along with opaque driver/rider feedback mechanisms? An umbra patent, licensed by Uber. Automatic license plate recognition systems with a sort of “hello, what would you like to look for today?” cute wizard that’s easy enough to use so system integrator employees can succeed at creating new traffic violation revenue streams, first time, without help? umbra.


*I* ended up at umbra when they bought empathy_engine, the company I worked for, a few years ago in an acquihire. empathy_engine’s founders did well out of it (life-changing fuck-you money, with the four-year earn-out handcuffs that come with it. There are a few people I know who blew away their fuck-you money by being high time preference people. I like to think I’m not a high time preference person, but so far, the evidence doesn’t look good), but the rest of us just got visas (I got an H1B, Caitlin got an O1) our moving expenses, a few months of some really fantastic corporate housing and the chance to make it big in America, where they invented the idea of anyone being able to get rich if you can persuade enough of the money people on Sand Hill road that your idea is going to disrupt everything.


So that’s me. I’m paid stupid money to work at an evil design company and, even then, I live more or less slightly above paycheck to paycheck because I don’t have a problem living in a house share with co-workers.


And this is me doing my escape plan.