UX expert: ‘In this industry, you are only as good as your people’

11 Jan 2019

Joe Edwards. Image: W3

W3’s Joe Edwards tells us what he learned from the Fortune 100-style world – and why he’s happy he left it.

Joe Edwards is the US executive director for W3, an international firm specialising in technology development and consulting, and Tonic3, its user experience (UX) division.

Edwards has more than 20 years of management experience across 12 countries. He is responsible for managing nearshore development, UX and consulting service teams.

‘You will rarely have all the facts, so do all the analysis you possibly can on a decision, then pull the trigger with 80pc of the information’

Describe your role and what you do.

As the executive director for the US, my role is to make sure we have the best teams in place to delight our US-based clients.

How do you prioritise and organise your working life?

Hmm – I’m not as good as I should be at that! I suppose the priority is to make sure I do whatever needs to be done to make sure our team members can do their jobs excellently – from organisation to communication, to tools, to physical space etc. In this industry, you are only as good as your people – so, attracting, growing and retaining the best people is my priority.

What are the biggest challenges facing your sector and how are you tackling them?

I think the big challenge for international agencies like ours is helping multinationals catch up to a state-of-the-art digital existence on both sides of the firewall. While there is a lot of buzz about trendy implementations and hip ‘disrupters’, the digital reality for most corporations globally is underwhelming, and implementations are complex.

For the vast majority of clients, fulfilling their brand experience promise across every touchpoint for both clients and employees is a staggering goal – and our sector has the privilege of helping them accomplish just that.

What are the key sector opportunities you’re capitalising on?

There are several we are exploring now. We think there is significant opportunity in bringing AI and AR/VR/MR into the pharma and other medical sectors today. We also believe human resources in general is a sector where technology should play a bigger role externally (recruiting) and internally (communication/collaboration/culture).

As far as a longer strategic opportunity, we see some important macro-trends combining in the next five to 10 years that will fundamentally challenge the employer-employer model, and we’re working on a platform to remove friction for the new models in that future.

What set you on the road to where you are now?

Well, I kind of fell into what I do now, honestly – and couldn’t be happier. I grew up in Brazil with American expat parents and my passion has always been international business. After my Thunderbird degree, I worked in international banking for a decade and became a fan of a great agency in Buenos Aires that consistently made my digital projects successful: W3.

In 2008, timing lined up perfectly for me to leave the corporate world and help W3 expand the business in the US. We’ve grown significantly since then and, in 2014, we launched our Tonic3 brand focused exclusively on user experience.

What was your biggest mistake and what did you learn from it?

I stayed in the corporate world too long. The Fortune 100-style career was a real blessing and it afforded a lot of great opportunities and pay, but I should have challenged myself with entrepreneurship much sooner.

What did I learn from it? I’ve learned to pay attention when opportunities are lining up, even ones I wasn’t looking for, and take them. You will rarely have all the facts, so do all the analysis you possibly can on a decision, then pull the trigger with 80pc of the information. More analysis won’t make the decision better, it will probably make you miss the opportunity.

How do you get the best out of your team?

In privately held companies like ours, there is a reflex to withhold information sometimes. It’s understandable, but I’ve found that openly sharing status, background and information to teammates helps them make decisions in context. If we’ve hired well, that team will self-navigate to solutions much richer than the ones I could direct them to.

STEM sectors receive a lot of criticism for a lack of diversity in terms of gender, ethnicity and other demographics. Have you noticed a diversity problem in your sector? What are your thoughts on this and what’s needed to be more inclusive?

We have had a philosophy to hire diversity of thought and experience more than race or gender. For instance, four Americans of differing ethnic heritage who all went to similar high schools and colleges won’t really bring the diversity of thought we need to our team. Our diversity-of-thought approach has had the secondary effect of a wide range of ethnicities and ages on our team, but as a by-product of the first, more important goal.

The diversity problem I have most noticed in the agency world is a slavish devotion to the whims and fashions of our industry. Like 13-year-olds who express their individuality by dressing alike, we love shiny new buzzwords, designs, methodologies, front-end frameworks etc. We tend to flock to them until a new shiny object comes out.

W3’s own journey to successful diversity leads me to believe that when our sector begins to value challenging ideas and seek voices outside our creative and code conference-fuelled echo chamber, we will evolve into a more diverse-thinking (and diverse-looking) industry.

Who is your role model and why?

I don’t have just one hero and I suppose saying my Dad would be a cop-out for the question – even though it’s true. I’ll say Dietrich Bonhoeffer because he gave up what was comfortable for what he knew was right. He served others when he didn’t have to, even though it ultimately claimed his life in an Nazi camp.

I believe having our compass set to things in life that are actually important, with a focus on other people instead of ourselves, is the way human beings are made to operate at their best.

What books have you read that you would recommend?

For leadership, one of my favourites is one your readers may not know, and it’s actually just a 27-page essay called The Servant as Leader written in the ’70s, but it is relevant today. In the 15 minutes it takes to read it, you will find yourself challenged.

Right now I’m reading lots of work around organisational structure, so a couple I’d highlight here are Creativity, Inc and Holacracy. For non-business reading, I really like 7 Men (and companion 7 Women) by Eric Metaxas and anything by CS Lewis.

What are the essential tools and resources that get you through the working week?

The discipline of time-blocking my calendar is probably the single most important organisational tool for me. It not only focuses my time on priority work, it also allows my team to find open spots on my calendar and take them as necessary.

The next would be the discipline of weekly one-to-ones with my direct reports. That time set apart helps keep everyone on the same page and helps me know what I need to get done for them to be successful.

I’ve also learned that my work life gets out of whack if spiritual and home life is not right. So, on a personal level, a daily workout, nightly time with wife and family, and weekly volunteer time help keep us together as a family and me balanced as a person.

Want stories like this and more direct to your inbox? Sign up for Tech Trends, Silicon Republic’s weekly digest of need-to-know tech news.