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Fast Start: Going from here to Silicon Valley and back again

Ali Ali (Photo by Kate Melton)

Ali Ali (Photo by Kate Melton)

It is one thing to do a Google search and another thing entirely when Google is searching for you.

In the case of Ali Ali’s career, Google Inc. tapped the user interface designer to help design the  Google Assistant product—an experience Ali has brought back to Rochester.

Ali is director and principal designer of Dumbwaiter Design LLC—known as Dwaiter Design. He was part of the startup team of the company co-founded by Thérèse Hannigan and Miguel Cardona Jr. in 2005.  Ali was one of its first employees.

He has spent his career seeking out challenges and ways to grow. Google was just one part of that story.

Ali spent his early life in Iraq before coming to the U.S. in 1997.

“My uncle lived here, worked at Xerox, so naturally you come where your sponsor is,” Ali says. “So my family and I came to Rochester. Honestly it’s a great place to start and grow.”

The concept of design was not something he was exposed to in his native country, however, he knew he loved art and technology. He did not realize he could put the two together until he got here.

“Since I can remember, I used to draw,” Ali says. “I loved drawing and a lot of my homework notes—I would focus on making them look good versus actually studying. Or we would play soccer—my friends and I—and I would design the league books. I really enjoyed that, but I never knew what it (was).”

He took classes at Monroe Community College, landing in a graphic design class that piqued his interest. He enrolled in Rochester Institute of Technology’s New Media and Design program in 2001 and found his niche in user interface and user experience design.

After college Ali began working for a company that served the pharmaceutical industry before deciding to help create a startup. Dwaiter was formed and Ali became the firm’s head of motion graphics.

“There were no iPhones, no smartphones…there were websites but (they were) very elementary level sites,” Ali says. “So it was like, really do people need this? We took a leap of faith and some ignorance. It’s like taking art mixed with technology, how can you go wrong?”

“We’re really not an ad agency,” Ali says. “We’re more like a design and technology firm.”

In the late 1990s Adobe Flash player technology was a key driver in the tech industry, driving most of the Web’s innovation then. The rise of the iPhone, which did not support Flash, led to Flash’s demise and caused Dwaiter to change course—and fast.

“Flash was a big thing,” Ali says. “Sites were very animated and interactive; we were like loving that because it looked like the interfaces you’d see in movies and TV shows.

“With the launch of the iPhone…things changed a lot and we evolved. Right away we shifted. We started doing more complex websites.”

Being an employee for years at the startup soon made Ali a bit restless.

He left Dwaiter in 2011 to try out other roles at local firms. He wanted to diversify his skillset and learn about other companies and the way they were run.

“It was tough; it was a big decision,” Ali says. “I had worked almost only one job out of college—I wanted to try other things.”

Going Google

In 2011 he received an email from Google, asking for him to join the company. Ali and his wife had obligations they could not leave here so he declined. It was a nice compliment, he says.

“I got an email from Google saying we got your resume and we would like to move onto the phone interview level,” Ali says. “First of all I didn’t apply so this (sounded) like a scam.”

“It’s very intense,” Ali says. “I did make it, I guess, because they were ready to give me an offer but at that time I was teaching at RIT. I was tied up and I knew that going into it.”

In 2013 Google reached out again. This time he followed the opportunity, moving his family across the country.

The mystique surrounding Google as a great place to work is true, he says.

“When you hear the word Google, you think the perks, the free stuff, the food and the fun, and it’s true. That’s all there but I think the most crazy exciting things about it is working with wicked talented people,” Ali says. “Google’s philosophy is all about throwing you right into the fire.”

Working at the company helped Ali learn what real empowerment looks like, he says.

“The first thing I worked on, the whole time I thought I was just developing this beta part and they rolled it out to millions of people,” Ali says. “And I’m like, ‘whoa, I don’t know what I’m doing…they’re like, ‘no, you do. We hired you.’ Their thinking is that if we hired you, you can do it.”

He experienced freedom and accountability he had not known. Its culture requires employees to be self-starters, he says.

“There are no instructions,” Ali says. “You’re on your own and the whole point is to get you to talk to people, to get you to get engaged and it makes so much sense because Google is a very complex place…To train people it will take years.

“The goal is hire people who are very capable and let them go,” he adds.

Ali worked on the Google Assist team designing the framework for the Google Now predicative cards.

Google Now was a product that existed both on IOS and Android where it would show predictive cards, telling users information without the users asking for it based on user behavior and information the company had on individuals based on their use of Google services.

Telling users, for example, about their upcoming flight’s status and the time they should leave their home to catch the flight.

Today the product is called Google Assist.

His role was to take material design guidelines—the Google design language—and build a framework around the design of all the predictive cards.

It was daunting but exciting for Ali, he says.

“Behind the scenes there was a lot of work going on (for) the Google Assistant,” Ali says. “It’s always very complicated to understand even how it works is very hard because there is no interface. Users don’t do anything you just tell them things.”

Ali found the culture inspired him to become a bit more extroverted. Everyone has a voice at Google no matter what their rank.

“You feel so invested right away,” Ali says. “Everybody at Google feels like they own the product. It’s almost like their own life is at stake here, not that they work for a company. You get bit by the Google bug and you become a Google fanatic. There is no idea that gets shut down. There are no stupid ideas. You just say whatever you’re thinking.”

Constant improvement

Throughout his career there has been a consistent desire to improve his skills. That is something that will remain constant for Ali, he says.

“My piece of advice is, if you’re going to go for a career role, do what is going to challenge you and make you grow,” he says. “If it’s just a job and you’re desperate and you just need a job that’s OK…but in situations where you have the leverage of I can pick any job I want go for the one that is going to challenge you and help you grow.

“You should go to places you think you’re not good enough.”

While working at Google was ideal, there was a catch: the location. The San Francisco Bay area’s quality of life did not compare to Rochester, Ali says. He and his family decided to move back to Monroe County.

“The reason had nothing to do with Google, it was just life in the Bay area was insane,” Ali says. “It wasn’t just financials. If you have a family, it’s really tough in the Bay area. Everything is under so much stress: the DMV, the police, the schools…the quality of life degrades at that point.”

Back to future

He moved back to Rochester in 2015, rejoining Dwaiter as director and principal designer.

“What made it great is coming back to Dwaiter,” Ali says. “It’s like a really intense feeling because now I’m helping lead it again and we’re doing really exciting stuff. I worked with the most talented people on the planet; these guys are the same caliber.”

The company will be launching its first product—Flauntly—this year. It is a product for companies seeking to build their own landing pages. Flauntly.com is operating and the product is expected to have an early release by Labor Day.

Being back in Rochester, Ali feels a renewed energy.

“I was shocked the amount of growth that is happening downtown and everywhere,” Ali says. “It was very exciting. I was kind of scared coming back because in the Bay Area the jobs are so much they have banners begging people to come work. But the quality of life in Rochester was astronomically better.”

Without the crazy tempo of Silicon Valley, Rochester still has just as talented technology minds, but Ali finds the drive for tech companies to succeed is stronger here.

“It says something about not being in the mecca of technology yet having the same kind of drive,” he says.

Dwaiter has a total of six employees. Ali hopes to grow the firm’s recognition in the area and to collaborate more with other companies. There is a strong ecosystem here for entrepreneurs, however, it could be more collaborative, he says.

“I’ve been through seven-eight companies (and) it actually made sense to come back and help the company grow,” Ali says. “Dwaiter is one of the perfect places to do that because Dwaiter doesn’t have very established bureaucracy. They’re very adaptable.”

He is ready to help Rochester usher in a new technology and innovation boom. The place to start is by talking to others.

“There is a bright future ahead,” Ali says. “My goal had been to talk to a lot of different organizations and see what we can work together. My goal is bring more visibility to my company.

“My personal goal is to bring so much more attention to design in Rochester, to get more energy and startups to start flourishing here and to get more of these bigger companies to look at us more seriously.”

kfeltner@bridgetowermedia.com / 585-653-4020

#Team PXY with Carter and Corey on 98PXY is a partner with Fast Start. Listen on Monday from 6 to 10 a.m. for their interview with Ali Ali.

(c) 2017 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-363-7269 or email madams@bridgetowermedia.com.

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