Going out on top… my departure from Samsung Electronics
When I joined Samsung just about a year ago to lead User Experience, Design globally and US Product Planning for the Consumer Electronics business (imagine anything with speakers and screens-TV’s, Fridges, Audio systems, etc.) I was both optimistic and voracious in my desire to transform this Korean based business. Despite some red flags, rumblings, and obvious concerns of executive revolving doors (one of my teams in the USA had had five different leaders in under three years.) — I optimistically and somewhat egotistically rose to the challenge.
Reporting to the President, HS Kim in Korea, I was hired as part of an initiative named “Start-up Samsung” a company-wide cultural transformation plan to make the company more agile and less hierarchical. Led by JY Lee, (currently being held in prison in Seoul) the son of the founder and Chairman and de facto leader of Samsung, it seemed to me the path was laid out for major successes and fascinating experience. I was tapped to lead Customer & User Experience globally and develop a nascent product planning & strategy function in the US. I would split my time between our offices in Sunnyvale and Suwon, South Korea as a “Boardroom” executive in the consumer electronics business.
We Had Some Fantastic Wins:
- Took home the CES design award for “Lifestyle TV”: Working with the amazingly talented Yves Behar, who I count as a friend. We created and helped realize what I think maybe a truly impressive 3.0 to the TV experience platform.
- Family Hub 2: we delivered a massive improvement in this 2.0 product and set the table for Samsung to lead the way on “Family-focused IoT” — a phrase I coined. Building on the vision of 1.0, we worked to make the product more useful, and relevant to the families and households who clamored for this centerpiece of the digital home.
- Leading the introduction of the LUMI design language — a set of consistent design & interaction patterns across Samsung’s VD product portfolio. (Those who are following at home will notice this mirrors the work I led at the BBC around the Global Visual Language; much of it still in place today hopefully this will be the case at Samsung.)
- Designing and launching an array of new mobile companion applications to our TV, Fridge, home audio systems, and more.
- Furthering the work of the best User research & customer experience lab I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with.
BIG Successes On The People-Side:
- Recruited from Sony electronics, the profoundly talented Ana Arriola-Samsung’s first transgender Senior Executive hire and one of the world’s leaders in UX, product & experience design from Sony to lead the US UX team. Ana has been a friend for close to 25 years.
- Built the first US-based product planning organization hiring both Chris Wimmer and Arun Bordoloi who I knew from Razorfish) and other designers, producers, and developers to join the already exceedingly talented teams in the USA & South Korea.
- Massively reduced involuntary staff resignations and worked to build a solid leadership team with a clear, mission, vision & mandate.
And The Challenges:
Culture. One of the primary reasons I accepted the role at Samsung was to immerse myself in Asia. It’s culture, language, and business. I studied Korean. I stayed on weekends to connect. But I underestimated the social burden my 20-year sobriety (I do not drink ANY alcohol) would place on my ability to assimilate and socialize. I can hang, but to truly bond I needed to drink and drink and drink A great deal. #Fail.
Geography. This was a challenge, the me-from-today, would advise the me-from-the-past to spend more time in Korea, a lot more time. Alas, this was not possible for me given my co-parenting situation and my ex-spouse and my current domestic partner’s geography. Airplanes are good, I’ve made it work, but when compounded by language, culture, and religion it can make it very hard. Almost impossible.
Crisis-Challenges. In the last year, Samsung has experienced major quality assurance issues (exploding phones, washing machines, non-working audio products), political intrigue, and macroeconomic challenges. The Samsung Brand is suffering. This all made my role significantly harder, particularly as an agent of change. To lead change, you need executive support, a mandate, and time. I found myself denied much of this due to internal challenges and the external forces listed above.
Purpose. As many of you are aware, I’ve grown increasingly politically active in the past few years. Supporting Scott Weiner in his successful run for CA Senate, and Kamala Harris her run for US Senate. I am even toying with the idea of running for public office. (Ping me if you’d like to discuss more.) Prior even to this tumultuous election cycle, I’ve felt a calling to get more involved to make the world a better place. Work I began making with executive producing” Who Killed the Electric Car?” I intend to continue that aspiration. Samsung, being such a large part of the Korean economy as well as being particularly vulnerable to regime change here in the USA discouraged political speech and activities — I am now released of those obligations.
Commute. I’ve never had a job that involved a driving commute. Subway, yes, trains yes. flying yes — I’ve commuted long-distance for relationships and work: (UK/US, SF/LA, LA/NYC) and I love it — being nomadic. So the Korea/SFO portion of my commute was simple, once every three weeks approximately. My new car made the experience more tolerable but not quite a pleasure. The drive to Sunnyvale, even in my new murdered out TESLA S90D with Self-driving, was still a misery.
With the political turmoil both in South Korea and the USA, as well as the challenges that continue to beset Samsung, it is/was apparent to me that my ability to affect change at scale, was diminishing, and the difficulty of achieving my next set of goals had become nearly impossible.
It is with a heavy heart that I have departed from Samsung. My last day was January 15th, 2017, though I’ve kept this under wraps to allow me to take advantage of the massive amounts of snow in Tahoe this season (and my shared ski-lease!)
Samsung was an incredible learning experience. Among all else, it was my first time in manufacturing — getting deep into the process of how things physically are built, visiting factories, hardware engineers — and living and breathing in a 300K employee organization splitting time between two countries was an astonishing experience. The team I have left in place, Jae Julien in South Korea, Ana Arriola here in the USA, as well as the product planning team above, will persist and grow — helping the company create, innovate, and build more amazing products than ever before. There are new hires in Giles & Evan on the product side who I believe will have a significant impact on the company going forward. I feel I have, as I always strive to do, left things in good hands.
Samsung Electronics is a phenomenal business, the largest I’ve ever worked at with 300K employees globally. They will survive and evolve after the challenges they face both within the company and without.
So we part ways, friends, allies. But apart.
I’m midway through a small break to snowboard, surf, do a lot of yoga, and attempt to remove the 10lbs of belly fat I acquired eating that amazing Korean BBQ and skipping the gym. I aim to use all of the free days at the Mountain Collective lift pass do more yoga and hang out with my, gulp, teenage daughters.
At the end of this month, I’ll begin looking for my next big thing. Contact me if you’ve ideas or just want to grab an espresso, live near a ski resort (or yoga retreat), and want to meet up, or have some time and want to join my madcap adventures.
More updates here in the coming weeks. I’ve already started a bit of a journey of self-discovery and improvement, and am deeply grateful for that opportunity.