DoTank: Building Bridges & Breaking Down Barriers Through Design

I’m one of the instructors for the upcoming miLES Do Tank (details below). Our teaching client is the Tenement Museum and the theme is “borders, migration, and immigration.” Applications for students are now open. Thanks in advance for helping to spread the word.



The miLES Do Tank is an action-oriented design thinking course, tied to a challenge to translate learnings into local impact. In collaboration with Foossa, Makeshift, NYU Design for America, and Tenement Museum, the Do Tank cultivates a group of people with varied skillsets to work together on a real-world issue, from collaborative ideation to collaborative creation. This 14-weeks program for young professionals and graduate students is facilitated by experts from Foossa, IDEO, Makeshift, NYU Design for America, miLES and more.

For Spring 2016, the theme of the Do Tank is “Borders, migration, immigration”. Around the world, and right here in NYC, a city shaped by people from every corner of the globe, lines continue to be drawn between “us” and “them,” even when “they” are part of “us”. How can we create an inclusive community that recognizes and appreciates the stories and contributions of our neighbors, regardless of where they come from? How can we encourage inclusive communities? The primary challenge is :

“How might we break down boundaries and foster connection?”

Together with our beneficiary, the Tenement Museum, we invite you to rally your community of Creatives, Strategists, Designers of all stripes (UX, graphic, etc.), Social Innovators, Community Activists, and Immigration Experts to collectively learn the tools and methods needed to prototype and co-create a solution with a local impact.

Only limited spots and need-based scholarship available:


Please choose “Foossa” in the “referred by” field if you apply.

6 Essential Skills for Design & Social Innovation

Students and job seekers frequently ask me about the skills that they need to succeed at Foossa, the community-centered design and strategy consultancy that I cofounded, or in a related career path. I came up with this list as a starting point for anyone interested in using design as a tool for social innovation.

1. Write Well

Being a strong writer goes a long way. Clear writing signals that you can think clearly and communicate effectively.

Craft compelling stories. Appeal to the heart and to the head. Be persuasive. Be concise. Be memorable. 

2. Prototype 

Prototyping could mean making something out of popsicle sticks and pipe cleaners to coding the minimum viable version of an app. You don’t necessary need high tech prototyping skills, but you do have a bias toward action.

You learn by doing. You learn by making. You prototype to learn. You can think visually and sketch out maps, diagrams, and charts to help inform your thinking. Your sketches could be doodles on Post-Its rather than museum-worthy masterpieces, although strong drawing skills are certainly a plus.

3. Code Switch

You speak the language of business. You speak the language of your clients and of your customers. You speak the language of social innovation. You understand how to define a theory of change.

You know how to reinterpret a creative brief to get down to the essence of what the needs really are.

You can get by in the language of designers and technologists enough to be able to collaborate with them effectively and to manage multi-disciplinary teams. You understand the basics of visual language, from hierarchy to typography. Bonus points if you can code in a programming language.

4. Make Stuff Happen

You know how to manage projects from inspiration to implementation. You break down difficult and complex tasks into manageable steps. You find the courage to put stuff out in the world to see what happens. You iterate until you get it right. Then you iterate some more.

You make community happen. Bring people together and get them involved in collaboration and co-creation. This could mean hosting an event, facilitating  a meeting/workshop, or community-managing an online discussion forum. 

5. Give and Receive Feedback

You know how to conduct a design critique. Help your teammates improve by giving critical insights and new perspectives into their work. You can give and get feedback without making it personal.

You make it about the creative brief and shared goals rather than just your personal opinions and preferences.

You learn how to filter the feedback that you get into “advice to implement” and “advice to take with a grain of salt.”

6. Document, Document, Document

My professors really drove this point home in my masters program. Make sure you document your work, whether it is through blogging, journaling, photos, videos, or a combination of the above. You will need it one day in the future, whether it is for a portfolio or for another project. Pictures, or it didn’t really happen.

This list is a work in progress. What skills would you add? Let me know in the comments.

P.S. If you are considering grad school to help you acquire some of theses skills, check out the MFA Design for Social Innovation program at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. I teach there. 

A Bronx Tech Tale

Innovation in tech education and job creation from the birthplace of hip hop

Exit the subway. Walk by a check cashing service and under a freeway overpass, past some guys chatting on a stoop at three in the afternoon on a Wednesday. Across the street there is a hot dog factory and downstairs a methadone clinic. The business people and civil servants in crisp suits that I have been trailing to our destination look out of place here.

I’m in the South Bronx attending the grand opening celebration of the Urban Development Center, or UDC for short, a partnership between software consulting firm Doran Jones and workforce development non-profit Per Scholas. Doran Jones provides software engineering and testing services to major financial and media companies. Per Scholas is a 24-year-old educational non-profit focused on providing tuition-free training to prepare its graduates for jobs in the tech industry. The UDC is part of a movement to “reshore” tech jobs that have been offshored to places like India back to the United States.

Plinio Ayala, president and CEO of Per Scholas, kicks off the grand opening of the Urban Development Center.

Plinio Ayala

The UDC is in full-on party mode today, but on a previous visit, I could see the team in action on a typical work day. With an open floor plan, bright cheery colors, the flickering of computer screens and the tapping of keyboards, the vibe here feels a lot like many other tech companies. There are not yet any motivational posters on the walls nor a foosball table in the lounge, some of the typical trappings of a tech startup, but give it time, as they have just recently moved into the newly-renovated space.

Other elements are starkly different. Diversity is one of them. Almost all of the employees come from minority groups underrepresented in the tech industry. More than half of the employees are women. Most of them have come through Per Scholas’ workforce development training courses. These training courses attract a wide array of people, ranging from young people without college degrees looking for job opportunities beyond service and retail, to older career changers, to the long term unemployed.

We are also in one of the poorest congressional districts in America. It is a community lacking in opportunity, but certainly not lacking in creativity, determination, and grit. This is the birthplace of hip hop after all.

Tristan Delgado, software tester at the UDC

Tristan Delgado

I meet the upbeat and confident Tristan Delgado, a 26-year-old Per Scholas grad who is currently working at the UDC as a software tester for Doran Jones.

I’m thriving in a real career that I never before knew existed. I love being a software tester. I’ve been exposed to so many different types of technology and software. I even do games testing on the side as well. That’s been pretty sick….As soon as I got into this field, I was able to actually start affording – you know – living. These are livable wages. Before I came into software testing, I looked forward to a 25 cent raise in my check. That’s how gritty it was.

But Tristan is still plenty gritty, if by “gritty” we mean “driven.” He commutes by bicycle 17 miles each way from his home in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn to the UDC in the South Bronx. Tristan had previously dropped out of community college but ended up completing two training courses with Per Scholas. He then worked with another tech company before coming back to take a job at the UDC.

Like Tristan, most of employees at the UDC are software testers. Software testing is a largely unknown and unseen part of the tech industry. This is the kind of tech work that is making sure that things like corporate intranets and our online banking apps work properly. It’s not sexy. It’s not disruptive. But it’s essential.

And it’s a tremendous market opportunity. At the UDC, Doran Jones is offering software testing talent to major corporations at rates that are competitive with the competition in India and with the added benefit of being just a 30-minute subway ride rather than 16-hour flight away. In addition to being in the same time zone, software testers at the UDC also bring the competitive advantage of native English proficiency and greater cultural proximity to their clients than the overseas competition. All of this matters for the precise and demanding problem-solving necessary for good software testing.

At full capacity, the UDC has space for 450 software testers and is rapidly building a client base to reach this capacity. As part of the partnership agreement, Doran Jones has agreed to fill at least 80% of these positions with Per Scholas graduates and will be sharing 25% of revenue with the non-profit. The innovation here is in the talent pipeline and the business model.

Matt Doran, founder and co-CEO of Doran Jones

Matt Doran

At the opening ceremony, Matt Doran, founder and co-CEO of Doran Jones, announces that an existing client wants to nearly double the number of testers that they want to hire at the UDC. The mood is jubilant and optimistic, but there is still much work to be done to convince more corporations to hire US-based talent for software testing.

Matt recently told Wired Magazine about a potential hedge fund client that turned down a proposal from Doran Jones because “our guys don’t look like the traditional consulting firm.” There is a lot of work to be done to convince potential clients and to shift cultural perceptions, but you can feel that change is happening, and Doran Jones and Per Scholas are driving it forward.

Keith Klain, co-CEO of Doran Jones

Keith Klain

“Cheers to all the determined people out there… No more excuses,” exclaims Keith Klain, co-CEO of Doran Jones, as he gives the final toast to celebrate the opening of the UDC. This is the Bronx after all, known for its grit and determination. Just as when hip hop emerged here decades ago and changed the sound of music in the United States and worldwide, the movement that is emerging here has the potential to change the face of tech. No more excuses.

Olivia is a 14-year-old high school student collaborating with Doran Jones to build an app for her school


This story has also been published in the Huffington Post.

Transformative Storytelling

I regularly teach a Transformative Storytelling workshop organized by BeSocialChange at the Centre for Social Innovation in New York City. I wrote this post as a resource for former and prospective students, as well as anybody else interested in the subject matter. You will find an outline of what we cover in the workshop as well as links to resources below.

Transformative Storytelling

Last Call for Cornell Design Thinking Innovation Lab

Register for Cornell Executive Business Education’s first 2-day Intensive Innovation Lab in New York City, May 7-8. People only associate Stanford with Design Thinking, the 5-step innovation methodology that helps companies create new products, services and redesign processes (an $11,500 investment).

Now, Cornell​ will be offering executive classes teaching the methodology in NYC. A 10% discount off the $3990 fee is available for 2 or more people from a corporation and the fee is reduced to $2500 startups and nonprofits. The April 17th deadline is nearly here. I will be there as a coach and mentor.

Learn more & register