As far as meeting a new co-worker goes, being introduced to Abdullah Shaikh was one of the strangest moments to date. We were both hired into a new team with a mission to create a better incubation program at IBM Design. The program’s purpose was to prepare further brand new designers (young people right out of college, many of whom had never had a job before) to work at IBM and the many worlds of Enterprise computing, storage, education, health, governance, and technology. The incubator program was a six-week project that was the culmination of all the things they learned through other onboarding programs. After they left our care, IBM needed them to be able to interact with other professionals, work with executives, validate Enterprise-grade problems, and create higher caliber solutions than IBM was creating at the time.
I had been on the job for about a month, by myself for most of that time. While the expectations of the outcomes were clear, I was still trying to wrap my brain around IBM, a company of four hundred thousand people working in almost every country on the planet. And here I was on the morning of inheriting twenty designers who I had never met before, so I could lead them through a project to help IBM win in the marketplace (or at the very least help them avoid spending millions to lose in the marketplace). I was pretty anxious.
And then I met Abdullah. He showed up the morning the incubator program started calm and cool as a cucumber. I was glad he was there because I knew plenty about leading teams through projects, but I knew nothing about working at a place like IBM. I used to have clients in similar Enterprise-class companies, and they were always running behind, checking email, and generally not enjoying their job. I thought it just came with working in a place that assigns people a serial or employee number. Abdullah had worked at Microsft for several years and that experience proved to be invaluable.
During that first cohort, Abdullah brought humanity to the program. He helped us all learn to take our anxiety down a notch and enjoy the work at hand. And he did this primarily through doughnut diplomacy. About mid-way through the six weeks, while we were all trying to figure out heads from tails, Abdullah came in one day with ten to twelve boxes of doughnuts and placed them in a common area. He told one team, who told the next, and so on. I was on the other side of the studio, and you could hear the wave of sound-to-silence from one side to the next as designers leaped up and raced to get a treat. With a doughnut in hand, everyone calmed down, and the reduction in anxiety across the studio was palpable.
It became an incubator program tradition combined with the second thing Abdullah loved about the program: The pivot. After the first and second cohort, it was clear to Abdullah and I that every team was very likely to hit a moment when they had to pivot. For some, this happened near the end of research when the team could not validate the program handed to them by an executive. That didn’t mean they could quit and hang out for another month. Instead, they had to dig into their data and come back with an alternative, a course correction that would produce a worthwhile outcome. This happened with such regularity that we sought to make it happen in each project because it taught a few valuable lessons.
- Executives are not always right.
- If you talk to enough users, they will illuminate the right path forward.
- Pivoting means progress, not a failure.
When we started to map out future cohorts, it became a tradition to schedule the pivot celebration, with more than enough doughnuts for everyone.
Abdullah was a smart guy, and his talents and background were different than my own. We made a good team, helping each other where needed, but also giving each other enough space to be our own leader and co-owner of the program. There was overlap in our stories, but that was mostly around former business ownership and life experience. We both enjoyed working with young folks, helping guide them through career (and sometimes life decisions). We both played the role of coach.
While we didn’t talk much about our lives, Abdullah loved to talk about the Delta frequent filer program, specifically the Delta Lounge. If you could live there full time, he would have pushed all of his chips in. Damn, he loved that lounge and mentioned it any time some related topic came up. A few years back, I took a first-class trip to Shanghai. I tried to tell everyone at work the story, “It was on a 787, the plane with the blackout windows. They served a five-course meal paired with French wines…” That’s about as far as I got before Abdullah would break in and say something like, “Yeah, at the Delta Lounge…”
Eventually, we got a third partner when Erin Hauber joined the team. Her perspective and immersive knowledge about design thinking and education helped us make even more improvements. The three of us worked well together, a true testament to diverse teams. I left the Incubator program a year later. I admit being a bit emotional about it, considering how much we had done to improve the program and the outcomes. To this day, our work on the incubator program is one of my proudest achievements.
Abdullah loved the Incubator program and wanted to run it, but eventually, that responsibility was given to someone else, and it didn’t go well. Changes were made without consideration for the work, the improvements that we made. The new owner didn’t have the same heart for the designers and the work as Abdullah did, and it became a point of resentment. I always felt bad about that time because it was a bit like taking Christmas away from Santa Claus. He loved that program and working with young people that much.
Eventually, Abdullah moved on to run different teams, and I moved on to another company. From time to time we would get together for an old fashioned or two followed by giant steaks and bottles of wine. We both loved the steakhouse atmosphere and had plenty of stories of previous experiences to share. And we in touch through Instagram, where he was always posting photos of all the fantastic food he cooked and baked. I honestly don’t know why he didn’t open a food truck or a restaurant because he loved to cook for people. He loved to entertain and provide new experiences for his friends.
Abdullah was an old soul, a friend I would have had for life. Unfortunately, he passed away unexpectedly last Saturday night. While he had no immediate family of his own, Abdullah is survived by hundreds of IBM designers who he coached and fed doughnuts over the years.