Tobias Ahlin – Interview with a cultural innovator

He is very young, but he has already worked in some of the most renowned companies in the world, Spotify and GitHub to name two. He’s a creative, a visionary and an innovator in every sense. Favourite Playlist Spotify? He has created his own throughout the years with more than 600 songs!

How do you like to describe yourself? You are a designer, a teacher and a IT developer, in which way all these attitudes live in you?
The question that I dread to be asked is “What do you do?”. My attempts at coming up with a cohesive and comprehendible answer usually starts with a list of concrete jobs and crafts, and ends with crumbled up pieces of paper and an empty glass of lonely whiskey. I’m not too sure. I’m currently dabbling with data analysis, physics, statistics, learning how to play the piano, and practicing French. I think what ties it all together is a love for novelty, the foolishness of thinking that I can learn new things, and other people’s foolishness of continuously hiring me to do those things. I know what I love: to meet new people, learn new things, and create new things. I like to finish what I started, but I also love quitting a job or habit to try something new. Applying that, it has happened to take the shape of designing, teaching, and programming, but I’m not entirely sure what’s next.

In your past, you’ve been in Spotify and in GitHub among others, what was your role in there?
I was lucky enough to start at Spotify the same week that their previous designer quit. It was a smaller company back then, and as a newly graduated designer I found myself in charge of the user interface design for all of Spotify’s products. The service was already vastly popular in Sweden, albeit not internationally, and discussing the product with friends and strangers formed my way of thinking about what’s valuable in an experience. People often mentioned details, for example the feeling of an animation or how fast a song started, as something that made them love Spotify. They didn’t mention features. They mentioned how things felt.

What is your vision as developer?
My approach and vision has been the same since: I want to create products that people love. I enjoy removing features, and improving the essence of an app or product. Now, that’s easy to say, but at most companies you will find incentives that are misaligned with that vision. You won’t get any publicity for removing features, and you won’t get promoted to a new position for taking something out. Most tech companies have strong incentives to continuously launch and add new things. Striving for simplicity are often in direct conflict with those incentives.

Working at big companies like Spotify and GitHub, my approach has been a kind of organizational Aikido—instead of aiming straight for simplicity and making that my only objective, I look for people and projects that align with that vision, if only temporarily. If I meet resistance, I try to realign that resistance with my vision, but if I fail, I quickly try to move on to another project. In the end that means that I will never get everything done that I wish to, but I get tremendously more done than if I had stayed in one place and fought for only one cause.

Did you collaborate with GitHub remotely I guess…Do you think this is the future for your profession? Or even for any kind of profession?
GitHub’s head quarters are located in San Francisco, and I typically worked from somewhere around Europe, as did many of my colleagues. I’m never going back to working at a desk again. I think working remotely is something that more and more companies will embrace, which is fantastic for a number of reasons. All of our lives are intrinsically unpredictable, and not spending most of our awake hours being tied to a physical space makes it easier to lead great, fulfilled, and happy lives, but also in the end to do great work. And if you’re running a business, remote work done right means that it is easier to hire (you’re not limited to your city or country). It means having less expenses for material and office space, and it means having happier and more productive employees. It’s huge a win for everyone, and I believe and hope that it will become the rule for how organizations are structured, rather than the exception.

What would you like to create in the future?
A school. I think we need to fundamentally change the way we think about education. All over the world, schools have a tendency to slowly lose touch with reality, and teach theory for the sake of teaching theory. It starts at an early age, with kids struggling with advanced math until they graduate, after which they will never work with it again. It’s useless. It continues throughout university with thick textbooks that are to be memorized, despite that the jobs we go on to work with are in their nature mostly practical. If our work is in the end practical, why don’t we learn by practice? Why don’t we focus on creating things and making mistakes? On top of that, the school’s role in society isn’t just to prepare us for work, but to prepare us for life, which it typically utterly fails at. From an early age, it tells us that what’s important is to receive high grades—not to build character, nor to lead fulfilled or happy lives. Alain de Botton’s School of Life is a great example of the direction that we need to go in, but ultimately we need more schools leading with example, and a better framework for learning. The fact is that our schools are fundamentally misaligned with how we effectively learn, and they need to change.

Since you are invited in Milan to a cultural hackathon, in your opinion what is the importance of culture in our society?
To me, culture in our society has the vital role of questioning the status quo, combating ignorance, and creating empathy. We are to a higher and higher degree consuming information, and living in, filter bubbles—the breeding grounds of dogmatism—and only wish to see and hear things that we agree with. We risk developing an increasingly polarized society, with extremist parties popping up along the entire political spectrum. Culture doesn’t necessarily make us all agree, but it can make us understand each other, and bring us together.

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