Speaking of… Life Paths
Values-led career wayfinding with Research Manager Anne Diaz
‘Speaking of…’ is a series that showcases the value of vulnerability. Each segment will feature conversations with members of Airbnb Design and the broader design community about topics not typically discussed in our professional lives.
Topics will range from failure and life paths, to conflict and growth. No matter the subject, the series is an opportunity to get to know us better, and hopefully learn from the life and work experiences of others.
When you were a kid, what did you think you’d be when you grew up?
I went through many of the expected answers for little girls—ballet dancer, artist, singer. But the thing I was always most excited about was starting my own business. I used to run shaved ice stands in front of my house (my younger brother was my first “employee”).
I also started an art camp in the garage for kids in the neighborhood. I even set up a “post office” at home, and charged my parents real money to deliver letters to family members in the house.
When and how did Research first fall on your radar as a possible career?
Completely by accident. I spent the first 8 years of my career in the nonprofit sector. In my last nonprofit job, I worked as a consultant designing employee volunteer programs for for-profit companies. My manager had come from IDEO and as a result, user-centered design was the framework we used to structure our projects.
It wasn’t until unsuccessfully working in a sales role at a small start-up that I had that light bulb moment, and realized how valuable that training could be for product design. I ultimately made the switch from sales to becoming the company’s first researcher, and that put me on the path I’m on today.
Fast forward to today, you’re at Airbnb. What path did you take to get here?
I majored in Urban Studies with an emphasis on Community Organizing in college, fully intending to work in the nonprofit sector for my entire career. My time at a variety of nonprofits was invaluable for honing my skills as an incredibly scrappy, empathetic leader—I can make a lot happen with next-to-zero resources, and have no qualms about fighting passionately for people who might be otherwise overlooked.
I also fed my entrepreneurial bug with a variety of side projects during the early part of my career, including small business consulting, freelance copywriting, and starting a nonprofit of my own. Perhaps my most unusual (and enjoyable!) side hustle was working with one of my closest friends on a business plan for a Caribbean restaurant in Palo Alto. With that plan, we were able to secure funding to get this venture off the ground for the restaurant owner, and it’s still a wildly successful business today.
What challenges have you faced while navigating your career? Any big insights or lessons learned?
When I was about 9 years old, I had a palm reader at my dad’s company picnic tell me, “This is so unusual! You have no career line. I don’t think you’ll have a clear career.” That strange prediction stuck with me, and oddly enough seems to have come true. I’m comfortable learning new skills and testing them out in new environments, and have never felt wedded to a particular “career” as my time in the working world has progressed.
Sometimes this lack of direction has felt frustrating and confusing; every job switch has had me questioning, “Am I on the right path?” Instead of having a long-term plan for what I should be doing, I’ve learned to rely on my values to help me define how my work can make the impact I want to have.
How have your personal values and passions shown up in your work at Airbnb?
There have been multiple moments when I’ve felt compelled to contribute to solving some giant problems facing the company, and my community organizing background has come in handy. I don’t believe that one person alone can change things; any serious new course of action comes about when like-minded people work together to address the problem from various angles.
For example, last summer, #AirbnbWhileBlack was a trending hashtag; it was hard to stay focused, to be honest, while reflecting on my own experience and reading through the reports online. I helped to found the anti-discrimination product team following a group hackathon to address discrimination on the platform. Together, we illustrated ways to tackle the problem, which led to a longer-term effort. This happened on the heels of an incredible photo installation created by the Black@ affinity group, highlighting how critical it was to speak out against police violence towards people of color.
While the work we did during the hackathon was good, I know that the team was created not just because of our ideas, but because of the many efforts of colleagues across the company (and of the broader community) who were pushing for bold action on discrimination within the platform.
Who inspired you, or helped guide and encourage you along the way?
I’ve been a manager for almost 15 years, and it’s been the people I’ve had the great fortune to support who have had the biggest impact in helping to guide my career. One of my favorite things about being a manager is helping people to recognize their own strengths. The gift I’ve received in return has been direct reports who are honest with me, lending insight into ways I can grow.
They’ve pushed me to become a stronger advocate, a more vocal product thinker, and a more critical and rigorous researcher. Leadership is a privilege, and I’m grateful to all the people I’ve managed for sharing their lives and growth—both personal and professional—with me. It’s made me a better person.
What’s the best piece of career advice you’ve been given?
My favorite manager used to tell me, with regards to giving feedback, “Be friendly, but firm.” That’s a good rule for life in general, too.
What advice would you give someone who’s trying to figure out what they want to do?
No job is forever. Focus on the impact you want to have, and be honest with yourself about how that next job (or your current one!) will help you develop the skills necessary to achieve it.
Illustration by Jeannie Phan