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AFK Day 2015

Vox Product’s inaugural AFK Day offered team members a chance to step Away From Keyboard, venture out of the office, and spend a Tuesday in Shenandoah National Park. Everyone tapped into their professional development budgets to fund the event, and to bring two speakers along for the ride. Aminatou Sow and Ced Funches spent the day with the team and shared their experiences as they relate to building relationships with colleagues and what Vox Product aspires to accomplish in the future.

For most, it was a chance to become better friends with people they’ve known for years — to talk and think about design and other aspects of their lives in the great outdoors. Meanwhile, I was spending my second day as a Vox employee learning names and life stories on the edge of a cliff, overlooking some brightly-colored trees in the valley.

Selecting design speakers

The design team assembled a list of product designers outside the company that they wanted to hear from. After voting, the top two choices ended up being available for the trip. While AFK Day was originally intended for the Vox Product designers, the organizers realized that there was a much broader appeal for this event and it was opened up for all to attend.

Both of the speakers are super impressive. Amina is a digital strategist and one of the Top 30 Under 30 in tech according to Forbes. She has accomplished a ton of stuff in the past few years, including the launch of a well-known podcast, co-founding Tech LadyMafia, and obliterating the stigma that working with your friends is a bad idea.

Ced has worked with many companies, including his new startup and the NBA. From what I can tell, he's an expert in creative leadership and investment, but his influence reaches far beyond business-minded initiatives. He's always launching personal projects dedicated to people who provided guidance throughout his life, and says there's nothing better than seeing that person smile when they see it.

Event logo and swag

For an event that had no real reason to be branded, Tyson Whiting did a really great job creating a fun identity that made the retreat feel super legit. He told me that his first version of the logo was inspired by park ranger badges, and while it was executed well, it felt overdone and didn’t demonstrate the spirit of this new team initiative.

He sought feedback from Jason and said that his guidance was essential to the development of the final logo. They discussed alternatives to push it further, build around the idea of unplugging together and as a team, and juxtapose the plug so that it seemed more fun and not so rigid. Inspired by Jason’s advice, Tyson revisited a few scenes from the Brave Little Toaster and created the final version seen on the official email invitation and glow-in-the-dark water bottles.

Swag, casually hanging out on a cliff.
The AFK Day water bottle in its natural habitat.
Tyson, the creative genius behind the AFK Day logo.

Get the gear.

The product team is full of seasoned outdoorspeople, but there were a few participants who were preparing for their very first hike. Regardless of levels of hiking experience, everyone had questions about what to bring, safety precautions, and various logistics. When I joined the event Slack channel I noticed that everyone was quick to offer solutions, so for someone who had been with the company for less than 48 hours I could already see that people here are very accepting and willing to share resources. I find that to be a pretty important characteristic to work with, and it’s become much more apparent in the new hire onboarding process as well.

Talkin’ talks and walkin’ walks

As previously mentioned, AFK Day was my second day at Vox. I was the new kid and had no clue what to expect because I wasn’t there during the planning phase and never saw the schedule — all I knew was that I missed seeing the seasons change because Austin doesn’t really do "Fall." A lot of companies talk about "culture" and team outings, so this would be an opportunity for me to dive in and get into some good design conversation with perfect strangers.

We took an early bus from the office and arrived at Shenandoah National Park. I grabbed an apple cider (to really bring the Fall feels full circle) and floated between groups of people to say hello. The team walked over to the resort where we’d eat, listen to the speakers, and enjoy each other’s company.

Contemplating breakfast burritos on a beautiful Fall morning.

Amina led a truly inspiring discussion about podcasting, working with friends, rewarding failures, and taking time away from working to pursue personal goals. Everything she had to share was motivating from the perspective of a young woman trying to make a tangible difference in her work and people around her. Amina has a lot of experience in the realms of product and strategy and reminded me that if you work hard with good people and have the courage to execute it, you will be successful. If you haven’t met her, seen her work, or followed her hilarious musings, do it. Seriously, right now.

Aminatou Sow

We left the resort and hiked for a couple of miles to the top of the Stony Man trail and summit where we ate lunch, sat around on some rocks, and took pictures of each other taking pictures. This is where I started learning more in-depth about the structure and goals of the team outside of the building and with the context of Amina’s presentation. Everyone’s feedback and comments were very positive and told me a lot about the way they think about things, the team’s priorities, and their personal goals at Vox.

Aside from design stuff, I heard parts of the life stories of people i was meeting for the first time while battling the bugs flying around in my face. As I stared into the distance from the peak of the mountain, I listened to my new coworkers’ unsuccessful attempts to trade granola bars. I was relieved to know that these people are totally normal and also hate raisins. At one point, I was mid-conversation with someone when I found a piece of chicken from my lunch stuck to my shirt. These are the real bonding moments in life, people.

Walking from the resort to the entrance of the trail
One of many people taking photos and subsequently making this post a little more bearable to read.
You'd never know that this was his very first hike.

Once we all found our way back to the resort, Ced Funches gave a really great presentation about his experiences that reminded us all how life and good fortune can be fleeting, especially in a working environment that demands too much of your limited resources as a human. In addition to his strong emphasis on why we all deserve exceptional work/life balance, Ced told us to take more time to make friends and be a better "full-stack human being." His career with the NBA, startups, and personal projects would not have been possible had he lacked a connection with the people around him making things happen. He reminded us that the hard work isn’t always the stuff that goes on at a screen, but a big part of it is what happens offline. Running on the treadmills with the team’s owner. Asking your coworker, "how’s your cat doing?" He says his secret to success is being genuinely interested in others’ interests. Ced talked about a lot of other things too, but I particularly identified with this sentiment because that’s exactly how I fell into my new position at Vox: by keeping up with good friends over the years who would eventually help me get where I want to be. (Big ups, Ramla.)

Team work makes the dream work, hold the elevator, and Hook’em Horns

There was a lot of planning and cooperation that made this unique retreat very successful, and feedback is being gathered so that the team can help organize more events just like it. Major props to Ashley, Ted, the speakers, and the design team. Here are some things that I, the new kid, took away from the whole shabang:

I liked hanging out with the speakers, and I admittedly didn’t know they were the speakers until they walked up to the front of the room. At about 6:45 that morning, I held the elevator door for a woman who was also leaving my floor of the hotel. I did it mostly because she was wearing a Kanye shirt, and a few hours later I saw her up in the mountains. Not having previously put a face to her name, I realized that she was Amina Sow. She remembered me from the elevator, we talked about Texas things, and mourned the loss of our mascot, Bevo. After her presentation, she explained more about when she won the award for making the biggest mistake on her team at Google. Lesson learned: always hold the elevator because YOU NEVER KNOW.

Ced and I are both Chargers fans, and I can’t remember how it happened but when I walked up to him we immediately started talking about sports and the probability of Philip Rivers agreeing to move his giant family to LA. Ced has recently become very active in the investment world and told a small group of us about the intricacies of how VCs, investors, and startups communicate. His new startup teaches accessible fiscal literacy, a commonly agreed-upon deficiency in our country’s public education curriculum.

I had some really valuable conversations with coworkers: Alisha and I are both part Korean and started discussing a future trip to visit the motherland. Sharon Wong was visiting from the NYC office and now we’re planning coffee Hangouts every so often to keep up with each other’s lives and travels. This isn’t stuff that would ever come up from my second day in an office, so I recommend that everyone starts their next job with their team on a mountain.

AFK Day was a really nice surprise and it was absolutely worth it to fly in from Austin to be a part of. Honestly, I sort of expected some "kumbaya" moments, but was thankfully surprised that the entire experience was very genuine and unscripted. It was thoughtfully orchestrated and provided an adequate amount of down time between scheduled events. I’m really looking forward to continuing my new friendships and building more awesome experiences (away from and at the keyboard) with some super smart, motivating people.