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Interview: Chase Adams
His journey, the practical impact of multidisciplinary skills, and what he's curious about right now
My tech career started by being bored riding shotgun in the passenger seat of a building materials supply truck.
Hey all, Pat here 👋 I’m excited to kick off this new series ‘Masters of Many’ where we’ll highlight the winding journeys, amazing talents, and earned wisdom of multidisciplinary creatives. They’re my favorite kind of people and frankly, I think their stories aren’t told often enough.
A quick overview of the format: I’ll ask our guest 5 questions, then they’ll ask me 1. We’ll link to all their good stuff for you to check out and we’ll get outta here.
With that said, it’s my pleasure to introduce, our inaugural Master of Many. He’s currently the founding engineer at Murmur and has some great insights to share. If his story resonates with you, help me spread the word! And if you’re new here, make sure to subscribe to join the 1400+ creative pros already getting Better by Design each week.
Questions for Chase
Can you tell me about your career and how you built your multidisciplinary skill set?
There has to be a better way
In 2008, I had just graduated from college with a BS in Environmental Science and was planning to teach high school when the recession hit and the bottom fell out of the housing market.
This was a big deal for everyone but hit my family particularly hard because we owned a business selling materials to builders. Since times were hard, my dad asked me to come home to help with deliveries and operations, so I did just that.
As the assistant on deliveries, I spent a lot of time riding to sites without much to do, so I picked up my first book on HTML and finished it in 2 days; I learned how to build a basic website in a week while riding shotgun in a supply truck.
In my free time, I built my first HTML-based website for the business. It was a simple 5-page website, but it was better than nothing (in fact, that was the status quo at the time for small businesses). However, we weren't getting any traffic.
That was my first “there must be a better way!” moment.
“What if I make more pages?”, I thought. And so I made more pages.
About 10 pages later, I hit another "what if..." moment: “What if there's a better way to reuse some of this code I’m writing?” That led me to discover PHP.
Programming in PHP felt like a superpower and I started building tons of pages. I then learned about MySQL and how to hook it up to PHP. One day, I got curious about how I might enter all this data in a better way and stumbled onto this thing called WordPress at a local bookstore. WordPress was a next-level superpower (remember, this is 2009, the early days of the CMS game).
Once I got our website up and running, I helped a few people at our store learn how to write content for long-tail keywords. We got so proficient at it that we started getting traffic across multiple states. We went from a 40-mile sales radius to drop shipping in all 48 contiguous states. We went from selling to builders for credit with 3% margins to selling to homeowners for cash with 40-50% margins while still selling below Home Depot and Lowes' prices. The work I did helped our family business survive the recession!
Having freed my time from building and entering content, I realized the potential to start selling what I did to our customers. My job went from doing deliveries and operations to creating a new stream of revenue: I started building WordPress sites for other people! I built good websites for a new customer base with a 1-week turnaround and created reusable themes and plugins as I went.
From building materials to building the web
Eventually, I realized that this was what I wanted to do as a career: build for the web. I applied for a job at a small creative agency that was three blocks from my house and got hired!
Upon joining, I looked at how they built websites, their turnaround times, and the cost of creating custom CMS solutions for every customer and again thought “There must be a better way…”. I helped them streamline their process by introducing WordPress. It worked so well and we started shipping WordPress sites so fast that I ran out of stuff to do during my work day.
My break into tech and where I’ve been since
The creative agency was the boost I needed to start my career in tech.
From there I went to Zappos as a junior frontend developer and left as a senior full-stack engineer.
From Zappos, I went to Walmart Labs to work on their React component architecture team. I worked in 3 different organizations and spun up 4 new teams in my time there.
From Walmart, I went to Webflow to work on building out the core frontend functionality, then transitioned into dev tooling, then into working on the published site architecture.
From Webflow, I went to my first small startup, Murmur, where I’m the founding engineer and helped build the platform from the ground up.
How has your mix of skills changed the way you work with other people in the field?
I think they've changed the way I work with others in three ways:
I can fill skill gaps
I think my mix of skills makes it so that I can fill gaps on a small team where we have a need or find new opportunities in a big organization. Being able to fill the skills needed when there’s a gap has given me a lot of power to create new roles or teams that I'm excited about.
I can find new paths that we may not have explored or thought about
I've joked that the reason I can make it in larger organizations is that I know how to surface the friction… in a good way! Anyone can find where they get annoyed, but having the ability to ask "what if..." when you find a thing that's frustrating and know there could be a better way is a superpower.
I can bring focused energy to collaboration
I think orienting towards curiosity, my craft, and collaboration allows me to bring focused energy to the things I work on in a way that brings other people along on the journey with me.
Can you share a story about a project where combining skills from different areas led to new ideas and/or a really good outcome?
One of my favorite examples of finding a better way was when I worked on the reverse proxy and CDN at Walmart.
Our small team had done a lot of work building a proxy and CDN that could compete with other CDNs but we were underwater with internal customer support.
I started answering our internal users’ questions, which led to the creation of an Edge Consulting team. That team's job was to 1) help our internal users solve their unique, immediate problems, 2) notice patterns and frustrations to help inform our roadmap and 3) discover creative new ways to solve problems using our self-service utilities without having to change the proxy or CDN.
This job was 1 part consulting, 1 part sales, 1 part creative problem solving, and a whole lot of fun. My ability to combine systems thinking, design thinking, engineering, and sales led to:
A happy me: I was managing a team that didn't exist before I came along.
A happy internal customer: their major problems vanished because we taught them to easily troubleshoot using the tools at their disposal.
A happy edge engineering team: Creating Edge Consulting offloaded customer support so that the core edge engineering team could get back to focusing on building stuff that would better serve the customer at scale.
What emerging trends in design, technology, and business are you most curious about or excited about? Why?
I have 4 trends that I'm most excited about:
Self-management isn't recently emergent but I’m excited about it because it enables anyone who practices it to have more power to choose what they want to work on. I'd love to help others learn to practice its core components!
Similarly, distributed teams aren't that recent, but COVID kicked off the need for teams to practice being distributed. I joined my first distributed team in 2015 at Walmart and haven't looked back. I think it's important for distributed teams to learn how to facilitate better meetings and find ways to help each other practice better time management.
Remote design sprints
Murmur started doing remote design sprints recently and I really enjoy them. They're a modified, remote version of the Google design sprint. What I love about how we do them is that we’re intentional about not burning everyone out on screen time or work. It's been pretty relaxed and our velocity and ability to finish a big thing by Friday have been really surprising for me. Would love to talk more about this!
I've been using ChatGPT to help me get unstuck (instead of writing for me) and organize my thoughts into outlines. I've been using MidJourney to come up with images that are in a style I’m curious about so I can learn to draw in that style or build a website by riffing on the images it's given me. I think we're closer to a C-3PO / R2D2 reality than we are to a singularity.
How do you balance learning new things while keeping up with your typical day-to-day work responsibilities? Any advice you’d give to aspiring Masters of Many?
Everything I do starts with a statement of friction followed by a what-if statement.
It’s a 3 step process for all the things that allows me to learn and handle day-to-day responsibilities:
Notice friction or frustration
Say there has to be a better way
Explore “what if…” questions
First, notice. Find the friction in your workflows, in your team's workflows, and in your customer's workflows. Don't get pessimistic about it, but ask "Where do I settle, right now?" Then proclaim: "There has to be a better way." Then ask, from a place of curiosity: "What if…?"
This one process has been the catalyst for every good, big change in my career or in my life. The more I follow it, the more I can learn and find ways to use what I already know to move the world forward. It enables me to lead with curiosity which in turn enables me to zoom in and out on a concept, guiding me to new ideas, new tools, or new ways of working.
Some other nuggets of advice I'd give:
Stay curious. Be open to exploring ideas, even if you think they're wrong.
Make lists. I make a lot of lists for two reasons: 1) I notice themes about things I care about, and 2) I always have things to pick from if I want to learn or make something.
Write constantly. I also write a lot. I don't publish most of it, but I use Obsidian to do sensemaking around what I notice.
Make connections and combine ideas. If you're writing things down, you're going to start to notice interesting patterns. A great example of that for me lately was deconstructing my 6-year-old's kaleidoscope and looking at the world through it with my iPhone.
Treat tools as tools. Programming languages are tools. Figma is a tool. Your phone is a tool. None of these things define who you are or what you do, they’re just ways to achieve something. As soon as I stopped identifying with my tools as who I am and started treating them as a means to achieving a solution, I found a lot more freedom to just make stuff.
Question for Pat
What book have you read in the past 2 years that you think everyone should read to grow in their mindset?
Derek Sivers’ book “Anything You Want” made a big impact on me when I read it last year. I only knew a little about Derek before, but as I was reading I couldn’t help but think “There’s a path for people like me!”. He’s a perpetually curious guy who just loves making things. Sure, he had some big success building a company, but he’s equally (or more) at home while just in the flow of writing, programming, making music, etc… I feel like he creates for its own sake, which is something I deeply admire and aspire to. He’s the quintessential Master of Many.
The book itself is a great reminder that you can make your business, your career, and your life anything you want! It’s so easy to fall into default mode thinking based on what society or the people around you expect you to do, but ultimately, it’s all your call. You decide, so decide to make it great for you!
Murmur: Asynchronous, consent-based decision-making
”This is what I'm building now.”
”I use Obsidian for everything that could be considered notes, content, or personal knowledge management. I used it to write the answers to this interview.”
”Your meetings probably suck. It's not your fault, you're just using conventional structures. Check out liberating structures to help people feel more engaged, more included and ultimately come up with better solutions!”
Where to find Chase
Everywhere on the web 👉 @curiouslychase
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