Sam Hankins (she/her) is a senior product designer on the Coral team, based in New York. This interview was taken on August 29, 2019 in Denver Colorado at our annual team hackathon (VAX).
Courtney: Hello! Talk to me about what your role on the Coral team entails.
Sam: It entails so many things! On the Coral team, since the beginning when I first joined, I’ve been more or less the only designer on the team. That means I wear a ton of different hats. We don’t have a traditional product manager, so there are aspects of that that Kim, Andrew and I share with respect to scoping and priorities. Past that, I’m responsible for all things design including user research, usability testing, general wireframing, user flows—everything under the sun. Most recently, I’ve been trying to get us up and running creating a design system for our product.
Courtney: And tell me a little bit more about the product.
Sam: Alright, so Coral is a commenting platform. We originally started out as a collaboration between Mozilla, The New York Times, and The Washington Post. We’re a grant funded project that originally started back in 2015 or 2016. We were all brought together to think about the questions of harassment and trolling in the comments. We were also thinking about ways in which we can bring more diverse voices into the mix of commenting. We really come from the standpoint that journalism needs everyone. The comments [section] is a space for people to share experiences and different levels of expertise on different topics. So in tandem with all of that is really thinking about how we can create a safe space where people feel encouraged to participate in discussion.
Courtney: What a great, relevant mission. So what brought you to Vox Media?
Sam: I have been with Vox since the beginning of January, when we were acquired. But I’ve been with the Coral team since April of 2016.
Courtney: Tell me about life before Vox Media—before the acquisition and maybe even before you got to Coral.
Sam: Before that, like I said, we were part of the Mozilla Foundation. When people think about Mozilla they think about the corporation, which is where Firefox and Thunderbird are born out of. But we were part of the Mozilla Foundation, which is where they do a lot of their grant-funded and advocacy work. Wwe very much operated like our own small little startup within it, because the foundation didn’t necessarily do a lot of product work. Our team at its largest was about 22 [people]. Now, when we go on Zoom we’re almost a full Brady Bunch, but I think we’re at about 7 people. Before Coral, I was transitioning into a design career. For 4 years before that, I worked at Hofstra University on Long Island at their law school as the associate director of student affairs.
Courtney: Wow! We’ll get to this later but I know you do a lot of mentorship too, so I’m sure the Hofstra experience still comes through on a regular basis even now. But before we go there, tell me about your favorite part about working a Vox.
Sam: There are so many great things about it. Like I said, when we were previously with Mozilla, we were very much so like our own start up that was very separate from the rest of the organization. It was really exciting, even the time leading up to the Vox Media acquisition, getting to know Phil (our VP of Design). But there was so much excitement coming into it because we realized culturally how aligned our two organizations were. Essentially, the mission of our product is what Vox Media is really trying to accomplish. What I love the most is just how warm and welcoming everyone has been in this remote working environment. I had been working remotely for two years prior and it was very different from this, so the energy of the folks around us has been super awesome. Everyone’s so open and welcoming in a way that allows us to really leverage a lot of the resources around us, and the expertise of other folks that we didn’t have on our team before. It’s been awesome to be part of a larger organization that also believes in the work that we’re doing.
Courtney: We’re very happy to have y’all are here, and have already learned so much from the amazing work from your team. What projects will you be working on when you go back to New York from Denver?
Sam: We are in our big final push towards the release of version five. When Coral first started our big thing was that we were going to be open source, which was great because a lot of news organizations around the world, without us even knowing it, were adopting our platform. And we wouldn’t even know it until they would submit translations for the whole platform, which was pretty cool. Being able to find the development resources to get the platform up and running is challenging for a lot of news organizations. So with us moving to Vox, our big thing has been moving over to a SaaS-hosted platform. We’re in the final stretch of one year of work, so we’re buckling down and finishing that up. We’re excited because once we clear that hurdle, it’s on to some really great new features, like figuring out how we can turn this into an AMA platform and other ways to leverage really good content.
Courtney: That is very exciting! Looking forward to those AMAs. Tell me about your life outside of work. Any books that you’ve read recently that you’re a big fan of that you want to recommend? Any hobbies or side projects? We can talk about about mentorship, too.
Sam: Absolutely. So the big thing that I’m doing outside of work is I am a mentor for two design bootcamps. They’re like sister brands, Bloc and Thinkful. Bloc was actually the program that I had done to transition into design, which was a really great experience. To have made a very huge shift from education in the legal field into design was super awesome. So when there was an opportunity for me to join in and get into mentoring, I was like “yes, absolutely!” It’s really exciting to work with folks who have discovered product and UX design and help them understand that their already-existing skills can make them great designers. A lot of that is teaching skills and concepts but it’s also a lot of confidence building, which I really enjoy. I’ve had a handful of students get really great full time jobs, so that’s super exciting!
Outside of that, I try to travel as much as possible and I really love cooking—I’m a big foodie. On the weekends in New York you can find me doing karaoke.
Courtney: What kind of food do you like to cook?
Sam: I really used to like making barbecue a lot. When I was living in Brooklyn, a friend and I would make ribs every Sunday. Other than that, just a lot of Filipino food flavors from home. A lot of calls with my mom will be like, “how do we do this?,” and she’ll just walk me through it, and I’ll try to meal prep a lot of that throughout the week.
Courtney: It’s so wonderful that you can spend time connecting from different places. That’s awesome!
What is something you’ve read, watched, or listened to from a Vox Media network that you would recommend?
Sam: Before I started working at Vox Media, I was always looking for something on Netflix that’s pretty quick. So when I stumbled upon “Explained” it just blew my mind just because they were covering so many topics so rapidly that I just had not had time to dig in to, like cryptocurrency and understanding astrology and that kind of stuff. Then, pretty much anything and all things on Eater. I was actually pretty excited the other day I saw an article about “the top 15 Filipino restaurants in New York City” and I’m excited to try some of those spots out.
Courtney: Fun! As you know, our product team has offices and remote employees everywhere. If you could set up your remote office from anywhere in the world and any era of time, and your WiFi is the best it’s ever been—
Sam: Oh that’s always the problem!
Courtney: Right! And you don’t have to worry about scheduling across time zones. Where would you go?
Sam: I’ve actually made trips to Japan three of the last four years. Kyoto is my favorite city in the world. It has a really nice combination of very old world traditions but also still being very modern, clean, and safe. A lot of people will be like, “hey, Tokyo, that’s where I want to be,”and to me it’s kind of just like New York on steroids. Kyoto just really has something that’s very culturally different than what we’re used to.
But whenever I travel to Asia, that is the one place where I’m like “I cannot work from here just because of the time difference.” But I’m always thinking to myself when I come back, I wish I could do this for like three months without the time zone being so crazy.
Courtney: If you were to do another interview later down the line, and you could talk about any subject, what would you want it to be?
Sam: Does it have to be work related?
Sam: Oh, wow. That’s a good question. And is it like a full podcast or are we talking like one episode of something?
Courtney: Yeah, think like, an episode on a subject through your lens.
Sam: Yeah. You know, one area that I have gained just random expertise in is like, learning how to work while traveling and how to plan for it. Number one: what does your bag and your traveling workstation look like? Tips and tricks from different countries that I’ve worked from.
Courtney: That would be very helpful for a lot of folks here! A lot of people on Product Technology and Design team travel a bunch. It would be good to have a conversation with you about how to hone that traveling work space.
Sam: I got into a space where it was getting really easy to do because I just started to compartmentalize the process of it. I know for a lot of folks it’s like, “this requires a lot of planning,” or “you have to do it so far in advance.” A lot of times, I’m making these choices like less than a month out.
Courtney: What’s the one working-from-traveling accessory that you would recommend—the number one thing that you have to have?
Sam: Oh there’s so many. Something that I’ve actually really depended on and am always replacing if I lose it is a collapsible laptop stand. Wherever you’re working from, different tables or counters are always going to be at varying heights. So that kind of really remedies the height of things. I used to take my computer and put it on top of books. But the travel tabletop really collapses into something that’s maybe 3” wide and maybe a foot tall.
Another one would be a Bluetooth speaker. When you can play your own music somewhere, it automatically starts to feel a little bit more like home.
Thanks to Anna Graves for transcribing the interview and for Laura Holder for her edits.