For Chikezie Ejiasi, the path from Iowa to Google came with multiple twists and turns.
An initial interest in crafting video games began Ejiasi’s westward trajectory, from Cedar Rapids to West Des Moines, and ultimately to the West Coast, cultivating experience in multiple web and interactive design jobs along the way.
For nearly three years, Ejiasi, 37, has served as senior interaction designer for Google’s Daydream virtual reality platform, which is built into compatible Android phones and supports products such as the Daydream View mobile headsets.
The latest project for which Ejiasi is designing is AR in Search, a 3D augmented reality search results supplement that Google representatives announced in May at the company’s I/O conference in Mountain View, Calif.
Ejiasi stays busy when not on the front lines of innovation. Last year, he founded the Champions Initiative, through which he has visited and held workshops at historically black colleges and universities and Hispanic-serving institutions, hoping to boost interest in design among populations typically underrepresented in that field.
The following are excerpts from two interviews The Gazette conducted with Ejiasi in June.
Q: Tell me about your ties to Iowa. Where did you attend school and what did you study?
A: I was born in Houston, Texas, and I lived in Cedar Rapids from third grade up until two years after high school. I graduated from Prairie High School and went to Kirkwood for a few years, and then to the University of Iowa. I went to school for computer science with a minor in graphic design. I was a few credits shy of graduating and left early to pursue a job in West Des Moines as a web designer.
Q: How did your interest in design evolve during the early stages of your career?
A: When I was pursuing computer science, I wasn’t really pursuing a career in programming, I was pursuing a career in game design. I was writing my own stories, characters, drawing lore and maps, but I didn’t have anything to pull them all together, so I made a website while in college ... and used it for profiles of all the characters online. I shared it with a friend, and they asked me if I could build a website for them. That’s when I got my first internship in Iowa City, designing touch-screen experiences for a local company. My first job was when I moved to West Des Moines (at Iowa Network Services). I went and interviewed there, and I was thinking ‘this is cool, I get to design websites for companies,’ but I did have the mindset that I wanted to get into game design. Right around that time, I was still writing stories, still putting my characters on my design website. What initially was my portfolio of game characters quickly became my portfolio of websites I was designing for small-time companies. Hindsight is 20/20, but what I didn’t know was, I was building the ‘muscle’ of a visual design skillset, being able to design for multiple clients.
Q: When did you move to California? How did you get your foot in the door at Google?
A: It was 2009, where (sunglasses and clothing company) Oakley’s headquarters is based, and I went to Oakley as a senior web designer. As a kid growing up in Iowa and moving to (Foothill Ranch,) California, that was a pretty big move and it was not only a culture shock but also a career shock, being exposed to different things and having new responsibilities from a corporate standpoint.
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I was at Oakley for two and a half years. My wife and I started in this small town feel; we met in Iowa City ... and we started to crave that again, so I started looking for new opportunities. I had an interview with the owner of (interactive design company) Cuban Council, who said I could work out of their Portland office, it just required flying to Mountain View, Calif. every month or so to visit their main client, which is Google. I lived in Portland for two months, bouncing around from Airbnb to Airbnb for weeks because the house we wanted to rent wasn’t available. It was very challenging. After we got to the house (three weeks later), it was great ... Then, the owner (of Cuban Council) called me. I flew down and we had a conversation about how Google is going to consume most of the talent at Cuban Council. Our boxes were not unpacked when I called my wife to say ‘we’re moving to California again, and Google’s got an opportunity there.’
The product I was hired into was Google Plus. I was brought in as senior design talent to help with the new emerging social product. Google’s job was a lot more defined than my previous experiences. That was the first time I was an app designer as compared to a web designer, which was interesting. I got to design not only as the lead for the feed, which a lot of people are familiar with, but also a lot of the additional experiences like the Profile, Hangouts, Photos. I got to get my hands dirty and work with a lot of different products. That felt great, not only to adapt at this really large company with this social network that was trying to rival Facebook and Twitter and see some of my unique design become standard, but to push the boundaries and see what was possible.
Q: What inspired you to form the Champions Initiative, and what has the response been so far?
A: I started to think back, from Google View to Oakley, I had maybe worked with, out of 300 designers, one designer of color. I always felt like a dot on a very large map, and I started to research why that is, why don’t we have a lot of black designers in the industry. I started to realize a lack of awareness for design among underrepresented students. Eventually, I started to partner with a lot of outreach teams that exist at Google. A lot of them are aware of the problem. We can’t scale to a global market if we don’t understand our non-white population. We need products for everyone else, too. When I first started Champions Initiative (in 2018), I had the idea to bring design-thinking workshops to historically black colleges and universities and Hispanic-serving institutions around the nation and build more awareness for design. The reason I chose design-thinking workshops started off as a way for non-designers to understand the value of design and design process. It really broke down the process, which typically breaks months of work into five-day or five-hour sessions.
I took the workshop format to a bunch of different schools. In 2018, I did six workshops (and 18 workshops in 2019 so far, each averaging 30 to 50 students and lasting up to two hours). It was great to see students gain experience for design. A student wrote to me a couple of weeks later and said they were going through Google internships and really wanted to pursue this. Maybe a week ago, they told me that they’re actually a UX engineer (intern) at Google now. It was amazing to see the program working to help students of color find avenues that they didn’t realize existed and turning it into a success.
Q: What are you working on right now?
A: Right now, I’m designing for a project called AR in Search. We just launched the ability to search for one of 30 animals. If you search for a panda, you get a knowledge card with summary info, and you can meet a life-size panda up close, see the panda in 3D, spin it around. We essentially brought augmented reality to Google search (for animals including a tiger, pug, bulldog, shark and giant octopus). It needs an AR-capable device like Google Pixel.
When we first started seeing various virtual reality and augmented reality products come out, a lot of it was demo-like products where you think, ‘oh, this is really cool, I wonder where it’s going to be in five years.’ Now, we’re at that point. AR is taking a dramatic turn from where it started off. From a tools perspective, you have possible tools like being able to measure things in the house. If you wanted to measure how long your living room is, you could do it with your phone. There’s a certain utility to AR now that didn’t exist before.
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