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The Path: “Listen to yourself. Use that to make space for yourself. Use that space to make space for others.”

July 13, 2020
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The Path profiles people working in what we think of as "dream jobs," living their best professional life, and looks at the people and practices that helped get them there. We talk to these amazing folks about how goal setting, great leadership, tough decisions, and other key moments helped them get to where they are now. And, because so many career paths are inherently winding, we examine what it can look like to handle unexpected experiences along the way.  

Facebook forever changed the Internet landscape after first coming on the scene in 2004. The social media conglomerate, which now offers a portfolio of products and services beyond its namesake social platform — including WhatsApp, Instagram, Giphy, and Oculus — is the largest one out there. And though it can sometimes be polarizing, there is no doubt about the company’s innovation and reach.

This innovation is something Michelle Cortese is intimate within her role at the company as a Virtual Reality (VR) Product Designer. With a background in graphic design and interactive telecommunications, Michelle's body of work has been grounded in experiential advertising, design technology, and art direction throughout her years of working with companies like IPG Media Lab, The New York Times, and Refinery29. 

Since 2017, Michelle has been working in Facebook's Augmented Reality (AR) and VR department, leading various projects and paving the way to the future of social advertising. Here, Michelle shares how she got into this field, and what it's like to work in Facebook’s virtual reality department in a time of immense change.

What did you go to school for and what did you think you wanted to do at that time in your life?

I went to OCAD University (Ontario College of Art & Design, then) in Toronto, Canada to study graphic design for my undergrad. I chose graphic design because it seemed like a compelling combination of things I enjoyed: photography, illustration, visual composition, and — to as much of a degree as it could have been relevant in 2004 — the internet. Over the course of my time there, I became obsessed with technology’s impact on design and was (I believe) the only person in my year to produce a digitally-native thesis project. Years later, I attended NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP) to continue this work with a Master’s degree.

Can you give me the ‘Spark’s Notes’ version of your career history so far?

I finished undergrad during the recession so I sort of bopped around as a freelance culture photographer for a couple years before landing a full-time gig. My design career really kicked off with a job at Hudson’s Bay Company in 2010. That led to a specialization in art direction and digital advertising. As someone who’d initially wanted to work in assistive tech, fashion exhausted me and I ultimately went back to school at NYU ITP and pivoted toward hardware, interactive installations, and the 3D side of digital art direction. This landed me work in NYC’s experiential advertising world. I hopped from IPG Media Lab to The New York Times’ Fake Love to Refinery29 as an Interaction Designer, Experiential Art Director, and Design Technologist. In 2017, I jumped over to Facebook, and since then I’ve been working in their AR/VR department as a VR Product Designer and Design Lead on various social VR projects.

How did you end up getting hired for the position you’re currently in?

The rise of VR happened while I was working in experiential advertising, and I loved designing for that medium. It was all the joy of building interactive installations with none of the physical waste. I began leaning heavily into that work, pushing companies like Refinery29 further into that space, but by 2017 I found myself exhausted by the limitations of media and advertising. As someone who wanted to impact future technologies on a foundational level, I was existentially disappointed by the short lifespan and disposability of the experimental projects I tackled for ad campaigns. I began to search for gigs on the product side and ultimately found a fit at Facebook AR/VR; my VR experience was rare so it wasn’t too difficult to cross industries. I took the job because I was incredibly compelled by the opportunity to truly innovate in VR and push the next generation of Facebook products to be safer, more thoughtful, and more inclusive.

What are some daily habits you absolutely make sure to schedule into your day? 

Two major things: I schedule breaks for (currently socially distant) afternoon bike rides, and I have a living text file that’s always open in Sublime — a running list of focus areas — updated week-by-week with special markers on super important items. The latter really helps me to sign off when a day is done. There’s peace of mind knowing that I can jump back in where I left off; no pressure to keep all those work thoughts in my brain when I’m off-duty.

What do you love most about your job?

The reason I took the Facebook job — the opportunity to push the next generation of Facebook products to be better — is by far the best and hardest part of my job. Two years ago, I pushed for research on VR inclusion and safety. Specifically, I worked with a coworker, Andrea Zeller, to write a white paper and book chapter on how the ideology of sexual consent can be used to design safer VR spaces. Facebook absorbed that research in both the FB Research program and injected it into the fabric of our upcoming social VR app, Horizon. I love these opportunities. 

Tell me about someone who’s made a significant impact on your career trajectory — whether that’s a mentor, a manager, or someone else crucial to your success.

Easy answer: Hudson’s Bay Company Creative Director, Tony Smith. Tony hired me early in my career and gave me space to grow, but most of all, he trusted my input and included me on many high-level projects. Even when just invited in as a spectator, it gave me early-career insight into how the operation worked. As someone who’d come from a working-class family and was raised by parents who didn’t finish high school, I often felt like an outsider in academia, fashion, and technology. Tony helped me feel included, bolstered me to “fake it till you make it,” and by doing so, showed me how to make space for myself.

What’s been the biggest learning lesson in your career so far?

Well, that whole “fake it till you make it” thing was the defining lesson of the first six or more years of my career. The latter half has been shaped by the constant reminder to be nimble. Working in nascent technology implicitly means you’re going to be wrong—a lot. Accepting that and encouraging yourself to pivot is critical. I left grad school assuming I’d start a career in wearable technology but that industry fell flat. When I realized my wearable skills (like design, hardware, 3D modeling, art direction) could be applied to VR, I pivoted. Flexibility is a powerful propeller.

What do you think makes a good leader?

A humble sense of self. 

How do you approach difficult conversations with your team and other colleagues?

In the same way that I approach difficult conversations with my family and friends: With a mixture of radical honesty, empathetic listening, and resources for learning and growth (when applicable).

Work culture looks completely different than it did even a month ago, how are you adjusting? And what practices are helping you stay centered amidst increased uncertainty and anxiety?

One of the strangest things about working in VR during the pandemic has been how little my workday has changed. I was already working remotely — from Facebook NY, interfacing with a west coast team largely based out of Facebook’s HQ in Menlo Park — so my days were already stacked with video chats and meetings in virtual reality. My primary adjustment has been adapting to a life largely contained within a tiny NYC apartment. Setting routines and finding time and space for exercise and meditation has been key. Every day begins with a reading of the New York Times’ Daily Briefing, followed by a 40-minute yoga session. Every day ends with a bike ride and a meal cooked from scratch. I’m overwhelmingly grateful to have these options during this time.

Today, industries and culture are evolving more rapidly than ever in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing revolution in the fight for racial justice. Has your personal relationship to work changed? 

I’ve had a pretty politically-aware relationship with my decision to work at Facebook from Day 1. I understand the company’s transgressions and I’ve chosen to be an agent of change on the inside rather than a voice of dissent on the outside. I personally believe I can do more good as a loud employee who demands more from the company than I could in any other arrangement.

Has your company culture pivoted or changed? If so, how?

Oh boy. It has been an interesting time to be at Facebook. On June 1st, I participated in a company-wide walkout in which myself and thousands of employees signed off in protest of Mark Zuckerberg’s decision to not act on Trump’s baiting, inflammatory posts on the platform. We had various — publicly leaked — Q&A sessions with leadership in which employees demanded accountability. After that, many advertisers boycotted. Employees shared designs and product ideas for racial and social justice. This is all helping prove to leadership that the vision for the company that the employees are pushing—a vision that doesn’t permit misinformation or hate speech—is the true path forward. 

Since then, various initiatives have been greenlit and announced, including, but not limited to a portal for official information on pandemic voting, in-app measures to combat voter suppression, a higher standard for hateful content in ads, a new space in the Facebook app called Lift Black Voices, and several moves to place more BIPOC in leadership positions. None of this claims to be a complete solution, but rather a start toward a better future.

What do you think managers and leaders need to be doing to create better workplaces as we move forward from this moment?

Everyone, on every rung of the ladder, should practice radical empathy. Many corporations are taking steps to diversify their teams and leadership. But until those numbers become more representative of our population (and not our current power structures), everyone needs to listen to each other’s lived experience. Something I’ve asked Facebook AR/VR leadership to provide in the interim is a formalized stop-the-line process for all AR/VR employees to be able to report and escalate product concerns at any stage. Providing open opportunities to flag potentially problematic products and features—especially for future-focused platforms—democratizes product direction. 

What advice would you give to your younger self?

“What you’re feeling is called Imposter Syndrome and many people around you are also feeling it. There are so many axes of identity and experience that make people feel as though they don’t belong. Listen to them. Listen to yourself. Keep faking it until you make it. Use that to make space for yourself. Use that space to make space for others.”