Jeffrey Wieland is currently a Product Manager at Facebook. Previously, he served over 11 years as the Head of Accessibility at Facebook. He graduated from Middlebury College in 2005, with a BA degree in American Civilization.
Thanks for taking the time to speak with us. Can you give us an overview of your career path? Specifically, what motivated you to start the Accessibility Team at Facebook and how did your role at the company change through the years? I graduated Middlebury with a degree in American Civilization and followed the Pre-Med route on the side. However, I thought it would be helpful to gain some professional experience before making the big decision of what to do in the long-term. I serendipitously moved to California for a change and a good friend convinced me to apply to Facebook. This was when Facebook was still a small company looking to grow; there was still no such thing as a news feed.
I was initially hired into the small Customer Support team, what we now call User Operations. Over time, I found new opportunities to grow and learn. After a year on Customer Support, I helped Facebook start a User Research team in Design. I eventually worked there for three and a half years and researched why users were using our products and the challenges they faced. In this role, I gained an introduction to the concept of accessibility, which is building technologies for people with disabilities.
There were two primary motivators for starting the Accessibility team. The first stemmed from the belief that it aligned with the company’s mission of connecting everyone in the world. We wouldn’t be successful on that mission unless we invested in accessibility and ensured our technologies were accessible to everyone on the spectrum of abilities. The second motivator was more personal: this was a way for me to still engage with the medical and health field while also working at the intersection of design, technology, and user experience. Ten years later, the team has grown into a world-class multi-disciplinary team – it’s been an amazing career journey.
We would like to hear about projects you’ve been involved with. I was wondering if you could share some specific experiences and products. On a related note, if we want to see more products aimed at the public good, what considerations should we take into account? One of the major challenges for accessibility is scale. For vision loss or blindness, enabling access to visual media is really critical on the web today. So then the question becomes, how do you translate visual media into a format that would make sense to someone unable to see the content? How do you do that when you’re taking in millions of user generated photos? This challenge is not exclusive to Facebook, this goes for any product with visual media. But it was an important issue for Facebook since so much of what people are sharing is visual.
There are different ways to solve this. The traditional way is by encouraging people to provide a caption with their visual media. That’s a great start but it’s not the best solution for making sure lots of photos get captions. At best, you’d see about 1% of people filling out the captions. We needed a way to provide access to the other 99% of photos. We decided that a better solution was to use object recognition technology.
Of course, object recognition technologies have their own limitations. Computer-generated captions are generally more rudimentary than narratives provided by humans. However, back in 2016, we felt that Facebook’s technologies had gotten powerful enough to provide suitable descriptions, so we started to build prototypes to see what we could detect in visual media. Based on user research, we knew information about the people in photos was most important, so we focused a lot of attention there. In the end, our system, which we call Automatic Alt Text, had coverage for over 90% of photos and could often detect many of the critical objects appearing in each photo. We continue to refine the product year over year as our technologies get better.
Why don’t we switch gears and talk about your new role in product management. Can you provide us with an overview of your new role and what motivated the transition? I’ve been working on accessibility for over a decade now. It’s been a fascinating and rewarding experience. Over the past two years, I started helping with projects in adjacent fields within the company, and I realized how much I enjoyed working on different projects with different people. As one example, I began working in the sphere of usability. Usability focuses on ensuring that products are as easy to use as possible, and accessibility is often seen as a sub-dimension of usability.
The main motivation to change positions was the opportunity to learn and face new challenges. In my fourteen years at Facebook, I will now have had four different roles – I’ve loved all of them. From beginning in customer support to now working in product management, all of those transitions have been driven by wanting to get outside my comfort zone and learn more, faster.
With the latest transition to product management, I still get to work on issues related to accessibility. I believe technology should and can be used for good. I hope to continue to make that good available to everyone.
Shifting gears into your Middlebury experience and post-grad, what were some of the most important skills you developed at Middlebury which were instrumental to your first years at Facebook? There are a lot of things Middlebury instilled in me which are relevant to my work today. One important lesson was to be curious and to ask lots of questions. Dive deep into the facts and investigate problems fully to understand first principles. In technology, I think that’s how you can best understand a problem before making up your mind on a solution to pursue.
Another important skill I picked up at Middlebury is to see things through different perspectives. I think this has been crucial for my work on accessibility. There we work on behalf of great diversity and we cannot presume to know all those experiences from our own lens. In our case, we spent a lot of time with people with disabilities in our research and product development work. This made sure that we were building with a group instead of for a group. I believe this general rule extends beyond the Accessibility team to everything people do in the sphere of products and technology.
Was there any class or professor at Middlebury who taught you these things? Oh, there were a ton. I recall a senior seminar in American Civilization with Professor Tim Spears in particular though. Tim was committed to getting diverse perspectives in the classroom and pushing the class to engage in discussion. This is an approach I take running my own meetings. I was grateful to get a chance to learn from him.
I was hoping we could address the current pandemic. How has COVID affected your work and what have been the biggest changes? There are different challenges in adjusting to working from home. One of the major benefits of being in the office is the serendipity of being around other people: have a hallway chat, brainstorm together, or work through a disagreement face to face. Finding opportunities for that same serendipity through virtual means has definitely been a challenge. Also, collaboration is generally tougher when people are all working from home. Similar to other companies, we’re thinking of techniques and strategies to make remote collaboration more effective. There are great opportunities for innovation in collaboration through remote scenarios and I’m excited to see the fruits of that.
Specifically, what are some of the strategies you use at work to deal with the current remote conditions? One strategy is to make sure we’re scheduling more time for people to check in. This is because we know we aren’t going to get the same organic social interactions we would normally get in the office. So we want to allocate more time on the calendar and in meetings to talk about what’s going on personally, not just professionally. Since we don’t have other outlets to get together and hangout after work, we’re actively making space for social connections online. These are important for team health, comradery, and collaboration.
Another strategy is to be proactive with communication. When everyone is dispersed and working from home, we have to spend more time intentionally pushing out information and broadcasting, something we often take for granted while being in the office. This broadcasting needs to reach all directions, from peer-to-peer to leadership upwards. All of these strategies are intended to build best practices to adapt to our current climate.
This article was written by Arturo Simental 20’ and edited by Xiaoli Jin 19’.
This series is coordinated by Xiaoli Jin ’19. Look for more alumni profiles each week. You can connect with Xiaoli on LinkedIn.
If you are interested to interview alumni and contribute to this series, please contact Xiaoli Jin 2019′ on Midd2Midd.
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