Faces of Docs: Vance Vagell, User Interface Software Engineer

One of my favorite things about being the community manager on the Google Docs team is working alongside people with a myriad of backgrounds, interests, and talents. From learning of one of teammate’s pro cricket player past or another’s literary aspirations, I’m constantly discovering new things about the people I spend my workdays with. I thought you might enjoy reading about them, too--which is why we’re taking a cue from our friends at Gmail to bring you “Faces of Docs,” a series that will spotlight the people that make up our team.

Photo by: Antonella Pavese

Vance Vagell

What do you do on the Docs team and how long have you been at Google?
I lead a team of user experience (UX) prototypers. We build realistic-looking prototypes of new Google Docs features, so that our researchers can try them out with people. This lets us improve them before our engineers build the real thing. I’ve been here two years, but things move so quickly it may as well be 10.

What’s your typical day like?
I hop on the subway, read a few chapters of whatever sci-fi novel I’m working through (currently “Olympos” by Dan Simmons), and get to the office in about an hour.

Grab a coffee, then try to tackle my email inbox. Afterwards, I’m usually doing one of three things: building a prototype, preparing for a study, or running brainstorm and design sessions. My mind is usually at least one year in the future, although sometimes people force me to think about near-term problems.

What do you like most about what you do?
Watching someone enjoy a feature I’ve helped revise a few times—once we’ve finally gotten it right. I like being an advocate for what’s truly useful, and what people need. On the other hand, occasionally I get to work on bigger changes that help push technology in new directions, and that’s a blast too.

What’s the most challenging part of your role?
There are so many teams that want to see their ideas prototyped, that sometimes I have to put a few on the backburner. That said, we always prioritize, and then squeeze in a few “blue sky” projects so we keep moving forward and never get stuck in the status quo. We call a project “blue sky” when it’s unrealistic by today’s standards, but could be a great direction tomorrow.

What did you do before joining Google?
I’ve always worked in NYC—love the east coast (as I alienate myself from my west coast colleagues with this post). Started out as an indie game developer, then worked in voice technology for a few years. I was delighted to discover a posting for “User Interface Software Engineer” at Google NYC, and haven’t looked back since. I focus more on UX than engineering these days, but there’s an important intersection between the two that I represent.

What are the three Docs features you wouldn’t be able to live without?
Can I list ones that haven’t launched yet? Probably not. Okay, in that case: @-mentions in document comments that shoot off emails to people, Google Forms to quickly gather feedback, and real-time editing to bang out ideas as a group. These are all critical to my daily work.

What do you do when you’re not working on Docs?
Far too much computer gaming. Some of my favorites: Everquest (original and EQ2), Planetside, Eve Online, and City of Heroes.

Also love to go bird-watching. My favorite spot is Central Park. People are often surprised that you can spot over 20 bird species in a single afternoon there with a pair of binoculars. Did you know there’s a family of red-tailed hawks in the park that has reared several seasons of chicks now? Google “Pale Male”. On one outing, one of those hawks dove not more than a foot above my head to pick up a mouse beneath a tree across from me. Promptly carried it to a nearby branch and … dined. Very cool experience.

What kind of desk flair do you have?
Souvenirs from aquariums and zoos I’ve visited, and a photobooth print out of me and my partner at one of the Google NYC holiday parties. At last year’s, they had caricature artists, but I’m not ready to share that particular image of me yet. :)

What’s your pet peeve?
Apathy. Be passionate about something, and don’t be afraid to stand up for it.

What do you do in your downtime?
Between projects I like to catch up on UX blogs and papers. Some of my favorites are UX Matters, Jakob Nielsen’s Alertbox, and Don Norman’s essays.

What would your last meal be?
Definitely my partner Ray’s vegetable curry, it’s sublime, and you can’t beat home-cooked!

Posted by: Teresa Wu, Community Manager