Since I last wrote here, I moved to Germany. That still feels strange to write. If you can believe me, it really did sneak up on us.
My partner, Casey, and I touristed in Berlin in summer 2011 and loved it. That’s no surprise. A visit to Berlin is catnip for the modern creative geek, from the hackerspaces to the silkscreen studios to the long, chilled-out canal-side brunches discussing philosophy and world affairs and travel and art.
Back in San Francisco, Casey started taking evening courses in German. (No, we had no idea that we’d be moving here. No, I didn’t find it weird that he’d suddenly decided to learn German. Neither would you, if you knew him.)
Then things took an unpleasant turn in our charmed Bay Area techie life: we got evicted from our nice big rent-controlled apartment in Noe Valley, San Francisco. We were in a much better position than many people who have lost their housing in the Bay Area, but it stung nonetheless. I’m not going to add to the chorus of despairing “what’s happening to the Bay Area” essays; let’s just say that some time away from SF was starting to look pretty good.
This was about when I got introduced to the people at the School of Design Thinking (the “D-School”) at the Hasso-Plattner-Institut, officially part of the University of Potsdam, and they offered to host me as a lecturer for a semester. It seemed like a no-commitment way to live the good life in Berlin for six months; my husband’s company was ready to let him work remotely from Europe, and I had an institution ready to host me. I had every intention of going back to my job at Sliced Bread, the badass UX design firm I like to call “Silicon Valley’s secret weapon.” We packed a few suitcases, put most of our stuff in storage in San Francisco, and proceeded to have one hell of a summer teaching, creating, exploring, chatting, drinking, and butchering German grammar.
Then we had a problem. We did not want to leave Berlin.
The end date of our visa loomed. When the director of the advanced program at the D-School took paternity leave (yes, this is a thing in many countries besides the US) and I got offered a position as his temporary replacement, we couldn’t resist. Then he didn’t want the job back. So here’s where this story takes a turn we did not expect: less than a year after moving to a foreign country, I got offered a pretty sweet permanent job.
The D-School building, nestled in a suburban forest outside Potsdam.
So now I’m in charge of our Advanced program at the D-School. You may not know much about what we do, but I’m going to try and change that. In a nondescript 1990s building, in the woods outside Potsdam, we are doing much more than teaching human-centered design. We are building people who can collaborate, who are oriented towards action and change, who can oscillate between strategy and details. I hear over and over that these are the people we need more of in the world, and this is exactly what we’re teaching.
What is the deal with this program? We’re one of eleven departments of the Hasso-Plattner-Institut, a computer science institute in Germany. The HPI is, in turn, a part of the University of Potsdam. The D-School is a year-long certificate program, not a degree. Our students already study or work in another area; this is an add-on to their normal study of design, law, engineering, fine art, languages, whatever. We teach and work in English, because some of our students, and some of our projects, are international.
If you’ve heard of the Stanford d.school, where I used to work, this is sort of the same idea. I’d say our broad aims are the same: do a really, really good job educating creative leaders. Officially, they’re sister institutes. However, the structure is pretty different, which gives the two schools a very different feel and different community. The Stanford d.school is centrally located in a huge university, so students can attend whatever lectures, classes, or workshops they have time for. However, you have to be a current Stanford student to be a part of the Stanford d.school. The HPI D-School, on the other hand, is really pretty separate from the university. We only have one offering, which is an in-depth program that demands 20 hours a week for 4 months. The HPI D-School admits recent grads as well as current students, and many come to Berlin specifically for this program. Think of the Stanford d.school as a busy train station, and the HPI D-School as a woodland retreat.
As the manager of our Advanced program, I get to lead as both a teacher and a designer. I oversee and mentor 8 teams of 5 students, all working on product or service design projects with organizational partners (past partners have ranged from Volkswagen and Bosch, to a federation of banks, to a prison in Berlin). I create our curriculum and teach some of it. I lead a team of 17 part-time faculty who are so incredibly good that it makes my spine tingle to work with them. I manage relationships with project partners, help set the strategy for the program, and of course do all those things that come with any teaching-flavored job, like admissions and communications. It’s a ludicrous amount of work, but I wake up every day feeling like there’s a reason behind it. Fortunately, I get to do most of it in English, though I’m working hard on my German so that I can communicate better with our organizational partners and with my German students and colleagues.
Translation: “you will have a lot of variety at your job.” I’ll say.
So, now that this is my official new job, I’m planning to write quite a bit more here about what I’m doing out in the woods in Potsdam. I have a very strange but very interesting job to do here, and the least I can do is share some of it with you: I can tell you endless war stories about cross-cultural communication, explain the top mistakes students make when trying to figure out product ideas, and show you our most inspired teaching techniques. I hope I’ll make you laugh, get you thinking, and, best of all, give you something to try.