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Making the Impossible Real: Being an Engineer at a Design Firm

In this Q&A with frog Technology lead Mark Freudenberg, find out what makes frog different from tech as usual.

Today I’m interviewing Mark Freudenberg, our Executive Technology Director in our San Francisco studio, who has been with frog for more than seven years. I am newer to frog, but I have already realized that while many creative professionals know who we are and what we do, that’s not always the case for technology and engineering professionals, especially in the San Francisco Bay Area. I’m on a mission to provide some perspective to tech professionals so they can understand what makes frog a unique and special place to be. There’s no better place to start than with the leader of our Technology practice to articulate the frog experience from an engineering perspective.

– Kristen McDonald, Associate Director, Talent Acquisition

What attracted you to frog and why have you decided to stay despite the tempting opportunities in the tech space within the Bay Area?

Really, it comes down to the work. Seven years is a long time as a consultant, but frog continues to evolve and adapt itself over time. The one thing that remains the same is the diversity of work we get to engage in, which is unlike anything I’ve experienced anywhere else I’ve worked. frogs truly do things that can’t be done and have never been done before. Since we are a human-centered design company, we focus on experiences that bring enjoyment and improve interactions that we already interface with in the real world.

I become bored with anything I do repeatedly. Luckily, that doesn’t happen here. Our programs tend to be quick and intense, and the next program will be completely different than the last. Not only is that challenging and exciting, it lets us have a clear vision across industries so we can see larger trends and technological evolutions. That said, there’s always something new to learn. When exploring new terrain, we’re challenged in learning new skills and techniques.

What type of person would be attracted to frog Technology?

We’re not a classic engineering operation, so a heads-down, isolated coder type would struggle here. When on the hunt for a new team member, the first thing I look for is passion. I want to delve in and discover what they’re truly passionate about and what makes them tick. If their passion intersects with the type and style of work we do here, that will pique my interest. If they’re into rapid prototyping and experimentation, that’s also a key indicator they would enjoy the frog environment.

“We are continually learning new things and pushing the boundaries of what can be done. That curiosity to ask ‘why’ and not just ‘how’ is key.”

The other major question I ask myself when interviewing engineers is, “Does this person have empathy?” As we design and build things for humans, our teams need to think, interact and collaborate with their human-ness at the center of their work. We are constantly collaborating, and as consultants, we all have to engage with clients and partners external to frog regularly. Everyone at frog needs to be a consultant at their core, and not everyone is cut out for that.

Lastly, our people need to be curious! We are continually learning new things and pushing the boundaries of what can be done. That curiosity to ask “why” and not just “how” is key.

How is frog different from traditional tech environments?

One thing to know is that we don’t create our own products and services and nothing is branded with frog on it. So, we’re not really a product company. That can be frustrating for those who want to take a product all the way from inception to end of life. On occasion, we do build out and release our concepts into the product-world through our clients.There’s also the fact that the clients own the products and the IP. So, even when we build something out, we have to hand it over as we don’t own it. That sense of ownership that “this product is mine” is blunted here and that can be challenging for those who care about getting credit for the awesomeness they create. We trade bragging rights for the ability to have our hands in a variety of projects.

What are the biggest challenges and rewards as an engineer working in a design-centric environment?

Ah, one of the things I was most concerned about when I came to frog is that I wouldn’t fit in. I’m an engineer and this is an established design company. Would I be an outcast? A freak? Was I cool enough to be here? I was worried about that a bit since I’ve only worked in engineering-heavy environments prior to coming to frog. What I learned is that everyone here is as nerdy as I am; they just tend to dress a bit better (and never care that I don’t). One of the benefits of an environment like this is that different viewpoints and ways of thinking are embraced here, and in fact expected!

So, my fears were unfounded and it’s a great environment if you have respect for other points-of-view. Ultimately, this is frog’s secret sauce. Our strength is our diversity of backgrounds, the empowerment we have to express our points-of-view and the ability to hit problems strategically, creatively and technically. That said, if someone is used to being “top dog” at their company because they’re in the engineering team, they will struggle here.

What is the most interesting project you’ve worked on?

This is a tricky question to answer. A lot of our work is confidential and I can’t speak about it in- depth publicly. What I can tell you is I’ve worked on a large number of very high profile projects in the past with companies like Disney, GE and Google. I would say that my favorite work was with DARPA. Some of the DARPA work, Plan X, was published in Wired magazine in 2012 and 2013. I’ve never had such synergy with a client as we did with Dan and his team at DARPA. Designing how to visualize cybersecurity when you are dealing with something the size of the internet—well, it’s a massive challenge. As with all challenging efforts, I was a little nervous when it started, but I’m damn proud of what we did together and the outcome of all that hard work.

How do you describe what you do to people outside of frog?

If someone has never heard of us, the first thing I need to do is make sure that they know I’m not kidding that our name is really “frog.” If they know what we do, I tend to say that I’m the one that has to make sure that the crazy stuff we dream up is something that actually can become a reality. Well, actually I’d say that that’s my team’s job. Things like time-machines and faster-than-light spaceships are a bit tough to realize in a few weeks, so I’ll steer our teams away from that. I manage the crazy group of badasses that create all the insane software and hardware hackery. And even though I’m an Executive Director, every once in awhile I get to do the hands-on work and help make some of the unbelievable stuff myself. As long as I get to continue learning new things, working with great people and get to be a part of fascinating and challenging work, I’m good.

To view frog’s open technical and engineering positions, please either visit our career page or check out the following positions:

Solutions Architect – San Francisco
Solutions Architect – New York
Senior Experience Analyst – Austin

***These positions were posted in August 2017.

Mark Freudenberg

Mark is an Executive Technology Director at frog SF. Focused on the technology side, he brings designs to life, embodying the “make it real” mantra. As an aerospace engineer turned software developer, he has an eclectic background he leverages in design to see trends across industries. He loves to work with his hands in physical-digital engagements to help do things that no one has ever done before.   

Kristen McDonald

Kristen is our Associate Director of Talent Acquisition at frog SF. She’s developed her career around every element of creative recruitment, ranging from gaming, advertising, mobile to now human-centered design. She’s worked either at or with Google, Activision, Microsoft, Supercell, Essence Digital and many start-ups. In her free time, she goes on urban hikes, travels and cooks at home like a Chopped champion.

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