Fernando Pantoja
  • Years in Tech


  • Current Role

    Visual Designer, Skype

  • Place of Origin

    Guanajuato, Mexico

  • Interview Date

    February 1, 2016

I am 37 years old. I was born in Guanajuato, Mexico. My family moved to Chicago when I was five years old, and I lived there until 2009 when I moved to SF for work. At the time I was working at Motorola as a visual designer.

So, tell me about your early years and where you come from.

I still remember my first car ride in the United States. I was four when my family moved to Chicago. My dad picked me up at O’Hare airport in an avocado green, four door, Torino. I wish I still had that car.

It’s a rather funny story actually. So funny that I had to go back and ask my parents if it was true. When we moved, my dad had already been in Chicago for about six months or so, getting Visas for everyone.  He went back to Mexico to pick us up, and when we were at the airport, the agent said “where’s the Visa for the baby?” (me), and my dad said “Oh he doesn’t need one. He’s a baby.”  And the agent said “Yes. He needs a visa and a passport.”  And so my dad turned to my mom and asked her if it was ok if he gave him to a Coyote (the people who cross people over the U.S. border illegally). To which my mom promptly said “Um, no. You are taking him back to your mom’s house”.  So, if it was up to my dad, he would have handed me over to someone that would have probably stuffed me into the trunk of a car. Thankfully that did not happen.


That was the beginning of my story in the States. Eventually I got over. After that, we lived in a Mexican neighborhood in Chicago, and for the most part, I was encouraged to go to school. College, if you made it, was okay. If not, it was fine, too. The important thing was that you were able to get a job. So it wasn’t as if we were badgered with “become a lawyer, become a doctor.” That was definitely not where I came from.

I discovered art and design my own. I was always interested in the arts in some form. Without question I sort of fell into design. I loved it. I did it well naturally and that’s why I felt at home. Focusing on design was a little unusual because in Mexican culture the arts aren’t necessarily celebrated. My parents still don’t know what I do. They have no reference point. At least when I was working with Motorola they could reference cell phones, but now it’s a little more difficult for them to visualize what I do. It’s a little difficult to speak to them about it. I’ve never had a conversation where I’ve vented about work and have them understand what I was going through.

I do remember telling my mom that I was going to go to an art school, and I think I remember her saying, “How are you going to get a job?” It didn’t come together for them, and frankly, for me, either.

While growing up, I was very close to two of my cousins, we’re around the same age, we spent a lot of time together. A couple of years back, I asked my mom “What happened to my cousins, what are they up to?” She’s said, “They’re just working.” I asked her what they did and she told me that they’re working construction. For some reason that made me a little sad. I don’t know why. It’s not that I’m judging them. It’s not that at all. That’s what my parents, and my uncles did after we moved to the U.S. They worked construction. In my mind though, I felt as if my cousins stopped trying. Because they chose to do what our parents did. In a way, I thought, what good was it that they sacrificed the life that they had in Mexico to move here, and then for my cousins stop that growth. To not go beyond anything that they already knew? I still don’t know how I feel about that. I just hope that that’s what they wanted. For me, I’ve always wanted more. Not necessarily material things, but to learn, and grow beyond my surrounding environment. In a way, it felt like they chose to stop learning. Which was something I am not willing to do.

Do you feel like that was a primary motivator from you from the start—going beyond or creating something to justify what your parents sacrificed?

Yeah, I think so. Just watching them work. Both my parents worked so hard, and to think that it was for nothing, which is what it would have felt like for me, if I chose a factory job. That was definitely a motivator for me.

Walk me through the process of finding design, and then how you got here from Chicago, and into tech.

In high school I did a lot of work with the Boys and Girls Clubs, and during the summer I took part in a mentorship program. We toured an advertising agency once, I think it was Leo Burnett. Once I saw the office, I thought, “Wow, this is incredible.” I had never thought about anything like that before. I saw all of the brands that I knew, and I was standing in the place that they were created. That was amazing to me. It was through advertising, even though I didn’t go into advertising, that I discovered design. That was a motivation to me – to see that these were someone’s ideas. I wanted to do that. I wanted to– I wanted my voice to be heard in that same way. That’s when I knew that I wanted to go, in some form, into design. I think I was a junior in high school at that time. I signed up for art school the next year.

Amazing. I can so relate – going back into childhood, not knowing what creative was, but I loved commercials, and that was kind of my first exposure to creative campaigns, and didn’t know it. I remember just being enthralled with them, and not knowing that that was my first exposure to communication and design, and creative stuff.

Yeah, it was beautiful. I just loved being there, I just remember being completely excited about it. And because of that excitement I continued to work with The Boys and Girls Clubs, and ended up winning an award for them, The Mid-Western Youth of the Year Award. It was a national competition that was held in Washington. We actually got to go to the White House and meet Bill Clinton in the Oval Office, which was incredible.

It was so exciting to be at The White House. The work that I did with the Boys and Girls clubs was hugely inspirational to me. I saw a lot of benefit in it, it helped to solidified my work ethic.

When did you end up leaving Chicago?

It just kind of happened. I had never been to San Francisco, or California before vacationing here. I loved it immediately, I absolutely fell in love with the city. After my vacation, I wanted to make the move to California. Although, with me being in Chicago, I thought that I’d never be able to do it.

I still remember the day when it all started. I was in a meeting with my design team in Chicago, we were on a call with the engineers here in California. They were talking about a problem that we were having that we could not solve. That’s when my manager said, “Well, we’re not going to fix that until we have designers co-located with you. So until then, we have to deal with it.”

That’s when I muted the phone and said “I’ll move there if you need me to.” And he replied with, “Don’t say that if you don’t mean it.” And I said, “I’ll mean it.” 
So that’s how that happened, I just asked for it. It was a complete coincidence. I couldn’t have planned it any better, or different. It was wonderful.

That’s amazing.

Yeah, it was a very lucky situation.

What are some of the proudest moments of your career, would you say?

Creating work that is seen by millions of people, all around the world. That’s pretty incredible. That is something that I’m extremely proud of. Most days I have to remember to keep that shine from wearing off. The design and engineering process can sometimes take away from that feeling of accomplishment. In some cases, you might not feel as great about the product as you might have hoped. But it is still a fantastic feeling. You not only have to keep doing good work, but must go beyond what’s expected.

What have been your biggest troubles over the course of your career and this can be work, it can be personal.

I think I still struggle with commanding the English language well, that’s something that can be a barrier for me. To sit and listen to some of my colleagues sound so eloquent, and beautiful, and clear. It intimidates me a little because I feel as if I can’t do that.


That’s been a barrier for me, I’ve had to break through that and form the confidence that feeds this ease of communication.

And a surprise to me talking to you now, because you’re so eloquent.

If I’ve grown, it’s because it’s taken work. It wasn’t something that came easily to me. Even talking to my brothers and sisters over the phone sometimes [chuckles] I just want to scream, “Enunciate! Enunciate!” [laughter] because that’s a big part of having a successful conversation – that your message is heard, that it’s clear, and it reaches your audience, even if it’s one person. Culturally that wasn’t something that was focused on while growing up. I’ve had to develop that as an adult.

What are other ways that you felt like you had to play catch up?

For me, it’s always been a bit difficult to feel that I’m part of the group. In order for someone to be part of the group, they have to be able to carry the conversation, be involved. For a couple of reasons, historically, I’ve had difficulty with this. Something that I’ve had to do to address it is take vocal training. It’s something that has helped me feel like I have an equal voice in the room, that what I have to say is of equal value. My speech trainer once said “the deals are made on the golf course”. It rang true for me because throughout my life, I’ve felt as if I’ve kept myself from these life-changing conversations because of that discomfort. It was a huge realization for me.

The small talk and schmoozing, I’ve never been good at that when it involves work. Maybe it’s intimidation that happens. I’m not sure yet. It’s something that I have to improve. I feel like my Caucasian, male, colleagues can just walk into a room and say, “Hey, how’s everyone?” It’s not difficult for them. For me, there’s a hesitation. I haven’t been able to quite grasp, and maneuver around that quite yet.

In that same vein, have you felt like an outsider at times or have you specifically experienced things that made you feel different?

Yes, but I think it’s all self-inflicted, I think, because I sincerely think that people don’t, for the most part, project these feelings towards people. Although I don’t know what makes me feel that way. Maybe it’s something that I’ve learned, and I’m trying to ignore, but I can’t. At times I would feel excluded, but for me specifically, I don’t know if it’s related to being Mexican or gay or what that might be. So yeah. I have felt excluded. For me, it is work to go and make myself part of that group. It’s almost like taking a deep breath and diving in. That takes a huge amount of energy for me, and sometimes I just don’t have that energy. It’s emotional energy. It’s emotional overhead.

Yeah. When I was in tech, I acted ten years older that I do now and acted less feminine, just to feel like I could hang.

At work that is something that I do. I kind of like bring it down a little bit. Why? I have no idea. And it’s not a good feeling, I don’t know what that does to someone long term. Like I don’t know what that does to our creativity. It could destroy it. And being in a company this size, if you get to be creative, you’re lucky. I think that that might be one of the reasons why people leave these jobs is because they’re not themselves, both artistically and personally.

Have you had mentors or even people that have inspired you along the way?

Growing up, yes. Back to the Boys and Girls Club, the director, his name was Mike. He’s the one who would drive me on Saturday’s for my mentorship program. Thinking back, that was incredible. To have someone do that for me. It’s so inspiring, to think that he drove me to these events, on his personal time. Where I would see, and experience new things, learn from them. It wasn’t beneficial for him at all. It makes me realize how important that work is. To be selfless.

What are your biggest motivators? What drives you?

I think it continues to be– I want to be heard. I don’t want to dilute it – I was going to say that that that’s perhaps a motivation for everyone, in some way. Expressing my opinion is definitely one of my big motivators. Emotional, and artistic expression.

How do you feel like your background shapes the way that you approach your work?

My upbringing actually clashes with this because we were taught not to share your feelings, and express ourselves, don’t cause disruptions. We were taught to basically disappear into the background. And I’ve grown up to be the opposite of that. Not that I dress loudly or do things that are spectacular – in the theatrical sense anyway – but I think it’s been difficult for me to counter that, and develop the strength to feel comfortable with sharing my opinion.

So becoming that person, how has that impacted your relationships with folks from home?

I think those relationships have grown farther apart because of the things that I’ve learned. It was the reason that I left home, because I wanted to change these things within myself.

How do they feel about the person that you’ve become?

My parents are proud. My mom – I talk to my mom more than my dad – I haven’t asked her [chuckles]. I don’t know, I would hope that she’s proud.

I bet she is.

It was so cute, she used to ask me, “Oh, how are you doing? Do you need rent money? Do you need anything?” I’m in my late thirties, she doesn’t ask me if I need rent money anymore. I think it’s her little way of letting me know that she thinks I’m ok.

What do you think about the state of tech in 2016? What excites you and what frustrates you?

Oh goodness. I don’t like that the beauty of communication is being lost. I’ve recently gone through this life change where I’ve come to appreciate people for who they actually are, instead of who they are perceived to be. Being present, and listening, and actually being there for someone. That’s being lost, and I think that might be a casualty of tech, sadly.

I would agree.

And so that makes me sad. So, I don’t know if there’s going to be an app to fix it or not. [laughter]

I feel like there’s an awakening happening a little bit, where people are tired of being internet friends, you know?


Just like 10% friends, where it’s all transactional.


And tiny, tiny nuggets of feedback.


I don’t know, I think it also takes going through some hardships and to really appreciate the real, in-person support. And to actually ask for it.


I just hope that that changes for the better.

Me too.

That’s the thing. I don’t know if we are experiencing that because we live in San Francisco, or if that’s the case in the rest of the world. I have no idea.

Me neither.

But definitely, we’re in peak competitive lifesharing right now.

Yes. Absolutely. I tend to “over-share” on Facebook and I’ve thought to myself, “why do I do this?” It’s– I don’t want to call it stupid, but it’s empty. So what if I was getting a donut at Mr. Holmes? [laughter]

I feel you. Let’s see. What are some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned while working in tech? Again, it could be work, it could be personal.

I’ve had colleagues who have chosen their – and this isn’t just in Tech – they chose to try to get ahead in work, and by doing so, they sacrificed their friendships at work. And that was unfortunate. And like I said, that just doesn’t happen in tech, but I think because it is such a saturated environment here. We basically all do the same thing so I’ve seen people become and get pretty cut throat just to ship their feature or whatever and that’s unfortunate. To me, that’s not what good work is. I can’t remember who said it, he basically ‘values a work ethic that doesn’t leave a trail of carnage behind you’ or something like that. I’m horrible with quotes [chuckles].

And that’s how I feel. I don’t think that shipping a feature makes you successful if your life is empty, and you have no friends, and everyone hates you. I’m not going to want to work with you.

A feature’s not worth that.

No, it’s not.

[Chuckles] You mentioned in your pre-interview the importance of being true to your history – but also learning to thrive in your environments – expand on that.

That was in reference to the language barrier, but it goes beyond that. It involves everything – the way you speak – the way you dress, what you eat. I remember bringing lunch into work one day. I was the only Mexican in the office – and while I was having lunch everyone would always ask, “What is that?”. It made me feel so self conscious, because I felt as if they were making fun of me. I never went to them and stared at their plates asking about their lunch. I felt that it was rude. Things like that affect you in the smallest ways. If you start sorting, editing, and removing these things — are you stripping away your culture?

It’s a fine line between being yourself and being a “culture fit.”

Yeah. Culture fit.

It’s crazy. People will not say that term now.

No. No they won’t.

What are you working on now, for yourself or for work?

Actually I started taking acting classes because I wanted to sort of go back to having your voice restored thing I wanted to be completely comfortable with being on the spot, in quotes, and being able to communicate what you intended to communicate, and not letting that pressure dilute that or make you forget what you were going to say or just staying on target. And that’s important, especially when you’re in a boardroom presenting. And that’s the more practical way that I can use what I’m learning in acting classes, but I like– well the reason I’m there is because I like storytelling and being creative doing that, so that’s keeping me going.

Lastly, what advice would you give to folks from similar backgrounds to you that are hoping to get into tech?

I would say, “Don’t be afraid of speaking”. If you find yourself in a room full of the smartest people In the world. You have an opinion, and it matters.