How Rob Girling, a champion of the infamous Clippy, became a leader in ethical tech

For individuals who keep in mind Clippy — Microsoft Workplace’s animated paperclip assistant — would you could have favored him higher as a typewriter? What about a stapler?

Again in the mid-Nineteen Nineties, Rob Girling was Workplace’s solely devoted designer. He was given the job of creating a character to assist prospects navigate Phrase and Excel, hopefully reducing down on the quantity of calls to assist facilities being made by folks struggling to format their letters and handle their fever charts.

In his preliminary brainstorm, Girling cycled by all method of previous workplace tools, “something I may suppose of and slap some eyes on it,” he mentioned.

He helped construct the case for inserting an interactive character into Workplace, creating cartoon candidates together with a flying saucer character, a typewriter and a crab. Girling did a demo of the flying saucer at a Microsoft annual firm assembly.

After many rounds of focus teams with prospects, the crew picked a paperclip, whose formal moniker was Clippit. The artist and animator who introduced Clippy to life was Kevan Atteberry, who’s now centered on writing and illustrating youngsters’s books. Software program engineers tried to construct a mind for the software, which might unexpectedly popup like a less-charming Jiminy Cricket, there to perkily lend recommendation whether or not you needed it or not.

Whereas assist calls dropped dramatically, Clippy was a flop. The software was half of Workplace from 1997-to-2004 (relying on the product), and in the end scrapped for primarily bugging the hell out of folks.

“It’s hilarious now, I can see the humor of it,” Girling mentioned. “However for years it embarrassed me.”

And as all good fiascos do, this one delivered some formative classes for Girling, whose resume consists of co-founder and joint CEO of Artefact, a Seattle firm launched in 2006 that gives tech design and improvement providers. He’s additionally co-founder of 10,000ft, an Artefact spinoff that builds useful resource administration software program and was acquired this month by Smartsheet for an undisclosed sum.

Girling realized the worth of being skeptical when promised formidable tech options. The purpose for Clippy was groundbreaking at the time: constructing an AI assistant to observe for befuddled software program customers and provide fixes. However the performance wasn’t there. The software didn’t ship on the promise, Girling mentioned. He wished he’d given extra scrutiny to the challenge and hadn’t simply gone together with it.

Girling has utilized that cautious pondering, of questioning the potential and pitfalls of expertise, to his work immediately with Artefact.

“That is a very actual dialogue in tech design proper now,” he mentioned. “In the circles we transfer in, that is very a lot the place the debate is: How can we design tech that doesn’t have deleterious results on society and our properly being?”

To help in the dialog, Artefact final yr launched the Tarot Cards of Tech, a bodily deck of playing cards that encourages designers and builders to decelerate and contemplate the broader, ethical impacts of what they’re proposing and constructing. As a result of whereas it does present large good, expertise may also drive dependancy, despair, the unfold of misinformation and the undermining of democracy, the erosion of privateness and the abuse of energy by facial recognition.

The stakes immediately eclipse the minor annoyance of a knowledge spouting paperclip.

So Girling and his crew speak to their shoppers about creating accountable, accessible expertise. They maintain workshops. They speak to buyers about incentivizing good habits in startups. He additionally needs to see coverage and laws to guard the public from wrongdoing firms.

“It actually does imply the tech business has to do a higher job pondering by what form of future we’re creating,” Girling mentioned.

We caught up with Girling for this Working Geek, a common GeekWire characteristic. Proceed studying for his solutions to our questionnaire.

Tech challenge I most remorse being concerned with? I used to be one of the designers of Clippy — sure that Clippy at Microsoft. The paperclip was my thought as a result of as a younger UX designer I used to be requested to use the concepts of social computing to Microsoft Workplace. I’m not proud, nevertheless it’s change into an amusing declare to fame! (Editor’s observe: This query will not be usually half of the Working Geek Q&A, although maybe it must be. Girling went rogue and added it, and we thank him.)

Present location: Suite 500, 619 Western Ave, Seattle

Laptop varieties: Microsoft Floor Studio 2, Floor Professional 3

Cell units: iPhone X

Favourite apps, cloud providers and software program instruments: Adobe Lightroom,,, 500px

Describe your workspace. Why does it give you the results you want? At Artefact, I sit — like everybody else in our open plan workplace — alongside the 5 different folks with whom I share a communal work desk. Particularly, I sit reverse Collin Ottinger, our director of finance, and co-CEO Gavin Kelly — which higher permits brainstorming and debate! We’ve got a window view to the south, going through Yesler, and the slowly vanishing stays of the Alaskan Manner Viaduct. I don’t maintain the tidiest of desks, there may be a bunch of muddle, nevertheless it works for me.

Your greatest recommendation for managing on a regular basis work and life? Be form to your self. (Go straightforward in your expectations of self.) It’s a marathon, not a dash. (Don’t be in an excessive amount of of a hurry.) Careers are lengthy, however life is brief. (Don’t put up with bullshit.)

Your most popular social community? How do you utilize it for enterprise/work? It’s change into LinkedIn as a result of of the ease with which individuals can attain out to me following talking occasions. The platform additionally helps me discover and higher perceive the wants of prospects, companions, and future workers. It’s additionally a lot of enjoyable to find out how friends and colleagues in the area are making their mark.

Present quantity of unanswered emails in your inbox? (1)

Quantity of appointments/conferences in your calendar this week? 24 — which is atypically gentle!

How do you run conferences? For our government management crew conferences, we’ve adopted the Entrepreneurial Working System (EOS) Stage 10 assembly construction. It really works properly for connecting, sharing out and drawback fixing with our firm leaders.

On a regular basis work uniform? Black or gray denims, boots and a blue-patterned shirt. Perhaps a good hoodie or Patagonia vest — as a result of I embody the tech stereotype however put on it paradoxically!

How do you find time for household? Most nights, my spouse and I stroll our canine round the neighborhood for about an hour. Each evening, we’ve got household dinners.

Finest stress reliever? How do you unplug? Mountain climbing and tenting, however my hobbies embody panorama pictures and digital portray, which makes use of AI methods to create digital artwork.

What are you listening to? Pivot, Kara Swisher, Making Sense, Sam Harris, RSA Podcasts, Ought to this Exist?, and Crew Human/Doug Rushkoff are my go-to podcasts. For music, proper now I’ve been listening to Ry Cooder (Paris Texas), Pedro the Lion and the Cocteau Twins.

Each day reads? Favourite websites and newsletters? New York Instances, Guardian, Economist, Atlantic Month-to-month, GeekWire and TechCrunch

Guide in your nightstand (or e-reader)? “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism” by Shoshana Zuboff

Night time owl or early riser? An evening owl in the winter, however an early riser in the summer time.

The place do you get your greatest concepts? In the bathtub, throughout my morning runs or on weekend hikes.

Whose work model would you need to study extra about or emulate? I’m at all times very impressed by skilled writers, designers and/or artists who work from a dwelling or in a dwelling studio. It takes such self-discipline to decide to a giant writing challenge, design dash or inventive endeavor, nevertheless it’s too straightforward for me to get distracted and lose focus at dwelling. I’ve an excessive amount of enjoyable with my household, or rapidly lose myself in a rabbit-hole of digital portray!

Editor’s observe: This story was up to date in August 2020 to make clear the function performed by Rob Girling in creating Clippy, and to credit score artist Kevan Atteberry for designing and animating the cartoon paperclip that got here to inhabit Microsoft Workplace.

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