Believe it or not, when you’re speaking with Manny Ikomi, there’s a chance you can be suddenly whisked away to an alternate reality where you’re convinced that a tech unicorn (no, not that one) exists. Hear us out: A designer that codes? A content creator and mentor? Yes it’s all true, but his greatest mythical qualities may lie in his ability to empathize (and communicate) with almost anyone, particularly designers and developers.
“It’s kind of an obscure or misunderstood thing,” Manny says of the people who have some sort of hybrid skill set in human-centered design and web development. “Some people refer to us as unicorns. It’s almost like a meme at this point. If you find a designer who codes or developer who designs they’re somehow a magical solution to all design and dev problems.”
Just to be clear: Manny is not here to proclaim he can solve all of the design to dev (and the many other tech) problems. Yet, anyone who spends time with him can quickly cut through any mythology to see a clear reality: Manny’s views on challenging online narratives, personal brands, and what it means to climb the career ladder are loud and clear.
An early love of creativity and technology
Manny says that from an early age, his long-held interests in arts and tech were juxtaposed against a narrative that many of us face early on in our lives: uncertainty and the potentially treacherous directions our decisions will take us. Fortunately, this story has a happy ending — Manny was able to avoid anything perilous and still find a way to pursue his passions. That eventually led him to Lesley University, where he combined his love of creativity and technology to become a UX designer, graduating with a degree in Interactive Design.
I've been aggregating my content on to Polywork, where I have a more intersectional platform for sharing my work and my story.
Since then, he’s built what is now becoming a common multihyphenate resume: Working as a UX designer (currently with IBM iX) and exploring several content creation avenues as side projects. These have taken the form of writing, a podcast, and streaming on Twitch, all places where he can show his work, but also share his broader insights on design and development. “I've been aggregating my content on to Polywork, where I have a more intersectional platform for sharing my work and my story,” he says.
On controlling — and challenging — online narratives
Many of us are facing an online identity crisis: our innate desires to control our own narratives up against the algorithms that tell the world who we are and what we represent. It’s complex. Manny says he’s acutely aware of this dynamic as a professional, and he’s leaned into a common thread: making sure no single platform can own or use his content (or dictate his online narrative) in an unintended way.
“The biggest change I’ve made is rebuilding my portfolio — which feels like a never-ending thing. It’s thinking about my website and my online presence as more than just a portfolio,” he says. “When I was a student and learning design, my portfolio was the focus of everything. Now, when people look at my job and company and work to back it up, I feel more confident letting my experience speak for itself without having to explain or show every project or deliverable.”
When asked what resonates most with his audience, Manny points to what he calls “nerdy design stuff” that supports the community through thoughtful critiques and feedback. "Typically people in my community are devs, designers, or queer folks who also intersect with other streamers I enjoy. Many of us cross pollinate the Software & Game Development category on Twitch, there are devs, designers, product folks and many more watching, streaming and connecting with each other across the world," he says.
“I have multiple perspectives and an in-depth way of thinking about things. I’ve been good at communicating my thoughts and facilitating while I stream and talk about the ‘why’ behind design decisions I’ve made or critiquing parts of other work,” he added.
Redefining work/life balance as integration
Manny’s thoughtful approach to design and dev echoes his approach to life, as he balances his early career ambitions with coming into his own. That said, he corrects the use of “balance” in “work/life balance” phrasing we often use, contending that “integration” feels more true to the reality.
Then there’s the “more trivial” things, such as whether to promote his stream within his day job (he does not), leading to vastly more eyes on his content. In this case, it’s not that people he works with don’t know, but there’s a boundary in streaming that is his own community where he can be a more authentic version of himself.
Challenging the notion of a personal brand
Presented with the idea that he’s taken an alternative/punk rock-level approach to his career to date, Manny thoughtfully pokes at the idea, its definition, and what the concept means to him.
“I would align with the anti-career in the sense that my definition of success, whether it’s content creation or the personal/professional, is not tied to any easily quantifiable metric,” he says.
If building a career means that he can have meaningful interactions every day with people who feel that they’re exchanging ideas they hadn’t previously considered, he says, that is something he can more easily subscribe to, reminding him of a TED Talk that summed up the relationship we have with work: Your job is what you do to get paid, but your work is something you do to achieve a purpose. For some, they may be one and the same, completely different or a little bit of both..
Personal brand is your reputation and this picturesque thing they come to. You don’t have to become an influencer to build a personal brand.
Manny says it also reminds him of the Japanese concept of ikigai, defined as a “sense of purpose or reason for being” that captures the spirit of the “anti-personal brand” sentiment. What you’re really talking about, he says, is your reputation. It doesn’t have to be online, it can be in the form of one-on-one coaching sessions, which is an avenue Manny has taken aspiring UX designers or others interested in similar fields.
“Personal brand is your reputation and this picturesque thing they come to. You don’t have to become an influencer to build a personal brand,” he says. “It’s your reputation, what people say about you when you’re not in the room, when people make space for you at the table. Sometimes that manifests itself as a Twitch stream, Polywork account, or speaking events. It doesn’t have to be digital, online…it’s just a matter of consistently having a positive impact on people and continuing to do that.”
Building a platform for others
Manny says his passion to uplift others was inspired by the “lifting as we climb” motto written by Mary Church Terrell, suffragist and leader in African-American history.
“I'm passionate about using my platform to uplift others, especially people who are underrepresented in the tech industry. I'm a black queer person, and I know that my experiences have shaped the way I perceive the world in the same way the world’s history may perceive me. I want to use my voice to help others feel seen and heard.”
Manny sees his early successes — whether it’s creating content or feeling a greater sense of work/life integration — as a responsibility to help others that are facing the same uncertainty or barriers to success that he understands all too well.
Success means something different for everyone, for me success is not about money or fame. It's about making a positive impact on the world while being able to sustain and grow yourself
While he’s still figuring out what his ultimate career goals are, he is sure that he wants to continue to use his skills to make a difference, big or small. That could be in the form of teaching or continuing to create content that inspires and educates others. (In fact, since this interview Manny accepted an adjunct faculty role at his former school, Bunker Hill Community College).
“Success means something different for everyone, for me success is not about money or fame," he says. "It's about making a positive impact on the world while being able to sustain and grow yourself. I'm grateful for the opportunities I've had, and I'm excited to see what the future holds."