Cognitive Science Alumni

Our Department isn't defined by the physical space we occupy on the campus of UCSD - it is defined, rather, by the remarkable individuals who make up our community. The lifeblood of any community is its people, and this is especially true of a community that relies on ideas and innovations. In recognition of this, the Department of Cognitive Science at UCSD presents our new "Alumnus/Alumna of the Month" feature.

The goal of the Alumnus of the Month program is to celebrate some of our outstanding Alumni, while giving all students - past, present, and future - an opportunity to meet some of our graduates, and to see some of the amazing things that people from our community have accomplished - in the field of Cognitive Science and beyond.

The hope is that it will both put a more 'human' face on Cognitive Science, as well as be a testimony to the wide range of interesting things that one can do with a Cognitive Science background. In addition, of course, it's a means for CogSci alumni to see what other alumni are up to.

Alumnus of the Month: Jonathan Berke, 1990

Jonathan Berke

Jonathan was in the first graduating class in Cognitive Science at UCSD. He began his undergraduate career as a Computer Science major, but happened across some Cognitive Science courses (offered at that time through the Psychology Department) as he was trying to figure out how to avoid taking the physics courses his major required! Cognitive Science sounded interesting, and he took several courses. When the Cognitive Science Department was established in his junior year, he became one of the first to choose it as a major. He particularly remembers enjoying his user interface courses with Don Norman and Ed Hutchins.

After graduating from UCSD, Jonathan worked for a local software company doing user interface (UI) design, and stayed with that company in different roles for several years. His most recent project is Sigalert, which he co-founded in 1998.

Sigalert consolidates traffic information from a number of sources including CalTrans and the Highway Patrol to provide commuters with up-to-date information about their San Diego commute. Sigalert information is now available at Sign On San Diego, the LA Times, and the local NBC station, as well as several radio stations. Jonathan still handles user interface aspects of his business' interactive media, but he has also taken on many other roles as the company has continued to grow.

An Interview with Jonathan Berke

by Jenny Collins & Kim Sweeney

What was your initial career path after leaving UCSD?

Right away I got a job doing user interface design, which had been my specialty in Cognitive Science. I had a great interview for a programming job with a software company here in San Diego, but afterwards I realized that I didn't want to program: I wanted to do user interface design. So I called them back and told them that. Initially they had no idea what user interface (UI) was, but when I described what I could do for them they said, "you're hired."

I stayed with that company through various acquisitions for 11 years, starting with UI and ending up as a "software architect." I designed how the software works behind the scenes, working with the developers on the components of the software- not the code itself but how the code would be put together to meet the requirements of the user.

What led to the creation of Sigalert.com?

Well, I was good friends with one of the head programmers at that company, and at some point in the late '90s the two of us started to do some work on the side: we did an interactive voice response project for one company, we created a reminder service called Memo To Me, and we also started Sigalert - that was in '98. At the end of 2001 the company that we had been working for decided to consolidate their development efforts in San Francisco and to shut down the San Diego office. My wife and I had small children, and uprooting the family and moving to San Francisco wasn't something we wanted to do. So my friend and I decided to make a go of it on our own.

It quickly became apparent to us that Sigalert was the most promising of our projects, so we threw ourselves into that. I did the website, the active server based pages and the user interface, and my partner did the programming. We hired professionals when necessary for things like graphic design. Over time the company grew, and eventually we were able to start taking money out of the company. That was good! We only just hired our first employee a bit over a year ago. It's as simple as that - three people; we all work out of our houses.

How has Sigalert changed throughout the years?

From the beginning we knew we wanted to do our own thing. We didn't take the traditional approach of writing a big business plan detailing how it was going to go and what we were going to do. We just tried to put a lot of irons in the fire, and it evolved bit by bit. We put the site up and not much happened, so we thought we should get other people to link to us. I remember our first phone call was to Sign On San Diego.We described our product to them and how they could access it, and they agreed to link to us. That was a good day. Now a lot of places include our content: Sign On San Diego, the LA Times, the NBC station here in SD, and a lot of major radio stations. We also have a television product. If you watch the NBC station in the morning or afternoon you'll see animated traffic maps - those are ours as well. Now we serve all of California and Arizona.

Right now we're remodeling our website - giving it a face-lift and replacing online internal data mechanisms that will allow us to expand nationally. Over the years we've increased our requirements for what the website must be capable of doing. A lot of what we're adding now are additional capabilities for our partners for when they integrate our traffic onto their sites. Our new site is more interactive, like google maps: you can drag the map around, zoom in and out...

How did your Cognitive Science education at UCSD train you for the things you have done in your career?

There are some basic tenets that I learned in Cognitive Science- like the notion of "affordance." Programmers don't necessarily think of things like that. For example, the cursor has to change when you roll it over something that you can interact with. People without a user interface background often don't think of things like that. And as a user you don't necessarily notice those details unless they're lacking- and then you're aware of problems!

Another thing I learned in Cognitive Science is the importance of getting feedback. Important lessons like doing usability testing really become ingrained in you.

What are some of the personal rewards that have come with your career?

I appreciate the fact that I was able to do UI design just out of college. Right away I had a job where I enjoyed going to work every day.

With Sigalert, it's been rewarding to do things that set us apart from the competition. When we first started there were other sites out there that were doing traffic information but we just ate their lunch! I think we were able to do this because of the quality of our user interface compared to that of other sites. For instance, there was a traffic site where if you hovered over a spot on the freeway you'd get a pop-up that would say "C Street,18 mph". That's helpful, but we changed it just a little bit: our pop-up said "C Street,18 mph" but it also showed what was happening on A Street, B Street and D Street! Suddenly you don't just have the information, you've also got the context for the information. It's little things like that that differentiate sites that don't feel quite right versus sites that you want to come back to, that you really enjoy interacting with.

What has been the most challenging aspect of your career?

Certainly the most challenging thing was starting my own business. When my previous company shut down and we all got laid off I had a 3 month old daughter; not a good time to be unemployed! But my business partner and I knew what we we wanted to do, and we did what was necessary to get it done. We went for two years without taking any money out of the company. That was certainly a challenge, going a couple years without making any salary.

It was also a challenge to stick with it when things weren't looking good. But instead of getting your resume together and throwing it out there, you just have to put your head down and focus. Every time we ran into a situation where things weren't working we'd think, "what else can we do?". At first Sigalert was intended to be a subscription service. When that didn't go well we decided we should do some advertising... so we went out and learned everything we could about advertising! Then I had to cold-call companies- and that was brutally hard. We eventually got 21st Century Insurance to advertise with us: that was great. They're still with us today.

There is also something to be said for having someone to bounce ideas off of and to give you motivation. In any given day you'll have many ideas but half of them are going to be bad ones- you need someone else there to listen to them. I definitely think it's more than twice as hard going it alone than doing it with someone else.

How do you maintain a balance between your work and the rest of your life?

At our previous job, especially at the beginning, we all worked like dogs -- a lot of hours, weekends... From that experience we learned that you can get burned out, so when we started Sigalert we wanted to maintain a balance. Working out of the house provides both benefits and drawbacks. The drawback is that work is always there- you can always feel that tug. On the other hand, working from home gives you a lot of flexibility. I can just walk into the office, answer an email or do a couple of quick things, or at night I can go back to the 'office' and work a few hours without it really affecting my family time. All in all, it balances out pretty well.

One of the business decisions that we made in the beginning was to not get outside funding. Since then we've occasionally wondered whether we should get some venture capital and take this to the next level, but for us it always comes back to quality of life. Once you bring in the venture capital you lose control, you lose a lot of the decision making ability and you're just working for 'the boss'. We know what it's like to be in that kind of grind. The decision to stay self-funded is a decision we made for personal reasons rather than for business reasons, and I can't complain. I think it's funny that I never get the "oh! Daddy's home!" reaction, because I'm always home. I'm not taking care of my kids full-time during the day, but I'm there if they skin their knee and I have the flexibility to go to their school plays. From a personal point of view this has absolutely been the best decision.

What advice would you give to today's undergrad in Cognitive Science?

Going back to my initial experience I would say "don't settle." If getting into user interface design is what you really want to do, then go for it. Believe in it and if you don't find the right match right away keep at it. There are people out there who will understand the benefits of what you want to do. Because of my training in Cognitive Science I was able to clearly articulate the importance of user interface design to people who had never really considered it. If a company is going to pay you money, then you need to be able to explain to them exactly how your work is going to help them recoup that money.

The other thing I would mention is the importance of being well rounded: understand the technologies. I wouldn't have been able to do the user interface design if I hadn't had the computer science background. In doing design it's a complete waste of time if you create something fantastic in your head that is actually impossible to program. Plus, the programmers won't trust you when you say, "we've got to change that cursor" unless you're able to compromise and work with them to come up with solutions. We don't work in a theoretical world; for the most part it's a balance between usability and feasibility.

In general, communication is key, both oral and written. When you're doing design of any kind you need to be able to communicate with other people. You can't shortchange your thoughts; as creative and insightful as they may be, they're useless if you can't get them across to anyone else.

To Nominate Someone

To nominate someone as an alumna/alumnus of the month, or if you would be interested in being featured yourself, please contact us at alumnusofthemonth@cogsci.ucsd.edu.