Leaving Elicit

Reflections on two years of working at Elicit and why it's time to leave

Just over a month ago I handed in my notice and worked my last day. I have plenty of reasons to leave, which I'll get into below, but none of them are that I don't believe in as a product or the team behind it. Quite the opposite. I think Elicit is one of a handful of companies doing interesting and impressive work applying language models to real-world problems. If you're looking for high-impact work with lovely people for both design and engineering.

Growing with Elicit

I joined Elicit in mid-2022, pre-ChatGPT-hype-wave, back when it was mostly a promising prototype: a free tool that used language models to help scientists, academics, and researchers find and analyse papers as part of the scientific process. It's now a real VC-backed product with paying subscribers, enterprise clients, and hockey-stick-shaped growth.

In that time we grew from 10,000 to over 250,000 monthly active users, started charging them money which took us from $0 to over a million in revenue in under 4 months, rebuilt both the front and backend of the product, and literally became a .

Both Elicit and I are drastically different entities today.

When I joined I thought my job as a designer was to layout sidebars, write clear error messages, pick accessible colour schemes, and make sure the hover states on buttons all looked consistent.

While I certainly did all those things, I learned to spend far more time defining problems, validating they were actually problems, writing those problems clearly and concisely in documents, rigorously documenting my exploration of possible solutions, testing those with users, and justifying every decision along the way.

In short, I went on the classic journey from “design is what the user sees” to “design is a reliable process for identifying and solving problems, then clearly communicating that process to others.”

Being the only designer, on a very small team, for a rapidly growing product, working with unprecedented technological capabilities, solving novel problems for which we have no previous art or products to be “inspired by”, made me learn a lot. I slogged through mountains of machine learning papers. I designed a hundred prototypes. For an eight month stretch we had no product manager or front-end developer. Which meant I helped cover those roles on top of design work (with assistance from colleagues).

To be honest, a lot of it was stressful and difficult. I waded in and out of imposter syndrome. I learned things the hard way. But I wouldn't undo any of it.

Why I'm Leaving

I'm leaving for three big reasons: time zone misalignment, not enough in-person collaboration, and lack of senior design mentorship.

When it comes down to it, these are primarily problems of time and space.

The vast majority of the Elicit team live in California. And I live eight time zones and 5,354 miles away in London. I've spent over 88 hours on planes going between the two – a trip every 2-3 months – on top of flying around for conferences and the like.

Even with frequent trips over to work in person, I found it was never enough. Trying to do early-stage design work on a brand new product requires a huge amount of team alignment, open-ended exploration, rapid feedback loops, and trust. An amount you can't get over a few hours of daily zoom calls and some async documents.

The time difference exacerbated this. Working eight hours behind everyone else was lonely and exhausting. When I was stuck on hard problems, there was no one to bounce ideas off. When I wanted to validate possible design solutions, there were no engineers around to speak to its feasibility. When I wanted to sense check a product decision, no one could give me quick feedback.

Being the only designer on the team only made this harder. It's difficult to do exceptional design work without a good sparring partner or a more senior designer to roast your work.

Most people in this position would just move themselves to San Francisco. But the Bay Area is not to my taste, and I'm unwilling to leave London – it's my home and I adore it; it is packed full of curious, intellectual, hilariously funny people who do all manner of things unrelated to “tech”.

Even the tech people here lack the egotism and self-importance our industry is known for. The is alive and delightful. The to events like my meetup are unabashedly enthusiastic, kind, and good-weird.

London has it's share of shitty things – dark and damp winters, Northern line trains packed like sardines, the tories – but none compare to the viscerally upsetting wealth disparity on display in San Francisco. It's not something I could live within.

On a more principled level, I resent and reject the idea that everyone in this field needs to move to California to do good work. We need to diversify the kinds of people who make software, the kinds of problems they're solving, and the philosophies and worldviews that govern how they build. Putting every software creator inside a tiny, privileged bubble that's awash in VC cash and obsessed with hierarchical status games isn't going to give us novel, “innovative”, or diverse software that serves the needs of everyone.

If you're currently debating moving to the Bay Area, reconsider!

What's Next

I'm taking the summer off to muck around with my own research projects, bake too many loaves of banana bread, acquire some new engineering and prototyping skills, and get married in a giant field ⛺🌳💍.

I've also joined as a researcher in residence for the next 6 months, which will give some structure to my chaotic explorations.

At the end of July I'll be joining a small, thoughtful, and impressive prototyping and design agency based here in London. But I'll talk more about that later.

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