Episodes

Accessibility Should Be Free

13 Letters
February 20, 2020

PART TWO: Mike Shebanek made Apple products work for everyone. He wasn’t always an accessibility maven, though. Mike worked his way up to become the product manager for some of Apple’s most famous and influential products – from the original iMac to the first-ever iPad. And when he found himself pushing for the failing consumer electronics company to develop and deploy a free, built-in screen reader for what was then considered a niche community of blind students, many might have called him crazy. What followed was not only Apple’s rise as both a mainstream company and an accessibility leader, but a ripple effect which changed the whole industry and motivated our world’s largest companies to show that they, too, could develop technology that works for everyone. Part 1 includes discussion of Mike’s early days at Apple, and the events leading up to the creation of VoiceOver. Part 2 includes discussion of Apple from 2004-2013 and Mike’s ensuing work at Yahoo/Verizon, where he created a model for accessibility departments that has been recreated all over Silicon Valley.

Listen on:

Episode Transcript

Will:
Welcome back to 13 Letters, the accessibility podcast. I'm Will Butler. Today, Cordelia and I continue to talk with Mike Shebanek about the creation of VoiceOver and bringing accessibility into mainstream tech in Silicon Valley. If you want to hear the whole interview, you can go back and start with episode one and hear some crazy stories about Mike and his team rolling out the very first blue iMac and saving Apple from its impending doom. We've got a lot more great interviews coming this season, so subscribe and tell your accessibility friends to listen.

Cordelia:
So when you were starting VoiceOver and you got the go-ahead of like, "Yeah, this sounds like a good project," but you didn't know where to really start, how did you all go about figuring out what to do? Did you lean on communities and networks that you all knew of or just how'd you do it?

Mike:
Great question. Oh man. And this is the start of many miracles in this project, and I'm a person of faith and I believe in God and trust me, if you were sitting in my chair when this was all happening, you'd believe in miracles too because there was a lot of them happening all at once. And anyone of those not happening, there was no VoiceOver. And there's no voice around the Mac, there's no VoiceOver on the phone. If there's no VoiceOver on the phone, there's no Android screen reader. There's a whole bunch of things don't happen.

Mike:
So we couldn't have known at the time, but gosh, how do I describe it? Well, I think it was really clear that we needed outside help, but I couldn't get outside help because it was a secret. The big problem for us was because we had chosen, thank you Mike, for building it in, we couldn't announce it until we announced the new operating system coming out in the future. Apple never announces the future thing until it's ready. But we needed to know at least a year in advance or more to be able to get input.

Mike:
So I remember walking in to my vice president's office and said, "I need to ask you something that... We need to do something that we've never done before and I need your permission to do it." He kind of gave me that weird, "Why are you asking me this?" And I said, "I know we haven't even announced the new OS to the entire world, but here's what I want to do. Here's what we need to do." I said, "If we have any hope, any chance of doing this right or well, I need to be able to pre-announce the new OS before it's ready, and then I need to pre-announce that we're doing a screen reader," which we never do, "and I also need to create a public beta program so that people know what we're doing and can give us feedback so that we can build this while we're building the OS." I said "I'm asking for three things I know we've never done and I mean, I don't know what else to do. This is the only thing I know how to do to get it done." And to my utter surprise and amazement, he says, "Okay. I'll do it." I could not believe what I just heard. That never happened.

Mike:
And so this thing we ended up calling the spoken interface was created and we pre-shipped a mini version of the new OS so that we could put the screen reader technology into it so people could download it and try it and give us feedback. Then I created a community, a bulletin board basically online at the time because we didn't have a lot of other social media, and started collecting anybody's and anybody's comments from around the world about what it was, what we were trying to do, how it could be better, what you wanted and it was just a flood.

Will:
Really?

Mike:
I was under flood.

Will:
Who was out there testing this [crosstalk 00:03:29]?

Mike:
Oh my gosh, we had people in Australia. We had people in Europe. We had people in Japan. We had people over the country. A lot of people were saying, "Are you serious? Apple hasn't been doing accessibility for a long time. Are you really going to do this? Is this serious? Are you just playing?" And there was actually quite a interesting response. There was an anti group who said, "This is horrible, and we're going to petition Apple and we're going to petition other vision-loss groups and organizations to petition Apple on our behalf to stop doing this because if Apple builds the screen reader into the OS, and by chance the other operating system builds it in, and then they stop, we're hosed. Screen readers will never get any better, and all those companies will be out of business. And if this isn't their main interest, how are they going to do a good job of it?"

Mike:
And so there was a really big chance that we were going to get stopped before we started. Like, "Don't build screen readers into the OS because then the companies will stop caring and it'll just die on the vine." That was a real-


Will:

Do you think that-


Mike:

... hard problem to solve.


Will:

Do you think that backlash affected your future decision making about opening to take this really seriously because...


Mike:

We couldn't of taken it anymore seriously. I don't think that was it. Right? I think it was-


Will:

You don't think that backlash was necessary in order for you all to-


Mike:

No.


Will:

... keep it as a priority?


Mike:

I had a five-year plan before we started the first bit code, what we were going to do and how we were going to get there.


Will:

Because a lot of times, people think that the community responds, the militant community responses and that the very vocal sort of PR headlines are what is propelling a company toward a project, but oftentimes, you'll come to find it's already been in the pipe.


Mike:

Right.


Cordelia:

Yeah, that just like-


Will:

I hear about this all the time.


Cordelia:

... reinforces its importance, but it doesn't create- [crosstalk 00:05:20]


Mike:

And I had that experience with iPod. That's another discussion we can have later, but that was already in the pipe and well greased before we had complaints. But this was really at the beginning and it was so bad that... and maybe I'll skip forward just a little bit. Once we introduced it and it shipped, some of the early reviews were so bad that my vice president came back and said, "Should we get out of this? Are we doing the right thing?"


Mike:

And it turned out that the American Foundation for the Blind had decided, after someone there had given a poor review, to go back and revisit it, and ultimately gave us an Access Award. And I've told members there the story, but I can share it with you. That was crucial. One of those other miracles, because it was going away. And I remember getting the Access Award for the effort of Apple doing more for accessibility, people who are blind, and bringing that back to my vice president, I said, "I know you're hearing a lot of things that aren't great, but check this out. This is something we're... A really well known group has given a really good look at this and said, 'This is a good effort. They should keep going.'" And he says, "Oh. Oh okay, well that's good then. Let's keep it going. Let's see how it goes another year."


Mike:

And without that award, I personally firmly believe it was going to be done, and there would be no VoiceOver. So that kind of support turned out to be really crucial at a really crucial time. We had big plans and lots of things coming and it would've just been heartbreaking to have it all go south at that point.


Will:

Looking back, do you think that those early versions of VoiceOver on the Mac were good screen readers?


Mike:

Well, let me tell you a little story, another little story. So it takes a long time to build a screen reader, a really long time. And school starts every year in the fall, and we had students that needed this screen reader and so I have to give really big props to the department head at State of Maine and their group there. They were unbelievably supportive. Now, of course, they wanted this to happen. They were thrilled it was happening. But they also recognized it was going to take us a while to get there, and so we showed them the spoken interface. We were as public as we could be about our commitment to this, so we were all in.


Mike:

But I had to go to there and show them progress, and I remember talking to Eric saying, "Eric, you got to give me something." He's like, "It's still in pieces. I'm building this foundation to the top. It's a big project." I said, "I need something. Just give me anything." And so we euphemistically called it the bouncing ball, and it was basically go through a text document, speak each word, highlight the word and put a little dot or a bouncing ball over the top to show the cursor's moving through. I said, "Just give me anything."


Mike:

And so we went back and I went to one of the meetings that we had there in the Maine and described what we were doing and how we were getting there and then showed them this demonstration.


Will:

Wow. Talk about MVP.


Mike:

Looking back now, I think, "How ridiculous?" But to their good credit, I'm sure they stifled a few laughs. They said, "Well, they're doing something."


Cordelia:

Yeah, you have to start-


Mike:

"They're moving."


Cordelia:

... somewhere.


Mike:

You've got to start somewhere, right? And it wasn't finished. It was just pre-beta. In fact, they were the only ones who even got a chance to witness this.


Will:

You can imagine why all these other screen reader makers-


Mike:

And so-


Will:

... were so pissed off. They were like-


Mike:

What's going to happen?


Will:

... "Are you kidding me? This is it?"


Mike:

This is it. They're like, "You've got to be kidding me." So from that very humble beginning, it did show we were serious and we did show progress, but there was incredibly good support there. And then it was time to ship the first version, and we knew the first version wasn't going to be the best in the industry. My thinking and my strategy and the way I kind of thought about the features and the functions, it would take us probably three releases. And my sense of it was, "If we're not at least as good as the best one in the industry by the third release, then we're really off schedule." And to me it was like, "Then four and five should really catapult us and do things that no one else has ever done."


Mike:

And it turned out somewhere in between. I think there were things in there that no one had ever done in version two and three, and then some things we didn't quite get to until four or five, so it took a while. But I guess in a way, looking back on it now, I think how cool was it that I kind of already had good confidence we were going to be there for five iterations? And of course it's been consistently every year ever since, which is pretty cool.


Will:

Well, and how about today? I mean, JAWS is still a major contender and still does things and has key commands for power users that allow them to really make that computer work for them and operate that computer at incredible speed. Where does Apple screen reader tech sit in the field now being that you're not even working there, but you're obviously still working in accessibility?


Mike:

Yeah. Well, I think from the keyboard set... Let me say it this way. Screen readers on the computers, PCs, have always been keyboard driven. And so as we talked about the concert pianist having to wave their magic fingers over this keyboard to make it really dance, and that was one thing I thought, "You shouldn't have to know all that to do this well." And now that we use the phones and iPads and things, it's obvious. It's just fingers are faster that way.


Mike:

We built in four or five different ways to drive VoiceOver. There's Keyboard Commander. There's Trackpad commander. There's all those different things. And the one that I was really hoping would be the primary means to run the Mac was the way you ran the phone, which was the Trackpad commander because the vision for this was if I learn on a phone, or iPod Touch at the time, how to swipe my finger and move the VoiceOver cursor and use the rotor and things, I learn at once. I should be able to come back to a Mac, any Mac, desktop or mobile, and do the same thing on the Trackpad, and you can do that today.


Mike:

But almost no one uses it because they assume, "Well, this is how you use a computer. You put your hands on the keyboard and you go." But if you actually start with a phone and go backwards and then use your computer the same way, you can actually drive VoiceOver on the computer in a radically more intuitive way with swiping. In fact, identical to what you use on your phone. And so that level of simplicity and ease of use, that's where we wanted to get.


Mike:

And unfortunately, ended up moving to another company and doing other things. We never quite cemented that and because VoiceOver came out sooner than Trackpads were widely available for desktop computers, it just never quite took off the way we had hoped. But that was always the vision for this was ridiculous consistency and simplicity that you could just take what you learn in one place and move it across the entire family line.


Mike:

And so, yeah, I think in those cases, much better than the current tech in screen readers, by a long shot. I mean, you can look at VoiceOver on a phone and say it's the easiest, fastest, most intuitive thing to use. I think people would grant that. And we wanted to bring that back to the Mac and we did, but I don't think it's gotten the credit it deserves in that sense. In terms of technology, the one place that we discussed... Shall I say argued? Yelled about? Pounded tables?


Cordelia:

Debated.


Mike:

Debated. We seriously considered was scripting, and that was one of those places where other screen readers have a significant advantage. We went back and forth and back and forth about, "Should we support scripting? Should we enable scripting? Should we encourage scripting? Or is scripting sort of a cop out for having not written the program correctly to begin with and written either the OS, the program or the screen reader to really work like it should.


Mike:

And so because it was the first few years of VoiceOver, I took the position that we should be a little bit more staunch and just commit people to doing the right thing the right way and build it correctly. It's the first time they had a chance to build apps for screen readers on a Mac, so let's go there and then after a few years, if it's not working, we can go back and revisit. And of course I wasn't there and have since not gone back to revisit that, but I think that was another place where you think, "Hey, there's some real advantage to that." I'm still torn honestly even today if I would go and do that again, but I see why it's popular and useful.


Cordelia:

Yeah, well, something I'm curious about, so you were talking earlier about with PCs used to be you would have this giant, giant stack of instructions and then with the iMac it was just like you turn it on and it works. Still to this day with screen reader technology, there's a huge variance of you turn it on, you can learn it in five minutes to there's so many key commands that you need to memorize et cetera across the board. So how did you all at Apple or how has Apple since you've left kind of figured out that right balance between being user-friendly in the sense that it's not overly complex, but also being user friendly in the sense that it's very customizable? How do you make something customizable that's also easy?


Will:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).


Mike:

Yeah, it's a great question. I think one of the things I'm most proud of, skipping forward to now VoiceOver on the phone, which has its own amazing start and story, but the rotor. And so-


Cordelia:

I love the rotor.


Mike:

... when we go back and remember the context like that.


Cordelia:

Rotor fan girl.


Mike:

The rotor, the rotor.


Will:

Now this is an accessibility podcast. This is the one place we can say stuff like that.


Mike:

We can say stuff like that and people understand we're talking about.


Cordelia:

I love the clicking sound that it makes too. It's very satisfying.


Mike:

It is very cool. It's very cool.


Cordelia:

Sorry-


Mike:

Thank you.


Cordelia:

... to interrupt.


Mike:

No I'm glad you're digging on the rotor. That's good.


Will:

Sometimes I just rope the rotor just for the sound.


Mike:

Just for this [crosstalk 00:14:26]


Will:

... actually hearing the noise.


Cordelia:

Do you actually? Because I do do that. Okay.


Mike:

Yeah, it's like a fidget spinner, right? You just spin it to hear it go... Yeah. That's cool. So it's hard to remember this because we got to think back to when using your fingers to swipe on a phone was a new thing that no one knew how to do. And you only get five fingers on a hand, right? And so using one finger, pretty easy. Using two fingers, not too bad. Three fingers, it starts getting a little more complicated because if you don't set all three fingers down simultaneously, it thinks it's maybe two fingers and then one later. Four is really hard and five is useless, it's just so impossible. So here's the problem that I face as a product manager. How many commands might there ever be on a phone?


Will:

There's a mathematical equation.


Mike:

Yeah. And then how many fingers do I have? How many swipes and twizzles and flips and things can you do and still be easy? And so we had a really serious problem, and I was really like, "How are we going to solve this?" Because they hadn't even solved this on the phone. They were still trying to invent what should the swipes be to run the phone for everyone. Forget trying to figure out how to run this for someone using a screen reader.


Mike:

And I remembered going back to the sort of legacy and history of the computing and Apple and the people that design these things. I used to read all of the books I could find, all the articles, I really was steep in the legend of how people came to build this sort of new user interface for people. And it occurred to me, "Okay, think like if you were inventing the Mac. We're not going to use the keyboard. We're going to use a mouse. Nobody knows how to use a mouse. How many buttons are on the mouse? One button. How many commands can it do? As many as it needs." What was the magic? It wasn't the mouse, it was the menu system, and I could just point and click.


Mike:

And it sort of locked in, "Hey, maybe we could reserve a couple of gestures for this thing called the rotor and the rotor could be dynamic and no matter what app you were in, it would just know how to fill the rotor and the rotor would serve the purpose of the menu system. And you'd only ever have to learn how to use the rotor once, and once you learned how to do it, it would do whatever it needed to do, now and in the future forever." And that was sort of a really critical point in the design so that you wouldn't have to keep relearning, okay, now five fingers. Not to tap and double tap and twist and turn. No. You dial the rotor, you flip up and down, you got it. It doesn't matter, right?


Cordelia:

Game of Bop It. Just thinking of the game of Bop It. I'm trying to remember all the different-


Mike:

Well, even the way you use the rotor, some people use their thumb in circles. Some people use their index finger in circles. Some people use two thumbs.


Will:

Wow.


Mike:

Even the way you initiate the rotor is very different for different people, and that was cool because we didn't want to tell people necessarily how they had to hold their grip or interact with it. But the idea was you couldn't accidentally do the rotor because you had to have two fingers down going in a certain direction, so you wouldn't trip over it, but it wouldn't be too difficult to get to and of course, later on, we came up with different techniques where you could use a joystick or external device to control the rotor and VoiceOver and other things, which we anticipated way at the beginning.


Mike:

But that idea of how to keep it simple... So the idea was keep the command set simple. Keep the learning curve really small, but enable that to be dynamic and be able to adapt to whatever software or moment or context you were in. And I think that was one of the really critical principles that we learned from the old Apple teams that we brought forward in the new thinking for this product.


Will:

So this is a bit of a random question, but one of the things I was thinking a few minutes ago was one of the things that I think we lose in the crevice between the keyboard based screen readers and the touch screen based screen readers is ability to linguistically target activities, right? And type what you need when you need it and get it immediately instead of hunting for it, pecking for it, whatever it might be. But I wonder if, in some ways, this sort of advent of voice is now filling that gap to a certain extent or if there are new typing input as we innovate touch screen input, if that gap's starting to close a little bit.


Mike:

Yeah, I think ultimately you're going to get a hybrid of solutions. So example from the Mac, you might use the keyboard sometime because your fingers are already there typing. Another times you'll say, "You know what, I'm just going to use the Trackpad or use the Numpad Commander." Or I'll use whatever technique. So at least when I use it, I vary. I use different things at different times depending on what I need to do and where I'm at.


Mike:

And I think you're right. Sometimes voice makes more sense, where I'm talking while I'm typing, listening while I'm talking while I'm typing. It gets complicated. Sometimes the two earphones, one in each ear with doing different things. So I think it's going to be one of those things where, as it should be, the tools are there that can adapt to the person and the person finds the thing that works best for them. And it's our job as technologists to give them lots of ways to do it and make it easy, but let them figure out which combination works for them at the given time or moment. So voice and being able to get to it quickly.


Mike:

The quick solution we had at the time was TypeAhead, so when you go into VoiceOver on the Mac and you were going through the VoiceOver menus, you can type ahead a few letters and it will filter the list down to just those things that match. We felt that, at the time, that would be the fastest way to sort of target linguistically, "Am I searching for a command or a help topic or something on the page?" That kind of thing. Yeah.


Will:

So how did you expand beyond vision into accessibility for making that computer for everybody? Were you there for sort of all of the developments?


Mike:

Yeah [crosstalk 00:20:13], well a number of them, but not all of them. Of course, I've been gone a while. But yeah, it was interesting because VoiceOver, even for people who didn't use it as a screen reader, and maybe we need to add this to the story for your listeners, I knew we were in a really good place when after a few years, a product manager that I knew really well came to me and said, "Hey, I need to talk with you." I said, "Okay. That's always interesting." And they worked on iPod, and they said, "We want to work on a really cool new iPod, but it's not going to have any controls on it." I'm like, "What are you talking about?" He said, "Oh, it's going to be awesome. It's going to be like a little tie tack clip thing you can just clip on and there's no screen. There's just little buttons."


Mike:

And everybody knows this iPod right? So they said, "But we need to have a system that talks and the only thing that we can think of that even sounds right is VoiceOver. Could we use your name for this product?" And I was like in a heartbeat, "Yes, yes, yes, yes." Because the master goal for me was to mainstream accessible technology and by every person on the planet using the hottest product in the world at the time and it had this thing called VoiceOver that everybody was using. Overnight, everybody knew what VoiceOver was. It was a thing that talked to you. I'm like, "Well, we just mainstreamed accessibility." Because then when someone says, "I use VoiceOver on my whatever," they're like, "Oh, yeah. I'd use that." They're like, "Well, I'd use it a little differently but it's the same thing." And suddenly everyone was playing together. Save device, same technology, the same thing.


Will:

The Shuffle?


Mike:

This was the Shuffle.


Will:

Yeah.


Mike:

And so that to me was maybe one of those another miracle perhaps along the way. One of those really amazing moments where I thought, "Wow. If I could've waved a magic wand, I don't think I could've been that smart to ask for that." To have a mainstream product that was that popular take this technology and use it and apply it and make it mainstream everywhere. And so, that was one of the problems I had learned about when I investigated VoiceOver to begin with was it's just over here somewhere. It's in a small world that not a lot of people understand or know about or get access to or even bump into and now, everybody was bumping into the system settings and going, "What's this VoiceOver thing? Oh, let's play with that. Okay."


Mike:

And one of the other proud things that we did and I thought was, again, another miracle. This had never happened and we thought, "There's no way Steve's going to agree to this. This is not going to happen." When you start a Macintosh for the first time, to this day and out of the box, you don't touch a thing you just take it out of the box and plug in the wall and just sit there as it's turning on. If you wait 30 seconds, that Mac's going to start talking to you and it's going to ask you, "Hey, we noticed you haven't done anything. Would you like to turn on VoiceOver?"


Cordelia:

Nice.


Mike:

And that is unheard of because we realized that some people might be in areas where they're getting a UPS delivery and they're in Alaska or they're in the middle of Midwest or they're overseas or who knows where they are. They don't have help, so we needed to design our computer to be accessible out of the box that you could literally... We used to joke. We said, "If you ordered it online, and you had it shipped to UPS, then you could get it started yourself not knowing anything because the first thing it says is, 'Would you like to start the VoiceOver tutorial? Let me teach you the basics.'" And so you could literally be blind, get this computer that someone sent you or you bought, open it up, plug it in the wall and just wait. And if you were patient 30 seconds, it was going to help you onboard, which was what we learned with iMac. Turn it on, have it talk to you and help guide you into the experience.


Cordelia:

That's awesome.


Mike:

And so those lessons really came back in a big way to apply in a space in the accessibility world where they really had never been applied. Accessibility up to that point had always been, "You're smart. You'll figure it out. Or go ask an expert." And we really wanted to apply that Apple ease of use concept to this new field, and I think since then, we've done that.


Mike:

So to get back to your story, or your question, what about other disabilities? Well, you can imagine the emails and phone calls I started getting from people with hearing loss saying, "What about us? You guys have done all this great work for people who are blind or low vision. What are you doing for us?" And it wasn't that we didn't care, it's that we were so completely just going 24 hours a day on this. We just hadn't had a moment to stop and go, "Wow, how do we go solve this other problem?" But immediately, we thought, "Oh yeah. Absolutely we have to do this."


Mike:

And so we started doing things like mono audio where we could take a stereo left and right content and play it all in one ear or the other, so that hearing loss in one ear you could not lose content or material. We ended up, we were too soon because Bluetooth 4 hadn't really been ratified yet, but we needed to work with the hearing aid companies to figure out ways to make them iPhone enabled so that you could tune your hearing aid for different environments yourself without going into an audiologist after they had set you up. We kind of had to keep pushing and waiting and pushing and waiting and we had to get the companies to sign in and work with us, but that ended up becoming a really cool reality as well. And then there were other things in the system software we kind of worked on as well.


Mike:

So it started expanding and that was, for me, the really pretty exciting because, again, I thought, "I've been around this company a long, long time and they reassign you pretty quickly after your project's in good shape." And the fact that they let me keep working on this was pretty awesome and we just kind of kept growing and growing and growing and it kind of took off. To me, the big satisfaction looking back over the whole thing is I wanted it to outlast me. I didn't want it to just be like Mike in Product Marketing as the accessibility guy keeping this driving. We had incredible engineering infrastructure at that point. They were keeping driving at the apps team took this on. The marketing people started taking it on. The advertising people started to get and understand this. People in education were talking about it a lot and it just became...


Mike:

It sounds so [trivialously 00:25:52] mainstream, but it's such an important thing for it to become part of the fabric and culture of the company that when new things were coming out like the stores were opening. The first Apple stores. One of the first thing I said was, "What are we going to do?" I'm like, "That's the right question."


Mike:

So we had lots of meetings about, "How do we make it so if you're in a wheelchair, you can get through and you have a lowered counter to do at the Genius Bar?" And, "How do we make sure that our materials are in braille or in other larger print?" And so we started... Nothing's perfect, but it was really cool to see how other parts of the company, as people would join would go, "Well of course we do that. That's what Apple does." I'm like, "That's the win ultimately is the cultural shift in that company." And that's one of the things I was really excited to do when I moved from there to Yahoo is create that same sort of, "Well of course we do this. That's just who we are." And that was kind of cool.


Will:

Thank you for creating our segues for us-


Mike:

Oh.


Will:

... because the thing is-


Mike:

Sorry.


Will:

... I mean, we could literally sit here and talk about Apple with you all day long.


Cordelia:

Probably for weeks.


Will:

Yeah, well, sent you the question. When I sent you the questions, you were like, "Oh we could do this for eight hours." And I was like-


Mike:

I don't know.


Will:

... but you were serious. But you came to Yahoo and built up an accessibility and UX team sort of from the ground up. You can tell us a little bit about that, but I just want to get to what was unique at Yahoo that you guys did. I mean, eventually Yahoo became Oath and then Verizon Media, but just kind of using Yahoo as the case study here, why what was going on there was different and important?


Mike:

Yeah, well to understand why I would leave Apple to go to another company because that's probably, if I'm listening, I'm thinking, "Are you out of your mind? What are you thinking?"


Will:

Right.


Mike:

Like, "That's crazy."


Will:

Right, right.


Mike:

It was crazy, but not that crazy. And again you have to kind of wind the clock back and remember what was happening at the time. When I had been working on hardware, I'd done the transition from the CRT, cathode-ray tube, old style computers to flat panel LEDs and the iMac line was the line that did that. And there was a project at the time to do a tablet, and there was actually a tablet designed based on the Newton MessagePad that never got out the door. And I'd always had in the back of my head, "That would be a really cool thing."


Mike:

Well, lo and behold, at about that time, my last two years, Apple decided to make a tablet called the iPad. We also knew that Steve's health was failing him badly and I realized this might be the only chance and the last chance to do a Steve project, but also to sort of tick that box off my own personal list of things I wanted to do.


Mike:

And so I left doing accessibility to be the iPad product manager. There were two of us plus the VP that was running it. It was on a fast pace and I did that for about a year and a half, two years, and watched the first three iPads, which had their own set of incredible successes and a lot of issues to solve, which was part of the exciting part and the fun of it. But it sadly, very sadly, very personally, Steve passed away. And so, for me, it was sort of a, if you remember back to the beginning part of our conversation, I'd always wanted to work in that environment and it sort of just felt like the right time. I'd been there 19 years. I had done all the projects I'd wanted to do. Accessibility was in an incredibly good place. It just felt like, "This is the moment, and I need to do a new thing."


Mike:

And just about that time, someone approached me and said, "Hey, Yahoo's been going through a lot of issues with the new administrations and new CEOs and new teams and organizations and the accessibility team has pretty much just been decimated as part of the reorganization structure. You could come over and start a new team." And I thought, "I could potentially go to Yahoo and if we can change the culture there when they're building this organization, we could literally infuse accessible thinking into the design of all these apps they're going to be producing from the beginning." And that got my attention, and so that's why I took it.


Mike:

So I went over to Yahoo and we started from scratch. The team that had been there before was really well known. People like Alan Brightman who was there starting it with Victor [Saren 00:30:00] and Todd Klutz and Ted Drake and some-


Will:

Some of the people we'll be talking to later on.


Mike:

... really... Oh good. Yeah, cool. Some really amazing people doing work on accessibility, but they had all eventually gone off to other companies like Twitter and PayPal and Google and other places. Thankfully, in a great way, started accessibility in those places that needed it, which was cool.


Will:

Right.


Mike:

But yeah, so my intention was to really figure out how to make thinking about accessibility sort of part of the mainstream culture of the company in terms of app development eventually obviously web development as well. And so that's what I did is we started hiring people and building a team. One of the things that I learned really quickly is the culture at that company was radically different than Apple. So for me, it was, "How do I adapt to what this culture values and what they do, how it's different than how Apple does it?" And that was a really hard thing to figure out.


Mike:

But eventually, one of the results of that was this idea that people at the time at Yahoo, because they were all new through all those organizational changes, didn't know what accessibility was. They'd never used a screen reader. They'd never put their hands on a braille device. They'd never used enlargers. All of those things that we take for granted as technology, note takers that we're like, "Yeah, they're all over the place." They had never even heard of them. And so what I realized was is they didn't know what they were trying for. They didn't know what they were trying to make it work like, and I said, "Oh, we got to figure this out."


Mike:

So we created something called The Accessibility Lab, which was a place that anybody in the company could come and we had all the assist technology everywhere in the lab. And they could just walk in and just play with it or they could come and we could train them on it or they could test against it. So we had braille devices and note takers you name it. We were one of the first in our company to have Alexa. We'd actually done an Alexa skill using voice thinking, "Hey, that might be a cool new technology for people with disability." And so we prototyped that for our company, which was kind of cool. So it was really trying to figure out-


Will:

So you built this sort of playground for people to get to know some of this assisted tech in a safe space and-


Mike:

Exactly.


Will:

... as I understand it, you were bringing people in on day one of work, right?


Mike:

Yeah. Yeah. It was an amazing thing that we had gotten to be really good friends with the onboarding team and they were trying to seek out like, "What would be a good experience for people to have their first day at work?" And they said, "Well obviously we bring them in and we give them all of their paperwork and they get an account and then we hand them their computer and their phone. Now what?" And we said, "Well, bring them over to the lab." They're like, "What do you do there?" "Let me explain what we do here." And I explained and I said, "Look, if we're talking about putting the user first in everything we do at this new company, the new world, what better way to explain that than to talk about accessibility and that every person matters and that there's practical things you can do no matter what your role is here at the company. Here's a way to experience that."


Mike:

At the time, we had some just ridiculously talented people on our team. We had gotten Gary Moulton who had spent time at Apple, but then like 17 years at Microsoft. We had Darren Burton who used to be the head consulting guy at AFB. We had Larry Goldberg who was previously at-


Will:

We'll be talking to Larry.


Mike:

... NCAM, National Center for Accessible Media. So we had literally an all-star team of presenters and experience and I thought, "You got to put these people in front of the audience, right?"


Mike:

So we built this lab and we just started bringing people in. So first day, you would get your badge, your computer, your phone and your company accessibility lab, and the first words you'd hear was, "Accessibility matters to this company and it matters to you." They were like, "What?"


Cordelia:

Wow.


Mike:

And so that was day one, and it got better from there because we would say, "Now we're only going to have 15 or 20 minutes together. Let me walk you through how this stuff works using our products, what's come before you and what we expect, and then we expect you to come back at your leisure or by signing up or what have you to visit again about what'll you do in your role to make this work." And that was probably one of the most amazing and cool accomplishments of the work that I did there. That was really fun.


Cordelia:

That's fantastic.


Mike:

And the reaction was amazing. As those people would leave, they would go tell, "Did you know what I did today? I didn't even know we could do this. This was great." And then they would tell more people and those people would be, "Oh, I got to come down there." And pretty soon it just became everybody just kept coming through the lab and then pretty soon, it got out and other companies were like, "We keep hearing about this lab. Can we come see this? Can we check this out?" We're like, "Sure."


Mike:

And so we sort of started surreptitiously and then we kind of had to put the breaks on because it was basically getting too much, and we weren't getting any work done. We had to, "Okay, we can handle a few..." And so we brought pretty much every company in Silicon Valley through that lab at one point over the last couple years. We know, I won't give away the secrets, but a lot of companies have, after visiting, either started their own lab or started their own program and some have now won awards for accessibility, which we're just as proud of as they should be. But it was really cool to see how we could sort of disseminate the state of the art in terms of tech and policies and techniques to as many companies as we could possibly do, and so that was one of the big wins from that program.


Cordelia:

That's fantastic.


Will:

Yeah.


Cordelia:

So you've talked about... That sounds like such a great success story of just getting in on the first day and then you were talking about your miracles at Apple. I'm wondering if you have advice for people who are starting up an accessibility program within a large organization. Sometimes you don't get miracles. It's a lot.


Mike:

It's hard work.


Cordelia:

It's a lot of work. How do people influence without having authority? How do people go into these conversations in large organizations and say, "Accessibility is important and you should do it."


Mike:

Yeah, that's a really good question and I get it a lot because now I've been around for a while and people are saying, "Well, how did this get started and could you replicate that?" My experience has been that there's no, I wish there was, cookie cutter where I could say, "Just do these three things. It's going to work in this place. You're going to be great."


Cordelia:

It's not like something [crosstalk 00:35:48]-


Mike:

It just doesn't... That's right. There's not one, two-


Will:

Step three, [crosstalk 00:35:52] step three.


Mike:

There's no step three. Unfortunately, that isn't the case and I guess based on my experience and what I've learned from others around me is the culture at every company is different. The trick is to figure out how to adapt the message of this to each culture. Some cultures are, "Just show me. Don't tell me. Just make something and show it to me and if I love it, I'm in." Other cultures are, "Help me understand the need. Introduce me to people."


Mike:

I remember one time, I had this problem with the apps team at Apple, and they were like, "Do we really need to make iWork work? I know the OSs work and that's cool, but who with the disability that's going to use iMovie and iPhoto? Those are visual." I said, "Okay. I get it." And the trick for me was to take that question seriously and not say, "Oh, you're just stupid. You didn't..." No. It's like, "Okay, that's a real question. They're asking me really."


Mike:

And so what we did is we went out and found some really great blind photographers who would come in. I said, "We're just going to do an hour talk. It's not even a requirement. Just invite people who want to come. We're going to host them." And we put them in the town hall and they came and the place was packed. And people were like, "How are you doing this?" And of course they showed their work. I said, "That's the only thing you need. The only thing I'm asking is you've got to show your work. Show them your art." And people were blown away. And then that question never came up again because I knew that was the culture of the company is that they needed to see that.


Mike:

Sometimes it's data. And so if your company's all about data, get data. If your company's all about users, bring users in. If it's all about organizations, bring those in. If it's about prototyping, prototype. And so bring what your company responds to and then have a reason. Right? So I guess my experience is talk about success. If we do this right and well, we'll be better at coding. We'll be more detail oriented. We'll reach more users. There's a whole host of people that people with disabilities have around them, whether it's coaches, mentors, family, friends, coworkers that are influenced by that person.


Mike:

I'm thinking of a story. I'm trying to figure out how to tell this without giving too much away because there was a person who was blind who was using Yahoo Fantasy Sports in a very famous group of people. That's all I can say. I'm swearing you all to secrecy. Everybody listening, you're all secret. A very famous-


Will:

There was a famous blind person.


Mike:

You would know-


Will:

I wonder who it was.


Mike:

And the blind person wasn't famous, but they were friends with famous people.


Will:

Oh okay.


Mike:

Celebrities. And they all played fantasy sports, and they found out Yahoo's Fantasy Sports was one of the first best fantasy sports that's accessible. And they all switched, all of them switched their fantasy sports from the one-


Will:

So they could play with their friend.


Mike:

... so they could play with their friend. And they're like, "Man, this is great. We love this. How come we didn't switch sooner?"


Will:

The power of celebrities [crosstalk 00:38:42]


Mike:

You bring that back to your company and say, "Hey, we just got a bunch of people to switch because of this person who's using the screen reader version or it's just the version with a screen reader." And I was like, "Oh wow. There's influencers here." And I think sometimes we forget how influential people can be if they use access technology and it enables them to use a great product, right? So I think sometimes we undersell ourselves.


Mike:

But yeah, I mean, if there's success and there's feedback and you can create a feedback loop where it's like, "Hey, what we're doing, people enjoy and like and it's getting ground and getting likes," or whatever it happens to be. That can help propel you through. But it's going to be hard. You're going to have setbacks. You got to be like a bulldog. You can't let go.


Will:

First of all, that's really awesome advice. You recently left your team at Verizon Media.


Mike:

Yes.


Will:

Just a couple months ago, at the end of 2019. But they're still kicking butt over on the west and east coast. What are you proud of that they're up to now? I mean-


Mike:

Oh yeah. They're amazing. They're just amazing.


Will:

You're just fresh off of that gig.


Mike:

Yeah, yeah. I had originally thought, "You never know how long you're going to be at a place." And so the clock's always ticking in my brain. When I got to Apple, I thought I'd be there a year. I was there 19. Who knew? When I went to Yahoo, I thought I'd be there maybe three. I was there six, six and a half. And so again, I thought, "I just want to make sure that this program can outlast me because I won't be there forever, right?" And you can probably say 20 years. At some point, you're going to leave. So it was in a great place. We had great people, great programs, and so I felt comfortable that if I left, it would still be okay, and in fact, it's probably even better now than when I was there.


Mike:

There's three things, I talk about the lab, but there was sort of three initiatives that we did there that I'm super proud of that the team is just continuing to drive forward I think are fabulous. And the first one was called Teach Access. It really started from a conversation I had with a friend of mine, Jeff Weiland, at Facebook and we talk about how much time each of our two teams, and turned out, almost every team in these major big companies spent training new hires about the basics of accessibility. I mean, basics like what are the fundamental disabilities, what are the typical accessible technologies they use, what are the typical programming code techniques that you use to solves these problems, make things screen reader accessible, what have you.


Mike:

And we spent huge amounts of time. What we realized was, "This isn't being taught in school." And you had asked me earlier when did I learn about the word accessibility. Way late into my ob career. I should've had some chapter in a textbook or some course or some class in a course that said something about, "Hey, you need to take this thing into consideration."


Mike:

So we said, "Let's do something about it, not just talk about it." And so we created this thing called TeachAccess.org, which now has huge numbers of significant companies and universities and people from the disability community working together to figure out what is the core fundamentals of designing things to be accessible and how do we take the best practice from industry and bring them back to higher ed so that anybody who graduates with an engineering degree, computer science, maybe even a business management or a design degree, somewhere along the way will have run into these fundamentals so that when they get into their first job, they're already up to speed. They might not know exactly what to do, but they know they need to do it. They know what questions to ask, and they know it's necessary.


Cordelia:

And I think that awareness-


Mike:

Huge.


Cordelia:

... it's almost like 90% awareness, 10% actually knowing what to do.


Mike:

Right. It is. It is.


Cordelia:

Well, just getting people on board. Yeah. Because once you get someone to know that it's important, then they'll spend whatever time they need to actually learn what they need to do, so yeah.


Mike:

I had a really interesting and informative conversation with an engineer when I was at Yahoo. We had talked about whether we should have engineers on our team. And again, this is one instance and one place at one time. And I remember talking to the lead engineer for one of our bigger products and I said, "Hey, I want to bring some engineers in and we can do the accessibility work for you guys because you guys are really busy, but would you help integrate them and take their changes?" Et cetera. And he said, "Don't do that." I was like, "What?" I said, "What do you mean, 'Don't do that'?" He goes, "I have experts on my team. These guys are amazing. They know everything there is to know about building this product. I just need to tell them what to do."


Mike:

And that fundamentally changed my thinking from what I thought I was going to do when I started to what we ended up doing at the end, which was they just needed direction and examples. "When it's right, this is what it works like and then here's how to go get it." And they taught me that you don't always have to be the expert, you have to help the experts be the best experts they can be. So it sort of speaks to what you're talking about. If they're going to be the expert of their product or their company when they graduate, they already have that skillset. They just need to know where to point it. And being aware and knowing what the problems are, their natural curiosity, their natural intent to satisfy problems and help users make better products, it's going to take them in the right direction. But we got to cue them up at the right time and higher ed's the right time to do it when they're graduating.


Mike:

So that was the first big project, and that's been ongoing and just been a huge success and we're thrilled with it. Yahoo continues to drive that as well. The second one was something called The Disability Collection. You remember my story about VoiceOver becoming a mainstream on the iPod and then across other products. But if you go, and we ran into this problem, we wanted to get images to use in marketing of people with disabilities across the spectrum: demographics, age, all that stuff.


Mike:

And so we started looking at all of the major photo libraries that you license from, all the biggest ones out there, and there's, I mean, millions of images out there that get produced every day. And we were sadly discovering that finding an image that was respectful and dignified and current of something as simple as a person with a cane walking across the street, those images just didn't exist. And we came back out of these libraries of millions and came back with like 10 that we thought, "I'd put my name to that and my company would stand behind that picture."


Mike:

And so we ended up having to do a photo shoot. We actually had to bring people in and actually set up guidelines. So I wrote a bunch of guidelines on how you would film and photograph people with disabilities that were dignified and respectful that worked with that person to not put them in an uncomfortable place or an unusual position, so it would like the people we talked to and worked with every single day, which seems so simple but it just didn't exist.


Mike:

So we created The Disability Collection with Getty Images. The idea was to get the world's largest repository of images to understand and teach their photographers... They have over a quarter million photographers around the world. That is a huge number. And to create these guidelines with them to say, "Here's how you should... first of all, we need these images. And secondly, here's how you would approach someone and work with them if you've never worked with someone with disability," because photographers generally didn't. And then, "Here's where we're going to put all these images so that now not only can we show what it's like to be a person with disability in a modern, current environment, but allow this to be shared and used." And so that has taken off like crazy.


Will:

Wow.


Cordelia:

Yeah, I use that resource a lot actually.


Mike:

Oh that's great. [crosstalk 00:45:43]


Will:

... to Margaux and [crosstalk 00:45:44] reach out to you guys.


Mike:

And yeah, so Margaux Joffe, whose now leading us at Yahoo, we brought her on and this is one of the projects she and I talked about and she was so excited and she's just the perfect person to help lead this. Been instrumental in making this happen. And so now, and hopefully going forward, there will always be new and fresh and current pictures of people so that, whether you can see or not, you know you're being represented accurately. Accuracy was the thing we really strived for is make it accurate. And so when we would see the same person in a wheelchair and then the next photo in the series, they'd be standing next to the wheelchair. We're like, "That's not accurate. That's just wrong." And we would catch that, and we would catch people acting like they were blind, but weren't blind because we could see them in the next photo in the series. We're like, "Don't do that. Make sure the people you're photographing really have a vision disability."


Mike:

So that was a huge project and one that I think it's like dropping that pebble in the pond and the ripples go out. It's still at the very beginning, but I hope when we look back in 20 years or something, we say, "How could that have ever been?" And maybe that would've been the catalyst to get it started. So that was the second one. And the third one is around XR and it's called XR Access.


Will:

Oh yeah.


Mike:

And this takes us to the future.


Will:

Maybe we'll leave that one for Larry, right?


Mike:

Oh yeah. We could leave it to Larry.


Will:

We've got to leave him something to talk about.


Mike:

Okay, well, I'll keep it really simple, but the idea was we need to ensure that future technologies are just as accessible or even more so than the ones we have today. And we were talking about the phone has turned out to be an incredibly accessible platform and personal and mobile and what's the new ones coming and we really quickly because Yahoo's invested in this and other companies as well and me personally, I'm interested. Augmented reality, virtual reality, all these other reality types of digital technology are coming. They're coming fast and they're already around. They're in gaming. They're in other places and they open up humongous opportunities for people that have mobility where they can't travel or can't interact physically with things and how do we translate those experiences to people with vision loss or hearing loss or mobility dexterity issues, whatever it happens to me, intellectual disabilities.


Mike:

And it's not guaranteed. I think that was the big thing. No one was working on it. So we ended up talking with Shiri Azenkot from Cornell Tech in New York. It turned out she had some students that were doing some incredible work, and now there's several companies doing incredible work. Magic Leaf's doing incredible work and Microsoft's doing some incredible work, but it was all happening in different pools and it was like, "Man, we've got to fast forward this. We can't fumble our way to the future. Let's be organized. We have some examples from the past to get us there. Let's set up a community."


Mike:

And so to me, that's the cool thing is we now have a community of people who are now like-minded who are very early on this, because it's still very early on, that are already thinking about ways to enable the switches and the interfaces and the controls and the settings and the experiences. How do we make those more accessible to a broader number of people early so that you're not waiting until it's already like, "Oh yeah, that's so 10 years ago. Now I can access it."


Cordelia:

What I love about all three of those projects that you just highlighted and the assistive technology labs that you were talking about earlier is that all of them are kind of started within one company and then brought out into the larger community, especially Teach Access. When I think about the impact that's having now and the impact that's going to have like 20 years from now once those people who are actually learning about accessibility in college are well into their careers is just mind-boggling how each of these different initiatives has such a huge ripple effect, so thank you [crosstalk 00:49:18].


Mike:

You're welcome. I sure hope so. That's the intention is to really help propel the community forward, and I think one of the cool aspects you just mentioned about people in the future taking advantage of this, there was a really... Well, maybe I should leave that for Larry, but there's a really cool thing where students can come and learn from these companies as part of Teach Access and he can tell you more about that, but that work's ongoing.


Will:

Mike, you've helped us tease like four of upcoming episodes of this podcast so thank you for that, but to tease a little bit more for you personally, what's next? I mean, obviously you have to write the book. We got to have that book.


Mike:

Yeah, I've got to sharpen my pencil on that one.


Will:

What are you going to accomplish in the next year or so now that you've left Verizon?


Mike:

Yeah, I think it's given me a chance to sort of reenergize and sort of ponder and reflect and this podcast certainly has helped me even in the moment to kind of reflect back on all the things that have happened along the way and I think certainly, I always tell people it's sort of accessibility is sticky. Once you get into it, it just becomes part of you and you can't shake it. You can't let it go. I mean, my career path was to be a product manager and eventually probably a VP of marketing or product management or something, and it just a hard right turn to like, "Wow, accessibility. This is so fulfilling and so interesting and has so much need and opportunity that's really changed my career path dramatically and I could never have imagined... I didn't know this career existed when I started in college or even graduated, so it's kind of cool that there are now jobs in this field and it's still burgeoning.


Mike:

I think we were talking even before the podcast about, "Is this field now well-developed or is it still pretty new?" And it's still really new, so anybody out there who's got an interest in joining this field, there's huge opportunities. There's job postings all over the place for people to have the talent and the desire to come and join and be part of this and build the future of access. So I want to encourage people to do that for sure. And me and my peers are always on the lookout for great talent so make yourself known if you have it. You will find opportunities.


Will:

This doesn't sound like the words of a retired guy.


Mike:

I know, I know. Well, it's been recent so I think maybe I'm still in the mode, but I think as we were talking about some of those projects at Yahoo, this idea of building community and connecting people and helping people find others of like mind and be more together than they could be individually is really on my mind. So I think there may be something there I can come back and share in the future about that.


Will:

If there's anything you've learned from your days at Apple it's how to keep some good news under your hat.


Mike:

Yeah, definitely.


Will:

Mike, we've gone about two straight hours. I think I could speak for both of us in saying it's just a total pleasure.


Cordelia:

It's been such a delight, so thank you so much for coming up and chatting with us today.


Mike:

Thank you two both. It's been a terrific time together. I really appreciate the opportunity.


Will:

Thank you so much Mike Shebanek for joining us on the first official episodes of 13 Letters. We've got a dozen more great interviews coming your way this season. If you're interested in sponsorship, email us at 13letters@bemyeyes.com. Thank you so much to my wonderful cohost Cordelia McGee-Tubb, our consulting producer, Sam Greenspan. The original 13 Letters theme song you're hearing was composed by yours truly. Let us know what you think of everything about the podcast. We're easily reachable at 13letters@bemyeyes.com, and we'll be back next week for another episode. Thanks everyone.

Will:
(silence)