The Digital Architect

If you’ve been to any of the major websites owned by the media brands Meredith, Time Inc., Condé Nast, or Univision, you’ve seen Clarence Kwei’s work.

The Class of 1991 alumnus is now vice president of product and engineering at Univision Communications, where he oversees product and technical strategy across the company’s digital platforms for web, mobile, and television. He didn’t start out wanting to develop websites, though.

Univision’s vice president of product and engineering, Clarence Kwei ’91, at work in their New York City office.

After growing up in Hong Kong and then graduating from Taft, Kwei headed to Tufts University, where he studied economics and fine arts through a dual degree program with the Museum of Fine Arts. Following his time in Boston, he moved to New York City and worked for the Federal Reserve Bank, where he worked in a group that handled U.S. Treasury auctions for a year and a half before moving to the Solomon Brothers finance desk for a few years.

He left in 1997 to start graduate school at Columbia University. Two years later he had earned a master’s degree in a completely different field: architecture.

In architecture school, Kwei says, “You learn about the design process, and you take an abstract concept like movement and learn how to apply that to something physical.” But a career in architecture—at least of the physical nature—was not meant to be for Kwei.

“My part-time job options in graduate school were to be a teaching assistant for $15 an hour, to work at library for $12 an hour, or to build websites for $20 an hour,” he says. “I started building websites for academic centers at Columbia as the internet was on the verge of taking off, and within a semester I had accumulated six academic centers that were all paying me to build and maintain their websites, so I ended up dropping out of graduate school and doing it full time.”

Kwei’s first media gig was at Primedia, where he worked for the digital team of American Baby. Since the headquarters were in Des Moines, Kwei was flying to Iowa for a week out of every month. In 2005 he moved to Time Inc., where he relaunched and was part of a sevenperson team that launched

By 2012 that team had grown to 200 people, revenue was over $90 million, and the site was getting more than a billion page views per month. Later that same year, Kwei headed to Condé Nast, where he worked to modernize the publishing behemoth’s dated technology.

“My role, really, is to change the way teams think about product and engineering, change the way they think about the product experience, and change the way they work in terms of how they actually deliver it,” Kwei says. “My job is to elevate these teams and help them change the way they work in ways that are faster and more iterative, similar to how you would think of Google or Facebook.”

When asked if he sees a parallel between his graduate school training and his work today, Kwei says his time in architecture school helped him to understand design and the way people experience it.

“Compared to drawing a floor plan, you think about similar elements when you draw a design for a website—like which buttons go where and all the associated design elements,” he says.

He may not be drawing up plans for buildings, but his impact on the digital landscape has been remarkable. When asked how many websites he has built in his career, Kwei laughs and says simply, “a lot.”

—Sam Dangremond ’05