Culture, Technology

Christian Cabuay: How Art Can Fuel a Career in Tech

During the work day, he’s Christian Cabuay, a product manager in technology. After hours, he’s Kristian Kabuay, a self-taught artist who creates innovative performances and visual art based around the indigenous Philippine writing system called Baybayin. Kristian performs large-format demonstration/performances of Baybayin calligraphy and has built a company that creates custom art, translations, books and apparel using the flowing script. He chatted with us about how his varied pursuits feed each other, and feed his soul.

Let’s talk about your job first: What’s your gig at Gap Inc.?
I’m the product manager for the Continuous Service Improvement team in technology operations. That means I identify potential technology products that help Gap employees all over the world work better. Right now, I’m leading the effort to build a product management team that will function like a team of internal entrepreneurs.

And what’s your art all about?
I first found Baybayin script in this ancient book called an “encyclopedia,” where I saw a flag that was used in the Philippines during a 19th-century revolt against the Spanish colonial government. The flag had what looked like a capital “I”; I thought it stood for “Independencia,” but later I learned that it was a Baybayin character. I realized that Baybayin, which was almost extinct, was a gateway to our pre-colonial past and what it meant to be living in a post-colonial world.

I use Baybayin as a foundation for exploring themes of identity, poverty, death, love and duality. My art is a tangible entry point that might lead people into becoming practitioners and advocates of saving what has been lost — and that idea transfers across other subjects and cultures, not just Philippine. Promotion and preservation of identity has cultural, social and economic value.

How do your day job and your art complement each other?
I’ve been able to set up multiple passive income streams [e.g., collaborations with shirt, hat and skateboard companies on products that showcase Baybayin script] to help fund my work, which has enabled me to travel and lecture about Baybayin across Europe and Asia and to exotic, faraway destinations like Grand Rapids, Michigan.

The experiences I’ve gained from my entrepreneurship, consulting and public speaking eventually helped to get me my job in technology at Gap Inc. And my art has given me a different perspective on the work I do during the day — I definitely bring my weekend hustle mentality to the office, which helps nurture internal entrepreneurs at Gap Inc.

What’s the best confidence-building advice you’ve received in your career?
“Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.” —Confucius

What’s your favorite career-related book?
Purple Cow: Transform Your Business by Being Remarkable by Seth Godin.

What’s the biggest risk you’ve ever taken, either personally or professionally? Would you do it again?
After high school, I went to the Philippines on vacation and ended up staying for 10 years. Yes, I’d do it again. I wouldn’t be where I am now if I hadn’t taken that risk.