Questions on Management as a Designer in Tech

— 8 minute read

One of my friends was asking some questions about my experiences about being a Designer who's been managing & leading product development & engineering teams.

I've had many moments of reflection, frustration, and discussion about this exact topic over the years. I've asked for advice and help from my own managers, Design leaders, and reports; it's a real challenge.

Because I've also received this inquiry multiple times, I'm writing here to be able to share with others more easily, outside of DM's.

In light of my neurodivergences, the challenges and how I've experienced this transition can't necessarily be decoupled from it. I'm now realizing that my successes and challenges come from these lenses.

So! To the questions.

Hardest adjustment(s)? permalink

Change of Perspective on Contribution permalink

The hardest adjustment was stepping away from individual contribution. I had to balance the management from my making times. As I advanced—going from leading one team to organizations of many teams—I was further and further from creating.

I find a lot of value in the act of creating and making things. As I drifted farther from it, I've had a much more difficult time recognizing achievements, progress, or contribution to projects my teams are creating.

Forced Humility & Creating Expectations permalink

I find mixed teams—teams made of up of designers, developers, product owners, quality specialist, copywriters, etc.—are a necessity to understand how tech things are made. When each of these roles are interacting in each stage of the development process, they're learning more about the realities of creation, scale, and communicating across craft.

As a Designer managing Engineers, I like to call it "forced humility." It's obvious I do not have the technical background to do the things they do, or contribute towards their own specific crafts. I have to manage through curiosity and continually asking questions to understand all the aspects of developing something.

I've always been good at detecting bullshit. The more I've learned through this, I know when others not of my craft are talking to try and "confuse" me. I also can use it to determine the level of Seniority of the individuals. The depth someone communicates their craft to another who's far removed, helping them understand boundaries and realities, the more I respect/understand them.

So, I've developed expectations of what it takes to create things from an engineering perspective. Or, at least variables that can influence the amount of time to create. Is it in an existing code base? How is that code base? Are we creating some thing new new, or can we steal concepts from others? Are we doing this because SHINY or because value?

Developing Respect permalink

The last largest hurdle is around Respect. Looking at my craft, my history, my age, etc. others make judgements about my level of comprehension or ability.

I've felt like I've had a more difficult time "earning" the respect and trust of developers because of my craft. Like they'll dismiss my ideas or feedback on their work because I am an outsider. It's seen when they express surprise, "Oh! You do get it! let me go more technical." I get to learn more, but the expressed surprise hurts on impact.

When I have developed that respect, it's also reversed when my words/thoughts are taken seriously. I once said something off-hand, "Oh, it could probably be done like this and this." The next day, they had gone and created the thing and said, "it worked!"

I was surprised at the whole situation. It was also a lesson in power, that my opinion/thoughts had far more power than I thought. With that respect/trust, it was more evident/felt.

Greatest reward? permalink

Constantly Learning permalink

The majority of my time as a manager has been with very broad topics and projects. This really works well for me because I can hop around and find interesting things to learn about and keep doing.

I've been able to learn about so many concepts, from so many people that are much smarter than me in their own crafts/specializations. The sheer amount of knowledge I've sponged up has been easily one of my greatest rewards.

On Understanding & Listening permalink

I've always been told that I take the weight of the world on my shoulders; I get that now. My approach to management and leadership has been with the responsibility to the humans that report to me: I have to do the best I can do to support them.

It's come with many, many failures. I've been in rooms for hours with people in tears. I've been yelled at, cursed at, talked down to. I've cried in the office, at home at night, etc. from all the bits and pieces of what was happening.

But, all this, I continually looked inward. I can only change how I do things, learn how to do better next time. And this constant reflection has made me more aware of me, and who I am in this position.

Fun fact: the first year as a Manager of Managers, I got a tattoo on my wrist, facing me, saying, "Listen!" It was the biggest lesson I'd learned in that year: I need to listen to others, listen to myself, listen to my body & emotions.

On Communication permalink

I've been lucky to work with one of the most diverse workplaces I ever would have thought possible. Walking across the work floor, I could hear more than ten languages being spoken, tens of English accents. Everyone had come from all over the world with their own individual histories, cultural backgrounds, and the amalgamations of those all together, creating their unique identities on the world.

This creates so many challenges on how to communicate to a vast group of people with varying levels of spoken English, written English, words having different meanings depending on where they learned English, cultural faux pas, etc.

I feel my communication has multiplied by multiple factors of twenty. I had to adapt, learn, and then accurately express what I was trying to say, do, etc.

The Cultural Map by Erin Meyer is an essential read that changed my worldview in one reading. So many more things made sense, and were able to provide more language and tools to better communicate and understand where others were coming from in how they communicated.

Do you have any regrets? permalink

I've spent so many days and weeks ruminating on if I said this thing or that thing correctly. I regularly come back to conversations days later, trying to clarify what I said because I had come up with a way it could be received incorrectly, hurtfully, or differently than intended.

Nowadays, I try to live without regrets, or at least, regretting. I definitely would have done things differently had I known the things I know now. I would have avoided so much hurt unto others and myself if so.

I do wish I could have avoided that hurt and harm.

But, if I hadn't all those experiences, I wouldn't be and get to be who I am today. THAT I don't regret. By proxy, no, no big regrets.

Lots of lessons that I want to impart to others though, so they don't have to learn the hard way I did.

Would you do it all over again? permalink


What would change? permalink

  • I'd try to ask for more support, ask for help. I always felt quite alone in the role.
  • I'd create more defined boundaries. It always felt like it was never enough for anyone. Everyone wants more and will take it. I need others to also GIVE, not just take.
  • Wouldn't pursue resilience & perserverance. There are times where I should have given up on certain topics, or let go of things. I've come to learn that value of Resiliency and Persevering to persevere are toxic paths, destructive to my physical and mental health. I'd devalue these a lot more.

Probably more, but this is already quite long and can't think of anything super quickly right now.

Hopefully Helpful permalink

I hope that these were helpful in response to the questions, and others can find/read from them.

If you are considering going into Engineering Leadership as a Designer or Creative: you can! The skills you have, the way of asking questions and creating things, those don't change.

You bring those skills to the role, and how you use those skills to communicate, asking for clarity, and bringing that perspective is invaluable. And through those same skills, you can learn more about other's crafts/skills.

Leadership & Management should be reciprocal relationships permalink

You don't have to be the one with answers, you don't have to be the one that knows all the things going on.

You give accountability; create space with trust & respect; provide support & guidance when needed; both the educator & educated in different ways of doing things.

In the end, you're there to work together to create a thing. Your background provides YOUR perspective, but that doesn't invalidate your abilities to lead others to do so.

You are valid; you are capable; you can do it. permalink