6 Things I Learned Interviewing Design Leaders From the Valley’s Top Companies

6 Things I Learned Interviewing Design Leaders From the Valley’s Top Companies

What they look for in candidates

As a product design IC (individual contributor), I’ve been trying to move into people management — and since it’s such a different realm of expertise, I decided to learn from the best in the world and see how their thinking differed from mine.

So I approached design managers and directors from Dropbox, Airbnb, Facebook, and more and asked them what the differences were between good teams and great teams, good designers and great designers. And instead of hogging all the marbles to myself like I did in 5th grade, I thought I’d share it with with other folks like you since it completely changed how I thought about design output. While I do love my marbles, I did learn eventually that sharing the marbles meant I made friends. Friends who then shared their marbles with me.

So really, I’m just being selfish. Here’s what I learned.

The Surprising Stuff

1. Creativity Doesn’t Matter

I’ll start with a few things that really surprised me. The first learning that really jumped out at me was how little all of these directors and managers cared about creativity as a trait in the product designers they hired. Historically we’ve always considered designers in general to be creative — I mean, how else could you end up with crazy ideas that change the world?

But the more I dug into why that was the case, the more that made sense. Unlike art, design has a very clear success and failure state. It’s not simply an expression, it’s the rendering of intent to solve a problem that the designer sees and understands.

Which means, if designers are just going around creating solutions left right and centre without understanding problems — we end up with a whole lot of junk products that serve no purpose.

Instead, what’s much more important for these people managers is that the designers they hire are curious and empathetic.

If you’re curious, you’ll naturally dig into why things are the way they are. When you’re presented with a problem from someone, you’ll spend the necessary time digging into all sorts of facets of the problem to really understand what it is you’re tasked with.

If you’re empathetic you will focus on humans, their desired outcomes and their emotional and functional struggles. Therefore if you’re a product designer, aka someone who designs products for human consumption — it’s a lot less important that you are able to generate crazy ideas on the spot. Instead, those that are most successful are the ones that spend a lot of time fully understanding the problem they’re trying to solve before coming to a conclusion as to what the solution is.

And often, once you fully understand the problem — the solution is sitting in plain sight.

2. There’s No Such Thing as a Universally Great Team

I asked these incredibly high caliber thinkers how they built their teams to be great. The answers I got back were that a great team at Medium may not be a great team at Dropbox. A great team for optimizing growth may not be a great team for entering a new market.

The bottom line was, a great team is only great if it fits the problem at hand. Fit the right people into the problem, and you have a successful outcome on your hands. Fit the best team in the world by objective metrics to the wrong problem, your outcome is sure to still reflect it. Nobody is experienced with everything, and everyone has their own strengths. Even within “product design” there are people who are more skilled at design thinking, and others more skilled with meticulous execution. Understand what problem you’retrying to solve as a design manager and the skillsets will fall into place.

3. Strategy Means Nothing without Execution

I asked the managers about hiring designers, and they would tell stories about how they’d have alumni come in from Stanford’s design thinking school and want to be ‘design strategists’. The truth is, in the workplace, even if you have the best strategic thinking in the world if you’re unable to execute & evaluate real, tangible designs & visual artifacts you’re not valuable.

More and more consumers want holistic products and companies — companies & products that say what they mean, and do what they say. Gone are the days where marketing tells people one thing and the product team does another. As designers you’ll never earn the respect of others if you can’t practice the craft in its entirety.

Of course, nobody is expected to be an expert at everything. But designers in these most progressive companies need to be able to hold their weight across the entire product design process. Even pixel-tuner visual designers need to understand the purpose and strategy of the product, or they will find it hard to work in teams that think beginning to end instead of in siloed steps.

The Less Surprising Stuff

1. Ego is the Enemy

The “Brilliant Jerk” has been discussed at length, and it’s pretty clear now that even though Steve Jobs was an ass, he was still able to rally people to his cause. You can only accomplish so much as an individual, but your impact is magnified exponentially when you work with other people.

If that’s the case, then you need to be able to work with other people. Ego was the one thing across all of the managers I talked to that instantly disqualified you from being hired. It doesn’t matter that you’re brilliantly smart, a hard hustler, or came from an incredible track record. If people are repulsed by the thought of working with you (ego does this), you’ll never accomplish anything of significance.

2. You can’t move forward if you don’t know which direction forward is

Alignment and the ability to argue with a common frame of reference has been a subject of an incredible amount of study in business. It makes sense though — as Elon Musk said, a company is a vector with both direction and magnitude. Even if you have 10 smart people in a room, unless they’re agreed on the same end goal they’re not moving anywhere fast.

If one member’s goal is to get a promotion, and another’s is to deliver great product, the discussions between them will be useless. The former will constantly try and take every opportunity for him/herself, to the detriment of the person actively looking to see who is best fit to tackle each one.

Likewise if one person is always looking to improve him/herself and the people around him/her, and someone else just wants to rest on his/her laurels, unproductive conflict is bound to emerge. The former will want to challenge the latter via constructive criticism, and the latter will simply become defensive and resentful.

3. Your Title Means Nothing

I asked the managers what being a senior practitioner meant at their respective companies. The one thing they all had in common was that effective seniority doesn’t come by title, but by others’ perceptions of you.

In other words, seniority is largely based on your ability to influence others for the better. Can you enter a discussion and add value in a way that nobody else in the room can? Are you thinking and teaching people about your craft and helping the team see the value in it? If the only way you can deliver big impact in the world is through a team, then the best way for you to show how valuable you are is to impact that team itself.

People who play their title card, assert authority based on position, etc. quickly lose credibility inside the team. And as we already found, if you can’t get anyone to follow you, you’ll lose your effectiveness as a practitioner. Instead, the old adage is true. Leaders lead by serving, and that starts long before your title is ever brought into the conversation.

Whether you’re currently an individual contributor, looking to become a product designer, or are already a people manager, hopefully this glimpse into the brightest minds in the forefront of the industry was useful to you. As a final note, regardless of what position you’re in, everyone is always learning new things. The fact that you’ve read this far means you have a learning mindset and want to improve your skills.

I’d encourage you to reach out to people you respect and learn from them. I used to be really tepid with it, resorting instead to reading their thoughts from blogs without an actual discussion and interaction. But a little knowledge sharing goes a long way, and who knows, maybe you’ll be able to teach them something too.

Along these lines of learning from other people, I’m trying an experiment where designers, researchers and entrepreneurs can ask questions to random people to test their crazy ideas before sinking thousands of dollars into building them. In other words — I want to help people work with businesses to determine how to build the future.

This article originally appeared on Muzli 

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