September 20, 2015 - No Comments!

Switching From a Designer to a Design Manager

September 12th marked my one year anniversary of managing the Formstack Product Design team. It’s amazing to think how much my role, team, product and company have changed in these past 12 months. Reflecting on the past year has me wondering how much I affected these changes and how much these changes affected me.

1. At first it was hard to not be a designer

Being a designer is awesome. It is all I had ever known up until a year ago. But I’d be lying if I told you I had never thought about managing a design team. I always felt like being a generalist was the perfect path to management. Meaning over the years I had become proficient in all things design. Thus, I can advice and speak from experience with each member of my team.

Having said that, management was not easy at first. My gut instinct was to continue to do everything myself. I thought I always knew best and others wouldn’t do it as good as I would have.

After some time though, I realized this could not have been further from the truth. The awesome people that joined the team were actually doing a much better job than I ever did. Part of this is they can now focus on a single role instead of wearing several hats. I was also hiring some amazingly talented people! I now have complete trust of our team and would much rather them do the design, development and research.

2. Hiring people is the most important and difficult thing you will do

I’m sure this was pretty obvious in that last section but I can’t say this enough. Without great people on your team you are doomed. Period.

The Formstack hiring process is quite extensive. There are actually something like six steps before you should expect to see an offer letter. None of these steps are easy. This is all key to finding great employees that will thrive in our remote, fast pace environment. Formstack recently created an new Talent team, so this process is only going to get better.

3. Big changes were needed and it was now my call

When I was asked to take things over the design, front end code and process were a mess. This is not to say it wasn’t working but the design was out dated, inconsistent and hard to maintain.

I want to make sure I make it clear that this was no fault to those before me. The design team was often a team of one. Up until this point we were still a small team essentially in startup mode. Moving fast and often not having time to design first or clean up after shipping all the features.

None the less, I was now at the helm so it was on me to get our design heading towards “best in class”. This new weight of responsibility and power was nerve wreaking and empowering. It took some time to get used to this ownership and authority. I often had to be reminded that it was my call. Thanks Jeff and Alex.

4. It’s rewarding to help others… really rewarding

Managing people isn’t for everyone, but I must admit that I have found great pleasure and challenge in managing people. I can’t lie, it was always rewarding to come up with an new design for a popular feature that everyone praises you for. I also loved pushing myself to learn new things and help out where I couldn’t before.

In reality though, helping and then sitting back and taking no credit is ten times as rewarding. Not to mention I’m helping people become better. Helping people is great! At least I hope I am helping them…

5. You will need a mentor and a comrade

I still can’t believe this but my favorite manager ever, my mentor Jeff Johns applied for a job at Formstack. He did and is now my direct boss. I know… right!? I now have daily conversations with him that have been essential to my survival and success. Not everyone will be as lucky as I am to have their boss be their mentor. None the less though, you need a mentor.

I’m also spoiled with amazing mentors on our leadership team, colleagues and team members. I learn from all of them every day.

You will also need a comrade to go too in clutch situations. Again, I’m lucky because my mentor is also my comrade. I can go to him to vent, work through issues or thoughts. Having someone inside your company that will understand your issues and situation is key. You’ll need someone that can call bullshit, see the real situation and also let you know when you are not crazy.

6. Side projects are now fun and important

I’ve always done side projects throughout my career. I wouldn’t be here without my work on side projects. Over the past several years though, I’ve noticed I was getting burnt out. It was non stop design and development during the day and then agian in the evening.

Now, these side projects keeps my skills sharp. I also don’t get burnt out because I’m not designing and developing things all day. Now, I talk to people all day erry day.

Other Truths About Managing and Not Designing

  • I’m in a lot more meetings. A lot.
  • Everyone communicates differently.
  • I set and talk about goals a lot more often.
  • Higher people better than you.
  • Go for “best in class”. You’ll b surprised what happens when you do.
  • If you are asked to take on a leadership role, SAY YES!

Conclusion

A year ago when I was asked to take things over I’d be lying if I said I knew things would be going so well 12 months in. But I think they are. It was probably one of those situations where I couldn’t say no. I’m so happy I was offered and took on the role. It’s been full of challenges, rewards and opportunities that I never expected! I’m so thankful for the opportunity and the team that surrounds me.

Published by: aaron in Uncategorized

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