For her first design job in tech, Kate Aronowitz landed a position at eBay—where her main task was, as she puts it, “doing PowerPoint for sales guys.” When a team focusing on user interaction design started there a few months later, she made sure she was part of it, working her way up over six-and-a-half years to become the senior manager of user experience and design. She went on to be Director of Design at LinkedIn and then, for over five years, at Facebook.
That sort of career trajectory doesn’t come from just good fortune—or even good fortune plus raw talent. “This idea that lucky careers just happen to people, it might happen, maybe, if you’re a model and you’re spotted in an airport,” Kate says. But outside that scenario, she says, people have to be more deliberate—even if, like designers, they have skills in high demand. During her Bridge talk, Kate shared insights on how designers can get, and advance in, the career they want.
Before taking a new job or moving to a new position within a company, Kate says, it’s important to ask: What career do you want to have? Designers can specialize and apply their skills in so many ways—focusing on technical aspects, running a team, teaching, founding a company—that it’s important to consider your long term goals and be deliberate about how each job can help you reach them. Kate moved to LinkedIn because she wanted to lead her own team. A design manager who worked for her at Facebook was passionate about getting the product side of things right, and would constantly argue with the product managers; he now leads mobile product there. “Figure out what you’re passionate about, and position yourself at your current company in a way that shows that off—or go to the next place in a way that does,” she says, even if it’s something as simple as getting a foot in the door at a great company or joining a team that has a particular person you want to work with.
As companies increasingly foster a design culture, designers have new responsibilities. “My first interaction design job, a project manager would write all the specs, and I’d just go build the wireframe. It’s not that way anymore,” Kate says. “People are looking to [designers] to really be leaders,” whatever their position on a team. Yet she’s seen too many talented designers act like their job is only to design: They don’t bother to read the project brief, listen to feedback, or follow up with other stakeholders. Making the time for those other tasks—the “common courtiesies,” as Kate calls them—will teach designers more about a project and enable you to perform better. To see how to do these things—and more—right, Kate suggests looking for models: the people who make you think, “I’d love to work for them.” Watch everything from how they run meetings to how they write emails to see what makes them a compelling leader.
Most companies have projects floating around that, time and again, designers decline to join, opting for more visible or appealing work. But these projects can offer designers new experience—and fill a much-needed (and often much-appreciated) role in the company, too. “Look around at the other things that people are saying no to. If [people are turning down a project] just because it’s not easy, run and throw yourself on that one,” Kate says. This happened at Facebook, she remembers, with its ad tools: The team there did amazing user-facing design, but shrugged off this project as not sexy enough (even though the company made its money from advertisers using these tools). When a few designers finally took on the ad tools year ago, they had the chance to entirely reinvent them—to the project’s, and their own, success.
When Kate started at Facebook, she was the only parent on the design team. She told her team not to call her between 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. (“I’m a mom during that time,” she’d say). Making that rule not only carved out important time in her day, it sent a message to her team that this part of her life was nonnegotiable. Sticking up for your standards garners other people’s respect, she says, whereas waffling suggests you don’t put much stock in your own rule—so other people certainly won’t.
Don’t just pay attention to what’s going on within the office walls: Stay abreast of the latest big news on the company you work for and on its competitors. (Kate took time to read recent stories every morning over a cup of coffee.) And there’s no need to spend hours scouring the Internet for every article: Checking major newspapers and blogs, or even reading customer reviews, will help keep you up to date. “I guarantee if you go home tonight and read that stuff, tomorrow at work, you’ll start two or three conversations based on it,” Kate says. Not only will you be well-informed if you run into an executive, but you can strike up more substantive conversations at a meeting or even just walking in the hallway—leading you to new ideas and more fruitful relationships.
If you’re interested in learning more about Bridge, check out our site and keep in touch here to be invited to apply early before applications open September 15th. Feel free to contact [email protected] with any questions.
Thank you Valerie Ross for the recap.
Photo credit for “Kate and fellow designers” – Fast Company