I first joined Vox Media as a Front-End Designer coding and designing various apps, platforms, and editorial projects. As of March, I’m now a Design Director. Here are some lessons I’ve learned in my first three months of transitioning from being a hands-on individual contributor to becoming a manager of designers. I hope it will shed some light on this transition for those of you considering a managerial track.*
*Note: Management is not the only way to move forward in your design career at Vox Media (and at many other places, too). If you prefer to remain an individual contributor, you can become a Principal, rather than Director.
Your output will make you feel uncomfortable (at first). This is the biggest and most difficult part of the transition, in my experience. Your output as a manager is not wireframes, research notes, or prototypes. Your output is now your direct reports’ happiness and performance. Not having anything to show at the end of the day felt frightening. “Did I get anything done today?!” There were some days I felt guilty because I hadn’t produced a single line of code or wireframe. But I had to come to terms with the fact that my output has changed, and that’s okay. What does matter at the end of the day is whether I did everything possible to make my direct reports’ lives easier.
Your hands-on contributing won’t necessarily stop. On the flip side, becoming a manager doesn’t mean that you won’t have to write a line of code ever again. Vox Media is a rapidly growing place. Because of that, people have to wear many different hats quite often. As we get a better grasp on our staffing needs, I’ve had to jump in at times to help get a design or prototype out the door. This is probably a good thing: as a manager, you want to understand the world in which your reports live so you can better empathize while keeping your skills fresh as well.
You will be in a lot of meetings. There were a few weeks where I’d look at my calendar and the scream emoji came to mind. “I have so many meetings. How will I get my work done?!” It helped to feel less anxious about meetings after realizing that as a manager, being in meetings is now practically my job. You listen and learn through meetings and you decide pathways forward in meetings.
You will learn that (surprise!) different people work in different ways. I’ve learned that managing isn’t a one-size-fits-all job. Even though I read all the books, tips, etc. of being a good manager, I learned that the way you work with one report might be completely different from the way you work with another. There are myriad of other ways your reports might differ: how they want to receive and give feedback, how they feel is the best way for them to communicate, how they tend to work when given a large and unstructured task. It’s now your job as a manager to figure out how each person works, what makes them tick, and adjust your tactics and processes accordingly. Learning this lesson has been a particularly humbling experience. It’s now my job to bring different people, brains, and skills together to form a united team that strives toward the same goals.
You are now a steward of the culture. Now that you have a voice in leadership, you will now have some responsibility on your shoulder to listen to designers in the organization and bubble up any concerns. You might not be able to immediately create change, but I think it’s important to show people you’re listening and trying to do something about it. Outside of the organization, more people will look to you for cues on what’s happening within the organization, and how you’re thinking about design.
You should receive feedback as much as you give it. Again, becoming a manager has been a really humbling experience. We’re not all perfect at our jobs. I ask my reports to give me feedback during our 1:1s. Sometimes it can feel uncomfortable or unnatural, but I’ve learned so much about myself and how I can improve as a manager and as a human.
Transitioning into management has made me flex a whole other bucket of skills and tools. While it’s been a challenge, I appreciate the fact that I’m learning something new each day. Being a product design manager in particular has been rewarding, and I’d love to see more people in the industry writing on this topic, especially as design becomes a critical and central part to pushing new innovations. (Shoutout to Cap Watkins, Julie Zhuo, and Melissa Mandelbaum who share their experiences regularly.)