16 Feb 22

Notes on Brian Lovin's Staff Design

Brian Lovin did a series of interviews with designers on levels Staff and above. This came in handy as it was around the time I got my job at Twitter as a Staff Product Designer.

Here are my notes:

Wilson Miner

  • It shouldn’t be required that people level up if they’re doing a great job at their current level. If you’re enjoying what you do, going to the next level might be frustrating instead of satisfying.
  • With time you accrue credibility, and the way to “spend” it is usually by mentoring, leading, giving talks etc. But some people don’t want to do that. It’s like being able to afford a bigger house but not wanting it because of the trouble of cleaning a bigger space.
  • A lot of companies increase someone's responsibilities without providing adequate support for them to be successful.
  • Sometimes the best thing is to not get more responsibility. Not jump at problems, say no to additional work, and trust that colleagues will work on it and solve the problem.

Vivian Wong

  • Spend a lot of time aligning with stakeholders what is the problem they’re trying to solve before beginning design exploration.
  • Do provocation designs.
    • The goal is to gain alignment, not to produce something that is shippable.
    • Explore something very simple, and some far out alternatives, just to get reactions.
  • She takes notes on things that could've gone better in a meeting, or when she notices other people she admires deal with something in an interesting way.
  • When you’re not confident in a situation, that’s how you know you’re learning.
  • Have to balance trying to understand what everyone else is thinking about a problem, but also developing your own strong opinion about it.
  • You don’t need to be confident that you’re right when entering a conversation/presentation. You can approach it differently by being confident that there’s going to be learnings on the other side.
  • Managers don’t get time to dive deep into problems for hours like ICs do. Their time is chunked in 30-minute meetings. We can learn a lot from them about how to prioritize time and get important things done.
  • Create empathy for the people you work with, as much as you do with your users.
  • Presentation skills: first define the three takeaways you want the audience to have, and then structure your story around them.

Jessica Harlle

  • If there isn’t clarity on the roles of Staff and beyond, that’s a management problem. They should be the ones figuring it out, and you as an IC should be able to request more clarity.
  • Reading about management puts you in a better position to know what to expect from your manager.

Salih Abdul Karim

  • Think about the tasks you’d gladly stay up all night or wake up early to do. That’s the kind of work you should be doing, and I don’t feel like that about management.
  • As you grow, people want “more of you” knowing that you only have the same time. That’s where documentation and mentorship come in. Expand your value by leaving assets that people can consume outside of your personal time (presentations, documents, looms).
  • In order to avoid burnout, think about the work you were doing 10 years ago and see if it has any importance or quality. Was it really worth the crunch? Take the long view, think about how this work will evolve 10 years from now.
  • Go work in a place with people you admire and you’re very likely to learn they have no idea what they’re doing either.

Yitong Zhang

  • Senior designer is more defined than staff: a senior usually can work out a big feature with a team.
  • Two different opportunities for Staff: design systems, or very nebulous projects where the opportunity is big but the product doesn’t have a shape yet. Mixes research, docs, creating alignment, and design.
  • It’s easier to understand what the organization wants and do those things to be rewarded, than trying to change it. You can fulfill that need for craft and personal projects elsewhere.
  • He had to define his own job description. Write it down, what you think you’re supposed to be doing, and make sure your manager is aligned. Then write down what the next level is, and make sure you’re all aligned in that direction.
  • Important skills: understanding who the people are, what they value, and how the organization makes decisions.
  • You know you’re growing when you feel pain or embarrassment.
  • As Staff, a lot of people will look to you to solve problems or have an opinion on something. You should be able to say when you’re not the right person, and point to someone else.
  • It’s isolating to be Staff. And you usually hesitate to ask for help. Don’t. Ask for help!

Anita Lillie

  • Even if we did have examples to look up to for successful ICs, they would probably all look different from each other and it would be a challenge to generalize.
  • Necessary skills:
    • Think about solutions as systems, not only a single surface or one-off.
    • How does the work fit within the context of the business and industry you're in.
    • Negotiating and influencing people across the company at different levels and roles.
      • Put yourself in xfn shoes to understand what motivates them.
      • Involve people in the conversation to arrive at a solution where they all feel ownership.
  • If you like money, honestly, be a manager.
  • She uses 20% of her time to do work as a specialist (data viz) and 80% doing normal product design work.
  • She knows she's getting better when she looks at past work and can see it's bad.
  • Levels are useful to signal authority. In her case, as a young female, a lot of biases count against her if she doesn't position herself as an "accredited leader".
  • Strict boundaries with work. No weekends, no extra hours.
  • Management and IC tracks are separate because the output you need from people is different. But a lot of the skills needed to achieve those outcomes overlap.
  • Director and VP levels can probably only be achieved via the management path.
  • Dr. Fauci is like a super-high IC. He's an expert in the space, not necessarily a people-manager.

Rasmus Andersson

  • Being and IC means focusing on 4 areas:
    • Problem: what needs to change and why?
    • Constraints: Options, tradeoffs, knowledge and questions that we haven’t answered yet.
    • People: What do customers care about?
    • Craft: Designers’ skills to be effective, efficient, and communicate their ideas.
  • Who do you want to spend time with?
    • As a manager, it will be coworkers. As a designer, it will be customers.
  • Powers you have as a Staff IC:
    • Experience with past things. Don’t use them as truths though, but as learnings and starting points.
    • Sense of quality
    • Intuition around cost
  • Like a furniture designer making a chair, a UI designer needs to know the materials.
  • Designing for devices (Android vs. Desktop vs. iPhone) is less productive than designing for behavior (short-term, portable experiences). Focus on the human.
  • It’s ok for companies to make money and get the most out of their employees. The more interesting conversation is about the internal experience of the individual: Are you learning?

Karla Mickens Cole

  • She enjoys mentorship. Apparently some people do, some people don’t, and that’s ok.
  • After becoming a mom, she is much more disciplined with time. Declines meetings after 6pm. Walk out the door means she’s done with design.
  • “I don’t breathe, sleep, and think about all things design all the time.”
  • When you join a company, the interview stops. Your ideas should be recognized regardless of your title.

This website was built using Obsidian, Eleventy and Vercel.
The text is set in Untitled by Klim Type Co.