At Meta, we’re designing the future of social connection, and that can’t happen without collaboration. Design program managers (DPMs) are key to our multidisciplinary approach. DPMs are responsible for design operations, building ways for teams to collaborate across product design, content design, user experience research, communication design, brand design, industrial design, sound design and more. In this Q&A, design program management leaders Kara F., Kate S. and Mijin Y. explain what DPMs do, what career growth as a DPM looks like and how the discipline helps drive success at Meta.
Design program management—also sometimes referred to as design operations—was established at Meta in 2013 when the design team was experiencing hyper growth. When design teams are scaling, design leaders are often spread too thin, attempting to juggle product and design strategy, people management, cross-functional partners and team operations. By bringing on a DPM, design leaders have the ability to scale themselves and increase their capacity. DPMs identify how teams can most effectively and efficiently ship products, scale design initiatives and drive operational excellence. They establish operating rhythms and team norms and help drive and land product and design strategy.
In the nearly 10 years since we established design program management, the discipline has grown to more than 150 DPMs globally.
There are a few ways I think about how DPMs have broad-scale impact at Meta. First, DPMs help our design teams be more intentional. DPMs think deeply about team dynamics and skill sets in order to unlock the team’s true potential. By improving design capacity, DPMs enable teams to operate sustainably and facilitate long-term planning, which allows us to truly innovate, learn and embrace opportunities.
Another important aspect is thought partnership. A product team needs someone who can drive program planning from the initial conception of an idea through the product’s full lifecycle, guiding the overarching plan to land the work and thinking about how to innovate and scale it. That is ultimately a DPM’s role, and it’s especially critical for a company of Meta’s scale, with billions of people using our technologies around the world. Many DPMs are systems thinkers who drive alignment on key design decisions and lead programs around quality and design excellence, ensuring that our work is trustworthy, people-centric and unified.
Finally, DPMs are force multipliers across our organization, connecting the dots between product teams with initiatives that lead to a more accessible, equitable and well-crafted user experience.
I often say we are air traffic controllers—we have a bird’s-eye view and we figure out how to land all the planes. A lot of our DPMs are embedded with our product teams, such as Messenger or on our ads and business products, and as Kara described, they drive design roadmaps and priorities, build out processes and act as stewards of design quality for our teams. DPMs in those roles typically partner with product design, product managers, engineering, content design, research and our fellow DPMs, which is my favorite. I love when we get to collaborate on a company initiative. Another role within the design operations community that’s worth mentioning is producer. Similar to DPMs, producers ensure design excellence and high-quality creative outputs, but they are focused on the visual language of our products—for example, they might work on photography, illustrations, AR effects or iconography.
There is another type of DPM role that is focused on the strategy and execution of a program that is more horizontal and serves a broad team or organization, such as design onboarding and education, internship programs, design quality initiatives and diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programming. This type of programming necessitates a 20,000-foot view of an organization to understand the unique needs of each of the individuals and create solutions that serve everyone. In these areas of work, DPMs often partner with designers from across the company who can represent the needs of their respective organization or team. These designers can range from individual contributors all the way up to design VPs who have expertise in or passion for the particular program area.
At Meta, we view being an individual contributor (IC) and manager as parallel career paths, so you can continue to grow in your career and have impact as an IC without directly managing people. Regardless of which path you choose as a DPM (and many people move back and forth between the two), we view career growth as opportunities to take on more scope and complexity, which I like to think about in terms of “breadth” versus “depth.”
As a manager, increasing breadth in a DPM career might mean supporting a larger team working on a number of products or initiatives, while as an IC, it might mean partnering with senior leadership on company-wide initiatives. Increasing depth as a DPM generally means working on a single, very complex product or program, whether that’s partnering with a small team as a manager or working with design leads as an IC.
Regardless of the career path, Meta offers a constant stream of opportunities for DPMs to evolve their career based on what they do best and enjoy most. By focusing on strengths and helping people find the internal communities that can make them feel supported at work, we help DPMs grow and succeed.
Over the last few years, design program management has emerged as a discipline that is in high demand at Meta, and with that, the possibilities for the evolution of DPM careers is open and exciting. As leaders, it’s been thrilling to grow alongside this community and learn from them. I’ve seen our DPMs grow their experience in product strategy, design systems, leadership and operations at global scale, and these are skill sets that translate well across product as well as business functions. Many of our DPM leaders have moved into management to address the needs of our organization, but there is also a huge opportunity for us to grow our bench of senior ICs who can take on our most ambiguous and complex challenges ahead.
Another way we see our DPMs grow is by developing our craft. We have a strong community and we come together to shape what our discipline looks like in terms of best practices, continued education and recruiting. We help shape what the DPM practice is at Meta.
There are five focus areas that are core to the DPM role at Meta. First, execution and impact—the ability to prioritize, apply strategic thinking and drive complex programs. Second, communication. It’s key for DPMs to communicate clearly and succinctly and shape communications for different audiences. Third, collaboration. In order to be successful in this role, it’s imperative to build strong relationships with team members, cross-functional partners and stakeholders. Fourth, leadership and drive. We expect DPMs to take ownership of their work and work autonomously to drive initiatives forward. And last, self-awareness and understanding your own strengths and weaknesses.
Outside of the five focus areas, I always look for individuals who are flexible and curious. Priorities often shift at Meta, so I find the most successful people can adapt to a fast-paced environment and are always looking for a new challenge.
DPMs come to Meta from a myriad of backgrounds, industries and disciplines, and we value that diversity of thought and experience. DPMs on my team have backgrounds ranging from traditional project or program management to academia, consulting, marketing, sales and learning and development. The throughline, though, is design acumen, which can come through many forms. Some DPMs formerly worked as designers, pushing pixels. Others have experience working with designers and have a strong understanding of the design process and design thinking frameworks.
The best DPMs are particularly adept at identifying challenges across organizations, understanding a problem and being able to quickly formulate a plan to learn and create opportunities. These DPMs are highly sought after and are seen as domain experts not only in operations but also the product space. They are tactical just as much as they are strategic. They think about how to make our products better and develop scalable and sustainable frameworks and solutions so that we are continuously improving.
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