Calling found: A path to design program management

By Kate S.
4 min to read
November 5, 2018
A woman stands by the ocean looking into the distance.


Kate S. discusses her winding road to becoming a DPM and how she’s still convinced it’s the perfect role for her.

What is your name and job title?

Kate Stern, Manager, Central Design Programs.

When did you join Facebook?

September 2009.

Describe yourself in 10 words or less.

Tall, left-handed curator who loves comics, queso and dogs.

What do you like to do when you’re not working?

I’m an explorer at heart—I love being on the move, whether I’m traveling (I was on a plane every single month this year!) or checking out new spots in San Francisco (especially new restaurants). I also love going to concerts, art shows and hikes with my pup, Izzy.

What is the last book you read?

I’m a huge comic book nerd (which are generally quick reads), so I’ve gone through a few books in the last month alone. The last book I finished was volume 6 of Descender, and I’m currently reading volume 7 of The Wicked + The Divine (which I’ll definitely be finished with by the time this is published). As a visual person, I love comics as a medium—once you find the writers and illustrators that you enjoy, it gets so addicting!

If you went to college, what did you major in or concentrate in? What classes outside your major were you interested in?

I attended the University of Texas in Austin and majored in Communication Studies, with a focus on Corporate Communications. Outside of my core classes, I took as many sociology classes as I could, because I love learning about different cultures and why people function the way that they do (oh, and my dad is a sociology professor, so he might have something to do with this interest!).

What was your first job? What lessons did you learn there?

My first job was in sales for Sony Electronics. I think that having sales experience should be a prerequisite for everyone. The communication skills I learned during those first few years built an incredible foundation for my career. Not only did I learn how to build relationships with people (hot tip: the secret to sales is getting clients to like you, because then they want to buy things from you), but I also learned how to take criticism (anyone that has worked in sales has been yelled at by an angry client!).

How did you know that design program management was the path you wanted to take?

I’ve had quite the windy path into design program management. I started my career at Facebook in the global marketing solutions organization, helping both small and large businesses build their brands through advertising and other marketing means. Outside of work, I was always involved in the arts—discovering and experiencing music, design and film have always been hobbies of mine. Creating music, design or films was never my strong suit, though. In fact, as I said above, I often describe myself as a “curator” rather than a “creator.” That said, I was always looking for ways to combine my organizational and curation skills with my desire to work in a creative industry.

In the early days of Facebook, the design team was extremely lean (there were fewer than 15 designers when I joined), so design program management wasn’t established as a discipline yet. It wasn’t until the design team grew to about 50 people in 2013 that the need for design operations surfaced and I felt like this was my “in” to finally working on the design team. As soon as I heard about an opportunity to partner with Maria Giudice, who was product design director at the time, I set out on a campaign, talking to every designer that I knew (which was nearly all of them). Within five minutes of sitting down with Maria for our first informational meeting, I was convinced that I found my calling. Over five years later, I’m still convinced!

What was your first exposure to design program management? How did your interest in it develop?

Early in my career at Facebook, I yearned to be part of the creative community, so I sought out any and all opportunities to work with anyone on the design team (one of my claims to fame was co-starring in a video that explained new product features… but then the design of the product changed, so my video never made it off the cutting-room floor!). Through these experiences, I realized how much I enjoyed working with designers and being surrounded by creatives. In 2013, I was given the opportunity to temporarily work on the UX research team. During this time, I learned how to design and run qualitative research sessions (thanks to the incredible mentorship ofJill Christ), but also started to organically “DPM,” as we now call it. I recognized where people could benefit from connecting with one another and also share their work more broadly. It was this work that prompted a research manager to connect me with Courtney Kaplan, who started the DPM discipline at Facebook, and then the rest was history.

What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

“It’s not always what you do, it’s how you do it.” We’re all just trying to do our best, so assume good intent and be nice!

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