STORIES

Grow your design career as an individual contributor, part 1

CAREERS
BY ALICIA DOUGHERTY-WOLD
18 MIN READ
DECEMBER 16, 2020
How to Grow Your Design Career as an Individual Contributor

SUMMARY

Four Facebook senior designers share their thoughts on how to grow and lead without managing.

At Facebook we’ve always viewed being an individual contributor (IC) and being a manager as two equally important and parallel career paths. Within our teams it’s common for people’s career journeys to take them back and forth between managing and making, depending on what’s strengthening to each individual at a given stage of their careers. There are many ways to be a leader and to influence the direction of product teams—without having to directly manage people to do it. In fact, many of our most senior design leaders use the word “director” in their titles but do not manage people. Yet we know from internal research that our senior individual contributors sometimes think the only way to advance is to take on management responsibilities.



To help debunk this myth, we recently gathered together a panel of senior design leaders from across our company to talk about how they’ve navigated their careers and found success and growth as individual contributors. What follows is a slightly edited and condensed version of our conversation. Panelists included Erin Scime, Content Design Director for Portal; Austin Chang, Product Design Director working on experiences that span Facebook, Instagram, Messenger and WhatsApp; Holly Hagen, Product Design Director working on privacy experiences; and Laura Javier, Product Design Director on Instagram. We wanted to share the conversation to spark inspiration for more people pursuing career growth as experienced individual contributors.



Now, onto the first question I posed to our panelists.



What does it mean to you to lead as an individual contributor?

Erin Scime:

Leading as an individual contributor is about setting the foundation, and working to improve a product and practice for a team. I learned this, in part, through switching over from being a manager to being an IC. During a career conversation with my manager, I was asked if I was interested in becoming an IC. I initially thought: “No, I’m not. That’s a failure.” Everyone thinks that if you go from managing to simply contributing you’re dropping down or you’re giving up.


However, after a long conversation with myself, I determined I was most energized as a product leader, not a people manager. So I moved over to Portal, and became the first content designer on that team. My leadership style is informed by the UX lead role I had at a few digital agencies before joining Facebook. I’ve applied what I learned from that world to my work on Portal: thinking through design principles, setting expectations, and establishing the fundamental content design. In addition, as an IC leader, part of what you contribute is opening doors for other team members in your practice, whether it’s helping to increase the impact of your team or by mentoring and making the case for more people.



Austin Chang:

There are parallel career paths because we need leadership in product thinking and design execution, which is different from managing people. I’ve found myself really happy at Facebook because I’ve realized that my best strengths are not on the management side. So, my short answer on what it means to lead as an IC is: partnering with a good manager and helping them build teams, all while leading the work. Doing this lets you focus on the juicy design stuff.




Holly Hagen:

I ground my leadership in making and doing. I operate in the weeds, understanding how things actually work, because that’s where I can focus. I’ve seen that as a manager grows, they become more distant from what they’re actually doing, day-to-day. As an IC, I can continue to stay close to the work and evolve it.I don’t necessarily have to do all the work, but being familiar with all of the projects, the problems and the processes, I can make connections across different projects or problem spaces. I’m constantly on the ground, in the weeds with everyone, trying to make these connections and ultimately, trying to execute better.



Laura Javier:

We have this saying at Facebook: “data wins arguments.” When Facebook was very small, we could debate in theory for a long time, but the best way of closing out an argument was to try it out and see how it worked. This proving method translates to the design space: design artifacts also win arguments, and it’s ICs creating those artifacts. You get to “put your money where your mouth is” and try to do it better than any other company. That’s why this path has always been attractive to me. And it’s worth repeating that choosing to lead as an IC rather than a manager at this company absolutely does not exclude you from working at a higher strategic level.


A chart shows role ambiguity increasing as career independence increases.

How do each of you build credibility and influence as an individual contributor?

Austin Chang:

Do good work and be nice to the people with whom you work, and repeat that for a long period of time. Think about the things that you like or love in your life that you would use every day, like a favorite pair of jeans—there’s nothing special about them other than the fact that they’re good jeans. They fit well, they’re reliable, and they are something you would use every day. That’s how I think about how to progress as a teammate on all of my teams. Just do good work, be nice to the people, and be consistent. Then, credibility will accrue over time. There’s no need to put on a flashy hat or have some trick to it.



Holly Hagen:

Get accustomed to showing whether something is working or not working. More often than not, the work I’m doing shows things not working—that helps define where we’re not supposed to go. Most of what I would count as my successes here are instances in which I’ve failed. And that’s okay, because Facebook values that—we just do it quickly and set the right expectations so stakeholders can anticipate the risks. But when you thoughtfully fail in front of colleagues, you show the credibility of your contribution. By starting with a small contribution and growing your impact, people begin to understand that you’re going to have something to say in the room, something they’re going to learn from. And all of a sudden you have credibility. For me, it’s all based on the work that I’m doing, and the fact that I can show it off and talk about it.



Erin Scime:

In hardware, where our timelines are longer, I gain credibility through building and investing in long-term senior functional lead relationships. Gaining credibility with the larger team also means asking hard questions and connecting the dots to move faster. I often remind people of our goals by asking: “How does this ladder up to our team mission and to Facebook’s overarching mission?” I may sound like a broken record, but these reminders help people work towards the right goals.



Laura Javier:

For credibility, I think you need to nail follow-through. Never underestimate the value of saying you’re going to do something and then doing it, on time, extremely well. This may sound a little impersonal, but think about yourself as an investment: you want to be the type of investment that costs the people you work with 10 percent but pays back 150 percent. If you act in this way, people will want to keep working with you. Another way to build credibility is to create a mutual understanding of what makes your team members tick; what does each discipline value at its core and what point of view are they on the hook for representing throughout the product development process? Designers naturally feel responsible for classic craft considerations and user experience, but make sure you deeply understand and appreciate what things your partners feel responsible for. Then you can meet them where they are and work together effectively.


A chart shows role ambiguity increasing as career independence increases.

What can more senior individual contributors do to prevent isolation and find community and mentorship?

Erin Scime:

Within Facebook, our levels are not known among colleagues until one attains director-level status. It can be particularly lonely at the level under director because you can only guess who the other few like you might be. But that knowledge depends upon the dynamics of your relationships—you can share your level with someone or not. For a while, I would only share my level if somebody shared theirs first. As a director, I feel better now that my level is public within the company and I know who the other directors are. We can troubleshoot together and build a support network. I can ask, “What’s working for you? What obstacles do you face at this level?” It can be hard to calibrate yourself with others whose work is very different. You’re on different teams solving different problems. It can also be challenging to figure out who you want to model yourself after and how you want to grow your career. At the upper levels, you’re creating your own path. That’s why creating a community and support network of other senior ICs is essential to grow and assess your path along the way.



Austin Chang:

I’m an only child and am naturally introverted, so I’m OK with loneliness. My title and level are one of those things I don’t like saying out loud. I didn’t use my title for two years until another director gave me crap about it, and I switched it back. I just want to focus on the work and collaborate with all the awesome people here. So whatever team I’m on, I just focus on what needs to be done, and do it. My style is to think about what the team needs and try to become that thing. I don’t really think about the team’s levels or what’s involved or how to get support. I just focus on the work and relationships, and the rest tends to take care of itself.



Holly Hagen:

The level issue was easier for me because I started at Facebook when the design team was smaller—levels were more obvious. Many of the senior ICs are scattered around (there aren’t a lot of us) so it feels like a lone-wolf place as you talk about your career. I don’t feel like that when I’m contributing on my team, but I’m constantly looking for engineers and project managers at my level because they’re closer to me than another product designer. Over time, I’ve learned to lean on my one-on-one relationships. With these people, I can share my aspirations and the way I work through regular meetups or regular coaching circles. It takes work. But it didn’t happen until I talked about it out loud. When I did, my manager told me I should talk to so-and-so because they had a similar problem. Once I embraced that, it got a little easier. I wouldn’t say it’s perfect, but definitely less challenging than it was.



Laura Javier:

The hidden levels are a double-edged sword sometimes. On one hand, hidden levels are great because all conversations feel more democratic and culturally make the whole company feel more “flat.” On the other hand, if you’re looking to grow in your career and you subscribe to the “if you can see it, you can be it” philosophy, it can become an opaque guessing game. About isolation: it’s been helpful in the past to gather together with people who are at the same level as you across the company on a monthly basis to just casually talk. That was invaluable to me because I think people assume that at some level you’ll magically become this influential senior personality who never feels lonely. It was great to have a totally unstructured space to say, “Are you feeling this? OK, cool, I’m feeling that, too.”


A chart shows role ambiguity increasing as career independence increases.

Can you talk about some of the challenges you’ve faced and how you overcame them?

Erin Scime:

As a senior IC, a space of ambiguity emerges around how you’re perceived by other functional leads on the team. In my case, part of this confusion may be because I was a manager who transitioned to IC. What I’ve experienced is that other partners will speak to me as a manager of my function. This creates a bit of an imbalance because there are three other content designers who work on the team and I am equal to them in our flat structure. When you have tight relationships with senior leaders on the team, they don’t really know how to act with you as a senior IC. They’re used to working with managers, so they treat you the same way. I had to define who I was within the team as a senior IC as a result.



Austin Chang:

A few years ago I was focused on the Facebook product for the Japanese market. In early research, one of our subjects told us that in their feed they saw that a friend had liked something, and that this scared them. This person was now afraid to like things because they didn’t want to burden others with having to see their preferences—that’s how culturally different Japan is, and how differently our product works for the Japanese. So, I tried to solve every little problem in Facebook to make it better for Japan. We ticked off one problem after another, and at one point, we were basically creating an Instagram-like product within Facebook instead of acknowledging that we had a product called Instagram that worked great.


So, when I think back on the products that I’ve worked on that have failed, the biggest one is that we, as problem-solvers, want to get in the weeds and conquer the next thing. But occasionally we need to step back and ask, “What are we doing here? What’s the big picture?”



Holly Hagen:

My challenge has been scaling myself as I’ve grown. I have only so much time to contribute to work, people, mentoring and coaching. I used to understand only one way of mentoring and coaching, but I had to grow in a different way because I couldn’t meet with 30 people in one week. Mentoring wasn’t and isn’t my full-time job, but I want to give back and make everyone better. So I had to figure out how to do that, and it was a challenge. When I started at Facebook, the design team was much smaller, so I knew who to connect with. But often, I still felt alone, not knowing if there were other people at my level. I didn’t know who to reach out to, so I went outside of the design community to ask, “What do you do to grow in your space?” I tried out a lot of things. Honestly, I didn’t know how to prioritize career development, because I’d never thought about it. I never thought of my career as a project in my portfolio, but all of a sudden, I had to; in performance reviews I was asked to explain my influence. I had to figure out a scalable way for me to grow. It was difficult.



Laura Javier:

Two challenges come to mind. I came to Facebook from design school and was surrounded by amazing designers. Then, I felt like a teenager who fell in love for the first time. “This is the project! This is my big thing! I’ve gotta put my stamp on it and it has to be amazing!” Over time, you realize you’re going to have 50 of those projects, so don’t be emotionally precious with them. It helps you make better objective decisions. The second challenge is about making mistakes— I’ve come to learn from them and be honest about them.


How do you go about discovering meaty problems?

Erin Scime:

To find meaty work, I talk to functional leads, prioritize with them, and pass that info onto my fellow content designers. For my contribution, I hone in on the riskiest issues. With Portal, I knew that privacy was going to be a big focus because of the Facebook login and concern people would have with a camera and a microphone in their home. Another way to uncover meaty problems is by gaining credibility with senior product leaders. As a senior IC, a shortcut to this can actually be exposing your level to them so they know where you’re coming from and let you in on the product priorities. This also helps them know where you and your team fit in, and gives you visibility as a senior product leader.



Austin Chang:

In design, when you dig deep into something, you only realize how complex it is over time. What sometimes looks, on the surface, to be the smallest optimization takes tons and tons of work to make simple. For example, I’ve been working on something since March and it’s taken forever to get essentially what ended up being a single screen just right. But the entire system started out being something much, much more complicated. The meatiness was in reducing the meatiness, in a way. Examples of this abound. If you’re willing to dig but unwilling to compromise on the solution, problems naturally become meaty. They come to you.



Holly Hagen:

Someone once told me I was stretching myself too thin. I was working on five different things. Over a course of events, I began to realize I had a particular superpower, and that I should employ it and not work on things that other people can. That’s how I see everything I work on: if the work doesn’t invite me to use my superpower, then I move on to something else. So right now, I focus on privacy.



Laura Javier:

Look for problems and questions that feel threatening—people tend to drop these. Look for things that threaten the existence of an organization or a team. People are not incentivized to ask these kinds of questions, but they can unlock answers to why we’re not providing the best experience for users at any given moment. For example, we once investigated opening Facebook to a camera to support visual messaging, and we spent a lot of time doing the due diligence of trying to make that an acceptable experience. But at the end of the day, what turned the tide was the team saying, “This doesn’t make sense. We shouldn’t exist.” Maybe pieces of our work should continue to exist elsewhere in the product, but we accepted we shouldn’t have been building another messaging product within Facebook. The conclusion was threatening to our team, but in the end the line of inquiry was the right one.

What do you wish someone had told you earlier about your career path? And what advice would you share with someone else?

Erin Scime:

Your work is never solo. One of the myths about working at a higher level is that you’re superhuman, you figure everything out on your own, and you’re able to drop in and solve the problem immediately. The opposite is true. As you get more senior, you have to maintain tighter relationships with people, and your work is increasingly less solo. You collaborate more and bring people together to solve problems. You bring in people who others didn’t think to bring in, and you interconnect pieces to help the team move forward. Someone once gave me this advice: “Once you get to a certain point, your career just goes in a zigzag, and depending on the opportunity and depending on what you want, you choose your path.” I thought that felt wishy-washy then, but now I feel like it makes sense. So, embrace the ambiguity!



Austin Chang:

I agree. I’ve had to learn over and over again that you can’t go it alone. These days I’m communicating with people a lot and working in teams. The biggest trick I’ve learned about communication at work is that it’s not about self-expression, it’s about starting where another person is, and figuring out how to communicate in a style that suits the audience. What works in a room full of engineers is very different from what works in a room full of project managers. You have to be a chameleon who can speak the language and connect the dots across a lot of different types of people. It’s a valuable skill set. If you find yourself at the point where you’re able to communicate in high fidelity with a lot of different groups who are maybe not able to communicate directly with each other, that’s a strong leverage point. But I also think being a chameleon is a satisfying role for a designer to play. A lot of us like to find connections and patterns in the work we’re doing. It’s a fascinating and important role when you find yourself on a team and you’re the one who’s able to act as the connective tissue between different disciplines.



Holly Hagen:

I wish someone had told me that communication at work, especially writing, is really important. If you think of all the writing you do throughout the day—emails, internal posts, and any other written communication or casual conversation—you know it’s core to how we function as designers. It seems so obvious, but I didn’t know it was going to be the core of my job, so that’s usually what I tell new grads. Another thing, which I’ll echo from the other panelists, is that you cannot do this alone. The moment I embraced that, I was able to use the strengths of the engineers, project managers and everyone else. You can do so much more because your team is doing so much more. It’s not just you carrying this. Success, to me, in a product team is not that an idea or design went out there and people said it was Holly’s idea. I could give that idea to anyone and as long as we’re doing it, I’m fine with that. I empower everyone else to shepherd things along, and that’s real strength. You have to be able to give up some control and learn to rely on and trust your team.



Laura Javier:

Don’t ignore that little voice in your gut. When you’re in design school, you’re in a community of people all speaking the same language. You share the same values, and then you argue within a shared knowledge set over the details. When you come to Facebook, you’re suddenly thrown into a mix of people with strong opinions with different viewpoints, and it’s easy for that loud rationality to overwhelm that little design feeling in your gut. There were a few mistakes I probably could’ve avoided if I had just “bucked up” and realized: “This looks bad. Can we all agree that this sucks and that it shouldn’t suck?” When I was a newer designer I didn’t feel like I could do that. At least, not until I was in a room with people like those on this panel—designers who were able to pause the room and say: “Are we proud of this?” It was important for me to learn how to address these difficult moments, and that there is a valid way to do so. So don’t let your gut instinct get drowned out by the very rational arguments from the very smart people.


Thank you all, so much, for sharing your thoughts and time with us!


***

And thank you, reader, for spending some time with our panelists. Over the coming months we’ll continue sharing stories about how individual contributors can take the lead and forge meaningful careers. Next up: a senior IC content director shares what it means to influence and inspire others as you level up and build soft leadership skills.



Thank you to Facebook Product Designer Kevin Smith for his art direction on this piece.

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