Cap Watkins

VP of Design at BuzzFeed. Formerly at Etsy, Amazon, Formspring and Zoosk. Draws pretty pictures on the Internet all day.

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The Right Problems

Over the years, I’ve noticed a lot of my (and others’) frustrations at work come from feeling like the problems I’m solving shouldn’t be problems, or that the problems I’m facing are outside of my control. As I’ve settled more into my management responsibilities, I’ve found that the biggest bang for my buck has been to focus on helping folks start solving the right problems and stop worrying about things that are too small or too big and nebulous.

Small, Bullshit Problems

These are problems you encounter frequently in little, annoying ways. Some classic examples include:

  • Why do we keep redesigning our button style every time we implement a new page?
  • What’s the real button style? I guess I’ll make a new one too, but what should it look like?
  • Who has that file with our brand colors and elements in it?
  • They left the company? Shit.
  • Wait, your team is working on that project? Mine too.
  • I’...

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Becoming a Writer

There have been quite a few people over the last few months who’ve asked for advice on how to start writing. They usually say something like “I don’t know how to start” or “I’m not sure what I’d write about” or the dreaded “I’m just not a good writer.” So, to all of you out there dealing with those feels, here are a few thoughts on writing and how to make it a part of your craft.

First, why write at all?

It’s really important before you start anything to know why you’re doing it. Personally, writing is a very selfish act for me. I’m usually struggling with something professionally and writing helps me develop and articulate my thoughts on the topic. Other times, I’m writing from a place of frustration and putting it down is a type of catharsis. Again, getting it out helps me hone my position and voice on things that are important to me.

Unsurprisingly (though I was surprised at...

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Great Teams, Great Products

What makes a great product?

We all spend time thinking about this. Whether you’re a manager or not, striving to build the best thing we can is the force that drives most of us to come to work every day. We look at products we admire and we wonder: how do they do it? Was it amazing leadership? Are the people that work there just all insanely talented? While both of those things may be true, they aren’t the true reason things are great. Having great leadership and talent are both huge helps, to be certain, but in my experience only one thing can make a great product:

Great teams.

What Makes a Great Team

Think about the amazing teams you’ve seen or been a part of - the ones who always seem to ship the best products and experience the biggest wins. What made them amazing? It wasn’t that they had the exact right number of designers and engineers and product folks. Maybe they did, maybe...

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Crafting Interviews

Recruiting, like many managerial activities, is somewhere between an art and a science. Getting people in the door is a numbers game in a lot of ways (lots of emails, phone screens and second phone screens that don’t work out). But the interview loop and determining whether or not to hire people is, in my experience so far, a lot more difficult. A few things stand out to me, though, as things you can do to improve your chances and build teams that work well together and execute at a high level.

The Pre-Huddle

I’m surprised by how many places don’t do this. The pre and post-huddle are the most important 15-minute meetings you’ll have once you decide to bring a candidate in for a loop. You get all the interviewers together and the hiring manager gives them context on the candidate, the role, the responsibilities and then assigns each interviewer an area to cover and answers any...

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The Manager’s Crisis

Not long ago, I met with a designer I previously managed at Etsy to catch up and talk about her new role (she stepped into a management position shortly after I left). We were talking about some of the challenges she’s facing currently, and inevitably starting talking about some of the decisions I’d made while we worked together.

You know, she said, I really didn’t get why you were making those decisions at the time. In fact, I was pretty against them. Now that I’m a manager, though, I can totally see why you did what you did.

After managing folks for a little while, there are two major crises I’ve identified as not only common, but a consistent source of stress and uncertainty for managers:

Imperfect Decisions

I think most of the people I manage would tell you that I strive to be as transparent as possible at all times. Even when the truth is difficult, I believe leveling with people...

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Your Org Is a Product

Last week I met a friend of mine for coffee to talk about our jobs (we’re both still relatively new at our respective companies), challenges we’re facing and to trade advice on how to tackle those challenges. My friend, an experienced and thoughtful product manager, was describing her proposed changes to the product roadmap. She talked about the strengths and shortcomings of the current product - cruft to be killed off, potentially strong feature areas that needed more attention, etc. - and how it would take time and patience to execute on her overarching vision and get things on the right track.

A bit later in the conversation, we began talking about org structures and she lamented how the org needed to change, but the person responsible just wouldn’t pull the trigger and get it over with. You hear this sort of complaint a lot with organizations. I’m definitely guilty of using terms...

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The Sliding Scale of Giving a Fuck

During my first big project at Etsy, completely overhauling our Item Reviews system, I was paired with Andrew Morrison, an incredibly talented engineer (and now a very good friend). Andy cared a lot about not just the code he wrote, but the product itself - how it was designed, how it worked, how elements on the page lined up together. He never shied away from asking questions about the design directions I proposed, nor about suggesting his own solutions for making the product work.

For the most part, our relationship worked pretty well. At times, however, I’d find myself in endless, circular arguments with Andy on how the product should function. What are the rules for when an item can be reviewed? What about problems with an item? How long should a single review impact the overall average for the shop? Should this flow be two steps, or should we consolidate down to one? Between the...

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Letting Go As a Manager

Anytime I talk to designers about what it means to be a manager, there’s always a lot of concern over two things: what it means to stop doing hands-on work and how it’s possible to force yourself to let go of that control. The prospect of not getting to design full-time is scary enough, to be sure. Add to that the potential randomness of someone else doing the work and it’s easy to understand why moving toward a management role can be intimidating and honestly pretty hive-inducing for designers (or anyone, really). Getting through that feeling required a few realizations that hopefully can help speed up your own transition.

There are much, much better designers than you out there.

I consider myself lucky in that, not having a formal design education, I kind of always knew this one. And lucky for you, most designers have imposter syndrome, so you probably suspect this as well. Wonder...

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How I Focus

This weekend, I was listening to an episode of Back to Work (one of my favorite podcasts) in which Merlin and Dan were discussing focus and attention. As a designer, I never really had a problem with focusing, since my jobs allowed for long, uninterrupted periods of productivity. I had a few regular meetings (standups, critiques), but generally any other randomizations were initiated by me (asking for help from another designer, blue skying on a new idea for the startup), so I was able to largely control my time and ensure I had ample amounts of it to dedicate to single tasks.

As a manager, all that control has flown right out the window. It’s my job now to live steeped in randomness. I have to be flexible, both with my time and priorities, so that everyone I work with can get what they need in a timely manner. So, where a week ahead seems pretty reasonable and devoid of meetings...

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The Fine Art of Bridge Building

You and a group of friends are living on the edge of a canyon. You live well enough, eating the pineapples that grow in abundance on this side of the chasm. However, as the days pass, you find yourself drawn more and more to the other side, where you can clearly see not only the same, delicious pineapples, but also apples, pears and oranges (microclimates, amirite?). For a few days, you walk along the edge of a canyon, looking for a way across. After much fruitless searching for a way around, you finally decide that, fuck it, you’ll build your own bridge to get across. As you start to tie vines together and gather bits of wood, one of your comrades happens upon you.

What are you doing? they ask.

Building a bridge to get across this canyon.

What for?

There are apples and pears and oranges over there. I tried those a few years back and they were pretty great. Let’s go get them. Grab a...

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