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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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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A Few Traits of Successful Managers

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what makes great managers great. The craft itself is pretty nebulous to describe, because the needs and responsibilities themselves oftentimes differ from day to day, week to week, year to year. As a team grows and evolves, so does the role of the managers on the team. For a long time I wondered if it was just a you-know-it-when-you-experience-it kind of thing. But as I’ve thought about it more, I do think there are a few constants that all great managers (or future managers) have:

Great managers trust their team.

But not blindly. I’ve seen a more than a couple managers defend their teams even when it’s incredibly obvious that the work isn’t up to snuff or the team isn’t functioning well. Great managers build teams they can trust. And if trust isn’t there for some reason, it’s part of your job to build it.

That last bit is particularly tricky....

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Scaling Design

After writing about how the first few weeks at BuzzFeed have been going, I got a few requests for more details on how I’m approaching the needs of the design team. As I mentioned in the last post, a lot of the design team needs at BuzzFeed mirror those of Etsy’s design team a couple of years ago. And while I know that two data points does not a trend make, hopefully some of these tips and details are general enough to be useful to a few teams out there.

Career tracks and clearly-defined roles.

Hopefully, it’s already obvious how important this is for keeping talented folks around at your company. Giving people clarity on their role and their path forward gives them something to work for, as well as allows them to stop wondering if they’re doing a good job or not. Would you rather awesome designers be designing awesome stuff? Or wondering if what they’re doing is a part of their job or...

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Two Weeks at BuzzFeed

As one could probably guess, I’ve been a little heads-down the last couple of weeks on-boarding at my shiny new job. Luckily, I have friends like Hunter, who remind me to come up for air, look around and think about what I’ve been experiencing. So, quickly, here are a few takeaways from my first weeks both at BuzzFeed and as a VP of Design.

First and easily most importantly, the people are awesome. From the product designers to product managers to engineers to editorial, everyone has not only been incredibly welcoming and enthusiastic, but also really straightforward about what can be improved. While it can be easy to simply opt for positivity or opacity in place of critical thinking, the people at BuzzFeed seem to have found a nice medium where they can think critically about how things are going and remain optimistic about the future. Tack onto this that everyone I’ve met is...

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17 Reasons I’m Joining BuzzFeed

For the last couple of months, I’ve been talking with a lot of companies, founders and design teams about what my next move should be. It’s been an amazing process and I’ve met no small number of passionate people working on really interesting problems. I said this a couple of years ago and I’ll say it again now: this process has really reaffirmed my belief that our industry is one of the most interesting ones to work in right now. It’s easy to get into the weeds about vapid apps and insane valuations, but there is so much going on that isn’t that. There’s so much going on that is meaningful and worthwhile. It’s an exciting time.

With all that said, I’m joining BuzzFeed as the VP of Design starting tomorrow and I couldn’t be more pumped (and nervous). And, for posterity’s-sake really, I wanted to write a few notes about what brought me onboard and why I’m so excited about the future...

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Appreciation

Every quarter when I collect and review feedback for the people I manage, I, of course, spend quite a bit of time thinking through my own observations and what the future could look like. In doing so these last couple of weeks, I also found myself reflecting on all the ways I’m grateful for what the people I manage bring to the table. Whether it’s awesome leadership, collaboration, a positive attitude or design skills, every designer brings something unique and helpful to myself and their teams.

I think a lot of managers either forget or don’t know that showing appreciation for people’s contributions is one of the most powerful tools we have. Raises and promotions are absolutely ways to do so as well, but it’s important not to underestimate how powerful it is to tell the people you manage that you value their contributions. Because while raises and promotions are fine tools, they’re...

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The Value of Transparency

Over the last few years, I’ve been a big proponent of transparent, inclusive processes, both within design, product development and across whichever company I was working at. Recently, I was asked directly what I think the value of transparency really is. I mean, doesn’t transparency and inclusivity create a Design By Committee-type environment? Isn’t part of my job as a manager to shield my reports from the regular craziness of a complex organization? Surely I’m not transparent about everything, right?

While there are definitely a few scenarios I’ll refrain from sharing designs or information, which I’ll list out a little later, I otherwise try as much as possible to opt for maximum information sharing. And while I’m not perfect at doing so, I’ve noticed benefits to both the projects and the people I manage.

Transparency builds confidence.

This is true for both design and for people...

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Hypothetical Futures & Product Design

I was talking to a few engineers yesterday about implementation details for a project we’re working on at Etsy. At some point, we found ourselves disagreeing over one specific implementation versus another.

But someday we might want things to be this way, someone said, so we should future-proof things now.

Now, I’ve used this exact argument several times in my career, both as a designer and a manager. I’ll be thinking about the road ahead while trying to solve a problem we have right now. The issue is that, most of the time, the future I’m working with is entirely hypothetical. And by “future-proofing” my feature I’m making decisions and compromises based entirely on my own assumptions. And when the roadmap changes (as it nearly always does), the product I designed will be left feeling half-finished or not as well-considered, simply because I optimized for later instead of optimizing...

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More Solutions, More Problems

Recently I stumbled across an old presentation that I and the other two design managers, Kim and Jay, put together in my first few months at Etsy. The topic revolved around the current challenges the design team faced, as well as new ways of looking at ourselves and our roles. I remember so distinctly giving that presentation to the whole team and feeling a sense of pure focus: here are the challenges we face, and here are some things we can do right now to make our lives and products better.

Looking back now, it’s kind of amazing how far we’ve come since that first meeting. The product design team has grown and evolved a metric ton in the last two years. Those challenges we identified in 2012 are, largely, in our rearview mirror. We did it. We achieved.

It turns out, though, that overcoming those first challenges only revealed (and at times created) new ones. Like peeling an onion,...

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