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 Perfect Company

In the last year or so, every time I’ve given a talk on collaboration or building an organization, an audience member has approached me (either privately or through Q&A) with a question about their current frustrations with their job or org. The question usually sounds something like this:

What you described in your talk sounds great. I’m at Company X and we don’t have any of that. I’ve tried to get people to collaborate more, let designers code, bring engineers into the process, but I’m not making any progress and I don’t think anyone else agrees that these are real problems. What should I do?

Typically, I’ll ask a few clarifying questions and give some light pointers. But in the end, my advice is usually for that person to quit and find a new role. The reason I give is that you need to work somewhere that values what you value. Certainly, there are many successful organizations where

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Do the Right Thing

I was on a walk with a coworker at BuzzFeed the other day, talking about our teams and our jobs. At one point, while I was describing the changes we’d made to the design team in the past year or so, she stopped me and asked “How did you know you were making the right changes? How do you know that you’re doing the right thing?” Luckily this is a question I get with some regularity, particularly from new managers or managers challenged with turning around a team. There’s a natural nervousness around making the wrong decision, upsetting or alienating your team, and losing the trust and momentum you were trying to build in the first place. When you were making things, you could just cmd-z when you fucked up. But now what?

Do what you know.

Have you had a great manager in your life? What did they do? How did they think about the world? We all have to be our own person, obviously, but

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Stop Worrying and Love Your Imposter Syndrome

While I was at Web Directions last week, a few people brought up the topic of imposter syndrome and were asking for advice on how to overcome it. There’s been a lot written about the challenge of feeling that you aren’t good enough and like at any moment you’ll be found out for the fraud you really are (Julie Zhuo wrote this fantastic article which you should definitely read). Particularly in technology, it’s pretty common to find people who are performing functions they didn’t train for in school, which I can vouch only increases that anxiety. For instance, I was a Creative Writing major and never studied design or management, which has almost certainly contributed to my own imposter syndrome.

Personally, I still struggle with that feeling a lot of the time, even as VP of Design (in fact, especially as that!). Every time I encounter an unfamiliar obstacle, I wonder about whether or not

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The Ownership Problem

When I was starting out as a designer, I had a pretty big chip on my shoulder about how my job was perceived. At that point in time, the design community was, seemingly as a whole, pushing back on the idea that designers just make things look good. Every other day there’d be a blog post or a podcast about explaining to clients or coworkers that we have more to contribute, and that we should own the user experience as well as the visual design, and as a young designer I of course bought into that in the extreme. I took that chip on my shoulder through my first few jobs. I’d find myself constantly referring to myself as the “design owner” to combat terms like “product owner” or to push back against engineers simply building whatever they thought was right.

There are few things I regret more in my career than how strongly and how long I held onto that idea. Inevitably, me holding onto the

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Management & Power

When I worked at Etsy, our CEO, Chad Dickerson, gave a talk where he described how most companies think about management structures. To most people reading this, the following image will be a familiar concept:

pyramid.png

Conceptually, the message for how decisions get made is pretty straightforward: The CEO tells the VPs what to do, the VPs tell the Directors what to do, the Directors tell the Managers and the Managers tell the Makers what to make. I’ve talked to a lot of first time managers who are attracted to the role because they see the above structure and consider management a way of gaining power over their particular area. When asked why they want to manage people, you’ll hear things like, I want to make sure our code is good or I want to ensure that everyone is getting their work done on time. This sort of perception of the job isn’t very surprising: when your job was making things it

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The Lie I Tell New Hires

I’ve written a lot about recruiting on this blog - how to get hired, how to do the hiring and how hard it is to hire. However, I haven’t really touched on what happens after that process. You’ve found a great designer, hired them and they just started today! Hooray! Now what?

Well, first you have to lie to them.

Don’t worry, it’s not a big lie. You see, there are two things that are (probably) true at the moment you’re having your very first 1:1 with the newest member of your team:

  1. You want to evolve and improve your current processes.
  2. This shiny new designer has no idea what your current processes are.

If #1 isn’t true for you… well, you may want to think about that one. I’ve yet to be in a position where our design process was exactly where we wanted it to be. Both at Etsy and BuzzFeed, we were/are constantly trying to improve. Maybe we were trying to create more transparency, or

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You’re Gonna Make It

I’ve been thinking a lot about this topic lately, and I have a ton to say about it, but I accidentally stumbled on this speech from Coach Jim Valvano, who said it way better than I ever could:

My father had a heart attack and he died. And I lost my best friend in the whole world. This is not a sad story, it’s a happy story, but I was knocked for a loop. Those of you who have lost a loved one know what that’s like. This was my first time in my life. I didn’t know how to handle it. And I was missing, I couldn’t understand what it was I was missing… What was it? I didn’t see him all the time, I was traveling a lot. And then it hit me, what it was he gave me. I think it’s the strongest, the most powerful gift I’ve ever received. And it’s a gift I find we don’t like to give to each other, both in our business and our personal lives. I’ve spent two years trying to give this gift to other

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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.

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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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