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 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...

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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:


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.
  • 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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