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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Hello, again.

It’s been so long since I wrote something in my blog that I’d forgotten my credentials. So I guess it’s only fair to give a few updates to explain where I’ve been.

For the past year, I’ve been writing a book on management. I rented some studio space, was spending a couple nights a week there, and was closing in on the ending (I’m a chapter or two from completion) when the Presidential Election happened and derailed everything. Since then, I’ve been struggling a lot with feeling like writing about design or management is worthwhile in a world that is broken (and becoming more broken, it seems, by the day). Every time I’d sit down to try and write something, I’d instantly begin questioning why it matters and how crummy it would feel to promote my work on Twitter or via my email list in a world where, again, things feel so dark.

So why am I writing now?

For the last few months, friends

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Holistic Management

When new managers start out, they tend to become hyper-focused on what’s right in front of them: the designers they manage, the product team(s) they’re responsible for helping, the way design is getting done in their product group, etc. That focus is not only necessary, it’s great! New managers need that kind of scoped attention in order to get their feet, to become good at managing people and strike the right balance between direct and indirect feedback.

A lot of managers, though, never leave that place. As they become more skilled with the designers they’re managing and the specific team(s) they’re helping, many new managers start to dig in and form a brittle identity for themselves. I’m the manager for the Growth team, they think to themselves. So I’m going to make the Growth team the best team to be on. They work on culture and processes that are specific to their group, regardless

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Designing Inward

A little over a year into my job at Etsy, we had made a lot of changes to the design team and how we operated. We’d hired a bunch of amazing product designers. We had weekly, round-robin design critiques with the entire team and had instituted separate, smaller design critiques for the designers in each product group. We were also religiously using Basecamp to document the entire process transparently and openly with not only the entire design team, but also our teammates in product and engineering.

To be honest, we design managers on the team were feeling pretty damn good about ourselves and our progress! The design team had never felt closer and collaboration and cross-group feedback was at an all-time high. We’d really made something great together.

And yet, something didn’t feel quite right.

From time to time, we’d hit a snag in our design process and find ourselves unaligned -

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The Great Re-Anchoring

When I joined BuzzFeed just over a year ago, I spent the first few months of my time there setting the Product Design team up so it could scale well. I wrote a roles and responsibilities document, instituted Basecamp as the place for design work and discussion and overhauled our recruiting process. Since then, the design managers and I have set up quarterly peer reviews for the team, written our Design Leadership Principles and initiated weekly small group critiques in addition to our weekly one with the entire team. Each of these changes were made in response to needs we identified and wanted to make sure were met. They started out as experiments, but quickly became an official part of our team and process as each addition proved its usefulness. Progress was made. We felt good.

But recently, we decided to blow it all up.

A couple of months ago, my manager (our publisher) Dao

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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:


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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