The Switch from Designer to Manager

Nowadays, when I mention that I manage part of the Etsy design team, the reaction is nearly always the same. First, the person I’m talking to asks how much design work that means I’m doing now. When I tell them the answer (“none”), they scrunch their face a little, as if they just tasted something sour and ask, “How is that? I don’t think I could ever stop designing completely.”

The reaction is pretty familiar to me, since it was also mine until a few short months ago. When I started at Etsy, the design team was about half the size it is now. I actually wasn’t managing anyone at all. And while I did spend some time helping develop processes and structure for the design team, I had plenty of time left to design stuff. In fact, my first year was spent redesigning Etsy’s item reviews system, which was a pretty messy and difficult problem to sort through. But that was fine because, hey, my only 1-on-1 was with Randy, my manager.

The Beginning of the End

Then I hired and took on a couple of people and, suddenly, I had a little less time to work on other things. I was now splitting my time three ways between the designers I managed, my own projects and keeping the design team as a whole healthy and evolving. The balance was tricky, but manageable (rimshot). The other design leads and I would occasionally bat around the idea that, one day, we would have to stop designing. But the conversations always ended with a smile and a relieved “we’re not there yet” vibe.

Then we hired a few more designers, many of whom wound up on product teams I managed. My design time began rapidly decreasing and suddenly I could see the end on the horizon. That no-more-designing joke amongst the leads was no longer a joke and I was hit with what, for a time, became a nagging fear. Was this really what I wanted? Was I giving up design for good? What if I fell behind on the latest UX trends or front-end implementation methods?

Fear not!

As I’ve waded further into management, I’ve discovered my fears to be unfounded. As a manager (and maybe particularly as a design manager), you’re never giving up design for good. First of all, I still spend a decent portion of my time thinking through design problems, whiteboarding and giving feedback, albeit in service of designers who own the projects and the execution. I never got as much satisfaction out of the visual execution as I did the UX and product thinking, so the role of design-helper fits me pretty well. It’s a lot of fun to tackle problems with smart people. It doesn’t matter to me anymore that I don’t “own” the final product.

Secondly, managing people is one, gigantic user experience exercise. The variety of personalities, skill sets, personal goals, professional goals and team contexts makes for some pretty interesting and challenging work. Having not done this for very long also means I’m pretty consistently running into situations I’ve never encountered before. Helping people level up to be the most successful versions of themselves is what UX design is. And in real life, you can’t just ship three versions of a conversation to different percentages of traffic and find out what wins. You evolve your strategy and focuses on the fly because there’s really no other way to do this stuff. It’s user experience design without a net. It’s insane and fascinating and totally frightening. It’s great.

At the end of the day, this new role has been pretty damn rewarding and not quite so narrow in scope as I once thought. Your mileage in management may vary, but if you’re currently resisting trying out management for the same reasons I was, don’t. Even if you wind up switching over to design again at some point (which I’ll never rule out), the experiences you’ll gain as a manager will be valuable not only to your design work, but how you approach teams and people wherever you are.

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