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Rian van der Merwe on A View from a Different Valley

Managing and Making: It Doesn’t Have to Be One or the Other

We work in interesting times. We recognize and accept that if you want to move “up” at a company, you have to become a manager. So, to rise up in the ranks means doing less of the thing you’ll be more responsible for. For a design manager, this means more time in email and Evernote, less time in Sketch and Photoshop. That doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it’s the way it is.

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I’m not saying we don’t need managers—we desperately need good ones. But I started thinking about our blind acceptance of this cornerstone of modern business, and I wonder if there might be a way to create a system that values doing as much as managing—while also improving the skills of both groups.

I moved into my first management role about six years ago. I can’t quite remember the motivation behind it, but it was some combination of company need and my desire to further my career (and a little bit of “I wonder if I can do it,” I guess). I also had the good fortune of having an excellent manager in one of my first jobs. It opened my eyes to the challenges and opportunities of management, and I wanted to contribute to that. It’s been a huge learning experience (I would say it was humbling, but hashtags have ruined that word forever) and I’m glad I did it.

But a couple of years ago something about being a manager started to bother me. At first it was just a a small voice in the back of my head: How can you be a good design manager if you don’t design any more? I tried to ignore it, but that voice grew louder over time, and eventually I had to deal with the question head on.

The problem is, if you’re a manager, you have career opportunities. Manager turns into Senior Manager turns into Director turns into Senior Director, and so on. If you’re “just a designer,” the path is less clear. Sure, there are Senior and Lead roles out there, but they’re very rarely equated with real career progress. And that’s a problem. It forces some individual contributors to become managers even if they prefer to let someone else take the lead, and it creates a management culture that can become extremely out of touch with day-to-day design activities.

So at the end of last year I made a change. Partly because I was tired, partly to test this theory, I stepped away from management and became “just a designer” again. At first it was weird. Where did all the meetings go? What is this flat surface that I get to sit and work at for most of the day? But then the weirdness subsided and it just got… enjoyable. I now spend most of my days designing products, talking about and helping teams implement those designs. I realized I fell behind on design skills a little bit, so I went into a learning phase, and it was fun.

What does this mean? Am I done with management? Is anyone who chooses a life of management doomed to heartache and despair? Absolutely not! If anything, going back to being an individual contributor has cemented my belief that good managers are as important as they are hard to find. And I certainly hope and plan to be in that role again in the future. Just not right now.

So here’s how all of this comes together. I think we need a career system that encourages people to oscillate between individual contributor roles and manager roles. Maybe we provide “manager sabbaticals” where a manager becomes an individual contributor on a team for six to nine months. Maybe when a manager goes on vacation, an individual contributor takes on their role for a period of time (or for the duration of an entire project). I don’t know exactly what this looks like yet, but I think it’s important for us to figure it out.

Being an individual contributor makes you a better manager because you understand the day-to-day frustrations of your team better, and it ensures that you keep your technical skills up to date. Being a manager makes you a better designer because you understand the needs of leadership teams better, which allows you to communicate more effectively. One feeds the other, so we shouldn’t be forced to “pick a track.”

There are, of course, caveats. People shouldn’t be forced into management by the stigma that only management = career advancement. Some managers have no desire to become individual contributors again, and they shouldn’t have to. It’s about choice. If we encourage (and reward) people to have the freedom to explore different kinds of roles, it can only be a good thing for our industry—and, more importantly, for users.

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