You’re reading an excerpt of Land Your Dream Design Job, a book by Dan Shilov. Filled with hard-won, personal insights, it is a comprehensive guide to landing a product design role in a startup, agency, or tech company, and covers the entire design interview process from beginning to end, for experienced and aspriring designers. Purchase the book to support the author and the ad-free Holloway reading experience. You get instant digital access, commentary and future updates, and a high-quality PDF download.
Your future design manager will play a key role in your career. They will have the final say about your performance. In many companies a combination of peer and manager reviews are common, but at the end of the day, the manager wields a significant amount of influence. They will ultimately decide how well you’ve done compared to your peers and whether your performance was satisfactory or not.
While we sometimes think of managers as omnipotent supervisors, the reality is that we still have control over who we decide to work for. In fact, during your interviews, you want to think of interviewing your manager as much as they’re interviewing you. What kind of manager would you like to hire? Think about the skills that you’re trying to improve and how they can help.
The Design Manager
Having a manager who’s come from a design background can be helpful. If you’re just starting out in your design career, they’ll get you up to speed quickly on the craft side of things. But not all designers make great managers. Some may have turned to management reluctantly because it was difficult for them to advance otherwise. So when you are interviewing with a design manager, take note how they show up and the type of design team culture they’ve established (more on that in the next section). In the later stages of your job search when you get an offer, be sure to talk with other designers who currently work with this manager or have worked with them in the past.
The Non-Design Manager
Occasionally your manager may come from a background other than design, usually an adjacent field like product management or engineering. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. While you won’t get as much craft knowledge from these folks, you can still get a lot of value from their expertise in the domain, their knowledge of the company, and their collaboration skills—all crucial for a designer to be successful.
storyOne of the best managers I worked with came up as an individual contributor and was not a designer, but he did work in tech. The way he handled relationships and structured projects for the team, including stretch assignments, made it very clear what it meant to meet and exceed expectations. After nine months of working together he left, but the structures he put in place allowed me to quickly take over the work and set the team up for success, leading to a satisfactory performance review at the end.
Consider Your Manager’s Personality
Another thing to watch for is a manager’s personality. As you start interviewing and getting to know different types of managers, try to glean their working style and personality. Would you be able to get along well with them? How do they react under pressure? How have they handled designers like you in the past and supported their growth efforts?
It’s implicit that a manager is a role model for the team. How they handle themselves, first and foremost, and other team members sets a strong precedent.
storyEarly on in my career I had an interview with a well-known health tech company. Just when the portfolio review was going poorly the situation got hostile. The manager started picking apart the approach and twisting my words. Needless to say I didn’t get the job, but after that interview I wasn’t as enthused about the place either. Who would want to work for a manager that not only fails to understand how you work but makes snap decisions in their mind and rips your work apart in front of others?
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Usually, it’s harder to understand if a manager is great but easier to see if the manager doesn’t seem as friendly or welcoming. Typically, during the interview cycle most people put on an appearance of talking about how great the opportunity is and how much they want you, but sometimes little signs that things aren’t as they seem slip through.
Managers Are Not Always Mentors
A manager’s responsibility is developing their employees, but it’s only a part of their job. They sometimes get pulled into messy organizational situations that can take up a majority of their time. Sometimes they may be absent due to a personal issue. Surprise, managers are people too. They don’t have superpowers as much as a specialized skill set they’ve honed over the years.
important Get into the details. When you start interviewing, it sometimes may be easy to get blindsided by a company’s or a manager’s prestige—for example, they worked in all the cool high-tech places and checked all the boxes. But the reality is that you’ll be closely working with cross-functional engineers and other designers. Look up their backgrounds. Where else have these designers worked? What were their backgrounds? What did they achieve in their career and what work are they most proud of?
Lean on your manager for mentorship, but don’t let them be your only source for professional development. For that, also consider the broader design team and their backgrounds.
If you’re curious about management yourself, or if you want to know what they might deal with on a day-to-day basis, in addition to what you should expect of them, check out Julie Zhuo’s book The Making of a Manager: What to Do When Everyone Looks to You. While the book is geared toward first-time managers, it’s still a good read for individual contributors too, especially those reporting to a newly minted manager.
Assessing Company and Design Culture
Trendy Ping-Pong tables, fun swag, cool off-sites. Some of these things may come to mind when we reference a company’s culture. In reality, perks are just surface characteristics of a culture, which usually runs much deeper—it’s the way things get done in an organization. Some companies may look great from the outside, but inside the reality is different. When interviewing for companies, it’s important to find out the real deal (usually by interviewing the company after you’ve got your offer, and at the same time it helps to think about companies’ characteristics that are important to you—that is, which environment aligns best with your values.
How do you determine a company’s culture? One way to understand culture is by looking at how the company wants to present itself. Usually that’s a company’s mission statement or its list of values. But beware, what’s preached is not always practiced. To ensure it performed at the highest level of ethics, one company put together a statement of human rights and espoused values, such as respect, integrity, communication, and excellence. The company, Enron, is now a popular case study in values gone wrong—the value they rewarded was the opposite of what was written.
One way to think about a company’s culture is through its actions. How does it get things done?
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