Read time 5 min
Dear Future Colleague,
Hello! I’m John Powell, one of the product designers at Reaktor, a design and software consultancy with offices in Helsinki, New York City, Amsterdam, and Tokyo. I left design school in December of 2000 with ambitions of moving up a linear career path from junior designer to hot-shot creative director. My experience over the last 17 years has covered the early days of web design, teaching at the university level, and now digital product design. I’m approaching the far end of that linear path now, but my expectations have changed dramatically.
Every design career has a standard trajectory. You graduate college, take a low-paying junior position that is only marginally better than outright enslavement and then spend the next 10 or so years stuffing your portfolio and clawing your way toward a director role so you can tell other people what to do. Sounds familiar, right?
If you’re anything like me, you discovered a problem with this progression. As you move further up the chain of command, you move farther away from the actual work. Entire days are absorbed with meetings and a large chunk of your time is spent figuring out how others should spend theirs. You enjoy helping your team succeed, but you get jealous of the time they spend getting their hands dirty.
Stay close to the work and the client… really close
I hate playing the telephone game as much as you. Every time feedback passes through an individual, they color it with their own biases. At previous employers, my team would often receive input from a stakeholder — relayed through a product manager or director — that seemed to contradict the original goals or success metrics for the project. Any disagreement with, or questions about, their reasoning would have to be relayed back through the layers of the organization. It was a miracle we ever made a deadline.
Directors and VPs like to justify their roles by saying that they shield their teams from roadblocks, unreasonable requests, and noise, but I’ve often found that they do quite the opposite.
I prefer sitting right next to stakeholders and software developers; right on the front line. Information comes, unfiltered, straight from the source. Sure, your team has to spend time sifting through bullshit and reading between lines, but you get to choose what is relevant and what is noise. We also don’t have to wait to make decisions or spend weeks in an endless approval loop. Personally, I’ll take the bad with the good for pure, unadulterated autonomy.
Roll up your sleeves and get it done
Of course, autonomy is great, but it means that it’s up to you and your team to make things happen. In a flat organization like ours, there’s no distinction between those who make decisions and those who make stuff based on those decisions. It’s the same people.
There’s no room on this team for those who want to stay in a narrowly-defined role and wait for direction and vision from others. The best work gets done when we make a decision, build something based on that decision as soon as possible, and then make a judgement call about the result. We don’t have an individual enforcing a singular vision on the product; the vision naturally arises from, and is changed by, our rapid, iterative process. Sometimes, the end result is dramatically different than what you envisioned at the outset but ends up being wildly more successful than you could have predicted.
In this model, we arrive at unexpected, innovative solutions much faster than we could under a strict hierarchy. No one can predict the future, not even the “director.”
Of course, a high degree of autonomy brings with it quite a bit of risk. We gather as much information we can, talk to as many people as possible, use the best tools available, but sometimes it isn’t enough. Even if all the chess pieces are in the right spots, projects sometimes fail, and the responsibility for that failure falls squarely on our shoulders. No middle management to point fingers at, no hiding behind crippling corporate structures. Our bad.
But, you know what… it’s fun as hell.
No one is telling me what to do, but I also don’t carry the burden of being responsible for the direction and development of others. My teammates, like me, are all seasoned professionals who are comfortable putting on that parachute and diving out of the plane. I trust that we all will make the best decisions we can at any moment. In the event that one of us makes a mistake, everyone else has their back.
Accept that you won’t be the smartest person in the room
I know what you’re thinking. For the last decade, you’ve been paid to know your shit and deliver results that make an impact in your client’s business. You had to be the smart one all the time. Let’s be honest… that’s downright exhausting.
Holding a senior title at my previous employer meant that I had to be Johnny-on-the-Spot for everything we were working on. My teammates were fully capable of running with things on their own, but the imposed hierarchy meant I was primarily on the hook. Naturally, this led to a system in which only a few people took any responsibility and no one felt empowered. I managed to make shit happen, but it was an absolute grind.
On my current team, I am definitely not the smartest person. I have daily conversations with seasoned design professionals, data scientists researching artificial intelligence, software development experts, business strategists, and occasionally, actual space industry engineers (we’re launching our own satellite, by the way). One of my side projects at work involves researching how artificial intelligence and machine learning can help us build new tools for designers. The project makes me feel like I have the IQ of a neanderthal, but it’s some of the most thrilling work of my career.
You won’t be the smartest person here, either. If that chafes your ego, keep walking. On the other hand, if this sounds like a great opportunity to challenge your expectations, expand your abilities beyond a single job title, and do the best work of your life with the coolest people in the business, drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
–John Powell, Product Designer, Reaktor NYC
Illustration by Aino Sipilä