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The road to a design lead

January 6, 2022

Remember, it is always tougher when you’re starting. There is a huge hill to climb, and you’re right at the bottom.

I didn’t go to art or design school. And I didn’t think I was extremely artsy growing up.

All I ever wanted to do was create things; as a child, I spent a crazy amount of hours playing with Lego and K’Nex. I would make all kinds of things, and I’d often sketch how I’d want these things to look, and would spend whole days in my room having fun creating new things. It was bloody fantastic.

Then computers and the internet came along when I was 11. My mind was blown away by what could be done. My new favourite game became MS Paint… I’d spend as much time as I could on this, which often was only an hour, but that hour was great.

In my teens, I started to create websites using Photoshop and Dreamweaver. I made all kinds of terrible websites, and it was so much fun. I’m not sure if I ever even launched one; I’m pretty sure they were all just run locally on my desktop. That is weird.

Still, I didn’t think I could be a designer. I didn’t even think the job existed.

Like many finishing school at the age of 17, I hadn’t a clue what to do with myself. So I tried a few expeditions (labourer for a plaster, an engineering college dropout, a factory worker, etc.) before settling into an apprenticeship as a carpenter. I spent the next three years working on a wide variety of things, from building houses, to creating saunas and steam rooms, right up to building horse pools. It was a pretty fun time, and the pay was great too.

Around the time I was 20, the recession hit, everyone lost their jobs, there was no work. Most of my friends emigrated. I stayed at home…

Looking back, this seemed like I had hit rock bottom, I had no future, that life was going to be pretty shit. With no job and little hope, I decided that I’d give college another try, so I went to study Software Systems Development. This was when things started to change. I excelled at this, and I was back doing stuff I had been doing as a teen, but I was getting excellent mentoring and guidance this time.

As part of our third year of college, we had to go on work placement for five months; I was lucky enough to be offered work placement by two companies. Oracle, and a little known logistics company called Nolan Transport. I picked Nolan Transport, wtf like! But this turned out to be a good call because I got to work on a massive variety of projects, often leading them. I got to work as a full-stack developer who also did all the UX work. So I got to wear many hats. I also met a super talented developer named Barry Murphy, who became a fantastic mentor to me and a very close friend to this day. Nolan Transport asked me to work part-time while I remained in college; I said yes, so I got to get even more experience.

There were only two students left in my final year of college, so we basically had private tuition for the year; we got to learn so much extra stuff, things that weren’t on the curriculum and wouldn’t be for many years after. We got to play around with new technologies and frameworks.

For my final year project, I designed and developed a mobile app. It was an app that combined all the different public transport options into a single place to manage your travelling needs. This app turned out to be an award-winning one. However, foolishly I never progressed with it, even though the college wanted to partner up to make it a financially viable product. I was stupid as I chose to go work for another company instead.

My first job out of college was working as a software engineer for a large insurance company. I remember we had a month-long intense onboarding which included training and tests. It was fun but intense. These basically went over most of what we covered in college in four weeks, and we had to pass a test at the end of it all. But once you passed the test and got into the day to day work, oh dear god, was it boring. You basically were told precisely what to do and where to do it. So I stayed there for eight months until an opportunity came knocking.

Barry had moved to a new startup called DoneDeal, and they were looking for people who had created apps, and he recommended I join them. So I did, and it turned out to be a fantastic decision. In DoneDeal, I wore many hats. I was an app developer turned app designer turned product owner. It was so much fun. They invested heavily in my training, sending me to UX conferences across the globe, getting to meet Jared Spool, Luke Wrobleski, and so on. As a result, I got to craft my design skills more and more.

I spent five great years there before moving on to another startup to focus on product design. But it was a little too light on the design side as it turned out that they wanted a hybrid of a product owner and a designer.

I had previously signed up for a UI course. I got some mentoring from Erik Kennedy. This helped me hone my visual design skills even further and get feedback from one of the best.

At this time, I decided to do freelancing; I had a few clients on the side, so I thought I could make it full time. But it turns out that doing a little side hustling and focussing full time as a freelancer couldn’t be any more apart; they are worlds apart. For one, you need to spend 80% of your time selling your services, which is tough and not for everyone. Second, I imagined clients would just roll on up to me. That couldn’t be further from the truth. And then there is the social aspect, which is another thing; I like working with teams. And I like being part of a team, working with others and learning from them too. This was something I didn’t get a chance to do when freelancing. So I found freelancing very tough, and I knew that I wasn’t cut out for it as my sole job.

I was lucky, though, because a company called Threefold reached out to me; they wanted to know if I wanted to create and lead a design team for them. To help them build a user-centric culture into the way they worked. I accepted the offer. Unlike most companies, Threefold is part of a wider group of publishing companies called the Agora. So even though Threefold was technically an agency, we didn’t get to pick our clients. Instead, we had to create websites, mobile apps, SaaS products, and everything else for the other companies in the group. The work was interesting, and I got to work with so many different teams on so many various projects. Most of all, I could make massive changes to how the companies operated by introducing them to the power of design thinking. We honestly did it all; we launched new products, rebranded companies, created mobile apps, created our design conference, travelled the world, and had a lot of fun. In Threefold, I got another fantastic mentor, Paul Boag. It was great to be mentored by another world-class designer. We chatted about absolutely everything — from design right up to digital transformation.

After three and a half years, I decided to leave Threefold to join Genesys, a much bigger company. I wasn’t looking to move anywhere since I worked with a fantastic team in Threefold, but I was coerced after chatting with some of the Genesys team. The main reasons were: 1) I wanted to work with a larger design team since I’d always worked in a small one, and 2) I was looking to get out of my comfort zone; I’m a firm believer that you’ve to do new things to grow and learn. So this is precisely what I did.

I joined Genesys as the Lead Product Designer in Conversational AI 6 weeks after my wife gave birth to my daughter. People say you shouldn’t change jobs at the same time as having a new baby. I say, “do whatever the fuck you want”, yes, it is challenging, but having a new baby around is the best thing in the world. Having a baby is tough. Moving jobs is easy, so long as you realise that you’re not going to know much or do anything spectacular for the first couple of months. After that, you know when the time is right to move on, and there is rarely a perfect time to do anything. You just have to trust your gut.

As with any leadership position, you’re generally thrown right into the deep end, and this is as expected. Unfortunately, a lot of people are not able for this. But, I’ve always found this the best way to try to understand a product and the company.

So what is all this about? The road to a lead designer is a long one. It is one in which you learn new things; you fail constantly, you’re willing to step out of your comfort zone, you’re eager to be the first to fall so that others can succeed. But, you’re always ready to learn new things, and you want to do what is best for the company and the team. To be a lead designer, you need to put in the hard yards. You need to question your thoughts and others, even when it is uncomfortable to do so.

Being a lead designer is a tough job but a rewarding one. If you want to become a lead designer, first be yourself, continuously learn and try new things, get yourself a mentor that will challenge you, and enjoy the journey. Always be willing to stick to your guns and be honest with yourself.

One last thing, don’t measure your success on your job title. If you enjoy your job, find it rewarding, and allow you to live the life you want, then what’s the big deal about a job title. When you’re dead and buried, people don’t give a crap that you had “lead, senior, manager, director, or whatever” in your title. Instead, they will remember the type of person you were.

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