A very common question I get, whether at a conference, on a panel or even from people I work with at BuzzFeed, is what my day-to-day work is like as a VP of Design. Since no one week or day is exactly the same, I've historically had trouble answering this question. No more!

In this talk, I’ll detail a full, actual week of being a VP of Design at BuzzFeed, along with some lessons I’ve learned in my role that I have found to apply broadly to leaders across all levels of an organization.

 

Unedited Transcript

Una Kravets:

Okay. So, today, we're kicking it off with a strong Brooklyn contingent. We have Cap. Diana is next. Cap Watkins, the VP of design at BuzzFeed. Not only is he running the Design System teams there, he blogs, speaks and is someone that has been following on the internet for awhile now.

Cap is here to tell us about how to VP, so I'm hoping to hear some fun stories during your talk. Please welcome Cap Watkins.

(Applause)

Cap Watkins:

I was going to say, that's not my slide. It would be cool if it was, though.

(Laughing)

Cap:

There we go. That's my slide.

(Laughing)

Cap:

Hi. So, I like to start with this slide because I think it's pretty inspirational.
(Laughing)

Like, if that cat can ride big and through space, we can do anything. That's usually way funnier.

(Laughing)

Cap:

Anyway, hi. I'm Cap. I design at BuzzFeed, where we make our CSS solid. This is a Design System talking about Design System and this is the only slide I'll be talking about Design Systems in. I spend time making charts that are relevant to this crowd's interest. Who's here who was here last year? Just a few of you. Well, so, last year, I didn't get to come to this conference, I was pretty bummed about not being there. I started getting tweets from this conference, so, like this one from Jina. Apparently that chart kept makes its way into people's talks. Apparently upwards of six times last year.

(Laughing)

Cap:

Which was cool, except I never thought that might legacy would be a scale of I was at home with my parents for the last couple of days and my dad brought up the scale, which I have mixed feelings about.

(Laughing)

Cap:

I'm not here to talk about Solid. The design at BuzzFeed, I winds up giving talks like this frequently. I participate in panels and stuff like that. For awhile now, I've noticed the same question frequently comes up. What's being VP of design like? Another way of framing it is, what's a typical day like for you? You get asked this enough and it feels like a scene in Office Space. My answers are really bad. It's always the same, depends on the day, the week, the quarter. My job changes a lot. So, I got tired of giving this answer to people, it feels kind of crappy.

So I decided to show you what it's like. So I need to prepare you emotionally that there are things you're going to be sad about. I wanted to show you, first, my desk. Just kidding, that's not my desk. This is my desk.

(Laughing)

Cap:

That was Jeff Sheldon and I call bullshit on that desk.

(Laughing)

Cap:

I decided to take a photo of my desk for this talk and I did it at that exact moment. Let's walk you through the disaster area of my desk. The first thing is, I have a textbook on facilitation. I run Manager Dens, it's small manager support groups. They can talk about stuff. But I was reading this book this textbook on facilitation, highlighting things, putting post it notes in.

There's a book on color theory, which is pretty dope. Birthday cards that I intend to keep because they're nice. I have my own set of cards that say, I owe you my first born. I give these to people who help our team out, particularly folks in HR and finance. I want them to be on our side so it kind of works.

There's a bobblehead of myself that is just too weird to take home. There's a running joke that I could take these to my one on one's and it could be the same. There's an expense sheet from my team.

That's my desk. And the other terrifying thing I like to show people is my calendar. So, this isn't even everything. This is on Tuesday, obviously, afternoon. Stuff's going to get added to it throughout the week. I'm constantly pruning this thing and thinking about where should I be? What should I be doing with my time. I leave stuff on here that that I don't actually have to go to so I can just like not go and have my time back. And then people won't book over it.

The other cool hack, I set my calendar to private on purpose because I had this situation once where somebody booked over something else and I asked them I told them, no, I can't do that and they say, that other thing's not important. So I set it to private so they can never tell what's important or not.

So, anyway, people see this. It's always the same reaction, like, what the hell? What is on that calendar? And so, I actually went through and I tallied up everything that was on this calendar in that week. And so I'm going to show you. So, I do Design Critiques. We break them down into small groups and they all meet together and we critique work together.

I have three team lead meetings, I manage design managers and I meet with them every Monday to go over what we should be doing tactically. I have a meeting with my level of people, so all the VPs in the technology department. We talk through what's going on with tech. Strategic issues and stuff like that.

The third team leading, I was running the IT team at BuzzFeed, which makes total sense. We can talk about that some other time. I was meeting with those managers to assess the health of the team and make sure we're all on the right track.

That week was also major review week, so I was delivering five reviews, so that takes up time for prepping, planning, delivering the reviews. That was all in compassed here. Product strategy meetings, they ask us questions, get help and so I have five of those.

Nine recruiting meetings. We don't use recruiters. We set up the interviews. Almost all the way through. And so that requires a lot of time so there's coffee meetings in here. There's Google Hangouts. Especially during the time we're recruiting.

I have 14 one on one's that week. I have one on one's with people, like product managers, engineers, people like that, that I feel like would be good to keep up with. There's a few people I'm actively mentoring in the organization.

And so there was one other thing on my calendar that was taking up a lot of my time and so I decided to count that, too. During that week, that's particular week, I had 15 moments when I was afraid. This is where it takes a dark turn.

(Laughing)

Cap:

So, I actually sat down and I wrote down every time that week that I had a worry or I was I had a fear of something. And so there were things like, am I doing a good job? Everyone can probably identify with that. Am I doing what I said I would? I really value this. I think if I value something, I should do it and do it well. Is this thing I'm doing the best it could possibly be? Am I delivering what other people expect from me? Are people on my team happy? I want to make sure people are going to stick around. Those recruiting meetings are fun, but not that fun. I'd rather do fewer of those. I want people on my team to feel like they're challenged and they're working on things that are important.

What if this person quits? This is my deep down dark fear. Even if everything feels great, I'm worried that someone is unhappy or thinking about leaving. What would we do if somebody quit? Holy crap. How would we fill it? How can I make take to do more of those recruiting meetings? Or we hire the wrong person, how would that affect the team? These are really important things, especially when you're interviewing people. If we hired this person, is there something I'm not seeing that would be toxic to the team?

This is always a fun one, I feel like I'm forgetting something. A quick follow up fear, which is, what am I forgetting? You're like, wait, I was supposed to do something today. You check your to do list and you didn't write it down.

Did I choose the right meeting to go to? This is a weird manager one. That calendar's crazy and I want to be in the high leverage meetings. I shouldn't be in places where I'm not adding value. If I make trade offs, I'm going to go to this product review and I'm never sure if it's the right one.

It was review work, am I reviewing people fairly? We have a robust way of evaluating people. But this is something I'm always worried about. I want to make sure the reviews are fair and reasonable.

Am I even being helpful? You know, in the meetings or in one on one's, I'm giving advice and design critique and I don't ever sometimes you just can't tell if you're being helpful or not.

And then it gets really dark. Am I useful? Do I even matter?

(Laughing)

Cap:

It's real bad, you guys. It's a bad week.

(Laughing)

Cap:

And I'm all the way back around on Friday, had the same thought to kick off my week. Am I doing a good job or not? That's 15 times, three times a day that I consider one of these questions. This happened to me more than any other meeting I had or reaction I had. I think people have fears that are similar to mine. Who here worries about anything like this with any frequency? If you didn't raise your hand, you're a liar.

(Laughing)

Cap:

I've been thinking a lot about it lately, we all try to act like we don't feel this way. We're not supposed to actually share this. I'm actually not even sure that people that I work with think that I feel this way about things. I don't think someone's saying, Cap must be worried about blah, blah, blah. I don't know if it's whether it's due to my job or how I present myself to my people or in these conference talks so I wanted to take an opportunity to talk about the fear. And how I've learned to cope with it.

I gave this talk recently and no one got this GIF.

(Laughing)

Cap:

Five years ago, I started working at Etsy. And it's standard practice that everyone can deploy the entire website. There's a button, you can go and push it and deploy everything. That includes designers. So, I had deployed before, not at Etsy, but other places. They took the whole site down, it didn't matter because we were still early in those days. At Etsy, we're talking about millions of people spending of hundreds of millions at the time and spending billions of dollars on this website so if you take a site down for an hour, that's a big deal. So that was very terrifying to me, as a designer. What if I screwed up? What if I cost the company a lot of money with a bad deploy or that hurt our sellers or presented our buyers from buying stuff. I was playing it cool on the outside but I was definitely worried.

I would wrap my deploy with somebody else's deploy so that would push the button and I would check it afterwards. So, eventually, I couldn't keep going like this so I talked to a friend of mine, Mike, who is way less terrifying than this photo. He would be very upset if he knew he was this big at the Drafthouse. He worked at a similar place to Etsy. He had been working at Flickr at the time. I asked him I told him about, like, the fear I had about hitting that button and I asked him how I could get more confident about pushing it and he told me something that was contrary to what I thought was true, he said you should never deploy without the fear.

Because to him, like, the fear meant that you were going to check your work. You have someone else check your working. You'll get another opinion on your PR and it means you're more likely to check mistakes. As I thought about that some more, I realized the other true thing is that being totally confident is being way more dangerous than being a little afraid. There is nothing that worries me more than hearing someone talk about something that sounds like they have it exactly correct. That attitude, I think, blinds people to enormous holes in their world view. You can see this over and over again. This is a really famous example of someone who had a gigantic hole I almost said ginormous. I do this professionally.

(Laughing)

Cap:

Let me ask you about the iPhone, if I may. The zoom is getting traction and Steve jobs goes to the Mac world and pulls out this iPhone.

500 hours, fully subsidized with a plan, I said, that is the most expensive phone in the world and it doesn't appeal to business customers because it doesn't have a keyboard, which makes not a very good email machine.

No fear. You see how that turned out. I guess he owns a basketball team, so he's fine.

(Laughing)

Cap:

So, like, enormous hole. Did not even think that this was, like to bring it closer to home, maybe this is out here I want to talk about a time I fucked up. We'll go one more time.

(Laughing)

Cap:

I like how sad how sad she is after. She doesn't know, she's like, oh, I'm so sorry. We lost.

(Laughing)

Cap:

So, I was working on at the time, I was working on I was at Etsy working on revamping our item review system, like the system people use when they receive something, they could rate it and rate the interaction with the seller and stuff like that. The product was extremely broken, like, it did not work for anybody. It was a really toxic product but it was the product that the selling community knew and they understood it and use it in a way that was advantageous to them so any change we proposed to make that system better was met with opposition. We were trying to keep it quiet while we were working on it and roll it out in a way that made sense to the community.

I'm working on the projects and building up the UI in a very static way. I'm writing my code. I get to a place I feel good about, I push, I deploy. I think I'm behind a feature flag, which you makes you wrap your code so only you see it. I'm behind a feature flag, no problem. Go to watch. Therein lies the problem. I come back from lunch and I have a ton of email and messages. And, everyone was like, did we launch this feature because it's there? I went and looked, there it was, it was live for everybody. They could see the static UI that didn't really work and definitely showed what we were going to do. There were threads in the forums. The sellers have seen it and they're like, they've moving the star ratings. Working with an engineer, we wrap it up in code and ship it and turn it off and I'm sitting there mortified and I look up and Mark Headland, I see him stand up from his desk and walk towards me, like, that slow motion walk in your head, right? You're like I hadn't been there that long. I was like, oh, my god. I'm fired.

And he gets up to me and he has this huge smile and he says, so, one of us, huh?

(Laughing)

Cap:

I realized, I will never do that again. I would be way more careful with my deploys and make sure someone checked it with me. That was amazing to me. He admitted to me that he had also done stuff like this and that it was okay. That he that the fear was real for all of us and that's when I realized that every successful person has the fear. Here was the VP of product and engineering admitting to me that basically he did this same stuff to. My boss, she talks to me regularly about things she's worried about our concerned about or uncertainly she has about decisions she's making and that's really hard to do, I'm sure. But it's really formative to me, as someone who reports to her, she's an amazing role model in that way because she can talk to me about those things and it makes me realize I don't have to be perfect either, I can share my fears and concerns.

This whole thing starts to generate the question, right, if I'm supposed to be afraid, what about confidence? Right? Don't leaders need confidence if they're going to lead teams? Doesn't everyone tell you that's advice people give. Like, you need to be more confident. You should be more assertive. And I think what people fail to mention, when they give that feedback is that fear that fear is in itself a part of being confident. Confidence that you're fallible, that you're human, you might miss something or forget something and when you know that about yourself and you're aware that's possible, you can start to mitigate it by being more open and transparent about the things you might mess up or the things you might need to reverse. And unintuitively, being afraid builds trust with other people.

Knowing if other know you're uncertain about something, it makes you approachable if something's not right.

When I first started at BuzzFeed, they didn't know me. I was going to make changes, they didn't know what those changes were going to be. I was definitely also concerned that the stuff I was going to try these were things I had done and had success with but they not work in the context of BuzzFeed. I was worried that maybe we might try stuff and it might blow up. I talked to the team in the very first week. I gave them this deck on what to expect, what was going to change, what we were going to try. This section in my notes you don't need to read it but basically, I told them in the very end, you see something wrong, let me know. If someone isn't working, let me know. If you think there's a way to make things better that we're not doing, also, please let me know. I've told them for three years, everything we're doing is an evolution. It's okay to point out something I implemented that isn't working. Otherwise, we're going to sit with this stupid thing forever. And they do. They tell me when things aren't working and they now even proactively will try solutions in smaller ways and come back and say, this thing is working. I think more people should do it. I think it's really cool. It helps me not be solo responsible for making everything amazing.

Another example of embracing the fear has been in product design roles. I've been working on this document with the managers at BuzzFeed and we iterate it every single year and sometimes those are big changes. From year one to year two, it was a huge rewrite. From year two to year three, I did a much smaller revision. People write them, like managers right them in a silo, maybe they show other managers and then they ship it and never touch it or think about it again. I think it would be easy to do that.

We open source these documents. You can find them on GitHub. It is GitHub/design. When I write these, any time I've written one of these, I always send it to the team before we finish it, before it's done and I usually send it in an email that looks like this, which I'll stop and let you all read. Just kidding. This is the graph that really I think matters here.

I'm admitting that this might not be perfect, that I need them to read it and tell me if something's too vague, if they disagree with something because we should fix it before we codify it. The reason I do this, first of all, I'm afraid I might be wrong or missing something. But the other thing is, like, they know so much more than I do about this document because they're the ones that have to live with it, they have to be evaluated by it. They all think about it. They have a lot more interactions than I do.

I got a ton of feedback about this document. And it makes it better. And then the last example of stuff I do to counteract this fear and how to cope with it, this is my dealing with my biggest fear. I take an entire day and make a list of the things I'm worried about. These are the five biggest things I'm worried about and I invite a mix of managers and senior product designers to come and maybe we talk through it and re evaluate we're doing. Are we promoting people in a fair and justifiable way? Do we have a rubric for this? Is the way we're setting goals useful for people? Is it consistent? Does it need to be consistent? It's not consistent now, does it need to be? We address the hiring practices. I'm sure they're not as great as they should be. We talk about those with newer people so they can tell us about their experience.

And then the last thing we talked about in this particular one this year was I realized we had no way no codified way to train people on specific design skills, which as we hire more junior folks, will be more and more important so we might talk about how we might address that.

We've held this for two years and it's awesome. It lets me go, here's all this stuff I've been thinking about and worrying about and it's too big for me to do myself and get people in a room and get them to help me. It's maintained the team better. This is the deck we present to the team at the end. Here's everything we talked about, here's everything that came out of it, here's what to expect. It's far better than if I was sitting there trying to improve the team on my own. The team is better because I'm a little afraid and I need their help.

I'd like to summarize the fear, it turns out, makes you better. I think it makes your relationships better, too. And in the end, the way > I think it's more accurate to describe these, like, 15 fearful thoughts or these little moments I'm having as thoughtful moments. See, it's nice again.

(Laughing)

Cap:

So, when you experience the fear, like, I think we're we all have these moments, we have these concerns and worries. Just remember that that's a reminder to you, to be thoughtful about what you're doing, to take another look at it. To get a second opinion from somebody or from a bunch of people. To take risks, but with care and make sure you're being mindful about what you're doing and it's reminding you to be a better collaborator and coworker and human being.

Thank you.

(Applause)

Una:

All right. Thank you so much. Please take a seat. I have brief questions for you.

Cap:

Do you have a seat preference?

Una:

I've been sitting in this one. Amazing talk, thank you for being here. Do you ever miss do production design?

Cap:

No. I don't know. Design's one of those things that I was always good at, but was never going to be great at. I don't know if that makes sense. There are people that I need, who are designers, who are great designers, and are going to be great designers. I was never that person. I liked it. I enjoyed doing it. And then I became a manager and that was this really weird moment I was like, that's it. That's what I'm good at. It's a really weird feeling to realize that and I've been doing that for along time. So, yeah, not really. I still do side projects at work. I have coerce engineers into building little HR tools. It's a way to be creative. I don't miss it at all. I would prefer to hire designers that are much better than me.

Una:

So, what is the hardest part of your role, currently, as VP?

Cap:

I think I don't know, I'm trying to think about how it's very nebulous what I do and it becomes more nebulous over time. Like, that list of things I'm doing I was doing, that calendar list, is so different now than it was then. It changes all the time. 50% of it has nothing to do, at all, with design. Like, it is or within design team specifically. And more and more, I'm trying to lay that responsibility on the design management team because they should they're closer to the metal and they should feel responsible for the team. It means me stepping back, but not so far back that I disappear, either. So I've been trying to figure out that balance and that's really difficult.

Una:

Yeah. So, kind of on the same note, what is the most rewarding part?

Cap:

I just love when the team does something amazing. It's just like it's like when we ship solid that was really hard. It took a lot of time and a ton of energy and people and people learning skills they didn't have and trying things that were uncomfortable and we did it and it starting getting used and that was really magical and I liked watching yesterday, we shipped this holiday gift guide and the design is good, the designer's really excited. We're all excited and proud of her. And everyone rallies around that stuff and it's like watching the team do things together and do awesome stuff.

Una:

Yeah, that's great. Thank you so much, Cap.

(Applause)

 

Sketch Notes by Cindy Chang