How Did I Get Here? A composite story of UX VP's


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The results of a research project exploring the emergence of the UX VP role with findings from interviews with a dozen UX executives from a variety of technology companies.

This was originally presented at the MXConference in 2012.

Published in: Design, Technology, Business
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  • How DID I get here? That works on a few levels - how did I end up here at this conference - and how did I end up where I am in my career, and how did the subjects of this talk end up where they are? I ’ll cover all three in varying degrees of detail. I don ’t have time to cover my entire career from delivering newspapers to now - so I’ll start with my current job. Back in 2004 I joined as the first UI designer on staff. Since then we ’ve grown from a team of 2 - one usability, and one designer, me - to over 70 with a mix of interaction designers, user researchers and visual designers. Eighteen months ago for the first time in my career I switched to full-time management. I’d worked in management positions previously but had never done so without also carrying a full design work load. The transition has been a challenging, enlightening and enriching experience...but, 18 months in, was it the right decision? And what’s next? Where do I - and all of us - go from here?
  • How did I get here today? It ’ s kind of a “ funny ” story. Labor Day in 2011 I was in a bike race - I wasn ’ t doing great but wasn ’ t getting dropped either. Two thirds of the way through I decided to move closer to the front of the pack to see if I could get in a better position to contend the finishing sprint, when...the cyclist in front of me crashed.
  • This did not end well for me (that ’ s a broken clavicle). While I was flying through the air in slow motion I got to thinking - Oh, this is going to hurt, how on earth did that guy crash himself, oh look, tarmac!...and most importantly, what am I doing out here? Am I TOO OLD to be racing? And seriously, WHAT ’ S NEXT? I ’ m not going pro so why do I keep doing this? We ’ ll get back to that later.
  • Anyway, less than a week after the crash - I had a meeting scheduled with an esteemed colleague. You might recognize him (it ’ s Peter Merholz)...and I didn ’ t want to cancel it.
  • So, with me high as a kite on percocet we met for coffee.
  • We chatted about a variety of topics but mostly UX and specifically UX management. During the chat I shared my observation that the UX VP role seems to have emerged from near non-existence ten years ago to kind of a hot topic over the past few years. Apparently I mentioned a project I ’d been considering. Since I know a few UX VP’s I thought about interviewing them to find out more about the role. Two weeks later Peter called and said, “Hey, how about doing that project and presenting your findings at MX?” I jumped at the chance. That's how I got HERE. And how I learned to not take meetings with motivated people when high on Percocet.
  • So what was behind my interest in the UX VP role? I ’ll be honest it started out completely selfish. A short time ago at we reached a critical mass of managers and individual contributors that got us thinking seriously about hiring a senior UX executive. We knew this would be a challenge for several reasons. Here ’s two - One, there just aren’t that many senior design executives around, and two...we didn’t have a clear idea what kind of executive would be ideal for our team. Clearly this was going to take some leg work so I started out with the goal of finding out what these people do? And, if possible, what ’s behind this apparent trend of senior design executives popping up in more companies.
  • To answer these questions we interviewed 12 UX VPs and asked them a series of questions about their careers. We asked about their transition from IC to management, their responsibilities, what they ’ve learned and what advice they would give to someone thinking about a future career in UX management. We videotaped everything so today I ’ll be showing a few videos that present a composite view of the VP role from multiple perspectives.
  • We ultimately learned far more than I can address in 30 minutes so today I ’ll focus on career paths, the challenges associated with switching to a management role, and the primary question of finding out which path is right for you or your employees. And while we learned a lot about what it means to be a UX VP we also learned a lot about who SHOULD and who SHOULD NOT be following this path. To that end we ’ve come up with an operating principle.
  • This is NOT it. How many people have heard of the Peter Principle? It was written in 1969 with apparent humorous intent and states "in a hierarchy every employee  tends  to rise to his level of  incompetence ", meaning that  employees  tend to be  promoted   until th ey reach a position in which they cannot work  competently . Our s is subtly , but meaningfully different - it ’s called the Arnie Principle and will be revealed later.
  • Let ’s get the basics out of the way. Who did we talk to? Since we ’re a cloud-based software company, we intentionally skipped agencies and focused primarily on companies that deliver a product - preferably web-based. You ’ve probably heard of most of these companies. Walmart, Citrix, Netflix, etc. We were specifically looking to interview VP ’s because, after talking to several folks, it appeared this was the pivotal role where most folks are required to give up hands on design work and must turn their focus 100% to strategy and management. It also appeared to be the first time a UX person was actually sitting at the table with a cross-functional executive team - including, at times, the CEO.
  • 3 of the interviewees are former co-workers of mine. 4 are acquaintances I ’ve met through the design/research community 5 were cold called through linkedin
  • Most of the folks are from the bay area - but one is in boston and two are in seattle
  • • 4 Authors: (Tom, Arnie, Catherine, Michael)
  • • Range of company size: 140 (Infection) – 2.5+ million (Walmart)
  • Time in the position
  • To put the VP role into context, here ’s where it fits in our career ladder? This should look recognizable, or at least understandable, to everyone in the room. Recently we discovered there was an impression - internally and externally - that the only way to advance to a senior level was to switch to management. We wanted to dispel this notion by extending out IC ladder all the way to the Chief Officer level. This way we can play to people ’s strengths and offer multiple options. So, what is the right career path and   how do you know what's right for you? And once you ’ ve made that decision is it final? There's only one person who can answer this question. You. I ’m hoping the videos today will give you some insight into the management path.
  • And when I talk of strengths - let ’s take a very high level look at the two potential paths. This is a what folks think of when looking at a management career. You start out working at your craft, mastering it, and then at some point being rewarded for a job well done and getting promoted to management. Along the way you start to manage various pieces but it ’s usually a fairly smooth progression. This is greatly simplified but you progress from DOING to MANAGING.
  • We ’re trying to put a stake in the ground and support an equally long and challenging career but eliminate the need for moving into management. In it ’s simplest form this progression starts with fairly rote production level tasks - usually supporting a more senior member - and then progresses into more conceptual work with fewer hands on tasks.
  • At Salesforce we ’ve extended the model slightly by adding a new dimension for strategy. More senior practitioners can choose to stay purely hands-on or switch their time between actual design work or strategic work. This offers a lot of flexibility and supports a number of different types of employees.
  • The same goes for managers. They can choose to either focus their time on traditional management tasks, strategic tasks or find a balance between the two. From our research the black line represents where the VP role appears along this progression. Hands on work is minimal to non-existent - and their time is split between traditional management tasks like careers, projects, recruiting, budgets, etc. - and strategic vision work.
  • After combing through 15 hours of video looking for themes and patterns we came up with the following three buckets. Our 12 friends told us about how they prepared for a management position, how they found the transition, and what it was like to actually perform as a UX VP. Apologies for the sound - some of these were shot with the interviewee on Skype.
  • Summary of the points in the Preparing video. Set clear goals. Choose your projects carefully, start small & expand. While learning the ropes actively seek a mentor and work with them closely. Stay in touch with your feelings and reaction to the change. Keep your goals and passion in mind and stick the projects and roles that satisfy you the most.
  • Moving on now to the transition phase. What was it like to take on the new position, or what would you tell someone who is taking on this position?
  • Summation of the Transitioning video. You need to be aware of the changes and be prepared. Switching from individual contributor to management requires changes beyond the functional day-to-day work. Many of the adjustments are emotional and prompted by your changing relationships. For example, you need to hire the best, hire people who could do your job, and then “ let go ” - trust them to do their jobs. Stay in touch with your craft. If you started as a designer - remain in touch with the tools, practices and emerging trends. This helps maintain a level of authenticity with your team members and helps you help them. It also gives you the ability to switch between management and individual contribution seamlessly. One way to keep your skills fresh - as a designer - is to treat large scale organizational and process related projects as design exercises.
  • And finally - what is it like to BE a UX VP
  • Summary of Performing video. When starting as a new VP it ’ s essential to understand the culture, teams and individuals before making any wholesale changes. Listen & learn. One of the key roles of a VP, working at the cross-functional level, is to translate and facilitate between the various roles. This communication role is essential between functions and also between levels. You need to translate the company ’ s vision for your team members and communicate the value and deliverables from your team to the executive team. As mentioned by Matt in the Transitioning video the job also entails monitoring, managing and innovating on both the team ’ s structure and their processes. And finally, and probably most important for the UX VP, is a level of strategic thinking that maps directly to the bottom line of the company ’ s road map, future and business model and tying those decisions back to the tactical level for the overall UX team.
  • Back to our career path and the potentially big question about which path you should take. How do you decide? Do you know what you want? Once you decide, is it a done deal? No.
  • Back to the Peter Principle - which gives me the chills. When I think about where I ’m going...I’m looking for something more motivating and emotional. Which brings us to the Arnie Principle.
  • Instead of a cynical analysis of skill - we ’ re now talking about passion, drive and motivation - and a sense of control over your career. As Arnie puts it...rise as long as you have the passion to keep filling the balloon. If you start to lose motivation...think about the course you ’ ve chosen. And now, with a solid career ladder in place, some great advice from a dozen senior executives I have a better idea about how to plan my career and help my employees plan their. AND I discovered why, despite my age and broken bones - I still race bikes. I simply love it!
  • In closing, I ’ ll just offer this one observation - this is a fantastic time to be in our line of business. We ’ ve heard multiple times during this conference, and our interviews confirmed this trend - there is a deeper recognition of the value of User Experience, and this recognition is giving us the opportunity to pursue our craft at higher and higher levels - with more impact and influence. ’ s up to you to go out and find them. I wish you the best of luck!
  • For taking time out of their extremely busy schedules. Peter for the invitation and encouragement to do the research. And Chelsey. It may be a cliche but it ’ s completely true - I could not have done this project without your assistance.
  • How Did I Get Here? A composite story of UX VP's

    1. 1. How Did I Get Here? And where are we going?Ian Swinson | - Senior Director, User Experience | @iswinson
    2. 2. Broken ClavicleScrews: 11Titanium: 4”Percocet: Lots
    3. 3. UX VPRemedy Coffee / Cup of coffee
    4. 4. Transition, responsibilities, insights and advice
    5. 5. The Peter a hierarchy every employee tendsto rise to his level of incompetence. Dr. Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hullin, 1969
    6. 6. Who did we talk to?Peter Merholz Michael Arent Arnie LundVP, User Experience VP, User Experience Principal UX LeadInflection SAP / Business Objects MicrosoftSara Ortloff Kaaren Hanson Tom TullisVP, User Experience, VP, Design Innovation VP, User ExperienceInsights & Analytics Intuit Fidelity Sarah Bellrichard Matt HollowayCatherine Courage SVP, User Experience VP, User ExperienceVP, Product Design Research & Design DesignCitrix Wells Fargo ShutterflyRochelle King Mark McCormick Larry TeslerVP, User Experience & SVP, Customer Experience VP, User ExperienceProduct Services Wells Fargo formerly Amazon.comNetflix
    7. 7. Finding the Participants Me 3 4 5Co-workers Acquaintances LinkedIn
    8. 8. Geographically Speaking2 1 9
    9. 9. How many are authors?Arnie Lund Catherine Courage Tom Tullis Michael Arent
    10. 10. Company Size Whoa! 140 2.5+ millionInflection
    11. 11. Time in the Role60 days19 years
    12. 12. Career PathFor example: Interaction Design to Management Manager Director Vice President This is a big deal! Senior Senior it? Manager Director SVP ?Associate Senior Principal Principal Architect Staff Lead Architect Chief Design Officer
    13. 13. Skills TransitionFrom individual contributor to management Management Design/ Research
    14. 14. Skills TransitionFrom production level work to conceptual work Concept Design/ Research Production
    15. 15. Skills TransitionFrom production to strategic work Strategy Concept Design/ Research Production
    16. 16. Skills TransitionFrom hands on work to management PLUS strategy Strategy Management Design/ Research VP Starts Somewhere Around Here
    17. 17. Enough preamble?Let’s hear from some UX VPs
    18. 18. Preparing > Transitioning > Performing
    19. 19. Preparing Video
    20. 20. Goals Start small & expandPreparing Get a mentor And most importanty...ask yourself, “Is this for you?
    21. 21. Transitioning Video
    22. 22. Be selfless Let go - Trust your peopleTransitioning Stay connected to your craft Design can be meta
    23. 23. Performing Video
    24. 24. Listen & learn TranslatePerforming Facilitate Process & people Strategy & tactics
    25. 25. Career PathFor example: Interaction Design to Management Manager Director Vice President This is a big deal! Senior Senior it? Manager Director ?Associate Senior Principal Principal Architect Staff Lead Architect Chief Design Officer
    26. 26. The Peter a hierarchy every employee tendsto rise to his level of incompetence. Dr. Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hullin, 1969
    27. 27. The Arnie PrincipleIn a hierarchy every employee shouldrise to the level of their passion. Arnie Lund, 2012
    28. 28. How Will You Get There?
    29. 29. Thank You!All the participantsPeter MerholzChelsey Glasson!
    30. 30. Notes & RemindersStay tuned to UX MagazineFollow @salesforceux for updatesFollow us @iswinson and @chelseyglassonWe are hiring!