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Beyond the px — Gitlab’s Nadia Sotnikova on mental health, sharing your vision, and collaboration

Welcome to May’s Beyond the PX! This month we have Nadia Sotnikova, who works remotely for Gitlab from sunny Thailand!

Enjoy.

Who are Gitlab?

GitLab is a team of incredibly intelligent and kind human beings. Together we’re creating the ultimate developer tool, an end-to-end platform for teams that build software.

What has been your design journey up until now?

I’ve always been into art and design as a child. In high school I finished a 4-year fine arts program, but afterwards ended up going to business school because that’s what everyone around me did; I just didn’t see a clear creative career path for myself. After uni I worked in book publishing and did business operations for a while, but it wasn’t very rewarding. Every time I saw someone doing creative work I’d feel jealous!

Lucky for me I worked remotely, so while traveling around the world I met lots of people who pivoted their careers, and it inspired me to do the same. Around that time I also got a project management job at a UX agency which put my foot in the door.

I just became obsessed with UX design and spent all my free time learning about it and designing personal projects. Then I started freelancing. After a while I built up a little portfolio and the UX agency I worked at hired me as a UX designer.

It was the perfect place to start my UX career because I got exposed to a very wide variety of projects, from landing pages and blogs to complex enterprise SAAS products. One of those projects was to design a platform for training artificial intelligence based on IBM’s Watson AI. Coincidentally their team used GitLab to manage their work.

I knew that the next step for me would be to join a product team where I could focus on the depth versus breadth of my UX expertise, dive deep into one product and learn from a team of more experienced designers. At the time I was also getting excited about learning to code, so when the opportunity to join GitLab presented itself it was a perfect fit for my values and career goals.

My career path hasn’t been linear, and I wouldn’t change anything about it. In order to get the most out of this life, it’s absolutely necessary to continuously experiment, learn and iterate on yourself, your career, your lifestyle.

What does your typical morning look like?

Wake up with the sun, do yoga, meditate, have breakfast and coffee while journaling or reading. My morning routine is all about taking care of my physical and mental health and it’s my #1 priority.

What does your tool stack look like?

GitLab, Figma, Slack, VS Code, Paper on iPad Pro, and a good old notebook and a pen.

Do you have any design hacks?

Find the time to just think. Don’t underestimate the power of sitting still and staring into the abyss as you’re imagining the user experience. You gotta create the space to have good ideas.

Think in terms of the value you’re providing with every tiny thing you add to the design, because everything you add will cost more implementation time than you think.

Share your vision with the team and iterate on it before you put down any pixels.

Do your career aspirations encroach your life?

Design absolutely affects everything that I do. I love designing experiences, from a home that makes me feel a certain way, to clothes, music and art. That being said, I don’t let my career aspirations encroach my life. I don’t want to climb the career ladder, I just want to have fun making cool stuff with smart people, while making the money I need to live the lifestyle I want. If promotions come around, that’s great, but it’s not my goal. It hasn’t always been this way, I’ve had my fair share of working 12-hour days. Now I think life’s too short for that.

How do you design ‘for the future’?

Cliche isn’t necessarily bad when it comes to good user experience. Think about the tools you use every day. Do they make you tingle with delight? Or do they just work?

To me designing for the future means inclusive and scalable design. Of course, there’s time and place to design something trendy and fun, but trends are short-lived by definition. If you want to design for the future, be ready to build boring but solid, fool-proof foundations. Once you have that, you can bring in a pinch of fun here and there.

Can you explain the team dynamic?

GitLab is divided into teams of up to 10 engineers, with usually one product manager and one dedicated designer. My team specifically focuses on building the experience for setting up CI/CD.

We collaborate daily starting from the problem validation phase and ending with the release of a feature.

Aside from my product team I collaborate with my UX manager, other Product Designers at GitLab (especially the CI/CD team), technical writers and UX Researchers…

All in all, I try to talk to as many people as I can from across many different teams to ensure we’re building a well integrated, whole product, rather than a set of disjointed features.

How do you see the business evolving?

In 10 years GitLab will be the go-to DevOps platform for any large software company. It’ll be so well designed that you’ll forget you’re using a tool, it’ll just feel like such a natural part of your workflow. Maybe it’ll integrate with Neuralink so you can comment on issues with the power of your mind. Oh, and it’ll be absolutely beautiful! 😃

What advice would you give for those interested in kick starting a career in designing for the market?

If you want to design developer tools, get to know developers and learn to simplify complexity. And become a developer yourself, at least a tiny bit.

If you’re just starting out, don’t feel like you have to pretend to be something you’re not. Just show your dedication and willingness to learn, and someone will notice it and give you a shot. Your ability to learn and your trajectory matters more than the specific skills or experience you have. Skills can be learnt fairly quickly.

What are your thoughts on burnout?

Work smart, not hard! As a product designer, the value you create isn’t related to the time you spend in the office. It’s possible to design a feature in 30 minutes that will eventually bring millions of dollars to the business because it solves the right problem in the right way. It’s also possible to do lots of busy work and create no value at all while feeling extremely burnt out.

If you find yourself burnt out often, maybe it’s time to pause and rethink how you spend your time.

There are companies that don’t subscribe to the unhealthy hustle culture and still are highly efficient businesses. GitLab is one of them. I’ve never taken so much time off in my life as I do now, and at the same time I haven’t been as productive at work as I am. Taking rest IS productive.

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Life, by designers.

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Luis Ouriach

Luis Ouriach

Design and community @FigmaDesign, newsletter writer, co-host @thenoisepod, creator of @8pxmag. Sarcastic.

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