What’s a Design Program Manager and what the heck do we do?

Design Program Managers in fighting form

A few years ago, an old colleague of mine reached out to see if I was interested in a role as a program manager for Adobe.

I was beyond interested — I’m a big fan of Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom, which I used extensively as a weekend wedding photographer. “Great,” she said, it’s a program management position for the design and UX team, focused on getting some fantastic new creative apps out the door.

This all sounded exciting, but the first thing I blurted out is, “What is a design program manager? I’ve never heard of this role.” I was in a traditional program management role with focus on enterprise portfolio planning and technical program management. I didn’t have much background specific to this niche within program management, but with a solid foundation and a passion for creativity, I took the leap and accepted the job.

Design program management and operations are at their early stages. I get asked by people within my company and random folks at cocktail parties: What the heck do you do as a design program manager (Design PgM)?

Now that there’s a stronger push for design-led thinking and a greater investment in UX design for product-building, the industry is thinking more about how to best structure and manage design teams — enter the need for Design PgMs and ops. A Design PgM can cover anything from focusing on team culture and events, to enabling how the designers work with product teams to deliver products and services out the door.

And at Adobe, Design PgMs are a hybrid of a traditional program manager and an agency producer. We manage concurrent projects and make sure that the design team — comprised of designers, researchers, prototypers, and content strategists — are delivering against commitments with the paramount goal of launching the best user experience.

Basically, Design PgMs are Adobe Design’s GSD (Get Sh*t Done) team.

Since this flavor of program management is still pretty young and ambiguous, there’s just a small community of practicing Design PgMs (that I know of) in the tech industry. There are short courses offered on Design PMO and Ops but it is certainly not mainstream yet. My team of Design PgMs came from a hodgepodge of disciplines — publishing, broadcasting, psychology, business and even biology and Chinese studies.

While helping to build the team of Design PgMs at Adobe, I realized my teammates have some common traits that make them a shining example of a great Design PgM. If these traits speak to you, this might be a good role for you.

You’d make a great Design PgM if:

You enjoy working with creatives

This is a must — working with creatives who like to dream, create, and be inspired must make your spine tingle. You must appreciate a designer’s non-linear approach to solving problems. While there will be an emphasis to drive the problem-solving, concepting, or prototyping work, a heavy-handed style that may work with an “old school” team culture is not going to fly with a bunch of creatives who will shut down to this approach.

You will be the team’s unofficial counselor and provider of moral support, and they will depend on you to provide them with air cover. You need to strike a balance between giving your design team members the space to flourish, while gently nudging them towards an end goal.

You have a passion for user experience

It is in the DNA of a program manager worthy of their salt to feel comfortable around timelines, process, and frameworks. This is true of a Design PgM as well, but we must also add in a dose of passion for user experience.

A good Design PgM is willing to have difficult conversations about delaying timelines or re-assessing scope in the service of delivering a high quality user experience. This is not simply a checkbox of tasks to get a product or service out the door, but it’s orchestrating the right set of tasks to ensure the best product or service is shipped. This will require you to hustle, which means…

You are a Certified Hustler and a Leader

Design PgMs tends to fall more into the gray areas of the product lifecycle, as design is heavily involved in strategy, conceptual work, and prototyping, which may not necessarily have well-defined milestones compared to the execution and release phases of a product.

Key to success is being able to navigate through ambiguity, and lead the the team to their goal. Hustling is the art of being able to build a strong network, communicate with partners and team members at various levels, and nudge the right people to deliver the right things at the right time.

It is being at the pulse of the team — a Design PgM must be able to take a step back and assess the short term and longer term needs and orchestrate how to address those.

It could be as strategic as working with design leadership to revamp your design team’s structure and processes, or it can be as tactical as organizing a one-week design sprint to help generate new concepts or ideas.

Basically, this role is not for someone who wants to come in and do the same things every day. There is a lot of context switching that happens day-in and day-out from the strategic to tactical.

You have a great attitude and can communicate directly and honestly

As a lynchpin of the design organization, having a can-do attitude and having fun is key to a successful career in Design program management. There will be many curveballs thrown at you and your team along the way, and you should be able to take it in stride and move forward. Being honest and direct are also important values, as you will have many tough conversations — whether with team members, partners, or clients — all in the service of getting your product out the door.

These are just a few traits of great Design PgMs I’ve had a chance to work with and I’d love to dive deeper on this topic in future posts. I really feel lucky that I enjoy my career in design program management — working with smart, creative amazing people all day, what’s not to love?

This is certainly a growing field, so consider this career if you think you fit the traits above. Check out https://adobe.design/ for more info about Adobe’s design team and program management.