How Volunteer Teaching Makes me a Better Product Design Leader

For the past few months, I’ve been volunteering with an organization called ScriptEd — spending two afternoons per week teaching high school students how to code.

ScriptEd equips students in under-resourced schools with the fundamental coding skills and professional experiences that together create access to careers in technology.

Did I mention I’m a designer who also codes? Perhaps that’s a discussion for another time.

The skills we teach are exactly the ones I’m passionate about: HTML, CSS, and Javascript. We also use the time to brush them up on basic computer skills; spend some time on history; and constantly drill into their heads that Google is their friend. Inevitably, my enthusiasm for design also works its way into the curriculum. Not just because I am a designer by trade: I want them to understand that being a “developer” is only one of many career paths in tech. ScriptEd is about more than just teaching students how to code: It’s about opening doors.

To say this experience has been rewarding would be an understatement. It consistently reinvigorates my sense of motivation and gives me a new perspective that positively impacts every part of my life.

Now, this is nothing new. Anyone who has ever volunteered can relate to the fuzzy feeling you get from helping those in need. But for me, ScriptEd goes well beyond that, providing me the opportunity to use a specific set of skills I feel passionate about to have a direct positive impact on my community.

It also has had a tremendous impact on my career, arming me with essential tools to be successful product design leader.

It Motivates Me

It’s important to stay motivated. It keeps you steadfast the face of opposition. It staves off burnout.

But as a product designer — especially for a large company — motivation doesn’t always come easy. I’m constantly fighting for prioritization; I’m always being critiqued; and my whole job is based on finding flaws. So while I love what I do, there’s no question it can sometimes be frustrating, stressful, and full of negativity.

But teaching with ScriptEd gives my skills a bigger purpose, constantly motivating me to become better at what I do. This lasting sense of positive energy is something I can bring back to the office, not only helping me execute more effectively, but driving me to be a better mentor and stronger leader for my team.

It Keeps Empathy Top-of-Mind

It’s no secret that product designers need empathy. Empathy for users is a given, but empathy for those you work with is paramount to your success. It shows others that you have respect for them and their challenges, commanding a sense of trust and increasing your overall influence.

Unfortunately though, in the fast-paced world of tech where shipping is the top priority, empathy is sometimes thrown by the wayside.

But teaching keeps empathy top-of-mind. One thing I quickly learned is that while I may be teaching a group of students, each student is learning on their own. At any given time, one student could be totally bored, while another is completely lost. One student could be having a terrible day, and another is just hungry. For a successful session, I need to adapt to each students’ needs, continually adjusting my approach. This could mean recognizing that my explanation requires a visual aid. It could also mean recognizing the need for an energy boost, getting students up out of their seats to play a game. The faster I adapt, the smoother things go and the better students learn.

A method I developed to teach functions. Students act out physically what they see.

Back at the office, empathy goes a long way. This could simply mean saying “thank you” to an over-worked developer; compromising with a stressed-out product manager; or helping an overwhelmed designer with a tight deliverable. These aren’t only the right thing to do; they too, make the process go smoother, leading to a better product and a happier team.

It Gives me Perspective

The most crucial element of product design is figuring out where to focus and where not to focus your energy. This applies not only to the product itself, but to the process as well. More experienced designers will spend more time pinpointing the right areas on which to focus and less time designing, increasing the value of their output.

Teaching gives me a chance to re-focus, re-charge, and re-align my perspective. The ability to focus on something that feels so important leaves me with a lasting sense of clarity I can use to continually hone my perspective as a designer.

Best commit message ever from one of my students.

So Should Designers Volunteer Teach?

Damn right they should. This is one “designers should” I can definitely get behind.

Teaching is hard. It requires you to be entertaining and always on. But then again, so does being a designer. Good designers make beautiful things but the best designers are influencers. And if you can influence a high schooler to learn Javascript, then you can probably influence anyone.