KK Year in Review 2014

When a designer becomes an engineer

2014 was one of the most unpredictable and adventurous years in my life. After I left my job as a user experience designer in 2013, I started working as a front-end engineer this year, and now my role is transitioning to a product manager. I‘d like to review some the triumphs and challenges of this journey so far.

Becoming an engineer is not the most obvious path a designer takes. To me, what I can accomplish with a design-mindset means much more than having the word “designer” in my title. So I chose to become an engineer, in an attempt to change what I have felt frustrating as a “designer” to influence the product. I wanted to fill in the gap between design and development and perfectly execute the design.

Becoming an engineer without an engineering background was not an easy transition. From many interviews, I learned that most startups who wanted to hire “engineers with a design background” actually just wanted to hire engineers with an engineering background. I eventually landed on a role at Balanced, where I can fully utilize my UX background to help improve their dashboard. Over time, I fell in love with this dynamic, multi-functional role that spans across design, engineering, and product.

Triumph #1: Make good design happen faster

My first triumph as an engineer was obvious and immediate: I made changes when I needed to. With the Balanced Style Guide, I reenforced consistent and systemic design and front-end development process. Instead of spending time convincing engineers to make small changes, I was empowered to do so myself (Thankfully, there are a lot of things you can do easily with JavaScript these days). As I became more experienced as an engineer, the range of my impact grew larger. The Balanced Dashboard became more clean, consistent, and beautiful than ever.

Triumph #2: Influence the API design

When I realized more and more UI issues were blocked by backend work, I started asking naive questions to my fellow engineers about the API format:

Why are the API responses inconsistent? Why is this API endpoint missing? Why is it so difficult to make any changes in backend?

It turned out that there are reasons why APIs aren’t updated so frequently. Some API changes require versioning if they are breaking changes or would cause conflicts with the current version. Introducing a new version means migrating existing customers over and having to take care of the backwards compatibility. I was the odd one out in the engineering team and simply cared more about things that engineers typically don’t.

However, this didn’t prevent me from making the kind of changes that I wanted to make. Having been a designer whose ideas are constantly challenged by team members, I learned to be thick-skinned and not be ashamed of speaking up for what I believe in, despite the risk of being perceived as a silly engineer. I kept pushing engineers further to make changes that are important to our customers by using more specific languages for engineers. I also became a part of a group of people that defines scenarios and API specs. I now have the technical ability and access to influence the API design and communicate with the engineers when things are broken.

Triumph #3: Become a product manager

I recently started my new role as a product manager. Over time, my role has evolved from a front-end engineer into a partner for the design, engineering, sales and support teams to make things happen. I ran a company-wide “visioning workshop” to facilitate brainstorming and communication across teams. I started moderating and getting involved in conversations for defining and prioritizing features. Starting next year, I will be focusing more on tightening loose ends and shipping better products as a product manager.

In 2014, I have been pushing the limits of what I can do as a designer, engineer, and product manager. Despite hard challenges I encountered along the way, I realize that my triumphs have been driven by those challenges. I can’t wait to turn new set of challenges into my triumphs in 2015.