The actions I wish I had taken sooner

Reflecting on my design career path, part II

This is the second part of my career reflection. You might want to read Part I: Mindset first if you haven’t done so.

Part II: Action

Let your team know your expertise and how you work. Not everyone interviewed you

In my first full time job, I joined a startup team acquired by a larger company and worked directly with the startup’s CEO. There were lots of challenges during the process and I struggled to figure out how to work with him. One day, he commented to a product manager about a good friend of mine from school who had recently joined the company through my referral: “Consult him more, he graduated from a Human Computer Interaction program.” It dawned on me that he never knew that I graduated from the same program! Why would he? He wasn’t part of my interview panel (none of people from the panel were in the company anymore, actually), nor did we ever talk about my background or areas of expertise. So by default, he put me into the bracket of visual/graphic designers, while all the time I was thinking and working like an interaction designer. Lots of friction came from these mismatched expectations.

People who interviewed and evaluated you are probably only a small portion of those you collaborate with everyday. It is up to you to set the right expectations for your team. Let them know what and how you can contribute, when should they involve you, and when they should rely on you.

Be brave in voicing your opinions, ask bold questions. You won’t get fired for it

In my second full time job, I was working on a project that struggled to find a clear definition and value proposition. The team went through many exercises in vain trying to find the answer, and the product kept moving along in an ambiguous direction. A young front-end engineer joined the team and started calling bullshit and asking questions about sensitive topics. Guess what: the CEO thought he was bold and brilliant, and made him the director of design to define a clear direction for the product.

If you feel there are some unanswered questions concerning your product’s direction, ask them; if you feel some assumptions the team is making are not verified, call them out and find ways to verify them. As long as you are doing it constructively, and for the sake of a better product, you won’t offend anyone. On the contrary, the team will see that you care about the product and the team, and they will rely more on your insights.

Own your work, and let your team know that

During the first half year in my current company, I worked closely with another designer on the team who was like my mentor. He showed me the ins and outs of best practices of how to work efficiently at the company, introduced me to team members, explained team dynamics, and answered all my questions. I’m still grateful for how he much he helped me in the early days. However, over time, I realized that by shielding me from noisy meetings to keep me focused, I was also shielded from getting acknowledged for my work: engineers go to him to get answers about designs, even if it’s my design work, PMs go to him to talk about the product direction, the product director thought he was the only designer on the team… A situation I needed to turn around.

I talked to the other designer to make sure we both have complete ownership of different parts of the product, I started going to various meetings and provided my input when possible, and I reached out to Engineers and PMs individually to build stronger working relationships. It took me awhile to turn the situation around and establish myself in the team. In retrospect, had I started doing these things from the beginning, it could have saved me a lot of time and frustration.

Ask for work that matches your ability, or even better, is slightly beyond your ability

For the first half year of every job, I go through a similar phase: from feeling “Oh god, there are so many smart people here, I hope they find me valuable” to “I can do more than what was assigned to me, I feel undervalued.” The reason? Imposter syndrome held me back from asking for more responsibilities in the beginning, under the guise of “feeling the water and easing in”. The result of that was my team and my manager thought that’s all I can do. Consequentially, all the work I got was of that level, when in fact it’s less than what I could bring to the team.

If you are in this situation, the only way to change is to ask for more, more opportunities and more responsibilities. Show the team how much you can do by getting the chance to do it. Or even better, try to ask for things slightly bigger than what you are comfortable with. Stretch your new muscles and grow more.

Don’t wait until the review cycle to get feedback

With the fast pace of most tech companies, people you work with might embark on their next adventures before your next review cycle gets here. By then you’ve lost the chance to get their feedback, and documentation of your performance with them.

Collect feedback from your peers whenever a project milestone is reached, so you can improve often and keep a healthy volume of performance documentation. Don’t wait until the review cycle to learn there are things stopping you from reaching the next level.

Let your intent be known, to everyone concerned with your career advancement

As a born and raised Chinese, my culture celebrates being moderate and frowns upon bragging about your achievements. “Do good work and you’ll get acknowledged”. Although I knew in my head this belief doesn’t help in the modern workplace, my behavior still reflected it from time to time: I felt awkward talking about a promotion or compensation with my manager, I avoided talking to people in high levels at the company, and I believed that as long as I did my job well, the recognition would come in time.

The truth is, no one remembers what you achieved better than you do, and no one cares about your career advancement more than you do. People are too busy to think about you all the time. If you want to reach the next level of your career, let everyone involved in that decision know about your intent, keep reminding them, and get advice and help from them. For procrastinators like me, letting my intent be known is also a good external motivator to keep myself in check, making sure I am working hard toward reaching the next level.

That’s it! If you made it this far, thank you for your time and I hope it’s useful to you. Good luck on your never-ending journey of professional growth!