I joined Cisco as a Product Design Manager back in August 2016, almost exactly a year after Cisco acquired OpenDNS. Even though I had a Cisco badge, for all practical purposes I joined OpenDNS — I worked out of the OpenDNS office in San Francisco and most of my co-workers had been there since before the acquisition. David Ulevitch — OpenDNS’ founder and CEO– was still very involved and running weekly town hall meetings.
As in most startups, the product design team was small but mighty. We had only three product designers in charge of the user experience of Cisco Umbrella (formerly OpenDNS Umbrella), a leading cloud security product. But Cisco had big plans for Umbrella, and that meant growth.
Growing the team
I jumped into hiring mode almost immediately after I started. The designers were spread thin already, and new engineering teams were ramping up left and right. I was not only new to Cisco, but I was also new to San Francisco. When I relocated from Texas for this job, I was without a local network in the Bay Area. One of my first moves was to address that. I connected with the local design community and became a co-organizer for Ladies That UX San Francisco. We started hosting events at our office. I also attended meetups regularly and spent many hours on LinkedIn doing sourcing. In hiring, I wanted to hit the right balance of hiring fast and hiring well. At the same time, I was still getting to know my team and learning a new (to me) product. Even the cloud security domain was new for me. Those were stressful times, and I am still so grateful for the support of my leaders, my peers, and those original team members.
Hiring eventually picked up and the team grew from three to eight people in about a year. Once we achieved the designer-to-developer ratio we needed in product design, I focused on building other disciplines, starting with UX research. A re-org added the writers in charge of Umbrella’s documentation to the UX family. And just recently we added our first UX Operations professional.
Growing the practice
As the team grew in size, we also had to scale the way we operated. I started by documenting what had traditionally been tacit, tribal knowledge, and by standardizing our hiring and onboarding processes. I decided that a centralized partnership was the right model for our design organization and structured the team to match.
I also wanted to focus on broadening Design’s involvement in projects. When I arrived at Cisco Umbrella, product managers were the ones interacting with customers during the discovery phase. The PMs would define requirements and only then hand them over to the designers. The designers would create prototypes, test them, and pass them along to engineers for implementation. We established Design Thinking training across departmental boundaries, and that was the key experience that showed the value of cross-functional collaboration throughout the lifecycle of a project. Today, designers and researchers are involved and consulted about the strategic direction of projects. While there is still some work to be done on this front, I can confidently say that UX now has a voice in the Cloud Security organization.
Growing the product
The evolution of Umbrella as a product, even before the Cisco acquisition, is worth an entire post of its own. What started as a content filtering solution is now a Secure Internet Gateway platform.
From a Design standpoint, preserving our simple and seamless product experience as we continue to add new features and capabilities has been our biggest challenge. While there are hundreds of hands working on Umbrella, we certainly don’t want it to feel that way to our users.
One aspect of this is having a consistent user interface. Over the years several different efforts had been made to create component libraries. I kicked off an initiative to bring all those pieces together to create an actual design system.
Another aspect is awareness. It’s critical that all designers know what their peers are working on and understand how their work fits into the bigger picture. To tackle this we resort to frequent critique sessions, weekly stand-ups, and status sharing. We’ve also appointed “area leads” — these are design managers or senior individual contributors who own high-level parts of the Umbrella experience and oversee the work that other designers do in their given area. Researchers, writers, and operations leads, due to their horizontal structure, are part of the glue that keeps it all together.
Last but not least, I’ve also had the opportunity to grow my own career. The journey from Product Design Manager to Head of User Experience has been a real roller coaster ride. But through it all, the most satisfying part of the job remains helping others grow, regardless of where their growth path takes them.