Interview with Blake Engel
Hi Blake! Tell me about your journey into UX design.
I was always obsessed with screens: my calculator watch, my graphing calculator, my 5-disc CD changer. But like most people, I didn’t realize designing those things could be a job — during junior high school, my dream job was to own a car dealership by day and be a jazz trumpet player by night. I still play my trumpet for weddings, and my interest in cars has dropped — now a car is just a utility for me.
My first job with “computers” was when I worked at Egghead Software during high school. I was so excited to have anything at all to do with software — working at the sales floor and getting people to want to buy copies of Photoshop. And I used that as a way to get a job at my local internet service provider, XNet. They hired me to build websites for their customers like local manufacturers of industrial products, bakeries, and restaurants using HTML, CSS, and Photoshop at the time.
I wanted to continue on that path and looked into Computer Science programs as I was applying to colleges. Since my mother grew up in Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon was high on the list so we decided to visit and attended the presentation by the Dean of the School of Computer Science, Mark Stehlik. That’s when I learned about the new undergraduate major, Human-Computer Interaction. I had no idea what that was as I have never seen those three words in combination, but both my mom and I knew that was my destiny.
And it turned out it was my destiny! After I completed my degree, my first job after college was at Yahoo, working in international product design at the platform level. I really enjoyed running user research and working with the product team to launch the products. Since then I’ve spent time at startups, big companies, international companies, and freelance work, but always in product design.
Fast-forwarding many years, what do you do at DoorDash now?
I lead the Dasher Experience Design team. We strive to make the Dasher’s experience delightful from the very first dash all the way through mastery and beyond. It should feel like a good way to earn money, grow, and learn as a person, and they’re connected to a community.
We work closely with our product managers, engineers, and ops partners to align the customer-centric mission with what it takes to have the Dasher be the lifeblood of our logistics network at Doordash.
As the Head of Dasher Design, how do you spend your time day to day?
As a design leader here, I’m gratefully able to balance between being productive on my own and being productive as a team. I spend 40% of my time in what I call the IC tasks of management — things like preparing for a meeting, structuring how we’re going to present in a design review, etc. Another 40% is spent with either my team or cross-functional partners to build great products, reviewing briefs, giving feedback, going into crits, and those are always the most fun for sure. There’s so much close collaboration between PMs and Design here at DoorDash, and we spend a lot of time together. The remaining 20% is spent responding to things in real-time, internal communications via email and Slack (I spend a lot of time in Slack!), following up with candidates, or attending hiring-related events.
What makes DoorDash unique from the other companies you’ve worked at previously?
DoorDash’s bias for action is so real and so palpable that the sense of urgency keeps designers so close to reality. As a designer, you’re going to see your work in the world very quickly, and that helps with the positivity of teamwork. It was really refreshing to see how well DoorDash embraces both the large-corporate scale and the startup-like speed. We learn by doing, and by launching.
How would you describe your management style and philosophy in general?
Nobody joins the team knowing everything, or having solved every problem — that’s why you join a new team! And even though you have already done amazing work in your career, ideally everybody’s best work is still ahead of them. And to achieve that, 95% of it on the individual, and 5% of it is on me. But that 5% is sometimes the most critical portion.
But there’s a paradox here: you are the only person who sees the entirety of your performance, your output, and how you show up. But you see it only through your eyes, and every human has blind spots. Those blind spots might be about radical approaches you haven’t tried, abilities you didn’t realize you had, or even self-critical voices that are hard to mute.
That’s why 95% of a person’s advancement is on the individual, but between your manager, your peers, and your cross-functional partners, we help round out that last 5% which is the most important. Many designers have imposter syndrome, thinking that good design work is never done. And for some designers, that voice is very loud.
I try to help designers tease out the difference between their perception and objective reality, be their advocate, and help them achieve more. I go to every design review saying I am 100% by their side. They don’t ever have to worry whether they are going to contradict me in a meeting. I think designers just need reassurances to know that they’re able to do the best work, encouragement to stretch beyond their comfort zone in an environment of psychological safety.
I’m not quite all the way there but that’s at least my North Star. The moment that I love the most as a people manager is when I see designers who used to have self-doubt feel like they achieved something they didn’t know they were capable of.
What kind of tips would you provide to the designer candidate who might be interested in applying to DoorDash?
The most important thing is being clear about what problem you’re solving and why. And you’ll need to convince others about why that matters more than any other problem. To know the right problem framing from the wrong takes practice, and it requires creativity and analysis.
We also hold the highest bar in presentation quality. So not just the quantity of projects and the depth of problem-solving, but quality in the presentation of your final work and craftsmanship is important. Imagine you were to walk into an art gallery and art is hung carelessly and the walls are scuffed — you may not walk out of that gallery with a piece of art. But if that gallery art is impeccably hung and beautifully framed, and the lighting is perfect, you’re probably going to walk away with a higher opinion of the art itself. So, treating your work with that same level of care is what helps to work come across to me or any other hiring manager positively.
Another important thing we’re looking for is the growth mindset. If you rewind five years, the role of product design as well as the tools designers used were so different. Five years from now, it’s going to be 2–3x more different from now. So I’m looking for designers who have grown with openness and adaptability because that’s the best indicator that they’ll continue to grow.
Who should consider joining DoorDash?
As a designer who’s already achieved success in your career, you have many choices. There are so many jobs out there and we’re all getting these recruiting emails — from big players like Google and Facebook to small startups. It takes a lot of introspection to figure out what works best for you, and DoorDash certainly isn’t for everybody.
But the reason why I think it’s good for a lot of designers is that it does a better job than almost any other design jobs out there to combine creative thinking and analytical thinking. In terms of the stage of the team, a 5,000-person company is so different from a 200,000-person company. The amount of autonomy that you have to do great work in a company of 5,000 is massive. In fact, it feels much closer to the influence you would have in a 50-person company, given how small the design team is currently. If a designer is looking for a broad influence and big ownership, we’re a sweet spot for them to practice and grow.
What do you do when you’re not working?
I’m a cyclist on weekends. I ride the bike to Golden Gate Park or Glen Park, and it feels completely connected to where we live, even during pandemics. When I have time, I participate in long, organized rides called centuries (for 100+ miles) looking somewhat silly in spandex.
My wife and I have a three-year-old and an 11-month-old, and we are all a source of constant silliness and entertainment for each other. My family is my other job, perhaps my most important job, so I bring the same joy to it that I do to DoorDash.
We spend a lot of time riding our cargo bikes, going to Golden Gate Park, the zoo, or the community garden in our neighborhood. Right now we’re doing our best to grow beans, broccoli, and kale. And now that the sun goes down early in winter, my three-year-old loves to take walks in the dark with a flashlight. We go out and look at the stars, airplanes, and the moon. My 11-month-old climbs like a fearless mountain climber and shrieks with joy as he’s learning to walk, so we have lots of meaningful time together.
What’s your experience been like working at DoorDash as a working parent?
When you are on a call with Tony Xu, our CEO, you can often hear his kid in the background and there’s something really human and wonderful about that. He always continues right along with his meeting, but in a very subtle but palpable way that gives permission to anybody in the company to have the kids be part of their work life.
And in a big way, I think also makes it clear that we welcome people who are parents and have to juggle both of that during work from home. We made it work for working parents, and that’s something that I’m really proud of here.
The fact that DoorDash has a very generous 4-month parental leave policy at this stage of the company also shows so much maturity, and it invites age diversity as well. I think we’ve done a good job of investing in that.
We cannot end this conversation without talking about food, because we are DoorDash. What restaurant would you recommend in your neighborhood?
My favorite one on DoorDash is Orexi, a Greek place on West Portal Avenue in San Francisco. It works for delivery or outdoor dining. Another one is Submarine Center, and it’s right at the West Portal Station. Their sandwiches are fantastic, and they have perfected their “order for pickup” experience on DoorDash — which gives me a great excuse to stretch my legs, eat lunch, and use DoorDash all at the same time!
Interested in joining Blake’s awesome design team? Check out these open roles:
Please learn more about other leaders at DoorDash:
Cameron Wu — Head of Merchant Experience Design
Helena Seo — Head of Design
Kathryn Gonzalez — Head of Design Infrastructure
Radhika Bhalla — Head of UX Research
Sam Lind — Head of Core Consumer Design
Tae Kim — Head of Content Strategy