Interview with Cameron Wu
Hi Cameron! Tell me about what you do at DoorDash!
I lead the Merchant product design team. Merchants are essential to DoorDash’s ecosystem and the key to our success. When they do well, we do well. Therefore, my team’s goal is to make sure every merchant becomes successful on our platform — which means making sure our product is easy to onboard, delivers value to our merchants, positively impacts their bottom line, and is delightful to use.
Tell me about your journey into product design.
Throughout my life I’ve always been into video games. When I was in high school I was fascinated by how they were made, and the artistic side of game development — 3D modeling and animation — was really interesting to me. I was lucky that I had an opportunity to learn software like 3D Studio Max in high school, which enabled me to be creative and experiment with that craft.
When I was applying for university, it was practically impossible to find one that offered a bachelor’s degree in animation, and getting a degree was incredibly important to me and my family. Lucky for me though, the university in my hometown had a program that was designed for the tech industry, and offered courses that would allow me to not only pursue 3D animation, but game design as well. However, what I learned in that program inspired me to pursue a path in design instead.
One of my mandatory courses was graphic design, and it blew my mind. It was there I learned that art could be used for utilitarian purposes to influence how people perceived information. By simply laying out words, shapes, and pictures, you could affect how people would see or read the content. Okay, that’s a gross oversimplification, but I found the concept of design incredibly fascinating. It has the potential to change the world. Pretty quickly I gave up on my goal of working in games and focused on design instead.
From there, it was natural for me to find my start in “web design.” I freelanced while I was in university designing websites for all sorts of local small businesses before I got my first full-time job in an agency. After that, it was only a matter of time until I found my way to product design as I and the rest of the industry transitioned to cloud-based products.
You started in agencies. How has your career evolved?
After university, my first big break was landing a job as a junior designer at an ad agency in Vancouver. It was a wonderful place to work and I loved learning from my coworkers — especially the art directors. I like to think their detailed perfectionism rubbed off on me; it was there I learned the meaning of pixel-pushing, and it’s a trait I still value deeply to this day.
In my second job, I had another big break. I had always considered myself too left-brained to excel at visual design, but too right-brained to fully enjoy coding. I think the Executive Creative Director there saw that in me and offered me an opportunity to become an interaction designer, which I gladly accepted. My tools changed from mockups to wireframes and documentation. One of the things I noticed though, was how separate the roles were at the time. It wasn’t common in agencies for staff to do both visual design and interaction design, so while my role had changed, I still missed the visual creative side of design.
It wasn’t until I moved from agency to consulting that I realized somebody could appreciate me for my ability to do both of these things together. At my third job at IDEO, my title was “interaction designer” but it was nothing like my previous experience as one. Instead of being limited to wireframes and documentation, my entire skill set of visual design and interaction design was brought to bear. I was even able to leverage my passion for prototyping with Adobe Flash, which was a skill I had learned in my freelancing days but was never utilized at my agencies. Because it was the first time I felt my full skill set was utilized, I was hyper engaged; IDEO was one of the longest gigs of my career. Not only that, but I wasn’t designing for websites anymore — IDEO’s bread and butter was products. I designed everything from DNA sequencing machine interfaces to car interfaces to ATMs. I had become a product designer.
I made the jump from IDEO to tech and have been in it ever since. My career hasn’t taken as many twists and turns since then, but I’ve gotten much better at product design. In the end, what I’ve realized is that this role has enabled me to engage both sides of my brain — to be both creative and analytical. That’s been the most rewarding part of my career.
Along with IDEO, you also worked at companies like Facebook and Airbnb. Do you feel designers have to have big brands like this on their resumes to succeed?
So much to unpack here!
What does it mean to “succeed” really? If you define that as achieving what you set out to do, then it all really depends what your goals are. My own motivation has been to have a positive impact on the world, and that drove my career choices. Facebook, Airbnb, and now DoorDash have enabled me and my teams to improve the lives of hundreds of thousands if not millions of users. It was the scale of those companies that enabled me to achieve what I set out to do. So if impact is what you seek, then by their nature larger (and often — but not always — more well known) companies can help you achieve that.
That being said, what I think you meant is if it’s valuable for designers to have a good pedigree? I don’t subscribe to the notion that working for a famous brand automatically makes somebody a great designer. I’ve worked with phenomenal designers throughout my career who had a diversity of backgrounds and experiences, most of which came from lesser-known companies. Great work happens everywhere.
I think what makes designers successful is developing the right set of traits: having a growth mindset, embracing collaboration, becoming a good storyteller, for instance.
As the Head of Merchant Design, how do you spend your time day to day?
My time is mostly split between supporting my team and supporting our design strategy.
In terms of the former, I spend my time in one-on-ones working with my team to discuss their weekly progress, goals and growth. I also do a lot of interviewing and work with Recruiting to grow my team. And I work with my team to improve processes so that we can work more efficiently and have greater impact.
In terms of the latter, I spend my time working with my cross-functional counterparts to plan how we’ll achieve our strategic goals through user experience. A lot of this involves coordinating with my team and connecting the dots between various initiatives. Sometimes it means planning or running design sprints to envision the future.
How would you describe your management style and philosophy in general?
In terms of management philosophy, Daniel Pink’s autonomy, mastery, and purpose framework for motivation has resonated well with me.
Autonomy is the need to direct your own life and work. As a manager, I see this through the lens of empowerment, and I try to look for methods and opportunities to enable that for my team. My Facebook experience left an indelible mark on me; their “hacker” ethos — a culture of making and experimenting — celebrated individual contributors and gave them considerable power. The notion of empowerment through autonomy was incredibly central to that. Managers were positioned as a means of support. As an individual contributor, I found this incredibly compelling, and I always felt that was an ideal environment where one could be free to rise to the challenge. I strive to empower my teams with a similar approach.
Mastery is the desire to improve. I have yet to meet a designer who hasn’t wanted to improve their skills, but one of the hardest things to do is figuring out how to navigate their path to mastery. From this perspective, I see my role as a coach — to help my team understand what forms of mastery motivate them, identify opportunities for growth, and provide feedback on how their development is progressing. Occasionally, it means taking the role of a “player-coach” and leading by example.
Purpose is the desire to do something meaningful. One of the tropes of design is that many designers want to work on “consumer”-facing products because they’ll have more “impact,” but when people think of impact they often think about the sheer number of users. But there are many types of users out there, and many different forms of impact. My team, for instance, focuses on merchants, which has very different usage than the Consumer team. One of my responsibilities is to understand what my team finds meaningful and figure out ways to connect them to that.
When it comes to management style, I’ve been fortunate to have had some really great managers over my career. In each, I’ve found admirable qualities that I aspire to embody as a manager. One of my managers felt like a therapist — she helped me understand more of myself. Another manager exemplified radical candor, and was fiercely defensive of our team; he’d be right in the thick of things with us, and would step up to bat on our behalf. And another was so empathetic, it felt like they were a mind-reader; she was naturally great at knowing just the right thing to ask or how to push me. These are just a few examples of styles I’ve experienced, and hope to embody through my own approach to management.
Who should consider joining DoorDash?
DoorDash is experiencing a phase of rapid growth. Despite what we might appear like on the outside, we’re still an incredibly lean product team; working here feels nothing like our tech peers, some of which have thousands or tens of thousands of employees. And since our product is split into three pillars across Consumer, Dasher, and Merchant, it feels almost like three startups.
I think this creates a really interesting environment where it feels like we’re all in it together, working towards a common goal. We know everyone on our teams, and can see steady progress made every day. There’s also this sense that we have a tremendous amount of opportunity ahead of us waiting to be seized. If we grow the team smartly, we can.
So, designers who are motivated by impact, are comfortable with some ambiguity to get there, and are willing to figure things out on the way might find this opportunity really compelling. That sounds a bit like we’re looking for only the most experienced designers doesn’t it? We’re actually hiring across all levels! Companies in the “rocket ship” phase are always a great opportunity for personal and career growth.
What kind of tips would you provide to a design candidate who might be interested in applying to DoorDash?
Related to what I mentioned earlier about who should consider joining, having self awareness of where you are and what you need from your career is important to how you choose the right company for you.
At much bigger companies, products often get subdivided into minute features. Certainly, every aspect is important and adds up to a greater whole, but we are not at the stage where that’s happening here. In our candidates, we look for the ability to demonstrate “end-to-end” product design. In addition, our rapid growth means we’re constantly creating new products and features from scratch. Comfort with ambiguity is a must, as is being able to execute “zero-to-one” projects. Portfolios that do best in our interview process can demonstrate these well, and of course we adjust our expectations for the seniority of the role!
Above all though, we look for candidates who exemplify one of our core principles: “bias for action.” We value decisiveness and being able to move fast.
What do you do when you’re not working?
In a normal year, I usually spend my time with my wife; we enjoy traveling, trying new restaurants, hiking and snowboarding. And of course, I’ve never given up my lifelong passion for video games. With COVID, we haven’t been able to travel or dine, but we’ve still managed to find time to enjoy the occasional hike. It’s also been a stellar year for gaming.
Most recently I got an Oculus Quest 2, the VR headset. Enjoying virtual worlds has been mind blowing. You can strap this thing on then just like that you’re mountain climbing or “beat sabering.” Ha! I’ve seen the future, and it’s a lot of fun.
Let’s talk food! Tell me about a memorable order you made on DoorDash!
When I was in Vancouver recently, I ordered from Kokoro Tokyo Mazesoba. As a foodie I love trying new dishes. I’m used to eating soba, but that was the first time I tried mazesoba (dry noodles you mix with a sauce). They’re not as commonly served in San Francisco as other typical Japanese noodle dishes like soba, ramen, or udon. I’ve never had anything like that before, and it was delicious! I love that feeling of discovering a gem.
That sounds amazing, Cameron! Thank you for that recommendation and for taking the time to chat.
Of course! I love learning how people got into design and arrived at where they are today. I was happy to share my story.
Interested in joining Cameron’s awesome design team? Check out these open roles:
Please learn more about other leaders at DoorDash:
Blake Engel — Head of Dasher 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