Interview with Helena Seo

Design Leadership Interview at DoorDash

Tae K. Kim
Design @ DoorDash


Hey Helena! Thanks for taking time to chat. Let’s start with your role: what do you do at DoorDash?

Hi Tae! I have the privilege of leading Design at DoorDash. The team comprises Product Design, Design Infrastructure, UX Research, and UX Content Strategy. We build all touch points of our user experience for three audiences: Consumers, Merchants, and Dashers.

How did you get started in design?

Funny enough, I can’t remember a day when I wasn’t designing. Growing up with an artistic mom and an engineering dad, I was a kid who was always drawing and making stuff. Both of my parents taught me to value craft and dexterity. Whenever someone asked me what my dream job was, my answers were always something around art and design: a painter, an architect, a greeting-card designer, a packaging designer, etc.

A sketchbook always followed Helena, even during her family’s vacations.

I studied Fashion Design for my first bachelor degree in South Korea, and that’s when I fell in love with creating something for people. Design not only fulfilled my creative drive but also had the potential to benefit others on a massive scale. The only thing that I didn’t like about it was the fashion industry itself. It felt quite cut-throat, not many fashion designers made it to the top, and I didn’t see any longevity in it as a career. That’s when I decided to study Graphic Design at the California College of the Arts (“and Crafts” back then) in the US.

In Graphic Design, I felt like a fish who had finally found water. It was a new world opening up for me, and I absolutely loved everything about it — it was all about craft love, sensibility, aesthetics, and most importantly, it came with some interesting problems to solve — whether it was about a client’s business goal, the brand/communication objectives, or usability issues!

Ever since then, I have been in a full spectrum of environments, working on various types of problems. I was in a few niche design agencies very early in my career, learning the fundamentals of design applications in the real world. I ran my own studio for almost a decade, learning so much about how to stay above the water with rigor, grit and optimism, and this was when I developed some interpersonal skills through dealing with clients who came with many different personalities and backgrounds. For the past decade, I’ve been in larger tech companies like eBay, Citrix, Groupon and now at DoorDash!

Helena receiving a trophy from her team on her last day at Groupon after 6 years.

At what point in your career did you start focusing more on building and leading a team? And how did you know it was the right path for you both personally and professionally?

My first management experience began when I was running my own studio, but it was mostly focused on servicing the clients. I got more serious about team building and started to understand the art of people development during my time at Citrix and Groupon. I was lucky to have super wholesome teams who were eager to learn and do good work. It was almost impossible to describe how fulfilling it was to see designers make a quantum leap in their work output based on my small feedback and encouragement. I already knew that I was not the most talented designer in the world, and my job as a manager and multiplier seemed like a calling.

What are your guiding principles for being a manager and leader?

There are a few things I think about every morning when I wake up.

1. Am I creating an environment everyone wants to be a part of?

Whatever team I build, I like to ensure we have two things in place: authenticity and autonomy. Authenticity lets everyone feel that they can be who they are. If they have to constantly pretend to be someone else, they can’t focus on the right things day to day. Autonomy ensures we hire people for the things they are amazing at, and creates room for them to drive decisions on their own. There’s no point in hiring talented people just to tell them what to do, and no one wants to be micromanaged.

These two aspects are also key because design is a vulnerable function by nature. Everyone can draw, write and talk to customers themselves, and therefore, many partners think that they can also be a designer, a writer or a researcher. Your work will be constantly reviewed by others, and you may encounter a lot of subjective points of view. If you defend your work too much, people will call you defensive and not collaborative. If you don’t defend your work at all, people will call you a pushover for not standing up for your belief. So authenticity and autonomy helps ensure we create an environment where everyone feels comfortable in sharing and debating.

2. Am I creating exciting opportunities and possibilities for my team?

Any well-meaning employee joins the team because they see the opportunities to expand the impact and develop their career further. I’d love every member of the team to feel that they can’t wait to come back to work because they are solving exciting and meaningful problems and growing everyday.

Good managers unblock challenges and make sure projects get done on time. Great managers unlock bigger possibilities for the team — they bring more interesting challenges and opportunities for the employees to aim higher.

3. Am I setting the right tone for the team?

I truly believe in “leading by example.” As a team leader, you are the reflection of the team. If you don’t do it yourself, you can’t ask your team to do otherwise. Whether it’s about giving the proper credit to the right people, maintaining positivity even during difficult times, providing direct but well-intended feedback, and running meetings with inclusion in mind, I try to be transparent, sensible and fair.

4. Am I responsible for the team’s outcome, both positive and negative?

When something goes well, giving the credit back to the team is easy. Everyone loves to be showered with praise, and it’s a feel-good moment. These moments will always make you look good as a leader of the team.

However, when something goes wrong, that’s when your leadership is truly tested. How might you also embrace the negative outcome and take responsibility fully as opposed to pointing fingers at your employees? I’ve seen managers blaming their team too many times in my previous career, and I know that that’s the fastest way to break the trust with your team.

In order for you to fully own the outcome, it’s important to constantly maintain a close check on the pulse of the team and projects. This keys into one of DoorDash’s values: Operate at the lowest level of details. I attend most product brief/design/ship reviews across the entire team to stay plugged into the product. I also meet with every member of the team in a one-on-one setting to stay connected. The more I know, the more I can be an accountable leader.

It’s important to do this without micromanaging, which is becoming increasingly difficult as the team grows bigger, but there is no better way to ensure I’m in a position to own the outcome for the team.

5. Are we hiring the right people?

When there’s so much pressure to hire fast (and a lot!), it’s really hard to ignore that little voice in your head that tries to convince you to make compromises:

‘I sense this candidate has some ego issues but her hard skills are too strong to pass on — I’ll deal with the consequences later…’

‘I know this candidate isn’t meeting our craft bar but I really need to fill this role and he can probably learn over time…’

The consequences of listening to that voice have almost always been disastrous. Not hiring anyone isn’t ideal, but it’s absolutely better than hiring the wrong candidate. It takes many excellent hires to make up one great team, but it only takes one bad hire to ruin it all.

I take hiring very seriously, and spend a lot of time and effort on it everyday. Because at the end of the day, the team is the best asset you can ever have, and it’s the primary drive of a happy ecosystem. Having a great team around you makes you better as a person and helps you produce your best work. Producing your best work helps ensure your users are happy, and when your users are happy, it helps the company flourish.

The DoorDash Design team enjoying their 2019 holiday team lunch together.

What are some of the most rewarding aspects about your role? What are some of the challenges?

Interestingly, both the most rewarding and the most challenging aspects of my role are the same: it’s the people!

I get incredible satisfaction when I feel that I helped people discover their potential beyond what they thought was possible — whether it’s about delivering amazing results, mastering storytelling, managing seemingly-impossible stakeholders or growing into a bigger leadership role.

And, of course, the challenging thing about people is that everyone is so different that I need to customize my approach every time. Navigating those differences requires a lot of complex processing and an ability to understand nuances, so I find it to be the hardest yet most rewarding challenge.

You’ve been really instrumental in my own growth as a team lead and manager. What advice would you give to other managers or leads?

That’s so kind of you to say, Tae! Every manager has different strengths and blindspots, so it’s a bit hard to give one advice that fits for all. But I’ll re-share some advice I received from my mentor and current manager at DoorDash, Rajat Shroff, who told me once to stay flexible and to keep an open-mind. His exact words were, “Stay in the gray area,” which I think is great advice to follow.

I’ve also never set my career goals based on a title or a level, and I never held myself to a set timeline. I kind of went with the flow and went where my career naturally took me. Along the way, I learned a lot about the things I’m good at versus the things I’m bad at, and, what I enjoy doing versus what I dislike doing. In hindsight, I’m glad I followed this path, because otherwise, I would have been too anxious about not achieving a set career goal quickly enough. So staying flexible and going with the flow can be a good thing as well.

If you’re leading a team, you should also try to lead the way you like to be led. Constantly remind yourself of the personal brand you want to build as a manager and a leader, and actively work towards it. Also, always keep the door open to feedback. It’s important to stay self-aware, and it helps to understand how others perceive you versus how you perceive yourself.

You’re currently hiring for multiple roles on the team. What are some of the key qualities you look for in candidates?

Things like exceptional portfolio/craft, relevant working experience, and strong communication/storytelling skills are basic qualifications that every company looks for, so I’ll focus on a differentiator: I’m looking for “a special spark” in every hire.

It can mean different things for different people. I’ve seen it manifest as a strong sense of self-drive that let the person go above and beyond. Another hire had a deep sense of curiosity which they used to investigate problems in a deep way. Creative ways of looking at the same problem, infectious passion and optimism that draw people in, strong ownership, and extreme hunger to learn and grow are also examples of special qualities that have stood out.

Want to join Helena in her mission to build amazing experiences at DoorDash? Check out these roles:

Design Manager, Consumer Products
Internal Tools Design Manager
Product Design Director
Design Systems Designer, Design Infrastructure
Senior Product Designer
UX Content Strategist
UX Researcher, Dasher Experience Lead
UX Researcher, Vertical Lead

Keeping the team together virtually in a remote work situation.

DoorDash is at a really interesting time in its growth. What are you most excited about in terms of the Design team’s future and the company’s future as a whole?

Team-wise, I’m super excited to continue the exponential growth of the team next year. When I joined about 2 years ago, Design was a team of nine, and we could walk to a restaurant to have lunch together without a reservation. Now, we’re at 40 teammates, and we’re going to more than double that by the end of 2021. This level of growth is a once-in-a lifetime team building opportunity, and I’m so thrilled and honored to be a part of it. I can’t wait to look back in a year and discuss the next level of our team’s development and growth.

Product-wise, I’m excited to continue transforming our product into a super app that makes everything in your neighborhood accessible with just a few taps, and how these changes will impact DoorDash’s ever-growing three-sided marketplace experience. Our consumer app is already #1 in the Food & Drink category on the App Store, and we have the biggest market share in the competitive food delivery business in the US. However, instead of becoming complacent, I love that we’ve kept our underdog mindset, which inspires us to set increasingly ambitious goals and keeps us from getting distracted by our success. I love how DoorDash operates with a perfect mix of ambition and humility.

Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts and wisdom, Helena. I want to end our chat on a food related question, considering DoorDash’s current core business: What are some of your go-to stores for delivery and Pickup?

There are so many! I tend to order from an eclectic mix of food as opposed to reordering the same menu from the same restaurants. I live in Sunnyvale, CA, and it’s known for a lot of great Korean and Indian restaurants.

For Korean, I’d recommend Jang Su Jang (their galbi jjim is to die for), So Gong Dong Tofu House, and Seoul Gom Tang (chadol gomtang is my go-to whenever I’m feeling down.) I used to be a regular in all these restaurants pre-COVID, and it’s great to see they are also available in DoorDash!

For Indian, I love Zareen’s and Delhiwala Chaat (dahi batata sev puri is awesome).