Designers in the C-Suite: How a group of new hires grabbed the attention of IBM’s CEO

5 Practical tips for maximizing your product’s exposure and support

It was a hot Texas summer day in late July. I was sitting in my car, AC on high, wondering if I had arrived too early. It was my first day of my first full-time job as a software designer. I was about to embark on a 3-month immersive training program known as IBM Design Bootcamp. To be honest, I was mainly concerned about getting along with the other new hires, and figuring out where we would have happy hour.

7 months later, I’m adjusting my new, and only, business-formal jacket in a conference room at IBM Headquarters in Armonk, New York. I’m waiting for the clock to strike 8:00, so that my teammate, Michael Lee Kenney, and I can sit down with Ginni Rometty, the CEO of IBM, and a team of her trusted SVP’s, VP’s, and general managers to give our pitch on the advantages of design-led product development. In that moment, I couldn’t help but wonder: how did a group of new hires, fresh out of IBM’s Bootcamp design program make it all the way to the CEO in such a short amount of time?

Now that I have had time to reflect, I’ve concluded that these are the 5 most important factors that contributed to such an impressive outcome:

1. Take advantage of the opportunities you are given, and run with them

When IBM made the decision to re-invest in design five years ago, it wasn’t lip service. One massive investment and 1,600 designers later, IBM has a global network of 44 design studios, 110,000 employees trained in design thinking, and hyper-curated internship and early career programs that give new hires unprecedented opportunity and exposure. For those of us who get to thrive in these programs, it’s imperative to understand that every designer, lead and participant over the last five years helped to prototype and iterate on the IBM Design Bootcamp experience. The ability for our team of eight new hires to make it all the way to the CEO is a testament to IBM’s design programs and their ability to convince executives of the power of applied design thinking for solving enterprise-level business problems. IBM is one of the first companies to institute a structure that promotes designers to executive-level positions. This is further evidence that respect for design isn’t just talk. Our success was tied directly to the equal investment and value exchange between ourselves and IBM.

As part of the new hire design program, IBM challenges the participants to work on vetted, complex problems with defined stakeholders and subject matter experts. These projects range from leveraging blockchain technology in the transportation industry to predictive analytics for global disease outbreaks. Our particular project was to create a consumable front-end user experience for a breakthrough AI technology from IBM Research. The breadth and potential impact of these projects is unprecedented in traditional new hire work. The lack of hand-holding or linear directives within these projects allowed us to take ownership of everything we did. We weren’t told what to do. We were given an infrastructure to work within and push against; we were given the opportunity to sink or swim, and we swam.

2. Articulate your value first to yourself, then to others

Within a week of being given our design project, we found ourselves face-to-face with some incredibly smart, out-of-our-professional-league executives and scientists at IBM Research and top tier chemical research institutions.

As an early career professional in any setting, you will feel inadequate and intimidated. Our team had to quickly and succinctly prove our value to our project stakeholders and our colleagues within IBM. This value exchange is most convincing in small, repeated exchanges that serve to develop trust in a short period of time. But in order to convince those around you of the value that you bring to a project, you have to articulate this value first to yourself, then to others. Tell yourself what you deliver. Tell your stakeholders what you deliver. Then deliver. And not just once, but with every opportunity. As new designers, we are advocates for the user. We are perpetual question-askers and hole-pokers. We come equipped with a strong set of design, software, and story-telling skills. We know what people want to use because we ask them. This is the value we bring. This is what highly impressive and important executives don’t do, because they’re doing something else. Own your lane by drawing it, driving in it, and convincing others to ride along with you.

Because of our ability to quickly articulate and continually execute on what we promised to deliver, those same globally-renowned executives and scientists at IBM Research regarded us as project peers, experts in the domains of user experience and interface design, and depended on us to do our thing and deliver.

3. Leverage “ignorance” and a beginner’s mindset

When I was an intern in the IBM Maelstrom program, Devin O'Bryan had a lovely line about the benefits of ‘leveraging ignorance.’ By harnessing the beginner mindset of interns and new hires, IBM projects have benefited from the fresh perspectives that only the lack of experience can bring. But this notion of a beginner’s mindset doesn’t have to be unique to early career professionals. No matter how much experience we have, we are all beginners at something. By asking new and experienced employees alike to solve complex problems in unfamiliar domains with breakthrough technology, we are asking everyone to embrace and leverage their respective ‘ignorance.’ The key is to bring design thinking and an open mindset to any problem that needs solving.

As eight new hires, primarily straight out of design school, being asked to “streamline chemical researchers’ efforts to develop new compounds for inorganic chemical manufacturing and material science” seemed like an absurd ask. We embraced the absurd. Asked strange questions. Spoke in pirate ship metaphors for a week (which worked really well, highly recommend). Relied upon and pushed against the feedback from our subject matter experts, and we whole-heartedly embraced IBM Design Thinking’s philosophy around “The Loop”: Observe, Reflect, and Make. Day in and day out, we prototyped, iterated, tested, iterated, and tested again. We learned by doing. We leveraged our ignorance toward tangible outcomes. We reveled in the freedom that a beginner’s mindset engenders.

4. Never underestimate the power of the pitch

You can have the world’s greatest idea but if you can’t pitch it, you won’t ship it. On the other hand, there are people with terrible ideas that receive millions in funding. The power of the pitch isn’t logical. Learning how to tell a story, getting people to care about the problem, and portraying the vision of your solution, is critical for shipping product. Think of the product pitch as an extension of the user experience of the solution itself. And it shouldn’t be all about you. Let your user tell their story, show the interaction from their point of view. Once you have built a foundation, take the time to craft a compelling, dynamic narrative, and practice the shit out of your lines. When the day comes, people will be prepared to invest in your story. They become believers, and they want your story to be their story. That is how you propel design to have a seat at the C-suite table.

Our dedication to crafting our user’s story with the same iterative prototyping that we applied to our product design put us on a “ presentation tour.” We found ourselves delivering our pitch to internal and external audiences, getting a variety of listeners to connect with our story. And then the request came: to bring this story to the CEO as an example of design-led product development. Everything we had done built to that moment, and we were prepared to deliver.

5. If you’re not having fun, you’re doing it wrong

Fun is elusive and multifaceted. There are many types of fun that we engaged in during the process: happy hours, inside jokes, nerd jokes, design jokes, Costco snack runs (pocket meat anyone?), roller-coasters, late night “trashy” tacos, absurd metaphors, themed house parties, post-it sketches, karaoke…you get it.

The most important fun to have when working on an intensive, design problem is in relationship to flow; the state of being highly productive, yet lost in time. For a new team to rally around a complex task in a short period of time with no prior knowledge or experience in the domain, synergy is key. We came to our studio space every day, wanting to be there. Our team found a harmony that came from a sense of creative flow and the ability for each team member to simultaneously carve their own identity on the team while fusing it with the larger group. This team-based energy is equal parts elusive and intentional. For our team, daily stand-ups (where any announcement is fair game), getting ideas out of our heads and onto the walls, and always staying grounded in the lens of our users created an atmosphere of flow, alignment, and trust.

In conclusion…

These last seven months were the perfect transition from educational theory to practical application. I can’t say enough about IBM’s design practices, and the frameworks this company has provided. Combined with a positive attitude, pervasive collaboration, a dedication to craft, and the willingness to take advantage of opportunities, these kind of institutional frameworks help to elevate design and designers alike. Don’t we all deserve a seat at the table?

A much deserved congratulations to my amazing IBM Design Bootcamp teammates: Michael Lee Kenney, Amanda Shearon, Danielle Demme, Yoshie Berisha, Andy Rau, Abdullah Alomari, and Matt Heitzer.

An eternally appreciative shout out to the brilliant team at IBM Research who not only created the backend technology to make this project possible, but expressed the upmost humility, respect, and open-mindedness in every exchange: Alessandro Curioni, Costas Bekas, Venkat Raghavan, Mauricio Zuniga, Teodoro Laino, and the entire Cognitive Discovery team.

A special thank you to some very inspiring designers and leaders at IBM: Kara Kotwas, Devin O'Bryan, Oen Michael Hammonds, Joni Saylor, Fahad Osmani, Phil Gilbert, Clay Braxton, Steven Chiang, Doug Powell, Charlie Hill, Liz Holz & Adam Cutler IBM Design Stories

All thoughts expressed in this article are my own.