What Working at Facebook Taught Me About Design Mentorship
What mentorship means and two methods I used to find it
June 2015. I was ready. Ready to graduate from college and begin an exciting career as a product designer at Facebook.
The job started off great. I was passionate about my projects, and I loved coming to work, eagerly looking forward to what each new day would bring.
But after a few months, things changed. I dreaded coming to work. My projects felt like stale leftovers I couldn’t bear to touch. Minutes and hours crawled by. And on my worst days, I considered quitting and finding a different job altogether.
Though unhappy, I worried that if I spoke up, I would appear difficult, or picky, or both. As a new grad I was fortunate to even have a job. Who was I to be choosy? Who was I to demand change?
I eventually confessed my feelings to Jasmine Friedl, a Facebook design veteran and one of my most trusted design mentors.
At our weekly one-on-one meeting, I talked at length about how I felt. How I thought I wasn’t meant to be a designer, if it meant being so unfulfilled.
Talking to anyone else the response might have been, “Just stick it out, it’ll get better.”
But Jasmine reassured me that my feelings were completely valid.
She shared a time when she too felt unhappy on her team. She emphasized the due diligence in identifying the root of her discontent, then outlined concrete steps to improve the situation and reminded me that not every team turns out to be the best fit.
In short, Jasmine did what every great mentor does.
What is a mentor?
A mentor is someone you respect for deep experience in an area you’re new to. As a result they’re someone you pay close attention to, someone whose advice you follow.
Importantly a mentor is also someone who’s actually willing to give you that advice. In the field of design, this means someone that takes the time to critique your latest design explorations. Someone that listens to your issues— issues that aren’t necessarily related to work— because your mentor cares about you beyond the design work you produce. A design mentor is invested deeply in your growth and happiness. And they use their experience to guide you towards informed career decisions and an elevated craft.
Finding a mentor
A traditional notion of mentorship might dictate that the relationship is defined from the very beginning. In that world finding a mentor might go like this:
But finding a design mentor never happens like that. That person you just met doesn’t care about your problems.
You didn’t meet your closest friends by asking them “Will you be my friend?” No — things developed naturally. You found common interests. The conversation flourished, and you realized there was something there.
You’d do anything to help your friends: give advice on how to deal with their boss, grab lunch to hear about their latest accomplishments, listen to their relationship problems.
People won’t invest any time to help a stranger, but they’d do a lot to help a friend. So you shouldn’t be looking for a design mentor. You should be looking for a friend who happens to have a lot more experience than you.
A design mentor is a friend who happens to have things to teach you.
Though there are no guarantees, here are a couple methods that worked for me in finding a mentor.
1. Meet every designer you admire
When I started at Facebook I set a personal goal to meet one new designer I admired every week. I invited them to coffee, and we would chat. Mostly about their backgrounds; not really about mine. I asked them questions like how did you get into design and what is your background like and what do you like doing outside work. I tried to find common ground. Something that I could gently coax out, something that might ignite the spark of friendship.
Meeting with designer after designer became discouraging. I picked up tidbits of advice but came away with no friendships and certainly no mentors.
Eventually, though, the persistence paid off. I got lunch one day with Tory Hargro, a product design manager with years of experience in the news industry. After 15 minutes talking about his background he turned the conversation around. Tory asked about my background and my interests. We discovered we were reading the same books, passionate about the same topics, curious about the same things. The energy was palpable.
Tory and I got lunch again a couple weeks later and these days we have lunch regularly to talk about what we’re working on and what we’re struggling with.
When I need help I don’t hesitate to ask Tory over forkfuls of food. While compiling a list of teams at Facebook I was interested in joining, I bounced all my ideas off Tory. He probed with questions that helped me clarify what I wanted from a team and where my interests lay. He offered thoughtful suggestions for teams that aligned with my strengths.
The reality is you don’t become friends with every single person you meet. Consequently you won’t end up finding a mentor in most designers you meet. They may be too busy or uninterested, or there may just be a lack of energy in the conversation. But you can maximize your chances of finding a mentor by meeting as many designers as you can.
This takes a long time. It’s draining to meet someone new day after day and have nothing to show for it. The worst part is there’s a chance it will never pay off.
But eventually, with enough persistence and a little bit of luck, there will be a spark. Just keep at it. Remember, you’re only looking to make a friend.
At a company the size of Facebook it’s easy to get face time with a lot of designers. There are hundreds within walking distance. But if you’re still in school or working at a startup, it’s not as simple.
If that’s the case, attend as many external design events as you can. Industry networking events, happy hours, panels — they’re all bustling with designers.
Once there, be bold. Introduce yourself to new people. Step outside your comfort zone.
Some time ago at a design event I introduced myself to a well-known designer. But I didn’t prepare anything to say besides, “I’m a big fan of your work!” The conversation crumbled 10 seconds later and I walked away with my face red.
To keep the conversation flowing it’s a good idea to identify common ground with your new acquaintance. Hometown, mutual friends, books, and movies are all fair game.
And keep in mind that even the most famous designers are only human. Take them off the pedestal. This way the interaction is more a conversation than an interview. With enough luck and persistence, you’ll find that one such conversation evolves into a meaningful relationship.
If you’re not extroverted enough to meet designers in person, there’s still hope.
2. Work on the same projects as designers you admire
One of the coolest perks at Facebook is the hack-a-month. Hack-a-months enable employees to work temporarily on a project outside their immediate team.
In December 2015 I wrapped up a hack-a-month on the Design Tools team, a tight-knit group overflowing with design talent.
The hack-a-month was not all fun and games. Far from it. The Design Tools team shipped like a five-person startup. So during the hack-a-month I worked far longer hours than I ever had, stressing constantly about impressing the team. I gave up all extracurriculars to commit fully to the team and its ambitious goals. With a completely unfamiliar product space and only a handful of weeks at my disposal, my hack-a-month blurred into one tiring sprint to demonstrate meaningful impact.
When the hack-a-month ended on the last day of December, I could breathe again. I contributed meaningfully and learned a lot but made glaring errors along the way.
The following month, Julius Tarng, the team’s design lead, scheduled an exit interview to officially close out the hack-a-month.
I was petrified—I assumed the exit interview would be Julius telling me about how badly I screwed up.
But we talked mostly about my suggestions to improve the team. We talked about the highs and lows of the hack-a-month. He noted areas of development I should focus on but thanked me sincerely for my contribution to the Design Tools team.
And then, right before signing off, he told me that if I ever needed anything, if I ever wanted critique, or advice, or the answer to a stupid question, he would be there for me.
He and I now have monthly check-ins. He offers invaluable advice for problems I encounter at work and insightful feedback on my designs.
Collaborating on the same project is a great way to learn from and find mentorship in a designer you admire.
If you’re on the hunt for a full-time design position, this might mean applying to companies full of designers you admire. Not all tech companies are created equal—some invest heavily in recruiting design talent; others value engineering or marketing talent more highly.
If you’re not looking for a full-time position, you can still contribute to the same open-source projects as designers you admire. Or you can offer thoughtful, unsolicited redesigns. Big fan of the Spotify design team? Carve out time to redesign a Spotify feature that needs improvement. Then write about your process, and share it with as many Spotify designers as you can.
In the months after graduating from college, things didn’t quite go as planned. I struggled to find my place at Facebook and many times came close to giving up on the company and on myself.
But since day one, my mentors have been there to guide me out of the rough patches and help me find my feet. They point me in the right direction and are there to answer my questions, big or small, professional or personal.
Finding a design mentor is anything but straightforward. Though I’ve shown what worked for me, I can’t guarantee these tips will work for you. Finding a mentor is like wandering through a labyrinth, looking for something you can only vaguely describe.
But if I have any advice for you, it’s this: keep looking. A design mentor is so incredibly valuable that when you finally make it out of the maze, you’ll look back on your aimless journey and know that it was so worth it.
Huge thanks to Sarah Jang, Stephanie Engle, Victoria Badenas, Jasmine Friedl, Tanner Christensen, and Jasmine Probst for their thoughtful feedback.
All comics came from my brain with the help of comic-making website Comix.io.