Latinx In Power
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Being a Manager and Leading a Product Design Team as an Immigrant Woman

Based on an episode with Thelma Neves 🇧🇷

Thelma has a bachelor’s degree in Graphic Design and a master’s degree in Communication Design. She initiated her career as a Graphic Designer and transitioned to User Experience over the years. Thelma has experience managing design teams from the agency-side and also client-side.

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How would you describe your journey?

It’s funny to think about this as a journey. You never think about it as your journey because it’s just your life. But yeah, it’s been a journey, and this question made me think like, wow, 13 years ago I moved to the UK. What have I done? Why did I do that? And then I start trying to remember why I made the decisions that I made. I think everything started 13 or maybe 14 years ago when I tried to do my master’s degree, I actually moved mountains in Brazil to try to make that happen. I had to move or change jobs to make that happen.

At the time, I was working in a clothing company called Thais Gusmão, I loved the job, but they didn’t pay well so I went to an agency that paid better, and then I could start saving money for my master’s degree. At the time, I wanted to go to Italy or Spain, but when I started researching I learned that you need to have good knowledge of the language, and I knew zero Spanish or Italian. I had to potentially go to the United States or the United Kingdom because everything was in English. My English skills weren’t quite as good as they are now, of course, but they were okay to do a master’s degree.

I knew that my best friend was living in Bournemouth, UK and I asked her how was life. She recommended that I should go and live with her. After a few months, I saved up, booked a ticket, and I went to the UK. I started living with her, it was really nice. Living in a foreign country is always so exciting. I met lots of people as she also had a lot of friends.

I started my master’s degree and finished it in a year. At the time in the UK, they were giving two-year full-time work visas for students. I applied for that and got a visa. After nine months of searching for jobs, sending resumes, and doing interviews, I finally got a job as a graphic designer with a Finnish company as a maternity leave cover. It wasn’t perfect, like a permanent job.

It was really exciting because it was my first job. I couldn’t believe it, I really impressed them. That was really fun. As my first job in the UK, it taught me a lot about how to communicate with stakeholders, make presentations, and do storytelling. I gained confidence with that and learned how to lead projects. That was really good for me, and I increased my knowledge on industry methods and tools. That job helped me to get where I am today, serving as a foundation for me to learn.

Of course, things were different in Brazil where I knew about the country and culture, but when you’re in a different country there’s a different culture, different ways of doing things. It’s almost like you need to relearn everything. It’s quite funny and interesting, isn’t it? It’s interesting because the language plays a huge part, but there’s also the culture, the different products and ways of doing things. It is scary but exciting to learn and do more all the time. It was really really good for me.

Today I work as a product design manager for BT, which stands for British Telecommunication. In the BT group you have three brands: BT, EE, and Plusnet. I love working for this company. I see how I fit here. It makes complete sense because I’ve always wanted to work in a company that puts the customers first or at the heart of everything that we do, and BT is doing something completely different.

Before I even applied for the job, I found out that they were struggling, and they pointed out two new roles, design manager and design director. BT is a company with a lot of heritage and different ways of working, so they awere changing their model, making it better for the digital team and for the design team as well. I thought that was really interesting. When I found that out, I applied for the product design manager role, and I got it.

We have 106 designers across four sides so we have four brains. It’s a very exciting place to be working at the moment because we are changing on a day-to-day basis. We’re changing the way we design, how we talk about users, how we solve problems, how we change behaviors, and that’s really exciting.

What does it mean to you to be a Latina?

I think being a Latina means to be proud and passionate about what we do and who we are. My husband always jokes with me about this. He says that no matter how they do things in the UK, in Brazil it is 20% better. This is because I always joke with him, saying that in Brazil we do things this way, and it’s so much better. I’m so passionate and proud about being Brazilian, my culture, and my heritage, so I always say that.

Maybe it’s because I’ve been far away for so many years, 13 years. I am always trying to bring my culture to my home. I listen to Brazilian songs, and cooking the food is always part of my life. Food, family, and friends are our base. Now that I’m married I have another side to my family as well. I’ve always been passionate about everything that comes with my culture, my Brazilian culture and my Latina culture.

It’s funny to think that you can change people as well in the process and for the best. My husband’s family, my parents-in-law, they never used to hug or kiss. When I learned about that, I thought it was surreal, so I started to hug them, and now they can’t let it go. Now they like kisses and hugs. I find that really amusing and powerful that our culture and the way that we treat people, the way that we welcome people to our lives to our homes can be enjoyed by people from other cultures as well.

What is your best tip for making the world a better place?

I think there is so much we can do. In terms of changing the world, there are a lot of conversations about climate change. There’s a lot about the reduction of carbon emissions. Especially now, we think about the future, we think about the impact of our products, how that affects our services. We sell mobiles, we sell devices, we sell those things, how are they going to be reflected in 10, 20, 30 years time?

That’s part of it. As an individual, I always try to do my best. Now I think even more after these conversations, for example, how much water is wasted to produce one piece of fabric for a t-shirt. There are also a lot of questions about your eating behavior like eating less meat. I’m buying books to help me to think about new, meatless and vegan recipes.

Here in the UK we’re very good at recycling. We do a lot of recycling and try not to waste food as well. That’s very important for me. I’m trying to plant fruits and vegetables in my garden because I believe every little bit helps. I try to learn a lot from others.

At the same time, I try to teach others, they might learn something as well. I know some people are going vegan or reducing the amount of meat they eat. It doesn’t take much, and I think it’s a small step that is manageable. Even my husband’s parents are trying some vegan dishes to reduce the amount of meat that they eat and to improve their lifestyle. I find that fascinating, even my mom in Brazil shares her recipes, and she’s an amazing cook. She can cook anything. I learned how to love vegetables so I eat anything.

Tell me the first thing that comes to mind when you hear these phrases:

Favorite place

Any beach in Brazil. I think something amazing happens in Brazil if you go to any beach, you can have anything. You can have cocktails, you can eat, you can do whatever you want. My husband Tom, his two brothers, and my sister-in-law went to Brazil with me once, and they found it amazing. They were saying, wow, you can buy sunglasses and you can also have a cocktail. So funny.

United Kingdom

I was alone here in the beginning, and I think that brought me a kind of connection with my favorite place, the beach. Even though it is not as warm as Brazil, it is still the same place that I like. I have a connection with the water. We live close to the water here as well. We live in a very small village in town that is a 10-minute walk from the beach. And there’s also the rain, because it rains here all the time, but on the positive side, the UK is the place where my husband taught me how to surf. I am very lucky to be living here. It’s amazing. I just loved the quiet as well. Being from São Paulo where everything is packed, to come to a place completely the opposite, really is quite relaxing, definitively really cool.

Your superpower

I was in a meeting today, and this lady made a comment about me having this superpower of bringing people together and getting everyone to want to help me. I think I have the power of persuasion and bringing people together. When this person said that to me, she was actually complimenting me for doing the work that we’re doing now, and how I go about doing it so quickly and getting everyone involved in everything. I enjoy working as a team, bringing everyone together and bringing everyone on the journey. I know how to go for what I need as well so I don’t waste time or people’s effort. I think communication as well is an awesome power.

A surprise

2020 for sure.

What do you wish you had known when you started your career?

If I could go back in time, I’d say, it’s okay to fail. I think when I was younger, I had this perception that I had to be perfect, and the work should be outstanding. Now that I’m a manager, I’m coaching the designers in the industry. I think it is important to create a safe environment where we can be honest when things go wrong, as well as celebrate learnings and have accurate expectations from the top down.

How we control things is quite important too. For me, it’s almost like stopping the noise and letting the team do the work that they are meant to be doing, e.g., doing research, learning from users, performing user tests, and learning as a design team. We are driven by user needs, and all that we do is based on evidence. We trust each other, we have the freedom to try, to fail, and keep learning. We all do.

At BT, we have this process that we created internally called build, measure and learn (BML). Essentially it’s to learn fast and quick with continuous improvement. That’s so important. As a designer, you have the freedom to fail and learn from the things that didn’t go right. It’s not even a failure, it’s just that you never know until you actually test to make it live for customers and get evidence. You get data that drives the performance for that particular team. It is really important as a designer to understand that you need to let go too. It is important to teach that to others, and it will be good to know that in the beginning.

We have a saying at work that no matter what we’re going to make, we realize it’s not going to be perfect. We know it’s not going to be right. If you have this mindset, it shouldn’t be. It shouldn’t hold you back, basically. Just do the most important thing first, be as creative as you can. Of course, take everything into consideration for what you’re trying to deliver. That should launch your creativity sky high. What do you have to lose? If the outcome will be something that you will have to iterate anyway, why be afraid to hold back?

What do you enjoy the most about being a manager?

I love everything about being a manager. I love managing people and coaching them. I love understanding their frustration and brainstorming how I can apply my skills and my own experience to help them out. Before being a manager, I was always frustrated with certain things or with the process. I always thought that if I tried to be a manager, maybe I could actually help change things and make them better.

When I got my job as a manager, I thought, okay, now I can make things different. We can definitely have those tough conversations with stakeholders, start changing the way that we work internally. I think that’s why I love it as well. I love being able to do that and make a difference. Everyone has had a bad manager sometime in their career, and I would never want to be that one. I would like to be different, to make a difference for my team, for my direct reports, and for what we do internally as well.

What are you curious about right now?

So many things, as I like to say. I am a product design manager, and I just recently changed teams. Now we are working on a vision and a strategy for the product. I’m absolutely loving it. I never worked with that before. I always wanted to, but I’d never had the chance. So I’m really curious about how I can influence, how I can contribute, how we can work as a team, how we can bring more teams together and work more collaboratively, how we’re going to start to actually build this vision, that is a strategy that is actually going to turn into a backlog. I love being able to work on that and to contribute to it.

I started in this company that I’m working for in a particular area. I had the opportunity to change from a service area to a sales area. The job changed in the scenario, outcomes, and pace. It really suits me as a person, because I’m all about being calm, and I need to have something that I can work on to be excited. I always need to be learning, communicating with the team, and I found sales is very much like that. It is a more engaging process, and it is about everyone working together.

The beauty is that everyone on this team gets to work in an upgrade area. When you are a customer, you finish your contract, and you’re ready for an upgrade. It’s that journey basically, and everyone is new to the area. There are other people coming in from other areas, new employees, and there are so many amazing women. We call ourselves power women. It’s so exciting to have a woman head of product and other women in leadership positions. I think I’m the only woman product design manager at this time. For me, working with others and learning from them is exciting and amazing. I find myself in a really good position, I’m learning every day. I’m always happy to share my learnings with them as well, and they are very receptive.

In terms of changing jobs, it’s quite interesting. If I’m not excited about moving to a different area internally, and I don’t get excited about a new challenge, I think that’s the time to rethink areas or jobs. Try to reflect on what you’re doing, and reflect on where you want your career to be. If you don’t have those challenges and excitement where you are learning and growing, it is really hard to stay in the company. I think everyone knows where they want their career to progress. Let’s say you’re a designer, and you want to be a manager or you want to jump to other areas because you’ve already learned all you can in your position. That’s the time to move on and try to go on a different journey. It is so important to really pay attention and think about whether you’re excited about your job, your team, and what you’re doing.

What’s the most important quality a Product Designer should have?

I think a challenge that a lot of product designers, or any designers face, is how to deepen or broaden their skills. Depending on where you work, you literally need to know everything. Sometimes there are no special products. We have this sense of an ideal unicorn, they should know UI and UX. There are quite a lot of skills and tools to know. There is so much information out there that it is very easy to get overwhelmed.

I think it’s important to focus your time on things that really matter and what makes you a better designer in the long run. If you spend your time on specific books or subjects, you might miss out on things that can be important for your career.

You can learn tools and methods very easily, but there are other things that are important, such as communication. You need to get a message across in a fast and appealing way, that makes all the difference. We interact with coworkers, users, employees, and, of course, the client stakeholders during a project. Being a great communicator is key to actually getting things done.

Another good quality is storytelling. If you are a good storyteller that’s a skill you’re going to have for life. Another skill is facilitation, not only workshops but also being able to use group dynamics to get a team to achieve the best outcome in as little time as possible. If you already have that skill in combination with great communication skills, you’re already amazing. It’s great to have social skills that can help you bring synergy to the team. When you’re part of a team, you need to have the synergy to create that dialogue. You need to be honest with each other and depend on one another.

The third important quality is empathy. It’s not really a surprise that you need to be empathetic. You need to be able to learn, and to listen to others, especially as a designer. This is the nature of our job, learning to see, understanding the world from someone else’s perspective, and being able to connect with them.

The last important quality is curiosity, it’s not only about the results. Designers need to explore, to discover new things, to research, to learn from competitors, to learn from others, to think far ahead. This is not a step-by-step thing, I’m sure that everyone has different ideas, but these are my thoughts. Learning how to be a manager is only about developing your communication, facilitation, empathy, and curiosity. However, these are qualities a manager always looks for when hiring. It’s not something that you see in a portfolio. It’s not something that you see on a resume. It’s something that you see when you talk to someone when you do the face-to-face or video conference.

Now that we are working remotely it’s even harder to keep the communication going. You need to work extra hard to make sure that you’re communicating well because you’re not seeing people. You’re not having that corridor chat or catching up with anyone. Nowadays I find it even harder to maintain communications or ensure good communications between the squads. It’s how we keep going, keep up the momentum, keep it moving in a helpful way, of course. I’m always up for communication and collaboration.

I think I try to avoid working in silos, I try to avoid having separate talks without involving the right people. It’s so important to bring essential people along the journey. Otherwise, you’re not going to get where you want. You will just end up duplicating your efforts, having more meetings with other people, and saying the same thing over and over again rather than saying it once in one big meeting, and it’s done.

What’s helping you to cope during this pandemic situation? Is there anything you wanted to share that is helping you?

The most important thing is being present, especially with the pandemic, isn’t it? You never know what’s going to happen, we don’t know what it’s going to be in a week, two weeks, a month, next year. We don’t know much about the future these days. My husband is a great supporter, my friends and family, as well.

My husband always says that we will cross that bridge when we get there. So there’s no point thinking about the future if you can’t control it and don’t know what’s going to happen. I love that, we will cross the bridge together because there is no point in thinking about it now. This is just my perspective of how I’m feeling now because I don’t want to worry about things. I don’t know what is gonna happen, or what is not going to happen. It’s so important and key for us to truly be present right now.

We will have more interviews with amazing Latinxs leaders every first Tuesday of the month. Check out our Latinx In Power website to hear more. Don’t forget to share comments and feedback, but always with kindness. See you soon.

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Insights and exposure to Latinxs leaders around the globe. In each episode we feature insightful conversations about their journey, stories behind their trajectory, plenty of laughs and learnings.

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Thaisa Fernandes

Product & Program Management | Global Partnerships | Host @ Latinx in Power Podcast | Book Co-Author @ Mulheres de Produto | Vegan