How to Become a Design Program Manager

3 Former Executive Assistants Share their Top 5 Skills

Chasma Smith
Apr 24, 2019 · 8 min read
Michele Wiecha, Chasma Smith, Alissa Kim

Being an Executive Assistant is a little like being a drummer: everybody thinks they know what you do and how to do it…until they take a seat behind the drumkit. Executive Assistants (EAs) are often portrayed in pop culture as either a) the bungling, incompetent assistant who makes the boss’ life harder; b) the overworked, underappreciated, verbally abused minion who lives in constant fear at the edge of a panic attack; or c) the hard-charging, Type-A, gunning for your job, know-it-all gatekeeper.

As disparate as they are, these portrayals have two things in common:

  • They can be very entertaining (otherwise they wouldn’t crop up so often)
  • They are nothing like the reality of being an Executive Assistant.
Chasma Smith

“As a former EA, I found it to be a complex, rewarding role, one that prepared me well for my current position as a Design Program Manager (DPM). “

What EA skills do you find most helpful as a DPM?

A: A high level of organization, attention to detail, process-oriented, and a get-it-done mentality.

M: A can-do attitude. As an EA, you may not get the support that other job functions do because you are the support. Coming into design, it’s great to use that can-do attitude to approach things before someone tells you to do it.

What was it about design or the DPM role that sparked your interest to transition from your EA roles?

A: [As EA to the VP of Design at Uber] I was already familiar with the design org, so it was a natural transition. I had made connections with people as well, and enjoyed collaborating with the DPM team. I also enjoy being more involved in the product, which was something I didn’t have as much visibility into as an EA.

M: In the past, when I worked on projects with designers, they were so open to feedback and really positive; it showed me that there is no right or wrong, you just figure it out together. Also, a lot of the time as an admin professional, the range of solutions to problems can be very limited — you can get a little creative here and there, but you don’t always have the time or room for mistakes necessary to improve the process when your focus is on supporting someone else.

What are your career goals as a DPM?

A:I’d like to be seen as more of a strategic resource for designers, for our product and engineer partners. I want to bridge the gap between design and other cross-functional teams, and to be seen as a leader.

M: I admire the way designers work and I want to learn more about the design approach to problems.

What achievements in each role (EA and DPM) are you most proud of? How do you think these intersect?

A: As an EA, I helped build the design studio culture initiatives to recognize the team and celebrate individual achievements. As a DPM, I helped implement a lot of processes (like tracking work and meeting the right people on other teams) that hadn’t been in place before. These help to elevate the quality of work that the entire design team does.

The intersection is that in admin roles, your goal is to help someone else do their job better: if I’m doing my job well, then I’m helping the leader I support to do theirs, too. The same goes for the DPM role: if I’m doing my job well, then the design team is highly organized on projects.

M:When I saw a problem multiple times, I’d figure out how to resolve it and create a playbook for it. I’m really proud that I’ve been able to empower other people to do things, rather than take them on myself every time and start again from scratch.

Michelle Wiecha

“I’m really proud of prioritizing ideas over hierarchy.”

How do you view success? Has that view changed?

A:In both roles, I feel like success is defined by your ability to solve problems. The difference between the two is that EAs are a bit more tactical in their problem-solving, while DPMs tend to be more strategic (although both jobs still require both skills).

M: In EA terms, success was less tangible because responsibilities were usually ongoing, ad hoc and reacting to executive needs. Success has changed as a DPM in that there can be a tangible result: we made this. There is something that has a beginning and an end, a project that is finalized or rolled out. In the EA world, a lot of things are not directly related to you at all. You’re a little part of everything, but not one product speaks to what you do.

EA career paths are not always clear. What would you say to EAs who want to transition outside of executive support roles?

A: It depends on what you are looking for. The skills you acquire as an EA can really be applied to a lot of different roles. You can go in any direction — you just have to seek out those opportunities.

M: In an EA role, you touch so many areas of a company, but everyone has a few things that they are really great at or a particular topic they love. I think if you can find a way to work in one of those areas and do it better than it’s currently being done, you might be able to find your next role. Look at areas that need support. If there’s a way to use your EA skills, then do it. Leverage the network you’ve built across different teams. Have conversations about roles and what you want to do next.

Alissa Kim

“I’m passionate about finding and igniting positive change in various areas of growth.”

A: I’m passionate about finding and igniting positive change in various areas of growth. It’s really cool to see an area of need and be able to actually do something about it.

M: I love implementing processes so that I don’t always have to do things from the ground up each time. It gives me peace, knowing that I can help make things easier for a whole team. In my DPM role, I’m able to fulfill my passion for Learning & Development (L&D) and create processes for scaling the programs that support L&D efforts in the design org.

What interests do you have and how do they apply to how you approach your DPM role?

M:I enjoy beach volleyball, and I train a lot for it. I am excited about getting better, and I like working toward that goal. As a DPM, I want to give that same feeling to other people: working hard to grow a talent or skill they love. Also, beach volleyball is a team sport, and being a DPM is very team-oriented. When you lose as a team, it doesn’t feel as bad as when you lose as an individual. When you win as a team, it feels great.


Top 5 Skills for Success

Of course, we are all from different backgrounds and experiences, and we recognize that there are plenty of new skills to learn — and old ones to develop and refine.

Nevertheless, in discussing our experience transitioning from EAs to DPMs, we found a lot of overlap. Here are 5 skills we all felt we’d practiced effectively as EAs that translated into success as DPMs.

  1. Problem-Solving: EAs and DPMs are often behind the scenes of a company’s product or leadership. When a duck glides smoothly across the surface of a pond, no one sees the furious paddling below. We are duck feet: we problem-solve and figure it out so the rest flows easily.
  2. Process Development: To avoid being overwhelmed, EAs and DPMs can create processes to best handle specific tasks and projects. We prioritize, delegate, then proactively follow up. And we are able to handle pushback.
  3. Entrepreneurial Spirit (Can-Do Attitude): We are independent thinkers. A can-do attitude enables EAs and DPMs to see an area of opportunity and actively take steps to approach it.
  4. Great Communication: EAs often are the first point of contact with clients, customers and vendors, the voice on the phone and behind emails and memos. DPMs, too, are the voice behind processes and must communicate via multiple channels.
  5. Effective Collaboration: Viewing your team and boss as partners can help you anticipate areas of need and how to best approach them.

As Administrative Professionals’ Day rolls around this year, I’m celebrating the amazing skills and connections I acquired that have undeniably set me, Alissa and Michele up for success as Program Managers in Design and beyond.

Want to learn more? Read about open roles at Uber.com


About the Author

Chasma is driving professional growth, employee belonging, recognition, culture, and inclusivity across the product and design org through internal communications and event-based initiatives on the Employee Journey Team. She is passionate about women’s advocacy and pushes initiatives at Uber as part of the Women of Uber Board and outside of Uber in community initiatives. Connect with her on LinkedIn.

Uber Design

We are passionate about the pursuit of ideas that put…

Chasma Smith

Written by

Chasma leads belonging, recognition, culture, and inclusivity initiatives in Product and Design at Uber. She helps #movethenumbers on the Women of Uber Board.

Uber Design

We are passionate about the pursuit of ideas that put people first. Work with us: uber.com/design. Follow us on Twitter: @DesigningUber.

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