January is a time to reflect and make New Year’s resolutions, yet some resolutions may be forgotten within the first few weeks. Just like personal resolutions, we often make resolutions at work. However, the difference is that everyone on a team works together to agree on these resolutions and is held accountable for carrying them out. This article is a reflection on how I think we did in 2019 and some of the major things we accomplished. It is not meant as a full comprehensive view, but just to highlight some of the areas we focused on and things we did. In the next few weeks, we’ll publish another article laying out our goals for 2020.
In June of 2018, I was brought on as the overall program manager for the VMware design team. 2019 was the first full year I was on the team, and I am immensely proud of what we were able to do and the number of positive changes that happened last year. At a high level, our major themes for 2019 were making VMware experience-led, focusing on continuous user insights, and creating an inclusive and empowered team.
One Experience-led VMware
VMware is a company started by engineers, and like many technology-driven enterprises, the engineer to designer ratio is skewed toward the engineers. We made tremendous strides in favor of changing the ratio. To give you an idea of how much VMware is investing in this, we grew by 60%+ last year growing by a few dozen people. We are continuing to grow more this year as well — you can find our open positions on the design team on our career page.
But growing the number of designers in a company isn’t enough to drive an experience-led culture. Another big initiative in the enterprise space is the drive to remove silos and to ensure that product teams are invariably talking to each other. In 2019 we launched the end to end story project. Our users consume a multitude of products; some are VMware products and some are third-party products that integrate with our products. Some products may have been VMware home-brewed while others may be our customer’s home-brewed solution. To ensure our users have the most optimal experience, we are looking at stories in multiple layers, and when designing new features, or enhancing current features, our designers are looking at the entirety of the user journey. This isn’t a new concept in design or even our team, but with a company of 20,000+ employees and 70+ products, it gets challenging. The end to end story initiatives created a framework for designers to consider all aspects necessary to deliver user experiences that meet the needs of our hands-on users, stakeholders, the market, and VMware as a business, applying multiple checks to ensure what we are building enhances the user experience.
Continuous user insights
It is hard to be experience-led without knowing and understanding our users. We feel it is important that in order to know our users we have to continuously communicate with them in various mediums to understand their day-to-day intricacies. In November 2018, we launched the Design Studio program, which consists of a panel of users that like to give feedback and want to see what we are working on. We launched newsletters, which made it really easy for designers to get quick access to users and removed the roadblock of timely usability access to users, ensuring what we release will be tested by users.
Last year we also increased our visibility at VMworld, our annual conference. Between the United States and Europe (hosted in Spain) conferences, we had 70+ small group research session topics, 300+ sessions, and talked to 1800+ users. While these numbers sound large on their own, to give you an idea of our growth in 2019 vs 2018, in Europe we talked to more people on the first day of the conference than we did for the entire 4 days of the conference the previous year. A similar trend happened in the United States VMworld edition, in 2018 we talked to almost 500 users after 5 days, while by the end of day 2 in 2019, we had talked to 700 users. At VMworld, new products and topics are announced and we use the Design Studio as a first look for users to give feedback on how they would use the product and give feedback on things that will release soon. It is really important for us as we focus on an experience-led enterprise to constantly get feedback so we can continuously iterate and improve. 2019 for us was the year that we ensured all roadblocks were removed so designers can talk to users and also the year we ensured that we can get constant, continuous feedback. We are continuing to invest more in this area and even hired a new program manager whose focus is to make it easier for designers to continuously get user insights and share those insights with the whole company.
Inclusive and empowered team
In the previous year’s ‘Year in Review’ article, our designers Bonnie and Grace said that one of the things we need to work on is our team’s onboarding experience. As I mentioned above, we grew tremendously and are not slowing down (did I mention we are hiring?). A good chunk of the team has been here less than a year, and to get people up and running, it is imperative to have a solid onboarding process. To aid with this, we invested more in our new hire onboarding program. Our new hires typically get a new hire kit which includes a quick guide on things to do in their first week that is unique to being on the design team and is an addition to a checklist they are given for joining the company (this includes set up email, benefits, taxes, etc). We have also set up a formal buddy program so new hires have a go-to-person, as well as several back-up-buddies to help guide their first few months on the VMware Design team. Since iteration and improvements are central to good design, we do have constant buddy checks and checks by the buddy program manager to ensure the new hire has what they need and if they have any feedback on their onboarding experience.
Another area Bonnie and Grace said we should focus on was how to keep the “team connected and retaining a strong design team culture”. To meet this we launched our first, now annual, internal design conference this brought everyone on the design team around the world for a week to align, learn, and of course get connected. We have a global team across 4 countries (United States, India, Bulgaria, and Armenia) and for many, this was the first time the whole team was able to get together in a single room and chat about things that are broader than “How was your weekend?” and the weather or traffic in that country. The conference also led to many snowball conversations, strengthening our relationship and partnership with other teams at VMware such as the branding team, global support team, and documentation support, just to name a few.
To ensure the whole team knows what is going on, we have bi-monthly all-hands meetings that we coined TGIT (Thank God It’s Thursday). In 2019 we started hosting the meeting in a Eurasia friendly time zone (that’s 10:30 pm local Pacific time) to ensure that the global team can attend the meeting live every now and then instead of always watching a recording, helping the team in being more connected and promoting an inclusive culture across time-zones.
To expand on personal career growth and empowerment, in 2019 we also launched our career framework, which gave our designers a visual of how they can grow their careers and what key skills they can work. Not only that, but it also includes templates that individuals can use to have career conversations with their manager with a guide on steps needed to reach the next level in their career. We also influenced the company to add a Distinguished Designer role. Those working in tech companies may be familiar with Principal Engineer (PE) roles; a distinguished designer is the equivalent of that. People within the PE (and now DD) role are the most respected and influential people in a specific subject. They not only influence the direction of the company but also the industry. It takes a lot of success to achieve this. Being able to create a path for our designers to achieve a high calibration as individual contributors is a statement that says VMware cares equally about engineering excellence as well as design. Now that the role exists, we hope to have a designer achieve this stature soon.
Last but certainly not least, in an effort to be experience-led and inclusive, last year we made big strides in our focus on accessibility with the hiring of Sheri, our Head of Accessibility. She ensured that all designers are trained on accessibility and incorporated it into our design system, Clarity. This is a first step in ensuring that not only are we as a team being inclusive but that our products are accessible and usable by all abilities.
We accomplished a lot in 2019. We started many new processes around being more experience-led, removing roadblocks to make it easier to talk to users, and establishing a framework for career development. We strived to be more inclusive across our team as we are growing but still keeping our fun culture intact.
Here’s to another year of growth and connectedness!