Blog 5 Leadership Lessons as Product Design Manager
Published on: January 5, 2021
9 min read

5 Leadership Lessons as Product Design Manager

Shortly after my promotion to Staff Product Designer, I was given the opportunity to act as Product Design Manager for CI/CD. These are some of the lessons I learned on design leadership at GitLab.


GitLab has a number of career development opportunities, and during my time as an individual contributor (IC) I intentionally leaned towards leadership.

In October 2020, my manager decided to leave the organization and asked if I was ready to take on her position as Product Design Manager for CI/CD. The acting manager is an interim position dedicated to ICs experimenting with the role as they work on determining their career path. I took this role and started reporting directly to the Director of Product Design.

In parallel, I was promoted to Staff Product Designer! Wait, there's more: my team, Release Management, was dissolved and I was assigned as shared resource between the Runner and Testing teams; meaning I had to handoff all my design work and onboard two new stage groups. I remember feeling overwhelmed and excited at the same time. I also remember thinking that growth is supposed to be uncomfortable, and if I had to go through all these new challenges in my professional life I was glad it was at GitLab.

What follows are a few lessons I learned in my (ongoing) stint as the acting Product Design Manager for CI/CD. Eventually, I aim to become a manager again, and I hope to remember these lessons and learn even more.

1. Define what success looks like for your new role

I knew I had to trace a plan in order to effectively perform my new roles. I set a series of goals that were people and process focused, and that I wanted to eventually feed back into my personal development plan.

As an acting manager, I first focused on learning how I could help sustain a sense of stability and trust in the team. Performance Reviews and career growth conversations were my top concerns (meaning, learning the what and how of it). Another key element of success was to establish relationships with counterparts in order to understand what they care about, how they collaborate with UX, and what concerns they have. This foundational work provided insights on how I could help myself and others, as well as assess if what I thought was important really needed my attention.

As a Staff Designer, my plan was to set boundaries to the IC work, specifically regarding all the tactical design I knew I would not be able to deliver and communicate that soon and often to people around me.

Because we use GitLab for everything, I also took the opportunity to create some artifacts that could help automate the onboarding and planning for new acting managers, as well as a plan for my design handoff and onboarding:

  • I defined my quarterly goals around my new roles and shared them with my manager and counterparts.
  • I created an issue template for onboarding new acting managers.
  • I made a plan to transition all my design work and assigned it to new DRIs.
  • I used my Group Manager's onboarding issues to get up to speed with understanding the Runner and Testing groups' visions, roadmaps, competitive landscapes, team health, processes, and partnerships across the organization.

2. Managing your schedule is essential

I inherited my previous manager's meetings, meaning my calendar was impossible to manage for a couple of weeks. A packed schedule means I am likely to be launched into an anxiety spiral. Because I am both IC and manager, this created a situation where I was splitting my brain and my attention trying to do too many things at once.

Darby Frey, Sr. Engineering Manager for Verify, shared some kind words with me. He reminded me that I wouldn't be able to do everything I want or need to. "It’s impossible to do two full-time jobs. My advice is to do what you can; time-box things; set priorities for the calls; be deliberate about what you choose not to do."

  • I kept creating a weekly plan with my priorities. This helped me stay grounded and acknowledge I could only deliver so much in a week.
  • I started being intentional about focus time by blocking my calendar, forcing myself to work on specific items rather than "freestyle" my tasks. This was in particular very painful.
  • I picked up the habit of time-boxing my work using Forest - a popular productivity app that helps you stay focused. This made me realize that working 3-4 hours without a break was unsustainable and that 30-minute to 1-hour blocks of focused work gives me a greater sense of accomplishment and is healthier.

My mantra in the last few months has been: be kind to yourself. I believe I still have a long way to go. In the meantime, these resources have helped me quite a bit:

3. Design Managers at GitLab are facilitators

I thought I had a pretty good sense of what being a manager meant... until I became one myself. I've always enjoyed coaching, but there's a huge difference between being a buddy and a manager.

From career development to design critique, I believe the true role of managers in the UX department is to facilitate great work and make sure our designers are being supported. I learned that this means getting to know what each designer needs individually - and building that relationship is a job of its own. Servant-leader qualities are especially true if you are now managing people who used to be your peers. There was certainly a change in the dynamics for me, but the end goal remained the same: wanting others to succeed.

An upside of being acting manager is spending more time consulting with the designers and following their work. I started having a better sense of what people are prioritizing and (more importantly) what type of support they need. This overview will be helpful once I transition back fully into my Staff role. Sure, the fact that I had previous context on different product areas was great, but I now I understand why design managers are not able to dive deep into everyday design tasks. This is why they listen and facilitate instead of coming up with solutions. Product Designers are the experts. That being said, I came to the conclusion that I'd rather be a manager that takes a leap of faith than being the person watching over someone's shoulders.

Valerie Karnes, Director of Product Design, taught me that you need to make confident decisions with the context you have. That also means trusting people so they can make their own decisions and move forward.

  • Keep asking how you can better support the team. I do this in every 1:1 by asking "how can I be a better manager for you?" or "how can I help you this week?" People have different feelings about asking for help and I recognize I'm busy, so I find it important to leave that door always open.
  • Adapt to what each report needs. Some conversations will be harder than others, so make sure you are listening.
  • Seek ongoing feedback and support from your manager and peers. I meet with Justin Mandell, Product Design Manager, once every two weeks to talk about people management. I also connected with people who were once interim managers to get to know what challenges they faced and how they solved them.
  • Be transparent and communicate that you are learning on the job: you don't know everything, and you can't possibly do everything right. If you're in a situation like me where you can't be a manager 100%, let people know that.

4. Manager is a different career

As a new manager, I had to redefine what I call "results." You go from being completely independent to being responsible for the team's output. As an IC, I can measure my output based on how many things I get out the door in a milestone. The usual metrics no longer apply when you're a manager. This can mess with your sense of self-worth, which is being tied for so long to visible, tactical design. Many days I sat in front of the computer feeling I wasn't moving the needle at all. I had to learn on the fly how to get satisfaction from a new way of operating.

My results now translate into being a network builder by thinking strategically, understanding and communicating the overall company direction, and aligning people's sense of purpose with where the company is going. You can't just pinpoint one specific deliverable that exemplifies all that.

The rewarding side of managing is watching the CI/CD designers shine: from communicating someone got a discretionary bonus for doing amazing work and exemplifying our company values, to giving positive feedback on a performance review, and helping people figure their career growth plans. This new approach to results made me experience a deep sense of pride for other people's accomplishments. Almost like magic moments of bliss. ✨

On the other hand, I had to handle my own disappointment in not being involved at the level I could help with the hands-on design work. I was unable to deliver feature proposals at the same pace as before. Even onboarding Testing and Runner proved to be a challenge; I couldn't do it at the speed I wanted to.

I learned that becoming a manager is not an extension of my IC career: being a manager is either/or. If I want to be a good manager, I want to have the time to be a consistent manager.

  • Ask yourself: are you ready to help design other people's careers instead of features?
  • There’s a level of separation when you become a manager and you need to be comfortable with that. I found myself feeling isolated from the things that give me joy, like tactical design and stage group rituals.

5. Share your learnings

The final lesson is a small one, but it can have a deep impact on our team of designers. Management opportunities are created based on merit and company need, and it is imperative that designers understand what challenges they might face and what the path to management looks like. Keep sharing what you've done and how you've done it to succeed as an IC. I became more self-aware of my accomplishments and I learned that people are craving actionable guidance. Becoming a manager is a beacon of hope!

I am privileged for having the chance to experience the manager role before making the transition. Leadership is a long-term learning and I know have a ton to learn. I hope the lessons I shared are also valuable to you during your own journey.

Thank you for reading and thank you to GitLab for enabling my growth. 👣

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