Becoming a leader on your own terms — José Torre | by Caio Braga | Aug, 2020

José Torre is a Staff Product Designer at Shopify by day, and also a designer by night, when he works on side projects like Beantrails, and takes the opportunity to keep drawing and writing reflections on our profession.

UX Collective: Tell us a bit about your path to becoming a Staff Product Designer at Shopify. What’s your background, and how did you get there?

José: I was born and raised in Portugal, and always loved to draw. I got into graphic design kind of by accident, but ended up falling in love with it. Started working as a designer at 17, a year into that job I decided to get a college degree in Graphic Design at night, whilst I kept working during the day.

Portugal was struggling financially, and so was I. I kept bouncing from one crappy design job to another because I wasn’t getting paid. Eventually, I found a stable job in a large publishing company called Leya, and at that time just to make my life a bit more difficult (hahaha) I was about to start a Master’s degree in Illustration and Animation in the evenings.

After 3 years, I decided I was ready for a change and picked London as my destination. After more emails and phone calls than I can remember, I stepped on an airplane for the first time in my life to go to London for a job interview.

Apparently I did well because after weeks with nothing now I had 2 job offers, and after a bit of negotiation, I picked TomTom as my next step.

At TomTom, I didn’t feel super comfortable being on a UX team because of my visual design background, but I think that helped me grow by learning a lot from my colleagues.

2 years in, I was already a senior designer and moved to Amsterdam. And not long after that, I was invited to lead a project and a small design team.

In all honesty, it was never much of an ambition of mine to be a manager, because I love making things and I always thought that a manager is someone that just tells you to do the work. Luckily, I was given the freedom to define my own approach to leading a team. Which in my case was more of a “lead by example”, I actually wrote a bit about that on my piece “How can a designer become a Leader?”.

I was given the freedom to define my own approach for leading a team. Which in my case was more of a “lead by example”

At the beginning of last year, I was approached by a recruiter from Shopify, and the thing that stuck out the most from our chats was the fact that it seemed like they were more interested in trying to see what role would be the best fit for me, than trying to look for reasons to discard me from the hiring process.

After a few chats, we concluded that a leadership role focused on the craft was the right thing for me, and a couple of weeks later I was on an airplane on my way to Canada for a job interview. Funny enough, that was my very first intercontinental airplane trip.

Illustration/animation by José Torre

Was there a point in your career where you made a decision you wanted to stay close to the craft, and not necessarily follow a managerial career path?

When I was promoted to become a Lead at TomTom, I was never able to leave the craft behind. It’s just not in my nature. Even as more people joined my team, I was always, ALWAYS trying to make sure I had time to design. Even if that required a lot of effort.

I was never able to leave the craft behind. It’s just not in my nature.

The main reason is actually quite simple: I don’t believe I would be happy or even motivated to go to work every day if I spent too much time without actually making something.

If I had a week where I had to deal with a lot of “managerial” type of tasks and I didn’t manage to make anything, I would make sure to double down on the following week and block as much time as I could as “design time”.

The main challenge I found was learning how to manage my time, to be able to have a good block of more than a couple hours of uninterrupted time.

Have you had at any point to have ‘the talk’ with your manager to let them know you were not as interested in managing other people?

Yes. Actually, when I was first asked to lead a team I declined. I only accepted on a subsequent chat because my manager at the time reassured me that I could do it on my own terms, and I could decide to go back to my senior role if I didn’t feel that it was for me.

That said, one of the other reasons I accepted to be a manager was because I felt the “Individual Contributor” path seemed like a dead-end, where you might go from Senior to Principal Designer but after that, you’re basically stuck.

When I came to Shopify, it seemed like there was a better plan on that track, at least there’s the intention to make it a track where you can keep on moving up the ranks. That said, that track is still being shaped as we learn more from people.

Illustration by José Torre

How do you see your career path evolving in the next few years?

The main thing I want to grow is my impact. The more impact I have on the products we ship and the people I work with the better I feel about myself.

What does that look like in practice? I imagine the following:

  • I’m doing a good amount of hands-on work, probably leading a project on the Design side, (basically what I’m doing today) but in the future I imagine it getting more strategic and conceptual, thinking more about the future.
  • I’m mentoring other designers, not only by having 1:1 chats, but also by creating content that can reach a larger number of people.
  • I’m also occasionally helping to bring talent on board (helping with recruiting/reviewing candidates)
  • And this one should go without saying, I’m also spending a sufficient amount of time context gathering/sharing, via coffee chats, meetings, critiques and any other way information can be transmitted — because without the right context you can’t do any of the things I mentioned above.

What keeps you up at night?

Real talk, nothing keeps me up at night. Especially now in the middle of a pandemic where I have to be a full-time designer and full-time dad. My days are exhausting enough that I just crash on my bed and sleep.

ICs are still very undervalued and underutilized in most companies. Especially when it comes to compensation, I imagine we end up losing a lot of great talent because they want to make more money and the only way for them to do that is to start managing other people and making less things.

A bit of a side rant: I actually hate the term “Individual Contributor”, I don’t think that is doing designer’s any favors. To me, it describes someone working on their own, which at least for designers should never be the case, even if you’re a junior you have to play with your team.

The difference from a Manager to a Staff/Principle level is not individuality, it’s the focus.

At the end of the day, everyone can be described as an individual contributor. The difference is that a manager has to focus on people, and a staff designer focuses on the craft.

What advice you would give for those who want to continue to grow but not take a management position?

Since I joined Shopify, I’ve had a couple of chats with Senior designers who are trying to figure out which track they should take. I would say that my main advice comes down to a few questions:

  • What is the thing that makes you most happy?
  • What gives you the energy to get stuff done?

The answer to these will let you know which way to go. That said, everyone is somewhere in a spectrum, so I would also encourage people to look beyond the title.

Different companies will have different expectations for a manager, you might even be able to shape that role to your ambitions, that’s what I did at TomTom. At Shopify, I went down the Staff track because I knew I didn’t enjoy certain aspects of being a manager — anything that would remove me from designing.

Growth is more than a title. There are many ways you can continue growing and increasing your impact other than heading into a management position. Just make sure that you’re fairly compensated for your impact.

Follow José on Youtube and on Instagram to see more of his craft in practice.

More about this series:

The UX Collective donates US$1 for each article published in our platform. This story contributed to Bay Area Black Designers: a professional development community for Black people who are digital designers and researchers in the San Francisco Bay Area. Being designers from an underestimated group, BABD members know what it feels like to be “the only one” on their design teams and in their companies. By joining together in community, members share inspiration, connection, peer mentorship, professional development, resources, feedback, support, and resilience. Silence against systemic racism is not an option. Build the design community you believe in.

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