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

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José Torre is a Staff Prod­uct Design­er at Shopi­fy by day, and also a design­er by night, when he works on side 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. ’s your , 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 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 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 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 , 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 Bay Area. Being design­ers from an under­es­ti­mat­ed , 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 racism is not an option. Build the design com­mu­ni­ty you believe in.

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