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Diógenes Brito

Product Designer at Slack

Diógenes is a Product Designer at Slack in San Francisco. We talked about how his education in both engineering and design has made him a well-rounded designer and when he knew that product design was something he could pursue as a career. He shares some of the challenges he faces in his current role and how he manages them, as well as some great advice on things to consider when joining a company.

Tell me a little bit about your role at Slack and what that encompasses.

I’m a Product Designer at Slack. I’ve been here for over 2 years so my role has evolved over time in terms of what areas I’m working on or what teams I’m working with, but overall it’s still the same job. I’m helping people figure out exactly what it is that we should build from a very detailed perspective.

That involves working with product managers and executives to help define the problem and where it’s coming from, and then exploring the landscape of possible solutions for that problem. After that, it’s about pulling related ideas from the team, research, data and other interested parties to make the final design direction artifact to explain what it is that we’re going to build and how it should work.

What was your path like to your current role at Slack?

When I was in highschool, I used to build computers. I’d order all the parts and assemble them for people. That stopped being so lucrative eventually, so I switched to making websites. Someone I had built a computer for asked me if I could make a website and I said I could. I figured I could just Google it, and I did! It wasn’t a very good website, but it was good for that client. That’s how I ended up in web design and then I continued to do it throughout college.

In college, I knew I wanted to do some sort of engineering. I looked through the engineering handbook and found that mechanical engineering had the most interesting classes. It was great except for a few boring fluid mechanics and thermodynamics classes. Right underneath engineering in the book was Product Design, which was all the same things as mechanical engineering, but in place of differential equations and calculus was design and psychology. All of that really appealed to me, so I did that instead. That’s where I stumbled onto my passion. I had always enjoyed making things, but discovering that design was a thing you could do professionally was exciting. So I ended up doing product design with computer science on the side. After I graduated I went to work at Squarespace for two and a half years and then LinkedIn for 9 months and now here at Slack.

Was there a certain point where you knew that design and product design itself was something that you were going to pursue as a career?

It was in college that I assumed the identity of a designer. I enjoyed making things and creating designs for the things I was building. After I discovered the Product Design major, I went to talk to my advisor because you’re supposed to do that before you declare a major and his description of who a designer was really resonated with me. I decided that’s what I would do.

Since it was a mechanical engineering major, a lot of people came out of that program and did more physical product design or mechanical engineering design. But since I was already doing website design on the side I went right into digital interfaces and web product design. I had a portfolio with those types of projects in it because of the websites I had been making.

“I had always enjoyed making things, but discovering that design was a thing you could do professionally was exciting.”

How do you think being an engineer has helped you frame being a product designer?

Initially, I was a little weaker with the visual design elements, having not gone to an art school. So earlier in my career, when I was just starting out, the engineering experience made up for that and gave me an advantage. Later on, it was helpful when working with other engineers, learning about the medium and being able to implement the designs I came up with and understanding how you might do something. It gave me a competitive advantage because it’s a bit more rare.

My perspective on what design is, leans towards the execution and build process a bit more as a result of that engineering background. I actually don’t touch code here, but I’m very much a systems thinker and I cover all the edge cases and error states. All of those things are just a little bit easier for me to understand because I’m used to thinking in that way. The analytical, problem-solving approach is shared between engineering and design. Even the creative process. A lot of my mechanical engineering classes covered essentially what we call the design process. There's maybe less of a user-centered research component to it, but if you have a problem to solve, it's all about bringing your skills to creatively analyze it and then get something done. There's a lot of overlap there and I think that perspective has helped me in a lot of ways.

What were some of the challenges you faced getting started as a young designer and making a space for yourself?

There were no PM's at Squarespace, so getting the job done meant taking initiative to drive the direction of the project. Learning all those soft skills of driving a project, coordinating, keeping things moving and getting it done was a new experience for me. One thing I learned by doing a lot of freelance work is the importance of checking in with stakeholders frequently. Making sure you have a good understanding of what they're looking for every step of the project. That was important as part of a team too.

Early on, I was doing front-end engineering work as well as design. All the engineers I was working with were computer science majors so they didn't have as much as a web development background as I did. Having to do that front-end development work while simultaneously doing good design work was a challenge and a learning experience. That was the point where I realized that I wanted to be much more involved on the design side and less in the code side of things.

“I’ve learned when I’m most productive and what I’m most interested in, so I can make decisions and pick my projects with that in mind. Feeling in control of those decisions and building your habits around those are a good way to combat burning out.”

Over the course of your career, how have you known when it's time to make a change and move somewhere else?

When I was at Squarespace I started to get a little antsy in terms of wanting to learn new stuff, getting access to the kinds of projects I wanted to work on, and the kind of mentorship I was interested in. I started to feel that itch but hadn’t really acted on it beyond taking some calls and meeting with some folks. When my girlfriend at the time wanted to move out here, that’s when I really started looking.

Then at LinkedIn, I knew pretty early on when it was time to make a switch. It’s a great place to work overall but it was misaligned with my values around what kind of work I wanted to produce and how I wanted to work. The way they executed on their product just didn’t jive with me and that made me think there was definitely a better place for me to be. There wasn’t any time pressure on me leaving so I could take my time and look around for a good fit.

What are some of the major challenges you face in your work now?

Well two years ago the team was about 45 people and now we must be approaching 600. The product team is huge and the design team is around 12 people, so there’s a lot of parallel work happening. One challenge is keeping a handle on several simultaneous large projects and keeping the bar high. Often I’ll start working on a project and think, "Wow. We’ve really got to go back and fix that old design." Or "We need a style guide for this thing." Or "We should lay down some documentation here about what you should do in this case." But, there are four projects on the go that need to ship. It’s a lot of figuring out where you can make the space—because it doesn’t happen on its own—to work on things that aren’t pressing but that need to get done to be successful in the future. Things like reflecting on your process, from documentation for onboarding to files and hand off—all those things are somewhat ancillary but really affect how you get work done.

I would say that’s the main challenge, which is great because at other companies I think the struggle can often be getting people to care about the design process as a valuable part of the process. I don’t feel those kinds of problems, instead, it’s about how we continue to get really great work done and continue our pace as we keep growing. Thinking a lot about how we can keep the quality bar high and design debt low.

“My advice would be to be mindful of what you need in terms of relating to and interacting with other people on your team and maybe the values of your company and what they incentivize and how they make trade-offs because that will show you what's important. Spend time thinking about what kind of place works for you.”

What are some of the ways you deal with challenges like burnout, how do you get back to a good headspace in those moments?

I think that can happen if a project starts to get really long in the tooth. Recently, I experienced some burnout because of some things happening in my personal life and it sapped my energy at work a bit. I read this book called, “Your Brain At Work”. It’s a distillation of a lot of psychological research around people’s tendencies to act or react in certain ways when they’re tired. It’s a practical guide for getting your brain in the right place for successful work and relationships based on research. There’s another one called, “How to Be a Graphic Designer Without Losing Your Soul.” I think a common thread I’ve seen in these books is using frequency and persistence to build good habits, blocking off parts of your day to get certain things done and having a ritual and routine.

Probably the most important element, though, is just being self-aware. Understand how you react in certain situations. Know what happens when you work long hours or when you work on a specific type of thing for a long time. I’ve learned when I’m most productive and what I’m most interested in, so I can make decisions and pick my projects with that in mind. Feeling in control of those decisions and building your habits around those are a good way to combat burning out.

Are there any productivity tools you use to keep organized?

I think the best thing you can do is just to get your tasks and goals out of your head. Break your larger goals down into small specific ones and write them down somewhere. Anywhere you can write them down where you can track your progress against them. I used to use Asana for this but now I do all of it in Quip. It’s publicly accessible to my team too, so they can see what I’m doing right now, in the near future and the distant future. At the end of the week, I clean it up and archive things so I can look back and see what I did.

That’s pretty much it. Of course Slack and Spotify are two important tools for me as well.

What's some of the best career advice you've been given?

I wrote some things down after I left Squarespace about what I had learned. One of those things was about how your culture is your product, about how the way in which people work together directly translates into the quality of the work. I think you spend so much time in the workplace and so much is done interacting with people that you have to think pretty carefully about the sort of place you want to work in, what you would like the people to be like, and what are the qualities of a functional team. Things you don't generally think about in terms of, "Oh I want to get into design work." And you hear people say, "I want to have an impact. I want to maybe have an impact at scale. I want to solve big problems." I want to do that kind of stuff too. That's all fine and dandy. You should find that kind of place.

What can be left behind is the everyday stuff like not having the support of your team, or not being able to work closely with the people who are going to build the thing, or not having a manager that cares about your professional development. Everyone cares about and values different things. So I think it's just important to think about what you think a good functional team and workspace is, and how you would ideally like people to relate to one another and communicate. There are some commonalities between high functioning, high output teams, but I think people don't think about that enough in terms of finding a place where they'd be happy. That makes a huge difference. And what does your day-to-day look like, mechanically? My advice would be to be mindful of what you need in terms of relating to and interacting with other people on your team, and maybe the values of your company and what they incentivize and how they make trade-offs because that will show you what's important. Spend time thinking about what kind of place works for you

“I’m drawn towards building tools because of the way they empower people to do great things. Slack, for example, isn’t saving the whales or anything but it’s a tool you might use to run a place like a non-profit, or a government agency or your startup. I like the idea of abstracting into that infrastructure/tooling space so that you can help people that way.”

Why do you do what you do? What makes it all worth it?

Well, it’s a pretty sweet gig. It pays well, good benefits and a good industry[laughs]. That’s the table stakes reason. I’m a creative problem solver, I love designing user-centered solutions to real problems and then executing on them. That makes me real happy. I’d rather make ten amazing, high-quality desks that people love using than a billion widgets that I don’t really care about.

I work at Slack because a lot of their values align with the way that I like working, there’s a high overlap between those values which is important. You can build anything, but not everything is worth building. When I was at Stanford, I caught the bug of wanting to help people. To make the world better for everyone. I’m drawn towards building tools because of the way they empower people to do great things. Slack, for example, isn’t saving the whales or anything but it’s a tool you might use to run a place like a non-profit, or a government agency or your startup. I like the idea of abstracting into that infrastructure/tooling space so that you can help people that way. You can make something that helps other people help the world in whatever way they want to. That's really appealing to me. Instead of choosing one problem, I can help make an infrastructure that helps people solve lots of problems. I think Slack is a particularly interesting one because so many workplaces are so terrible for no good reason and the idea of making people's working lives just a little bit simpler, more pleasant, and more productive, is such a nice positive contribution to net happiness. I'm really excited about that.

Who is someone you’d like to see us feature on Ways We Work?

Doesn't everyone want to meet Johnny Ives? I'd like to hang out with that guy. Or any of the 20 some people on his industrial design team. That high- level focused creative work, that is so interesting to me.