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Huda Idrees

Head of Product & Design at Wealthsimple

Huda Idrees leads the product and design teams at Wealthsimple, previous to that she was a product designer at Wave and Wattpad. Recently I had the opportunity to chat with Huda about what her role involves, how she got started working in product design and how she approaches the challenges she faces in her work. What I found most inspiring is her fearless attitude towards problem-solving and the way she has made the most of every opportunity in her career. She has great insight for those just getting started or looking to make their next career step.

Tell me a little bit about your role at Wealthsimple?

I lead the product and design teams, so anything that the users see, or interface with goes through my team. We’re a team of designers and developers. My role morphed from being the only designer, to a broader role that encompasses all the different platforms we now exist on. We’re on the web, we have native apps on iOS and Android and we even have an Apple Watch app now. I'm secretly very proud of that [laughs]. It’s just one of those things that helps you envision what the future will look like. If we didn’t have giant desktops, or laptop screens, what would the story be that we tell people about investing their money? I’m also leading our new office design--so my role of designer has definitely been stretched!

So you lead the product and design teams, how many people are on those teams and what’s the structure of them like?

We split our design efforts into product and marketing. I focus the majority of my time on our web and mobile product, as well as parts of Wealthsimple.com. Marketing collateral such as banners, swag and content is handled by a separate team.

At the moment, we work with a few freelance designers in addition to our in-house product team. Overall, it’s a team of 6, our 4 developers and 2 designers.

“That led me on a path of doing product design, instead of working in development like engineers traditionally do. Once I started doing design work, I fell in love with it.”

You were previously at Wattpad and Wave-what was your path to your current role at Wealthsimple?

I studied engineering at the University of Toronto where we did 16-month internships. I really liked the concept of Wattpad so I applied to do my internship there. The role I applied for was a quality assurance analyst, which seemed boring to me, but I applied anyway because the company seemed interesting. I went in for the interview and told Allen [Wattpad's CEO] that I didn’t want to be a quality assurance analyst [laughs]. I give him a lot of credit for still going with me, he could have easily said, “Okay, you can leave now.” But I managed to convince him that he needed a designer on the team and if he would let me, I could start their design team. He agreed but said that I would also need to do the quality assurance part of it. Since I came from an engineering background I spent the first month writing a bot to do the quality assurance for me, it was their first automated testing platform. Then I spent the rest of my 16-month internship doing design work, which was what I really wanted to do.

That led me on a path of doing product design, instead of working in development like engineers traditionally do. Once I started doing design work, I fell in love with it. I learned way more at Wattpad than I would have in any large corporate company.

When I graduated, I went to work at Wave as a product designer and worked on that team for about a year and half. I was looking for a new challenge and through a mutual friend, I was introduced to Mike, the founder of Wealthsimple. We met for coffee and two days later I had joined the team. It's been great. We've grown the team from about 7, when I first started, to 26 now.

What are some of the most challenging aspects of the work you’re doing right now?

For starters, we're trying to do a lot with a very small team and growing quickly. We acquired a brokerage of our own, so now we're this company that buys other companies, and we’re just a year and a half old. There's a lot of priorities that all seem equally important. The toughest part has been looking at data trends, but also paying attention to our instincts, which have served us really well in the past. Figuring out what we should work on next and where we’re going to spend our limited resources has been a challenge.

Finding designers has also been a personal challenge for me. There are very few people who are excellent at all facets of design, who can come in and really take a project all the way 'til the end. It's something that in theory, a lot of people feel like they should be able to do, but a lot of designers in action have difficulty with it. Toronto is a hotbed for designers, but they're always employed, and it's so hard to get them. Stuff like Heist shutting down, or Teehan+Lax closing down doesn't help either. There's this weird trait of Toronto that really gives rise to these creatives, but I think we lose most of them to other ecosystems, which is not so great.

“I’ve learned to embrace the uncertainty because the future is going to be unprecedented. What Wealthsimple is doing, hasn’t been done in the way that we’re approaching it. We can’t expect previous processes or regulations to help us design the future.”

In your role, when you're faced with an unfamiliar challenge, or a problem that you haven't solved before, what's your process for approaching something like that?

I used to be pretty process-driven, in terms of searching for the concrete steps I could follow that would lead to success. When I was at Wave we were a team of 70 people and there were a lot of processes in place. I knew who I would be working with, and we followed a set process. We did X number of iterations, and had a formula, so to speak. What I've learned at Wealthsimple is that there is no such thing. There is no such thing as a perfect formula. You just have to roll with it.

Instead, what we do is try to think of the very first step that we can take to get to our goal. We develop either a simplest version-1 of a process or product and we iterate from there. That’s helped us a lot. It’s helped us to bring stuff to market really fast. I try to apply that thinking to everything I do. For example, if something’s uncertain or I’m feeling really stretched in terms of design I try to think about the first step I can take. In the case of bringing on help, that first step is reaching out to my personal contacts, people I look up to and finding the opportunities there.

From there, it’s about determining what we want the design team to look like in the next six months. Then the next year and taking baby steps to get there. It’s been much more effective than trying to make this utopia of a recruitment or prioritization process. I’ve learned to embrace the uncertainty because the future is going to be unprecedented. What Wealthsimple is doing, hasn’t been done in the way that we’re approaching it. We can’t expect previous processes or regulations to help us design the future.

I'm really interested because you're managing and growing a team, while still doing hands-on design work. How do you manage your time amongst those different contexts and the heads-down design work that you need to do?

I'm terrible at time management [laughs]. I wish I was better. What I've tried to do is to set a schedule for myself. That sometimes helps. Whenever I can I will give tasks a set time. I will calendar them in and make sure everything has a place. There are so many different verticals that I’m looking at and each one needs attention. If I don’t set reminders, things can get forgotten.

From there I’ll split my time based on the project. The product team is at a pretty good size now and we’ve managed to section out our responsibilities more, which helps a lot. Currently, I’m spending about 50% of my time prototyping new stuff that we’re going to be doing. This includes making the prototype, getting in touch with users, regulators or compliance officials for feedback. The other half of my time goes to creating any high-fidelity assets that we need and communicating with the rest of the team to get these initiatives implemented and out the door. We have a lot of pairing sessions, so I'll usually sit down with either a front-end developer, or send out a pull request, saying, "Hey, this is the change I want to make. What do you think?" That’s roughly how my time is divided at the moment.

“We tend to get into this weird bubble, I’m very prone to it, where we don’t talk to people if they don’t work in a fin-tech startup. You can start to develop a very single-track mind.”

Taking on so many aspects of the work, do you ever experience burnout, or difficulty maintaining that workflow? What helps motivate you, and keeps you focused?

I think everybody experiences burnouts, and start-up employees tend to be at the top of that list. I recognize that this is an issue, and I can usually see it within myself in a couple of ways. I'll notice that I'm a lot more irritable, that’s a major sign for me. I don't really feel like going into work and I’m short with people. I normally enjoy being around people, so I know I’m feeling burnt out when I start to feel otherwise.

What usually helps me is travelling. I’m not a Canadian citizen so there was a period of three months where I was going through paperwork that required me to stay in Canada. It was only a few months but it felt like a lifetime. Even if it’s a weekend away, I’ll try and make sure that I’m going somewhere else. We tend to get into this weird bubble, I’m very prone to it, where we don’t talk to people if they don’t work in a fin-tech startup. You can start to develop a very single-track mind. It helps when you travel and talk to other people who don’t work in technology at all even. It's so great, and really refreshing. I just came back from Vancouver, where I was out in nature, and doing outdoorsy stuff most of the time. It was great and I can feel it since I've gotten back, I'm not as cranky as before.

What are the tools you’re using on a daily basis?

Sketch - Definitely my number one right now. I use it for prototyping and all our assets get made in Sketch.

Slack - I like to say that I'm the biggest Slack fan, and I've asked to be like recognized as the biggest Slack fan, but I probably have competition.

Github - We use this for project management and prioritization.

CodePen - I use this a lot in collaboration, it helps me show other people how I expect something to work.

Marvel - I use this to prototype and string all my screens together into workflows. It has a really nifty app that you can just load screens into, and it'll let you build your stuff on a mobile device. I could be on the subway, and I can make little workflows, and send them to the team.

That would definitely help with productivity, I know anything I can do on my phone, makes a huge difference.

It’s huge. That was actually a lesson we learned when we made our mobile apps. When we were first making them, every single person in our usability tests was asking, “why are you making a mobile app? Wealthsimple is about long-term investing. Don’t do it.” Now, our mobile apps are core to our business.

It's kind of cool. It's just a different behavior. You can design around behaviors. Mobile's been huge for Wealthsimple.

Was there a recent moment where you had to go outside of your comfort zone, or do something that scared you? What was it, and how did you deal with that?

Oh, man. I feel like I am always outside of my comfort zone [laughs]. I think I've learned now that I just have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. Because I can't really work otherwise. For example, our team size changes all the time. One thing that we had to address recently was what the organizational structure should look like.

This is the first inklings of process coming into our world. Startups are all about moving fast and there’s usually little process involved, but we've had to start introducing that and framing it. It was difficult because it’s not something I do on an everyday basis. It’s good because it helps us think about what we’ll look like in the future, but there can be tough conversations around that. Everyone has different opinions and different things make sense to different people. I had to learn how to illustrate and communicate in a way that every person could understand.

So you’ll try an idea and maybe find things that aren’t working and you have to be able to talk about that and find an alternative. Finding that alternative and testing if it works is such a meta thing. We do it for our users and our product, but we never really do it for ourselves. Everyone has ideas for how things should be done and it can feel like a massive confrontation sometimes to have to explain why you think that idea isn’t working well. It's important to make sure you’re speaking about the problem and not about the person.

Why do you do what you do and what makes it so meaningful to you? What do you find most exciting about it?

I think the speed and the amount of learning that happens in roles like mine, and companies like the one I'm in, is really cool. It's like accelerating your learning. I learned this first when I came back from my co-op from Wattpad, where I had touched literally every single part of the product. I had sat in on investor meetings, made their marketing collateral, developed their framework, and testing platform. I worked with every single developer on the team and just learned so many different things. The alternative job that I could have taken, was at Google as an intern and the person who took that job actually ended up working on a single feature. It was a feature for starring emails for internal Google employees. It was all they'd done in the amount of time that I feel like I had learned how to run a business. That was eye-opening for me. From that moment, I was convinced that I wasn't going to work in a non-start-up environment ever again. If need be, I will keep moving until I can always work in small companies. That's so exciting, just the amount of learning we all get to do in our space.

I think Wealthsimple, particularly, is exciting, because we're all very competitive. We're very big on challenging the status quo. No one on the team takes no for an answer, at least not easily. We'll challenge almost every single aspect, and I think finding a company that has that in its DNA, is really rare. We’re also in a space that is heavily regulated and needs change--that’s a designer’s dream.

We’ve also found a product-market fit in a way, and in size, that you can't usually in a company that is so small, and so young. Now, I feel like there's a million different directions we could go in. This is the kind of divergent problem solving that is really exciting. I find this is where I thrive the most. Financial services is huge. There's no end to all the areas that we could change. Figuring that out, and seeing it grow, it makes me really proud.

“This is the kind of divergent problem solving that is really exciting. I find this is where I thrive the most. Financial services is huge. There's no end to all the areas that we could change. Figuring that out, and seeing it grow, it makes me really proud.”

Who would you want to see on Ways We Work?

Howard Wong - he's an architect with Hariri-Pontarini Architects and is working on the Wealthsimple HQ with me right now. Howard is fascinating and I imagine the way he works would be even more so. He not only works across technical, creative, tangible, and intangible realms, but is also a master storyteller which makes him so great to partner with. I can't say enough good things about him.

Zahra Ebrahim - she's a city builder and I've seen her speak on multiple occasions and she's always terrific. One project of hers that stands out to is a community centre she co-created with 11 year olds who now hold a bunch of building patents as a result of this project. So cool!

Jay Carter - he's the executive chef and owner at Dandylion, a Scandinavian-inspired restaurant that is minimalist and seeks to provide "nutritious foods" to its clientele. It's one of my favorite places to dine in the city and I love the story he tells with food.