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For senior product designers who might not want to transition into a people-management role, what should a career trajectory look like?

9 days ago from

I posted this question in the Designers Guild Facebook group, but I'd love to hear thoughts from the DN community too:

As a product designer, the more experience you have the more ambiguity or open-ended your work can be. At larger companies, there are career ladders for ICs who want to continue down that path. But at smaller companies, without taking a detour into people management, I'm having a hard time seeing the path forward.

  • I love mentoring and coaching, but I don't want people management to be my main focus.
  • I'd like to focus more on product decisions and business opportunities (as opposed to team building and operations).
  • Performance reviews measure me against a next step in the ladder meant for management. Rather than being measured by my product impact or taking on larger product challenges, I'm only being measured by my efforts to build the team by recruiting new designers, mentoring and teaching other designers, etc.
  • To be considered for a promotion or a raise I would need to divert my energy tasks that are for a management role. Long term, I fear that I might not be considered in "good standing" if I don't shift my focus.

Am I approaching my career growth the wrong way? Is there a way to continue to progress without making a lateral move to people management? Should I just become a PM?

14 comments

  • Jon WhiteJon White, 7 days ago

    My advice as someone who climbed the ladder. Go solo, independent consultant. Be your own boss. Stop working for others. Choose your own gigs. Find an interesting company with ambitions. Get 3x paid. Build something beautiful, meaningful, impactful. Creating your own career is an energising experience.

    13 points
    • dh .dh ., 3 days ago

      Awesome response. Seems that in the bigger companies they tend to push people in the direction of people management. Being independent would allow you to focus the other things that you're good at.

      1 point
    • Ktrn DsrsKtrn Dsrs, 5 days ago

      Exactly what I was about to write. As a freelance consultant, management roles might happen in some mandates, but that won't last forever and you will be able to focus on what you love doing the most!

      1 point
    • Andrew C, 5 days ago

      While I don’t want to shut down the validity of this as an option I feel it also isn’t answering the question. “Not playing the game!” isn’t a great answer to “How do I play the game?”

      She’s explicitly said she doesn’t want to manage Consultants have to sell, organize projects, work w internal stakeholders, etc. If you’re successful you have to hire—and manage—people. This option doesn’t really address the fundamental question: Does she want to manage or focus solely on delivery?

      To Carolann: I’d strongly consider managing others. You can direct their work and increase your influence tremendously and amplify others to make good design possible. I’ve been managing for years now and still do projects here and there. My ability to deliver has only been improved by navigating process and navigating cross functional teams w a designer lens. Even as an IC you have to learn to manage ppl upwards: exec buy in, product manager focus, dev resources, etc. It’s the nature of team work.

      But if you want to focus on increasing your effects as an IC I suggest detailing out what that role means and bring it up to the company. This time next year what will design improve that you’re lacking today? Think in skills and deliverables. UX is an umbrella term: Content creation, visual design, content writing, and user research (discovery, optimization, etc). Figure out which skills in these buckets would prove valuable to increase then plan that skill tree out. If you don’t know try interviewing people in your area to provide more detail.

      Good luck!

      6 points
      • Jon WhiteJon White, 1 hour ago

        You bring up some good points Andrew. It's an interesting topic.. ICs career in the corporate world. In most companies the level contribution is the guiding factor for compensation. Managing people is apparently often valued higher than deep expertise, because thats the thing that keeps the wheels spinning. If your craft doesn't scale with the value you crate to the firm, your career will stagnate. As someone with similar feelings about people management as Carolann, I found the solo move to suit my ambitions.

        0 points
  • Ivan FrantarIvan Frantar, 4 days ago

    This is a very challenging question and situation for designers. As some of the comments here suggest, I don't think the solution is 'go solo and start your own thing'. I mean, that's fantastic if is what you desire, but still, doesn't solve or address the problem inherent to the question raised here.

    Some companies like Atlassian and Zendesk have created paths for designers to choose what direction they want to take their careers i.e. Management vs IC; and help you progress on those 2 directions, which ever you choose. Also, it won't mean that those in management will earn more than those IC's. Salaries are divided equally on both. Given that now design is a more ingrained cog in the overall business strategy of any company and designers are not cookie cut versions of other professions where the obvious road to progression is management, like sales or accountancy, the companies that understand this, will be the ones that will win on design and produce better design. It's only a matter of time till the scope of motivations designers have and how they want to grow their careers becomes more obvious and as a result it'll have a much larger impact on companies.

    5 points
  • John PJohn P, 7 days ago

    Just gonna say the "Individual Contributor"/"Manager" ideology is dumb as hell.

    If that made any sense then the concept of genius would never have existed and the history books wouldn't be littered with geniuses who created things but instead would champion middle managers.

    1 point
  • Chris KeithChris Keith, 5 days ago

    I can identify with this being at startups for most of my career. When I made the move to a large organization, I was shocked to learn that there was a long advancement path for those that wanted to stay on the IC track. I think this is probably unique to larger companies, like you said, but maybe this is something you could give more thought and be open to.

    Other than that you have agency work (not for everyone) consulting, or maybe starting your own lean product/service that you run yourself. If you envision yourself working on a larger team, it sounds like you don't see a path before you at your current company.

    You've done a good job in this post articulating the career path you're looking for, and if you want to be an IC long term (I'm this way), you should find a company that supports that. They are out there!

    1 point
  • Brendan Sharman, 4 days ago

    Have you considered changing workplaces? It sounds like there's not much for you to grow in the way that you want to grow where you currently work. Perhaps a change of company is the best way to move up.

    1 point
  • Frédéric AudetFrédéric Audet, 10 hours ago

    Oh, I know what you mean. My experience so far has been pretty negative on being mentored to make the switch from design to management. I've been a senior designer for a while now and tried the management role, but haven't had the opportunity to take a serious crack at it. Right now, I have a technical leadership role. Accountable for product decisions, vision, strategy and business side of it.

    Management's getting to me. As an individual contributor, I still feel that my involvement is limited as well as my capacity to deliver. I do want to get into management because I believe in the fact that you can scale up your impact on the product and the business through people. You do not have to push pixels yourself.

    I do want to be responsible for the solutions we push, but I do not want to be responsible for the careers growth of my reports.

    1 point
  • Kyle Greely, 6 days ago

    I'm glad this is being discussed, I'm in a similar situation. I'm not yet a senior, but I have pretty much 0 desire to manage other people and would like to remain focused on UX tasks or strategy, but I feel like the only way to "move up" is to lean into leading a team of designers.

    I think the other comments are right here; I'm starting to think that the only way will be for me to create my own company and be my own boss.

    1 point
    • Alex CicanAlex Cican, 5 days ago

      Don’t be fooled, I was thinking like you a few years back. But it’s exactly in your own company that 80% of your time will occupied by people… Build a team, recruit new people, interview, hire, manage, create a culture, deal with issues between people/teams, many meetings. At least in the first 2-3 years until you hire a Manager / VP of something to free your hands and report to you. (Exception: if your co-founder deals with these issues)

      2 points
  • Fulgenzia Delucci, 2 days ago

    Going solo is definitely an exciting path but it has it's own risks/problems and requires an entirely different mindset.

    People management can be tricky, even for people who were trained to manage people. Not sure if it would be appropriate but you can adjust your path to be a leader not a manager.

    You'd still be responsible for people but you wouldn't be merely managing them. A team lead usually also is an IC but they are act more like an architect rather than the worker. Maybe your company culture would enable such a direction.

    1 point
  • , 4 days ago

    Thanks to everyone for this conversation. There's a lot to think about in all of your comments.

    I do think I might be more interested in management-type responsibilities if I was building my own business. Like at least it would be something of my own.

    I've always worried that working as a consultant or freelance (vs being in-house) wouldn't allow me to invest in the product. But maybe that's wrong of me to think.

    I had a conversation with my manager about this. He's been encouraging and wants to make sure that I feel like I have a path to grow. I might have to figure out how to define my role for myself. I don't think there's really been a senior role that didn't evolve into a management role in our company before.

    Mostly, I'm glad I'm not the only one who's been thinking about this. I was starting to think I was a little crazy. :) Glad to have support here!

    0 points