Jun 26, 2024

How to get promoted to staff designer

Creator of Dive

Head of Design @ Optimism

The way to get promoted is to show that you’re already doing the job.

So what does it take to make the jump to staff designer?

I chatted with Kathy Zheng about her 6+ years at Github to find out.

She says the the key difference for staff designers is their ability to steward unstable ideas from raw opportunity all the way to execution.

They’re not sitting downstream waiting to be handed the next PRD.

Staff designers are actively proposing ideas and shaping product strategy.

So let’s dive into some specific tactics you can use to demonstrate this level of impact👇

1 — Pick an idea and own it

Nobody is going to Slack you and say “Hey, do you want to propose an idea nobody is thinking about yet and run with it?”

If you want the role, you gotta seize it.

And the best way to do that is to pick an idea that you care about and go all-in.

“What's one thing that you might want to push forward that you think would be really valuable and you want more people to understand that value?” — Kathy Zheng

Don’t have an idea?

That’s ok.

Everyone has their personal feature wishlist. Find a product leader and ask what’s on theirs. Then offer yourself as a resource to help paint the future.

2 — Go cowboy mode

If nobody is assigning you staff-worthy work, there’s a good chance you’ll be doing it on your own time.

“I spent a lot of my personal hours doing that kind of work because I was interested and passionate about it. I would spend evenings jamming on a design vision that I understood may or may never happen.” — Kathy Zheng

If it wasn’t for Vincent going cowboy mode at Figma, today’s Config launch would look very different (full story in an upcoming episode 🤫)

3 — Find an advocate

Before presenting your idea to the broader team, it’s crucial to get at least 1-2 others invested in its success.

If you partner on someone else’s idea, then it’s easy—you already have a built-in champion.

But you can also get people to contribute while your idea is still mostly unshaped. This fosters a sense of ownership and it’s a big reason why Steph Engle said she would strategically ask for feedback from key players in the org.

4 — Form your Rubik’s cube

“People see different sides of the Rubik's cube. You have to learn which side to show them so they realize that when you're talking about an idea, you're actually talking about the same thing” — Kathy Zheng

An exec probably wants you to lead with the business impact.

Your PM might need to be convinced that a project is a smaller investment than they might initially think.

Your design lead might want to see a high-fidelity prototype to ensure you’ve thought through all the details.

The takeaway is that you need to tailor your framing based on what will resonate with your audience. Show them the side of the Rubik’s cube that matters most to them.

5 — Create an “aura of inevitability”

Vincent from Figma initially pitched his idea for visual search in a written PRD.

It flopped 😅

Only after he filmed a video walking through a functioning prototype did the tides turn. His ~3 min video went mini-viral internally and fundamentally changed Figma’s 2024 roadmap.

Not only is his story the perfect example of “meming” your designs

It also demonstrates the power of high-fidelity prototypes.

When presenting “cowboy” work, it needs to feel de-risked… like it’s almost there and just needs one final push.

A great example is Soleio’s story from early Facebook.

Investing in video might have been easy for Zuck to dismiss while reviewing a written pitch. But code wins arguments 😇

When leadership saw a prototype that “wasn’t that far from being production ready” it became much harder to ignore. This is the aura of inevitability, and it’s how project Motion got prioritized on the official Facebook roadmap.

6 — Be a historian

There’s a good chance you’re not the first person to orbit around your idea.

Kathy joked that designers at Github used to revisit the contribution graph every ~2 years.

The point is, there’s probably some old context that you can dig up. Figure out what holes were poked in the idea last time it surfaced. Why did it stall?

Understanding all of the context surrounding an idea will help you proactively combat pushback and make a case for why the timing is right.

7 — Pitch it as a building block

It’s easier to convince others that your idea is high ROI when you can show how it unlocks new opportunities in the product.

I wanted to redesign the syllabus editor at Maven for almost two years (and failed multiple times to get buy-in).

My breakthrough was showing how it could unlock new types of marketing opportunities for instructors (ex: allowing students to preview lessons on the landing page).

The more surface area that your idea touches, the more people have the potential to be excited about it. Because all of a sudden it's easier for them to see how it impacts their slice of the product/org.

That’s why systems thinking is so important for designers.

8 — Take responsibility for momentum

You’re not going to have built-in research help or scheduled feedback checkpoints.

Which means you’re going to have to push forward even if you don’t have all the answers.

Take responsibility for your idea’s momentum and don’t let it get trapped in conversational spinout.

I’ll end with one of my favorite Dive Club quotes of all time 😇

“Design to find answers. Don’t seek answers to be able to design” — Michael Wandelmeier

What it takes to become a staff designer

This week’s episode is with Kathy Zheng who is currently the Head of design at a Web3 protocol called Optimism. But before that she was the first designer at Patreon and went on to spend over 6 years at Github.

So the goal of this conversation is to look at how Kathy grew as a designer while at Github and identify the specific milestones on her journey to reaching senior and eventually staff designer.

We get into the weeds about:

  • How the role of staff and senior designers differ

  • The traits shared by the best designers at Github

  • How to give your ideas a chance to become memes

  • How to avoid conversational spinout on your project

  • How to identify opportunities using systems thinking

  • How Kathy is growing as a design leader at Optimism

  • Specific techniques for storytelling and presenting ideas

Listen on YouTube, Spotify, Apple, or wherever you get your podcasts 👇

The way to get promoted is to show that you’re already doing the job.

So what does it take to make the jump to staff designer?

I chatted with Kathy Zheng about her 6+ years at Github to find out.

She says the the key difference for staff designers is their ability to steward unstable ideas from raw opportunity all the way to execution.

They’re not sitting downstream waiting to be handed the next PRD.

Staff designers are actively proposing ideas and shaping product strategy.

So let’s dive into some specific tactics you can use to demonstrate this level of impact👇

1 — Pick an idea and own it

Nobody is going to Slack you and say “Hey, do you want to propose an idea nobody is thinking about yet and run with it?”

If you want the role, you gotta seize it.

And the best way to do that is to pick an idea that you care about and go all-in.

“What's one thing that you might want to push forward that you think would be really valuable and you want more people to understand that value?” — Kathy Zheng

Don’t have an idea?

That’s ok.

Everyone has their personal feature wishlist. Find a product leader and ask what’s on theirs. Then offer yourself as a resource to help paint the future.

2 — Go cowboy mode

If nobody is assigning you staff-worthy work, there’s a good chance you’ll be doing it on your own time.

“I spent a lot of my personal hours doing that kind of work because I was interested and passionate about it. I would spend evenings jamming on a design vision that I understood may or may never happen.” — Kathy Zheng

If it wasn’t for Vincent going cowboy mode at Figma, today’s Config launch would look very different (full story in an upcoming episode 🤫)

3 — Find an advocate

Before presenting your idea to the broader team, it’s crucial to get at least 1-2 others invested in its success.

If you partner on someone else’s idea, then it’s easy—you already have a built-in champion.

But you can also get people to contribute while your idea is still mostly unshaped. This fosters a sense of ownership and it’s a big reason why Steph Engle said she would strategically ask for feedback from key players in the org.

4 — Form your Rubik’s cube

“People see different sides of the Rubik's cube. You have to learn which side to show them so they realize that when you're talking about an idea, you're actually talking about the same thing” — Kathy Zheng

An exec probably wants you to lead with the business impact.

Your PM might need to be convinced that a project is a smaller investment than they might initially think.

Your design lead might want to see a high-fidelity prototype to ensure you’ve thought through all the details.

The takeaway is that you need to tailor your framing based on what will resonate with your audience. Show them the side of the Rubik’s cube that matters most to them.

5 — Create an “aura of inevitability”

Vincent from Figma initially pitched his idea for visual search in a written PRD.

It flopped 😅

Only after he filmed a video walking through a functioning prototype did the tides turn. His ~3 min video went mini-viral internally and fundamentally changed Figma’s 2024 roadmap.

Not only is his story the perfect example of “meming” your designs

It also demonstrates the power of high-fidelity prototypes.

When presenting “cowboy” work, it needs to feel de-risked… like it’s almost there and just needs one final push.

A great example is Soleio’s story from early Facebook.

Investing in video might have been easy for Zuck to dismiss while reviewing a written pitch. But code wins arguments 😇

When leadership saw a prototype that “wasn’t that far from being production ready” it became much harder to ignore. This is the aura of inevitability, and it’s how project Motion got prioritized on the official Facebook roadmap.

6 — Be a historian

There’s a good chance you’re not the first person to orbit around your idea.

Kathy joked that designers at Github used to revisit the contribution graph every ~2 years.

The point is, there’s probably some old context that you can dig up. Figure out what holes were poked in the idea last time it surfaced. Why did it stall?

Understanding all of the context surrounding an idea will help you proactively combat pushback and make a case for why the timing is right.

7 — Pitch it as a building block

It’s easier to convince others that your idea is high ROI when you can show how it unlocks new opportunities in the product.

I wanted to redesign the syllabus editor at Maven for almost two years (and failed multiple times to get buy-in).

My breakthrough was showing how it could unlock new types of marketing opportunities for instructors (ex: allowing students to preview lessons on the landing page).

The more surface area that your idea touches, the more people have the potential to be excited about it. Because all of a sudden it's easier for them to see how it impacts their slice of the product/org.

That’s why systems thinking is so important for designers.

8 — Take responsibility for momentum

You’re not going to have built-in research help or scheduled feedback checkpoints.

Which means you’re going to have to push forward even if you don’t have all the answers.

Take responsibility for your idea’s momentum and don’t let it get trapped in conversational spinout.

I’ll end with one of my favorite Dive Club quotes of all time 😇

“Design to find answers. Don’t seek answers to be able to design” — Michael Wandelmeier

What it takes to become a staff designer

This week’s episode is with Kathy Zheng who is currently the Head of design at a Web3 protocol called Optimism. But before that she was the first designer at Patreon and went on to spend over 6 years at Github.

So the goal of this conversation is to look at how Kathy grew as a designer while at Github and identify the specific milestones on her journey to reaching senior and eventually staff designer.

We get into the weeds about:

  • How the role of staff and senior designers differ

  • The traits shared by the best designers at Github

  • How to give your ideas a chance to become memes

  • How to avoid conversational spinout on your project

  • How to identify opportunities using systems thinking

  • How Kathy is growing as a design leader at Optimism

  • Specific techniques for storytelling and presenting ideas

Listen on YouTube, Spotify, Apple, or wherever you get your podcasts 👇

The way to get promoted is to show that you’re already doing the job.

So what does it take to make the jump to staff designer?

I chatted with Kathy Zheng about her 6+ years at Github to find out.

She says the the key difference for staff designers is their ability to steward unstable ideas from raw opportunity all the way to execution.

They’re not sitting downstream waiting to be handed the next PRD.

Staff designers are actively proposing ideas and shaping product strategy.

So let’s dive into some specific tactics you can use to demonstrate this level of impact👇

1 — Pick an idea and own it

Nobody is going to Slack you and say “Hey, do you want to propose an idea nobody is thinking about yet and run with it?”

If you want the role, you gotta seize it.

And the best way to do that is to pick an idea that you care about and go all-in.

“What's one thing that you might want to push forward that you think would be really valuable and you want more people to understand that value?” — Kathy Zheng

Don’t have an idea?

That’s ok.

Everyone has their personal feature wishlist. Find a product leader and ask what’s on theirs. Then offer yourself as a resource to help paint the future.

2 — Go cowboy mode

If nobody is assigning you staff-worthy work, there’s a good chance you’ll be doing it on your own time.

“I spent a lot of my personal hours doing that kind of work because I was interested and passionate about it. I would spend evenings jamming on a design vision that I understood may or may never happen.” — Kathy Zheng

If it wasn’t for Vincent going cowboy mode at Figma, today’s Config launch would look very different (full story in an upcoming episode 🤫)

3 — Find an advocate

Before presenting your idea to the broader team, it’s crucial to get at least 1-2 others invested in its success.

If you partner on someone else’s idea, then it’s easy—you already have a built-in champion.

But you can also get people to contribute while your idea is still mostly unshaped. This fosters a sense of ownership and it’s a big reason why Steph Engle said she would strategically ask for feedback from key players in the org.

4 — Form your Rubik’s cube

“People see different sides of the Rubik's cube. You have to learn which side to show them so they realize that when you're talking about an idea, you're actually talking about the same thing” — Kathy Zheng

An exec probably wants you to lead with the business impact.

Your PM might need to be convinced that a project is a smaller investment than they might initially think.

Your design lead might want to see a high-fidelity prototype to ensure you’ve thought through all the details.

The takeaway is that you need to tailor your framing based on what will resonate with your audience. Show them the side of the Rubik’s cube that matters most to them.

5 — Create an “aura of inevitability”

Vincent from Figma initially pitched his idea for visual search in a written PRD.

It flopped 😅

Only after he filmed a video walking through a functioning prototype did the tides turn. His ~3 min video went mini-viral internally and fundamentally changed Figma’s 2024 roadmap.

Not only is his story the perfect example of “meming” your designs

It also demonstrates the power of high-fidelity prototypes.

When presenting “cowboy” work, it needs to feel de-risked… like it’s almost there and just needs one final push.

A great example is Soleio’s story from early Facebook.

Investing in video might have been easy for Zuck to dismiss while reviewing a written pitch. But code wins arguments 😇

When leadership saw a prototype that “wasn’t that far from being production ready” it became much harder to ignore. This is the aura of inevitability, and it’s how project Motion got prioritized on the official Facebook roadmap.

6 — Be a historian

There’s a good chance you’re not the first person to orbit around your idea.

Kathy joked that designers at Github used to revisit the contribution graph every ~2 years.

The point is, there’s probably some old context that you can dig up. Figure out what holes were poked in the idea last time it surfaced. Why did it stall?

Understanding all of the context surrounding an idea will help you proactively combat pushback and make a case for why the timing is right.

7 — Pitch it as a building block

It’s easier to convince others that your idea is high ROI when you can show how it unlocks new opportunities in the product.

I wanted to redesign the syllabus editor at Maven for almost two years (and failed multiple times to get buy-in).

My breakthrough was showing how it could unlock new types of marketing opportunities for instructors (ex: allowing students to preview lessons on the landing page).

The more surface area that your idea touches, the more people have the potential to be excited about it. Because all of a sudden it's easier for them to see how it impacts their slice of the product/org.

That’s why systems thinking is so important for designers.

8 — Take responsibility for momentum

You’re not going to have built-in research help or scheduled feedback checkpoints.

Which means you’re going to have to push forward even if you don’t have all the answers.

Take responsibility for your idea’s momentum and don’t let it get trapped in conversational spinout.

I’ll end with one of my favorite Dive Club quotes of all time 😇

“Design to find answers. Don’t seek answers to be able to design” — Michael Wandelmeier

What it takes to become a staff designer

This week’s episode is with Kathy Zheng who is currently the Head of design at a Web3 protocol called Optimism. But before that she was the first designer at Patreon and went on to spend over 6 years at Github.

So the goal of this conversation is to look at how Kathy grew as a designer while at Github and identify the specific milestones on her journey to reaching senior and eventually staff designer.

We get into the weeds about:

  • How the role of staff and senior designers differ

  • The traits shared by the best designers at Github

  • How to give your ideas a chance to become memes

  • How to avoid conversational spinout on your project

  • How to identify opportunities using systems thinking

  • How Kathy is growing as a design leader at Optimism

  • Specific techniques for storytelling and presenting ideas

Listen on YouTube, Spotify, Apple, or wherever you get your podcasts 👇

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"There's no doubt that Dive has made me a better designer"

@ned_ray

Join 10,000+ designers

Get our weekly breakdowns

"There's no doubt that Dive has made me a better designer"

@ned_ray

Join 10,000+ designers

Get our weekly breakdowns

"There's no doubt that Dive has made me a better designer"

@ned_ray

"

I've been binging Dive Club lately and the quality is nuts

Literally the only show about design I watch”

Eugene Fedorenko

"

I've been binging Dive Club lately and the quality is nuts

Literally the only show about design I watch”

Eugene Fedorenko

hello@dive.club

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