Welcome to Merit Office Hours! This week we got the opportunity to speak with Teresa Man, a Merit advocate. We talk about the importance of having a supportive community and growing your career as a designer.
Teresa is currently a Senior Design Manager at Superhuman where she leads product and brand design. She is also the Head of Community at Elpha, an online community for 75k+ women in tech. Previous to that, she has led design teams at a digital consulting agency in New York and Toronto. Outside of design, she is passionate about cycling, climbing, cooking, reading, and where to find the best fior di latte.🍦
An edited and condensed transcript of our conversation is below.
Rachel Spurrier: You're a Senior Design Manager at Superhuman and Head of Community at Elpha. As someone with a design background, how has that informed and shaped your involvement with Elpha?
Teresa Man: At Elpha, we definitely want to make sure the members in the community feel like we are fostering a very authentic environment so that they can share conversations—anything from professionally related to personally related—in a space that feels very safe. As someone with a design background, a lot of the design process is trying to understand what the problems are and trying to understand what people are thinking. There's a level of empathy that is very much extended from the design discipline into building community, which is understanding our members’ needs, how they're feeling. A lot of the interactions on Elpha are through our online forum, so there are languages that can be used where you showcase that you're listening actively, which you may not be able to show otherwise since this isn’t a real-life conversation.
That lens of understanding others and demonstrating empathy towards people who you're talking to—at Elpha it’s not applied to who we view as our customers, but rather our members who we're trying to create a space for, where they can feel heard and feel that we're building a transparent forum for dialogues to take place.
RS: Elpha is a great community; I'm really glad to be a part of it. For those who are early in their careers and/or on the job hunt, what's the benefit of joining a community like Elpha?
TM: Elpha's main proposition when it comes to people who are looking for jobs is the job board that we have with partner companies. We allow [those companies] to have a detailed profile page so that they can share what they're looking for, what the mission of the company is, who within the company currently is already on Elpha, so there's a very good view as to what the company culture and life are truly like. Then members who are looking for jobs, whether or not they are early career or later on in their career, have a way to get a warm introduction to the company.
That means [members] can see a job posting, learn more about the role, and have a warm lead to the company through this intro capability that we facilitate on Elpha, which I think is great and different from other job boards, where you are one of many resumes on many different platforms. You don't really get to assess a role or the connection as much as you normally would've on other platforms that are outside of Elpha.
Secondarily, we also have a salary database [that] allows all of our members to share their current salary and their role in accordance to different things like their company’s size, whether or not it's a startup or a public company, and other things that other databases or salary listings may not include, such as how you identify when it comes to your sexual orientation or your ethnicity. For those who are looking [for a job]—or even for those who are currently in their roles and they're trying to get a sense of compensation to negotiate better for a job offer, a promotion, or a raise—they have a true database [of salaries] that are from women. That’s very different compared to other salary databases that may not have that level of transparency.
Thirdly, I think the community we foster is also really important. When you're looking for a job, that process can feel very lonely, exhausting, and also overwhelming, especially given how the market is right now. I think our community really allows people to share any kind of frustrations, concerns, advice, or even successes, where we can really celebrate each other during that entire process so you don't feel as siloed in this sometimes daunting and usually arduous process of looking for a job.
I think [Elpha] really allows for people to share any kind of frustrations, concerns, advice, or even successes, where we can really celebrate each other during that entire process so you don't feel as siloed in this sometimes daunting and usually arduous process of looking for a job.
RS: I love that Elpha is about women succeeding at work. What should women who are joining tech maybe be aware of? What advice would you give them? And as a woman, what do you wish you'd known when you were joining the tech world?
TM: I have been in tech for many years now and have been in different types of companies, from agencies to startups. I would say the one thing that I have learned that is validated by the Elpha community is that if there's a question that I have, other people will have the same question. If there's something that bothers me at work and I feel like there's no one else who I can talk to about it, someone else from another company or another space will be going through the same thing. The learning from Elpha and the advice that I've gotten from the community is to share openly because someone will be able to shed their insight on either how to resolve a similar issue or, maybe not even giving you advice, but being that person that says, "That sucks, and I hear you,” or, "Yeah, that wasn't right. And you should feel that way. Don’t undermine yourself and don't doubt yourself.”
So I think leaning on the community on Elpha to feel that validation, one, was immensely helpful for me as someone who was trying to navigate being in tech, being a woman of color in tech, and things like that. And two, just knowing that there are other people who are likely experiencing the same things as you are.
If there's a question that I have, other people will have the same question. If there's something that bothers me at work and I feel like there's no one else who I can talk to about it, someone else from another company or another space will be going through the same thing.
RS: “You’re not alone.” I like that.
As remote work continues and back to office plans either stagnate or falter, what impacts do you think that has on those in underrepresented groups? Does remote work make create more safety for them?
TM: Remote work gives flexibility to people, especially those with different life situations and commitments that they have to attend to during or outside of work hours. It gives them the space to do so. I think the hybrid model or needing employees to go back to work at a certain number of days, certain cadence within the week, is where the flexibility gets minimized. I think there are a lot of different ways of living and setups when it comes to helping your family or helping your children, things like that, that remote work has really enabled and given us the opportunity to see what it's like to be able to balance both in a way that also is socially and professionally acceptable.
The push to hybrid will make it more difficult for people who have either gotten used to it or found a structure that works for them where they are not in office all of the time. They’ll be trying to navigate that and having to make sure they are still present in the way that they need to be.
There are a lot of different ways of living and setups when it comes to helping your family or helping your children, things like that, that remote work has really enabled and given us the opportunity to see what it's like to be able to balance both in a way that also is socially and professionally acceptable.
Finally, we should consider the group of people who are more prone to be impacted by this lack of flexibility from going into an office. Would they be predominantly women or those in caretaker roles? Would they be people of color? Who would end up being the ones who have no problems being in an office, and would they dominate the office culture and decision-making process with their voice and physical presence? These to me are all important questions to consider.
RS: Let's say you're being asked to return to the office or to participate in a hybrid schedule and you're really worried that that's not going to work for you. What advice would you give to someone who's facing that and who wants to say, "No, I want to stay remote." Or, "I don't want to return to the office”?
TM: I think there are different layers to this. First, try to understand the push for hybrid or full return to the office. Is it a company-wide policy or a team-wide thing? How will it be enforced? Is it manager-dependent? What is the reasoning behind it? For example, if it's team-based and the emphasis is to increase productivity through in-person, talk to others on your team and see if they feel similarly! Share evidence on how you can be and have been productive in the past while being remote.
Next, dive deep on the level of flexibility within the policy with your manager or company. If you are required to be back in the office, can you choose what days? Can you choose the hours? If it's one day per week, can we maybe lump the four days in one week so that at least I'm still fulfilling the four-day requirement but in a way that works for me? Really try to understand the policy and see if there is room for creativity in the policy where you could perhaps meet the requirements needed.
There's also a whole other thing, which is level of comfort when it comes to COVID. There are still many cases going on, and people are still being affected in different ways in terms of symptoms. From a health perspective, that shouldn’t be undermined. Be clear that you're returning home and you are bringing the risk to your own family, whatever that household or situation that may look like. That is a very real risk that, while you might [test] negative the entire month, the amount of anxiety that it causes you is ambient and ever-present. Stress may not amount to anything physical right away, but it ends up being something that you keep thinking about. That's not worth, in my opinion, going to an office physically while you're constantly concerned about it. It is very worthwhile to bring up the emotional strain of being in office.
Lastly, understand what the policies are when someone [in the office tests] positive. Then what? What are the follow-on procedures? Sometimes, in talking that through, people would realize, “Oh, you know what? It's actually a lot more unproductive for there to be a company-wide communication that no one is allowed back in the office in the next couple days. It causes a lot of abruptness in how people work.” Make sure there's a really strong policy in place as well [in the event] people go into the office and then later test positive—know that there's a health procedure around making sure that the rest of the staff are safe.
RS: I'm going to switch topics a little bit. For those who are working on a product team for the first time, what advice would you give to software engineers and product managers on how to develop empathy for, and work with, designers?
TM: Designers are very “customers first.” We always want to understand the whys behind certain problems, and we solve the problems in a way that is oriented towards experience and visuals and interactions. The way to develop empathy is to share the problems clearly or for us to be able to define the problem alongside product so that we feel like we are part of the process. Then designers will generally do the research and share back their results with the team, so having us involved in the beginning of the process is crucial.
Another thing is having a really clear alignment around scope across product, engineering, and design. One of the things that I hear pretty consistently is that certain companies would have everything go from product to design, then design will come up with a solution, and then it’s about to get implemented, but some of the experience gets cut in scope because of resourcing constraints from the engineering team or [they] want to adhere to a certain product shipping velocity.
A more effective approach is really to understand from the beginning and align on the approach or the direction that we want to focus on as a team, and then commit to that so that the designers feel empowered to come up with a solution that is best for the customers and the product team and engineering team also understand that to be true. Therefore any scope cutting ends up being in the beginning, not at the end, where we feel like there's an experience mismatch.
Designers are very “customers first.” We always want to understand the whys behind certain problems, and we solve the problems in a way that is oriented towards experience and visuals and interactions. The way to develop empathy is to share the problems clearly or for us to be able to define the problem alongside product so that we feel like we are part of the process.
RS: What do you think are the most important skills for early career designers to develop especially in the lens of what are hiring managers looking for in more junior designers?
TM: Have a strong process. When it comes to early designers, I would say the portfolio work may be a little bit light, as well as the actual number of years of experience. What we're really looking for—and it's been a while since I've hired early career designer but just from what I can remember—is your robustness in process and your diligence when it comes to understanding what is needed for each part of the project, extrapolating the needs, and applying the different frameworks that you would need to think of a solution. That is something that is always going to be true throughout your career irrespective of your years of experience or the level of work that you can show.
The second thing is communication, internally and also externally, if you're trying to talk to users. Demonstrate communication skills in the interview process and also in your portfolio, because that's always the first thing that people look at. [In your portfolio], be succinct in the problems that you're trying to solve, the methodologies you took to solve those, any kind of failures or learnings before arriving at the final solution.
Lastly, the portfolio in and of itself is also really important and that itself is easily forgotten as a portfolio piece. I think that is something that people—like early career designers—tend to not think of as much because they really just want to think about the different projects that they can put together. Whether or not it's a website or a PDF, a presentation and the storytelling component really ties back to the communication that I was speaking of, where the way that you tell your story and how you set the stage of what the project is, provides that context. That demonstrates the way that you are able to understand problems and conveys that information really well before you even get to the work that you did.
Demonstrate communication skills in the interview process and also in your portfolio, because that's always the first thing that people look at. [In your portfolio], be succinct in the problems that you're trying to solve, the methodologies you took to solve those, any kind of failures or learnings.
TM: I think it would be the same for bootcamp. The one thing that I can think of to add for those who are transitioning into design is to try to identify what kind of translatable skill sets there would be from their previous role. People tend to be more conservative in thinking about that. They think, "Oh, my current role is so unrelated to design, and I must learn so many various hard skills from scratch," which sometimes is true, but there are a lot of soft skills that are translatable. I would challenge them to really think about telling the story that [demonstrates] organizational skills or communication or being resourceful or learning something on the go and being very adaptable and to convey that in the interview process.