April 30, 2019 / 49 min

Julie Zhuo: Learning to manage like a leader

Listen to Podcast

Julie Zhuo

Julie Zhuo

VP of Product Design, Facebook
About The Episode

Listen as Julie Zhuo, VP of Product Design at Facebook and author of The Making of a Manager, recalls some of her earliest professional experiences at one of the fastest growing companies on the planet.  She reveals how she got her start and grew to be a highly influential design leader renowned for building top-notch teams. Julie talks about the difference between leading and managing, and shares personal examples that can help you advance your career.


Julie Zhuo is one of Silicon Valley’s top product design executives and author of The Making of a Manager. Aside from her day job as VP of Product Design at Facebook, Julie writes about technology, design, and leadership on her popular blog The Year of the Looking Glass and in The New York Times and Fast Company.


Julie Zhuo: Learning to manage like a leader

The following is a complete transcript of this episode of the Design Better podcast interview with Julie Zhuo.

Enjoy the episode!


Julie Zhuo: To me, this is the difference between management and leadership. Management is a job. It’s a role. It’s like being a teacher, or a police officer, or a heart surgeon. There are various responsibilities that come with that role. It can be given to you, and it can be taken away, whereas leadership is a quality that you have to earn.

Narrator: This is the Design Better Podcast, where we share lessons and insights from today’s foremost design leaders. We hope the conversations and stories you hear help you transform your design practice and build remarkable products. In our third season, we’re exploring the connected workflow, how designers work more effectively and efficiently with their engineering and product counterparts. We’ll talk about how building key partnerships throughout an organization can help you ship better products, faster. This podcast is hosted by Aarron Walter and Eli Woolery, and is brought to you by InVision, the digital product design platform powering the world’s best experiences.

Eli Woolery: You don’t need to be a manager to be a leader. If there’s one thing to take away from our chat with Julie Zhuo, it might be the truth in that concept. But if you are a manager and a leader, there’s a lot more to learn from Julie, who recently launched her book, The Making of a Manager. Julie Zhuo is the VP of product design at Facebook. In her career journey at a rocket ship start-up, she’s learned a lot about what makes a great manager and a great leader.

We chat with Julie about why writing is a part of her learning process, some of the things she’s learned the hard way about being a manager, and how she manages people who have more experience than she does. Get ready to take some notes, and get inspired to do some writing of your own after you listen to our chat with Julie. Enjoy the show.

Aarron Walter: Hi, this is Aarron Walter.

EW: And I’m Eli Woolery. We hope you’re enjoying the Design Better Podcast, learning a thing or two that will help you in your career.

AW: We put a lot of time and energy into producing these interviews with top industry leaders, and we want to share their wisdom with as many people as possible. You can help us achieve that goal by taking just a minute to review the podcast on iTunes or Google Play.

EW: Your review will make this podcast more discoverable and will help us reach new people in the design and business community.

AW: We appreciate your support. Now, let’s get to the show.

EW: Julie Zhuo is the VP of product design at Facebook, but it isn’t just her role leading teams at one of the fastest growing companies in recent history that she’s known for. Julie began writing about her journey and the things that she’s learned on Medium, and now, she’s published a book, The Making of a Manager. Julie Zhuo, welcome to the Design Better Podcast.

JZ: Thank you for having me.

AW: We want to talk about a lot of different things today. You have a fascinating career starting at a very high profile company in the very early days and seeing that through some pretty rapid transformations, maybe bigger than any other company in the world at the moment right now, and certainly a lot of things to learn from that experience. But you’ve just launched a book, and that’s pretty exciting. Congratulations.

JZ: Thank you. This is day two after the launch of my book, so it’s been quite an adventure. Yesterday was a very, very exciting moment. I keep saying it’s kind of like your birthday. People write in and they tell you congratulations, and you just get warm vibes all around. It’s also probably a more intense day than the average birthday. I was up very early doing events, interviews, promotions. I got to spend the day in New York, and we ended with an event where I got to hang out with a bunch of women and talk to them about how to give and receive better feedback.

AW: That’s fascinating. We want to dive into that, but maybe let’s start at the beginning. So you joined Facebook when you were really young, which is both exciting and maybe a bit daunting as well. I presume that there was a pretty steep learning curve going through the company transformation, and also a personal transformation starting as a role that’s more individual-contributor focused—when it’s just a small group of people at a small company—to a leader at a huge, global enterprise that influences so much of culture, and just global culture in general. So could you walk us through the transformation that you went through personally as the company grew?

JZ: I started at Facebook as Facebook’s very first intern, so this is a summer internship in my last year of college. I went because they were just down the street from where my university was, and I had a very good friend of mine at the time, whose name is Wayne, he had just joined six months earlier. He had graduated one year before me, and he said, “You know, this is a really, really cool company. Come on. You might think we’re just a website, but we’ve got big dreams, and you should just come check it out. At least come check it out for the summer.”

So he convinced me to apply. I had actually been taking this course around entrepreneurship, and it’s kind of a nine-month study of entrepreneurship, lots of workshops, a lot of case studies. There was a summer internship component where the idea was to find a start-up in the local area where I could again see firsthand what it’s like to be in that kind of start-up environment.

I cheated a little bit because Facebook was already on the larger end of start-ups. It was certainly still a young company, but it had dozens of people. It didn’t have like five or six, which is where a lot of my peers in that class went to. But it was, frankly, still in those early stages where everyone wore many, many different hats, and when things were still at a very, very frantic pace.

The most important thing was just thinking about the next feature and thinking about, what could we launch tomorrow? What could we launch Friday? What could we put out there next week? To set some more context, Facebook at the time was also just a college and high school site, so when I joined, there were about eight million users. It was very well known among US colleges. It had just opened up to high schoolers, but you couldn’t get on just as a regular individual if you were out of school.

So nobody talked about Facebook. It was not yet in the news. MySpace was the social media juggernaut of the day. It was about 10 times bigger than Facebook at that time. So I show up on my first day, and I get hired as an engineering intern because that’s what I studied in university, but right away, my mentor at the time, she was Facebook’s first female engineer. She asked me, “Okay, so what kind of engineering work do you want to do, Julie?” I said, “Well, I’ve always really liked the front-end. I really like the part where I get to work on what people see and what they interact with.” She said, “Great. I’m going to sit you right here with this group of designers, and you should just hang out with them and do what they’re doing.”

That’s how I got into design. Previously, I didn’t really know that it was a profession, that it was something that you could do for money. I had some experience with Photoshop because I really like digital illustration, and that was my hobby all throughout middle and high school, but I hadn’t ever done that kind of design work professionally for a company, or treated it like an actual discipline.

But because it’s a start-up, lots of people wear lots of different hats, it’s not at all unusual that I opened up Photoshop. I started to design the feature that I was implementing. We were trying to work on our very first monetization strategy, which at the time was Photobooks. It didn’t work out, spoiler alert. But I just threw myself in and learned how to work at that start-up, fast-paced environment. Three years later, our design team was growing, and that was when my manager at the time took me aside and said, “Hey, Julie. We are hiring more designers, and I’m really stretched. I’m at my capacity, and I think we need another manager on the team. Do you want to do it?”

That was it. That was the conversation. I was like, “Okay.” I was excited because I felt like being asked to manage the team felt like a big honor. It felt like a privilege. It felt like the first step in what I dreamed was a very exciting career, but to be honest, I didn’t really know that much about management.

AW: Were there traits that you had that got you picked? How did you get that?

JZ: Yeah. She told me, “Well, you get along with everyone on the team.”

AW: Okay.

JZ: Which was true. I was friendly with everyone on the team. I was the kind of person who really wanted to hear what all the sides are of a story. I’m always that person who, we have a design opinion, and I’m the last one to really give my opinion because I’d rather hear what everyone else says first. That was the trait that my manager pointed out and why she asked me to manage the team.

AW: Interesting. So you get this position, and how many people were you managing at that point?

JZ: My manager was very, very thoughtful about the transition. She said, “I really want to make sure you are set up for success, and I know that you still have a bunch of individual contributor work that you like to do, so we’re going to start you off just managing…,” I think it was three or four people. She’s like, “We’ll scale from there.”

AW: What was that like for you the first two months of being a manager? Presumably, you go into that meeting, your manager says, “Hey, here’s this new opportunity,” and it feels like a promotion, and you probably called your parents and told them about that, and then the shine wears off and you’re two months in, and rubber hits the road. What was that like for you?

JZ: It was extremely awkward. In fact, the first thing that was awkward was the announcement to my team, and subsequently my first set of one-on-ones with these people who now reported to me because literally the day before, we’re peers, and I’m treating them like another design peer of mine. We were trading jokes and critique about Mac versus Windows, and oh, this new website redesign, do we like it? How do we feel?

We had a very good kind of communal relationship, and to be thrust in this position when I was now their manager, I felt extremely awkward about it. The reason why I felt awkward is that I didn’t consider myself a better designer than the people who were on my team. I had a lot of respect for them. A lot of them had been doing the job longer than I had. As you recall, I didn’t even know that professionally designing websites and building user experiences was a thing until just three years ago. I didn’t have formal typography, or color, or graphic design theory, and I hadn’t gone to school for that, so I felt a lot like an imposter, so the idea that I was their boss, it was something that felt very awkward to me because I’m going into the meeting, and I’m talking to them, and I can see that they also know that I’m not a better designer than them, and so how is that dynamic going to work?

AW: Yeah. Eli and I were just in Santa Fe with a group of design leaders from lots of different companies. Ironically, these were people at the top of their career, and they reported something very similar, feeling this imposter syndrome. It makes sense to be still in the early part of your career, transitioning into this position of authority with people who were peers, and feeling like an imposter. That’s hard to overcome, but we hear from a lot of design leaders that they feel that even at the top end of their career, too.

JZ: Yes, yes. I do think that nowadays, I have this benefit of saying, “Well, I have managed for a long time, and so while I’m definitely not the top designer in the room, I do feel like I have that experience of having managed.” I couldn’t say that in the beginning either, you know? Everyone also knew that I was new to that role. I was new to the job, and that was something that I felt like I had to really prove myself. I felt like I had to show that I knew what I was doing, and that I was competent, and that I was authoritative. If I could go back in time and give advice to myself back then, I would say, “Chill out, Julie. You don’t need to prove anything. Your job as a manager is not to design pixels, and you don’t need to be better than your reports that design or at any actual skill.” The only thing you need to do is help them do their best work together, right, be a force multiplier for your team.

That means going and just being more real with them, saying, “Hey, I know I’m new to this job, but my goal is to help you. My goal is to understand what your goals are, what are your career aspirations, what do you like to do, what do you consider your strengths, and to help you reach those goals and to help you apply those strengths to the problems that the team needs to solve.” I think if I could have said that or felt that, I would’ve felt so much better because I know today that management is just a very, very different role, and that I’m not competing as an individual contributor, and I can continue to help, and coach, and support my people even if I’m not the best of them.

I mean, when you look at the world’s top elite athletes, they all have great coaches, and those coaches are not better at the sport than they are. Everyone can benefit from coaching, and everyone can be pushed, and improved, and challenged through having a great coach.

EW: You actually wrote an essay about this on Medium around managing more experienced people. I thought one of the things that you touched on, which was really interesting, was just the opportunity to learn, learn from folks that are more experienced. Maybe you could talk a little bit about that.

JZ: Yes. I really believe that you can learn something from everyone you work with because we all have our own strengths. We all have our areas of growth and development, and I really do think that the thing that makes being an early-stage manager harder, more hard than it needs to be, is that perception that you have of yourself that somehow, you need to be great at X or Y in order to get respect.

That might be true in terms of if someone just doesn’t know you very well and is just looking at what are your credentials on paper, but I think that what ultimately matters in a successful relationship is trust. You build trust with someone if they feel like they can be open and honest with you, if they feel like they can be vulnerable with you, and you are going to go out of your way to help them, and you’re going to help them ease their concerns. You’re going to help them achieve their goals. You’re going to help them figure out how to get those opportunities that are going them help get that promotion.

But in order to do that, you also have to give trust, right? You have to also show up as vulnerable, and you have to tell other people, “Hey, you know, I’m human too, and I’m not the best at everything. I make mistakes. This is what I think I’m good at. This is what I think I could be better at, and we’re just going to work together. We’re going to go and help each other, and I want you to give me feedback on these things, or if you see something where you think I could’ve done a better job, or also to give me positive encouragement. What do you think I’m doing well that I should do more of? And I will try to do the same for you.” I think in that manner, we can learn from each other, and we can build that trust, and we can do what we need to do to support each other and get the best out of each other.

AW: Julie, there’s one thing that you said that really resonated with my experience as a product design leader in the past, and going through a company growth thing and from individual contributor to a manager. You said that the graph of impact tends to correlate with how many people you need to work with effectively. Once I realized this, I started to see my interactions with other people differently. It was no longer about winning battles and proving that I was right, but about developing stronger collaborative relationships. What was your work life before that realization like, and what was it like on the other side of that?

JZ: That’s a great topic because I had a very similar realization to you. Well, first, it was the realization that, you know, all of the things that I did as an individual contributor over time would not be how I should view my success as a manager, that my success as a manager is about the multiplicative effect that I have on people, that if I can help you do this task slightly more efficiently or slightly better, then the team’s going to be better off, and I need to do that with every member of the team.

But the next kind of leap that I made in terms of realization is it’s also not just about my relationship with each of my reports. I also need to be able to foster the kind of environment where their relationship is also productive and fruitful, and collaborative because that’s a huge part of working together as a team. It’s not that everyone just goes through me. It’s not a spoke and hub model, right? It’s everyone networks with everyone else, and sometimes, the designer on the ground is working on a product, a particular mock, and in order for their work to be better, they need the critique, or they need the partnership, or they need the collaboration of another designer on the team.

So I also had to think much more intentionally about what is that culture of the team that I want to build? What is the how of this ideal team coming together and working well with each other, not just with me, but also in these cross-relationships that maybe I’m not privy to, I don’t always see directly, but that I can get feedback from each individual to see how that’s going for them?

EW: Molly Graham, who was also at Facebook as a manager and leader, wrote about this concept of giving away your Legos, and when you’re at a really quickly growing start-up, that your role is going to change, and not only your role, but the role of the people that you’re leading. Could you talk a little bit about that, how you approach this concept of sharing your Legos?

JZ: Yes. I love that article by Molly. That analogy has really stuck with me and resonated with me because the thing that I think can be very, very hard to let go of when you transition from being an IC to a manager, or you even transition from being a manager of a smaller team where you again have a lot more direct relationship and access to projects, to managing a larger team where maybe you’re managing managers, and so you don’t have as much of that direct access.

In each step of that journey, and pretty much in each step of any part of scaling, of going from a smaller team or a smaller organization to a bigger organization, it can feel very hard because the thing you might have thought once is hey, when we were four or five people, I was 20% of all of the decisions made, or I was 20% of the output of the team, or I was involved in basically every decision that our team made, right? So if we were four people and we needed to hire the fifth person, it’s like I’m on the interview loop. I’m a voice in whether or not we want to add this person to our team. Or, if we’re trying to think about a new way to structure critiques, then yeah, I’m part of that conversation because there’s only four of us, and everyone has a voice in how we control things.

But you know, when your team gets to 30 or 40 people, as the manager, I’m not interviewing every single person that comes in, and so one day, a new person will join and I don’t know anything about them. Maybe if I did, I may or may not have hired them, but it’s not actually my direct choice anymore.

AW: Were there moments, as you’re going through this growth process and in the practice of giving away your Legos to accept bigger responsibilities where you felt like you had to check your ego along the way to kind of, I mean that’s essentially the core message of Molly’s article is that by giving away your Legos, you’ve got to see that there’s a more exciting pile of Legos over here, so you can overcome that emotional attachment to the work that once gave you meaning? So just curious, how did your ego play into that growth?

JZ: Yeah, and there were a lot of examples of things that I had done that I felt like were part of my identity and that I was reluctant to give away for a period of time. For example, we ran a weekly design meeting. It was sort of a design all-hands, right? I was the one who came up with that idea. I ran the agenda. I’m sort of the person who is the MC of that meeting. I welcome people, and then we go and introduce new members of our team, and various people give presentations about what they’re working on, and I was really proud of that meeting. It was something that really brought our design team and made our community stronger. It was something that people looked forward to every Monday. I liked standing up there and saying good morning to everyone.

I did it for years, and I don’t think that I would have maybe even had the idea to let it go if not for external circumstances. I became pregnant. I left to take a few months of parental leave after my baby was born, and of course, I was like okay, great. Someone has to run this meeting in my absence. It was when I came back and I realized the meeting was running a lot better, much more organized, much more thoughtfully designed, better presentations. It was doing a lot better than when I was running it, and I realized, you know, I should have let this go a long time ago.

I should’ve realized that for me, it had become routine, and I wasn’t thinking every day about how I could invest in it or changing it because we had done it this way for so long. I should’ve realized that new energy would’ve breathed more life into it, and that new perspectives and a new handle on ideas would’ve made this whole thing better. I wish that I could go back and have given that to someone else, even two or three years before it actually happened.

EW: The Design Better Podcast is brought to you by InVision, the digital product design platform used to make the world’s best customer experiences. We recently released our new industry-spanning report on design maturity called A New Design Frontier. This 40-page report captures insights from over 2,200 companies, 23 industries, and 77 countries. In it, you will discover what it takes to level up your own design practice and run a design organization that grows your business’s bottom line. Get the report and start transforming the way you work today at InVisionApp.com/designmaturity. InVision can also work with you to get to know what these results mean for your organization and how you can start implementing better design practices inspired by what we’ve learned from the world’s best teams. Check it all out at InVisionApp.com/designmaturity. Thanks for listening. Let’s get back to the show.

You do a lot of writing on Medium and you have a newsletter, and I imagine that in your primary role, you’re also really busy, and you mentioned you have kids. But you still find a lot of time to write. Can you tell us why that is? Is that helpful for your learning process, or are there other benefits to it that you see?

JZ: Writing is one of the most therapeutic and helpful ways for me to organize my own thinking. I’m that kid that was journaling every day in third grade. I’m that person who, in high school, was trying to write down all of my goals and what I really cared about when it came to a college in order to help me decide where I wanted to apply and where I wanted to go. So I’ve had this history and habit of using writing as a tool for myself to solve problems.

That was a very similar motivation that led me to start my blog. The selfish reason that I wanted to do it and why I set it as a New Year resolution for myself is that I observed that I was having a hard time really sharing my opinion and being okay with it out there, regardless of whether people agreed or disagreed. You remember earlier in the podcast, I said one of the reasons my manager chose me to be the next manager was like you get along with everyone, and I said that I’m the person who would rather hear what everyone else has to say about their design opinion before giving them my own. Well, I wanted to work on that because I knew that this was ultimately going to be a barrier and that if I couldn’t figure out how to get my voice out there or even to find what it is that I stood for, that was going to hold me back.

So I set this goal, this New Year’s resolution, where the only goal was to hit the publish button on something once a week. I tried to set that goal to be more about action than about quality, or results, or whatnot, just so I could force myself to do it. I still love setting goals like that because sometimes, before you get too hung up on is this good, are people going to read it, is this really what I want to say, does it represent my voice, et cetera, because we can be very perfectionist sometimes. All of those concerns can just block us from even starting. That sometimes, just setting a goal on the action of hitting the publish button once a week, you know. I said, “Julie, you can write about whatever you want, whatever happens to be in your mind. You can write about what’s going at work, or what’s going on at home. If you’re really busy, you can frankly take a piece you’ve written before and just publish it and hit the publish button.” I would’ve counted that, right?

I did this for a year, so 52 times of hitting the publish button, and I realized just how rewarding it was for me to be able to have that time to reflect, to be able to have that time to take these messy and jumbled, tangled thoughts in my head and try and clarify them into okay, what did I really think about this, right? A lot of times, I would approach the prompt with, if I were writing about, let’s say design critique, I was trying to figure out what would I tell myself is the best way to do this given everything that I know? It was about trying to articulate that in a more structured manner, and then that was sort of a gift to myself because then, I could take it and I could talk about it more easily at work, or I could know a little bit more of where I stood on that topic.

I remember the first few weeks, it was actually really excruciating because then, I got that kind of perfectionist syndrome. I wrote a sentence, and I would start tweaking it before I even wrote the next sentence. To be able to get to the point where, I also remember being very, very nervous, being like oh my gosh, is this topic going to resonate? Are people going to think I’m an idiot for saying this? But that’s what the practice was about. It was about getting comfortable, getting over those concerns and those barriers, and it took me a long time.

I remember the first few articles that I wrote that year, I probably spent like eight hours on them each, which is a really long time. But by the end of that year, I was able to crank out something in like an hour and a half, an hour and a half to two hours. I had trained myself to think in a more structured way and to get through those hangups, those hang-ups around perfectionism, those hang-ups around being worried what someone was going to say, and that was really motivating to me.

The other thing that was motivating was a lot of people responded really well to my writing. Again, this wasn’t the goal that I set out to try and do when I started, but it was very heartwarming to hear that some of the things I was struggling with were universal, that lots of people felt that way, and people in different contexts and different industries, a completely different team environment. That was also something that has continued to inspire me to write and to start my mailing list with the Q&A answers, and to ultimately write this book.

EW: Seth Godin, who we all probably know is a writer and marketing expert, but he talks about he himself writes every single day on his blog, and he talks about this sort of fallacy of writer’s block, that the plumbers don’t get plumber’s block, they just go and do the work, so if you’re going to be a writer, be a writer, and go and do the work, and that will get you past that kind of block.

JZ: Right, yeah. There’s this organization that I love called NaNoWriMo. Have you guys heard of it?

EW: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

AW: No.

JZ: It stands for National November Novel Writing Month. The whole idea is that lots of people have this goal of writing a novel, right, of having a story that they want to tell, but then they sit down and they write like a few paragraphs, and they’re like, “I don’t really like my writing,” and then they just stop.

So the entire goal of NaNoWriMo is you take the month of November, and you commit to writing 50,000 words. It doesn’t matter how good those words are. Your goal is to just write 1,667 words every single day for 30 days. Then, you’ll have a 50,000-word manuscript, and then, you’ll have something you can respond to. You can start to edit it. You could start to chop things up and say, “Oh, this part works and this part doesn’t,” but it is also an accomplishment. There’s this real sense of having done something after you get to the end of that month.

AW: I think part of the allure of your writing too is that it’s so accessible. I think that if you had taken a different approach and not set up this framework of like, just ship it. Just make a thing and put it into the world, to build the muscle, but also to be okay with the vulnerability, that accessibility, that it’s not perfect. You’re someone whose work and influence is an inspiration to a lot of people, but presenting those ideas as not totally buttoned-up, as almost like a sketch instead of a perfect rendering, makes that more accessible, and I think resonates with a bigger audience.

JZ: Yes. The other valuable thing that I get as part of that too is sometimes, people will share a riff on the idea, or say, “Yeah, that’s an interesting way of thinking about it, but have you thought about that?” Or point me to another book, or an article, or a resource that they read that was something similar. I learned so much from that too. That is what helps me refine my thinking and my concept of how these things should go. I think this is very, very similar to design. That’s why I think it’s so important as a designer to show your work often, to put it in front of other people, and to ask for their feedback, even if it isn’t perfect, even if you know that yeah, okay, I could have done this or that better.

But the more you do that, the more you get inspiration. You get ideas. You get a new way of thinking that you might not have considered before, and then you can go take that and refine your work, and you’re going to come out with better design work.

AW: Well, that’s a good bridge to talking about your book. You’ve got this new book about management and the learnings over these years, transitioning into management. I think it’s a really salient topic and feels like it’s written in a way that I think a lot of people who find themselves in this transitory position will identify with. But we’re curious. Why this book, and why now?

JZ: When I became a new manager, I have this memory of going to the bookstore and trying to find some management books to help me out. I remember finding a lot of really, really great things, but a lot of them were about here’s a particular organizational trend that you should be aware of, or here’s a new theory about how you can run a great team, or here’s a practice that you should take and you should incorporate every day into how you manage. I read a lot of that, but what I realized was there’s nothing, there was very little that was just, hey, here’s everything you need to know. Here are the basics. Here’s the 101 on how to have a good one-on-one with someone, how to run a meeting, how to hire someone and do an interview, how to have a hard conversation and performance-manage somebody who isn’t doing well on your team.

There wasn’t some place where all of that was shared in a way that felt appropriate or maybe at the level that I was as a new manager. The reason why I wanted to write this book now is I realized this is the book that I could write now, and it would probably turn out better than if I wrote it in 10, or 15, or 20 years because I still really remember what it’s like to be a new manager, the emotions of that anxiety, of that uncertainty, feeling like an imposter day in and day out, having all those questions, feeling like I had to prove myself, letting my ego get in the way of various decisions. I still remember that really well, and I don’t think I would maybe if another 20 years passed. I think by then, maybe there could be other wisdom that I’d be excited to talk about or share at that moment.

But I wanted to write this now because it’s like me going back in time 10 years to when I was 25 and having coffee with myself, and just sitting down for a couple of hours and saying, “Hey, here’s everything you need to know. Here are the basics. Here are all of the lessons that I’ve learned through tried-and-true experience and through the making of various mistakes.” I wanted it to sound conversational, and I wanted it to be extremely pragmatic and actionable rather than theoretical.

Most important of all, I just wanted to reassure people that they were going to be fine, that they’re going to figure it out, and that the whole process of management is learning, and so much of the learning is learning about you and yourself, and the things that you do well because that’s what you need to lead with if you want to create a strong relationship or partnership with someone else.

EW: In the kind of lead-up to writing this book, you also wrote that you have a chance to create a bit more representation in the voices talking about leadership. So what are some of the learnings that you’re excited to share as a voice for female leaders or other folks who might be underrepresented in these types of leadership books?

JZ: One stat that I learned when I was doing research for my book that really astounded me is that in the United States, since the 1980s, there have been more women managers than men. I thought that was quite remarkable because again, you go to the business section of the bookstore, and you see lots of things written by former CEOs, or leadership coaches, or executive consultants, people like that, and most of them are men, so I don’t think you would have had that impression that wow, there are more women managers out there than there are male managers.

So it was something that inspired and motivated me as well to write this book and to know that it could add a different perspective. Some things that I think are maybe a little bit more unique to my book or again, the voices of women when you hear them talk about management are I think maybe focusing a little bit more on those self-doubts and the psychology of feeling like, do I deserve this? Did that person make a mistake putting me here in this role?

I hear that very, very commonly among women, and I think the research shows that women are more likely to doubt themselves. There’s a stat that says a man looks at a job requirement and is like, “I fulfill 60% of those requirements.” He’s like, “I’m a great candidate for the job.” With women, they’re looking to fill 100% of those requirements, so I do think there is a difference in perception, and I think that is what a lot of my blog has been about. I think that’s been some of what resonates with my readers who are female.

I think another one is just for me, diversity and inclusiveness is really, really important when we think about building teams. I know that when I was an IC, when I was early in my career, I was very soft-spoken in meetings. I didn’t always want to share what I had to say because I was afraid of being wrong. I was afraid of being judged, and I see a lot of women who know that they need to work on finding their voice, but as a manager, it’s important that we also create an environment where people can feel safe to participate, right? There’s a lot of ways that you can run meetings where you go person-to-person and you ask them their opinion, or you give everyone some Post-it notes at the very beginning, and you ask them to write down their thoughts.

That works really well also for folks who are a little bit more introverted, who maybe aren’t as comfortable thinking on the spot and then saying what they think out loud. You give them maybe Post-it notes, and everyone writes down their ideas, and then you go through a process where everyone goes through ideas, and we map it out on the board. A lot of those I think are more inclusive processes that ensure that all of the voices, even the quiet ones, can be heard because they’re important, and they’re going to make our team do better work.

AW: Gretchen Rubin, in one of the recommendations for your book, said that “Julie shares what she learned, often the hard way.” Curious, what are some of the insights that you’ve learned the hard way as a manager and as a leader?

JZ: So much because I think a lot of the lessons that resonate now with me the most clearly are things that I’ve learned as a result of making that mistake and seeing, you know, hey, I didn’t do it that way. Here’s what you’re going to see. I already talked about one of the big mistakes early on was just thinking that management meant that you had to be authoritative and you had to act like a know-it-all instead of the insight that it’s okay to be vulnerable, and in fact, you’re going to earn more trust with vulnerability. That’s a really big one.

Another one for me is that being successful at management isn’t about whether you have leadership qualities or not, or whether people look up to you. There’s also an important element of are you more motivated by what the outcome of the team is, and are you willing to do what the team needs you to do, even if that particular thing isn’t particularly exciting to you? Because if you’re the kind of person that cares more about the discipline of a particular craft, you care more that the visual design is the absolute best that it could be, or you care more that the collaboration process is really, really great, then it might be challenging for you to be a manager because you can’t always pick and choose those things. Sometimes, you just have to do what the team needs you to do.

If you are down four people on your team, you better be spending the entirety of your time hiring because that’s the most important thing. And yes, if the visual system isn’t perfect, great, but that could be someone else’s job because you’ve got to take care of the thing that matters the most. I made that mistake because I found folks on my team, people whom everyone else respected, people who naturally, others saw as mentors, people who I thought were brilliant, and smart, and great at design, and I told them, “Hey, I think you should be a manager.”

I convinced them to do it, and they were deeply unhappy. They got burnt out, and it’s because some of them wanted more to work on the craft of the thing than to deal with all of the stuff that you just have to deal with as a manager. Some of them frankly just didn’t like interacting with people, and that’s okay too. Your job as a manager is to work with your team, so naturally, you just need to spend a lot of time with people interacting, one-on-ones, meetings, so forth, and some people are just like, “You know? What I look for in a great day is five, six hours of uninterrupted time to focus and to think deeply about problems.” That’s just not what you’re going to get if you’re a manager.

I didn’t realize that, and so I put people in situations that made them deeply unhappy and burnt out, and now I know that if someone tells me they want to manage, I’m going to focus really hard on well, why? Why do you want to be a manager? Let’s make sure that the reasons you want to do it and the day-to-day reality of the job are going to match up and make you happy because you could also be excited about management because it seems like a promotion. It seems like a prestigious title. It seems like a way to advance your career. I’ve also seen people do that and then realize that’s not what they want to do, and they’re unhappy.

EW: In that situation, how do you think about the folks that want to remain on the individual contributor track, creating opportunities for them to advance?

JZ: That’s a great question because I really, really believe that the individual contributor track is full of possibilities for leadership and for senior people to have widespread impact across the team. I think that sometimes, we don’t necessarily always do the best job of maybe structuring it that way or enabling that person to play that role among the team, but I think it’s definitely possible. To me, this is the difference between management and leadership. Management is a job. It’s a role. It’s like being a teacher, or a police officer, or a heart surgeon. There are various responsibilities that come with that role. It can be given to you, and it can be taken away, whereas leadership is a quality that you have to earn. The best managers need to be great leaders because if people don’t follow them and don’t respect them and don’t trust them, they’re not going to be particularly effective in impacting a team.

But many, many people can be leaders, and you don’t need to be a manager in order to be a leader, in order to, through your actions or your words or through your vision, inspire a group of other people around you towards a common cause, or to rally around a particular initiative. So with individual contributors, I like to sit down with them and understand what they consider their strengths, what their areas of passion are, and to figure out how to help them basically have that multiplication effect. So if someone is maybe a brilliant systems thinker and they really, really care about having a robust and well-designed system in place for the entirety of the design structure and the organization, then how can I help them play that role? How can I help them act as that mentor or act as that design lead and architect maybe that system, and figure out what are the right processes by which they can make that impact and ensure that the rest of the team is aligned towards that goal?

I find that I often do have to help mentor individual contributors on the art of delegation because that is a skill you need if you want to lead a group of people, again, regardless of whether you are a manager or an individual contributor. At a certain point, if you’re the most brilliant designer, you still can’t be moving every pixel yourself, again, if you want to be able to oversee a larger swath of the product, and so you have to get comfortable working through other people. That means giving them very specific feedback on what’s working and what isn’t. That means clarifying what the expectations are, what the rules are. That means being able to help coach another designer to enable them to do their best work. All of these are shared qualities among leaders, whether or not you are a manager or an individual contributor.

AW: One of the challenges as a leader of a design team is also to protect the team from the occasional swoop-in from executives, or people at a higher level. You’ve written a bit about navigating this scenario. I wonder if you could talk about this. This is such a common thing that so many design leaders deal with.

JZ: The skill that I feel like I’ve had to work on the most in recent years, now that I manage a much larger organization and that I’m again playing a slightly different role where I’m not in all of the details but I have to represent the work of the team as a whole and get buy-in for the important and maybe controversial decisions that we’re all a part of, one of the skills I’ve had to work on the most is communication because I see my role as in some ways being the interpreter of what the team has come up with. You know, here’s their great work. They’ve been very thoughtful about it. They’ve explored many options, the pros and cons and all of that.

I have to be able to know how to talk about that in a way that resonates with other people, other executives, people who maybe don’t come from a design background and don’t speak the same language that designers do. I think that becomes a critical skill in order to provide the things that you were talking about for your team, in order to represent them well, and in order to buffer them from thrash or all of the things that might happen in a large organization. But that’s one thing that I actively work on, and I know that if I get better at this, then I’m going to be much more effective as a leader for my team.

EW: Facebook, historically and still, has a really strong engineering culture, and certainly the design practice is also well-established, but how do you and your teams communicate the impact of design to the company given that culture?

JZ: The first thing that we find is effective to do is to make sure that we are aligned on what is the big picture. What is the outcome that we’re trying to aim for as a company, and not just like a design team, but as all of the product disciplines? For that, I include product design. I include content strategy and research, but also engineering and PM, and analytics. Those are, to me, the major functions that make up a team that goes and builds the product and ships it for people.

So I think it’s very important to have the conversation, again, cross-functionally with all of those leaders on what does success look like for our product? We have to be able to have that as a very clear vision because ultimately, we need to find ways to then translate that vision into a number of things that we can measure or hold ourselves accountable for. I think one mistake that sometimes we have made in the past, or that you can make in an organization that’s extremely strong in engineering or analytics is that you look at what you’re able to measure because again, you can be so effective at operationalizing, and you look at things like engagement, or clicks on this, or what’s the funnel, or whatever. But the part that sometimes gets lost is okay, so we can be very good at measuring what people do, but what about what people feel, because that is important too.

That’s the other side of the coin. That matters because if people do these things but they don’t feel good doing it, they are not likely to be long-term customers of your product because ultimately, we’re going to realize that. We’re going to realize hey, you know, this doesn’t make us feel good or we don’t like it, and something better came along that we can use that does the same type of thing that makes us feel a lot better, and we like it more. You know, you’re not in a strong competitive advantage even if you can measure behavior but you don’t have strong sentiment or strong people who actually recommend and like using our product.

I think sometimes, when we talk about goals, we can go straight into okay, wait, let’s set some goals around revenue or some numbers. Let’s set goals around engagement. And we’ve lost sight of okay, but all that is trying to help us do and say something. What is that? Let’s define that first. Often, what we want is we want our thing to be valuable for people, and value, you can measure by both, okay, how do they feel about it? Do they tell you that it’s valuable? And are they demonstrating that it’s valuable because they come back to it and they use it again and again? Those are both good signals of value.

So we need to get alignment on that as just the opening before we start building out features, before we start looking at numbers and evaluating what they mean. We have to level set on what those goals are. If we are able to have a constructive conversation at the level of what do we want to do for customers, then I think the goals that design teams have or the things that design teams wants to do can fit in very well with that narrative and that articulation. And in fact, everything becomes easier to frame through the lens of, is this taking us closer to that end state where we want to be with the customer?

AW: Julie, we wrap every interview with the same question. We’re curious. What’s inspiring you these days? Is there a book that you’ve recently read, a movie you’ve seen, a blog post you’ve read? What something that’s inspiring you lately that might be meaningful to our listeners?

JZ: I just recently finished a book that I can’t stop raving about, so that’s the first thing that came to mind when you asked that question. It’s called The Paper Menagerie and Other Short Stories. It’s by the author Ken Liu. It’s a collection of short stories where Ken is really one of the most acclaimed sci-fi and fantasy short story writers. The Paper Menagerie story in particular is the only story to have won the Hugo, The Nebula, and the World Fantasy awards in a single year. It is a phenomenal story.

But because he’s a sci-fi and fantasy writer, a lot of his short stories deal with kind of these visions of the future, things like the creation myth, and how would that work with AI, or things like what is the intersection in which a lot of times technological advances can feel like they’re taking away from maybe some of the humanity of the work? You’ve seen that through the Industrial Revolution in the past, but he has a lot of short stories that examine those qualities and those moments in time, and they’re all centered around maybe a few key individuals, so there’s a powerful narrative about families, about people in love, about people trying to make their way in the world against this backdrop of technological progress, or war, or basically culture clash between East and West.

Those are some of the themes of this short story collection. Every single story is a gem. I read each one. I cried, I was sort of biting my nails because I thought this really needs to be the next big Netflix thriller. Again, a lot of them are very, very provocative and thoughtful as well about how we think about technology going forward.

AW: That’s great. Well, Julie Zhuo, thank you so much for joining us. We’re excited about your new book, and we hope all of our listeners will check it out.

JZ: Thank you so much for having me. This was a real pleasure.

EW: That concludes this episode of the Design Better Podcast. Thanks so much for listening. If you’re hungry for more stories and lessons to continue to level up your design practice, visit InVisionApp.com/designbetter. You’ll find e-books, videos, and articles on design that you and your team can use to learn more about design thinking, building world-class operations, facilitating enterprise design sprints, and so much more. If you enjoyed this episode, please leave us a review on Apple Podcasts, and share this podcast with a friend or teammate interested in designing better today. Thanks so much for listening.


Meet Your Hosts

Aarron Walter
VP of Design Education

Aarron Walter is Director of Product on the COVID Response team at Resolve to Save Lives. Previously, he was VP of Design Education at InVision, and founded the UX practice at Mailchimp where he helped grow the product from a few thousand users to more than 10 million. He’s the author of a number of books, the latest of which is a second edition of Designing for Emotion. Aarron’s design guidance has helped the White House, the US Department of State, and dozens of major corporations, startups, and venture capital firms.

You can find Aarron on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Eli Woolery
Director of Design Education

Eli is the Director of Design Education at InVision. His design career spans both physical and digital products, and he has worked with companies ranging from startups (his own and others) to Fortune 500 companies.

In addition to his background in product and industrial design, he has been a professional photographer and filmmaker. He teaches the senior capstone class Implementation to undergraduate Product Designers at Stanford University. You can find Eli on Twitter and Medium.

:: P

Uncover insights from the world’s top designers and creatives

In our sixth season, we’re looking beyond the design team to explore the far reaches of collaboration, and we’ll surface a cross-disciplinary approach to doing complex work with diverse teams.