Jess Brown - Individual contributor or manager: Which path is best?


Certain points along your career path can be challenging to navigate. Deciding to take the leap into management can be challenging, as can deciding to transition into IC work after managing teams. Jess has worked as Head of Design and Director of User Experience but realized that right now, being an individual contributor fits best into her current career stage.

During this episode, Jess Brown shares her experience on both sides of this topic and how to decide which path would work best for you!

🤔 Do you really want to be a manager?

Managing a design team comes with many hidden responsibilities that people do not always consider when trying to climb the company ranks. Thoroughly think through this big decision.

🎯 Trust your gut!

Making a change in your career path can be overwhelming. Take time to consider each responsibility of the new role and think through what a day in your life will look like if you move in that direction. Does this make you feel energized or drained?

🔥 Find a way to test it out!

Once you decide what path energizes you and makes you excited to get started, figure out how you can collect some trial experience in that future role. Talk to your manager to see if the company you currently work for will support that growth.

Individual contributor or manager: Which path is best?

In episode 33 of The Product Design Podcast, Seth Coelen interviews Jess Brown, Staff Product Designer at Faire. During her career, Jess has worked as the Head of Design and Director of User Experience. Still, she decided to switch up her career path and head back into working as an individual contributor.

Jess shares why she decided to return to IC after working in management and her insights on how her work experience still applies to her current role. Seth and Jess also discuss the difference between the two career paths and how you can decide which route is best for you.

Seth Coelen and Jess Brown on The Product Design Podcast

How Jess got her start in product design

Jess studied math and computer science at Stanford, intending to become an engineer. During her internship, she discovered that path was not the right fit for her and realized she was taking several art classes that were not required. Jess decided to put together a portfolio and begin applying for design jobs. Her first job out of school was a hybrid role where she designed and did front-end engineering for a small startup.

After that, Jess worked at several small startups and co-founded a small company. She learned a lot from the internet and started to get a feel for what she wanted in the next phase of her career path. With an interest in fashion and tech, Jess decided to join a more established company called Rent the Runway in New York, where she could work with a larger team, have more structure and begin to hone her design craft. During her time there, she grew into a management role based on the company's needs and became the Director of Product Design.

What to expect in a management role

Since then, Jess has spent several years of her career in Director level roles and truly enjoyed leading and developing design teams. Many hidden responsibilities come with managing teams, and Jess shared some of the responsibilities you can expect if you choose to move into a management role.

📌 Hiring, developing, and mentoring the design team.

From recruiting and hiring to overseeing projects in the design team, the manager has a lot of work with their direct team. They should understand the status of design work and where designers need support or feedback. It is also essential to understand how individuals on the team are doing and where they would like to grow in their career paths.

“What makes a good teammate: giving people the benefit of the doubt, being patient with people, and looking to understand and resolve conflicts.”

🔒 Working and collaborating with other departments.

Another major part of managing a team is facilitating open communication and maintaining relationships with the larger organization's product teams, engineering teams, and other departments. Learning where you can help improve processes or identify based on specific scenarios is important. You can bring value back to your design team and help them work more efficiently with other departments.

🚧 High-level planning around the larger company roadmap.

Staying on top of the larger company roadmap will enable you to best plan the time and space for the design team to do good work. Without keeping this top of mind, the design team could easily be led in the wrong direction and away from the larger company goals.

Jess’s guidance on deciding if IC or management is for you

In her previous role, the company Jess worked for had to reduce the number of people on her team. She found herself in project work and working more closely with teams, as she had done earlier in her career. Jess realized she felt energized by this type of work and decided to move back into IC as a Staff Product Designer.

Jess shared her advice on deciding to move into management or back into IC after managing teams, so you can see what would work best for you at the current stage of your career path!

Consider what your day-to-day would look like in a different role.

Create a checklist as to what this new role would entail. Think through and understand all the responsibilities you would encounter if you were to go that route.

💡 Read your energy.

As you go through this thought exercise, how does it make you feel? Does it feel energizing or draining to you? Consider how you feel and let that help you decide which path to take.

🔥 Is there a way you can get some trial experience?

If you decide you would like to learn more about a potential shift in your career path, explore to see if there is a way that you can collect some trial experience at the company you currently work for. Can your company support you in determining if management is for you?

Maybe there is an intern you can help lead, or you could informally mentor a junior member on your team. Ask your manager how you can start to develop a feel for what the next step would look like for you!

Jess Brown
“Managing energy is very important, and the evolution of routine working from home is a continued one.”

Thank you so much, Jess!

We had a great discussion with Jess, where she brought her valuable insight into management versus IC work. Her experience provided us with fantastic advice for anyone deciding between one path or the other. We are thankful for the advice she shared that will help you make a more informed decision on your next step!

Listen to the complete episode on The Product Design Podcast, which includes a deeper dive into what Jess experienced during her time in startups and where she thinks tech will go in the future. Don't forget to follow Jess on Twitter and LinkedIn, to see what she is staying up to!

Where to find Jess

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