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Women in STEM

From Art to Tech

Margot Dear’s advice to creative people interested in tech: Be curious and ask great design questions, but also always figure out how to explain your value.

When Margot Dear decided she wanted to learn French, she got on a bus in Vancouver and moved to Montreal. It took three days to get there, but that was part of the adventure.

C’est une aventure depuis.

It’s been an adventure ever since.

From Art to Tech

She loved Montreal and decided to go to university there, where she studied art history and studio art. After college, she also learned graphic design and opened up her own design firm for print, graphics and independent film design.

Around that time, Margot realized that art was going digital, so she focused her efforts on computer digital design. She also began working on web design. While she was learning, one of her favorite tricks was to hide her mouse so she would be forced to find another way to get the same result. She has been bridging the gap between the logic and structure of computers and the art and experiences of people ever since.

Understanding Design, Tech, and Relationships

When a friend invited her to come to London — “Because things are happening here!” her friend exclaimed — Margot left her web design position and moved to the U.K. She was able to get a work permit there because her grandfather was a British citizen, and she immediately started working as a freelance graphic and web designer.

She first worked to create online tools for a finance company, then she helped the British Post Office develop their online portal. The Royal Mail needed someone who understood both technology and design to create a central portal while managing relationships across distinct postal brands: Royal Mail, Post Office and Parcel Post. This was a pivotal position for Margot, as her role became less hands-on and more managerial, which meant that understanding people would be a key skill.

After the project was complete, LexisNexis recruited Margot to develop an online presence for their products and services outside the United States. This involved working with teams around the world from many disciplines, including academics, library science, taxonomy, tech, art and design. Margot says, with a laugh, “It was hard to recruit the creative team, because tax and legal compliance is not exactly sexy. But fortunately, complex problems attract great people.”

Coming to ADP

After about 10 years in London, Margot and her husband moved to the United States, where she joined Citrix to work on the Go to Meeting/Go to My PC interface. A friend there began working for ADP and told her about an opening at the ADP Innovation Center in Pasadena, California.

When she went for the interview, the Innovation Center was just starting, and the meeting was in empty office building. Despite the “Sopranos moment,” Margot found that they were so passionate about their work in design and UX that she decided to move to L.A. and take the job.

Now, Margot is the Senior Director of User Experience for Compliance Solutions at the Innovation Center, where she continues to focus on the connections between people, tech and work. In a recent talk at Enterprise UX, she explained: “Delivering products is not enough. We must also communicate the needs of our audiences, the value of our practices and the unique skills we bring to the enterprise table.”

She loves the Innovation Center and the opportunities to connect with others through the meetups and hackathons they hold there. Margot also appreciates the opportunities and challenges of constantly answering new questions and solving new issues. She especially enjoys going into the field and researching with customers to better understand how to design software interfaces in support of their work.

“Our work is getting into the hands of customers and we get to see what happens,” Margot says. “It’s exciting to see a large company invest in UX as an important part of their technology.”

Creating Value

Along the way, Margot has learned a lot about working with people and managing teams. “Give people enough time, space and trust to do great work,” she says. She has found that this is especially important when working with creative people.

“Roadmaps are linear. Creativity is nonlinear,” Margot says.

As a leader, Margot also had to figure out how to explain the value of the creative work she and her team were doing so they would have the resources they needed. This also helped senior leadership understand what they were getting for their investment in UX. Margot and her team are currently exploring how to measure and quantify the value that UX brings to both ADP and its customers by regularly measuring and reporting these metrics to stakeholders across the organization.

Margot has the following advice for creative people interested in tech: be curious. Ask great design questions, but also always figure out how to explain your value.

Parce que vous le valez bien.

Because you’re worth it.

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Paper boats in a triangular pattern

Being a first-time Engineering Leader

“You did a great job as a senior engineer. You are now promoted to a manager to lead the new team that we just formed. Congratulations on your new role!”
It is something on these lines that most people get promoted or at least that is how I remember when I was promoted to a manager. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with promotions such as this. The key though is in recognising that the expectations change when this happens. As we moved up the individual contributor (IC) ladder we learnt to solve harder technical problems. This change in role, though changes the operating field a little. It is in this context that I am listing out a few things that would have helped me transition into my role as a manager better, when I started out.
Transition from a maker to manager schedule
Staying hands on — in other words writing production quality code is a reality for most first time managers making this transition. It is also likely the first time where you end up navigating both kinds of schedules on a daily basis and it is a hard thing to do. Learn to be protective of your calendar. You could do this by:
Blocking your time in the calendar where you need to stay heads down. I’d suggest at least 3 hours at a time and then adjust up or down depending on what is an ideal chunk of uninterrupted time for you to get something meaningful done
Being ever more mindful of how you now schedule time with your direct reports. Just because you have moved onto a different schedule does not mean they should have to. If you are conscious of how you set up these meetings, that is one more thing you are doing for your team
Doing what you can to string your meetings into one contiguous block. Better yet, define your meeting times and agree with your peers. With a little back and forth, this usually works well for everyone and is another barrier for folks who gatecrash into your time with unplanned meetings
If you want to know more about different types of schedules, Paul Graham’s article explains it quite well.
Stay hands on
You are most likely a manager of a team with highly opinionated ICs. You need to be able to have a conversation with them, ask the right questions, pressure test their approach.
Pressure on your time as an IC will only increase as you grow and if you don’t strive to stay hands on, very soon you will find yourself too far from where the action is. You don’t necessarily have to pick up the most critical problem to solve but do what you must to stay relevant and make a meaningful contribution.
Impediment remover, not always a problem solver
After years of being an IC where you are used to solving problems yourself, it can be hard to take a step back.
Be the person who helps your teams get over the hump even if you are not the one who identified the problem or fixed it. Serve the team in the capacity that is best needed at the time and avoid being a seagull manager. With a young team, it could mean leading with a solution while with more mature teams, it could just be about asking the right questions. And in some other cases, maybe it is just carrying pizza!!
Carve out time for career development
A key reason you choose to be a manager is that you genuinely believe that you can have a greater impact on your purpose by developing a strong team. Be interested in each member’s aspirations, be on the lookout for their strengths and biases. Provide timely feedback. Help identify opportunities that will help them hone their newly acquired skills. These are all things perhaps any standard course on “New Managers” will refer to. There are many talks and articles out there to drive home the point that when you can align aspirations with the organisational goals that is when you are likely to have the most impact, but also derive personal satisfaction. Do the most you can to make this a practice.
Bar raiser
You have to do this at every opportunity you get, not just when hiring someone into the team. You have to be the cheerleader during your team’s journey towards excellence. Raise the bar when it comes to technical excellence; be the torchbearer when it comes to upholding your organisations credos and values. Often in the quest for an organisation’s immediate imperatives culture takes a back seat. Protect, sustain and improve your organisation’s culture like your organisation’s life depends on it; because it actually does.
Manage upwards and sideways
Managing upwards or to the side is typically seen by engineers as an ugly part of organizational politics. Other than the typical activities that are required to manage information, the biggest reason to do this is because software development is a collaborative activity. Managing in its purest sense is about aligning priorities across teams. You will be able to achieve your goals better if you can influence your peers to row in the same direction and are aligned with the direction your manager has in mind. At the same time, this is also about course correcting if need be and ensuring people on the impacted teams understand why a correction is better for everyone.
Conclusion
Doing some or all of these things will not turn you into a super manager overnight. I like to compare this to going to the gym. You will not notice any change after your first day at the gym, but keep at it long enough and the results will be clear for all to see.