What does a design program manager do? Q&A with Sarah and John
A program manager, to put it simply, helps teams move towards a date, goal, or objective. Design program managers (DPMs) focus on initiatives that help the design organisation run smoothly. They support design environments in tech companies or digital product teams. They identify problems, build operations, and allow designers in their team to focus on their main skill-set, design. As design teams get larger and more diverse, with researchers, content designers and strategists, a DPM’s role ties into the end goal of shipping high quality products.
If you are a great communicator, operations nerd, and a design-enthusiast, read on- this might be a role for you!
What does a day on your job look like?
John- I focus on Horizontal operations — initiatives like design systems, design tools, inclusive design, accessibility, instead of a single vertical product pillar. Here’s what my day looks like — meetings with my cross-functional partners, tracking project dates, being a part of team meetings. While working with leadership, I think about, ‘How can I move the needle from one quarter to the next?’ With individual contributors, I think about ‘How do I enable their day to day work?’
I need to have a 5000 ft view of the whole operation, and drill down into the details — all in a day’s work!
Sarah- I’m a Design Program Manager on our Community Operations team at LinkedIn. Our team focuses on building programs aimed to attract and retain talent. In my day-to-day, I focus on connecting, elevating, and celebrating the people and the work of the design team. This comes through in different ways like conducting weekly Show & Tells, external events, new hire onboarding, and many other activities.
What is your favourite part of the job?
John- Hands down, talking to different people. Any DPM needs to be an effective communicator. I get to chit-chat, and then get to go down to business — both of which I enjoy immensely.
Sarah — My favourite part is dreaming big with a diverse set of people. Growing up, I was more interested in the making of a movie than the movie itself. I’m often checking in on the needs of others and keeping momentum behind the scenes. Plus, as an extrovert working from home, I’m just happy I get to talk to so many people throughout the day.
Is working in a design org different from working in another org?
John- You need to be an expert in the domain that you program-manage. It is similar to technical program management(TPM) at its core. TPMs need to have more of a tech background, managing backend or tech-heavy projects, understand code.
I’ve been working in design orgs all my career. I work with designers, content-writers, researchers — making sure everyone is involved at the right time in the project. I’m familiar with the design process and how design figures in the product lifecycle. Designers want to shoot for the sky, but somebody has to be the bad guy and scope it down — I have to be that person, at times. DPMs sometimes sit in design reviews, and as the only non-designer in the room, provide feedback from a perspective that helps new ideas come through.
What is your biggest learning, specifically, about empowering designers?
Sarah- My biggest learning so far is one size doesn’t fit all. It sounds cliché, but it truly reminds me to always be curious and pay attention. In my experience, a large part of empowerment is providing clarity. When I’m tuned in to what different people want and need at a particular time, it’s much easier for me to foster an inclusive environment where people feel empowered to do their best work. Whether a designer is sharing a project in the weekly Show & Tell or speaking on a panel at a LinkedIn Design event, I want to make sure people understand their role and value in that given moment.
John — We have to be creative with the solutions we implement. When we develop new operations — eg: a way for designers to track their progress on projects — We need to (in a way) sell these operations to people in a way that doesn’t seem like it’s coming from ‘process’ — nobody likes that word. We have a lot of creative ways of creating these systems, and also bringing people onboard.
What skills do you need as a community builder?
Relationship building across functions is core to this role. First and foremost, it’s important to be an active participant in the community. Be eager to understand the needs of the community and work to create a space for that community to thrive. Second, communicate clearly and often. I often act as a bridge between groups of people. Identifying problems early on and quickly taking action is valuable to leaders who need to focus on the big picture and may not have a read on the day-to-day details. Third, always be learning. The needs of a community or organisation are constantly changing, so staying committed to learning as I go and remaining flexible lends itself to new opportunities.