Dec 29, 2020
Anita Lillie has been designing data interfaces and visualizations for over 20 years, in a wide range of fields including genetics, music, sports, healthcare, and education. She is currently designing data products at Lyft.
Was there a moment where you decided to stay on the IC track?
It’s the moments when I get an offer to leave my IC role that I’m like “Oh no, I don’t want to do that.”
I get asked multiple times a year if I want to try management. And I do consider it seriously, regularly. And I always come back to saying: no, I want to be an IC. I’d rather do IC work than manage people.
Also, because I’m a sort of specialist designer, it’s very common for me to go to a job and they think they need my specialty 100%, full-time. But then what ends up happening is they actually only need it maybe 10 to 20 percent of the time.
Then the rest of the time they just want somebody to do all the other stuff. It takes a lot of conscious effort to keep even 20% of my time specialized. So if I go into what I consider to be a completely different job, managing people, then I won’t be doing that 20%.
Even within the product design path, I am often offered to do work that is not my specialty. So not only do I want to stay a product designer, but I want to stay a product designer specializing in data interfaces and visualization.
So how does that conversation actually play out, if you’re actually considering management each time?
Well, it’s changed. When I was younger, I thought that to go the furthest in my job I had to be a manager. And so it was just naturally going to happen at some point, and I was just going to decide when – it wasn’t if. But now I actually treat it as an “if” question.
When did that flip for you?
It was recent. I think it’s in the time I’ve been at Lyft. So within the last two and a half years, probably.
I’ve seen what it’s like to manage, and how tough it can be, and how completely different it is from what I do as a product designer. It’s not that I don’t think I would be good at management, I just don’t know that I want to do a completely different job and start a new career right now.
I’m lucky that Lyft is a company that says that they care about advancement of ICs to the most senior levels. Even so, I don’t think we really know what that means.
And so in some ways I want to help them figure out what that is, by being one of those senior ICs.
I feel like that’s where a lot of people get stuck. Or they just end up switching to get a change of scenery. Or maybe even just say “screw it, I’ll manage.”
Yeah, that’s true. I think a lot of people do that. I watch a lot of my peers deciding to do that. And even when we talk as a group of IC leads within our design team, half of them are considering management at any given moment.
Have you ever seen a good high level IC track outlined or described in any way? Is there a vision in your head of how this could work?
Sort of...I don’t have really good individuals to point to, and that is definitely something that I think about a lot. Who are my role models? But the problem of advancing as an IC is that we don’t really know what those higher levels mean. What does that look like?
We don’t have enough examples of senior ICs who got there on a purely IC track. I also think that even if we did have examples, they would potentially be so different from each other that it would be hard to generalize.
We have career paths at Lyft that are just levels from 3 to 9. And around level 5, they match up with the first level of the management path. And then they go in parallel from there. But we don’t have many people above IC6. In fact, a year ago our design team didn’t have any, and now we have maybe two. So if you wanted to know what an 8 or a 9 would look like, I couldn’t tell you. There’s no person to point to.
At the same time, whenever any of these level 6s want to go up for promotion, I think it’s questionable whether the people who approve their promotion actually agree on what the levels 7, 8, or 9 mean. And I’ve had conversations with them to try to figure that out. At some point last year I thought, “Oh, I’ll rewrite the pathway/ladder definition so that it’s really clear and people will know what they’re shooting for.” But it was impossible, because I talked to our leaders and they all had different answers for me about what 7, 8 and 9 look like.
I think the definition gets fuzzier and fuzzier the higher the level.
If you had to go with your gut, what are the characteristics or behaviors that you feel would define that next step?
I think you have to be good at thinking about strategy in a very broad way. How does the product or the feature you’re building fit within the context of the broader business and the industry that you’re in? You have to think about system solutions, instead of one-off solutions like designing a feature or a product. It becomes bigger than one-offs. And, what I think may be the biggest part: negotiating with and influencing people across the company at many different levels and different roles.
What have you learned about getting better at that?
I think you could approach it as a kind of a design or user research problem. You can say: who are all the people that I need to come up with a solution for? Can you get in their shoes and really understand where they’re coming from? So that might mean that you get in the shoes of the CEO or the director down the hall, or the user who’s sitting right next to you. And then try to understand, why this person is motivated to do this versus that?
And to a large extent, it’s about involving people in the conversation to arrive at a solution where they all feel ownership. Especially for the bigger decisions. Like right now I’m working on establishing a common vision for our data tools. And that means that I have to get people to step out of their normal work, out of their day to day, and ask them what they think everything should look like in 10 years.
I think it’s important to have everybody contribute to those conversations, so that whenever we do finally get to something that we agree is our vision for the future, that they all feel they contributed to it. And they know why we decided to do it that way. They share ownership and they also believe in what we’re doing, even if they didn’t come up with it entirely themselves.
Anyway, that started with research and went all the way to vision. But I really think what it is, is learning to listen better and really sit in the shoes of the people who you’re trying to negotiate with. And then it’s really just a big puzzle: How can you get to the best solution and feel everybody has shared ownership of that solution?
One thing that you didn’t mention here were things like mentorship or hiring. Do you think those play a role here? Or do you feel there’s tension in those requirements and actually doing the work?
I do think they’re important. I mentor people, and I make time for it. I will take time away from my design work to do it. I think it’s very important, but I don’t necessarily think it’s more important at my level than any other level. I think everybody should mentor.
Many leveling docs I’ve seen at different companies include this stuff, like mentorship. And there’s become this “player-coach model” – but I can imagine some tension there between how you actually spend your time, versus what you’re really good at and want to be spending your time doing.
Well, that question seems to imply that maybe I wouldn’t want to spend my time mentoring, or I’m not good at mentoring...
The wrong implication, for sure...
What I mean is that I actually really enjoy mentoring, so I think of it as just another part of my job. It doesn’t pull me away from my work; it’s just part of my work.
I think everybody should mentor. It doesn’t matter what level they’re at. And I don’t think it matters whether they’re a manager or an IC, either.
For hiring it’s a little bit different. Sometimes I get really annoyed that I have to do so many interviews. They’re very disruptive, they take a lot of time, but they’re important, too. It’s a little bit more of “Ah, well, I guess I just have to do it.” I don’t think you can just relegate hiring to certain people in a group: everybody should share in that. So that one I feel a little differently about, but I still think you have to do it.
Let’s back up a bit. You have these conversations with your managers where they are asking you to become a manager. I imagine you’ve had to do a lot of thinking about the trade-offs, or risks, or rewards in making that change. What would you say to somebody who’s also considering that switch?
Well, I think management is a completely different job than doing the IC work of being a product designer. So it’s really a question of what type of work do you want to do, and what do you work for? If you really like to do the actual...what you call the hard skills...you know, actually making designs and presenting them to folks and doing research, then you should stay a designer. If that’s the thing that at the end of your day or your week, you’re like “Wow, the best thing I did this week was create that thing,” then you should stay an IC.
If instead, the best thing you did was help somebody get out of a dicey situation, unblock someone, or give advice to somebody who’s trying to grow in their career, then maybe you start considering the management position.
But it’s important to ask yourself: What are you working for? If you’re working primarily for money, which is a really normal thing to want, honestly I think, yeah, go be a manager. Assuming you have some affinity for the skills in a management job.
I say that just because there is so much more clarity in the management trajectory. I do think it’s more straightforward to ascend a manager ladder, and then get paid more, than to try to ascend to the highest IC levels where you could be paid the same. So if money’s your goal, then go for it. But I don’t personally do that because I value the time I spend creating things. And I want to be able to fully enjoy what I’m working on, and I want to do something that I am especially good at.
I wish I had had data here, but it seems that managers end up earning a little bit more just because that trajectory is clear to the director level and onwards. Does that bother you that the compensation tracks diverge?
Yeah it totally bothers me. I woke up in the middle of the night thinking: I’m going to write my HR person. And I’m going to ask them for the salary bands for all the different levels, for the management track and the IC track. I’m going to put them in a visualization. And I’m gonna show this to our leadership team and ask “What’s going on? How are you expecting us to stay in this IC track when we cannot get compensated as well as going into the management track? And do you really want to encourage your most successful ICs to go into this totally different job?”
So I wrote to my HR person. And when I heard back from them I was relieved to hear I was wrong: the salary bands are the same for the management and IC tracks. Whew! That’s a good thing. So the real problem is that we don’t have enough people advancing in the IC track when compared to the management track.
It really sucks to be an IC with that prognosis, but I’m not going to leave design because of that. I’m going to try to change it.
It’s just really unfortunate that at least for design, and probably engineering too, you’re just nudged towards management because of different organizational incentive structures.
Yeah. And I’ve talked to engineering friends who are very clear that they intentionally went into the management path just because they couldn’t see the future as an IC. It’s really frustrating.
But honestly, Lyft says publicly – like at SF Design Week – that they care about the advancement of ICs. I think that because they even have to say that means they haven’t figured it out yet, and nobody else has either. Because otherwise it wouldn’t be much of a statement to make. And I do believe that they, we, will figure it out. If we had this conversation 10 years in the future, I certainly hope that I wouldn’t be telling you that if you want to make the most money, or if you want to see yourself going to big places, that you would have to become a manager.
I think that we’re in a transition where we’ve started caring about where the IC path leads as an end goal. We just haven’t figured it out yet.
I think a lot of people have this on their mind, and hopefully the work will be done and shared in public.
A big part of the work is to actually promote ICs into roles where they have an extreme amount of authority, akin to a sort of VP role, or even like an advisor to the CEO kind of thing. It needs to happen, and it needs to be publicly visible. I just don’t have a lot of those examples.
I don’t either. It just seems there may be people that we’re describing who exist out there, but they just aren’t visible. And it’s really hard to find out who they are, or if you find out who they are, they work at Apple and you can never talk to them.
Yeah, ha, you’ll never know what they actually do, right?
Let’s switch back to the work. I’m curious about your path as a specialist. The specialist/generalist debate is ongoing, and certain people feel strongly one way or the other. How do you think about your decision to specialize?
Well, I want to caveat it with the fact that I’m never 100% specialized. I’m not spending all my time doing this specialized work. So in some sense, I’m kind of 20% specialized, and 80% generalized.
But that’s interesting that you think of it in terms of a ratio.
I’ve recognized that designing interfaces for data is something that I’m really good at. Other people somehow don’t have this skill that comes naturally to me. At work I think: Okay, there’s these 10 problems that are very, very important. They can change the way that we run our business. And I don’t think they’re too hard. And nobody else at the company can solve them. So I have to solve them. And I enjoy solving them as well.
Being a specialist means I know that I will always be valuable. I know I’ll always have a job if I keep doing this thing, because not a lot of people want to do it. Not a lot of people can do it. I’ve managed to find this thing that I happen to be really good at, that also has a really deep need in most companies. And so I want to make sure that I keep doing that thing.
How do you know you’re getting better? What are your mile markers for knowing that you’re progressing as a designer?
It’s so funny...Before Lyft, I didn’t think about the pathways, or ladder stuff. It actually took me a year of being at Lyft before I even asked what level I was. I just didn’t know.
We should talk about that...
Yeah. I was just completely clueless and not caring about that kind of thing. I don’t know if this is good or bad, but just being in the product design team at Lyft has really drawn my attention to what level I am, and what’s expected of me at that level, and then what’s expected of me at the next level.
So when you asked me about advancement, it’s kind of this super fuzzy knot up until about two years ago. Before Lyft I was just trying to work on the hardest problems, and have the greatest impact. I didn’t think of this as a place on a ladder. It’s just doing the work. So honestly, I didn’t think “Oh, I need to work on skill X, Y, and Z.” It wasn’t like that at all.
The times where I’ve noticed that I’m getting better are when I look at my previous work and I think it’s bad, or I look at it and I can see immediately all of the things I would do to change it.
But right now, the kinds of things that I notice are that I spend more and more of my time not actually doing the “design work”. I spend much more time negotiating with and influencing groups of people. Now that I’ve read about the ladders, it’s clear that this is part of what being a more senior designer is. But I didn’t think about this until I came to Lyft.
Are you nostalgic for that mindset from before Lyft?
Yeah, sort of. It’s kind of like being in school again where you’re graded against a rubric. And I think that these rubrics are really hard to write, right? That’s what we were talking about before. It’s hard to write down: what would it look like to have an IC as an equivalent to a senior director? What would that look like? How are you going to write that down?
And then we get graded against what’s written down, and everybody interprets what’s written down differently. And it just kind of sucks, because it’s really hard to feel like “I’ve got this, I’m going to do a good job.”
The more people I talk with, the more I feel jaded about the fact that level tracks even exist. But I recognize the tension here: if there was no track, you could imagine a large group of people actually struggling to grow because there’s nothing to measure against!
It can be nice to have structure. But at the same time we have this counter-force, where at a certain point that structure becomes debilitating or limiting.
What we were struggling with at Lyft was our ladder, which we call a pathway. It’s this big spreadsheet. But we don’t have things like archetypes, which is something that I think would be worth talking about. Like I said before, once you get to the highest levels, and there’s very few people who will get there, I think they’re going to look really different from each other.
And in fact, it’s better if they look really different from each other! You want one super strategist, and one super negotiator, and one executor, or somebody who actually does the design work at an extremely high level. I think there’s room for all those people.
And a good team will have all of them. But we don’t have anything in our pathways that answers that: what are the different ways you could excel to the highest levels? It all looks the same: it’s right here in this box, it’s in this column.
So what we struggle with is we’ll have these conversations... somebody could be really good at skill X, and that’s kind of important, isn’t it? So we add another bullet point into the pathway. And then that column for that level just gets longer, and longer, and longer, and it becomes even harder to understand. I ended up making CliffsNotes versions of our ladders for myself, both visually and in a different spreadsheet, just so that I could understand them.
I’m on these promo committees, right? I’m asking: if this person wants to be promoted from a 5 to a 6, what does that mean? I can’t read 10 pages this way, and then 10 pages this way, and then know the difference. I can’t do a diff in my head. Can’t you just distill it down to four things, you know? And then leave it so that there’s room for interpretation. I don’t think we need to have a bullet point for every single way that you can excel in something.
I think if we just say, you know: “Influences leadership to make a decision that benefits the company.” Fine. Isn’t that good enough? Do we really need to articulate exactly how that can happen?
Yeah. You almost just want a ratio. Like here’s 10 things and if you’re hitting six of these then you’re doing really well.
And they shouldn’t be 10 very specific things. They should be outcomes focused. We don’t really care exactly how you got there, you know? Did you make the impact you’re supposed to make? Good.
It’s so hard. If you make it outcomes driven, what if your project gets canned by the CEO? There’s so many downstream consequences.
Fair. I definitely don’t have the solution. That’s one of the trickiest things, giving people credit for failing when they took an intelligent risk. But we really have to try to figure that out.
It’s fun to try and tease apart. What’s your feeling on titles in general?
Ha! I hate this...
You can skip.
No, no, no. I’m going to answer it. I actually think that if I hate them, these are the most important things to discuss.
So before Lyft I didn’t care about titles and I didn’t care about levels. I just wasn’t familiar. But now, I’ve read the levels from many different companies and am trying to rewrite our own.
My ideal is that titles would not be important, but we’re not there right now. And so I think titles are important. The difference between where we are now, and where we want to be, is that at my level I could step into a room of people from all different levels, and if they don’t know my level, they won’t necessarily give me the attention or respect that they would if they did know. And this is fed a lot by unconscious bias, because I might not look a certain way, or might look younger than I really am, and people jump to their own conclusions before I’ve even said anything.
Some people will walk into a room and no matter what their level will not face the negative side of this bias. But I don’t think that I can walk into a room and get that, not yet anyway; having it be clear to folks that I have been judged to have the authority that I have, then people actually respect it. That’s a very sad thing to say...
It’s a shortcut to credibility.
Do you agree with that? Or did I put words in your mouth?
A public title is just plastered on your forehead so others can’t ignore it, and they have to listen to you. It’s just so unfortunate that you might need a title to get that. I wish honestly that no matter what level you are, you would get that kind of respect.
This must be one of the reasons that companies like Facebook have your level hidden. So that everyone is just a “product designer.”
Lyft used to be like that as well when I joined, everyone was a “Product Designer”. Then about a year and a half ago, if you looked up people in our company directory, it suddenly started showing “Staff” in front of “Product Designer”. And then the rest of the company could search for all these “Staff” folks, and all those “Staff” folks also started having a special meeting.
Okay, so you have a before and after. Was that transition good?
We don’t show all the levels, it’s just broad chunks. You’re either Staff or not Staff. There’s nothing else. We don’t have a Product Designer, Associate Product Designer, Senior Product Designer, or whatever. We just have two different labels, and we don’t have Principal, or Creative Director, or whatever you would call it, because we just don’t have any ICs at those levels.
Before and after to me was dramatic. Suddenly it was “Oh, I’m a staff designer. What does that mean? How many are there? And who’s more senior than me? And why?” You know, I suddenly started asking all these things that I’d never asked before. I just didn’t care before. I just wanted to do the work. And now I’m someone others look up to as a model for what a Staff designer is.
If I’m going to be a model for them, it’s a complete change. But the title also helps me sometimes. I’ll be in rooms with some pretty high up people and be pretty intimidated. But I’ll just know that it’s actually my job to step up and say something and try to influence in those situations. So it did give me confidence in a way that I probably wouldn’t have had if we didn’t didn’t ever have any of these labels.
That’s a compelling reason to have titles. Let’s keep going: What have you learned so far about avoiding burnout?
There’s COVID burnout and then there’s not-COVID burnout. I’ll talk about not-COVID burnout. I set very strict limits on how much time I devote to work. And I also give myself the permission to work less. If I get what I need done, why do I need to work longer? Just because there’s more hours in the day?
I’ve found that my work output is definitely not linear. If I’m in the right state of mind, and I’m fed and slept, I can do a week’s worth of work in three hours. And I think that should be okay. If I can create that space for myself, then I should be able to go and use those other five hours in the day to do something else.
Then when I leave work, I definitely leave work. I do not work at home, and I don’t work on the weekends, and I always try to feed the activities that I value outside of work and prioritize them. And I don’t even have a family yet, so when I do, I imagine that’ll be even crazier.
So it’s about very strict boundaries, giving myself the space to do flow work, and the permission to step away from my work. It’s not less output. It’s less work.
Well, this is the exact argument for not charging an hourly rate, right?
Right! I was a consultant eight years ago, and I charged per hour. At the end of that period, I was like “Wow, those people really got their money’s worth!” Because I only charged for those special productive hours.
In most of my work days now, the actual productive time is very small. So I try to cut down on all the other menial tasks that fill the rest of the day and try to make time for that productive work.
We’ve talked about all the hard times, when the ladders and the responsibilities are frustrating and annoying, and the compensation is misaligned, and all this kind of negative stuff. But what positive things would you say to someone who is considering staying on the IC track?
I really enjoy the actual work, and I enjoy solving hard problems, and coming up with elegant solutions. And the more that I work as a designer, and the more experience I have, the more I feel those moments. The problems get harder, and it gets more satisfying when you solve them. There’s no way that I would want to go to work and not feel that at least once a week.
Two more things I wanted to mention that I think we get caught up on: the overlap of skills between manager and IC, and the need for ICs higher up in a company.
One of the things I struggle with is this “separation” of manager and IC on the ladder. And granted, I’ve said several times in this interview that they are completely different jobs. And I believe they are, but that doesn’t mean I think the skillsets are fundamentally different, especially the higher up you go. As they progress, both managers and ICs need to unblock projects, ruthlessly prioritize, rally groups of people, make hard decisions, and grow the people around them.
So I think that the emphasis should be on the focus and output of the work rather than the skill sets to get there. As a manager, you need all those skills to enable the people and organizations in your company. As an IC, you need all those skills to choose the right problems and then the right solutions. A company needs both roles, so they have healthy people and orgs that tackle the right problems intelligently.
So why are there usually more managers higher up than ICs? If your company is making a big decision, you would be remiss not to have ICs in the room alongside managers. But I see ICs often being excluded, to the detriment of the company. Why? Is it because the mere definition of “manager” implies some kind of superiority to others? Is it because it’s harder to recognize the advancing skills of IC than those of a manager? Is it that the promo committees that need to recognize those advancing skills are not ICs themselves? These are the things I’m trying to figure out.
Maybe one of the misconceptions is this point. People who are looking for more authority or autonomy might look at management as a way to do that.
I think a lot of people ask themselves “what’s the most fantastic end goal of this trajectory that I’m on?” When I think about that with respect to being a product designer, it’s “Am I going to be CEO? Am I going to be the company president? Will I be the VP?” And honestly, I think the answer is “No.” Those people almost always get there via the management path. Our directors are all managers, and those directors can get promoted to VP. But I’ve never ever seen that happen for an IC.
But it doesn’t really make any sense: why should this upper echelon of our company be the people who managed the best? What about the people who executed the best? There’s absolutely no good explanation for why an exceptional IC couldn’t also do that job. To me, it’s as if those highest roles are not achievable on my path.
There’s not even anything that you would call someone at the peak of the IC path.
No, there isn’t. We don’t have those examples. I think of it as being like the chief advisor to the President: you are the expert.
Like the tsar of agriculture or something...
But seriously! Dr. Fauci has the role that he has because he’s an expert. He’s a spokesperson. He’s the face of that thing. We look to him to inform the president and the country about how best to address our situation with the pandemic. That role as expert is not about managing people; it’s about knowing the space. He’s an IC in that way.
So, that to me is what the IC role could be in a company. You could have this super expert advisor that understands the ins and outs of the business and the trade-offs of all these decisions, and just knows their industry so well that you can just trust them. Like, we’re going to make the best decision as a company because we have this person’s voice here.
I want to see that.
I enjoy solving hard problems and coming up with elegant solutions. And the more that I work as a designer, and the more experience I have, the more I feel those moments. The problems get harder, and it gets more satisfying when you solve them.
If I’m in the right state of mind, and I’m fed and slept, I can do a week’s worth of work in three hours. And I think that should be okay.
A big part of the work is to actually promote ICs into roles where they have an extreme amount of authority, akin to a sort of VP role, or even like an advisor to the CEO. It needs to happen, and it needs to be publicly visible.