Karla Mickens Cole

Karla Mickens Cole

Jan 15, 2021

Karla is a product designer at The Browser Company, building a better way for people to use the internet. Before this, she designed at Facebook, Instagram, The New York Times, and Big Spaceship.

Was there a moment where things clicked for you that solidified this decision to stay on the IC track?

I don’t recall a particular moment. I think that I’ve always just loved being in the details and doing the work. It’s always felt like the right lane for me.

And to be completely honest, I’ve just never seen myself managing people. But I do love certain aspects of it, like helping identify people’s strengths. I guess that’s why I love mentoring and giving career advice, especially as it pertains to being black in tech and navigating this space.

Do you feel like you’re required to do the mentorship part?

It’s just who I am. I’m essentially just doing what others have done for me. I’ve had a few people invest in me early in my career and generously give their time. I feel a responsibility to do the same and share things that could benefit others in a positive way.

There is tension between really just wanting to design and do good work, and having some written down requirement on a career ladder that you also have to play that role of mentor or coach.

But your time is limited. How do you feel about this tension?

Yeah, that’s a tough one but I don’t feel the tension. Maybe it’s because I genuinely enjoy mentorship. I think of it as building community and not necessarily as some box I need to check in order to make myself look good during PSCs.

I make it a part of who I am. So there is never any question.

Do you have to reset expectations with your team or your manager? If you’re keeping this private, do you have to work more to appear like you have the same output? Or are you able to adjust expectations and find balance with your time?

Brian, I’m already working more. I’ve had to be 10x better my entire life. And that goes beyond tech or design. That’s the world we live in. I just make it very clear with whoever is managing me that this is something I’m really interested in and very important to and that I’m definitely going to spend time doing this. It has never come to a place where it’s impacted my output.

In that case, what have you learned so far about avoiding burnout?

I disconnect myself from work so that when I walk out the door, I’m done. I don’t eat, sleep, breathe all things design. I wear many hats: I’m a mom, I’m a wife, I’m a sister, and a friend.

So it’s easy for me, at this point in my career, to step away and disconnect because I have other obligations. I have to put myself first and take care of myself. I don’t want to ever be in a position where I am going hard for a company and meanwhile I’m looking dry and ashy, or my home is out of order.

Now, early in my career when I had no responsibilities (aka single and no kid) and I could do all the things...I did all the things. I stayed really late, I worked a lot because I didn’t have anything else to do. But also all my friends worked late, so I’d hang around work until they wrapped up and then we’d link up and go out after. Such is life when you’re in your early 20s and living in NYC.

But my life is different now. I’m a new mom now and I’ve effectively figured out how to get a lot of stuff done in under two hours.

So what have you figured out over time to preserve those two hours of productive time, and make this space for yourself to actually get the work done?

Saying No. Saying No is a game changer. I’m like “Yeah about that 6pm meeting on Wednesday night...I won’t be there. But happy to chat in the morning during regular business hours.” I’m quick to hit the decline button.

It’s just that everybody has different lives and responsibilities, but I think that the main thing here is being intentional and making sure you’re communicating that to your team so that they know and understand how you like to work.

What would you say to a younger designer today, who is where you used to be: doing everything, filling the nights and weekends with work? Maybe they are considering the management path, just for a change of scenery, or to try and work less hours. What advice would you give?

I totally understand the push to want to work hard and stay late in order to get that promotion or recognition or move to management. I’ve never considered management as a change of scenery though. If anything it’s just a set of new problems. I don’t know how I would answer that, because I guess I’ve never been in that space where I considered management to be an escape.

Here’s a different angle: One thing that I always struggled with is when companies say that their IC track and management tracks are parallel. But I’ve watched managers have way more influence on product development and decisions, and they usually get paid way more.

And I say, “It’s bullshit. These aren’t parallel tracks.”

It’s true. It’s true.

Let’s talk about it.

Right well honestly I’m not exactly sure why that is. Seems like a mix of old corporate traditions passed down and just maybe general unawareness of the value of the work. What I do know is both IC and managers have very demanding roles and managers do have the opportunity and space to think about and influence the product in more ways. But I’ve also seen ICs wow and completely change roadmaps with a simple prototype so…

Did you feel like you were making a sacrifice, or cutting your career arbitrarily short, because there was that split where you just were unwilling to take the management path because you liked designing things?

I mean I definitely take a financial hit as you noted, managers do make a bit more. Ha! But what’s for me, is for me. I don’t lose any sleep at night thinking about my career and where I’d be if I decided to switch over to management early on.

You seem in tune with your own relationship with financial incentive structures. So how motivating is money for you?

It’s somewhat motivating for me because I’m trying to build generational wealth. You move differently when you have a why. I also had a manager who I’d have these convos with about money and broke things down for me in a way I could really understand.

Was there anything particularly interesting that you learned from those conversations? Not everyone wants to talk about money, and I think there’s this gray area of understanding how much designers actually make.

Oh, a lot. I was also really transparent that I want to make more money. With my manager, that was an understandable thing. He showed his support and we could have these conversations about money and the true trade offs of putting in that extra work to get to that next level vs staying at my current level.

My dad has also given me a lot of advice as it relates to money. Often reminding me that money is good, but don’t let it be your main motivation. Remember the sacrifices you make as you climb the ladder. It all takes a little bit of you.

I think this gets back to why I’ve experienced some frustration with the IC track. And I’m trying to come to peace with some of these things myself, which is:

I recognize that career ladders and level documents are arbitrary. People just made these things up. And they’re supposed to be helpful, but they can also be a trap where you don’t feel like you’re growing unless you are working towards the next level all the time. And it seems like you escaped that by having clear conversations about the trade-offs of pursuing that next level.

If you get rid of the career ladder, or if you no longer care about the level that you’re at, how do you think about growing as a designer? What are your mile markers that you look for?

Well I think it’s a mix of things. This is where great managers really separate themselves from good managers. The ability to help develop people and really get the best out of them is key. But also it’s creating a culture that encourages designers to be great in areas that they’re super passionate about vs boxing them in.

This means celebrating all skill sets because they are valuable to building the product and the team. There is a sense of joy and freedom in designing in a space like this. I know because I’m in that space now. You’re not comparing yourself to others or striving to be something you’re not. You’re simply being yourself.

All right. Let’s dig in here. I’ll make a controversial statement, and see if you agree or disagree: I’m not sure that there’s that many super-senior IC role models in the industry.

I think that’s fair, yeah. But I think that because a lot of these people just aren’t visible. As in, Twitter-visible.

What do you think about your own visibility on Twitter?

I kinda lurk and listen. I occasionally jump into a spicy convo and then I dip out.

Do you think designers should have a Twitter presence? Is it important these days?

Nah...I’m not one of those people that says, “Designers should do XYZ.” I think people should just do what feels natural to them. I don’t think there’s a checklist of things that you absolutely need to do. I’ve never subscribed to that type of thinking. There are people who aren’t active on Twitter and are out here killing it. Do you.

But I will say that Twitter is a very good way to connect with people in the industry. And if you’re out in the middle of nowhere, that’s your ticket to rubbing shoulders with some folks you admire.

I feel this way too. Look, some of my favorite designers aren’t on Twitter. And I’m totally cool with that. But let’s abstract Twitter to just “being online,” which could be writing or just sharing what they’re learning somewhere.

And I feel selfish, because I recognize that the older people get and the more experience they have, they just have other priorities. They may stop caring about design as much. They don’t have anything to prove.

So I feel selfish because I understand that, and respect that, but then it means that some of the best people aren’t sharing more about how they work with the rest of us.

Yeah, I one hundred percent hear you on that. I’m thinking of one of my design hero’s, the great designer Bobby C. Martin and many more that are not active online but I do know they are active in the community and doing speaking engagements. The hard part is it narrows the audience and becomes an access issue.

Do you feel any pull towards sharing what you’ve learned more openly online? Obviously you’re doing this interview, which is a step there, but what about doing more writing? Or even taking what you’ve learned through private mentorship and abstracting the questions and sharing your advice more publicly?

Do you have any interest in doing that, or are you happy with the private one-on-one stuff?

Well firstly, I really don’t consider myself to be a great writer. I’d also just need to evaluate if that’s something I have bandwidth for because I’m not sure that’s my ministry.

There have also been people who have excelled at this. Kristy Tillman’s done a really good job with this already. She started the Made in the Future Fellowship, which I participated in, and I’m also a mentor in her program. She’s essentially scaled this to a larger level, and brought in a lot of industry talent to mentor people early in their career. I’m happy to amplify and support her in this space!

Let’s keep going. One thing that I really wanted to talk to you about was titles. I have a complicated relationship with titles, honestly. They seem to be a double-edged sword. And Facebook is an interesting place where they’re obscured in a way.

You have your internal level, but everyone on the surface is a Product Designer. Having experienced that, what’s your relationship with titles? Do you think they’re good or bad?

I’ve seen several approaches to this ranging from my experience at ad agencies to design agencies and now tech. I personally see nothing wrong with just having “Product Design.”

Why do you prefer that?

For me it’s always been cool to work alongside people with varying amounts of experience and I’ve never felt the need to know someone’s title in order to respect what they bring to the table.

Like, your experience maybe is not as vast as other people, but your ideas could be just as good. Your execution could be just as amazing as somebody on the Senior level or Staff level or whatever.

I also think it helps with work dynamics. People just say, “Hey, you’re here, and you’re good. And I don’t care what level you are.”

So what you’ve just described is for me the most compelling first edge of having a job title, right? This edge where you just work with people because they’re good at doing the work. I love that.

The other edge though is that, and it’s not always the case, but many times the title is this proxy for credibility and it’s a proxy for trust. And if you can come into the room with a title that is high enough, you can get respect by default.

Does that resonate with you at all?

I’ve definitely seen titles push people forward or opportunities reserved for those with more senior titles. But I really honestly feel that once you’re hired to join a company, the interview stops. So whether you’re a Junior or Senior designer, when you walk into a room and pitch an idea, the idea should be weighed on the strength of it alone and not whether it’s coming from the most senior person in the room. In principle, I like to think most of us would agree that it should work this way but I’ve seen the opposite many times which is unfortunate.

The constant need to have to prove yourself is draining. It’s why I just don’t play that game.

Have you always been a confident designer?

No, I don’t think I’ve always been a confident designer.

Okay, how did you become one?

It’s built up over time. I’ve had a lot of experiences, good and bad. I’ve tried different things, different companies. And all of that has helped build my confidence. Steph Curry said in an interview the other day that he “has nothing to prove, but a lot to accomplish.” I’m not saying I’m Steph Curry but this is the mindset I have.

Yea I’ve had a few experiences in my career that kind of knocked me off my block. But thankfully I’ve learned alot and recovered from them.

This is the crux of the whole social media imposter syndrome problem, right? We’re surrounded by lots of people who are very good in their own lanes, but if you squint, it looks like everybody is really good at everything.

How have you figured out what skills you are explicitly going to try and improve, and which skills you’re explicitly going to not worry about?

I’ve worked for maybe five different companies and those different working experiences have helped me understand what I’m great at and get very happy and excited about and what I dislike.

I’m really happy with the steps that I took to get to where I am today. Because I feel like all the experiences have taught me valuable lessons. I’ve learned certain skills and been given opportunities in different capacities for that reason.

All that being said, I’m still excited to see that you’ve left the mothership and are embarking on a new startup phase where it’s going to be a different challenge.

Yeah, it’s a different challenge for sure. But it’s one I’m really excited about at this point in my career. It’ll be the smallest team I’ve ever worked on. But I think it’s a really great space for me to be at this point. And I just think it’s fun to be surrounded by other people who are just looking to make something cool with people they enjoy working with. I’m excited!


Everybody has different lives and responsibilities...the main thing is being intentional and making sure you’re communicating that to your team so that they know and understand how you like to work.

Money is good, but don’t let it be your main motivation. Remember the sacrifices you make as you climb the ladder. It all takes a little bit of you.

It’s always been cool to work alongside people with varying amounts of experience and I’ve never felt the need to know someone’s title in order to respect what they bring to the table.

More conversations

Staff Design is a project by Brian Lovin