Ever wondered what it’s like to lead a unique design community? Or how to tackle growth and collaboration while working remotely during COVID times?
We’ve already introduced you to a few of our talented (and fun!) colleagues, and we’d like you to meet another Ataccamer who’s taken on new challenges and expanded his role in our #UnlimitedPlayground. Read about Tomas, who was recently promoted from his Head of Product Design role to Head of Product, and see how this father of two and ukulele enthusiast tackles these challenges (and more) every day!
How did your journey with Ataccama begin?
I worked with our Product Manager Nadya’s husband back when I had my own company with four others. Two years ago there was a design meetup at Ataccama, and I went to support Nadya’s talk. She connected me with (Platform Delivery Team Lead) Dominik and told him I’m a good designer. After talking I asked for a trial day, and knew I wanted to work here.
It’s a nice fit because I’m a designer here, but as a former developer I have a technical background. My company was basically an agency and bit by bit, I moved from developer to the position of product designer because it was needed for the success of our business. But at the time no one called this role “product designer.” I think it’s beneficial for every designer to have some technical knowledge because developers talk to you like you have this understanding. For me, my role at Ataccama is a natural fit between design and technology.
How is your team structured?
I don’t actually have a “team,” we’re a community and I’m the manager of all the designers. Currently we have 10 designers including me, and one user researcher.
We’re structured into cross-functional Scrum teams and we want to have a dedicated designer in each team, making a vertical structure. And horizontally, we’re structured by skills in the community. So there’s a design community, a front-end community, and the product managers, in a sense, are also a community.
It’s a mixture of things, but I like it. I recently read an eye opening article about Apple’s structure. I thought they’d be structured by products like the Apple Watch, iPhone, MacBook. But they’re structured functionally by designers, experts on cameras, iOS developers. The thought is that you don’t want a manager who’s not senior in a skill you have. And it’s easier for a person who has a hard skill to learn people skills, than vice versa.
How has working changed since COVID?
A lot, because before COVID we had four or five designers in the community, and as the company grows the design community is also growing. I almost always hire people based on my gut feeling, so hiring five designers through Zoom was strange but successful.
Also our cooperation used to be based on meeting and working next to each other. When someone had a question, they could just poke their neighbor and say hey, what do you think about this? That kind of valuable collaboration disappeared with COVID, as you can’t really benefit from the knowledge of the rest of the group working alone.
We’ve established a daily design brainstorming meeting to get together and discuss stuff. It’s not mandatory but you can join if you’re stuck, or if you’re frustrated with some team members, which also happens, you can discuss it. This works very well.
What does your team work on?
“When you’re not just solving assigned tasks, you can invent and have more time for discovery.”
We try to cover the whole portfolio, and the newest member of the product portfolio is Gen2. We’ve started on this but as we’ve grown, we’re trying to cover almost everything. The idea is that we’ll have a dedicated designer in each of the product teams in engineering. We’re moving in the direction of having much closer cooperation between the different teams.
Before, some designers needed to cover more teams, but that’s not ideal. Given the complex domain, a designer must be really dedicated, especially if we want to innovate. We need to understand the topic and from that understanding, add something new to it. When you’re not just solving assigned tasks, you can invent and have more time for discovery.
What are the biggest challenges for the community?
I think growth is the biggest challenge. And now remote work, and feeling more disconnected. I think we need to answer the question of who we want to be. Half of the people were hired during COVID, so they haven’t met each other. Some people who’ve been in the company for years think we still operate the same way, but things have changed. We’re starting to create smaller groups that are more centered around a topic where we can discuss stuff in more detail.
We need to answer who we are, then decide who we want to hire and what culture we want to build, which from my perspective still isn’t solved. Do we want to be a remote-first company? Or do we want to be a co-located company (I don’t think so, by the way). These are all hard questions we must answer, and they’re connected with COVID and post-COVID times, remote working, and also with growth. The Czech Republic is pretty small and the talent pool for designers isn’t unlimited here. If we want to grow fast, we’ll need to look abroad to solve this issue.
What is your biggest challenge as team lead?
The question on the table is how many people you can manage as a team leader, and I think that I’ve reached the ceiling at 10 people. I think the ideal is five or six. I’m a huge fan of flat structure, and now we’re working on having this flat structure, but also having fewer reports. I think we’ll inevitably build smaller groups more focused on different parts of the product portfolios, with data governance, data quality, and master data management as the main parts. Then we’ll structure designers by these verticals, and have many dedicated design managers and I’ll be at the top of it.
What are you most proud of in your time with Ataccama?
Before managing the design community I was an engineering manager for a year. What I’m proud of is people who were on my team are now engineering managers themselves. It’s really great to see that they grew while I was their manager.
I’m also proud that we’ve established a new team focused on a design system, which is the foundation of our design where we have our design components. When we started, we were designing the whole production in product teams. Eventually I realized that we were in a phase where we could externalize the existing components and have a dedicated team to take care of them. So they’re usable not only in ONE Gen2 but also in our other products like RDM, MDM, Data Stories, and the customer portal.
What are you working on now?
We’re having a series of workshops to define our design principles, because when there were just a few of us it was easier to be in sync and produce a design built on the same basic principles. Now that we’ve grown and gone remote, we need to codify this.
First we have to define our product design vision. Then, what our core values are in a design team, and what principles we should always consider when designing a new feature. For example, when we have four different designs, how do we decide which is the right one?
The next step will be to externalize our design process so everyone knows how and why we work within different areas of the company. The sales and pre-sales teams help us gain insights, because in B2B it’s hard to get the real user. We use our consultants as pro users, and they’re biased of course, but then at least we have something.
However, they don’t know why we’re doing that because no one ever shared the design process. They don’t know which phase of the design process we’re in, and what info we’re looking for. So, we’d like to be more transparent and externalize this so it’s visible to the entire company.
What positions are you hiring for?
“We want someone who can really understand the product, and from this understanding create value.”
Some companies have UX and UI designers, but we have what we call product designers. We want someone who can really understand the product, and from this understanding create value. So we basically have these two roles combined in one. It doesn’t mean that we don’t value the aesthetics or visual design, but ideally they’d have a combination of both conceptual and visual design skills.
We also have Flamingo, the design system team developing the components. They got their name from the flamingos you can sometimes see in the Atacama desert. We already have a lot of components built with nice visuals so product designers don’t need to build everything from scratch, you can just build the solution from existing parts. That’s also why I believe it can be combined in one product designer role.
Who’s your ideal candidate?
It’d be great for a candidate to have a B2B background, and some technical understanding or at least a willingness to learn it. I think every designer here is interested in data, and wants to get their hands dirty with it.
How do you see your future with Ataccama?
Historically, product design was under engineering because the product was for technical users, so we didn’t have designers like we do now. But as we now focus more on business users and we’re building the application closer to typical software as a service and the B2C world, and we have our great designers. We’re starting to move in a new direction, where there’s more interaction between the teams and stronger end-to-end ownership.