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How to Accelerate Your Design Career

Susan Lin

In this interview, Susan Lin shares her fascinating story of how she methodically used strategy to land a lead design position at Cloudflare. Leveraging tactics such as goal setting and finding a tribe of mentors (friendtors).

Hey Susan, nice to meet you. Let’s start off with who you are and how you got into design?

Hello! Thanks for having me Jan.

I’m now a Lead Product Designer at Cloudflare. Cloudflare powers 10% of global internet traffic and serves 2.8 million users each month. I manage the design team at headquarters. We are building world-class products to keep the internet up and safe.

As a design lead, I’ve worked in cross-functional multidisciplinary teams for the past 10+ years. Notably, I designed's application experience and built Trulia's first design system. I studied at CMU and graduated with the Masters in HCI.

For my ninth birthday, I raised funds for my first PC booting Windows 95. I got my bearings building websites on Neopets and Geocities. My dad gave me my first paid design gig. I got paid $50 to make a Chinese restaurant menu in Microsoft Word. I’ve come a long way since then.

You’ve recently taken a step up to become a Lead Product Designer, what motivated you to take that leap?

Becoming Lead was the reach goal. I had only expected to correct my level to Senior IC. A few months ago, I hired my career strategist. During my learning journey, we discovered I was underleveled, and thus, underpaid. Iyo, my strategist, leveraged my strong sense of justice. After I couldn’t correct my level at work, it motivated me to take on this search with gusto. I interviewed for Lead roles in conjunction with Senior IC roles. If you’re curious about the specifics, I detail my job search strategy in my letter for Desk Lunch.

What qualities do you think is important to have or develop as a leader?

I believe in servant leadership, but there are different flavors to effective leadership. Lara Hogan breaks this down well in her post Leadership Style Colors. At this time, this is how I see my style. It’s a mixture of high EQ and blunt urgency. Iyo called this my “gently fierce leadership.” This style is not thought of in the workplace. It’s powerful paired with the typical bold, charismatic leadership lauded in tech.

The most important thing is to ensure the people you serve are the priority. A leader must be able to hold conflicting incentives. There is often tension between business needs, engineering feasibility, and perfect user experience. The most effective hold those incentives together and produce the best outcome. We need more integrative leadership in the workplace.

Could you tell us a little bit about goal setting and how you’re using it in your professional life?

Sure, I use a framework which keeps my goals flexible. I pick 3 overarching themes and set targets at 3 intervals: 1 year, 6 months, and 3 months out. Here is an example of a theme and how I imagine the targets.

Theme: Public speaking about my approach to design.

  • 1 year out: Make 10 submissions to speak on the stage. Best case, I get to select from stellar opportunities. Worst case, I have a better idea of where my gaps are.
  • 6 months out: Aim to present once by then, use a local event as a fallback if no accepted submissions.
  • 3 months out: Outline written. Slide theme designed. The essence of the content exists.

The important piece is that you can change your targets and still reach your goal. After all, we learn as we do.

As you step up your game, the pool of mentors decreases, how have you found the mentorship needed?

I’m a fan of friends who are also mentors. We call each other friendtors. I’m fortunate to be in my support network. It’s made up of people I look up to. I know most of my friendtors from interacting online. Usually, it began as a mutual awe of each other’s work. As we chat more, it becomes clear we’re both humans. That element is key to me for sustaining a relationship.

One thing that is missing from what most think of “mentorship” is this exchange of value. We teach each other vital lessons.

Do you have any tips on finding your own network of friendtors or even forming one yourself?

Sure. What has worked for me has been posting my work and thoughts online. In the beginning, before most knew about me or my work, it was the best. I posted on my blog weekly and was often vulnerable in what I shared. For safety reasons, I’ve since pulled my original blog offline. If you choose to go the public sharing route, make sure you guard your privacy from the start. Be mindful of any friends who are sharing online too.

Sounds like we could all use friendtors in our career, whether it is as juniors or leaders. What is the biggest takeaway you've gotten from your friendtors?

It’s easy to keep looking up to industry leaders and feel like you can never catch up. Don’t discount who your peers will be one day. Investing in friendtors who have been on this journey with me has been the best thing I’ve done. And those closest to me are not only my best advocates at work but those I can trust to respect how I do work.

When I ask for advice, my peers are the ones who go above and beyond my ask. I try to do the same.

Did you make any strategic changes to your portfolio once you decided to make a career change?

Absolutely. Instead of displaying my entire work history, I selected specific projects. I emphasized process and de-emphasized my pixel pushing abilities. This iteration of my site is the most text heavy. I wanted to find the team which would best support my leadership style, so I talked about my approach to design. Several of the rejections I received were due to a “lack of visual design.” I’m confident in my visual abilities, so it’s funny to see it work too well.

Now that you’re in a position to decide who gets to play on your team, what do you look for when interviewing new designers?

Oh, I definitely have opinions on this. This is the first time I will be hiring a manager, but I have served on the hiring panel for almost all my previous roles. To measure candidates, I like to use a 1 to 4 scale. This way, there are no neutral ratings. 3’s are great, 4 is stellar, 2 is no, and 1 is a reason to stop interviewing.

For Product Designers, I look for those who can design for and within a system. These designers value the success of the team in balance with the success of themselves. They have a strong sense of fairness. I care less about pure technical ability. Yes, it’s important to have confidence a designer can iterate alone.

But it’s also important to see that they can lean on the team for support. This is especially true for more junior designers.

They must have the motivation to do the work. And it’s okay if that motivation is to make a living. It’s important that my teammates have hobbies out of work that is not design.

What advice do you have for someone making their first portfolio? What role does it play in qualifying them for an interview?

I’m a fan of the case study and believe others are too. Like mentioned above, we’re looking for someone who can think a problem through and advocate for the user. Pictures alone don’t communicate your thinking. We can care less about what platform your site is on as long as it is easy to read. Please make your fonts and colors readable. Bonus points if we can look at your portfolio on our phones. I sometimes spend my commute browsing candidate websites.

Remember the Hiring Manager is asking: Will this person accept an offer to join the team? Besides your work, we’re thinking about fit.

Qualities to communicate may be collaborability, ability to critique, and eagerness to learn. Remember to write about your team and how you executed on your design vision.

Any last advice for aspiring designers breaking into the industry?

Apply everywhere. Be open-minded about where and what you get to work on first. If possible, join a team with fellow designers. Working together with them will speed up your learning. If this isn’t possible, negotiate mentorship as part of your package. Ask the founders to connect you with a senior design who you meet with once a week. Often, you can target your dream job one or two years into your first full-time role. Getting your first job is hard for all of us. Hang in there!

Where can we go to learn more about you and your work?

You can check out my portfolio which has 3 case studies. Those were the ones I sent to hiring managers when I was last job searching and landed on this lead role. I’m @mintlodica on Twitter and Instagram. I also have the cutest dog. Her name is Mango Roll and she has her own Instagram @mangoroll.shiba.