Taking it to the next level

Taking it to the next level: Career paths in DesignOps
Courtney Kaplan, Director, Design Program Management, Facebook

From the Design Operations Summit website:
Building a Design Ops team means having a long-term vision and thinking about future growth from the very beginning. DesignOps team members can become key problem solvers bringing value to your company—or can hit professional dead end without leveraging their true strengths. As a new discipline, how you plan to build strong culture and meaningful growth paths will provide ongoing value to your company. Courtney Kaplan will talk about how you can define opportunities for your team, find the right challenges for talent, and provide support in creating an impactful discipline.

She was at Hotstudio prior to Facebook.  She has grown her team tenfold in her tenure.  She has been referred to as the grandmother of DPMs – she has one of the largest and most mature teams in this space.

She was a designer for many years, but over time she realized that she was interested in understanding client needs and costs.  She was more interested in the cxonversations that needed to happen.  She became a producer right when a lot of websites and apps were starting to happen – the digital space was taking off.  Hotstudio supported start-ups for man years, and then was acquired by Facebook in 2013.  She started a Design Program Management team at Facebook.  They were 50 people with ~4 months, and now over 300 people in about five years.  That is just in the ads part of Facebook.  At first, she hired two and inherited one who was running the onboarding ptrogram.  They have 45 design program managers in Ads, and another two dozen in Instagram, Occulus, etc.  Design Program Management has defiitely caught on.  How do we use that talent to the greatest benefit of the company?

They work in three major buckets:


The DPMs in the product teams are usually partnered with a Design Director to move initiatives forward.  They don’t have a DPM for every single product team – the could never staff that.  They are still small but mighty.

Today she wants to focus on building team, and the steps to consider – triaging, discovering, emerging, and strategizing.


Triaging.  Once a week, someone will say they are starting a design ops team, and they ask her what they need to know.

There is a big list of things that are breaking within the design process – critiques aren’t working, onboarding doesn’t scale.  Design Managers are capable of doing these things.  But we have to use their time where it is most impactful.

So, start by making a big list of all the things that are breaking.  You will quickly realizing that one person cannot do all those things.  Start to bucket those things, so you can decide what skills you need first.  It will also help you figure out what your big vision is for the team.  Those first hires will set the tone, so consider where you expect the team to be in two years, five years, ten years.  One of her priorities was connectors.  There were 3K people at Facebook, and now there are 30K people working there.  It’s hard to stay up to speed on re-orgs … having a connected network seems like a great idea, a great advantage.  That will help you attract talent, and have executive level conversations.

Discovering.  Those DPMs land and orient themselves quickly, and they are killing it, really knocking it out of the park.  DPM strengths start to shine brightly, and they start to get lots of requests – like moths to a flame.  They will quickly be overwhelmed, but if you are prepared, you can double-down on support.

You want to understand their strengths. Not just what they are good at, but what they are passionate about.

That is the start of their growth .  StrengthsFinder, Values in Acdtion.  Establish clear sucess goals, and turn down or redirect work.  Being an early hire, you want to succeed – it feels good to help out.  You need to provide clarity.  That will help you build capacity, so you don’t stall out.  Consider coordinator overwhelm, avoiding burnout in super producers by providing them coaching and career guidance, and teach them to manage risk.  One of the patterns that emerged was that they were lonely – the only one of their kind within a team.  So, it’s important to create a sense of community within the DPMs.

Emerging.  Your DPM is starting to identfy ad surface cmplex, messy problems,  They a have become a subject matter expert – they know more than you.

The next step is being able to coach your team to frame up problems.  To create new work, new sets of roles … or undertand where theare are similar problems across multiple teams.

One team was growing at 20%, which made onboarding a necessary but disruptive part of their work lives.  They put together a program called Design Camp, and then Product Camp, so help people become impactful team members very quickly.  It worked really well, and then they repackaged it for use across all their product groups.  As a lead, your responsibility is to continue to develop allies and partnerships.  This is about making an impact beyond design.  In this emerging space, your team is going to be wrangling big messy things, predicting how skills can be used in other areas, and then export that work, and share it broadly.

Strategizing.  When you have earned a seat at the table.  This happens after many cycles of partnering, delivering, extending.  To continue to drive to be a startegic partner is really the ultimate place.  This is where your talent can grow.


When she started the team in 2013 she wasn’t sure where it was going to go.  Design Program Management is a magical combination of Design Thinking, solving prblems, and building relationships, as well as having a sixth sense of what might be next on the horizon.  And we can execute and deliver on these things.  This type of talent will be incredibly valuable for any kind of company.

1 Comments on “Taking it to the next level”

  1. Pingback: Design Ops 2018 – Recap | Natalie Hanson

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